The Observer’s Foreign Affairs Editor Peter Beaumont Reviews Noam Chomsky’s Failed States

A Gauntlet Is Thrown
On June 16, the Observer’s editor Roger Alton made a bold announcement on his newspaper‘s website:

“And to all my many enemies on the Left, and in various organisations like the pernicious Media Lens, I commend a splendid review by our vastly experienced foreign affairs editor, Peter Beaumont, of the new Noam Chomsky book about America, Failed States. I have had many stand-up rows with Peter over US foreign policy, so you can take it from me he is no great friend of America. But this is a superb demolition of Chomsky.” (Alton, Observermail, June 16, 2006; http://observer.guardian.co.uk/observermail/story/0,,1799272,00.html)

A “superb demolition of Chomsky”! Was this really destined to happen, finally, in Chomsky’s 78th year?

Alton would surely not make such a claim lightly, given, as the Guardian has noted: “academe is crowded with critics who have made twerps of themselves taking him [Chomsky] on”. (Birthdays, The Guardian, December 7, 1996)

And both Alton and Beaumont must have witnessed the grisly fate that befell Emma Brockes and the Guardian after Brockes’ ‘interview’ with Chomsky last October. That earlier “demolition” – complete with maximally unflattering portrait photos and snaps of Chomsky in league with the enemies of civilisation – was destined to quickly vanish from the newspaper’s website, while the editors issued apologies to Chomsky and 400+ readers who had complained. Chomsky described the Guardian’s effort as “one of the most dishonest and cowardly performances I recall ever having seen in the media”. (Email copied to Media Lens, November 2, 2005)

To this day, skeletons clank in the Guardiangate cupboard. The excellent American dissident David Peterson relishes an external ombudsman’s report:

“My favorite section of all from the External Ombudsman’s Report about his inquiry into the Chomsky affair at The Guardian?

“‘17. The original interview was tape recorded but unfortunately the tape has been partially recorded over. A transcript of sorts exists but the most contentious section of the interview was not available on tape. No one seems to doubt that this was genuine.’” (John Willis, External Ombudsman Report, May 8, 2006, as posted to The Guardian, May 25, 2006, http://www.guardian.co.uk/readerseditor/story/0,,1782133,00.html.

Would anyone conceive of suggesting otherwise?

Predictably, Beaumont’s “demolition” paints a picture of thinking processes horribly warped by angry bias:

“Noam Chomsky has allowed bile and rhetoric to replace intellectual rigour in his latest diatribe against the present United States administration.” (Beaumont, ‘A noxious form of argument,’ The Observer, June 18, 2006; http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/politicsphilosophyandsociety/0,,1800002,00.html)

“Diatribe” is a literary ‘wink’, like “polemic” and “rant” – a code word used to signal disdain to the reader. Chomsky has himself explained the tactic:

“Somehow they have to get rid of the stuff. You can’t deal with the arguments, that’s plain – for one thing you have to know something, and most of these people don’t know anything. Secondly, you wouldn’t be able to answer the arguments because they’re correct. Therefore what you have to do is somehow dismiss it. So that’s one technique, ‘It’s just emotional, it’s irresponsible, it’s angry.’” (Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian, Chronicles of Dissent, AK Press, 1992, p.79)

Interestingly, lesser organs signal the same message with less sophisticated language. The Sun responded to director Ken Loach’s new film, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, thus:

“The politically-correct purse-holders at the National Lottery liked Loach’s biased ideas so much they put our money where his big mouth is…” (Harry Macadam, ‘Top Cannes film is most pro-IRA ever,’ The Sun, May 30, 2006)

Ths Sun noted, similarly, of Respect MP George Galloway:

“Loudmouth George Galloway was accused of stirring up racial tensions to scrape back into Parliament.” (Leader, ‘Maverick “stirred up racism”’, The Sun, May 7, 2005)

Chomsky is not just angry, Beaumont tells us – he is “nagging, bullying, wheedling”, “righteously indignant”, and “brooks no dissent from his dissident view”. These personality disorders are expressed in “noxious” “rants” and inform Chomsky’s “obnoxious” alliances.
Beaumont’s pain is palpable. When subjected to Chomsky‘s speech, he is struck, not by his insights, honesty and compassion. Instead, “the voice I hear is that of Chloe, the terrier-like computer geek in 24”.

Chomsky is forever telling people off, then, he’s bullying – in short, he’s a “loudmouth“. When it comes to smearing dissent, the difference between the Oxbridge ‘liberalism’ of the Guardian/Observer and the right-wing brutality of the Sun is essentially one of vocabulary. To be sure, generations of earlier journalists have done much of the spadework – the two words that hover between the lines, of course, are “loony left”.

Recall that this is the Observer’s “vastly experienced foreign affairs editor”, one of the most respected journalists on the paper.

The Guardian’s Emma Brockes treated Chomsky with similar contempt, telling him: “people don’t like being told off about their lives by someone they consider a hypocrite”. (Brockes, ’The greatest intellectual,’ The Guardian, October 31, 2005; http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/20051031.htm)

Brockes has since interviewed another controversial political figure – Newsnight’s political editor, Martha Kearney. There was no talk here of alleged compulsive revisionism, apologetics for war crimes, hypocritical personal investments and the like. There was no questioning of the BBC’s role in facilitating the invasion and devastation of Iraq, of the killing of several hundred thousand civilians – Iraq was not mentioned. Instead Brockes noted of Kearney:

“Her ebullient style is as arresting as Andrew Marr’s and she has none of the self-importance that makes so much political broadcasting unwatchable.”

But, like Chomsky, Kearney is not beyond criticism:

“When I ask other TV news hacks about Kearney, the only negative thing anyone says about her is that, while she is very good at contextualising stories, she doesn’t always tell you anything you didn’t already know.”

This might seem unfortunate in a news reporter. Brockes was having none of it:

“This seems unfair, and dismissive of the fact that, for a while now, the public has been fed up of listening to political interviewers who bark so loudly you can’t actually hear what they’re saying. What Kearney does, by contrast, is widen the angle on a story and make viewers feel as if they are watching something slightly more nuanced than a cock fight between egos.” (Brockes, ‘You have to smile,’ The Guardian, May 19, 2006; http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1778471,00.html)

Kearney read classics at Oxford. Brockes read English at Oxford. A report by the Sutton Trust last week found that “45% of the leading journalists in 2006 – or 56% of those who went to university – attended Oxbridge”.

It turns out that “54% of the top 100 newspaper editors, columnists, broadcasters and executives were educated privately, despite fee-paying schools catering for 7% of the school population”. (Owen Gibson, ‘Most leading journalists went to private schools, says study,’ The Guardian, June 15, 2006; http://education.guardian.co.uk/

In a comment piece on the report, ‘All you need to succeed in our meritocracy is privilege,’ former New Statesman editor, Peter Wilby, noted that journalism “was once one of the most democratic occupations“ but is now “among the most elitist”. Wilby quoted Michael Young, author of The Rise of the Meritocracy:

“So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.” (Wilby, ‘All you need to succeed in our meritocracy is privilege,’ The Guardian, June 17, 2006; http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1799649,00.html)

Fortunately, the high standards of professional training within the industry mean that elite journalists are able to empathise equally with their Oxbridge peers and the impoverished Iraqi children, mainly under five-years old, dying in agony from extreme diarrhoea in Basra’s hospitals, while “no one is doing anything to help them”, as local doctors report. (IRIN, ‘Doctors, NGOs warn of high infant mortality in Basra,’ April 11, 2006; http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/RWB.NSF/db900SID/

Beaumont’s Epiphany – A Tragicomedy

Just as the Guardian claimed that Chomsky had argued that “Srebrenica was so not a massacre” – the standard attempt to relabel criticism of the West as sympathy for the devils of the West – so the Observer claims that Chomsky has a “certain sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic“. The evidence?:

“Kosovo, in his reading, began in 1999 with Nato bombers, not in 1998 with Serbian police actions that cleared villages, towns and valleys of their populations.”

Many readers will have been shocked by this. Not by the foolish suggestion that Chomsky sympathised with Milosevic, but by the fact that Beaumont can make such a blunder on Kosovo just three paragraphs above his declared “epiphany”:

“… by applying a Chomskian analysis to his own writing, you discover exactly the same subtle textual biases, evasions and elisions of meaning as used by those he calls ‘the doctrinal managers’ of the ‘powerful elites’.”

In fact “applying a Chomskian analysis“, or even simple common sense, instantly refutes Beaumont’s claim. In his book Hegemony Or Survival, Chomsky wrote:

“Kosovo was an ugly place before the NATO bombing, with an estimated 2,000 killed on all sides during the preceding year. However, the rich Western documentary record reveals no changes of significance until the March 24 bombing began…” (Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival, Routledge, 2003, pp.55-56)

Chomsky has expanded on the same point in any number of speeches and articles:

“There were indeed pre-bombing atrocities, about 2000 killed in the year before the March 1999 bombing, according to Western sources. The British, the most hawkish element of the coalition, make the astonishing claim – hard to believe just on the basis of the balance of forces – that until January 1999, most of the killings were by the Albanian KLA guerrillas, attacking civilians and soldiers in cross-border raids in the hope of eliciting a harsh Serbian response that could be used for propaganda purposes in the West, as they candidly reported, apparently with CIA support in the last months… In one of the few works of scholarship that even mentions the unusually rich documentary record, Nicholas Wheeler concludes that 500 of the 2000 were killed by Serbs.” (Chomsky, ‘Imperial Presidency,’ Canadian Dimension, January/February 2005 (Volume 39, Number 1), based on a talk delivered in Toronto on November 4, 2004; http://www.chomsky.info/articles/20041217.htm)

Chomsky made a key observation in his book, The New Military Humanism (Pluto Press, 1999):

“We immediately discover that the bombing was not undertaken in ‘response’ to ethnic cleansing and to ‘reverse’ it, as leaders alleged. With full awareness of the likely consequences, Clinton and Blair decided in favour of a war that led to a radical escalation of ethnic cleansing along with other deleterious effects.” (p.16 – our emphasis)

It is child’s play to find any number of similar quotes – anyone who has paid even cursory attention to Chomsky’s work knows he argues that Nato bombing did not cause, but escalated, the horrors in Kosovo.

Beaumont writes: “What is most troubling about all this is that there is much that Chomsky and I should agree on. Like him, I was opposed to what I believed was an illegal war in Iraq. In my travels in that country, I, too, have been troubled by the consequences of occupation.”

In fact, Chomsky is not merely “troubled by the consequence of occupation”; he is troubled by the +fact+ of occupation: namely, that it is the product of the supreme war crime, the launching of a war of aggression.

Beaumont writes:

“I reject Chomsky’s view that American misdeeds are printed through history like the lettering in a stick of rock. Instead, the conclusions I have drawn from more than a decade of reporting wars on the ground is that motivations are complex, messy and contradictory, that the best intentions can spawn the worst outcomes and, occasionally, vice versa.”

This is a classic liberal response to Chomsky. Writing in the Guardian back in 1989, Martin Woollacott observed of Chomsky‘s work:

“He seems both wholly cynical about the purposes of those in power, and wholly unforgiving. Those who direct American policy – and, by implication, those who direct the policy of any state – are allowed no regrets, no morals, no feelings, and when they change their policies they appear to do so for entirely Machiavellian reasons. Chomsky has little interest in the question of ‘good in bad’ – of how there can be good behaviour in the context of bad policies – and seems to deny the complexity of human affairs…” (Woollacott, ‘Deliver us from evil,‘ The Guardian, January 14, 1989)

Chomsky’s conclusions are drawn from a meticulous and wide-ranging analysis of the historical record – not least, from internal government documents which, as British historian Mark Curtis has noted, are largely ignored by journalists.

Beaumont continues:

“He suggests an America in the grip of a ‘demonic messianism’ comparable to that of Hitler’s National Socialism. Except that it isn’t. Conveniently missing from Chomsky’s account is the fact that the failure and overreach of George W Bush’s policies, both on the domestic and the international front, has had serious consequences for his brand of neo-conservatism: disastrously collapsing public-approval ratings.”

Beaumont’s criticism appears to be that Chomsky does not repeat every argument in every book he writes. Chomsky has dealt with exactly this point:

“The US is a very free country, perhaps uniquely so. It is also, to an unusual extent, dominated by a highly class conscious business sector, so much so that America’s leading social philosopher, John Dewey, described politics as ‘the shadow cast by business over society.’ That is not much of an exaggeration. On the eve of the year 2000 presidential elections, a large majority of the population dismissed it as unrelated to their interests and concerns, regarding it as a game played by wealthy contributors and the Public Relations industry, which trains candidates to focus on ‘values’ and ‘personal qualities,’ and to keep away from issues.

“There are good reasons for that. On many important issues, there is a considerable gap between an elite consensus and popular opinion, as polls reveal. Voting is heavily skewed towards the more wealthy. Years ago it was shown by leading political scientists that non-voters – about half the population – have a socioeconomic profile rather like those who vote for labor-based and social democratic parties in Europe, but feel that they are not represented in the US.

“In 2004, more appears to be at stake and interest is greater than in 2000, but there is a continuation of the long process of disengagement, mainly on the part of poor and working class Americans. The Harvard University project that monitors electoral politics currently reports that ‘the turnout gap between the top and bottom fourth by income is by far the largest among western democracies and has been widening.’ There are some differences between the candidates, but they are not very far-reaching, particularly in foreign affairs.” (‘Money Determines U.S. President,’ Noam Chomsky interviewed by Mehr News Agency, Tehran Times, October 11, 2004; http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/20041011.htm)

Part Two will follow


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Write to Peter Beaumont
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