ED. NOTE: Noam Chomsky has been a friend and an inspiration to the staff of Z ever since 1978 when we first started publishing his work (while we were still on the staff of South End Press). When this article (Noam Chomsky vs. William F. Buckley) arrived recently by email, publishing it seemed a perfect way to make note of Chomsky’s 85th birthday and to flashback to those Vietnam and post-Vietnam years when our decision to become activist media producers was very much influenced by Chomky’s critique of war, U.S. foreign policy, and, most importantly, mainstream media.
Noam Chomsky, whose 85th birthday is December 7, is a leading left-wing intellectual with an impressive publishing record in a range of fields that include linguistics, politics, and philosophy. In fact, Chomsky was the most cited living person from 1980 to 1992.
William F. Buckley, Jr., who died at the age of 83 in 2008, was a leading right-wing intellectual who was instrumental in the rise of the modern conservatism movement. Buckley founded the conservative magazine National Review in 1955, hosted the television show “Firing Line” from 1966 to 1999, and wrote a newspaper column, “On the Right,” that appeared in over 300 newspapers.
In 2008, George H. Nash, the respected historian of American conservatism, stated that Buckley was “arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century.” In 1979, the New York Times Review of Books wrote that “Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty, and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today.”
Given that, in my reframing, there can only be one “most important American public intellectual in recent history,” let’s judge which of the two thinkers deserves the honorific by comparing their views on three issues: the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.
The War in Vietnam: Chomsky
“The [Vietnam] war is simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men, including all of us, who have allowed it to go on and on with endless fury and destruction—all of us who would have remained silent had stability and order been secured” (Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, Pantheon Books, New York: 1969)
American politicians “vote appropriations as the cities and villages of North Vietnam are demolished, as millions of refugees in the South are driven from their homes by American bombardment…. We all know that if Russia or China were guilty of what we have done in Vietnam, we would be exploding with moral indignation at these monstrous crimes” (www.chomsky.info/article. htm).
“We can ask whose ‘interest’ is served by 100,000 casualties and 100 billion dollars, expended in the attempt to subjugate a small country half way around the world. We can point to the absurdity of the idea that we are ‘containing China’ by destroying popular and independent forces on its borders…. We can ask what factors in American ideology make it so easy for intelligent and well-informed people to say that we ‘insist upon nothing for South Vietnam except that it be free to chart its own future’…although they know quite well that the regime we imposed excluded all those who took part in the struggle against French colonialism…. More important, we can ask the really fundamental question. Suppose that it were in the American ‘national interest’ to pound into rubble a small nation that refuses to submit to our will. Would it then be legitimate and proper for us to act ‘in this national interest’? Recent history shows that it makes little difference to us what form of government a country has so long as it remains…open to American economic penetration or political control. If it is necessary to approach genocide in Vietnam to achieve this objective, then this is the price we must pay…” (www.chomsky. info/articles.htm).
The Civil Rights Movement: Chomsky
“From what I could see of the early 1960s civil rights activity, it was trying to help with self-organization of poor and oppressed people, and I’m all in favor of that.” (www. chomsky.info/interviews).
“Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its core include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years…. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome” (www. chomsky.info/articles).
“Victimization increases with poverty, it increases with race. We can’t overlook the fact that despite some progress, racial oppression is still a major feature of American society. It hasn’t gone away. Just take a look at the distribution of people in prison” (anarchistnews.org/content/direct-action-occupy-wall-street-and-future-housing-justice-interview-noam-chomsky).
Israel’s Occupation: Chomsky
“[The Israeli military] occupation [is] harsh, brutal, and oppressive…. It’s in gross violation of international law and has been from the outset. And that much, at least, is fully recognized, even by the United States, which has overwhelming and…unilateral responsibility for these crimes. [W]hen [George H. W. Bush] was the UN ambassador, back in 1971, he officially reiterated Washington’s condemnation of Israel’s actions in the occupied territories…. He criticized Israel’s failure ‘to acknowledge its obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention as well as its actions which are contrary to the letter and spirit of this Convention.’ That Convention is no minor affair. It’s one of the core principles of international law. It was established in 1949 to formally criminalize the actions…of the Nazis in occupied Europe” (www. chomsky.infotalk/com).
The War in Vietnam: Buckley
“The pity is that we are saving our tactical nuclear weapons for melodramatic use, for use, presumably, at the apocalypse towards which we may very well be headed in the long term. Take, for instance, the discussion of the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the defense of Khesanh [a city in South Vietnam]. By this time, so much attention has been given to the plight of Khesanh that to use these weapons, for the first time in military history, in the defense of Khesanh, suggests a mood of total desperation, perhaps even of panic…. The time to introduce the use of tactical nuclear arms was a long time ago, in a perfectly routine way, then there was not a suspicion of immediate crisis, of panic. In 1964, Senator Goldwater was burned in oil not even for advocating the use of low-yield atomic bombs for defoliation, but for reporting that the plan was under consideration by the Pentagon. Everyone got so worked up at the idea, that nobody thought to ask the question: Why not? The use of limited atomic bombs for purely military operations is many times easier to defend on the morality scale than one slit throat of a civilian for terrorism’s sake…” (news.google. com/newspapers).
“In 1973 we [the U.S.] voted $2.3 billion in aid of South Vietnam’s armed forces. In 1974 we cut the figure in half; in 1975, by another third. Southeast Asia learned what it can mean to rely on the United States….‘Finally, however tragic the outcome,’ writes Professor John Roche, who served Lyndon Johnson during his Vietnam years, ‘I will argue to my dying day that this was the most idealistic war we have ever fought, fundamentally a war for an abstraction: the freedom of a bunch of unfamiliar Asians at the end of the world.’ How strange those sounds, which antedated the period during which the American intelligentsia for the most part persuaded itself that the Vietnam War was the high moment of immorality” (Ten Years After Vietnam, April 20, 1985, published in: William F. Buckley, Jr., Happy Days Were Here Again: Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist, Random House, New York: 1993).
The Civil Rights Movement: Buckley
“The central question that emerges…is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes, the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage…. National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct…. It is more important for the community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority…. The great majority of the Negroes in the South who do not vote do not care to vote, and would not know for what to vote if they could” (Why the South Must Prevail, 1957; Published in: Carl T. Bogus, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism, Bloomsbury Press, New York: 2011).
“Repression is an unpleasant instrument, but it is absolutely necessary for civilizations that believe in order and human rights. I wish to God Hitler and Lenin had been repressed. And word should be gently got through to the non-violent avenger Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.], that in the unlikely event that he succeeds in mobilizing his legions, they will be most efficiently, indeed most zestfully, repressed.” (National Review column, Aug. 19, 1967; Published in: John B. Judis, William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, Simon and Schuster, New York: 1988, 268-9)
Israel’s Occupation: Buckley
“[W]hat can’t be disputed is that Israel is, if not the cause of perpetual friction in the Mideast, an unimaginative agent of it…. [O]ne has to begin with an absolute given, which is the survival of the Israeli state. But, immediately, one founders on the question: What are the borders of the Israeli state we are determined should survive? And we bump immediately into the question of the Israeli settlements…. Unless Israel retreats from the settlements, a coherent Palestinian state cannot evolve…. [T]he Israeli settlements are a pullulating sore, attracting terrorists, requiring Israeli security, and seeking always, expansion.” “[The US] cannot promise that the Palestinians will stop their suicide attacks, but we can tell [Israel] that the settlements are disruptive of any approach to a strategic arrangement. The settlements are impassable road blocks [to a comprehensive peace deal.]” “[T]he United States government is not a creature of parliamentary coalitions in Israel, which have given to minority parties unbalanced leverage over government policies. The sooner [president George W.] Bush brings up this point, the sooner we can progress to making policy in that part of the world that earns the respect of the broader community” (www.nationalreview.com/articles/ 206597/road- map-israel/william-f-buckley-jr).
It is the reader’s decision whether Chomsky or Buckley deserves the title…. It is noteworthy that while Buckley’s moral compass may be disturbing to many readers on the issues of the American War in Vietnam and the American civil rights movement, even he recognized the illegitimacy of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.
Jeffrey Rudolph, a Montreal college professor, was the Quebec representative of the East Timor Alert Network; he has taught at McGill University. A more detailed version is available at: detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com.