CHOMSKY AND HITCHENS: TWO AUTHORS WITH MUCH MORE TO SAY TO EACH OTHER.
It’s obvious that they maintain antithetic political positions. It was not so obvious when Hitchens was comfortable on the left side of the political spectrum, but that started to change around 9-11, more or less. But the discussion between these two giants of the political analysis is not about an important topic, but to one single comparison made by Chomsky after 9-11. One single sentence is used by Hitchens all these years, to argue with Chomsky. Because of this “hysterical rant”, Chomsky refuses to answer Hitchens. It´s a pity that we could not see a debate between the two writers about the real important things they disagree, and not about the two big egos discussing the point and consequences of one single sentence. This article starts from that beginning, but continues to more relevant issues arising from it. These relevant issues and much more could arise from a Chomsky-Hitchens public debate, where their respective “extreme views” could be tested, so we could learn even what those different approaches have in common.
Less than 24 hours after 9-11, Noam Chomsky wrote an article named “A quick reaction” in which he wrote
Hitchens accused him of saying Sudan bombing was worse than 9-11, generally speaking, and to use moral equivalence to excuse terrorists. A few exchanges of mails took place then. They keep on disagreeing on the same sentence, turning this single bombing into the core of a debate that would deserve more attention.
TEN YEARS AFTER
When Bin Laden was shot, Chomsky compared again the crimes of US, this time with the Bin Laden´s, and he said referring to Bush: “his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s”. So Hitchens accuses him again of establishing “moral equivalence” in order to hide his hate of USA, portraying his country as an evil of such dimensions that whatever crime is committed against it is always less than other crimes committed by it. In other words, tacitly excusing terrorists when they commit crimes against USA, like 9-11, as if USA should had deserved such kind of crimes. And explicitly, Hitchens writes that Chomsky is stupid, ignorant and foolish. Hitchens infers all this from the two previous comparisons, the first 10 years ago, and the second on May 2011.
What is the Chomsky’s answer? Chomsky, as in 2001, was reluctance to give any answer, but finally, in a response to a public question in a conference, he said that was Hitchens, not him, the one who said that Sudan’s bombing was worse than 9-11. In this response he actually said that it was not the first time he said this, he had quoted it before.
The video of Chomsky saying that you can watch it in you tube ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJYENfcsL3Y ).
Hitchens has challenged Chomsky to provide that quote (assuming Chomsky was referring to a Hitchens quote rather than an own Chomsky’s quote) or withdraw the allegation. Chomsky remains silent. So we only have his claim that it was a quote. Who is right here?
Chomsky didn´t mean, and actually didn´t say, his response was a quote, but his response had been published by himself before, in his own words: “You can find it. I´ve quote it”. The idea that Hitchens maintains that Sudan bombing was worse than 9-11 was commented by Chomsky in the past, but this doesn´t mean Hitchens actually said that actual sentence. This idea comes from the way Hitchens described the Sudan bombing as having “appalling consequences” in an article published in The Nation, 10 June 2002, called “Knowledge (and Power)”. So, it is less accurate to say that Hitchens “actually did say that the bombing in Sudan was much worse than 9-11”, than saying that Hitchens held (“held” opposed to “said”) that “extreme view” when he wrote the Sudan bombing had “appalling consequences for the economy and society of Sudan”. The second choice it is more accurate and it´s actually what Chomsky wrote on 2003, quoting Hitchens, in the chapter 8 of his book “Hegemony or Survival”. Here is the text:
“The principle of proportionality entails that Sudan had every right to carry out massive terror in retaliation, even more so if we adopt the more extreme view that Clinton's missile attack had "appalling consequences for the economy and society" of Sudan, so that the atrocity was much worse than the crimes of 9-11, which were appalling enough but did not have such consequences.”
So, according to Chomsky, if we accept the Hitchen’s evaluation of the Sudan bombing (something Chomsky doesn´t agree since he thinks it´s an exaggeration, an “extreme view”) and we also accept that 9/11 didn´t have such appalling consequences, the pure logic conclusion is that “the atrocity was worse than the crimes of 9/11”. This is the conclusion that Chomsky deduces from Hitchens statements, although Hitchens never expressed in that way. And actually, until asked in Syracuse, Chomsky never said Hitchens did it. Chomsky error was to affirm that Hitchens “actually did say”, when he meant Hitchens, aware or not, actually support the conclusion that “the atrocity was worse than the crimes of 9/11”, as Chomsky previously explained in his book “Hegemony or Survival”.
Does it worth to find out which attack was the worst? Regarding to Chomsky, I think he never meant to waste his time in this futile analysis and he actually wrote he preferred to talk about “serious issues relating to Sept. 11 atrocities”; it was Hitchens who started this ego battle. This ego-battle has offered us a funny (but not relevant) game in which paradoxically, at using comparisons, both authors somehow exchanged their own initials positions. For instance, note that Chomsky first thought that the bombing of Sudan was a big deal (2001), at least “in terms on number of victims”, and in 2003 he thinks that talking of “appalling consequences” is an exaggeration of the case. The same happens with Hitchens. He started denouncing this Clinton bombing as big deal ignored by the media, and afterwards he thought it was “a stupid and cruel and cynical raid” compared to 9/11. Although both writers have condemned both attacks, it seems a paradox that in the process of this futile debate they have, somehow, exchanged their positions and their emphasis, as if it would be so annoying that the other recognize some part of your position, that it’s preferable to defend some part of the opposite position in order to not share absolutely nothing with your opponent. That’s really a contrarian.
ODIOUS COMPARISONS, MORAL EQUIVALENCE AND EMPTY SPACES
That was all about the quote Chomsky referred in Syracuse. But regardless Hitchens would had wrote or suggested, explicitly or implicitly, consciously or unconsciously, that Sudan bombing was somehow worse than 9/11, we still have the more general topic of crimes comparisons. It´s an important topic because the comparison is a tool we use to evaluate the moral of others and ours. To use comparisons it does not imply to establish any sort of moral equivalence but exactly the opposite; put every situation on place and context in order to be able to analyze with more equanimity and justice, reducing at minimum any unfair advantage as much as possible, trying to detect the possible differences (no equivalences) that eventually would justify a different treatment. We usually do it in a daily basis as in scholarship methods. The afraid of been accused of trying to make moral equivalences, to get closer together whatever both evils would be, should not avoid us of using the comparisons in order to evaluate if we have underestimated or overestimated any crime according to the our principles.
Chomsky is not interested in a US criminal top ten list, in itself. His goal, as everybody can read in many of his books, it´s to denounce the hypocrisy of US. The same country that speaks out for justice, freedom and human rights, it´s the same country that refuses to apply those noble ideals to others at convenience.
The stress on the US crimes does not diminish the crimes of its enemies. US alleges to be the freedom land and having moral superiority compared to other political system, so that´s why it´s important to denounce when they don´t behave in such a superior manner. It´s easy to accuse those who don´t have a democratic political system or an appropriate judicial system, but they are not a model of decency. Wherever the crimes comes from it will be a crime, morally speaking, but the duty of the intellectual vaccinated against the flatteries of power it´s to denounce those who have more responsibility, those who are the model, those who boast to be the model to follow. In other words, we must denounce the criminals, but we are more compelled to denounce the policemen who behave as criminals because they have a harder commitment with law than the criminals.
In the international arena and in the mass media, US is the policeman who frequently slips out from the same moral he tries to apply to the rest. It´s a moral duty to denounce this, and doing so, it does not imply to diminish the crimes of the criminal, nor making some sort of equivalence between the moral principles that builds the police´s role in a free society and the immoral actions and insanity of crime and terrorism. Those who prefer to think in such terms, a) they cannot face their own crimes or b) they don´t want to do it because they don´t really believe in universal moral principles, they just believe in morality when they can benefit from it. But they never say that in public, they just use the excuse of moral equivalence. They pretend to be shocked when somebody ask them to apply themselves the same principles they apply to others, as if to be judge by the same standard would make them equal, morally equal, with their enemies and the principles that comes from their enemies. The mere fact of being compared with their enemies, in order to find out their hypocrisy, makes the comparison odious because it suggests the idea that both defendants are governed by the same principles, by the same evil. With this logic, anyone who point at US is trying to make the American system as evil as the worst terrorism, and probably, he is probably sympathetic with terrorism. This narrow way of thinking makes appear Chomsky as pro-terrorist, when in fact is filling an empty space of responsibility abandoned by the most of intellectuals: to expose the immorality of the country with the supposed highest moral on earth.
It may be certainly odious to submit policemen and criminals to the same dock and law, because it may look as if good and evil are the same thing, but that´s how judicial system works, or at least should work. And we should not refuse to compare US crimes with the criteria they use to demand from others, even if we have to face the accusation of being sympathetic with terrorists and so on. To refuse the tool of comparison it gives US leeway for almost everything, and therefore, would show the rest of the countries that everyone may have their own rules on international law.
Daniel Jonah Goldhagen explains it much better than me, the excerpts worth a reading, and it comes from his last book "Worse than War":
For many people, especially Americans, it just feels wrong, and offensive, to speak of Truman in the same breath as Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Moa Zedong, and Pol Pot. Why? The latter four killers were certifiable monsters. They destroyed millions because they deemed certain people human trash or obstacles to their power or millennial or imperial goals. Truman, however, was no such monster. While these monsters’ mass murdering was an organic expression of their long-standing racist or ideological views and political aspirations, Truman’s was accidental, owing to a confluence of circumstances that he would have preferred never came about. While these monsters planned, even lusted, to kill millions and created institutions explicitly for such purposes, Truman would have gladly had history take another curse. While each of these monsters killed as an integral part of his use of power, did so ever much of the time that he held power, and would have continued doing so had he stayed in power, Truman killed in a very specific setting, in the context of a brutal and extremely destructive war that Japan had launched against the United States starting with a surprise attack on the American Pacific fleet in Pearl Harbor. After destroying much of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman stopped. When one look at each of the other four, it is hard not to conclude that, if the term is to be applied to human beings, each was a monster. When one looks at Truman, one sees an otherwise conventional man who committed monstrous deeds.
Still, none of these distinctions speaks to the definition of mass murder. None suggests that the nature of Truman’s acts and those of other four are different. Each distinction, rather, addresses either differences between why the four monsters and Truman acted, or how we ought to evaluate the four and Truman morally. None makes Truman’s willful killing of Japanese children in Hiroshima and Nagasaki any less a mass-murderous act than Hitler´s, Stalin’s, Mao’s, or Pol Pot’s willful killing of Jewish, Ukrainian, Chinese, or Cambodian children.
This failure to distinguish between defining an act, explaining it, and morally judging it likely leads many to recoil at putting Truman in the dock with the greatest monsters of our age.. Nevertheless, that Truman should have found himself before a court to answer for his actions seems clear. How such a court’s judgment and sentence would read –compared to those of the other four- can be debated. Truman was not a Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. In this sense, people’s intuitions are correct. But that should not stop us from seeing his deeds for what they are.
TWO MORAL TRUISM: CONSEQUENCES OF OWN ACTS AND THE SAME STANDARD FOR EVERYONE.
Chomsky starts his chapter 8 of “Hegemony or Survival” explaining two moral truisms that everyone should accept, although not everyone does. Chomsky’s books are particularly plenty of examples of the second truism:
“The first is that actions are evaluated in terms of the range of likely consequences. A second is the principle of universality; we apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others, if not more stringent ones.”
THE PRINCIPLE OF UNIVERSALITY
Chomsky establish on priority before start talking about good and evil. First of all we must know if we accept to be judged by the same standards than the rest. If we don´t set clearly this before, the concept of good and evil might be linked to the actors and not the moral action itself. He explained it vehemently in Hard Talk, when Tim Sebastian accused him, as Hitchens, of making moral equivalences. I made the Spanish subtitles for the interview video in youtube. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygrQjFZz1b8 )
And he mentioned again at the end of chapter 8 in “Hegemony and Survival”:
“What has been reviewed here is the barest sample of what we readily discover if we pay some attention to elementary fact and agree to apply to ourselves the standards we impose on others. More follows if we are willing to enter the moral arena in a serious way, going beyond the merest truisms and recognizing the obligation to help suffering people as best we can, a responsibility that naturally accrues to privilege.”
When Chomsky questions the legitimacy of the war in Afghanistan, he does using comparisons and the principle of universality, and he asks us:
“Let us turn now to the most elementary principle of just war theory, universality. Those who cannot accept this principle should have the decency to keep silent about matters of right and wrong, or just war. If we can rise to this level, some obvious questions arise: for example, have Cuba and Nicaragua been entitled to set off bombs in Washington, New York, and Miami in self-defense against ongoing terrorist attack? […]If not, why not? Certainly one cannot appeal to the scale of crimes to justify such a stand; the merest look at the factual record bars that move.”
The relevant question here is “why not?”. It´s a rhetorical question because it doesn’t really look for an answer, but to expose the logic, the truncated logic, of those who does not apply the same criterions to US and to its enemies.
Both authors have recognized the high value of the other’s work, and it´s a pity that “there’s much more to say” about relevant discrepancies between both of them, but during a decade we have not been able to see a public debate those subjects, only about digressions around one single sentence.