Welcome to the ‘Beautiful American’

[Translator’s Note:  Noam Chomsky’s most recent trip to the Middle East was in May 2010. Thanks to the Israeli authorities’ spite –– or perhaps extravagant paranoia that Chomsky would be a security threat, were he allowed to enter the occupied Palestinian territories –– the trip was reduced to its Jordanian and Lebanese portions. The international uproar and publicity resulting from the Israeli ban had a boomerang effect: The trip ended up having a far bigger impact than anticipated. Again and again, interviews went beyond their scheduled limit, lecture halls filled to capacity, meetings ran over time, media requests overwhelmed the planners’ limited resources. I recount several moments elsewhere. [1]


Chomsky’s last lecture on that trip was in Beirut on May 25, the tenth anniversary to the day of the liberation of southern Lebanon from the Israeli occupation. The lecture took place at the UNESCO Palace, the largest hall in Beirut. Hundreds had packed the hall full, some sat in the aisles, some stood throughout, and many others waited outside unable to enter. Chomsky was introduced by one of the trip’s organizers, Fawwaz Traboulsi, who is a historian, long-time left activist, and columnist for the Beirut daily as-Safir.


Chomsky’s lecture at the UNESCO Palace was in English and simultaneously interpreted into Arabic; a transcription, slightly adjusted, is posted at the Noam Chomsky Website. [2]Below is my translation of Traboulsi’s introduction, based on the Arabic text that was published a few days later, in the June 2 issue of as-Safir. The footnotes are mine and put some of Traboulsi’s statements in context for the Western reader.


The title is, of course, a takeoff on The Ugly American, a best-selling 1958 political novel by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. The expression “ugly American” has gained currency in the rest of the world, no less in the Middle East, as referring to imperialist arrogance. In Arabic, “beautiful American” is more directly understood as the political opposite of “ugly American” than it is in English, with no connotation of prettiness.


–– Assaf Kfoury]


Noam Chomsky needs no introduction. All the same, I will avail myself of the pleasure of talking about him.


The most significant contributor to the field of linguistics in our time, the man esteemed as the “greatest living intellectual” in the world, is above all an epitome of modesty. For all his vast knowledge, Noam Chomsky exemplifies the saying of the Arab poet (Abu Nuwas), “Say unto him who claims knowledge, you have claimed the knowledge of some but not all things.” Noam Chomsky’s modesty, however, is clad in a will of steel, indefatigable and nourished by an acute sensitivity to all things smacking of injustice or discrimination among human beings.


This tireless critic of capitalism and debunker of the false promises of a globalization under the aegis of a militarized America –– this visionary of new worlds free of theologies of the market and greedy profit –– Noam Chomsky insists on the bond between the twin values of freedom and equality. A liberating socialist order, he insists, cannot sacrifice individual rights in the name of economic development, nor democratic freedoms in the name of social equality. He affirms that equality strengthens freedom inasmuch as freedom nourishes equality.


Noam Chomsky is the thinker who now puts great efforts at countering commonplace assumptions about post-colonialism. He urges us to act on the obvious: Colonialism is not just a past which it suffices to criticize and analyze for its pro-Western biases. Colonialism is very much with us through the continuing imperialist projects in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Colonialism is present today in its transformation into an empire that has introduced new forms of exploitation and control, which in turn call for innovative forms of struggle and resistance.


In contrast to postmodern theorists, Noam Chomsky maintains that an intellectual’s true calling is to seek and reveal the underlying objective facts. The denial by postmodernist theories of an objective reality –– replaced by arbitrary representations that equate the temporary with the permanent and that confound ideological preferences with power relations –– is a denial that ends up supporting the status quo and those benefiting from it.


Noam Chomsky is also a pioneer in the study of the media and how it shapes public opinion. He has critically analyzed the way media organizations deviated from their original function of disseminating information and became media conglomerates that manipulate public opinion. Instead of transmitting news and analyses, and expressing public views objectively, mainstream media outlets are now controlled by monopolies whose main function is “manufacturing consent” in the service of big corporate and political interests across the globe.


For all these reasons, our speaker tonight is a harbinger of hope for a better world –– a hope he expresses with an ever serene and reassuring smile –– at a time when many try to convince us that hope is an illusion and that progress is a dirty word. They persist in their pathetic attempts while they cannot answer one simple question: In return for what should we give up our hopes in progress and our striving for progress? Is it by giving in to backwardness and then rejoicing for the next five-year plan to achieve trifling goals within this backwardness?


On Arab and regional matters, Noam Chomsky was the first to warn about the dangers of manipulating the Holocaust in order to legitimize Zionism, to absolve Israeli state terrorism, and to justify the continuing occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands since 1967. We shall not forget that he, whose unshakable stand on behalf of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and their right to return to an independent Palestinian state, has written a richly and deeply documented book unmasking the lies about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. [3]


Noam Chomsky’s previous visit to Lebanon was in May 2006, accompanied by his wife Carol who passed away two years ago. On that visit, he met with a Lebanese politician who kept repeating insistently that the era of armed struggle was over. Chomsky’s response was that the US would never give guarantees against any Israeli aggression, let alone that it would not take part itself in such an aggression. He further said that it was incumbent to support Hezbollah and its right to bear arms as it was the only force capable of defending Lebanon in the face of Israeli attacks. Many in attendance at that May 2006 meeting were surprised by Chomsky’s unequivocal response, and I admit I was one of them. We were wrong and Chomsky proved right –– right in his faith in a people’s ability to battle the most intransigent forces of aggression and occupation. Thus, a few weeks after that May 2006 meeting, the Israeli aggressors were repelled. In his analysis of the July-August 2006 attack on Lebanon, Chomsky came to the conclusion that it was the first Israeli war that was pursued, and prolonged as much as it was, because of an American decision, whereas the earlier wars had been launched with no more than American assent.


Today, we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the liberation of the South. This is an occasion to offer our salute and admiration to those responsible for this great achievement –– from the earliest resistance fighters of the Lebanese National Resistance Front in Beirut, Aley, Shoueifat, and Saida, to the young combatants of the Islamic Resistance who are now stationed along the border strip facing the Israeli aggressors. [4] Those who shed their blood in the lands of the South and the Western Beqaa [5] –– along with the wounded, the captured, the missing, and all those who struggled by word and deed to drive out the occupiers and their collaborators on 25 May 2000 –– all hailed from every corner of this small country, from every region and every religious denomination, and mostly from the poor and toiling classes. What united them all was indignation in the face of the occupation and the will to pursue a common goal that did not differentiate between men and women, nor between Lebanese and Palestinians, nor between the latter and the thousands of Arab volunteers who joined the struggle with their Lebanese and Palestinian brothers.


As a member of the resistance myself and as a historian, permit me to add my voice to Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah’s call for putting in writing the history of the Lebanese people’s resistance to Zionism and Israel. [6] I would like to add the following remarks to this proposal.


First, we will greatly benefit from such a proposal for the simple reason that all efforts at recording our resistance and liberation will forge a collective memory that rallies and unifies the Lebanese. This is in contrast to the current obsession of some to recall and rehash our internal wars, which promotes a memory of division and mutual rejection.


Second, the call for writing the history of our resistance and liberation includes a recognition that our struggle with Zionism and Israel must now evolve into a new phase, one of national defense that will protect what we have gained so far at great human and material costs. This makes it incumbent on us to define a new vision, as well as to determine the tasks ahead and the means at our disposal, for meeting the challenges of this new phase.


Third, while I join the call for writing the history of our resistance and liberation, I emphatically warn against misusing its good name and proud achievements in order to justify and perpetuate the confessional system, especially in its most pernicious form which some have taken to calling “consociational democracy.” Our struggle must go beyond resistance to Zionism and Israel to encompass resistance to the confessional system itself and to liberate the Lebanese people from its shackles. [7]


And fourth, while I join the call for writing the history of our resistance and liberation, let us extend our resistance to the struggle against the dictatorship of the single party that controls our economic and social affairs –– the party of the bankers, the traders, and the contractors –– those who promote uneven development and class differences and force our youth to emigrate to the unknown. [8]


I will not take any more of your time. Allow me to say on your behalf, all of you in attendance this evening, “Noam Chomsky, welcome among your people and your friends in Lebanon!”




[1] Assaf Kfoury, “Keeping the Record Straight: About Noam Chomsky’s Trip to the Middle East in May 2010,” Znet, July 31, 2010.


[2] Noam Chomsky, US Foreign Policy in the Middle East, UNESCO Palace, Beirut, Lebanon, May 25, 2010.


[3] Traboulsi is referring to the book Chomsky wrote shortly after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, South End Press, 1983 (updated edition, 1999). The book was translated into Arabic and is one of Chomsky’s better known among the Arab readership.


[4] The Lebanese National Resistance Front (LNRF) was a coalition of communist and Marxist-leaning parties that was formed right after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The LNRF engaged the Israeli army in guerrilla actions in the years 1982-85, some of which were successful in blocking or slowing down the advance of Israeli armed columns. The cities of Beirut, Aley, Shoueifat, and Saida, which Traboulsi mentions, were among the memorable battlegrounds of that early resistance to the Israeli invaders. By the mid-1980’s, the Israeli military had withdrawn from its most advanced positions around Beirut and in Lebanon’s central regions, consolidating instead its presence in the southern part of the country with the help of the auxiliary force it had created, the South Lebanon Army (SLA). From the mid-1980’s to the very end of the 1990’s, guerrilla attacks on the Israeli military and the SLA were carried out by a new popular movement in the mostly Shiite southern regions, spearheaded by Hezbollah (founded in 1985) and commonly called the Islamic Resistance. On May 25, 2000, nearly spent units of the Israeli army and remnants of the SLA hastily withdrew from all Lebanese territories except for a few pockets along the border, most contentiously the Shebaa Farms.


[5] The South and the Western Beqaa are Lebanon’s regions that are closest to Israel’s northern border. In the 1990’s, these were the scenes of frequent Hezbollah-led guerrilla actions against the Israeli military and their proxies in the SLA. During the July-August 2006 onslaught on Lebanon, the South and the Western Beqaa witnessed once more violent confrontations between Hezbollah units and the Israeli invaders.


[6] Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah is Hezbollah’s secretary-general. On May 21, 2010, a few days before Chomsky’s lecture at the UNESCO Palace, Hezbollah inaugurated a “resistance museum” in the village of Mlita in southern Lebanon. Mlita was a launching point for many resistance operations in the 1990’s. At that inauguration, Nasrallah addressed a large gathering of members and supporters. In his speech, widely publicized in the local media, Nasrallah called for, among other things, the writing of the history of Lebanese resistance to Zionism since 1948, as a project uniting all Lebanese.


[7] Instead of calling Lebanon’s form of government by its old and now much-disparaged name –– the “confessional system” –– the fresher-sounding “consociational democracy” is becoming the great shibboleth of Lebanese politics in whose name the old class inequities and discriminatory measures are perpetuated. This is what sets extra-parliamentary progressive forces, in whose name Traboulsi is speaking, apart from the parties participating in the Lebanese government, Hezbollah included. For all its contributions to resisting Israeli aggressions, it is on this very point that Hezbollah is most contentiously at odds with the secular left in Lebanon: Despite its professed support for changing the confessional system, Hezbollah is in fact a dominant player in that system and effectively works for its preservation.


[8] Traboulsi writes the “single party of the bankers, the traders, and the contractors” in a metaphorical sense, collectively referring to all the confessional (sectarian-based) parties of the Lebanese political establishment. Many things bring these parties together, one of the most significant being their heedless adherence to neoliberal economics, in perfect harmony with policies of the IMF and the World Bank. These policies have greatly benefited “the bankers, the traders, and the contractors,” to the detriment of the poor and working classes, regardless of confessional affiliation.




Fawwaz Traboulsi  has written on history, Arab politics, social movements and popular culture and translated works by Karl Marx, John Reed, Antonio Gramsci, Isaac Deutscher, John Berger, Etel Adnan, Sa`di Yusuf and Edward Said. His most recent book in English is A History of Modern Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2007).


Assaf Kfoury is an Arab-American political activist and Professor of Computer Science at Boston University. Along with Avi Chomsky and Irene Gendzier, he accompanied Noam Chomsky on his May 2010 trip to the Middle East.

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