Yes, I know, this is the internet, and I’m blogging about something that happened, ooh, weeks ago. By most standards, I might as well give up now.
Never mind. What I wanted to do was discuss the review that the Observer printed of Chomsky’s new book “Failed States”. Also of interest might be the preemptive strike that the reviewer then launches on anyone who disagrees with him, and the response which, sure enough, did then emerge from Media Lens. The response is full of a lot of waffle and I don’t agree with all of it.
Nonetheless, as far as I’m concerned, what Peter Beaumont is offering in his review is nothing much more sophisticated than a hatchet job. Of course, I don’t claim to have Beaumont’s experience of foreign affairs, but then I don’t need to. My objection to his review is quite simply that he spends most of it reviewing a book that seems to exist largely in his head.
Clearly, whenever they met, Chomsky didn’t exactly make a new friend in Beaumont. This leads Beaumont to describe Chomsky in some fairly subjective and unpleasant terms (for a book review; it’s not exactly going to set the world alight): “nagging, bullying, wheedling”. Now, this is the sort of thing that he can get away with, since the vast majority of his readers are never going to know any different. But anyone who’s seen, say, the film Manufacturing Consent, will know that Chomsky is pretty softly spoken, and certainly couldn’t be described as in any way bullying. Most of the debate footage of him I’ve ever seen, he’s been much more bullied than bullying. If Beaumont felt bullied, I’d argue it was likely by the weight of argument he might have been presented with, perhaps?
Now, at the moment I am in fact reading my way through the book myself. Barely 50 pages in, already several aspects of the review stuck out to me as distortions if not outright dishonesty about Chomsky’s book. For instance, Beaumont writes:
While Chomsky was righteously indignant over suggestions in a recent Guardian interview that he defended Srebrenica, he does portray a certain sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic. 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. (I know this, Mr Chomsky, because I saw them do it.)
Firstly, this is not what Chomsky believes, as far as I can make out. Secondly, his main discussion of Kosovo is to be found elsewhere, in “Hegemony or Survival” amongst others. It is only really mentioned in passing here. Nonetheless, Chomsky finds the space in this book to mention precisely the clearing of populations that Beaumont tries to make out he denies. It’s on page 46 of the hardback, if you’re interested.
At other times, he elides rumour with quotes taken out of context, for example where he refers to: ‘A Jordanian journalist [who] was informed by officials in charge of the Jordanian-Iraqi border after US and UK forces took over that radioactive materials were detected in one of every eight trucks crossing into Jordan destination unknown. “Stuff happens,” in Rumsfeld’s words.’
That’s all pretty puzzling – as four pages earlier, Chomsky gives the impression that the weapons of mass destruction thing was all a deception.
This is plain distortion (deliberate or otherwise). Chomsky’s argument is pretty straightforward, and the Media Lens article I linked to at the top of this post is pretty good on this:
Does Beaumont really believe Chomsky is all but alone on the planet in believing Iraq had nuclear WMD capacity in 2002-2003? A notion dismissed out of hand by UN weapons inspectors who confirm that Iraq’s nuclear programme had been 100% eliminated by 1998. Even Bush, Blair, Powell and Straw shied away from making such a preposterous claim.
On the other hand, there were many media reports in 2003 of yellow cake – a radioactive compound derived from uranium ore – being emptied on the ground from containers that were then taken for domestic use, and of radioactive sources being stolen and removed from their shielding. In response, Mohamed El Baradei, the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said:
“I am deeply concerned by the almost daily reports of looting and destruction at nuclear sites, and about the potential radiological safety and security implications of nuclear and radiological materials that may no longer be under control. We have a moral responsibility to establish the facts without delay and take urgent remedial action.” (UN News Service, ‘IAEA urges return of experts to Iraq to address possible radiological emergency,’ May 19, 2003)
No one, least of all Chomsky, has claimed that these “radiological materials” constituted weapons of mass destruction.
Back to the Beaumont review:
It is not only that his desire to wallop the US at any cost has allowed inconsistencies to creep in; there is also plain sloppiness. Between pages 60 and 62, for instance, he cannot decide whether an alleged bribe paid to UN official is $150,000 or $160,000. Maybe it’s a typo. Maybe not.
True or not, a pretty cheap shot at any rate, one might think. Once again, Media Lens provide a pretty good response:
A little research might have clarified the issue. Chomsky begins by mentioning “fevered tales” surrounding an alleged £160,000 bribe – the figure cited in the interim report of the Volcker commission and widely reported in US press coverage when the story broke in February 2005. Chomsky then cites press coverage of the $147,000 figure taken from the +final+ report of the Volcker commission in August 2005. This final figure was often rounded up to $150,000 in press reporting.
Beaumont then lets up for a moment:
If all this sounds entirely negative, I do concede that there are areas where Chomsky lands some crunching punches. His analysis of US double standards on issues from the promotion of democracy abroad, to the World Court, Kyoto, US support for Israel, nuclear proliferation and trade is spot-on – but far from novel areas of concern, and Chomsky doesn’t like to settle on them.
Really, that’s interesting. He doesn’t like to dwell on them? On the contrary: to me, they make up the core of most of his arguments about US foreign policy, and certainly those are the areas in which he suggests changes would be most likely to bring about improvements. The fact that they are not “novel areas of concern” seems to me to be largely irrelevant. Perhaps what Beaumont means is that Chomsky has written extensively about them before? And yet in other areas Beaumont shows a startling lack of knowledge of Chomsky’s arguments:
But what I find most noxious about Chomsky’s argument is his desire to create a moral – or rather immoral – equivalence between the US and the greatest criminals in history.
A quick reference to an interview with Jeremy Paxman when Chomsky was doing the rounds for his last book:
CHOMSKY: The term moral equivalence is an interesting one, it was invented I think by Jeane Kirkpatrick as a method of trying to prevent criticism of foreign policy and state decisions. It is a meaningless notion, there is no moral equivalence what so ever.
Or indeed this comment from Beaumont:
The faults of the Bush administration will not be changed by books such as Failed States. They will be swept away by ordinary, decent Americans in the world’s greatest – if flawed and selfish – democracy going to the polls.
Here, we have an attempt to set Chomsky up as some egomaniac convinced, Michael-Moore-like, that he alone can bring down the system. I don’t have any sites to point to, I’m afraid, but anyone who reads/hears much of what Chomsky has to say will soon come across his many assertions that, far from seeing things this way, he has a great deal of respect for the power of the people to bring about changes. Often, in fact, he argues that changes presented as the actions of one individual (eg. The US civil rights movement) were in fact the result of much more action from a whole network of activists (perhaps in a supporting role) that are never heard of.
In short, then, what we have here is a review that persists in burning a series of straw men, wilfully misreading the text in question, and occasionally piping up that Chomsky is right on the vast substance of what he says. Whether or not I believe in Chomsky’s “propaganda model” of the press is a tricky question – at the moment I would say I am skeptical. But it’s articles like this that push me much more over to his side of the fence.
I would urge anyone who was put off the book by this review to actually read the book, and then determine for yourself whether much of Beaumont’s mud sticks.