Impressions, views, and steam-blowing by a lonesome cowboy.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Daily Star: Lee Smith on Chomsky

Exception to the rule. In Lee Smith on Chomsky, the Daily Star publishes its rare piece not written from a leftist-arabist perspective. Thanks guys. Let's have more.

I have zero interest and or/respect for Chomsky the man or his ideas. I have tangled seriously, and less seriously, with his fans on other blogs.

The interest I still marginally have in posting this good piece is the big deal the Chomsky visit was in Lebanon, and the good points raised by Lee Smith regarding the wisdom of presenting only one American point of view at AUB.

I am guessing that like in the US, 80-90% of the faculty is on the left (Lebanese and expats). As to AUB President Waterbury, it is no secret he's a man of the left. Maybe AUB is a truly a modern American university: one point of view allowed.

From Gulag U.S.A., a tenured dissident

By Lee Smith (Link to Daily Star, or full article below)

On the eve of his first-ever visit to Lebanon last week, Noam Chomsky told a reporter he would "try to familiarize himself with the country by 'riding around in taxi cabs.'" For anyone familiar with Chomsky's work, the implication was truly astonishing, suggesting one of the great "man-bites-dog" stories in contemporary intellectual history: "Chomsky to listen! World-famous American dissident intellectual will consider other perspectives and facts to integrate into rigid worldview. Washington role as 'mother of all evil' in jeopardy."

His cab drivers must have been reading an awful lot of Chomsky because by the time the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of linguistics gave a lecture titled "The Great Soul of Power" at the American University of Beirut exactly one week ago, this newspaper described it as "vintage" Chomsky. "It is the responsibility of intellectuals to take dissident positions," Chomsky said; "This is all the more the case for Western intellectuals who can't blame their subservience on fear, only cowardice."

To be honest, I didn't get to hear this particular dissident Western intellectual call out every other Western intellectual and journalist for not speaking truth to power because I was home that night getting to the stunning surprise ending of Michael Moore's "Dude, Who Stole My Country?" - don't worry, I won't give it away. But I'm curious if everyone was too fearful, subservient and cowardly to inform the professor who co-sponsored his appearance. No? Poor Chomsky, only he could find the tens of thousands souls lost in the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory bombing in Sudan, and still miss the petro-fortune buried right under his lecture notes. Prince Walid bin Talal, owner of Kingdom Holdings, with extensive investments in American media companies, started the Center of American Studies and Research, host of the Edward Said lectures that Chomsky was invited to give, with a $5.3 million endowment.

For that much money, you'd think the AUB could hire someone to vet the subject matter to avoid any potential embarrassment. "The great soul of power," a reporter for this newspaper wrote, "refers to the special reverence which public intellectuals and journalists ordinarily hold toward those in political power." What was Chomsky thinking? Oh, but I wasn't talking about you, your highness, you're not politically powerful, just one of the world's richest men, and I'm not an intellectual or journalist, I'm a dissident.

Professor, maybe you and Michael Moore missed it while on the dissident circuit, enhancing your brand visibility, but there was plenty of intellectual debate before the Iraq war that continues to this day, from the mainstream New York Times to scores of books and new media like satellite television and the Internet. To pretend it doesn't exist may help you to market your marginalization, but in the end it makes you not an intellectual but an ideologue.

At its best, Chomsky's political analysis strikes me as though it was written by a sensitive, deeply disillusioned teenager who has just found out from someone's older brother that states pursue interests. At his worst, Chomsky's just a vicious sensationalist, like when he asserted that the United States' demanding Iran cease its interference in Iraqi affairs "is like Hitler calling on the Americans to stop their interference in the affairs of a Europe pacified under German occupation." Is it really like that, professor? Don't be na•ve. Do you have any facts to back up that rhetoric, professor? Don't be na•ve.

In short, Professor Chomsky is the kind of luxury that only the U.S. can afford. Apparently, so is the AUB, which receives between $3 million to $4 million dollars every year in American taxpayer money. If I didn't know better, I'd think that the university still took its role seriously as a bridge between the U.S. and the Arab world. As such, it would try to present a fuller range of American political discourse and intellectual life, an especially useful calling at this time in our shared history. But recent invited speakers and conference attendees like Chomsky, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole and Mark LeVine of the University of California, Irvine, suggest that the only American voices worth hearing on Bliss Street are from a left decidedly hostile to current U.S. Middle East policy. Wouldn't it be instructive to hear other voices? Does everyone, even in Lebanon, think American policy in the region is really sinister? Or is it just every academic invited by the AUB who thinks so?

Here's a strange comparison: In Lebanon, democracy looks like Hizbullah, Amal, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement, among many others. But at the American University of Beirut's American studies lecture series, the oldest and largest democracy in the world is represented by a left-wing professoriate that believes their country has been hijacked by an extremist right.

Maybe this perspective is soothing to the university's expatriate community, which likes to be reminded of how hard it is to speak truth to power back in the gulag, and it's probably a pleasant diversion for American grad students about to head home to train another generation of dissident intellectuals or opt for the big payout in the private sector; but I wonder what it's like for Arab undergraduates who might really want to know how the U.S. works. I sure won't blame Lebanese kids graduating from AUB who having been lectured to by an endless series of tenured radicals if they are wondering who actually voted for Bush, if every American they have ever met says they hate the elected leader of the U.S. I, too, would think there was a secret cabal running the U.S. government. So, how is the AUB educating Arab students at a time when it is pretty useful to have a close understanding of the American political process, cultural and intellectual life?

There are plenty of excellent universities in Lebanon - St. Joseph, the Lebanese American University, Haigazian, among others - that could no doubt use the U.S. aid money funneled to the AUB every year, largely because of its reputation and (Chomsky will love this) the power of its Washington lobbyists. So, maybe there should be more competition for those $3 million to $4 million dollars, which American taxpayers are happy to share - just as long as you give them credit for the great diversity of American political and intellectual life and represent it as such. After all, like Lebanon, the U.S. is a democracy.

Lee Smith is a journalist and Hudson Institute visiting fellow based in Beirut. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.


  • At 5/15/06, 9:13 PM, Blogger J. said…

    What drivel. Well at least now I know where you come from. Sorry, I realize I said I was done with you, but this is so fascinating. So the problem with AUB and other American universities is that students are only exposed to the “left-winger intellectual academics” point of view you so dread. As if the “point of view” of the American establishment and its ruling institutions are yet not shoved deep enough down our throats as it is, through the mass media, mainstream newspapers and millions of garbage-books. Plenty of intellectual debate about the Iraq war on cable television, LOL, oh my god, do you really buy that rubbish. I’ll tell you what you and your friend Smith are after. College campuses in the United States are the last places where progressive academics and intellectuals can voice their ideas, and that just kills you. You want to get rid of them also, and then you’ll have peace of mind. Jeez, this guy is seriously threatening to remove AUB’s funding because it invited Chomsky for a talk, for god sake. Clint, I think I got the article I was asking you for. Thanks man.

  • At 5/15/06, 10:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Irrespective of whether one is an extreme progressive or a Hayek Neoliberal it is only fair to note the irony that Mr. Chomskys' lecture in Lebanon is totally funded and underwritten by interests that he abhors and has spent a life time deriding. I am a Chomsky fan, actually he is required reading in many of my classes,but he should not have delivered the lecture in the venue that he did.

    I happen to be an environmentalist who believes that fossil fuels and economic growth are the two largest challenges that civilization is facing. As a result I will never ever give a lecture even in a seminar that is funded by an oil company. Can you imagine Peter Singer wearing a leather belt or accepting funding from a Beef Association?

    It is important to view the ideas of Chomsky, Singeror any other serious intellectual not as infallable but as pronouncements by humans who do at times make indefensible arguments. There are no theories that I know of, in any field, that do not have at least a few weaknesses, an achilles heeh if you will. To deny the existense of such weaknesses and just accept uncritically whatever judgemnts a thinker produces transforms us into knee jerk ideologues and groupies instead of thinkers, and that is not rational.

  • At 5/15/06, 10:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Professor Karam, you're a rock star! I envy your students!

  • At 5/16/06, 12:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  • At 5/16/06, 8:01 AM, Blogger JoseyWales said…

    Ghassan, I am curious, so these are genuine questions:

    1) What main insight(s) are your students meant to glean from their Chomsky reading?

    2) What is your position on Chomsky's support/lack of criticism of some of the worst regimes of the past decades?

  • At 5/16/06, 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This is a ver abbreviated answer to the questions that you raise:
    (1) As much as I hate labels I must admit that at times they are helpful. I am essentially a cosmopolitan and I would like the upper level undergraduate students to think seriously about their role in the world and that of the US. Noam Chomsky has the courage to consistently ask the tough question, go beyond the surface appearances and stake a dissenters' position on most issues. Let me give you just one simple example: When it was very popular to speak of rogue states Noam Chomsky showed clearly that what is good for the goose is also good for the gandor and thus concluded that US foreign policy in many cases makes the US the baddest of the rogue states. It is your privilege to either agree or disagree with his analysis but the insight that such questions bring is simply invaluable. Things are not always what they appear to be and nations large and small have ulterior motives.

    Dissent is healthy for all societies. Actually I believe that dissenters play a crucial role in moving a society forward. I actually believe that most of our political and social problems in the Arab World are basically due to the lack of dissent.

    In my mind the process is nothing short of an application of dialectics. Society has a dominant point of view, dissenters present another and ultimately the friction between the two resolves itself into the creation of a new thesis which will generate , through dissent, its antithesis and on and on.

    Just one more example about what critical global thinking can do is best illustrated our unquestioned acceptance that everything that the Japanese did during WWII is wrong, which it was, and that our response was always beyond reproach. Many, including McNamara who was the assistant to General Lemay at the time, are admitting that the Bombings of Tokyo were totally unjustified and served no military purpose whatsoever. Actually McNamara muses that he is lucky that the US was the victor because had iit lost then he is certain that he would have been found guilty of major crimes against humanity.

    (2) The left in the West in general and the US in particular had a huge blindspot. They had to pay for it dearly and this has cost Chomsky a lot. I am essentially refering to te inability to point to the major failures that occured under Lenin, Stalin, Khmer Rouge and even to a lesser extent Fidel. I think it is laughable when many leftists such as Belafonte feel compelled to have their picture taken with Chavez these days. I can object strongly to the process of Globalization and Neo liberalism without supporting Chavez. I have always thought that Orwell matters and I still do. He was one of the first to see the shortcomings of the Soviet regime and yes he had the courage to call it as it is. He paid dearly for that position.

    In defence of Noam Chomsky; whom I have never met; he might argue that one should devote most of obes energy to the understanding of the major forces that are shaping history and these eminate from the center of the empire. He, like Wallerstein and Frank among others , are devotees of a World Systematics. The sevents at the periphere are not to be dismissed but are not as essential to the outcome as the events that occur at the center.

    Back to Lebanon. My objection was not to what Chomsky said or did not say during his lectures in Lebanon, my objection was to the royal treatment that he was given and that is never accorded to anyother academic anywhere else in the world. I still do not understand the rationale behind the media coverage. Most of the readres had either never heard of him or never read him , the same is true of the journalist whose stories were full of meaningless PR blurbs. Did anyone seriously expect Noam Chomsky to shed some light on either the current Middle East impasse or the Lebanese situatuion? If anybody did then we are in much more dire state than I ever thought we were in.

  • At 5/16/06, 12:09 PM, Blogger Raja said…

    Chomsky was interviewed by the New York Times Magazine a while back.

    The last question of the interview was the highlight of the whole piece for me - in fact, it is the only question I remember.

    The interviewer asked Chomsky whether he would like to live anywhere else in the world. Chomsky replied no, and and explained his position.

    Frankly, I think that the students and the audience who so eagerly listened to him speak would have gained a lot more had he conveyed that answer to them.

  • At 5/16/06, 4:32 PM, Blogger JoseyWales said…

    Thanks for the detailed reply Ghassan. I appreciate it.

    Raja, no need to dig much to find inconsistencies in Chomsky's discourse or behavior.

  • At 5/16/06, 10:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This is a post that is completely of topic.
    Are you ( the reader) aware that the Lebanese GDP per capita during 2004 was still below that of 1975??? That is a fact, that I was surprised to find out is not well known. the question is where have thirty years gone?

  • At 5/17/06, 6:27 AM, Blogger JoseyWales said…

    No Gus, I did not know that.

    I guess we went back in time in every possible respect, and counting.

  • At 5/17/06, 7:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    What is astonishing is that people in Lebanon do not believe it because not many understand the difference between nominal and real.

  • At 5/17/06, 7:48 PM, Blogger Charles Malik said…


    That's quite an interesting point, especially given that the audience went into full "America is evil" mode during the question and answer session.

    It was quite astounding to see Chomsky pictured with Fawaz Trabulsi and Hezbollah leader in the South Qaouk. According to Naharnet, Chomsky was banned from Lebanon when he first wanted to visit because he is Jewish. Now, he's commiserating with political parties that make blatantly anti-semitic comments routinely and use their multi-million dollar television station to broadcast these statements globally.


Post a Comment

<< Home