Hitchens Distorts Noam Chomsky

May 11, 2011

George Scialabba on how “panting polemicist” Christopher Hitchens’s remarks against Noam Chomsky are evidence of a widespread and troubling failure among intellectuals.

By George Scialabba

After 9/11, Noam Chomsky wrote that, from a historical point of view, what was new about the murder of 3000 civilians was that it was carried out against the United States rather than by the United States. Our national conversation about 9/11, he suggested, ought to include some reflection on the question raised by President Bush in the bombing’s immediate aftermath: “Why do they hate us?”

For the sake of our national security, not to mention honor, Chomsky argued, we should try to answer that question honestly, taking into account our longstanding opposition to independent Arab nationalism and Iranian democracy; our ardent support for the brutal dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, followed abruptly by our horrifying degradation of Iraqi society through bombing and boycott in the 1990s; our indifference to the dispossession of Palestinian Arabs, especially since 1967; and in the background of these, of moral if not immediate historical relevance, the holocaust visited on Indochina in the 1960s and 70s; our collaboration with massacre and repression in Latin America, and particularly Central America, throughout the 20th century; our material and diplomatic support for near-genocidal violence by Indonesia against East Timor and by Turkey against the Kurds, and so on.

Chomsky was generally reviled for this suggestion. It was widely assumed—in an immemorial tradition of moral obtuseness—that to explain was to excuse. Notwithstanding the terrorists’ frequent declarations that it was not America’s secular culture or democratic ideals but rather its violence against Muslims and support for Middle Eastern dictators that prompted their attacks, to assign any motive except impotent envy, theological rancor, or eliminationist anti-Semitism to al-Qaeda and its allies was ruled “anti-American.”

Christopher Hitchens joined this anti-American exercise, writing in December 2001 that for Chomsky:

“the September 11 crime is a mere bagatelle when set beside the offenses of the Empire. From this it’s not a very big step to the conclusion that we must change the subject, and change it at once, to Palestine or East Timor or Angola or Iraq. All radical polemic may now proceed as it did before the rude interruption.”

Over the last decade, Hitchens has reenacted the drama of Dorian Gray: his prose style has waxed ever more elegant, while his political judgment and his polemical morality have decayed.

A bagatelle is a trifle. To say or imply that a “horrifying atrocity” (Chomsky in 9-11 , referring to 9/11) or a “colossal atrocity” (ibid.) or a “terrorist crime” (ibid.) or a “crime against humanity” (ibid.) is a trifle would be execrable. To falsely accuse a political opponent of saying such a thing would also, of course, be execrable. Did Chomsky imply—Hitchens was not brazen enough to claim he actually said—that 9/11 was a trifle? Consider this (hypothetical) sentence: “The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a mere bagatelle compared with the cataclysm Kennedy and Khrushchev nearly unleashed on the world in October 1962.” Does this sentence imply that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were trifles? Could an honest polemicist claim that it does?

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