Monday, May 21, 2007

Suspicious Silence

[posted by Callimachus]

This comes from a criticism, by one Lila Rajiva, of a post parting ways with Chomsky by Ali Eteraz. First, an excerpt from what Ali wrote:

Yet, the fact is that today, globalization, which Chomsky always said was the handmaiden of neo-liberalism, and a construction of powerful Western governments, has an equally sordid evil twin, and this is the globalized monstrosity of extremely extreme extremist Islam. By the way, when I talk about extremists, I am not referring to terrorists alone. Would it were that this globalized undercurrent of violence was merely political! There exists today a form of globalized lifestyle and cultural extremism galvanized and organized and idealized by millions. This extremism, where it is not suffocating art, scholarship, freedom and love, it is murdering, killing, and beating to death. It must be identified and spoken out against with the same gusto reserved for neo-imperialism and corporatism. Dissent against all three is not inconsistent as they each mutually feed one another and leave vast numbers of human beings without a voice, without life.

... Given that neither [Chomsky], nor those who invoke him, have added extremist Islam (specifically in its cultural and lifestyle manifestation) to the list of things to dissent against, I have to part ways with him and look around for a place to stand. I will not cease to speak out against the unilateralism of the superpower, the predation of the executive, or the murderous arms dealers. These things matter. However, I have seen too many people - my people - living lives of shame, fear, and cowardice in the face of an unchecked global predator, and I cannot stay silent because the established dissenters have not said anything about it. The current discourse of dissent is not enough. There must be more dissent. I hope that when Professor Chomsky looks across the world at the dissent he inspired, he will recognize some of himself in the rest of us.

Now, from Lila Rajiva's response:

It’s also important to remember the extent to which Islamic extremism was brought to the center of the political stage by systematic policy decisions and covert actions taken by the United States. In that sense, it is a reaction, which is probably one of the reasons Noam Chomsky does not engage it in the same way as he does American foreign policy. One should not forget that there are very influential human rights organizations funded by the United States to one degree or other which are already engaged in evaluating and criticizing the human rights abuses which Ali speaks about. Chomsky ’s silence is intended only to balance those vociferous voices, which sometimes use human rights to bolster imperial policies.

Well, even though she is only guessing what Chomsky thinks and why he is so very selective in his contrarianism, evidently she agrees with this model, as I suppose a great many of his disciples would. There's a great deal of insight into the game plan in that one graph.

You can unpack it to suit yourself, but here's some things I notice. First, it purports to agree with Ali about the "human rights abuses" of the non-American actors -- the long list of terrible things done in the name of religion and opposition to American hegemony that Ali lists in his post. But the answer is effectively "silent" about them (and defends silence about them), and admits them into the conversation only for as long as it takes to deflect the focus from them to America as the root of evil. They are regarded not as truths, but as mirrors. This frankly does them no justice, nor does it honor the people who have to grapple with this stuff in their daily lives (such as this woman).

Yet even her silence is not silence; there is an unspoken back-current delegitimatization of critics of Islamist extremism. The only critics mentioned are "very influential human rights organizations funded by the United States." But as we've been told, the writer regards the U.S. as the prime cause of the problem. Therefore, under the terms she has set, all these U.S.-funded critics are delegitimatized and their work cast into suspicion.

If she wants to suggest that, should she not come out and say it, and name names, and prove it? Or if she really thinks there is a problem with Islamist extremism, and all the existing critics are simply shills for imperialism, shouldn't that make it even more imperative for there to be an untainted critic speaking out loud, rather than sitting in silence?

Why spend more time on the supposed imperialism lurking behind criticism of Islamist extremism than on the thing itself? And if you choose to do so, why pretend to be agreeing with Ali that it is a real problem for real people whom he knows and cares about?

I'm not going to dwell on the obsession with modern America as the root of all the world's ills. It takes a germ of truth and grows it into a beanstalk vine to Chomskyite heaven. The pathetic short-sighted awareness of history reminds me of the letters to the editor I used to get from social conservatives. After reading the letter, I could tell within 5 years the date they were born. The gist of the letter was, "Ever since X happened, the liberals have been running this country to hell." But X always was a different event -- Eleanor Roosevelt, rock 'n' roll, the end of school prayer, the legalization of abortion. And it always was the event that happened about the time the author turned 13. The personal loss of innocence got narcissistically conflated with the history of civilization.

Chomsky may have studied modern times well (though his critics, even on the left, often have caught him twisting the facts rather badly out of shape and cherry-picking the record). But when his writing ventures into earlier periods of history, the fuzzy, cartoonish images that pop up are frankly embarrassing to him. His fan base does not typically include serious historians.

So in this alternate universe, it's as though Harry Truman waved a magic wand and conjured the modern world into being, whole and spinning. You'd never guess that America inherited, partly unwillingly, a world already deformed by European domination and then set afire by the rapid cut-and-run of the imperial powers, from an artificially united Iraq to a falsely divided India (with such important power centers as Punjab and Bengal carved up incoherently). Or that American policies since 1945 largely were reactionary to Soviet imperialism, rather than a Death Star assault on an innocent and unsuspecting world of global Ewoks.

"The evil we call X only exists as a reaction to American foreign policy. Vocal opponents of X are based in and funded by the Americans. Therefore, to balance them, we say nothing about X."

How does silence balance anything except silence? As though awareness were a zero-sum commodity, and if you talk too much about something, and I talk too little about it, my silence drains off that much of your noise. Silence on something essential only unbalances yourself. It makes people suspect you of bad faith with reality and your own moral yardsticks.