Wednesday, February 9, 2011

American Power and the New Mandarins

This marked the beginning of Chomsky's embarking from linguistics to politics.  Written in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Chomsky, in a collection of adamant essays, depicts at the very least the evil impulses of American foreign policy and at the most America as a whole.  While this book is very political, the application of Chomsky's left skewed ideals to his political ideals (when he says things like U.S. policy was to destroy the nationalist movement in South Vietnamese peasantry rather than to defend them from the communists) aren't nearly as intriguing as the morality that accompanies these ideals.  And in this book we get, among other things, a great deal of morality.  This was one of the most interesting aspects of the 1960's.  There was a massive movement in opposition to the war because of this feeling of "guilt," which Chomsky touches on in his book.  In fact, this was the first real anti-war movement in America.  We had that marginal core peace movement that had existed prior to Vietnam, largely based in religious beliefs (unitarianism), that opposed Kennedy's failure to halt nuclear proliferation, but it failed to gain massive popularity until the Cold War era.  Any other peace unions that existed in the 1950's were more liberal than radical.  By the mid 1960's, the opposition was rampant.  Even Martin Luther King expressed support for the anti-war movement.

The way I see it, there were two types of opposition to Vietnam:

One, and this one pertains to the intellectual class, there was opposition because the war was not winnable, it was expensive, politically it was a bind, and it was costing too many American lives.  The implication of this is, had the U.S. crushed the Vietnamese resistance without significant loss of American life, in which case the war might've been more popular and thus not as tactically difficult politically, these intellectuals would have supported the war (with Vietnamese life being irrelevant).  

Two, and this is the one I already touched on, there was a massive youth movement in opposition to the war because of this feeling of guilt.  American atrocities committed during this war, to my knowledge, are unparalleled.  At the time (late 1960's), there were two possible outcomes for Vietnam.  One: Withdrawal.  Two: The destruction of Vietnam as a social and cultural entity.  This is just one reason for the 1960's counter-culture movement.  People were starting to ask "where exactly does America stand in the world?"  And it was this feeling of guilt, of emotional and moral falseness, largely, that drove this opposition.

Chomsky addresses the issue of morality very closely in his book, saying towards the "moral American class" that there's no ground for elitism and moral superiority because anyone who expressed opposition to the war did so long after opposition should've been initialized.  He even says "I hate that I didn't come to this position earlier" and "no one who involved him/herself in anti-war activities as late as 1965, as I did, has any reason for pride or satisfaction."  Even those who expressed opposition to the policy in the mid 50's didn't engage in anti-war protests until the mid 60's, by which time Vietnam had been underway for 10 years.

Also suggesting a moral implication, there's a point in the book where he says something like "aside from any point of politics" … then goes on to argue the issue.  

Another interesting aspect to Chomsky's argument, is, unlike many radical critics, he does not build his case against U.S. foreign policy by magnifying the innocence or goodness of those who oppose us internationally.  Rather, he argues brilliantly against perhaps the most common misperception of international American intervention: that our interventionist policies are merely a defense reaction to Russian or Chinese aggression, that we intervene only to defend the people of Asia (or Africa, or Latin-America) from the evils of communist totalitarianism.       

There's one section juxtaposing Vietnam events with the Spanish Civil War and Japanese imperial politics during the 1930's (policies such as the "naked expression" clause).  He argues that Naked Expression is plausible only by disregarding precisely the claims of national self-interest and the right to protect a puppet government (Manchurian) from Chinese domination.  This is a textbook perfect analogy to the American justification of Vietnam.  However, Chomsky does not claim that his view of either pre-World War II Japanese policy or of the Spanish Civil War is the only possible one, which differs from Vietnam because, according to Chomsky, by the mid to late 1960's Vietnam was about as arguable as Auschwitz.

However, beyond justification of American intentions in Vietnam the analogy isn't quite as strong.  Chomsky's essay on Japanese imperialism of the 1930's is overt in its effort to describe the U.S.'s foreign policy goals with the same terminology used to describe Japan's foreign policy goals.  This analogical approach may be intended to demonstrate the universal evil of imperialism, whether practiced by the Japanese in the 1930's or the American's in the 1960's, but Chomsky's prose style is rarely felicitous.  And that's significant because it's something one would expect in a trenchant, straight forward, well-organized, direct political essay.  But Chomsky's material is extremely chaotic and unorganized, thus leaving the reader somehow with the bizarre notion that Chomsky's defending Japanese imperialism of the 1930's, a position that even the most severe critic of American Far Eastern policy prior to the second World War would be reluctant to take. 

The essay on Spain is both more ambitious and more significant.  He demonstrates most convincingly that the anarchist revolution was misrepresented towards the Spanish struggle.  Here he makes the analogy that Spain's crushing of the anarchists was far more important than defeating Franco's rebels, analogous to the West's crushing of the communists.  Or so i make of it.

The other rhetoric used, besides the focus on morality, was aimed at emotion.  He describes the war as "barbarous," "obscene," "butchery," and "a depraved act by weak and miserable men" … the sort of terms that appeal to the emotions rather than the intelligence.  He claims the war is no more debatable than the Italian war in Abyssinia or the Russian suppression of Hungarian freedom.  These aforementioned emotional arguments, I think, only succeed in further convincing those who are already convinced.  Those simply looking for guidance, or those new to studying the issue, will probably just be deeply outraged.  I quickly get fed up with overly emotive-type argumentation.  Chomsky goes way overboard in my opinion, saying things like "what America needs is a kind of denazification."  Surely there are better things to say, especially coming from a competent scholar and linguist.   


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