On Western Terrorism, by Noam Chomsky and Andre Vltchek

On Western Terrorism

I find Noam Chomsky’s work generally convincing and important. The question I often have is whether, regardless of the accuracy of it, the one-sidedness is justified.

That is, Chomsky focuses almost solely on the sins of Americans and those allied with the United States, most notably Israel, and of capitalists in general. It’s not that he denies that other folks commit monstrous crimes (he’s often accused of that, with the Khmer Rouge being the case most often cited, but his statements have been greatly misrepresented), but he rarely directs his attention toward any of them and their misdeeds.

This issue comes up a lot in my mind, not just in relation to Chomsky, and I’m still not a hundred percent sure where I stand.

If Tyrant A is twice as bad as Tyrant B, say, but the mass media, most universities and think tanks, etc. present them as if Tyrant B is twenty times as bad as Tyrant A, how should an ideally rational, unbiased, objective person present them?

(Leave aside the choice that seemingly most people would endorse, which is to treat them equally, as that’s based on a hopelessly misguided notion of what it means to be objective.)

Is it best to focus twice as much on the evil of Tyrant A as on the evil of Tyrant B, as that most accurately reflects reality? Or is it best to focus exclusively or almost exclusively on the evil of Tyrant A, so as to counteract in whatever modest way you can the overall collective bias that so disproportionately publicizes the wrongdoing of Tyrant B?

That is, do you take into account the existing bias of what people are being told about Tyrant A and Tyrant B, or do you ignore that context and present them as would be most objective if you were the only one informing the world about them?

I’m not sure, though I suppose my inclination is to try to be unbiased in isolation, to try to be as objective as I can independent of what other news sources and commentators and such are doing.

But you can interpret Chomsky—and others—as making the other choice. If he denounces Israeli actions ten times as often as he denounces Palestinian actions, it’s not necessarily because he thinks Israel does ten times as many bad things, but because we’re already bombarded by the mass media and our political leaders with allegations—both true and false—of how awful the Palestinians are, so he wants to provide a little balance by highlighting the important things that get the least attention.

So I have mixed feelings in that sense about his work. I don’t at all think he’s biased or dishonest in the straightforward sense that he’s anti-American or whatever and so says whatever will make America look worst. I think his disproportionate focus on certain entities’ wrongdoing is well-motivated and that there is at least a case to be made that it’s justified. But I’m not sure it’s justified.

On Western Terrorism is a short book consisting of transcripts of conversations between Chomsky and Andre Vltchek, a Russian-born investigative journalist and filmmaker, wherein they discuss the state of the world and the various ways human beings oppress and victimize each other.

What I’ve said of Chomsky, as far as his making me uneasy at times with the one-sidedness of how he presents his views, applies far more to Vltchek.

In principle you could attempt the same kind of defense of Vltchek’s one-sided focus as I sketched out for Chomsky’s, but he just seems a much more blatant apologist for any regimes that ever opposed American hegemony—the Soviet Union, the Eastern bloc of countries behind the Iron Curtain, Vietnam, etc.

I’m not saying the specific claims in this book are false, but considerably more so than of other Chomsky books I’ve read the general feel of this book is that Americans and their allies are a force for evil in the world and anyone who opposes them is on the side of the angels.

I think On Western Terrorism is still worthwhile. Even if there are things to disagree with in the book, even if there’s bias in the book, there are things one can learn here, and things that at the very least should provoke thought and further inquiry.

One claim I’ve come across more than once is that if you count the number of people who died in avoidable famines (either intentional, a la Stalin, or at least foreseeable as a result of misguided policies), then Mao and the Chinese Communists may have more blood on their hands than Hitler or any of the other “worst of the worst” 20th century regimes. Chomsky and Vltchek not only would disagree with putting Mao on a par with Hitler and his ilk, but claim that more people have died in avoidable famines in post-independence capitalist India than in post-revolution communist China.

Certainly Vltchek has little use for the Eastern European dissidents of the Soviet era, complaining that the ones most lionized in the West were simplistic cheerleaders for the capitalist enemies of their countries.

Both agree that American-backed regimes during the Cold War (in Latin America, for instance) had vastly worse human rights records than Soviet-backed regimes.

Both tend to be optimistic about Latin America today, seeing an admirable degree of independence from and defiance of the United States.

I like Chomsky’s use of Orwell’s term “unpeople” to describe those who are largely ignored by the powers that be and the mass media in the West. Consider how different our worldviews might be if—just to return to the topic of bias—the media treated every human being as of equal value and importance, so that any two people dying of starvation, killed in a war of aggression, or killed in an act of terrorism, etc. were given attention that was equal in quantity and equally sympathetic.

It’s one of many things a book like On Western Terrorism makes me think about. But on the whole, there are many Chomsky books I’d choose over this one.

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