The Betrayal of Dissent

Noam Chomsky interviewed by William Lucas

ZNet, February 03, 2004

Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book is about? What is it trying to communicate?

The starting point of The Betrayal of Dissent is that the greatest intellectual challenge to discussion and activism in the US and Britain comes not from Governments or conservative/neo-conservative commentators but from those who claim to be within the “Left”.

I think this was true of George Orwell — whatever the virtues of his political writing, he served for almost 20 years as a policeman of the “Left”. He didn’t really engage with the arguments of opponents; rather, he tried to close off their views by tagging them as “soggy, half-baked” Socialists, “Fascifists”, “quislings”, and “crypto-Communists”. A year before his death, he turned over a list of “suspect” names to British intelligence services. For me, that was an episode that had a powerful symbolic importance.

Indeed, it is still important. I was struck, especially after 9-11, by writers who claimed to be protecting the “Left” by tarring those who questioned US foreign policy as naï ve, deluded, or dangerous. I think immediately of Thomas Friedman, Leon Wieseltier (sp?), Michael Kelly, Todd Gitlin, Michael Walzer, and George Packer, claiming moral and political authority by hanging the “extremist” placard around the necks of dissidents who raised issues over the rush to war.

And I was also struck by how many of these writers used Orwell as a cudgel against opponents, as in Kelly’s appropriation of Orwell’s 1942 ‘fascifist’ comment: ‘The American pacifists…are on the side of future mass murders of Americans. They are objectively pro-terrorist…..That is the pacifists’ position, and it is evil.’

What really frustrated me was that much of the dissent over the American campaigns — the “War on Terror”, the war on Afghanistan, the war on Iraq, the wars to come — was raising an important issue. The Bush Administration entered office in January 2001 with the quest for a “preponderance of power” where the US could not be challenged by any other nation or group of nations (be they “enemies” or “allies”); officials like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz had set this out in strategy documents as far back as 1992. In this light, the tragedy of 9-11 gave these officials their opportunity (as Condoleezza Rice later let slip in an interview) to implement this strategy.

Here was this fundamental issue behind the “New American Century”, and there was scarcely a reference to it in the “mainstream” media. I remember doing a search for “Noam Chomsky” in the New York Times between 11 September and 31 December 2001, and it returned one reference to his political views: a single line which tagged him as a “perpetual dissenter”. Edward Said didn’t fare any better.

Of course, there were plenty of writers trying to put this side of the “War on Terror/War on Iraq” before the public — much of the material for this book came from “alternative” websites and publications in the US. I guess what spurred me to pursue this book was the hope that these views could be engaged in a discussion which went beyond “you’re with us or you’re with the terrorists”.

Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

I never planned it this way. When 9-11 occurred, I was working on a short biography of George Orwell, almost as a side project. My big hope was to write a book about the foreign policy of the “Bushmen”, focusing on this unilateral quest for American power.

Ten days later, I returned to Britain from China, where I had been lecturing. Catching up with the news, I read a vicious diatribe by Christopher Hitchens against Norman Finkelstein, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Sam Husseini and other supposed “appeasers of Islamic fascism”. I admired Hitchens for his book on Kissinger, but when I followed his exchange with Chomsky in The Nation, I remember thinking that Hitchens no longer had no wish to engage with argument on American power (at least if it came from the “Left”), he only wanted to claim a moral authority to cast the rest of us “contrarians” into the intellectual wilderness.

For me, that’s where the project came together. I knew Hitchens was setting himself up as the Orwell of the 21st century, in both Orwell’s Victory and Letters to a Young Contrarian. It was logical that he would “rescue” St. George to wield him against his opponents: “There is a minority of intellectual pacifists, whose real though unacknowledged motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism.”

But I always wanted to take the book beyond Orwell and Hitchens. I wanted to avoid what Jacqueline Rose called ‘at best, two boys in a playground fighting, at worst two dead men talking’. I also thought (rightly, I believe, in light of his recent writing) that Hitchens would burn himself out with his righteous fury, offering little of substance on US foreign policy and its wars. Hitchens was only one of many in “the betrayal of dissent” — American political culture could draw upon a Paul Berman or a Michael Ignatieff to keep the querulous anti-warriors in check, and in Britain, where the spectrum of discussion was far wider, there were even more “decent” commentators (e.g. David Aaronovitch, Johann Hari, Nick Cohen, Howard Jacobson (sp?)) on guard against opposition.

And I always wanted to turn back to the fundamental question of the US Government’s motives and long-term objectives. It was not enough to try and re-open the space for discussion; the narrative of the quest for power had to be placed alongside talk of “liberation” and the spread of a Bushian “democracy”. When the British writer (and former Conservative MP) Matthew Parris put the case powerfully in February 2003 on “how to be an honest critic of the war”, he concluded, “I am not afraid that this war will fail. I am afraid that it will succeed. I am afraid that it will prove to be the first in an indefinite series of American interventions. I am afraid that it is the beginning of a new empire: an empire that I am afraid Britain may have little choice but to join.”

What are your hopes for the book? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?

My wish is that the book makes a small contribution to keeping dissent alive, not just a dissent of frustration or anger but a dissent of hope. A funny thing happened to me on the way to proofs: I started out as a pessimist when I began this book in 2002 — I just didn’t see where the space for opposition was going to be claimed, in a meaningful way, against the political, economic, and cultural power of the American and British “mainstream” — but I ended as an optimist.

I had not marched since the late 1980s but in February 2003, I took my two young children along as we joined friends for the anti-war demonstration in London. And I was just overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by being part of 1.5 million in that march, overwhelmed by the spirit that maybe this was going to be a difference, and overwhelmed by the news of millions of others on the streets of Rome, Barcelona, Paris, New York, Sydney, Tehran, and other cities.

Peter Kellner analysed at the end of that day, “This march won’t stop this war. But maybe it will stop the next one.” As difficult as the policemen of the “Left”, the patrollers of dissent make this task, the experience of writing this book has given me hope.