Earlier this year I had a lively email exchange with an exceptionally bright young Chomsky admirer who was deeply annoyed by my book, The Left At War. Part of the exchange was frustrating, insofar as he seemed to believe that if you give up ye olde ?false consciousness? explanation for people?s behavior you have no effective way of saying that they are just flat-out wrong. But after a week or so of back-and-forth, we hit upon something that (for me, anyway) shed a nice bright light on what was at stake in the discussion.
The torture memos released by the White House elicited shock, indignation and surprise. The shock and indignation are understandable. The surprise, less so.
For one thing, even without inquiry, it was reasonable to suppose that Guantánamo was a torture chamber. Why else send prisoners where they would be beyond the reach of the law–a place, incidentally, that Washington is using in violation of a treaty forced on Cuba at the point of a gun? Security reasons were, of course, alleged, but they remain hard to take seriously. The same expectations held for the Bush administration’s “black sites,” or secret prisons, and for extraordinary rendition, and they were fulfilled.
More importantly, torture has been routinely practiced from the early days of the conquest of the national territory, and continued to be used as the imperial ventures of the “infant empire” — as George Washington called the new republic — extended to the Philippines, Haiti and elsewhere. Keep in mind as well that torture was the least of the many crimes of aggression, terror, subversion and economic strangulation that have darkened US history, much as in the case of other great powers.
Accordingly, what’s surprising is to see the reactions to the release of those Justice Department memos, even by some of the most eloquent and forthright critics of Bush malfeasance: Paul Krugman, for example, writing that we used to be “a nation of moral ideals” and never before Bush “have our leaders so utterly betrayed everything our nation stands for.” To say the least, that common view reflects a rather slanted version of American history.
My interlocutor explained that whenever he lapses into a merely-liberal Krugman-like faith in American ideals, he finds Chomsky to be a bracing reminder that those ideals have routinely been traduced, and that the justification of torture by American officials is nothing new. And that?s why he?s vexed by left criticism of Chomsky, which he thinks is really ?liberal? rather than properly ?left.?
It cannot be denied that we have often traduced our ideals. And Chomsky?s essay is in many respects quite good, especially with regard to the history of how ?in ordinary American practice, torture was largely farmed out to subsidiaries.? (Though I can do without the ritual repetition of ?The 9/11 attack was doubtless unique in many respects. One is where the guns were pointing: typically it is in the opposite direction.? I still find it impossible to read those words without hearing, ?and it was about time.? And his attempt to construe the extermination of Native Americans as a ?humanitarian intervention? is yet another form of doubling down on his hands-off-the-Balkans position.) But I had two other responses to this young man.
First, I noted that Krugman isn?t quite the America-is-good dope he?s made out to be here. The op-ed Chomsky cites (but does not link to) happens to be an argument for investigating the crimes of the Bush Administration. (You won?t find such columns in the Washington Post?s op-ed pages these days, that much is certain.) In that context, it?s worth asking whether Krugman?s rhetorical strategy (we have been imperfect in the past, but never on this scale, so we need to open an official investigation into the U.S. torture regime) might be preferable to Chomsky?s (yes, the Bush era of torture introduced ?important innovations? to US torture policy, but come on, this kind of thing goes back to the early days of the conquest of the national territory).
And that question opens onto another. This was my second, and broader, response: essays like Chomsky?s are precisely why I prefer Stuart Hall to Chomsky and underscore the point I was trying to make in The Left At War. To wit: it?s crucial to know when you?re dealing with a radical break and crucial not to normalize it by saying, in effect, move on, move on, nothing new to see here.
That?s basically what the British hard left did in response to Thatcher?s election and Hall?s analysis of Thatcherite ?authoritarian populism?: when Hall claimed that Thatcherism represented a decisive break with the postwar political consensus and a frontal assault on the Keynesian welfare state, the hard left replied that Thatcherism was just the same old shit, different day, and since the Keynesian welfare state was never really socialist, Thatcherism was just another wrinkle in the fabric of capitalist business as usual.
In retrospect, Hall was dead right on this one. In one of his responses to his leftward critics (?Authoritarian Populism: A Reply to Jessop et al.?), Hall notes with some exasperation that he is aware that the Keynesian welfare state was not socialist–and then proceeds to ask why ?should anyone on the left be now campaigning for the restoration of the cuts in the welfare state if it did nothing for the working class?…I keep not getting an answer to this conundrum, and must presume this is because the symbolics of who can swear loudest at the reformism of Labour governments is more important on the left than hard analysis.? Yes, the welfare state was imperfect, Hall says. But it was better than what we have now, and we need to understand Thatcherism as a qualitatively new form of conservatism if we are going to be effective in countering it. Alternatively, we could take turns trying to swear loudly at liberal reformism. But it?s not clear what that will accomplish.
The parallel to our own moment, I hope, is clear. No one on the American left believes that the United States was a happy land of benevolence and ponies prior to 9/11. But I believe that the theory of the unitary executive, the practice of indefinite detention, and the justifications of torture mounted after 9/11 are, in fact, qualitatively different from the policies of the American government before 9/11 and that no good purpose is served by blurring the distinction.
Perhaps there are some historical amnesiacs out there somewhere who need to be reminded of the bombing of Cambodia, the overthrow of Allende, and the funding of death squads in Central America lest they lapse into the belief that the United States ?lost its innocence? (yet again!) when the towers fell. But if you are calling for an investigation into the crimes of the Bush Administration, as Krugman was, then it is absolutely critical to understand–and to persuade your fellow citizens–why those crimes specifically are worth investigating, why they are not just the same old same old on a different day.
There is, of course, another way of reading the opposition between Krugman?s rhetorical strategy and Chomsky?s (and I touch upon it in my book): it might be, among other things, a distinction between people who think it makes sense to appeal to Americans by invoking American ideals (while acknowledging past violations thereof) and people who think that the ideals themselves are a sham and that appealing to them amounts to whitewashing the past violations thereof.
But that, perhaps, is a matter for another post.