Michael Bérubé in Dissent:
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.
He adduced this 2009 essay, “The Torture Memos and Historical Amnesia,” as an example of why he regards Chomsky as so valuable (his word) to a critical understanding of U.S. policy…
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.