Noam Chomsky and the Cold War

What is it with Noam Chomsky and Russia?

Professor Chomsky and I are two generations removed. When he was beginning his starred career at MIT, I was just a boy, the son of a mid-level State Department director under John Kennedy. After leaving the State Department, my dad would go on to make his name as “the radical professor” and “faculty advisor to SDS,” Students for a Democratic Society, indicted for “inciting riot” in the aftermath of the Kent State Massacre. Neither my dad nor his family were in any sense hostile to the Soviet Union; we were inclined, like Professor Chomsky, to treat unfavorable headlines as mere propaganda. Fifty years later, teaching Economics at UC Berkeley, I am still inclined to treat unfavorable headlines as mere propaganda. Some things never change.

What has changed is my views toward Russia. In 2013-2014 I spent a year in Bosnia and Herzegovina conducting in-depth research on the conditions that precipitated the latest Bosnian War and its aftermath. Prominent in the literature was Professor Chomsky’s and Project Censored’s “double-blind” defense of Serbia, less as an independent nation than as a satellite of Russia; “double-blind” in the sense that what appeared most to matter to Professor Chomsky and to Project Censored was that the US — eventually — came to the defense of Bosnia, which, in the hagiography of Professor Chomsky and Project Censored, made Bosnia’s enemy a prime candidate for western misinformation campaigns. “Double-blind” in the sense that, having found evidence among Bosnian information channels of less than fully accurate reporting, this established for Professor Chomsky and Project Censored reasonable doubt sufficient to question whether Bosnia had ever been the victim of genocide.

Never mind the bones and mass graves. Never mind the countless cities I visited up and down the eastern border of Bosnia and Herzegovina that still bear the traces of genocide: there are no men, no menno men anywhere to be seen. For Professor Chomsky and Project Censored it is sufficient that the US was once the enemy of the Soviet Union, that it staged and supported a coup on behalf of Boris Yeltsin, and that any enemy of my friend is necessarily my enemy. End of story.

There are eery echoes of Professor Chomsky’s genocide denials in his response to Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad’s genocidal war against his own people. Since Al-Assad is an ally of Russia and since Russia is an enemy of the US, this must mean than Al-Assad is the victim of western propaganda.

There is something unmistakably Manichean to Professor Chomsky’s and Project Censored’s narrative; a kind of “children of light” “children of darkness” script. To which I must object. My condemnation of Al-Assad is not a defense of the US. My condemnation of Bosnian genocide is not a defense of the US. Professor Chomsky’s and Project Censored’s narrative appears inflected through a Cold War prism. This prism refracts light in ways that render actual events on the ground, and actual suffering, irrelevant, mere pawns in a game of ideological warfare. Which is a shame because Professor Chomsky and Project Censored — of which my father was a contributing editor — are capable of so much more.

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