Why Noam Chomsky Can Sound like a Broken Record

From ABC News (h/t Ali Abunimah)

The U.S. State Department, which spends millions of taxpayer dollars a year on the Honduran National Police, has assured Congress that money only goes to specially vetted and trained units that don’t operate under the direct supervision of a police chief once accused of extrajudicial killings and “social cleansing.”

But The Associated Press has found that all police units are under the control of Director General Juan Carlos Bonilla, nicknamed the “Tiger,” who in 2002 was accused of three extrajudicial killings and links to 11 more deaths and disappearances. He was tried on one killing and acquitted. The rest of the cases were never fully investigated.

With 91 murders per 100,000 people, the small Central American nation is often called the most violent in the world. An estimated 40 percent of the cocaine headed to the U.S. — and 87 percent of cocaine smuggling flights from South America — pass through Honduras, according to the State Department.

The allegations against Bonilla, along with other concerns about police and military killings, prompted the U.S. Congress to freeze an estimated $30 million in Honduran aid last August. Most has been restored under agreements with the U.S. Department of State over the monitoring of Honduran operations receiving U.S. money.

Dozens of U.S. Congressmen, Leahy chief among them, have been raising concerns for many years about abuses of authority and human rights violations by the Honduran police, a force of 14,000 officers that is considered among the most corrupt in the world.

The AP reported on Sunday that two gang-related people detained by police in January have disappeared, fueling long-standing accusations that the Honduran police operate death squads and engage in “social cleansing.” It also found that in the last three years, Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings in the capital of Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the economic hub of San Pedro Sula.

The country’s National Autonomous University, citing police reports, has counted 149 civilians killed by police in the last two years, including 25 members of the “18th Street” gang, one of the largest and most dangerous in the country.

Eagerly awaiting all the denunciations of Honduras’s human rights record — and US support of it — from the liberals and conservatives who spilled so much ink, and vented so much spleen, on the (by comparison) veritable paradise of Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, which of course receives no military from the US at all and in fact was the target of a US-supported coup. Eagerly awaiting a “haunting” piece of reportage from Jon Lee Anderson. Eagerly awaiting…oh Christ, what’s the point?

I mean seriously, folks: are you surprised Chomsky can sound like a broken record? The guy has been doing God’s work for over a half-century, confronting this kind of deep corruption, moral and political, in our chattering classes. How would you sound after 50 years? I’d have simply given up.

Here’s a thought: if you don’t like the record, change it.


  1. Michael Allan Slaughter March 28, 2013 at 11:00 am | #

    Noam is a saint, to use a word from the benighted world of religion–but he’s not doing “G*d’s work.” In his words, “I try not to have irrational beliefs.”

  2. Chris Harlos March 28, 2013 at 11:23 am | #

    I concur that Chomsky has done God’s work, but Blankfein will be exercised when he hears this.

  3. swallerstein March 28, 2013 at 12:47 pm | #

    Chomsky is an extraordinarily generous man, who gives freely of his time and energy, at an age that his doctors surely ask him to take it easier.

    If he at times repeats himself, it’s because there are things that need to be said, in so many places, to so many people and there are so few people with Chomsky’s communications skills who say them.

    In fact, there are very few people with Chomsky’s communications skills, encyclopedic memory, intelligence and sense of humor.

    • Wire March 29, 2013 at 5:24 am | #

      To make what is obviously a very trivial remark, does Chomsky suffer nowadays from arthritis or something similar in his wrists.

      On of his characteristic gestures that he makes when he speaks – including when he delivers lectures – is to throw his hands outwards rather strongly in order to emphasize a point.

  4. Expat March 28, 2013 at 3:02 pm | #

    Chomsky does have a wide following, just not among those in power. You’d think that there was a Chomsky litmus-test given the complete absence of his analysis in the public discourse. He’s given us all of the analytical tools we need to know just how we have been had.

  5. Ed scott March 28, 2013 at 3:31 pm | #

    Corey, I’m confused; was the comment after the news quote yours? It seemed uncharacteristic.

    • Corey Robin March 28, 2013 at 3:40 pm | #

      Which passage, Ed, and how uncharacteristic?

  6. Will Boisvert March 28, 2013 at 4:04 pm | #

    I used to worship Chomsky; now I think he’s a mixed bag.

    His condemnations of American wars and support for foreign dictators are fine-useful and stimulating; good to have a Jeremiah to keep us honest. That officials and pundits can be callous hypocrites is a message that bears repeating.

    But Chomsky can also be one-sided, obfuscatory, tendentious, hypocritical and uninformed, his writings on the Khmer Rouge being a good example. (Here is an excellent critique of them http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/chomsky.htm.)

    His “propaganda model” of American political discourse—it’s allegedly straitjacketed by an informal media censorship whose subtle machinations are more stifling than outright state censorship—is hysterically overstated, not to mention petulant and self-regarding: if my message doesn’t get as much airplay as I think it should, a pervasive system of thought-control must be suppressing it. That mindset gives leftists an excuse to blame their failures on the system rather than themselves and avoid taking a hard look at their own inability to craft arguments, policies and political strategies that win majority support.

    And the Chomskyan model of American foreign policy—that it’s aimed chiefly at maintaining a business climate abroad favorable to multinational corporations—is extremely crude and simplistic and more wrong than right. It’s especially wrong-headed in claiming that American policy in the Middle East is motivated mainly by a desire to “control” the oil—an argument that’s almost always false and indeed incoherent.

    It’s not such a great thing that Chomsky sounds like a broken record. That means that fifty years of history have not changed his perspective at all, or taught him anything new.

    For example, yes, the U. S. seems to still be funneling money to Honduran death squads (probably to fight drug gangs, as the press reports indicate). But Washington is not funding a terrorist war against Nicaragua staged from Honduras as it did back in the 1980s, the last time Daniel Ortega was in power. And yes the U. S. “supported” an anti-Chavez coup in Venezuela, but that “support” amounted mainly to press statements—not material or military support that might have allowed the coup to succeed. Latin America has sprouted lots of left-populist regimes of the sort that, decades ago, reliably prompted military intervention by the U. S.; now Washington just shrugs at them.

    I think that’s mainly because there are no more Cold War anxieties to trigger hysterical overreactions to leftist governments. In other words, paranoid fear of the Soviet Union and its “proxy” states, which Chomsky treated as a propaganda cover for American business interests, was a much realer and more sincere (albeit delusional) factor in American foreign policy than Chomsky allowed for.

    Read Chomsky, but read him critically.

    • Corey Robin March 28, 2013 at 4:16 pm | #

      “Read Chomsky, but read him critically.” Don’t have any problem with that, Will. Having never “worshiped” the man or his work, I feel no need now to renounce him or to issue a lengthy rebuttal whenever I sense someone somewhere saying something that might be taken as sympathetic to him. I’ve always assumed that he is, as you say, a mixed bag — like most of us.

      • Douglas D. Edwards March 28, 2013 at 6:20 pm | #

        Hear, hear. I’ve been disillusioned by some aspects of Chomsky’s one-sided perspective on the USA since the first Gulf War, but a characterization of that perspective as “hysterically overstated” is itself hysterically overstated. And I remain eternally grateful to him for the book Turning the Tide, which was the proximate cause for the sea change in my politics from Right to Left in the mid-1980s. Chomsky is not totally right about everything (who is?), but he’s much closer to being totally right than to being totally wrong.

      • Douglas D. Edwards March 28, 2013 at 7:46 pm | #

        Another note on Chomsky and the ways in which his perspective is and is not flawed. He does tend, in my opinion, to gloss over serious abuses in regimes that are hostile to the USA, especially when they become involved in military confrontations with the USA. But his characterization of the mainstream media as radically dishonest, propagandistic, and motivated by hidden agendas is not among the flaws in his perspective, nor is Chomsky by any means alone in having such an opinion of the media. Anyone who has any doubts on this point should check out the division on Propaganda in my online annotated bibliography, especially the subsection on the mainstream media.

    • Spectre March 28, 2013 at 6:26 pm | #

      Almost everything you say here, both in your characterizations of Chomsky’s stances, and in your analysis is false. Read Will Boisvert, but read him critically! Actually, that was a really bad read. Consider skipping him in the future.

    • neretva March 29, 2013 at 10:18 am | #

      I think he is more than a “mixed bag”. I have the same feeling about Howard Zinn as well.

      Failure Of Progressive Thought

      and particularly this authoritative article:

      I know nothing about Chomsky’s work but I was surprised that his linguistic theories are reactionary, according to this guy. And he was/is quite unsuccessful in academia. It appears he is just a “product” of the system.

    • Sam Holloway (@SamHolloway1) March 29, 2013 at 5:37 pm | #

      When comparing current U.S. policy toward Latin America to that of the Cold War era (esp. the really gory years of the 70s and 80s), one must not discount the political, economic, and social damage done to Latin American countries by those U.S. interventions. It’s not as if all those murdered by U.S.-supported right-wing regimes have been brought back to life; nor have the democratic/populist movements they crushed been miraculously restored.

      Also, assuming that existential anti-Soviet ‘paranoia’ was as real to policymakers and business elites as it was to the heavily propagandized working and middle-class masses who weren’t expected to reap the rewards of bloody incarnations of the Monroe Doctrine is, perhaps, a bit of a stretch. It’s arguably reasonable to expect that some of those policymakers got high on their own propaganda supply, but the historical record supports Chomsky’s fundamental contentions. The Cold War was– from the U.S. perspective– far more about securing profitability for Western transnational capital than it was about defending anyone (especially non-white peoples) from tyranny. Those who doubt that premise need only examine the angelic roster of freedom-defending proxies the U.S. and its post-imperial European allies enlisted in their fight against the twin scourges of brown-skinned leftist populism and post-colonial nationalist self-determination.

      • Will Boisvert March 30, 2013 at 12:11 am | #

        @ Sam Holloway,

        Right, during the Cold War the U. S. did support lots of right-wing dictators who oppressed their people and were relatively cooperative with Western transnationals that exploited their countries’ resources and labor for profit. Leftist regimes and political movements that opposed that template were branded communist tyrannies—often wrongly—and attacked in various ways, military and economic, by the U. S. (America was actually pretty tolerant of post-colonial nationalism in places like South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Egypt, etc as long as it did not tilt toward the Soviet Union.)

        So why did Washington do that? As you say, Chomsky argues that Washington’s main and intended (though unacknowledged) foreign policy was to facilitate the exploitation of the labor and resources of the third world by TNCs. He’s a rationalist, so he likes an “economic rationalist” model that grounds US 4n policy in logical, material interests in maintaining a system of profitable global exploitation on behalf of Western elites.

        I think the history is better explained by a conventional “geo-strategic” model that assumes Washington was chiefly motivated by a partly irrational anti-communist ideology that posited a global struggle against a powerful and ruthless Soviet bloc. The goal in that contest was simply denying the enemy territory and subjects, whatever the cost to those subjects. There was an economic dimension, but it was mainly about monopolizing resources with a geo-strategic value—especially oil, the ultimate sinew of war.

        (Although Washington did believe that its client dictators were less bad than leftist leaders, I agree with you that the freedom and well-being of people in the third word never ranked high on the agenda.)

        I know this all sounds like mealy-mouthed Freudian-liberal cant—I used to think so, too. And there are certainly some cases that seem to fit the Chomskyan model like a glove, like the 1954 Guatemalan coup.

        But I think it’s really quite hard to fit an economic rationalist model to the actual history of U. S. foreign policy in the Cold War.

        The Korean and Vietnam wars, wars for transnational capital? I’m not seeing that.

        Middle East policy all about oil profits? The history of American policy there is so self-contradictory that I don’t think it fits any rationalist template. (The main impact of the Iraq war on Iraqi oil fields was to help Chinese companies win contracts.)

        In fact, since the Cold War ended America actually has elaborated a more explicitly neoliberal framework for foreign policy—free trade and open economies will save the world, with the unimpeded flow of transnational capital being an avowed goal. But that public embrace of an “economic rationalist” model has gone along with a drastic drop-off in imperialist machinations. (The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the big exceptions, were motivated by 9/11 hysteria and logistical fantasies—the Bush administration thought it had found a cost-free way to wage war, so why not?)

        Again, the test case is Latin America after the Cold War. Washington still has the neo-liberal, up-with-transnational-capital economic agenda in spades, but the anti-Soviet hysteria is gone. What’s the effect on American foreign policy? A shift from militant hostility towards left-populism in the region to bored indifference. Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega, Lula, Chavez sticking his finger in our eye, all of them shamelessly redirecting profits towards populist programs, lots of oil sloshing around—and Washington couldn’t care less. (And no, the victims of right-wing dictators didn’t rise up—their children did.)

        That’s a nicely controlled experiment, and the results have a clear implication—it was anti-Soviet paranoia, not the profits of transnational capital, that was the chief motive for American interventionism in the region.

        Something for Noam to chew on.

    • CHris March 31, 2013 at 3:36 pm | #

      Actually you are understating continued US attempts to destabilize leftist governments. In Venezuela, there were strong links between the coup leaders and Washington, and the Bush administration even acknowledges there were meetings. The US also provided financing to opposition groups(can you imagine if that happened here?). US trains the Honduras military and provides financial support. (Hello?). The US just “shrugs”? Have you not been reading what happened to Haiti? Where the US has prevented the social democratic party of Aristide from even appearing on the ballot box?
      Look, I understand the need to hold on to the view that America might actually be justified in its foreign policy objective. But the fact is the Cold War supposedly ended 23 years ago. Why the hell are we still so cared of leftist governments?

      • Will Boisvert March 31, 2013 at 8:14 pm | #

        @ Chris

        –Hmmm, you say that there were “links” and “meetings” between Venezuelan coup plotters and the Bush Administration? That doesn’t sound too dire, and obviously it came to nothing. Financing opposition groups? Who, whom and how much? It doesn’t seem to have worked anyway, so again I’m wondering how dire it could be. You know, I sure can imagine Venezuela funding opposition groups in the United States—what’s to stop that? I know the Venezuelan government-owned Citgo oil company did provide charity to U. S. citizens as a splashy public relations ploy. Foreign governments hire Washington lobbyists all the time.

        –You say the U. S. trains and funds the Honduran military. Is that in addition to the $30 million in police funding and other money referenced in the op?

        –Clinton invaded Haiti in 1994 to restore Aristide to power.

        Aristide and supporters have claimed that the U. S. was behind the 2004 coup that ousted him. He flew out on a U. S. plane, and later claimed he was kidnapped. These charges have been very loudly denied, and not just by Colin Powell. There are also claims that the U. S. shut off the flow of international aid to Haiti, although that may be a case of international financial institutions denying aid because of Aristide’s opposition to neoliberal reforms. I sure can imagine that, though I don’t know if I would call it imperialism—to me that word should be reserved for boots on the ground.

        –Is the U. S. behind Aristides continuing exclusion from Haitian politics. I don’t know. We need to not fall into the trap of believing that absolutely everything that happens in Haiti is masterminded in Washington. The country has its own domestic politics, and well-organized right-wing factions that are perfectly capable of launching coups and suppressing opposition parties on their own.

        –Look, you may be right that Washington still has undue and malign influence over the Honduras’s and Haitis of the world. It doesn’t take much to sway ountries that are that tiny and weak, so Washington may indulge its residual distaste for left-populism on the cheap in those places.

        Still, compared with Washington’s intense, costly and incredibly bloody and destructive meddling during the Cold War, the current lackadaisical attitude towards Latin America is like night and day. Where’s the Contra army to oust Ortega from power now? Why didn’t Bush go beyond links and meetings to oust Chavez? Why not foment a coup to oust Lula or Morales?

        Because Washington just doesn’t think it’s worth the effort anymore. Without the Soviet specter to energize anxieties, there’s not all that much at stake.

  7. troy grant March 28, 2013 at 6:05 pm | #

    To think that all the drug associated violence and death could subside with the stroke of a pen ending America’s War on Drugs.

  8. BarryB March 28, 2013 at 9:00 pm | #

    Did anybody note that one of their weighted freedoms is “Freedom From Tort Abuse,” defined as “The liability system is a ranking of state tort systems based on a survey of business owners and managers. This is what the US Chamber of Commerce calls a state’s “lawsuit climate.” It captures risks and costs that businesses must pass on to consumers as higher prices.” In other words, legal tort systems that take businesses to court are bad, and against freedom, and automatically cost us, stupid, little people, a lot more. There are several other “freedoms” defined like that. It appears that these libertarians are opposed to government regulation, but have no problems with corporations doing whatever they want.

  9. swallerstein March 28, 2013 at 9:20 pm | #

    Even if Chomsky was wrong about Cambodia and several other situations, well, he’s not an analyst of international politics or a political theorist, even if at times he tries to be one or others cast him as one.

    He’s been an eloquent voice for libertarian socialism and against the abuses of neoliberal capitalism and U.S. imperialism for over 40 years.

    Surely, that is enough.

  10. Chris Harlos March 29, 2013 at 10:46 am | #

    OK. Deep critics of US policies and conduct had better be consistent, and correct.

    Feel free to throw stones at Chomsky if you are heaving boulders at our predatory privileged class.

  11. Scott Preston March 29, 2013 at 10:49 am | #

    The “broken record” effect is probably a result of Chomsky’s propaganda model. It’s a great model, but it tends towards rigidity — perhaps ahistorical, too. The devil gets into the details. As far as I’m concerned, his greatest book was Necessary Illusions. And if I were teaching a class on propaganda, that and Ellul’s Propaganda would be my two required texts, with Knightley’s The First Casualty and Manufacturing Consent as recommended reading.

    I have a letter from Chomsky. At that time (early 80s) he was investigating Carl Jung for clues to the appeal of propaganda as well as correspondences to his transformational grammar. Not sure he ever went anywhere with that.

  12. Sam Holloway March 30, 2013 at 1:36 pm | #

    “But I think it’s really quite hard to fit an economic rationalist model to the actual history of U. S. foreign policy in the Cold War.” — Will Boisvert

    To comment on your characterization of the examples you cite after this statement, Mr. Boisvert, I begin by suggesting that assuming the ends or the means (or their relationship to one another) are or can be expected to be completely rational is a mistake when examining the foreign policy manifestations of elitism and greed. Trumped-up existential anxieties and plain old avarice are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I’d suggest that when the interests of transnational capital are involved, the two are inseparable. Worse yet, the issue of their assignations is rarely anything but bestial and unholy.

    Was the exponentially metastasizing carnage and cruelty of our adventures in Korea and Southeast Asia rational? Not particularly, but neither is the belief that no set of deeds is too wicked if it protects the growth of a pile of fiat currency that is already so large that it can never possibly be spent.

    I’ll let Judy Collins and the Muppets offer a more lyrically attractive characterization:

    • Sam Holloway March 30, 2013 at 2:08 pm | #

      Also, this:
      “America was actually pretty tolerant of post-colonial nationalism in places like South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Egypt, etc as long as it did not tilt toward the Soviet Union.”

      They were very specific forms of post-colonial nationalism that the U.S. ‘tolerated’ in these and several other places. These countries’ reactionary if sometimes pseudo-democratic governments didn’t just organically ’tilt’ away from the Soviet Union (or from leftist populism that had little to do with the Reds). Alternatives to the imperium’s preferred forms of ‘nationalism’ were stamped out, usually with generous helpings of U.S.-aided brutality. Given the context of this discussion, I consider this a vital distinction.

      Furthermore, regarding your ‘test case’ of Latin America, I must again call attention to the horrible social, political, and cultural damage done to the region by decades (and in some places, centuries) of U.S. interventionism. (The ravages of NAFTA, CAFTA, and the unstoppable illicit drug trade immediately come to mind.) While it’s true that in some places the children of the brutalized and slaughtered leftists are ‘rising,’ they are doing so with a cautious eye trained on the congealed gore that’s still rotting in the rubble of their parents’ efforts. In some other places, such as Colombia and Honduras, the good old days have never really gone away. Just because the U.S. has concentrated its imperial power elsewhere doesn’t mean it has completely renounced the Monroe Doctrine; it’s more apt to say that with resources and attention so divided, the excesses of the 70s and 80s have been accepted as successful enough to make more of the same momentarily unnecessary.

  13. Benjamin David Steele March 5, 2019 at 7:47 am | #

    @Corey Robin – I really do wish that one day you’d write about the reactionary left. You could easily put together a book as powerful and more damning than you did with the reactionary right.

    You’ve gone into great detail about the trickster-like quality of the reactionary mind, how it can co-opt from the left. But it isn’t limited to that, as the reactionary mind can also convert from the left, often in subtle ways that the converted themselves don’t notice. A former radical can continue speaking in radical language, even as their motivations and conclusions become increasingly reactionary.

    I’ve come to fear the reactionary left more than the reactionary right, with Noam Chomsky being the key example. I fear them because they can cause so much more damage. Their reactionary nature usually goes unnoticed and, even when rarely acknowledged, it gets rationalized. The left is not weak by accident but has been sabotaged from within.



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