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Efficient Critiques

March 22nd, 2004 · No Comments

I’m as apalled as anyone by Noam Chomsky’s apologies for people like Pol Pot, but I think Pejman Yousefzadeh is off base in this TechCentralStation piece, which takes the linguist-cum-radical-pundit to task for focusing on perceived U.S. wrongdoing when there are so many indisputably heinous abusers of human rights out there. I don’t want to defend Chomsky per se, but the idea that it’s not morally odious for, let’s say, an American writer to focus on abuses of his own government rather than the worst regimes out there.

Chomsky’s two part defense of this behavior is that, first, as a citizen of the U.S. he feels a special responsibility to comment on his own government and, second, that there is little benefit to attacking one’s country’s “official enemies”—Kim Jong Il or Osama bin Laden, say—when, after all, everyone already believes that they’re odious.

Pejman argues that this implies a double standard, since folks on Chomsky’s side aren’t about to criticize Arundhati Roy for writing about the U.S., though she’s an Indian citizen. But, of course, Chomsky’s claim wasn’t that non citizens shouldn’t write about the U.S.—he brought up citizenship as part of the reason that he does. The notion that there’s a double standard present requires misreading an “If P, then Q” as “If not P, then not Q,” which, as any good logician will tell you, are not equivalent.

Anyway, it’s the two reasons together that Chomsky’s citing as grounds for his focus, and unless I’ve missed something, the U.S. is not one of the “official enemies” of India. The real test is what Chomsky & co. would say about, say, an intellectual in some despotic regime in the Arab world criticizing the U.S. (already widely enough despised), even if accurately, rather than focusing on domestic iniquity.

One last point worth mentioning, and one I’ve made before, is that it’s rational enough to spend your intellectual energy where you think it might do some good. Western democracies much less likely than genuine tyrannies to commit really egregious violations of rights, but they’re also far more likely to feel pressed to respond when the media or intellectuals are appalled by something they’ve done. Let’s say Kim Jong Il is the worst bastard on the planet: Is it a good use of a writer’s time to rail agianst his latest crime? Well, probably it’s good that someone do it, as a reminder… but everyone already thinks KJI is the worst bastard on the planet, and KJI seems notably unconcerned.

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