The Responsibility of Intellectuals and the War In Ukraine

Noam Chomsky is for many perhaps the leading public intellectual, and his work on the criminality of the United States and the way that criminality is masked by propaganda is one of the lynchpins of the worldview of a whole generation of people, including myself — his writings provide a body of work that frames the way we understand the world.

Recently, Chomsky has been talking about the war in Ukraine and has been criticised a lot for, roughly, being an apologist for imperialism: what he never fails to recognize in his own backyard, the thought goes, he excuses when it’s coming from Putin.

Before setting out some reasons for why people think that, some caution. It’s very easy, in an era where a lot of communication gets limited to 280 characters, for detail to get lost. And relevant detail is that Chomsky is very and constantly critical of Putin and the invasion, and concerned both for the Ukrainian people and for others liable to be affected by the war. There’s no reason to think that he’s lying or misrepresenting himself here.

And there’s basically no reason, as far as I can tell, to think he’s deliberately parroting the Kremlin’s line. And nor, as far as I can see, is there any reason to think he has suddenly in his nineties ceased to be someone who cares about the world and whom we should read with respect. He is not in the same league as the dumbass provocateurs one can easily find on Twitter.

Nevertheless, there is reason to think that he selects some facts to the exclusion of others, that he approaches the topic from a pre-determined ideological perspective, and that this means his analysis is lacking. And I want to present a way of thinking about why that might be, and what consequences it has for how we read the work of him and other public intellectuals. And the way I want to do is by following Chomsky himself, who in 1967 famously asked: what is the responsibility of intellectuals?

In the essay, he writes:

“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”

This represents a fundamentally optimistic picture of the world. The truth can be discovered. When it comes to political truth, Chomsky says, we needn’t be deferential to social scientists. We, educated people with time, can go behind the ‘veil of distortion’ and find out political reality, can get beyond ideology and misrepresentation.

This would be great. And Chomsky’s work, that mostly manifests itself by patiently reading establishment media and quoting what they say when they aren’t quite thinking straight, or when they don’t realize what they’re giving away, provides a model for how to interact with politics. The basic question I’m interested in is whether, using Chomsky himself on Ukraine as a case study, we can recover this optimistic picture of political knowledge.

Before making the case that we can, note however this veil/behind-the-veil model rests on certain presuppositions about how the world works and how we know it. Most fundamentally, it seems to require that the veil be entirely removable: one can take it off to see the pure unblemished reality underneath it.

But maybe that’s not possible for creatures like us. Maybe the veil is too thick — maybe we simply don’t have the the leisure, facilities, and training, to get behind the distortions. On the other hand, maybe veiledness is something like human nature. We always see through veils, we always have a distorted perspective and the best we can do is to try and find out facts from our perspective. This is the perspective that theorists of ideology, for example, would take.

That is woefully abstract, so let’s get concrete. Imagine one veil is a US-centric way of viewing the world and another is an Ukraine-centric way of viewing the world. One under these different veils will naturally seek out and rely on different pieces of evidence. Chomsky, for example, in a discussion from a few months ago, points out

“Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister announced at the beginning of the invasion that Russia had two main goals — two main goals. Neutralization of Ukraine and demilitarization. Demilitarization doesn’t mean getting rid of all your arms. It means getting rid of heavy weapons connected to the interaction with NATO aimed at Russia. What his terms meant basically was to turn Ukraine into something like Mexico [i.e. “a sovereign state that can choose its own way in the world, no limitations, but it can’t join a Chinese-run military alliances in placing advanced weapons, Chinese weapons, on the U.S. border, carrying out joint military operations with the People’s Liberation Army, getting training and advanced weapons from Chinese instructors and so on”]… Lavrov’s proposals could plausibly be interpreted as saying: Let’s turn Ukraine into Mexico. Well, that was an option that could have been pursued. Instead, the U.S. preferred to do what I just described as inconceivable for Mexico.”

There are several things to note here. The first is the obvious US-centrism (NATO and the US are closely linked for Chomsky, who speaks for example of the “NATO-based U.S.-run Atlanticist project” elsewhere). The goal is preventing NATO encroachment on Russia’s borders. That’s of course a potential reason for the war that has been mentioned innumerable times. It is important to note, and we should certainly have a healthy suspicion of NATO. We should also recognize why central and eastern European countries have been so keen to gain admittance to NATO. The second is that US-centrism encourages what must surely be considered a strained analogy. Sure, in some respects there are similarities between Mexico and Ukraine, but there are a lot of differences (the meme says it best: Chomsky seems like someone who’s only studied international relations from a US-perspective, when presented with a different situation on a different continent, says ‘I’m getting a lot of US vibes from this’). US statesmen, as far as I’m aware, have never said that Mexico just doesn’t exist, and was a mistaken gift, which Putin said about Ukraine; they didn’t, just a year ago, radically reinterpet US-Mexican relations (as Putin did in his summer 2021 speech). Mexico isn’t a sizable chunk of the centre of its continent, and isn’t blessed with soil and other resources. And the US-Mexico and Russia-Ukraine history, up to this day, is just very different. If it’s a bad analogy, then here’s a plausible diagnosis: it’s because Chomsky sees the world through the US veil, and that ‘distort[s]’ what he sees.

A third point is the location of agency: it’s a question of what the ‘U.S. preferred to do’. Certainly the US is very influential wherever it has sway, which is basically everywhere, but are we really to interpret the events and speeches of late February and early March in terms of the US’s preferences? Again, this seems like a distortion, and again, I suggest it’s owing to a US veil.

And here’s a forth point. Consider what Chomsky didn’t say. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that there’s a set two-word phrase that often describes the aims of the war. The second is ‘demilitarization’, certainly, but the first is not ‘neutralization’ — it’s ‘denazification’.

I don’t know what’s going on here. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t see Lavrov talking about ‘neutralization’ (google pulls up nothing). He does talk about the idea Chomsky calls neutralization, namely the NATO weapon stuff. But not in so many words. And he, and of course Putin, and to an even bigger degree cheerleaders and generals in the war made and continue to make, to this day, free use of the ‘denazification’ talk. In addition, I don’t see Chomsky talk about ‘denazification’ (when talking about Ukraine.) Why does Chomsky miss this? Well, same diagnosis: it’s because Chomsky sees the world through the US veil, with the accompanying distortion. He isn’t paying attention to the fine details of exactly how politicians express themselves. That seems bad for someone whose work depends on a meticulous reading of what the establishment say.

So far, I haven’t said anything interesting. Many commentators have made these points against Chomsky (see in particular this very frustrating exchange between Ukrainian economists and Chomsky, where the latter stubbornly refuses to yield when they make points like the above and more).

But here’s what I think is interesting and perhaps novel. Watching Chomsky — and the same will apply to anyone who emphasises the goal of the destruction of Ukraine without talking about NATO — we maybe get a sense of what the responsibility of intellectuals ought to be. It’s not to pierce all veils, and get to reality. That’s too much to ask. We see that here: Chomsky’s attention to the misdeeds of the US, while very important to bear in mind, means he has less attention to devote to Russia’s misdeeds, such as the repeated and frequent calling of Ukrainians including Zelensky ‘nazis’. Chomsky gets through the US veil but doesn’t get through the Russia veil.

By contrast, if one reads much of the commentary from people who are more attentive to Russia’s words and deeds, one will get a getter picture of that. But those same people might be considerably more blind to the US’s role in all this (The Atlantic might be a good example here, but I think it applies to large swathes of Russia-conversant mainstream media.) These sorts of people get through the Russian veil but not the US one. And of course a yet third voice is Ukrainians themselves, for many of whom geopolitics or putative ancient brotherhood are secondary to avoiding being killed or injured — who just want to be liberated from the invaders.

So we need many views, we need to them correctives each other, and the responsibility of the intellectual is not to tell the truth, but to tell a truth or some truths, ones they know things about. And then other intellectuals, again from their own and partial perspective, can attempt to piece together a coherent picture. And yet others can correct that picture, ad infinitum.

This might all sound very postmodern, and I think the thing to say is simply that it is. Nietzsche is often taken as an important figure there when he says that there are no facts, only interpretations. That seems outrageous to many, but Nietzsche’s dictum (or rather, an important modification according to which there are no attainable facts just interpretations; but this is a framework in which modifications should be welcome!) seems to be best to explain the reality, namely that Chomsky has things to teach us about US power abuses and has blindspots about Russian abuses, and that others have similar teachings and similar blindspots.

This has another consequence. A go-to of Russian propagandists is the whataboutism argument — what about all the terrible things the US does? My friend asked me the other day: why do you spend all this time on Russia? Decades of US presidents have done many terrible things; the politicians of my own country are terrible too.

But then here’s an answer: there’s no good reason. It just so happens that it’s something I care about. From my particular and idiosyncratic perspective, I think there are things to say (about Russian propaganda in particular), in a way that that same perspective has nothing interesting to say about other countries. From Chomsky’s, there are things to say about NATO and the role of the US in its expansion. For people living in Ukraine and speaking Ukrainian, there will be a wholly other set of concerns about which we can learn.

That’s only a problem if you think the responsibility of intellectuals (just using Chomsky’s definition: people with time and training) stretches to finding the truth rather than some, perspectival, partial truths that others can add to and filter as necessary. But that’s what I’ve argued is not and can’t be the responsibility of intellectuals.

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