I never saw William Buckley's Firing Line, but I just watched a 1969 debate (part 1, part 2) between Buckley and Noam Chomsky.
I've moved away from Chomsky's positions and towards Buckley's a bit over the years, and I'm sympathetic to Buckley's overall argument, but I'm shocked at the patent dishonesty and bad faith he shows throughout this debate, and many others.
Buckley's craven toolbag includes pretending that points are irrelevant:
CHOMSKY: I'm far more opposed... to the imposition of regimes by foreign troops. Now in the case of Germany, let's say, in the case of France, the, uh, the Petain government, the Vichy government, was supported by German troops. Had the German... they weren't throughout the country, necessarily, there certainly was indigenous support, but there's no question that if German military force had been withdrawn to the other side of the Rhine, uh, then there would have been, uh, an overthrow of the Vichy government, and then France would have had some different form of government. Now in that case, our invasion of France, whether one likes it or not, was in reaction to an occupying, external force. It's just pure confusion to identify that with the case of Greece, where we were trying to "liberate", uh, we were trying to select the kind of society that Greece would have, and we were trying to save the rulers we had designated as appropriate from the population. There was no outside force there.
BUCKLEY: But don't you realize that, uh, in your book, uh... that's where, you're not willing to be, to be consistent when carrying out this argument. You, you're constantly talking about our "sattellizing" of places like, uh, uh Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, so on so forth, and yet we never occupied them... ?
CHOMSKY: Oh, but we did...
BUCKLEY: But that is what you talk about...
CHOMSKY: We never occupied the Dominican Republic!? We sent 25,000 troops there in 1965.
BUCKLEY: No no, no, I'm talking about... pre-... I'm, I'm talking about...
CHOMSKY: Well, the American Marines were in there dozens of times, and...
BUCKLEY: No, no, I never...
CHOMSKY: And, and,
BUCKLEY: [Chuckling] Well, look, I think you're being evasive, and [smiling] I... I don't think you want to be!
CHOMSKY: Evasive? No, I...
BUCKLEY: Let me ask you this. Is it possible,
CHOMSKY: I'm not being evasive at all....
BUCKLEY: Is it possible...
CHOMSKY: ...we just simply repeatedly sent troops to Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Cuba, etc., etc.
BUCKLEY: Is it possible...
CHOMSKY: [Gives a resigned nod of defeat]
BUCKLEY: Is it possible... to "satellize" a nation without having an occupying army there?
CHOMSKY: Yes it is.
BUCKLEY: Alright, then there goes your French... your [snickering] tedious French explanation back there.
CHOMSKY: Oh, not at all, because that doesn't happen to be... you see we're talking about a real situation.
BUCKLEY: Yuh, yuh.
CHOMSKY: We could talk about some ideal situation, and have an academic discussion...
BUCKLEY: Yuh, yuh, [Scoffing] I know... therefore, it is possible for the real Vietnam, to "sattelize" South Vietnam, presumably, without even--
CHOMSKY: It's, it's logically possible...
BUCKLEY: --uh, occupying it militarily, in any formal sense.
CHOMSKY: Eh, but it didn't happen, though. So there's no point in discussing it.
BUCKLEY: Well, this is an argument considering which which there is, there are... [very slowly shows both sides of his hand] two points of view,
CHOMSKY: Let's discuss it, then.
BUCKLEY: uh, uh, historically... eh,
CHOMSKY: If you're willing to be serious about it, there's more evidence that South Vietnam tried to colonize North Vietnam, than conversely. In fact, South-- [Buckley presumably makes a face] well, look, South Vietnamese commandoes were going... regular military forces were going North, uh, considerably earlier than we even proclaimed that the infiltration began from North to South.
BUCKLEY: They bump into the refugees coming South? [Laughs, audience laughs]
CHOMSKY: The refugees were coming south in 19... uh, were going in both directions, in fact, as early as 1954, '55. And, according, at least according to Bernard Fall, the commandoes, uh, began going North as early as '56, '57... [Buckley smiles, as if to say "get a load of this guy"] The first claimed infiltration from the North was in '59, and that was South Vietnamese coming, so... so, you know, if one wants to talk about, again, the real world, the first motion, the first motion--
BUCKLEY: Yep, the, the trouble is, you, you don't, your difficulty, mister Chomsky, is you, in my judgment, you [always] know where neatly to begin your historical, uh, sequence...
CHOMSKY: Well, you, you chose the point of beginning...
BUCKLEY: Well, the point, the point really is that, uh, if you, if you're starting to say 1959 was a provocation, because it was...
CHOMSKY: It wasn't a provocation! I don't claim that's when the provocation began!
BUCKLEY: ...and I say how about the people who were going North to South... who were talking about the misery caused by Ho Chi Minh, and so on and so forth... [chuckles]
CHOMSKY: Which people are you talking about, I don't know!
BUCKLEY: ...[Chuckles] well, I'm talking about the Vietnamese people, North and South... your remark is neatly captured in, in, in, the remark made recently by Czechoslovakia, that Czechoslovakia is obviously the most neutralist country in the world, since it declines to interfere even its own internal affairs... [laughs, audience laughs]
CHOMSKY: I'm afraid I don't see the relevance, uh...
BUCKLEY: The relevance is very simply [grins] that you start your line of discussion at a moment that is historically useful to you...
CHOMSKY: That's, that's what I'm saying -- you pick the beginning. You pick the beginning.
BUCKLEY: The grand act of the post-war world....
CHOMSKY: [Nods head in lonely recognition of a point won that Buckley will never concede] ...alright.
BUCKLEY: ... is that the communist, communist imperialists, by the use of terrorism, by the deprivation of freedom, have contributed to the continuing bloodshed... and the saddening thing about it is, not only the bloodshed, but that they seem to disposess you of the power of rational observation! [raises eyebrows and smiles]
CHOMSKY: Yuh... may I say something?
CHOMSKY: I think that's about 5% true, and about, or maybe about 10% true. It certainly is true...
BUCKLEY: Why do you give that?
CHOMSKY: May I complete a sentence?
This excerpt hardly does justice to Buckley's tendency to use shifty language, belligerance, and condescension to avoid addressing Chomsky's points.
Here's why I care: What does it mean, I wonder, that the great conservative intellectual is so obfuscating and intellectually dishonest?
I ask that while admitting that Chomsky is sometimes frustrating to me as a debater as well, such as in his email debate with Sam Harris. For instance, Chomsky often uses the rhetorical device "To take an example at random..." and pulls out, in speaking appearance after speaking appearance, the same one example.
Chomsky is wrong that Nort Vietnam was as benign an instance of socialism as, say, Cuba, Catalonia, or later Nicaragua, Venezuela, or (ever so briefly) Chile; not that most of these didn't have their victims. It's alarming how ready Chomsky is to dismiss Soviet and communist oppression as being some kind of myth. But at least he recognizes that there is a kernel of truth to those claims, and that the Stalin and Mao eras were especially oppressive.
It's more alarming to me what an utter lack of curiosity Buckley has for the US's own imperialist history, which he clearly does not know as well as he pretends (though he chuckles knowingly through Chomsky's historical references as if they were on the tip of his tongue as well). Buckley would rather cut Chomsky off with an insult than allow him to describe the US's own dirty laundry. His refusal to concede a point makes dismiss outright the importance of any possible crimes by US troops or our proxies. Chomsky cries Guatemala; Buckley cries Prague. But it's fair to say that at this point Chomsky had probably gone to pains to learn about Prague and that Buckley had gone to none to learn about Guatemala.
What's also remarkable is that Buckley--like his brethren, an enemy of relativism--has no idea what a perfect demonstration of relativism his own thinking is.
Consider an educated, pro-military Russian, who learned in school about the US's imperialist history in the Caribbean, and not about Soviet crimes in Prague. She could well figure out what was happening in Prague if she had wanted to. But why should she? In her eyes, her government might make mistakes, surely, but it was not the evil one.
Buckley's mindset is no more curious or skeptical or honest than this. He has grown no more than this Soviet has; he has stayed in his provincial place in the relativistic landscape, as she has stayed in hers. If there is an objective truth out there, neither of them has turned their back on their provincialism and pursued it. And why should they? After all, Buckley's stated mission, early on was not to seek out truth; it was to put a stop to the madnesss he saw in America's cultural and political revolutions of the 1960s.
I can appreciate Buckley's desire to pin Chomsky with the label of bad faith, because I want to pin Buckley the same. An accusation of bad faith is marvelously clarifying; it recasts an opponent from a reasoned being whose views must be considered in full, into a charlatan whose basic dishonesty renders all his views moot.
At the same time, I do believe there is a fundamental difference between Buckley and Chomsky. Chomsky is not consistent in all his views, though the worst accusation that I had seen from dedicated Chomsky opponents is that he invested his MIT retirement pension account in those same mutual fund-listed corporations whose influence he condemns. And he doesn't do a good job of admitting his past mistakes, such as an overly lenient view of the Soviet Union in the 60s and 70s that he quietly amended to fit the post-1991 consensus on the left that Soviet imperialism really was an awful, oppressive, corrosive thing.
But Chomsky in this speech with Buckley is speaking essentially honestly. He believes what he says; he acquiesces to yes-or-no questions and answers honestly, even when this hurts his case and helps make Buckley's point; he backs up his assertions with facts, at times admits he doesn't know things, and concedes parts of Buckley's arguments.
The two aren't playing the same game; Buckley is clearly smart, and knows he's being shown up at times, but when Chomsky corrects him on the history of the Greek civil war, or on the history of the many invasions borne of the Monroe doctrine, Buckley hastily changes the subject. Buckley also repeatedly demands that Chomsky answer his questions, while refusing to answer Chomsky's biggest ones--including some that Buckley himself set up, not expecting that Chomsky would be willing to back up his statements. An honest discussant would not so frivilously accuse Chomsky of disingenuously cherry-picking his historical dates, only to change the subject when Chomsky invites him to pick them for him.
If Buckley was at all in search of truth here, he might say "I don't have the command of the history off the top of my head as you do, professor, but I think I'll still disagree after consulting my sources." Instead he pretends -- and hopes the audience will too -- that Chomsky hasn't stepped up to the challenge, and uses that classic tactic of obfuscating job interviewees everywhere: the rhetorical bridge. Caught on the defensive? Time to stop playing fair and change the subject.
That Chomsky beats Buckley so handily is ironic since Buckley is so much more right than Chomsky about the essential destructiveness of the North Vietnamese government. Buckley gets mumble-mouthed and allows Chomsky to assert that before hostilities flared up in the late '50s, the South had as many refugees going North than vice versa. I don't know who claimed what numbers at the time, but the Pentagon Papers (released several years after this debate occurred) estimated that one million refugees had fled South, and further scholarship has suggested that many more tried to flee but were stopped by the communist Viet Minh. I will happily admit I don't know the history well at all, but I don't think the intevening decades have been kind to Chomsky's apologist position.
One of the most dangerous people today is the typical middle-class Russian citizen: educated, intelligent, struggling to make ends meet, nationalist, supportive of Vladimir Putin. If Russia wishes to reassert authority over a former client state, and supplies arms and training to kindle a regional conflict in a destabilizing civil war, will this citizen care? Should she care? Should she learn about it, so as to discern whether the government is acting fairly?
The painful truth is that she will learn little about it, she will trust the government to do more or less the right thing, and she will not give it a second thought. Hence Russia has been involved in at least three low-intensity wars in Eastern Europe over the last twenty years, and one high-intensity war in Chechnya, as well as assorted assassinations in foreign countries, some election meddling, and propping up sympathetic dictators like Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, all with the consent of this acquiescent and incurious Russian citizen.
Chomsky is saying, again and again: we Americans are not doing a much better job of being citizens than this Russian citizen is. Buckley never addresses this question -- and by his avoidance, proves it true.
And what about the American counterpart to this citizen? If the future of the world depended on Buckley's intellectual leadership directing her to grow in her citizenship and to assert a moral direction for her country, would we have a prayer?
Labels: foreign policy, history, philosophy, politics