As you may know, I'm a big advocate of the work of Noam Chomsky. His writing and talks changed my political outlook. I discovered Chomsky when I was 17 and it quickly set me on the course to where I am today. Though I am no longer a left-wing libertarian, I am still a socialist and I think there are important lessons to be drawn from the anarchist tradition. Chomsky is a key figure in contemporary anarchism.
One of the main attractions of Chomsky's work is the level of moral clarity and intellectual honesty. He cuts through the bone to the marrow with precision. Going to the fundamentals of a political question is the cornerstone of radical thought. As an analytical critic Chomsky takes apart US foreign policy and unravels its claims before our eyes. It's a thankless task in many ways. Another side of this has been Chomsky's opposition to 9/11 conspiracism on the left.
Yet in a recent interview Noam Chomsky contradicts his past record on combating conspiracy theories. He suggests that the Trump administration may opt for a 'false flag' operation to save its right-wing agenda. When I first heard about this I didn't believe it until I read the Alter-Net interview. In his own words, Chomsky says: "I think that we shouldn't put aside the possibility that there would be some kind of staged or alleged terrorist act, which can change the country instantly."
I was very surprised to read these words and I even feared the old man may be losing his touch. If you want the full context, here it is for your judgement:
JF: Do you think there will ever be a moment of awakening, or a disconnect for Trump's supporters of his rhetoric and what he's been doing in Washington, or can this just keep going?
NC: I think that sooner or later the white working-class constituency will recognize, and in fact, much of the rural population will come to recognize, that the promises are built on sand. There is nothing there.
And then what happens becomes significant. In order to maintain his popularity, the Trump administration will have to try to find some means of rallying the support and changing the discourse from the policies that they are carrying out, which are basically a wrecking ball to something else. Maybe scapegoating, saying, "Well, I'm sorry, I can't bring your jobs back because these bad people are preventing it." And the typical scapegoating goes to vulnerable people: immigrants, terrorists, Muslims and elitists, whoever it may be. And that can turn out to be very ugly.
I think that we shouldn't put aside the possibility that there would be some kind of staged or alleged terrorist act, which can change the country instantly.Now let's break this down. It's certainly true that the Trump administration is increasingly unpopular and isolated. President Trump's approval rating stands 35% - a historically low precedent for a new president. Even George W Bush only reached 25% at his lowest point, just as Nixon reached 36% after Watergate. In these conditions, it is plausible that the administration would want something, anything to shore up support for the government. But this is not the basis for a false flag operation.
I should add I'm not saying the US government has not been guilty of false flags in the past: the Gulf of Tonkin being the obvious example. It's now uncontroversial that the Johnson administration leapt on Tonkin to expand the war against Vietnam. It's also true that there are real conspiracies in history. Look up COINTELPRO or the Iran-Contra affair, if you want to see a real conspiracy in action. There are even questions around Pearl Harbour and the extent to which FDR provoked Japan.
So, what is the problem with Chomsky's points here? Professor Chomsky might be defended on the grounds that this was a throw-away remark - one line in a full interview, with little clarification. There are gradients of what a 'staged' or 'alleged' attack could mean. Many of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists accept the case that the Bush administration had "advance knowledge" and simply allowed the attacks to go ahead. A more plausible theory is that the administration was so incompetent that it failed to act on the information it had about the plot.
This is a long way from the Ickean dimension of reptilian lizards, the whackjob theory that the Twin Towers falling was CGI, or the blatant anti-Semitism behind the idea that it was all staged by Mossad. However, the view that the US government had some role in the 9/11 attacks still belongs to the conspiracists. Chomsky has dealt with these theories well in the past. He would point out that the 9/11 attackers were mostly Saudi citizens. If it was an 'inside job', it would make little sense to frame Saudi Arabia if the aim was to invade Iraq. This is still a major hole in the theories.
I have yet to hear an account of the 9/11 attacks which can account for this hole. Most conspiracy theorists don't even talk about it because it's outside the reach of their assumptions. The politics of conspiracism are uncritical of the surrounding world, in fact, the point of such theories is to reinforce passivity and provide excuses for inaction. Why try to change the world when the Illuminati run everything? They're all powerful. So any attempt to challenge them is doomed to failure. This is why there are no movements or parties based on these theories.
Serious political action and theory requires hard work. It requires commitment. Naturally the online 'truthers' have jumped on Chomsky's comments, while the remarks have left many of Chomsky's friends and fans perplexed. I am not alone in this regard. Israel-based journalist Jonathan Cook has criticised Chomsky's comments. Here's what Cook posted on his Facebook page:
One doesn't need to be convinced that Bush-Cheney or the US security services were implicated in 9/11 to see that there is a deep problem with Chomsky adopting his new position. He has previously suggested in different places both that a major false-flag operation in the US would be almost impossible to conceal and that it is a waste of the left's energies, and its credibility, to indulge in this kind of speculation.
That was at least a plausible position for him to adopt. But it is entirely inconsistent with his new position that we should expect Trump to carry out a false-flag operation and even accuse him of intending to do so before it occurs.
I have no doubt that Chomsky was right to argue that conspiracy theories are a dead-end for the left. So it's disappointing to read these comments, even in their full context. This isn't a reason to discard everything Chomsky has ever written. Demanding infallibility is unrealistic and ultimately puerile and rather conservative. Let's be mature about this. Furthermore, it is more in line with Chomsky's free thinking to disagree with him than it is to blindly follow him.