Chomsky’s Principle & Moral Consistency:
An Honest Critique of its Application
American exceptionalism, it can be said, is the cement of the mainstream Western Left — including its neo-Stalinist rot — when it is concerning itself with Syria. A curious fact of the matter, however, is the incessant use of Noam Chomsky, the historic critic of this ideology, and his moral argument relating to hypocrisy. Indeed, whenever a debate is occurring about the Syrian uprising, there is at least one person who feels the need to cite ‘Chomsky’s Principle.’
Although the Principle was articulated by Noam Chomsky a few decades ago, a more modern argument was made by him in his interview with journalist Evan Solomon in 2002, particularly when discussing the idea that Americans should ‘look in the mirror’ after September 11. “The statement of mine you just quoted is a very conservative statement,” Chomsky declared to Solomon:
in fact it was articulated by George Bush’s favorite philosopher, Jesus Christ, who famously defined the notion of a hypocrite. A hypocrite is a person who focuses on the other fellow’s crimes and refuses to look at his own … When I repeat that I’m not taking a radical position. I’m taking a position that is just elementary morality … If people can not rise to the same standards we apply to others we have no right to talk about right and wrong or good and evil.
This argument is the Gospel of mainstream Western Leftists. In fact, it also happens to be the view that I subscribe to.
However, with the Syrian uprising in 2011, a curious “Red-Brown Alliance” has begun to crystallize into an effective industry, of which it aims to target anyone who seems to be against Bashar al-Assad. Some of the most committed zealots in this crusade are the contributors to the Grayzone, which is essentially the avatar of “Tankie” politics, including Max Blumenthal, Ben Norton, as well as Rania Khalek, amongst others.
The devotion to prostituting themselves to various right-wing totalitarian systems that inhabit this planet is fascinating. From the denial that China is incarcerating countless members of the Uyghur community, to the bootlicking of Hong Kong police as they all seek the end to its uprising, to the illusions they keep about the White Helmets being “an arm of Al Qaeda”, to making fun of any Syrians who have been murdered by those very chemical weapons attacks that are in the denial bin (using statist arguments, in a clear display of taking the mask off), this phenomenon of the Grayzone, in addition to all the other red-painted reactionaries, is poisoning the Leftist anti-war movement.
Linking Noam Chomsky’s moral argument to this toxic movement, this “Red-Brown Alliance” subscribes to the notion that they are simply ‘focusing on our own crimes,’ as they believe they are morally obligated to do. As such, there is a religious obligation to combat perceived U.S. propaganda and atrocities while virtually ignoring anything else going on within the world. The very essence of the Grayzone embodies this idea, for one will look in vain for anything related to a critique of China’s policies with regards to the incarceration of Uyghurs, or with police brutality in Hong Kong, or with Russian imperialism in Syria, to grab at a few examples. As a matter of fact, one of the Grayzone’s main contributors has, with no trace of irony, condemned the idea that “[Russian] imperialism is no better than US imperialism” as a “false equivalence”. In what ways, one may ask?
In this sense, the Chomsky Principle is, no matter whether explicitly or not, the belief of this “Red-Brown Alliance.” For who could defend Russia’s imperial policies in a country that is ruled by a tyrannical right-wing oligarchy; policies designed to hold up that oligarchy, mind you; as being even an ounce better than U.S. imperialism in a semi-coherent fashion without articulating some form of this argument? Yet, is this argument, as it is applied here by the main contributors of the Grayzone, valid? That is to say, does Chomsky’s Principle resemble any honest argument in this discussion?
Never-mind the fact that the contributors of the Grayzone can’t even “focus on our own crimes” right, Chomsky’s Principle can only be sustained if it follows the logic of a moral argument that acts as a corollary to the very one that cements this “Red-Brown Alliance” so well: namely, the argument of moral consistency. Chomsky put it best: “If people can not rise to the same standards that we apply to others we have no right to talk about right and wrong or good and evil.” In this sense, if pundits condemn the dissidents of the Global South for “focusing on their own crimes,” respective to systems of state-power that they find themselves as suffering under and responsible for, then in what moral universe could Western Leftists claim such a right for themselves?
As a matter of fact, an argument can be — and shall be — made that the subjects that are in question; namely, Max Blumenthal, Ben Norton, and Rania Khalek; have failed the test of moral consistency, thus making the moral shield of Chomsky’s Principle very much subject to forfeit.
— According to the journalist Janine de Giovanni, writing in the mainstream of the American intellectual opinion, a Russian-Syrian propaganda campaign has been in full-gear because the White Helmets took it upon themselves to document the violence of the Assadist oligarchy. “Since 2015,” she observes, “the White Helmets have been filming attacks on opposition-held areas with GoPro cameras affixed to their helmets.” It is due to this, and not any idea that they are “Al Qaeda” or because they receive funding from ‘the West,’ that they are targeted. Without making any explicit endorsement of Janine de Giovanni, this is perhaps the best theory to explain a devout hatred that the ‘Red-Brown Alliance’ has toward the White Helmets.
Indeed, to quote critical journalist Nafeez Ahmed:
the widespread belief among increasing sections of the left that the White Helmets are, effectively, a terrorist organization; and that all or even most of their reports of violence by Syrian and Russian military forces are nothing more than sophisticated Western or rebel fabrications, goes too far.
Ahmed situates the propaganda campaign as drawing upon vast amounts of reporting from the two ‘independent journalists’ Eva Bartlett and Vanessa Beeley. Both have a history of shilling for Bashar al-Assad (they are granted with access to the country, one luxury that even some Assadist journalists don’t receive), a history of lying and faulty journalism, a history of justifying the most heinous atrocities, and a history of open admission to lying by omission. In this sense, they are true Assadists.
As it would happen, Vanessa Beeley has, in fact, claimed that Max Blumenthal based his own work on the White Helmets off her reporting (claiming that Rania Khalek had “pumped” her “for information … and then Max wrote the article”). Subsequent to this admission, Rania Khalek would later face criticism “for promoting one of Beeley’s videos featuring testimony from a White Helmet’s volunteer obtained under torture” — thus making the connection even more curious, to say the least.
According to the Guardian, “What is little known, however, is the countless times these workers … have saved civilians from the rubble of airstrikes launched not by the Syrian regime or Russia, but by the U.S.-led coalition.” Indeed, “there have also been dozens of US airstrikes on rebel-held territories,” having bombed “anti-Isis rebel population centres far more than areas loyal to the regime, despite the far greater coverage afforded to the latter.” One White Helmet is quoted as saying:
The similarity is obvious. They both bomb under a certain ‘name’ [pretext]. The coalition bomb using the name of Daesh [Isis], and they target schools harbouring refugees and civilians, and the media is forced to be absent from documenting the massacres there. Then you have the Russians who target civilians, including with propaganda, with the media arms they have, saying they are targeting Jabhat al-Nusra.
Yet the White Helmets, who are on record as to being dissidents critical of the Syrian regime and its Russian patron (despite the claims to impartiality), as well as the United States, are denied legitimacy for simply the fact that they document the former party’s atrocities using cameras — thus making the organization “an arm of Al Qaeda” (cause everyone not with Assad is “Al Qaeda”!).
— What did British-Syrian activist Leila al-Shami write to attract this condemnation by Max Blumenthal? Allow me to quote it at length, as to not misrepresent the horror of her shilling for “Al Qaeda”:
The Syrian regime and its allies justify their coming attack on Idlib by saying that they want to root out jihadists. Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham, which is led by the Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, dominates some 60 percent of the province and has an estimated 10,000 fighters, according to the United Nations special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. The repeated descriptions of Idlib as a ‘terrorist hotbed’ support the regime’s narrative that all opposition to its rule consists of terrorist groups; it also absolves the international community of any responsibility to protect civilians.
But this characterization of the province is inaccurate. The people of Idlib have been at the forefront of the struggle against Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham, or H.T.S. Since Idlib’s liberation from the regime — partially in 2012 and then fully in 2015 — many of its citizens worked to build a free society that reflected the values of the revolution. According to researchers, more than 150 local councils have been established to administer basic services in the province; many held the first free elections in decades. Long-repressed civil society witnessed a rebirth. Independent news media, like the popular Radio Fresh, were set up to challenge the regime’s monopoly on information. Women’s centers grew, empowering women to participate in politics and the economy.
Syrians did not risk their lives and rise up against Mr. Assad’s dictatorship to replace it with another. Many local councils issued statements rejecting H.T.S.’s authority in local governance or declaring their neutrality in fighting between rebel groups. Hundreds of local activists coordinated opposition to H.T.S.’s control and called for demilitarization of their communities through media campaigns and public demonstrations. Courageously, they replaced the black jihadist flag with the flag of the revolution. In April, medical workers held protests against infighting and kidnapping. Women organized against H.T.S.’s discriminatory edicts, such as the imposition of strict dress codes and requiring widows to live with a close male relative.
… how scandalous? Note how Blumenthal has praised Radio Fresh in the past.
— This is the same hysteria discussed in “Exhibit Two”. Note how “Regime change activist” is used in a derogatory manner, as if wanting to change one of the most tyrannical right-wing, oligarchical, regimes on the planet is somehow a bad thing, making one “a shady operative” who is “whitewashing al-Qaeda-controlled Idlib”.
— Here we see Ben Norton dismissing the Swiss-Syrian socialist academic Joseph Daher as a “regime change aficionado,” of which he apparently says that the “US has never tried to pursue regime change in Syria”, which is “false” according to Norton — why it’s false, he feels he doesn’t need to explain. Why a Western commentator feels he knows more about Syria than an actual Syrian analyst without giving any actual explanation is certainly a question worth pondering. Moreover, why a Syrian being for “regime change” is a derogative is also something not worth elaborating on.
— Note how the Syrian dissident-intellectual is only able to write a “regime change manifesto”, as if this is a bad thing for a dissident to speak of change to their own respective “regimes”. Furthermore, it is curious that being against Bashar al-Assad was the one thing that Blumenthal took away from Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy — the book is about much more than that, from an analysis to neoliberalism to sectarianism to Islamism to “Absolute Arabism”. That Saleh can only write “regime change manifestos” rather than actual analysis of his own country seems to be the delusion here (how could the Global South ever represent itself?).
— Note how there is no actual conversation about Yassin al-Haj Saleh’s ideas (how could a Syrian ever have ideas?), but rather just dismissing him as a “social democrat” (no evidence) who lives in “Erdogan’s leftist paradise in Turkey” (I wonder why he lives there? Surely it wasn’t because the state in Syria embarked on a reactionary genocidal class-war against its own subjects and that Saleh’s own wife was kidnapped by Islamists!).
Also, this hack of a journalist sure seemed like he thought Yassin al-Haj Saleh was an authority on Syria before Daddy Blu. had converted over to the Assadist camp and had all his anti-Assad analysis brushed into the memory hole.
— Note how the “regime change manifesto” is “aggressively marketed,” as if there is some aurora of aggression around the people of the Global South (surely not a dog-whistle). For Saleh, all he can ever be is “a lodestar to self-styled left-wing supporters of regime change in Syria” — never an actual living subject in the debate that possesses an actual agency with actual viewpoints. To Ben Norton and Max Blumenthal, he is but a thing.
Why Saleh’s book being blurbed by Charles Lister is of any relevance is beyond me. If anything, it just seems like a way to make a hardly sustainable ‘guilt-by-association’ argument, except with the subtle twist that Saleh perhaps supports “arming Salafi-jihadist in Syria” (a disgusting implication, if that, for Saleh’s own wife was kidnapped by Islamist insurgents)? At any rate, authors tend not to have control over what blurbs appear on what books.
Finally, the third point about Yassin al-Haj Saleh is, again, hardly of controversy. For one thing, Norton and Blumenthal act like Saleh was working as some ‘regime change agent’ for the United States when it’s a simple fact that the United States reached out to Syrian dissidents (when it wasn’t sending them off to be tortured by the regime) only to encourage the regime to be a better ally. Was Saleh naiive to keep up any contact? Perhaps, but this is still of no use or consequence to the actual ideas he presents in his “regime change manifesto”. Furthermore, did Saleh advise the U.S. to use “Islamism as a weapon” against the regime? I’ll reproduce the one piece of evidence they decide is worth showing (not mentioning or analyzing in any solid way, mind you):
I leave it to the readers to make an honest estimate as to whether Saleh is apparently saying that ‘Islamism should be weaponized.’ Furthermore, Yassin al-Haj Saleh lashed out against U.S. policy in the Middle East very harshly in other cables. See:
Saleh was completely correct, as funding to Syrian dissidents was not aimed at any sort of institutional change but rather to promote “behavior reform” from the regime, thus making the United States here a completely hypocritical actor.
— As this happens to be the argument that Leila al-Shami, Joseph Daher, and Yassin al-Haj Saleh (three of the most prolific Syrian dissident-intellectuals), subscribe to (in their respective studies: Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, Syria After the Uprisings: The Political Economy of State Resilience, and The Impossible Revolution: Making Sense of the Syrian Tragedy), then one can only conclude that Ben Norton must dismiss Syrian dissidents as “conspiracy theorists” (only the Global South dissidents engage in conspiracy theories, not the “Red-Brown Alliance”).
- Norton dismissing the “conspiracy theory” term elsewhere
If moral consistency is a foundation of the Chomsky Principle, whereby we must seek to apply the same standards we apply to others to ourselves, but then we dismiss Syrian dissidents as “conspiracy theorists,” “regime change aficionados,” and “shady operatives” — denying them any such agency or actual viewpoints — for the mere fact that they are against one of the most tyrannical right-wing oligarchies on the planet, then in what moral universe is the Principle rendered not defunct when it’s actively being violated by those who use it as a shield?
I honestly don’t know. But let it be known that it is a moral universe that I wish to have no part of.