November 24, 2020
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The Unbearable Whiteness Of Chomsky's Arguments:

Psychological Projection and The Erasure of African Victims in Chomsky's "Reply" to Hitchens

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The Unbearable Whiteness Of Chomsky's Arguments:

In his reply to Christopher Hitchens on the subject of the September 11 mass murders, Noam Chomsky rushes to accuse his adversary of "racist contempt" for African victims of terrorism, of a callous refusal to acknowledge their very existence. This accusation is based on Hitchens refusal to accept Chomsky's claim, in the immediate aftermath of September 11, that the 1998 U.S. bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, which was undertaken at a time and in a way designed to minimize the loss of human life and resulted in the death of one night watchman, was a greater crime than the murder of thousands of innocents in New York and Washington DC, a greater crime than actions designed to maximize the loss of human life and to eliminate a great deal more than the current calculations of over 6000 dead men and women from every race, religion and corner of the globe. 

What are we to make of Chomsky's claims? Let us begin with the bombing of the Sudanese factory. In the months and years since the 1998 bombing, the U.S. government has been unwilling or unable to make public a compelling case, with supporting evidence, to support the contention it made for the bombing -- that the Sudanese factory was producing chemical weapons for the bin Laden Al Qaeda network. Given that lack of evidence, and given the fact that the overall objective of the 1998 bombing [striking a blow at Al Qaeda terror network] was clearly not met, there is no reason to defend that particular action. Indeed, it seems entirely reasonable to adopt the proposals of Human Rights Watch and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that the U.S. government must produce, in a public forum, compelling proof of its contentions that the factory was producing chemical weapons, or pay compensation to the owner of the factory and the family of the dead night watchman.

But Chomsky's assertions go far beyond credible criticisms that the action was based on inaccurate and faulty intelligence, that it was poorly wrought and that it was entirely ineffective. He asserts that it led, directly, to the deaths of tens [at one point in his response to Hitchens] and hundreds [at another point in his response] of thousands of Sudanese; and if this were not enough, he goes on later, it led indirectly, to the deaths of more untold thousands. 

There are two ways in which Chomsky attempts to support these assertions. The first is what one might call an argument by logical deduction, although his conclusion does not exactly flow from his premises. Since this factory was producing anywhere from 50% to 90% of the Sudan's drugs [I shall return to the strange anomalies in the figures given by the authorities Chomsky cites], and since those drugs were important for the health of Sudanese people, it follows, according to Chomsky, that tens or hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have died as a result of loss of live-saving drugs caused by the 1998 bombing. The pharmaceuticals produced in the factory were, by the Sudanese government's own accounts, basic and widely used anti-malarial, antibiotic and veterinarial drugs.

In his reply to Hitchens, Chomsky cites an article in the British Observer which makes much of the fact that the factory was producing the anti-malarial drug most widely used throughout the world for the last half century, chloroquine, so let's examine the case that might be made here. Chloroquine is an inexpensive drug, available widely throughout tropical regions where malaria is endemic; it is comparable, both in availability and cost, to aspirin in the U.S. and Europe. As a matter of fact, North Americans and Europeans visiting tropical areas usually take chloroquine or a close but more expensive relative as a prophylactic.

There are scores of countries that produce chloroquine and its relatives, so even if the United Kingdom where to refuse the Sudanese government's request to import it from there following the bombing of the factory, there would be little difficulty in finding another source. Moreover, since the discovery of large deposits of oil in its southern region, Sudan has become a major oil exporting nation with a substantial oil-based income; it regularly spends large amounts of that income in the pursuit of its genocidal war against the Sudanese Africans in the south of its country, as well as opposition groups in the north. It would be a relatively simple matter for it to replace the chloroquine produced in that factory, should it have the will to do so.

What is interesting in Chomsky's reliance upon this deductive argument is the lack of any specific proof or statistical evidence of these tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths upon which he speculates. Organizations such as the World Health Organization regularly compile statistical information on the public health of regions and nations. Is there any evidence of an increase of tens or hundreds of thousands of Sudanese dying from malaria in the years since the 1998 bombing? None that I have been able to find.

It is also noteworthy that while international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch have taken note of the bombing of the factory, and called for independent inquiries into the U.S. claims that it was being used for the production of chemical weapons, their reports on the situation in the Sudan, available on the Internet, contain no statements that even treat as credible and worthy of further investigation the claims that thousands of Sudanese might have died as a result of the bombing. What we have here is simply ungrounded assertion, without the slightest evidentiary proof.

Chomsky's second line of support for his assertion lies with a classic form of argument by authority. Look, he says, the "mainstream press" says that thousands of Sudanese have died, citing three examples. In fact, only one of the three quoted examples [Patrick Wintour's piece in the British _Observer_] is actually an article by a practicing journalist; Jonathan Belke's piece in the Boston Globe is an opinion commentary by an employee of the Near East Foundation living and working in Cairo, Egypt, and the third is simply a quote from a technician who played a role in building the factory which makes only the most general comments about the demise of the factory being a tragedy, and says nothing about it resulting in Sudanese deaths.

What becomes apparent is that these "authorities" have nothing substantive to add to our knowledge of the issue; they simply reiterate the assertions made by Chomsky, and are supplied for that reason alone. What is even more interesting is that in these three rather brief quotations supplied by Chomsky, two of his authorities disagree rather dramatically about as basic a fact as the amount of Sudan's drugs produced by this factory, one claiming 50% and the other 90%. A web search indicates that both individuals have other statements published under their names which use the same discordant figures, so the discrepancy can not be written off as a typographical error. At least one of them is playing rather fast and loose with what little in the way of hard numbers they do provide. Thomas Aquinas once wrote that the weakest argument was the argument from authority, and Chomsky has demonstrated quite well why that is the case here.

An ordinary academic pontificating on matters about which he was so poorly informed might have left the issue there. But not Chomsky. He goes on to blame the US attack on this factory for every conceivable problem [and some inconceivable ones as well] in the Sudan and its surrounding region. Using a quote full of the most remarkable euphemisms, Chomsky informs us that the bombing of the factory brought to a halt "compromises" that might have ended the decades old "civil war" between Sudan's "warring sides." How the destruction of a single factory could have produced such remarkable results is never made clear in the particular passage Chomsky provides, but a fuller account is provided in the complete article from which it is excerpted.

The full account, however, would strip the veneer right off the euphemisms, so Chomsky limits himself to the short selection. What the selection calls a "civil war" between "warring sides" has been a genocidal campaign conducted by the northern Arabic government, run by the extreme fundamentalist National Islamic Front since a 1990 coup, against its southern African and non-Moslem peoples. The dead in this war count in the millions, all agree, with some estimates running as high as 3 million. Report after report on the Sudan by the United Nations and international human rights organizations cite not only the abrogation of the rights of women, the denial of religious freedom and the suppression of freedom of expression and association which are standard fare with the imposition of extreme fundamentalist versions of shari'a law, but also the existence of a large and thriving slave trade in which government Arabic militias kidnap, enslave and trade Africans from the largest of Sudan's ethnic group, the Dinka, the deliberate use of food as a weapon of war that has brought 2.6 million Africans in the southern Sudan into starvation, the torture of children and the use of stoning and crucifixions as methods of capital punishment.

To top that off, the Sudanese government has been providing material aid and support to an insurgent group in northern Uganda, the LRA [Lords' Resistance Army], which engages in similar practices there. The argument of the article cited by Chomsky was that the bombing of the factory gave the Africans in the south of Sudan some hope -- vain it now appears -- that the U.S. and the rest of the world might actually pay some attention to the crimes against humanity that were being perpetrated upon them, and thus, led them to hold out against "compromise."

If that were not enough, Chomsky goes on to approvingly quote the same article to the effect that, were it not for the 1998 bombing of this factory, the theocratic totalitarian state of the National Islamic Front would have shifted toward moderation and against terrorism. Having warmly embraced and received bin Laden when he was expelled from his native Saudi Arabia in 1991, having provided him with a base for his activities [including the establishment of three separate training camps, the execution of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the 1995 and 1998 bombings aimed at American troops stationed in Saudi Arabia and the planning for the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania which took place in 1998], having made efforts to purchase, in collaboration with him, uranium for nuclear weapons in 1994, having only expelled him in 1996 under severe diplomatic and political pressure, and having engaged in all the activities against its own southern people described above, the Sudanese government was prepared, Chomsky wants us to believe, to move decisively for moderation and against terrorism -- but for the bombing of one factory. 

Chomsky's suggestion that the Sudanese government had this profound desire to move toward moderation and against terrorism is all the more appalling in its uncannily poor timing. As I write these lines, I have read news media accounts of how the Bush administration was broaching a rapprochement with the Sudanese government as part of its global "war" against terrorism, much to the horror of those in Washington DC -- principally, human rights organizations, the Congressional Black Caucus and the AFL-CIO -- which have been attempting to organize American and world opposition to Sudan's genocidal war on its own African peoples.

 Let us not lose sight of the Chomskyian forest in our examination of the particular trees of argumentation. Chomsky wants us to pay close attention to "African victims," which he accuses Hitchens of ignoring with a "racist contempt." So, after we work our way through Chomsky's arguments, what is his record with regard to African victims? 

  • Millions of African Sudanese killed, enslaved, starved and tortured at the hands of the genocidal National Islamic Front government: erased under euphemisms of a "civil war" about to be ended with compromise between the "warring sides," but for the bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory. 

  • Hundreds of Kenyan and Tanzanian Africans, along with Americans of African descent, killed in the Al Qaeda bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam: the "invisible men and women" of Chomsky's narrative, they never even appear, despite the fact that the bombing of the Sudanese factory was in response to their murders. 

  • Thousands of people from North America, Latin America, Asia and Africa killed in the September 11 mass murders in New York and Washington DC: of less weight than the bombing of a Sudanese factory in which one night watchman died, but out of which Chomsky finds, by assertion, tens and hundreds of thousands of dead. 

In Chomskyian moral and political calculus, African victims count only when their corpses can be laid at the foot of the American state. The rest disappear, erased from memory. No wonder, with this unbearable whiteness of erasure, he must project "racist contempt" for African victims upon others.


(Leo Casey, United Federation of Teachers 260 Park Avenue South New York, New York 10010-7272 212-98-6869)

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