Saturday, August 07, 2004

Is Chomsky a Traitor?

Another loaded question, but one worth tackling. We live in a time when the border between dissent and treason has been blurred as never before, and the location of that line may well be of near-existential importance in the near future; not merely for our country's security, but for the future of liberal government in general. We must begin with a few axiomatic and obvious facts: There is no question that Chomsky desires and advocates the destruction of his country in its current form; there is also no question that he is not averse to the use of violence in pursuit of this aim. It is by no means clear, however, that this amounts to treason in the legal sense. Personally, I am not in favor of treasonizing political opinions, however extreme, unless absolutely necessary; and any society which values free speech and open discourse must make peace with the fact that this freedom will inevitably be exploited by the unscrupulous, the irresponsible, and even the seditious. Recently, The Volokh Conspiracy had an interesting post on the legal definition of treason which may shed some light on the issue
The Supreme Court has held that "adhering" requires an intent to help the nation's enemies. Merely knowledge that one's actions will help the enemies isn't enough. Thus, for instance, in Haupt v. United States (1947), the Court concluded that a father's sheltering his son -- a Nazi saboteur -- isn't treason if his intention was simply to help his son (as a result of "parental solicitude"). To be treasonous, the father's actions had to be intended to aid the Nazis. Likewise, in Cramer v. United States (1945), the Court held that:

"On the other hand, a citizen may take actions, which do aid and comfort the enemy -- making a speech critical of the government or opposing its measures, profiteering, striking in defense plants or essential work, and the hundred other things which impair our cohesion and diminish our strength -- but if there is no adherence to the enemy in this, if there is no intent to betray, there is no treason."

In wartime, many actions may help the enemy. Criticizing the government may help the enemy. Running as antiwar candidate may help the enemy (by emboldening the enemy's allies).

Raising prices, either on goods sold to the military or on goods to the public at large, may help the enemy. So can striking. So can retiring from a high-level job (in government or in essential civilian work), when one knows that one's replacement will be less effective. (None of these may help the enemy vastly, but treason law doesn't require vast assistance, only some assistance.) If all of these actions were treated as treasonous, then we would have a totalitarian regime during every war.

It's actually not clear whether even intentionally aiding the enemy should always be punishable treason, if it's done through speech. For instance, say that an American opinion leader thought during the Spanish-American War that the Spanish were in the right and deserved to win, and argued this intending to help the Spaniards -- and actually helping them, because this emboldened them, weakened domestic morale, and so on. This might well be constitutionally protected speech, though I think some other speech that aids the enemey would not be constitutionally protected; consider the Axis Sally broadcasts from Nazi Germany by Nazi employees (though U.S. citizens), or of course a government employee's revelations of nuclear secrets.

Obviously, the realm of protected speech in this interpretation is very wide indeed -- contradicting, amusingly enough, Chomsky's claim that the US is a totalitarian society -- but not unlimited; even the most liberal society, after all, has the right to fight for its own preservation in the face of illiberal forces. This definition of treason seems to rest on three factors:
  1. A fealty to and desire to aid the enemies of the United States.
  2. The undertaking of specific actions to aid said enemies.
  3. Behind those actions must be the specific intention to aid said enemies and the knowledge that those actions will do so.

In Chomsky's case, the issue is complicated further by the fact that Chomsky's actions are mostly rhetorical; that is to say that -- as far as I know -- he does not undertake obviously treasonous actions such as running guns to the enemy or divulging important information. I think we can safely say, however, that Chomsky's actions quite often meet the first and second conditions, while less often skirting the edge of the third. Being as indulgent as possible -- which I think ought to be the case in a free society -- we can nonetheless find at least two instances of treasonous activity in Chomsky's career, and a few more examples which we can regard as belonging to a grayer area.

The first and most obvious is Vietnam. In this case, the fact that Chomsky committed treason against the United States is rather glaringly obvious. There can be no question that Chomsky's ideological and emotional stake was with the North Vietnamese and the cause of communism in Southeast Asia. His statements in North Vietnam were clear expressions of fealty to that cause and, indeed, his personal identification with it; Chomsky's actions during Vietnam were not directed towards an amorphous pacifism but rather specifically intended to engineer an American defeat and a communist victory. The fact that Chomsky was motivated by ostensibly good intentions is, to my mind, no excuse whatsoever. To consider the defeat of one's country a glorious victory for the cause of humanity in no way negates the legal implications of aiding and abetting in it. The obvious counterargument, one of which Chomsky is almost comedically fond, is the Nazi hypothetical; i.e. that if one is a citizen of a state like Nazi Germany, than one is not merely permitted but obligated morally to work for its defeat. My only response is to say that to draw such an analogy between Nazi Germany and the United States indicates a moral and intellectual bankruptcy so profound that it can serve only to indicate to us the degree of intellectual malfeasance at work in the mind of one who asserts it. Chomsky's claim of virtue in treason is no more admirable than his later discovery of virtue in mass murder, or its denial. His actions regarding Vietnam -- and those of a good swath of his compatriots -- are, in my opinion, inextricably equivilant to type of actions undertaken by the "Axis Sally" propagandists in WWII and other pro-Nazi citizens of Allied nations; and ought to have been treated as such.

The only reason they were not, as far as I can see, is the fact that, in a classic case of defining deviancy down, such actions among the American intellectual elite had become so ubiquitous and widespread that they had ceased to be prosecutable. It would have involved locking up a mighty swath -- though by no means all -- of the intellectual elite of the United States. (Before the denunciations start, I would like to note that I am not accusing everyone who opposed the Vietnam War of treason, only those who did so out of identification with communism and in service of engineering a total North Vietnamese victory.) As the poet said: "Treason doth never prosper, for if it prosper none dare call it treason." In this case, treason -- or, at the very least, the total negation of the most essential values of a liberal society -- had become so widespread that it ceased to be a crime; this was not due to a sudden collapse in morality but rather a negation of courage; more precisely, to support the anti-communist cause -- to put it more accurately, the anti-totalitarian cause -- required a degree of moral and political courage which most intellectuals at the time simply did not possess. Treason won out not by conviction but by density; the sheer weight of the shift in the ideological center of gravity; a phenomenon which, quite simply, rendered the law impossible to enforce.

The second case, and this is a bit less clear, is that of Afghanistan. There is no doubt that Chomsky deliberately spread false propaganda that a "silent genocide" was in the offing in Afghanistan, and that he did so for the purposes of damaging and/or interdicting America's cause in that war. This, within itself, in no way constitutes treason; though it is one of the most disgraceful moments in an already ostentiously disgraceful career. I am less indulgent regarding the manner in which Chomsky went about spreading the slander; mostly through the European media and on trips to India, Pakistan, and other highly volatile areas of the world where such propaganda could well have erupted into anti-American violence; an outcome which was, in my opinion, precisely Chomsky's intention and hope. This does not, however, necessarily fulfill the requirement of intent to aid the enemies of one's country; for it does not declare Chomsky a champion of Bin Laden and the Taliban. I think there is a case to be made, however, that Chomsky regarded the situation as "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." In Chomsky's eyes, Bin Laden's violence was a welcome response to the American imperium; "for the first time, the guns have been turned around" as Chomsky put it; and therefore its engineer ought to be defended and aided however possible. I am personally convinced that Chomsky's spreading of malicious and false propaganda was undertaken with the deliberate intention of sabotaging a military effort against Bin Laden and that this constituted an act of treason; whether such a charge would hold up in a court of law, I am less certain, though I think the basis for an indictment is probably there.

There are other, grayer areas, which skirt the line of legal treason without crossing it outright: Chomsky's support for Central American communism, for Castro's Cuba, and more than a few others. I have also personally seen tapes of Chomsky's lectures being broadcast on Syrian television, a privilege for which I am sure he is well compensated. While these lectures are mostly anti-Israel, there is a fair amount of anti-Americanism wrapped up in them as well; a fact which cannot but contribute to America's bad image in the Middle East; an outcome of which Chomsky is no doubt aware.

The question, however, ultimately comes down to the refusal of a large piece of the American intelligentsia -- with Chomsky first among them -- to openly acknowledge the rather obvious implications of their ideologies. The idea that certain positions, such as advocating the overthrow of representative democracy in the United States, are ones which any liberal society is obligated to regard as criminal seems to be lost on a generation of intellectuals for whom intellectual responsibility has ceased to mean anything more than subscribing to a list of preordained ideologies of which anti-Americanism is the supreme catechism. The common sense argument, obvious to any thinking person, that desiring and attempting to engineer the defeat of one's country in a war can, in fact must, entail consequences has been obliterated by an elite convinced of their own righteousness in the manner that only the true fanatic can be. It is the rest of us, I fear, who will reap the whirlwind.