How Do You Get from Chomsky to bin Laden?
One of the valuable pieces of intelligence found by the Navy Seals in bin Laden’s hideaway was a copy of Noam Chomsky’s book. Apparently, when Osama wanted to do some light reading he put his feet up and popped open a little Chomsky. Or there might even be times when Osama needed an ideological boost. Perhaps he became too comfortable with Coca-Cola and computer technology – all creations of the imperialistic west – and felt himself faltering ideologically. Chomsky would surely roust you out of your ideological stupor and have you back on the track of a revolutionary utopia in no time.
Hugo Chavez was also a Chomsky fan and tried desperately to get George Bush to read it. What is it about Chomsky that makes him so appealing to authoritarian leaders? Well, on one hand, it’s simple. Chomsky is a scathing critic of the United States and provides authoritarian leaders with intellectual sustenance. Chomsky argues that American media operates essentially on a propaganda model. This means that the US uses the media as a nonviolent means of control, similar to totalitarian governments, and that American propaganda is a weapon in the same way that totalitarian leaders use guns as weapons. Read more about the propaganda model here. Chomsky has been a critic of about every aspect of United States including its war on terrorism, activities in the Middle East, anti-Semitism, Cuba, globalization, and numerous other political topics.
But Chomsky’s critique of American politics and foreign policy is not my main concern. We should not forget that Chomsky is an intellectual and an academic in the purest sense of the terms. It is his job to tell us what he thinks. There are more than a few spots where he makes sense or touches on a nerve of truth.
Chomsky and bin Laden: Opposites Attract?
Interestingly, it would be possible to put Chomsky and bin Laden on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. What could they possibly have in common? I mean Chomsky is a classic leftist urging revolution to overturn repressive rule of czars or presidents or whomever. He calls for class warfare and for the oppressed of the world to rise up and break their chains. It is a secular ideology that “never met a minority group that wasn’t oppressed.” The PLO is one such example of the secular leftist group with an agenda and political perspective left over from the Cold War. During the life of the Soviet Union most politically motivated violence was inspired by repressive political systems such as the Soviets. But there is a difference between politically motivated violence and terror. The Cuban revolution was politically motivated and designed to amass the military and political forces necessary for political change. But it was not “terror” in the sense that we use the word today; that is, the killing of innocents for the purpose of sowing fear. I realize that the word “terror” has become a broad metaphor for any type of violence one opposes. But if we cling to the most typical definition of terror, then it does not include cases of violence between recognized military units or those situations where a populace is protecting itself against a repressive government. Religion, in the case of secular leftists, was used in the service of oppressive governments to pacify a populace, or was out rightly banned and discouraged.
What could all this have to do with bin Laden? What would bin Laden get out of Chomsky other then harsh criticism of the United States? Bin Laden is extremely religious and wants to replace governments with religious polities. Bin Laden’s battle for the sensitivities of others is filtered through the prism of religion; Chomsky’s battle for the sensitivities of others is filtered through the prism of capitalism. Bin Laden, unlike Chomsky, is a conservative force who wants to religiously constrain the behaviors of citizens and governments. Bin Laden does not want to “free” a public – except in the most metaphorically stretched sense of the term used mostly as a rhetorical trick – he wants to confine them in the narrow religious world.
The answer to what these two find in each other probably lives in the mind of the “true believer.” Both Chomsky and bin Laden have clearly defined and rigid political ideologies that are considered true with the capital “T.” As the secular social justification for violence has passed with the third wave of democracy and the demise of the Soviet Union, the true believer must find a new ideology to legitimize himself. This at least partially explains the rise in Islamic extremism. Chomsky’s secular revolutionary belief system may seem incompatible with Islam, but they have deep kinship when it comes to the justification of violence. Both consider themselves to be arguing for utopias, although both would strenuously disagree with the use of the word utopia in an unattainable sense, and both believe that violence is justified. In fairness to Chomsky, he calls for anarchy rather than terror but bin Laden sees the two as conflated.
Chomsky and bin Laden share the mentality of true believers. That’s what they see in each other, that’s the foundation of bin Laden’s attraction to Chomsky; true believers have fanatical faith and extravagant hope. This is what binds the oneness of opposites and makes it possible for the conservative bin Laden to find common cause with the liberal Chomsky. There’s a great passion and great attraction to those who believe strongly in something. The high diction of “sacrifice” and “commitment” accompanies the true believer and the appeal is mesmerizing.
The appeal is mesmerizing but potentially dangerous. For as Hoffer wrote:
The true believer is “without wonder and hesitation.” “An active mass movement rejects the present and centers its interest on the future.” (p. 82) The mass movement hates independence and individualism.
Even at the risk of glossing over important differences between Chomsky and bin Laden, it bears warning that the mind of the true believer is potentially more dangerous than the politics contained therein.