Noam Chomsky Makes the Case for the Lesser of Two Evils

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Noam Chomsky. Photo courtesy of Andrew Rusk.

After a harrowing discussion about humanity’s undeniable march towards a dystopian future, world-renowned thinker Noam Chomsky and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer move on to other pressing topics related to current events. Beginning with the issue that inspired the two-part interview, Scheer explains that an episode of his podcast “Scheer Intelligence” which featured Susie Linfield discussing her book “The Lions' Den: Zionism and the Left from Hannah Arendt to Noam Chomsky” led to an ongoing exchange with Chomsky. The linguist, who has been an outspoken critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, argues that “The Lion’s Den” and its chapter on Chomsky’s criticisms “is the most extraordinary collection of lies and deceit that I have ever seen.” 

Admitting that before his interview with Linfield, Scheer had not paid close attention to the chapter in question, the Truthdig Editor in Chief goes on to say that upon re-reading it, he found it incredibly “unfair.” 

“The people attacked in this book,” Scheer says, “are all attacked for daring to raise questions about the performance of [the Israeli state] and the Zionist experiment, particularly in its relation to the Palestinians and notions that many of us, myself included, who are Jewish had thought were built into a kind of universalism of the Jewish experience, and a concern for the other.” 

To Chomsky, the dilemma Israel poses to Jewish intellectuals such as himself who are concerned with the state’s future, has always been clear: criticize the state’s actions or remain silent in the face of decisions that would endanger it. The thinker’s criticisms take root in the 1970s when Israel rejects viable two-state solutions more than once, an inconvenient historical reality he argues Linfield “lies about like a trooper.” 

“If you care about Israel, what you tell them is you're sacrificing security for expansion,” Chomsky argues. “And it's going to have a consequence. It's going to lead to moral deterioration internally, and decline in status internationally, which is exactly what happened. [...] You go back to the 1970s, Israel was one of the most admired states in the world. […] Now it's a pariah state. 

Chomsky uses the example of how support for Israel within the U.S. had shifted from liberal Democrats to ultranationalists and evangelicals as an illustration of a dangerous shift in Israeli policies that led to the terrible suffering of Palestinians and a moral decline within the Middle Eastern nation. The linguist’s conclusion, based on the biblical story of Elijah, is one that can be applied across the board when thinking of constructing an effective approach to politics, not just in Israel, but around the world.

“You don't love a state and follow its policies,” says Chomsky. “You criticize what's wrong, try to change the policies, expose them; criticize it, change it.”  

The discussion of Israel then leads to a broader conversation on the topic of “lesser evilism,” especially as applied to U.S. politics as voters face a presidential election in 2020 which could lead to President Donald Trump’s re-election.

“We've been living all these years,” Scheer argues, “with the illusion that there's this lesser evil that somehow will make it better. [...] I'm frightened out of my mind that it's four more years of Trump; yes. However, do we really think that the Democrats are going to propose a serious alternative?” 

There's another word for lesser evilism,” Chomsky replies. “It's called rationality. Lesser evilism is not an illusion, it's a rational position. But you don't stop with lesser evilism. You begin with it, to prevent the worst, and then you go on to deal with the fundamental roots of what's wrong, even with the lesser evils.” 

While Scheer agrees with Chomsky about the imminent danger Trump poses not just to Americans, but humanity as a whole due to his suicidal approach to the climate crisis, the Truthdig editor in chief insists that it is precisely having read Chomsky’s works that instilled in him a profound fear “of what neoliberalism and what that opportunism breeds,” concluding that “it breeds a Trump.” Chomsky, on the other hand traces the hard-earned progress that has been made by organized movements throughout the history of the U.S., using the examples of Presidents Richard Nixon and Franklin D. Roosevelt as leaders who were forced to amend their policies and actions by political activists. 

“So even if there's core, deep problems with the institutions, there still are choices between alternatives, which matter a lot,” says the MIT professor. “Small differences in a system with enormous power translate into huge effects. Meanwhile, you don't stop with a lesser evilism; you continue to try to organize and develop the mass popular movements, which will block the worst and change the institutions. All of these things can go on at once. But the simple question of what button do you push on a particular day? That is a decision, and that matters. It's not the whole story, by any means. It's a small part of the story, but it matters.” 

When Scheer goes on to express his surprise to find in Chomsky a source of optimism, the latter gives him a list of reasons to remain hopeful, including the Green New Deal and the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.



Joshua Scheer