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Chomsky was right. America is hypocritical. So what?
Hypocrites are the worst. But nations aren't necessarily the same as people.
This is the first in a series of posts on Chomsky, American foreign policy, and the question of hypocrisy. Subscribe to receive future posts.
There was a time when I thought hypocrisy was a great moral travesty, perhaps the great moral travesty. What, after all, could be worse than someone who says one thing but does the opposite, brazenly violating his own stated principles in the process?
When I was a kid going to (Muslim) Sunday school in Pennsylvania, the hypocrite was a character of intense fascination. In the Quran, the hypocrites—as a distinct group—were mentioned time and time again. They were the worst of the worst, condemned to the lowest depths of hellfire. They were especially dangerous because they made you think they were your friends when really they were anything but. At least your enemies announced themselves, and you could act accordingly.
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When the Prophet Mohamed and the earliest Muslim converts were fighting for their very survival, hypocrites presented a unique threat. They had the outward appearances of faith, and so they were trusted. But then they would betray that trust. They could operate undetected, and then defect to the opposing side with little warning. In the Islamic account, the hypocrisy of hypocrites wasn’t a product of sin, of trying to be good but failing. This would merely make one a sinner, and in the end we’re all sinners. Sinners can be saved. Hypocrites, however, were beyond redemption.
The secular account of the evils of hypocrisy seemed just as compelling. Like so many—and perhaps many of you—I went through my radical, pseudo-socialist, anti-imperialist phase in college. In retrospect, it was naïve. I was angry at the United States for all the terrible things it had done and would still do in the Middle East. I was looking for a language to express that anger. And so I elevated the United States as something close to evil, a uniquely malevolent force making the world as bad as it increasingly seemed to be. I started reading Noam Chomsky, arguably the most cited American thinker still alive. Chomsky was spoken of in reverent tones, our own foreign policy guru in confusing times. He was the one who cut through all our grandiose moral rhetoric about being on the right side of history, while showing, instead, that we were on the wrong side much more than we liked to admit. He showed us, in other words, that we were hypocrites.
But what did it really mean for an entire nation to be hypocritical? A country wasn’t a person. It didn’t have intentions in quite the same way as an individual might. A country—or an empire—wasn’t the same as a human rights organization, so could it really be judged by the same standards? The question of intent is critical. To return to our previous example, during Islam’s early years, the hypocrites knew exactly what they were doing. They were malevolent, and they had a clear goal—to undermine the incipient Muslim community. Is the United States in any way comparable?
How we perceive America’s role in the world hinges on how we interpret the gap between its words and deeds. Does our very real hypocrisy—on this Chomsky was no doubt correct—mean that we have been a force for evil in the world? And if we have been a force for bad rather than good, are we doomed to always be that way? This is where Chomsky’s analysis runs into problems, some of which I’ll be exploring in future posts.