Monday, 19 October 2015

Response to Gad Saad and his "six degrees of Noam Chomsky thinking"

Gad Saad's attempt to repurpose the six degrees of separation theory[1] to show how apparently "delusional" it is to suggest that United States foreign policy has a penetrating global influence, is barely anything new. Here, I will briefly explain why Saad's thought experiment is simply another confusing and misrepresentative attack, in the grand old line of such attacks, against those critical of the role played by the sole global superpower.

Saad desribes, in a 4-minute video, the conceptual game called "six degrees of Noam Chomsky thinking". By encouraging his viewers to try to link literally any and every event to the US military-industrial complex in six steps or less, Saad wishes to demonstrate how tenuous links can easily be drawn in political commentary. Incidentally, there is no reason to make this game harder than it should be. Since Saad does not attempt any definition at what constitutes a link, we only need to use one step to connect anything to the nefarious US elite — they both occur on Earth.

Arriving now at the substantive points that undermine Saad's position, a fair reading of Chomsky's work will show Saad's implication about Chomsky's views to be hopelessly misguided. Chomsky does not suggest that the hand of the US military-industrial complex, or other such groups within the US establishment, can be found in all, or even most, calamities of the world. Chomsky is rather careful to use the US military and political elites' own assessment of the range of its power and interests across the world, instead of relying on some private imaginings about how dastardly the superpower's global role is. Saad does not address this crucial issue (i.e. from where Chomsky gets his information) at all in his video.

Saad falls into the trap of innumerable others before him in not representing Chomsky properly. Readers can refer to an earlier piece on this blog detailing in some depth how Ian Williams jumped to the same conclusions about Chomsky's position.[2] In the below extract from that article of mine, I first quote directly from a 1999 book by Chomsky, then the second paragraph is my amplification of Chomsky's position.

"'. . . to mention a few truisms . . . . first[ly] . . . people are responsible for the likely consequences of their own actions, or inaction. The second is that the concern for moral issues (crimes, etc.) should vary in accordance with ability to have an effect [on the outcome] . . . . A corollary is that responsibility mounts the greater the opportunities, and the more free one is to act without serious cost. Accordingly, responsibility is far greater for privileged people in more free societies than for those lacking privilege or facing severe penalties for honesty and moral integrity [in repressive societies].'
Since the US, by virtue of being the world superpower, has an inordinate 'ability to have an effect' on world affairs, its 'responsibility mounts' a lot higher over time than it would for relatively powerless states. Guilt then derives from improper action or inaction in this context. It is the burden that comes with privilege. Moral guilt can increasingly be found everywhere in our interconnected world, legal guilt however, is quite another matter, and Williams would do well to appreciate that distinction. The extent to which 'American encouragement' or inaction can be applied to draw out American guilt in world affairs is surely not down to Chomsky's . . . [supposedly loaded] scales of morality, it is down to the extent of US diplomatic and military dominance. If we are to philosophically redefine what it means to take honest and appropriate responsibility for actions that it is within one's power to influence, then I would be interested to see what Williams' criteria are for doing so."

Not only would Ian Williams do well to appreciate the distinction between moral and legal guilt, but Saad would also be well advised in doing so. Moreover, Saad may strengthen his case by explaining what his criteria are for an actor such as the US taking responsibility for a given calamity in the world.

To the extent that many Chomsky supporters may feel (in their private imaginings) that the US is the devil incarnate, Saad may have a point about the circulation of delusions. He refers vaguely to "various social portals" online where "some folks" have been apportioning what Saad feels is an inordinate and baseless amount of responsibility to the US. It is disappointing that Saad does not feel the need to quote someone, anyone, directly on this, much less actually consult Chomsky's writings. Quite possibly, both Saad and these "folks" online could do with a clear-eyed assessment of what Chomsky in fact has said on this issue. And there is no need to hark back to 1999 as we did above, In a July 2013 article in the New Republic,[3] we may read the following:

"During a recent visit to Beirut, MIT professor Noam Chomsky was interviewed about the Syrian conflict by Syrian playwright and regime critic Mohammed Al Attar. Chomsky makes some observations that are worth considering. He dismisses the view, put forward by supporters of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, that the United States was somehow behind the uprising:
'For a long time, the Arab world and other places beside have played host to stories and illusions about the supernatural power of the United States, which controls everything through complex conspiracies and plots. In this worldview, everything that takes place can be explained in terms of imperialist conspiracies. This is an error. Without a doubt, the United States are still a great power and capable of influencing events, but they are not always able to manipulate them by means of complex conspiracies: this really is beyond their capacities. Of course the Americans do sometimes try to do this, but they fail, too. What happened in Syria is not outside our understanding: it began as a popular and democratic protest movement demanding democratic reforms, but instead of responding to it in a constructive, positive manner, Assad reacted with violent repression.'" (my emphasis)

The "folks" online, Saad avers, have been associating US actions with the emergence of the Islamic State in West Asia. Chomsky, on this occasion, is in accord with the good "folks" — basing himself on the views of knowledgeable military source Graham Fuller.[4] Indeed, Saad concedes that this analysis is "on some level . . . absolutely true." Despite this, Saad maintains that such arguments constitute a blame "game": to "unfold historical events until we find the preferred villain", upon which we then "hang all of [the] blame". Why not, he "facetious[ly]" ventures, simply trace the blame all the way back to "those original ancestors" of modern humans that emerged from Africa? Coming closer to a serious conclusion, Saad declares that "delusional thinking, coupled with stifling political correctness, coupled with suicidal cultural self-loathing" is something to avoid.

Unquestionably a fine piece of advice — not being delusional, stifling, nor suicidal is a good policy.

Unfortunately, Saad leaves many gaps in his argument that are quite indicative of the inappropriate subject matter he has chosen for an illustration of the dangers of playing this "delusional" game (i.e. the mental sickness that results from following the facts in a reasonable way, as Chomsky does in my view).

No one deserving of being listened to is hanging "all of [the] blame" on the US for the situation in West Asia. More problematic for Saad is his attempt to have it both ways; he seems to agree with Chomsky on the Islamic State point, but also simultaneously wants to imply that there is more to the political situation, that perhaps Chomsky is not shouldering the burden of his argument properly. Saad does not tell us where specifically the logic of accepting responsibility for the predictable consequences of one's actions fails in the examples he himself chose from the real world (i.e. the only examples that really matter). Instead, the best that Saad can offer his audience in this case is a disjointed reductio ad absurdissimum example, along with some banal advice about political correctness.


[1] Gad Saad. THE SAAD TRUTH_29: ISIS, Noam Chomsky, and the US Military-Industrial Complex. [Video] 2015. Available from: [Accessed 19th October 2015].

[2] Jeevathol, A. Response to Ian Williams' exchange with Noam Chomsky regarding Kosovo, humanitarian intervention, and East Timor. Critical Views. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 19th October 2015].

[3] Judis, J.B. What Noam Chomsky Would Like to See in Syria. New Republic. [Online] 12th July 2013. Available from: [Accessed 19th October 2015].

[4] Chomsky, N. The World of Our Grandchildren. Jacobin. [Online] 13th February 2015. Available from: [Accessed 19th October 2015].

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