Invoking 1984: Chomsky and Silber


I always enjoy it when people turn to George Orwell’s 1984 in a debate. It must just be the interviews and videos I stumble across, but in a fair number of them they do so from a position of ignorance about Orwell himself and/or in a way to smear their opposition despite them being the founts of questionable information. Words have always been louder than actions in “democracies”.

The most recent example of this I have found is a 1986 (damn, two years too late) interview with Noam Chomsky and John Silber about the Contras in Nicaragua and the US role in the conflict. An angry and discontent looking bastard, as well as President of Boston University at the time, Silber defended the Contras and Ronald Reagan’s support of them against the Sandinistas. His reasoning was that Russia was arming the “totalitarian” government in Nicaragua and that US pressure would bring “democracy” to the country.

Nicaragua, in his view, was not an immediate threat but would be later on with increased authoritarianism and support from Russia and Cuba. His comparison was that Hitler was not a threat when he came to power in the 1930’s, and when the threat was quite real it was too late. As such, the US needed to defend itself by tackling it early so as to avoid worse conflicts in the region and on American soil. He never explicitly says it, but essentially he was agreeing with a pre-emptive, unprovoked invasion.

Nicaragua was indeed receiving arms from Russia and resorting to a more militarised position, but the threat went the other way to Silber’s claim. This shift was in sharp contrast to the reforms the Nicaraguan government was attempting to implement before US aggression forced them in a different direction. Arguments about whether that was justified or not, and about any government oppression against the people, could be had, but that is the context of the situation leading up to the US supporting the Contras.

Chomsky, who excitingly got the closest I’ve ever seen him to being visually and vocally angry, in his usual fashion, laid out the facts of the matter as calmly as he could when faced with numerous outbursts, interruptions, and baseless character attacks. As time has shown, Chomsky was correct in his assessment of the situation and his calls for the US to back away from its interference not just in Nicaragua but pretty much everywhere in Central and South America, the US’ “backyard”, were prudent and obvious to anyone who cared to notice.

It was Silber, in this case, that invoked 1984, accusing Chomsky of a “monopoly on misinformation” and fabricating historical events that painted the US in a bad light and sympathised with the Sandinistas. (To the first statement, Chomsky made a sarcastic remark that shut Silber up – “Really, I control the American press?”). The irony of this should be obvious – Reagan’s administration was an extremely violent period, particularly for Latin America, and the way they spun the horrors of their reign of terror as a push for democracy in the region is pure propaganda.

1984 was written as a warning against totalitarianism in numerous forms, and the Soviet Union was one of the greatest influences for this. This is often seen as a stance against communism, and as such is a bolster for the “West” to fight against this creeping threat. The fact that the book is set in a dystopian Britain, highlighting the potential for such a tyranny to exist even in the West, seems to go over Silber’s head – or perhaps more likely, he knew exactly what he was saying. The US is very much a global tyranny that Orwell would have opposed (many also seem to forget the fact that Orwell was a socialist himself, and that in his book Homage to Catalonia, written about his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War, he sympathised quite a lot with the anarchist militias).

By calling Chomsky’s stating of proven facts to be an exercise in “doublethink”, the rhetoric that 1984 applies to powers like the US is in turn used by its ardent defenders to crush dissent. Given what we know now about how the Nicaragua affair played out, Orwell would not be too pleased, but probably not surprised, that his work had been adopted as a method of propaganda in itself. Chomsky, of course, is too patient and restrained to react in a way that could be used against him, but I believe it was a missed opportunity for him to mention that fact.

I want to talk more about it in a separate piece, but the debate was notable for another reason. As mentioned, Silber was obnoxiously arguing over Chomsky and refused to let him speak, even as Chomsky allowed him to smear his character over and over. At one point, there is an open threat: “You engage in a series of fabrications of truth, and it’s time that someone had the opportunity of correcting your historical misstatements while you’re still around.” In another bout of irony, Silber has passed whilst Chomsky is still intellectually strong, if physically frail. But the mere fact that Chomsky’s truthful statements prompted implied violence towards him only further proves the totalitarian tendencies of the US – whether in government or academia – towards dissenting views.

There are two points to take away from this. The first is never argue with Chomsky – he is the real “destroys people with facts and logic”, not faux “intellectuals” like Ben Shapiro who get mad when human rights exist. You can disagree with and counter his conclusions and ideas, but never his unmatched knowledge. Second, if you are going to invoke George Orwell, and particularly 1984, at least know what you are bloody well talking about.


Liked this? Read Propaganda: Selecting and Misrepresenting Voices

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