Exile and the Prophetic: Chomsky’s presidential debate appearance

This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

President Obama continued on his debate comeback trail last night. He showed up ready to fight.

As expected in a debate about foreign policy, both Obama and Romney mostly postured about America’s strength – and light – in the world. Such posturing is an American preoccupation. It goes back as far as the America itself.

Notions of American strength and light were originally coupled with a desire to be free of a dangerous and corrupt world. The fear of entangling alliances was palpable. So was the ruination of empire.

The second half of this fascinating projection dropped out of the American discussion during the last century. Until then, the debate was on. The challenge has always been cast in the clear lines of light and darkness. America as empire was to assume the powers America originally rebelled against.

Both Obama and Romney see American foreign policy’s mission to save the world from itself. It’s a difficult and costly job. In their minds, destiny has appointed America for this role. If America won’t do what needs to be done, who will?

As I predicted, Israel played a minor role in the debate last night. Palestinians were mentioned once and it was so fleeting I’d have to consult a transcript of the debate to be sure in what context. No details about Israel were offered. The reality that Israel faces, what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, went without mention.

Instead, the threat from Iran was emphasized. Bob Schieffer, the moderator, began the questioning on Israel with the possibility of Israel being attacked. He asked each candidate if the United States would come to Israel’s aid militarily if Israel was in danger. Obama wasn’t specific. Romney was gung-ho. Their mutual emphasis was stopping Iran from going nuclear.

Israel will make a come-back on the campaign trail. There it can continue to be invoked without detail and without cost to either campaign.

Who won the debate? Obama was in command throughout. Romney mostly agreed with Obama’s policies. At least he couldn’t draw any red lines between them.

Unlike the first debate, Obama was energetic. Romney looked tired. Romney’s eyes were puffy. His carefully manicured grey around his temples looked like they might expand into his (faux?) black hair. Obama is as you see him. Huge ears. (Naturally) greying hair.

Debating stylistic points aside, what a contrast last night’s debate was between Chomsky’s recent visit to Gaza. Obviously Chomsky arrives dressed as he is. His clothing style hasn’t changed in decades. And with Chomsky, there isn’t any American light being spread in the world. Just the opposite, American empire is Chomsky’s life theme.

Chomsky is the other side of the American foreign policy coin. Chomsky’s America is American empire 24/7. You don’t need to consult the weather – or a poll – to see where Chomsky will point his finger. If anything, Chomsky is the most predictable political thinker the world will ever see. He doesn’t have any October surprises.

Chomsky is a closet American exceptionalist. You can see it in Chomsky’s obsessive concentration on American empire. Yes, America is screwing up the world. Yet when you listen to Chomsky, you can’t help but ask the question: What if America got it right?

If America got it right in the world, America would likewise be a better place. Chomsky’s American exceptionalism demonstrates how deep exceptionalism runs in the American psyche. Americans are the bearers of optimism in the world, even when they see darkness consuming it.

Is Chomsky’s closet American exceptionalism related to his closet Jewish exceptionalism? I have been thinking about this the last few days. More about Chomsky’s Jewish closet exceptionalism soon.

How about Chomsky participating in the Presidential debates? Since Chomsky is in Gaza, he could Skype in from location. The location would provide an added dimension, especially if the audience was on camera. Then Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims would be physically added to our foreign policy debate. They wouldn’t be just American shadows.

Watching the two sides of American exceptionalism clash on the national stage would be fascinating. Since Jewish exceptionalism dovetails with American exceptionalism, Israel has become part of the American landscape. Chomsky could duke it out with Obama and Romney on their own turf.

Romney criticized Obama for not having traveled to Israel during his Presidency. Obama shot back that he had visited Israel during his campaign – minus the fund raisers Romney held. Instead, Obama was serious, visiting Yad VaShem and Sedierot. Obama emphasized the danger in Sedierot by visiting Israelis who had suffered rocket attacks from Gaza. This was Obama’s gateway to his quite accurate assessment of United States-Israeli cooperation. It has never been closer or more extensive than under his watch.

Couldn’t Obama have mentioned the Gaza side of Israel’s exceptionalism coin? That’s where Chomsky comes in. Chomsky could extend an invitation for both candidates to visit Gaza in the closing weeks of the campaign. The problem is that Gaza would bring the real Israel into focus. Why go to Gaza when the conceptual Israel – and Iran and Syria – in fact an entire conceptual world out there – functions better in a debate about the (conceptual) American future?

Of course, Chomsky is up for a global discussion of American foreign policy. His Gaza perch makes it context specific.

Imagine an American audience tuning in for the final Presidential debate. The moderator asks Chomsky to address the responses of Romney and Obama on Israel.

“Mr. Chomsky, you have two minutes for your response. Please, sir, go ahead.”

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of Future of the Prophetic: Israel's Ancient Wisdom Re-Presented.
Posted in Israel/Palestine, US Politics

{ 10 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. I’m sorry…. Chomsky isn’t the evenhanded authority he pretends to be when it comes to Palestine-Israel. Careful reading of his missives at first. leads one to believe he’s the man we’ve been looking for, the man who has the experience, the years, the gravitas to tell us what is wrong in Palestine, what needs to be done about it, and how to do it.

    Only after carefully re-reading his writing and working slowly through his words do you begin to realize he’s an Israeli through and through, with little sympathy for Palestinians.

    Oh, and by the way, when you call his hand at it, his thin-skin leaks venom.

  2. Nevada Ned says:

    Oklahoma farmer, you’ve GOT to be kidding.

    A few years ago, Alan Dershowitz alleged that opposition to Israeli policy, voiced in the US media, came from only three individuals: Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, and the journalist Alexander Cockburn.

    That wasn’t true, of course. But if you go back enough years, it was pretty close to being true. Cockburn really was practically the only US journalist criticizing Israel’s behavior, and he followed up on information from Chomsky and Finkelstein. In more recent years, the establishment of the Electronic Intifada made a big difference. But for a couple of decades, Chomsky was almost alone, slandered by the Israelis and their supporters.

  3. chomsky would do his same, stale analysis, if he took a skype podium. half-truths and a narrow analysis. from the guy who wrote manufacturing consent, he will not speak of the concerted effort of some, who manufacture the consent (and support) for israeli criminality.

    it’s the US, and israel is our imperial puppet; but of course. we are the godfather, even when the lobby is the main driving force for our latest decade of wars, and pushing for iran (while things blow up in iran).

    the MW banned jeffrey blankfort called out chomsky and his simplified analysis long ago.

    and what does chomsky do every 4 years, aside from ignoring the lobby as a passing thing that just fits/coincides with US “imperial” interests?…

    …he always runs to support the lesser of two large evils, like clockwork. no threat there for a real left, or forcing the dems to work for votes… there is always “substantive differences” and if in a swing state- vote DEM!
    link to dissidentvoice.org
    link to counterpunch.org

    also… chomsky will kvetch about the empire till he ends up in his grave, all the while it growing and getting bloodier and bolder. cause he will not touch the dark issues which move public opinion without fail, if we even came close to mainstreaming his opinion. i speak of 9/11 and all the other “events”. if chomsky wanted to, he could crack the issue(s) open, but he speaks of a movement which is not materializing, while the “war on terror” is fully normalized… when he could help shoot a silver bullet to criminal facade of western govs.

    many would follow chomsky and shift, but he always misfires, and does his sweeping analysis, with amazing attention to detail in south american history, but none for the events on US soil… why not?

  4. LeaNder says:

    I am still pondering about what feels like a shift in the prophetic, or the encounter of the prophetic with uncertainty on one hand and US versus Jewish/Israeli exceptionalism on the other.

    anonymouscomments: chomsky would do his same, stale analysis, if he took a skype podium. half-truths and a narrow analysis. from the guy who wrote manufacturing consent, he will not speak of the concerted effort of some, who manufacture the consent (and support) for israeli criminality.

    I haven’t read Chomsky’s manufacturing consent, but it is obviously an important topic. There is a certain irony for me in your statement, since without knowing it, I assume it could be used for this context too, methodically, but why does he have to do it himself? I am assuming it is a general applicable theory. What is PR about but forming consent on one issue, and how much of money is spend to shape public opinion for the elections? The are among the specialist in the election circus. What can be sold and how to sell it. A lady from the university in Florida, if I remember correctly meditated about why Romney had tuned down his warrior rhetorics. Easy, after last encounter his polls went down rapidly. But interesting, Iran needs Syria according to Romney it’s “Iran’s route to the sea.” I haven’t watched it but this is interesting too. Pat Lang:

    Aside from the “horses and bayonets” moment, the most interesting thing said was Romney’s insistence that a psyops effort should be mounted to change the mind of the Muslims about Islam. I wonder if he actually understood what he had been briefed to say. pl

    A more general remark. I am following Pat Lang’s blog, a retired military intelligence man, for some time now. What is obvious he deeply dislikes the neoconservative influence on US foreign policy, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and obviously it’s attempts to interfere with the US politics via special interests, he also would probably easily admit that yes there are shared interests too. Occasionally he mentions men in the Israeli army he worked with and respects.

    Concerning Iran, he has a simple answer. Israel cannot do it militarily, the US can, thus he simply wants them not to try to lead but to follow. He may forgive me for imprecisions in the above.

    I vaguely have this for me surprising and somehow provocative statement in mind, could even a prophet be wrong? From a Jewish point of view yes, since many have been considered thus:

    Yes, America is screwing up the world. Yet when you listen to Chomsky, you can’t help but ask the question: What if America got it right?

    But I agree with Marc Ellis ( I guess I may have spelled it Mark occasionally, since I almost did now) it would have been much more interesting to have a challenging voice like Chomsky on stage, but that is not exactly how the ritual works. It has to be watered down to the most easy common denominators.

    To return my earliest prophets, the musician, when I was young they seemed the only ones, who broke down these type of rituals and spoke about matters as they are, plain, easy to understand and straightforward

  5. LeaNder says:

    Oh, dear, I should watch more carefully how many things are written too hastily. There is the occasional article missing, there seems to be at least one “the” which should be “they”. And it all happened since I simply can’t remember the special term for PR specialist in this political field, there is one, I am sure. I was much more concerned with this lacunae in my head than spelling, grammar or punctuation.

    Anyway psychops for the Muslim, to set their minds on the correct economical or religious path, that’s an interesting idea. ;)

  6. seafoid says:

    “Both Obama and Romney see American foreign policy’s mission to save the world from itself”

    No way. Their job is to keep US GDP at around 25% of global GDP no matter what.
    The US is run by its oligarchs

    The OECD countries have choice and the rest of the world feeds the OECD. That is the system.

  7. seafoid says:

    link to guardian.co.uk

    Americans would also gain from scaling back the empire
    The presidential foreign policy debate showed how close the candidates were – and how far from their own public opinion
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    o Seumas Milne
    o The Guardian, Tuesday 23 October 2012 22.20 BST
    o ‘Whatever the personal views of the politician at the top, the US empire is a system, not a policy, underpinned by corporate and military interests.’

    Whoever runs Washington heads a global empire. American politics affects people’s lives in every part of the world, often as a matter of life or death. So it’s scarcely surprising that more than 40% of those polled around the world say they want the right to vote in US presidential elections.
    After all, the American revolution was fought on the slogan of “no taxation without representation”. So long as the US government arrogates to itself the right to impose its “leadership” by force across the world, a contemporary version of the colonists’ demand might be: “no global power without accountability”.

  8. examinator says:

    Marc, I’m not sure that you’re not projecting…seeing what you want to see in Chomsky’s work.
    Specifically
    [“Chomsky is a closet American exceptionalist. You can see it in Chomsky’s obsessive concentration on American empire. Yes, America is screwing up the world. Yet when you listen to Chomsky, you can’t help but ask the question: What if America got it right?” ]

    I’d argue the exact opposite i.e. that he is anti American exceptionalism particularly as it *is * today.
    I would suggest that he is a Socialist and as such this is inconsistent, if not mutually exclusive with USA exceptionalism and your stated Libertarianism on philosophic grounds.

    For comparison I don’t believe that the Jews had a legitimate right to claim any part of Palestine nor do I think that their tactics to take possession of what is now Israel were legitimate (fruit of the poison tree principal). Likewise the USA isn’t some benign paternal figure to maintain peace and stability in the world .
    The reality is that it is simply the Biggest (humongous) military elephant in the world and like the joke goes It wanders, feeds and shit’s where ever it wants and there is bugger all any of us can do about it…assertively.

    Notwithstanding, Israel’s existence is a reality and pragmatically needs to be dealt with as such. It is also undeniable that Israel owes it’s creation and existence to that pugnacious and (almost) pre menstrual Pachyderm (The US political and religious ‘right’, diasporic Jews). The mere fact that the USA inserts it’s self as the third party in all peace talks rather than a disinterested mediator like Sweden/ Norway means that it has to be dealt with as the elephant in the room. As is the Israel’s Prison guard/ ‘ apartheid’ rule over what is the currently world’s notional ‘Palestine’ i.e. pre 67 borders.
    I would also point out another factor that both the USA and less surprisingly Israel ignore i.e. no one else in the world really agrees with the pre 67 borders land swap or one nation ( time bombs) as plausible solutions.

    In essence Chomsky clearly accepts the USA has a hegemonic empire and Israel’s control over the afore mentioned Palestine are as functionally facets of the same reality (as do I) and tries to deal with the topics as they are.

    Oklahoma Farmer,
    Clearly you are part of the cause as to why the USA politically can’t extract itself from the problem i.e. an American who sees only American interests.

    While I can’t say I’ve seen every question fired at Chomsky I am comfortable to say that he tends answers in the vein of the underlying motive and nature of the questions put to him.
    i.e. when faced with a largely unthought through (often ignorant .. as in uninformed , composed of selectively chosen facts) ‘ speech’ posed as a question for the purposes of a take down, he simply repays the questioner with a take down of his own. I have yet to hear /read/see unwarranted vitriol as you imply.

    I might also point, out that I don’t agree with all his conclusions or his faith in socialist mind set.
    Oh yes I admire knowledge based ‘wisdom’, and good deeds genuinely done, but don’t have heroes/saviours they are human with all that implies.
    I am neither Jewish (I have a daughter who is) nor Anti any race . I simply don’t believe in absolutes only that all truths are so in their specific contexts .