Exile and the Prophetic: Chomsky’s presidential debate appearance

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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 The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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