The media and public intellectuals: Fred Halliday vs Noam Chomsky

If the media lionises one and demonises the other, the favoured man must surely have been right on the big issues of the last 15 years. Right?

Ian Sinclair
27 November 2015

Flickr/Ministerio de Cultura de la Nacion

, CC BY-SA 2.0

Compare and contrast the different responses by the media and academia to two of the most prominent public intellectuals who have focussed on the Middle East – Professor Fred Halliday, who died in 2010, and Professor Noam Chomsky.

One would assume world events have repeatedly proved Halliday right, and Chomsky to have been consistently off the markAs Al-Akhbar newspaper notes, Halliday, a Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science for 20 years, “received wide acclaim in his lifetime, and after his death.” In his obituary in the Guardian his friend Professor Sami Zubaida noted: “Fred made an enormous impact in both academia and the media. He always spoke with a sure and lucid voice, backed by extensive knowledge, and knew many languages… Arabic, Persian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, French, German and Russian.” Writing in the left-leaning Nation magazine, Susie Linfield was even more effusive in her praise: “In his scholarship and research, in his outspokenness and courtesy, in the complexity of his thinking, he was the model of a public intellectual. It is Halliday’s writing – not those of Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens or Tariq Ali – that can elucidate the meaning of today’s most virulent conflicts.”

In contrast, Chomsky is repeatedly smeared and attacked by the mainstream media, receiving particular ire from liberal journalists and intellectuals. Chomsky, the author of tens of books and speaker at hundreds of sold out public events, is often labelled as “controversial”, “angry”, “raving” and “simplistic”. Chomsky is keenly aware of this phenomenon, comparing the reception he receives from the largely conservative MIT faculty with his relationship with the liberal Harvard academic staff: “I get along fine with the MIT faculty, even when we disagree about everything (which is the usual case). If I show up at the Harvard faculty club, you can feel the chill settle; it’s as if Satan himself had entered the room.”

So how do Halliday and Chomsky compare in their analysis of events in the Middle East since 2001? If one accepted the media and academic consensus one would assume world events have repeatedly proved Halliday right, and Chomsky to have been consistently off the mark. However, as the American historian Howard Zinn once noted, “The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

According to his obituaries in the Guardian and Independent, Halliday supported the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These invasions and subsequent occupations are now widely understood to have been complete disasters – for Afghans and Iraqis, for US and British troops, for the threat of terrorism in the west and for the cohesion and stability of the whole Middle East. The 2003 Iraq invasion breached international law, weakened the UN, and led to US and UK troops committing war crimes and torturing the local people. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis died because of the invasions, with many more wounded. Over four million Iraqis were forced from their home. Afghanistan continues to be one of the top countries of origin for refugees today. And, as even Tony Blair recently admitted, the invasion and occupation of Iraq played a key role in the creation of Islamic State and the crisis the world is currently dealing with today.

Harmless sanctions?

It gets worse. If we go back before 2001 we find Halliday publicly denied the impact of (US and UK-led) UN sanctions on Iraq from 1991 to 2003. In a review of Geoff Simons’s book on economic sanctions in the Independent in 1999, Halliday rubbished “claims that Iraq still lacks the means to provide a basic supply of food”. Compare Halliday’s repetition of the US-UK governments’ line to those of Hans von Sponeck, one of the UN Humanitarian Coordinators for Iraq during the sanctions regime. “At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical or mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-For-Food Programme”, von Sponeck notes in his 2006 book A Different Kind of War.

Halliday publicly denied the impact of (US and UK-led) UN sanctions on Iraq from 1991 to 2003Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq prior to von Sponeck, resigned in protest in 1998, noting the sanctions were causing the deaths of up to 5,000 children a month: “We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.” Halliday later explained: “I was instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide — a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults.” Von Sponeck himself resigned in protest two years later, asking in his resignation letter, “How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?” Later he told journalist John Pilger: “I have not in the past wanted to use the word genocide, but now it is unavoidable.”

For a man who professed a deep admiration for the people and cultures of the Middle East, Halliday repeatedly supported US-UK government policies that caused and continue to cause untold misery for the people of the region. In contrast Chomsky was arguably the foremost critic of the US and UK invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to being a key voice in drawing attention to the horrifying effects of UN sanctions on Iraq. So, in summary, the media and intellectual elite continue to fete a man who supported Western policies that decimated the Middle East and killed hundreds of thousands of people, while they have attempted to marginalise arguably the foremost critic of these destructive and criminal actions.

What is going on here?

Intellectuals and dissent

Chomsky himself has much to say on the subject, telling Pilger in 1992 that “The intellectual tradition is one of servility to power, and if I didn’t betray it I’d be ashamed of myself.” Mark Curtis, a British historian of UK foreign policy and former Research Fellow at Chatham House, broadly agrees, noting “British academics are generally responsible for keeping students and the public in ignorance about this country’s real role in the world.” On the topic of sanctions on Iraq, Eric Herring, Professor of World Politics at the University of Bristol, notes that the record of British academics has been shameful: “The sanctions on Iraq illustrate the fact that the immiseration of most of a society and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its citizens can get hidden right out in the open (the facts are there for anyone who cares to consult them), with barely a peep from academics as well as journalists”. Just three articles were published in British International Relations journals during the sanctions regime, Herring notes (Herring wrote one of them and commissioned the second).

The intellectual tradition is one of servility to powerWhat explains the timidity of most intellectuals? A number of factors, of course, including how one progresses through the education system (Chomsky: “There’s a filtering system, that starts in kindergarten, and goes all the way through, and it’s not going to work 100 percent but it’s pretty effective. It selects for obedience, and subordination”), and the social class of intellectuals and their attendant social and ideological ties to established power. Those whose work and politics fit within the dominant ideology will usually gain the respect of their peers and may even be courted by the media. And while there is no early morning knock on the door for those independent-minded academics in the west who expose the lies told by those in power, there are still real consequences for stepping out of line. You may be overlooked for promotion, your job may be under threat, publishing work may become more difficult, funding opportunities may dry up, you may receive a lot of flak from the establishment and you may be ostracised by colleagues.

Obviously criticism of western foreign policy does take place – is positively encouraged – but this is usually “within narrow limits which show ‘exceptions’ to, or ‘mistakes’ in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence." For example, beyond his support for the aggressive US-UK invasion of Iraq, Halliday inadvertently repeated the US-UK government’s framing of the war when he argued “the American approach that you can suddenly install a democracy” is “nonsense” at the 2004 Labour Party conference. Chomsky, on the other hand, distinguishes between government’s “declarations of benign intent” and the real reasons for the invasion: control of Iraq’s energy resources. Indeed fully 1 percent of Baghdad residents in an October 2003 Gallup poll agreed with Halliday that establishing democracy was the main intention of the US invasion, while 43 percent said the invasion’s principal objective was Iraq’s oil reserves. Similarly a 2003 YouGov poll of the British public found that just 5 percent of respondents thought the US and UK’s primary motivation was “to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq” (the most popular answer to a question asking why the US and UK wanted to invade Iraq was also “to secure and control oil supplies”). In reality the US and UK “don’t want democracies in the Arab world”, Chomsky explains. “If Arab public opinion had any influence on policy, the US and Britain had been tossed out of the Middle East. That’s why they are terrified of democracies in the region.”

All this is not to dismiss Halliday’s undoubted expertise and experience on the Middle East and the knowledge he has passed onto thousands of students and readers of his work. But considering just how wrong he was on Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq and Iraqi sanctions surely we need to ask some hard questions of Halliday and our dominant understanding of education, expertise and intellectuals?

“There is in orthodox thinking a great dependence on experts”, notes Zinn in his 1990 book Passionate Declarations: Essays On War And Justice, explaining there are two false assumptions often made about experts. “One is that they see more clearly and think more intelligently than ordinary citizens. Sometimes they do, sometimes not. The other assumption is that these experts have the same interests as ordinary citizens, want the same things, hold the same values, and, therefore, can be trusted to make decisions for us all.” Our dependence on “great thinkers” and “experts” is, Zinn argues, “a violation of the spirit of democracy.”

Chomsky has repeatedly rejected attempts by others to lionise him. Rather than look to leaders and the intellectuals for wisdom and guidance, to make progressive social change Chomsky argues individuals should educate themselves, undertaking a course of intellectual self-defence through popular movements. With the Middle East in flames, the UK government champing at the bit to bomb Syria and the media in “full propaganda mode” the need for the general public to be informed and active is as great as it has ever been.


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