Chomsky’s Civility

The height of the Vietnam War was a tumultuous time for American political discourse. Soldiers were welcomed home with protest, public officials berated for their policies, and partisan entrenchment deepened. Civility seemed a far cry from the radical rhetoric that grew with public anger. This mode of political conversation has continued today.

When Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was recently removed from the Red Hen Restaurant for her affiliation with the current administration, and her family was subsequently followed to a different restaurant by protesters, the political right called for civility. While a few notable Democratic Senators followed suit, the overarching response from the left was clear; there would be no civility, no peace, while the Trump administration continues its course. As congresswoman Maxine Waters shouted to a crowd, “"If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. You push back on them. Tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere!"

In 1969, political theorist Noam Chomsky met William F. Buckley, Jr., on his television program Firing Line, to debate the intellectual contentions behind United States intervention in Vietnam. Buckley, a World War II veteran and staunch conservative, represented the pro-intervention position. Chomsky, alternatively, would argue against any foreign action taken by the United States.

The contempt with which Chomsky saw his opponent’s position cannot be understated. America, as far as he was concerned, was guilty of the most vicious imperialist policies imaginable: the murder of children, the act of terrorism, and terrible war crimes. Despite the similarities between the modern left’s view of Trumpian policy and Chomsky’s thoughts on American interventionism, there is a stark difference in the manner with which Chomsky elected to engage his opponent, who upheld the ideals he so despised.

From the Firing Line transcript (emphasis my own):

NC:... I think I take a very qualified and temperate position on many, many issues in this book. For example, take the issue of the background of the Second World War which I spend a lot of time on. If you notice, I end up with a statement saying I don’t see any way to give a clear, sharp resolution, a clear sharp answer to the question of what we should have done under such-and-such circumstances...I say that I wish I could answer the question for myself of whether I feel that I would have taken or would have rejected that position, but I don’t see any way to do it because the issue is mixed. There are many issues that I feel that way – on the other hand, see, when the issue is, let’s say, three million tons of bombs dropped on Vietnam, I don’t feel that way anymore. Nevertheless, I’m still perfectly willing to argue the issue, calmly, quietly, you know…

WFB: As you would have, say, the dropping of the bombs in Dresden.

NC: Exactly, or the atom bomb. You see I would have been willing to argue the dropping of the atom bomb, though I do feel that it’s a war crime.

Chomsky understood the role of emotion in political discussion, and it shaped his disposition for a response to Buckley. He first recognized his own vested emotions in the issue at hand and tempered them. He understood that not only did the severity of his feelings not dictate correctness, but also that it did not serve as justification for a lack of civility. Moreover, while the temptation existed to succumb to emotion and fly off the handle, it would actually prove far less effective in making his point. As the adage goes, the person who looks angrier in a debate loses immediately. While Buckley never conceded Chomsky’s contentions, he respected the man for his temperament. “I rejoice in your disposition to argue the Vietnam question, especially when I recognize what an act of self-control this must involve...”

Civility in public life is a necessity for America. The brief euphoria of anger experienced in a shouting match is a selfish affair. It serves nothing but the most banal and tribal of our instincts, and harms the country deeply. While Buckley and Chomsky could not have been further apart, in a time marred by war, their willingness to calmly dialogue moved the national debate. The political left and the Trump administration find themselves in a similar predicament. Neither side seems particularly interested in civil discourse. One can only hope both make the necessary concessions to act with civility, the health of the nation depends on it.

View the full Buckley-Chomsky debate here.