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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why You Should Primarily Focus On Your Own Country’s Crimes

Why don’t U.S. activists focus on the crimes of the Chinese government? Because we’re responsible for what is done in our name, and what we can most affect.

In 1988, Noam Chomsky had a fascinating exchange with future Bush II speechwriter David Frum (who coined the term “axis of evil”). Chomsky is known for his scathing criticisms of U.S. foreign policy, and Frum argued that in singling out the U.S. for the bulk of his criticism, Chomsky failed to treat all human lives as equal. Let’s read the exchange:

Note: I have cleaned it up a bit for clarity. 

David Frum:

You say that what the media do is to ignore certain kinds of atrocities that are committed by us and our friends, and to play up enormously atrocities that are committed by “them” and our enemies. And you posit… that there’s a test of integrity and moral honesty, which is to have a kind of equality of treatment of corpses.

Noam Chomsky

Equality of principles.

David Frum:

Every dead person should be, in principle, equal to every other dead person.

Noam Chomsky:

That’s not what I say at all.

David Frum:

Well, I’m glad it’s not what you say, because that’s not what you do.

Noam Chomsky

Of course it’s not what I do. Nor would I say it…. What I say is that we should be responsible for our own actions primarily. That’s something quite different.

At this point, an unknown interlocutor says something inaudible about the fact that Chomsky criticized the media for giving more attention to the killing of priest Jerzy Popiełuszko in Poland than to the killing of bishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. The interlocutor’s comment is fuzzy, but they appear to be raising the issue: if he’s not saying that every dead person should be treated equally, why did he criticize the media for their unequal treatment of the two killings? Chomsky replies: 

Noam Chomsky

I wasn’t equating them. I was comparing the treatment of them. If you want my value judgment, we should give much more attention to one priest who we’ve killed than to 100 that they’ve killed. 

At this point Frum clarifies his criticism:

David Frum:

Your method is not only to ignore the corpses created by them, but also to ignore the corpses that are created by neither side, which are irrelevant to your ideological…

Noam Chomsky:

That’s totally untrue. 

David Frum:

Well, let me give you an example. One of your own causes that you take very seriously is the cause of the Palestinians. A Palestinian corpse weighs very heavily on your conscience. And yet a Kurdish corpse does not…

Noam Chomsky:

That’s not true at all. I’ve been involved in Kurdish support groups for years…. Ask the people who are involved. They come to me, I sign their petitions, and so on and so forth.[…]Look, I’m not Amnesty International. I can’t do everything. I’m a single human person. [But] take a look at the book that Edward Herman and I wrote on this topic [in 1979]. We discussed three kinds of atrocities, not two.… What we called “benign” bloodbaths, which nobody cares about, “constructive” bloodbaths, which are the ones we like, and “nefarious” bloodbaths, which are the ones the bad guys do. Constructive bloodbaths are things like the Indonesian massacres, which we supported. Nefarious bloodbaths are like Pol Pot. But we also discussed the ones nobody cares about, like Burundi, for example.[…] 

Not only is what you say not true, but it’s the opposite of the truth. We went out of our way to find the kinds of bloodbaths that we just ignored, because nobody cares about them.…The principle that I think we ought to follow is not the one that you stated. It’s the principle that we rightly expect Soviet dissidents to follow. What principles do we expect Sakharov to follow? What lets us decide whether Sakharov is a moral person? Sakharov does not treat every atrocity as identical. He has nothing to say about American atrocities.…What he talks about are Soviet atrocities. And that’s right, because those are the ones that he’s responsible for. It’s a very simple ethical point: you’re responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions. You’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of somebody else’s actions. 

Now, we understand this when we’re talking about dissidents in the Soviet Union. But we refuse to understand it when we’re talking about ourselves, for very good reasons. Commissars in the Soviet Union don’t understand this about dissidents. Commissars in the Soviet Union attack Sakharov and other dissidents because they don’t talk about American crimes. We understand exactly why that’s just hypocrisy and cynicism when they do it. And we should understand the same when we do it.…The most important thing for me and for you is to think about the consequences of your actions. What can you affect? Of course a corpse is a corpse, but there are some you can affect and others you can’t do much about. 

I couldn’t help but think about this exchange when I saw a recent comment by (disgraced) ex-Guardian columnist Nick Cohen, who wondered why

“…the Muslim world and its allies in the Western left stay silent about Chinese religious persecution [of Uyghurs.] Chinese money buys off governments, but what about everyone else? Is the persecution of the Uyghurs seen as a distraction from Palestine? Can they only oppose Western-backed oppression? If so, why? I just don’t understand it.” 

Now, I can’t speak for “the Muslim world.” But I suppose I’m one of its “allies in the Western left” under Cohen’s definition, so perhaps I can help him understand why a publication like this magazine would spend more time discussing human rights abuses conducted by the U.S. and Israel than human rights abuses conducted by China. I would have thought this didn’t need much spelling out, but it’s a common criticism of the left. (Chomsky’s critics, for example, have said things like: “[he has] one message, and one message alone: America is the Great Satan; it is the fount of evil in the world.”)

As Chomsky explained to Frum, nobody would have asked questions like this of a dissident in the Soviet Union (or, for that matter, in China). They wouldn’t have said to a Polish Solidarity activist “Why don’t you talk more about the Reagan administration’s actions in Central America?” The absurdity of the question is obvious when we ask it in other contexts. First, you have a primary obligation to try to rein in the crimes of your own government. Second, you have more power to affect your own government.

Note what happens in the Chomsky-Frum exchange. Frum notes that Chomsky criticizes U.S. media for paying more attention to the crimes carried out by our enemies than to the crimes supported by the U.S. But, Frum says, Chomsky does not follow his own principles, because he doesn’t treat every death equally either. Chomsky, in reply, says that Frum is misunderstanding the principle, which is not that you should focus equally on every death, it’s that you’re responsible for your own actions primarily. 

Israel is by far the leading recipient of U.S. military aid. The U.S. is Israel’s primary supporter in the international community, protecting it from condemnatory U.N. Security Council resolutions. The Biden administration is currently trying to give Israel virtually unlimited access to U.S. weapons, which Israel uses to indiscriminately kill thousands of children. It is right for American activists to focus on this, just as it was right for Soviet activists to focus on the Soviet Union. 

I don’t solely focus on the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s war crimes. I’ve also criticized his disregard for human rights in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Vietnam. But I do focus on the U.S. That’s because I live in the U.S., and the government is supposed to represent the interests of the people. I can (and do) oppose China’s treatment of Uyghurs, but I think that just as Chinese dissidents focus on China’s misconduct, I should focus on U.S. misconduct.

Chomsky points out to Frum that the “why don’t you talk about other countries’ crimes?” argument is used by commissars, and it’s meant to avoid confronting the issues raised by the dissidents. Cohen apparently thinks the leftists in Jewish Voice For Peace should, instead of trying to get their country to stop funding a government that is indiscriminately bombing a civilian population, spend more of their time symbolically condemning China.

Now, Cohen does not just question the Western left, but also the “Muslim world” for not showing solidarity with Chinese Muslims. Again, I am not (and nobody is) qualified to speak for the Muslim world. But I think some of the same reasoning applies: Egyptian human rights activists are focused on Egypt’s conduct, Saudi activists are focused on their own government’s horrific rights abuses, etc. I do think it’s true that governments in the Muslim world stay silent on China because China is a powerful country they don’t want to alienate, just as Joe Biden stays silent on Saudi human rights abuses because he wants a good relationship with them. States tend to be highly unprincipled, both in the Islamic world and in the West. But human rights organizations have a good track record of being consistent in exposing human rights abuses wherever they happen, whether in China or Palestine.

Chomsky told Frum that morally, we ought to focus more on one priest who “we’ve” killed than one hundred who “they” have killed. If I am in the position to stop a murder happening in front of me, that’s far more important than lamenting thousands of deaths in a faraway country. For Chomsky, there’s a critically important difference for Americans between American crimes and other crimes, which is that we have a much better shot at affecting U.S. policy, and so we have a much higher responsibility to act. You might disagree with this principle and think people should focus just as much on things they have no control over. But Frum didn’t even understand the principle and shared the common misconception that Chomsky just has some kind of anti-American bias that causes him to think nobody other than the U.S. commit serious crimes. No, he has a principle, which is that American crimes are the ones he focuses on, because he has the highest personal responsibility for addressing those.

I really do feel like this should be a very obvious point. But I constantly see commentators like Cohen who profess themselves puzzled that the Western left would focus on the West, or who think it’s some kind of marker of hypocrisy or inconsistency. It isn’t, it’s just an application of a pretty basic moral principle. 

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