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Fred Branfman, Noam Chomsky and the Communist Two-Step

Posted on June 10 2010 5:00 pm
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Fred Branfman, author, blogger and early contributor to the current California economic miracle under Governor Jerry Brown, has written a very long apologetic about Noam Chomsky, or more accurately a standard screed against US imperialism and capitalism using Chomsky as a prop. Presumably he thought that invoking the grand old man’s name would somehow spur the faithful to actually read through this door stopper, but I’m not sure the unearthed memoirs of Lenin could have done that. This is very much a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” kind of piece and Branfman clearly hopes that if nothing sticks at least his readers will succumb to exhaustion and boredom before realizing it.

He needn’t have gone to so much trouble. The basic theme can be summarized in two sentences (spoiler alert for those of you actually thinking of navigating this tome):

  • America is really, really bad.
  • Communism will fix it.

In fairness, Branfman’s innovative variation is “I think America is very, very bad and Communism will fix it, and look Chomsky agrees with me!” but the basic approach remains the same. This is a patented two-step and Branfman pays close attention to the painted feet on the floor.

On the first point, demonizing America is reasonably straightforward as long as you remember to cherrypick the facts you don’t actually make up, and frame your questions with careful dishonesty. Branfman appears to have this down. Consider:

Which nation’s leaders since 1945 have murdered, maimed, made homeless, tortured, assassinated and impoverished the largest number of civilians who were not its own citizens?

I have asked this question of Americans in every walk of life since I discovered the bombing of Laos in 1969. It’s a simple matter of fact, not involving judgments of right and wrong, and I remain astonished at how most answer “the Russians,” “the Chinese,” or just have no idea that their leaders have killed more noncitizen civilians than the rest of the world’s leaders combined since 1945.

They have no idea because it isn’t true. Apart from the dearth of evidence to support such a claim the sophistry here is so obvious it’s like watching a third rate magician not quite able to get that red hanky into his sleeve. The qualifier “not its own citizens” conveniently excludes “the Russians” and “the Chinese” (proving conclusively that the Americans he talked to were smarter than he was), to say nothing of Pol Pot, Castro, Kim Jong Il and any other half-dozen dictators you could pull at random from the Communist Who’s Who. Among them, these “agrarian reformers” have killed more people on an off-day than the US would contemplate in a decade, but never mind; it’s just their own citizens.

By thus ignoring the Tiananmen Squares and killing fields of history, Branfman takes the apples and oranges fallacy one step further by denying the existence of the orange altogether.

Not that he understands the apples any better. Words like “murdered”, “maimed” and “tortured” are designed to evoke images of the Sopranos, not the unavoidable, if obviously tragic, consequences of war he is actually talking about. The US has, for all practical purposes, undertaken the defense of the free world since World War II.  It is therefore not surprising that it would inflict more civilian casualties in wars and police actions than, say, France—which like the rest of Europe reserves the right to be self-righteous about US military power while at the same time relying on it for protection.

Rendered of its fat, that’s all he’s got, which among any rational audience should provoke a vigorous “And so …?”

To which Branfman might then reply, “Wait guys, don’t go, you haven’t given me a chance to inflate the numbers yet!”

These would include the huge proportion of civilians among the 3.4 million Vietnamese that Robert McNamara estimated were killed in Vietnam (over 90 percent by U.S. firepower), Laotian and Cambodian civilians felled by the largest per capita and most indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in history, the 1 million to 1.5 million Iraqis estimated by the U.N.‘s Denis Halliday to have died from Clinton’s sanctions “designed,” in Halliday’s words, “to kill civilians, particularly children,” and the hundreds of thousands killed as a result of the Bush invasion. The total number of civilians killed, wounded, made homeless and impoverished by U.S. leaders or local regimes owing their power to U.S. guns and aid—in not only Indochina and Iraq but Mexico, El Salvador, Israel/Palestine, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Egypt, Iran, South Africa, Chile, East Timor, Haiti, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, Jamaica, the Philippines and Indonesia—is in the tens of millions.

Credible estimates put Vietnamese war dead at 3.8 million, over a span of 43 years (which for you history buffs includes the French and other combatants)—2.3 million if you exclude those who died by assassination, forced relocation, labor camps and various civil uprisings in that period. (For an example of someone who’s actually done his homework see R.J. Rummel: Statistics of Democide, Chapter 6.)

So I stand corrected, the French will occasionally shoot somebody if sufficiently provoked.

A greater canard is the Iraq number.

How Branfman’s can present Denis Halliday (anti-Israel flotilla activist and former head of the UN’s wildly successful Oil for Food program) as a credible source, without kicking the dirt and avoiding eye-contact, is a testament to his chutzpa. As Reason Magazine’s Matt Welch points out the sanctions were administered by the UN, not the US, and the civilian numbers were grossly exaggerated. What interest Halliday could possibly have had in ginning up the numbers–beyond providing poster children for his program and an exit strategy when he needed it—is anyone’s guess.

I don’t know about you, but even if we throw in Canada and the Virgin Islands (the only two countries he doesn’t seem to think we’ve decimated) I don’t know how he gets to “tens of millions.” But then again, he’s not expecting  anyone over at TruthDig to check. Just keep nodding and smiling boys.

Branfman then goes on—and on, and on—in this fashion, trying through sheer volume of prose to make the case that America is the source of all evil in the world.

His solution is a shocker.

Chomsky thus argues that human survival requires changing the system, not merely periodically replacing those running it.


The real choice, Chomsky makes clear, is not free enterprise versus statism, but state capitalism for (A) the few or (B) the many. The latter would include breaking up the banks, a focus on job creation and safety net expansion where needed, single-payer health insurance, higher taxes on the wealthy, far lower military spending, public members on corporate boards, greater employee workplace control and, above all, a new public-private partnership to see America become a leader in a clean energy economic revolution.

Got it. Apologies to Branfman and Chomsky for incorrectly believing they were dragging us down the road to serfdom once again. If it’s got the word “capitalism” in it, it must be good, right? Just like the word “democratic.” Since I know for a fact that Communists have never appropriated words to conceal their true intentions I know I’ll rest easy.

One wonders if Newsweek will soon come out with a “We’re All State Capitalists Now” issue.

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