Noam Chomsky is still alive, but I began mourning him years ago

Noam Chomsky is still alive, but I began mourning him years ago
Noam Chomsky's sainthood is all but confirmed after death rumours spread across social media. But, as Sam Hamad explains, Chomsky is by no means infallible.
6 min read
28 Jun, 2024
Like many, Sam Hamad turned to Chomsky for a sense of understanding, but their relationship soon turned sour. [photo credit: Lucie Wimetz/TNA/Getty Images]

Last week it was falsely reported across social media that the renowned left-wing intellectual and linguist Noam Chomsky had passed away.

Unlike most fake death stories on social media, the Chomsky one led to major progressive media outlets like The New Statesman and Jacobin running obituaries for the 95-year-old.

It wasn’t until his wife confirmed to the AFP that Chomsky was still alive that the premature obituaries were pulled, with apologies hastily assembled.

However, having read the obituaries, particularly the one in The New Statesman, which was written by the left-wing politician, intellectual and activist Yanis Varoufakis and titled The Chomsky that I Knew, I began to think of the Chomsky I knew.

It would be a major overstatement to say I knew Chomsky on a personal or anything other than a superficial manner. But, in the era of the so-called 'Global War on Terror', my newly politicised self turned towards Chomsky for a sense of understanding in what seemed like a world spiralling out of control.


On a personal level, when it was time for me to plan an idea for a thesis, I turned towards Chomsky who, to his credit, replied with considerate and honest answers and opinions on my ideas. We emailed back and forth for a fairly long time. I was in awe of a man touted as “the most quoted public intellectual in history”.

Chomsky provides nothing if not a consistent opposition and criticism of US foreign policy, on everything from the Vietnam War to America’s support for Israel’s occupation and oppression of Palestinians.

Chomsky’s criticisms of US foreign policy were so effective, in an era when America was marauding around the world torturing, killing, and illegally invading other countries in the name of fighting terror, that I did not see, or chose to ignore, the red flags in the Chomskyian worldview.

I did not, for example, ever try to square the circle of Chomsky’s ferocious opposition to NATO intervention against Serbia as it waged a genocidal war on Bosnian Muslims or his support for a bunch of discredited authors who claimed that the genocide did not even occur.

This included Chomsky’s open support for the work of Diana Johnstone, whose book Fools Crusade claimed there was “no evidence whatsoever” of the Srebrenica massacre. It had been, according to the denialists, US and Western propaganda to manufacture consent for war.

Holding Noam Chomsky to account

If I had, at this point, begun to question the moral superiority of the Chomsky powerhouse, I would have seen that the tendency of his opposition to US foreign policy to actively transform into tacit or active support for Washington’s perceived enemies stretches back well before I was born.

It stretches back to the Great Chinese Famine of 1958-1961, in which the policies of the Marxist-Leninist regime of Mao Zedong, then a US enemy, resulted in the deaths of as many as 55 million Chinese people. In the early 1960s, Chomsky praised the policies of “collectivisation” that led to the famine and went on William F. Buckley’s political TV show Firing Line and denied the extent of the famine, intimating that it was US propaganda.

Chomsky repeated a similar line about the genocide in Cambodia from 1975-1979, claiming that the now documented and detailed genocide carried out by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge was, once again, US propaganda to demonise an alleged enemy.

The final straw that led to my revision, break and eventual confrontation with Chomsky was Syria. Rather than listen to or communicate with any of the Syrian activists involved in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian regime and Putin’s Russia, Chomsky deferred to a typical blend of denialism, of the crimes of the Assad axis, and cherry-picking sources.

So, while Chomsky would tell you he defers to “experts on Syria”, he meant he embraced the pro-Assad propaganda of people like Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh, all of whom denied Assad was responsible for pretty much any of the crimes he carried out – from the Houla massacre to the chemical weapons massacre in Ghouta.

Chomsky even denied that Russia’s brutal intervention on behalf of Assad was “imperialistic”, claiming in a speech at Harvard that it could not be described in that way because Russia is “supporting a government”, by which he meant the Assad regime.

It’s true that Chomsky described the Assad regime as “brutal and repressive”, but this was mediated by his supporting the propaganda of those who denied any of his tangible brutality and repression while depicting the entire Syrian opposition as akin to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group and therefore much worse than Assad.

In fact, the final straw that led me to confront Chomsky in my last correspondence with him was not, as one of my detractors claimed, my annoyance at his lack of support for US intervention on behalf of the Syrian rebels. It was his support, in a 2016 interview with Al Jazeera, for the US to follow Russia's lead and intervene on the side of Assad.

His logic, borrowing from Cockburn, was a typically sophomoric attack on US foreign policy, claiming the US policy in arming the Syrian rebels was “incoherent”, given it was not aiding those who were really fighting ISIS, namely Assad and Iran.

Forget the fact that Assad, Iran and Russia devoted most of their time to bombing anti-ISIS Syrian rebels and the civilians within the territory they held. The most important point for Chomsky was to blame the US, which meant slandering the Syrian rebels and revolutionaries as being akin to ISIS and claiming the genocidal Assad regime was a lesser evil.

Amid the horrors unfolding in Syria, the hundreds of thousands of people dead, the massacres of civilians, the mass rape and the veritable death camps, how could Noam Chomsky be tacitly supporting this?

In his premature obituary, Varoufakis gushes about Chomsky:

“As with every topic he touched, Noam’s approach … issued from a principled position. He insisted that rudimentary ethics dictates that the main question a moral person must ask is: “What can I do that has the greatest impact for good?”


While it’s right to give Chomsky his due for criticising the very real evils of US foreign policy, in a multipolar, reflexive, globalised world, we must adhere to the old leftist dictum of internationalism.

Not the form of internationalism practised by Chomsky, where the lives, deaths, and struggles of oppressed peoples are omitted from history not in the name of ethics or, as Varoufakis suggests, a desire to maximise good, but for ideological convenience, where the US must always be in the wrong.

This Chomskyian stance leads down a path where there is tacit or overt support for genocidalists and fascists like Mao, Pol Pot, Milosevic and Bashar al-Assad, while their victims are erased.

The fact that Varoufakis fails to mention any of these aspects of Chomsky does not bode well for the left. At a time when Israel is waging a genocidal war on Gaza, we should be condemning genocide and crimes against humanity wherever they occur regardless of the perpetrators and their alleged international allegiances.

Noam Chomsky is still alive, and I sincerely wish him the very best of health, but I began mourning him years ago.

Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.