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December 2020 Pulse

One of the most interesting books I’ve read about the irrational fascination that leftist intellectuals have for tyrants and terrorists is Jamie Glazov’s United in Hate: The Left’s Romance with Tyranny and Terror (2009). With impeccable research and compelling prose, Glazov, the managing editor of describes the left’s blind allegiance to and support for some of the most notorious perpetrators of unconscionable violence in modern history.

It is impossible to discuss all the high-profile leftists that Glazov highlights in his account in the space of this short article. I will in the next few paragraphs briefly touch on two famous personalities known for their leftist sympathies and their unfathomable devotion to the world’s most murderous tyrants, dictators and terrorists.

Susan Sontag

We begin with Susan Sontag, a multi-talented American writer, philosopher, filmmaker, social critic and political activist whose books such as On Photography (1976), Illness as Metaphor (1978), AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) are still being read by university students in the US.

An article in the Chicago Tribune aptly describes Sontag as ‘fiercely smart and famously contrarian, a writer and thinker who made history and made enemies. She built bridges and burned a few of them too, involving herself in famous feuds and passionate arguments about critical issues such as war, art, memory, politics and pain.’

Yet this fiercely independent thinker was simply bowled over when she visited Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1968, believing that she had found utopia in the dictator’s totalitarian state.

Refuting reports by the Western media about the inhumanity of Castro’s regime, Sontag wrote in 1969 that ‘the Cuban revolution is astonishingly free of repression … Not only has the Cuban revolution not begun eating children … it has no intention of doing so.’

In an effort to highlight the freedom that the Cubans under Castro enjoy, Sontag made the claim that ‘No Cuban writer has been or is in jail, or is failing to get his work published’ – even though the facts clearly present quite a different picture.

Sontag was, of course, not the only high-profile leftist to feel this strange attraction to Castro. In his arresting book Fidel: Hollywood’s Favourite Tyrant, Humberto Fontova provides this astonishing gallery of Castro admirers:

‘Cuba’s own Elvis!’ – that’s how Dan Rather once described his friend Fidel Castro. Oliver Stone, another friend, describes Fidel as ‘very selfless and moral’ and ‘one of the world’s wises men.’ ‘A genius’, agreed Jack Nicholson. Naomi Campbell said meeting Castro was a ‘dream come true!’ According to Norman Mailer, Castro is ‘the first and greatest hero to appear in the world since the Second World War.’ Jean-Paul Satre said, ‘Castro is at the same time the island, the men, the cattle, and the earth. He is the whole island …’ Actress Gina Lollogrigda cooed, ‘Castro is an extraordinary man. He is warm and understanding and seems extremely humane.’ Francis Coppola simply noted, ‘Fidel, I love you. We both have the same initials. We both have beards. We both have power and want to use it for good purposes.’ Harry Belafonte added: ‘If you believe in freedom, if you believe in justice, if you believe in democracy, you have no choice but to support Fidel Castro.

Sontag was similarly mesmerised during her visit to Vietnam, which she recounts in her 1968 book Trip to Hanoi. Describing the country that perpetrated the Red Terror in the style of Stalin’s Russia and Castro’s Cuba as ‘an ethical society’, Sontag writes that she ‘could live in Vietnam’ if not for the fact that she has been so poisoned by the pleasures of the capitalist society from which she hailed.

Her remarkable hatred for her home country and sense of self-loathing is palpable when she writes: ‘I live in an unethical society that coarsens the sensibilities and thwarts the capacities for goodness of most people but makes available for minority consumption an astonishing array of intellectual and aesthetic pleasures.’

As if in a hypnotic daze that made her oblivious to the atrocities perpetrated by this murderous regime, Sontag could pen these remarkable words: ‘I found, through direct experience, North Vietnam to be a place which, in many respects, deserves to be idealised.’

For Sontag, human beings under capitalism are morally stunted, unable to exhibit the kind of magnanimity that is so evident in the Vietnamese living under socialism. ‘The Vietnamese’, she wrote, ‘are “whole” human beings, not “split” as we are.’

She gives an example, which only shows how incredibly naïve this ‘fiercely smart’ public intellectual can be:

The North Vietnamese genuinely care about the welfare of the hundreds of captured American pilots and give them bigger rations than the Vietnamese population gets, ‘because they’re bigger than we are,’ as a Vietnamese army officer told me, ‘and they’re used to more meat than we are.’ … and in the perennial possibility of rehabilitating the morally fallen, among whom they include implacable enemies, even the Americans … it’s impossible not to be convinced by the genuineness of these concerns.

Noam Chomsky

The next academic that we will examine, albeit very briefly, is the Institute Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who has achieved rock-star status among leftists and libertarian socialists. Author of more than 100 books on an incredibly wide range of topics, Noam Chomsky, sometimes touted as the ‘father of modern linguistics’, is also a philosopher, historian, cognitive scientist, social critic and political activist.

An outspoken opponent of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Chomsky, who rose to fame in the US due to his anti-war essay ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, continues to draw large crowds of admiring followers wherever he speaks. In many of his addresses and interviews, Chomsky appears to back every statement he makes with research data and references to journal articles.

However, in a 2004 book The Anti-Chomsky Reader, Peter Collier and David Horowitz expose the pseudo-scholarship behind Chomsky’s pronouncements, accusing the high-profile leftist guru of cherry-picking facts and data that fit his theory and basing his opinions on articles published in obscure instead of mainstream journals.

Like Sontag, Chomsky made a pilgrimage to Hanoi in 1970. Accepting uncritically everything his well-trained guide told him while he was brought on a carefully choreographed and strictly controlled tour of the city, Chomsky could hardly contain his admiration for Hanoi, describing it as ‘a radical version of the Eternal City.’ He described the revolution as truly reflecting the ‘capabilities of the human spirit and human will.’

Reports of the atrocities committed by the Vietnamese Communists are indeed voluminous. In its merciless policy of vengeful repression, they arrested and incarcerated hundreds of thousands of former military officials, civil servants, intellectuals and religious leaders. Many of them perished in the forced labour camps of Hanoi’s infamous gulags, dying slow deaths through overwork, malnutrition and disease.

Chomsky, however, roundly rejects all these reports as fictitious. The linguistic professor turned activist has only two questions in his mind when he reads such reports: (1) whose interests were being served by such ‘negative reports’, and (2) how could these reports be disproved?

He produces a different narrative of Vietnam by quoting the favourable reports by journalists and political activists from the West who were allowed to visit Vietnam only after they have been carefully screened by the Hanoi authorities. As Stephen Morris has starkly put it, ‘The serious transgression is not Chomsky’s inability to grasp the truth about repression in postwar Vietnam; for more disturbing are the methods he uses to deny the truth.’

In May 2006, two years before the former President Jimmy Carter embarked on his Hamas odyssey, Chomsky made a pilgrimage to Lebanon to pay homage to what many have regarded as the world’s largest terrorist army, Hezbollah.

In a meeting with the terrorist group’s general secretary, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Chomsky parroted the words previously uttered by the Sheikh that President George Bush is the world’s top ‘terrorist’ and went on to describe the United States as one of the ‘leading terrorist states.’ David Horowitz and Jacob Laksin describe this incident as ‘a meeting of murderous minds.’

It is not surprising, therefore, that 9/11 became for Chomsky an opportunity to highlight the ‘sins’ of America. It is pertinent to note that the targets of the 9/11 attacks are the very symbols of capitalist society that the left loathes. David Horowitz explains:

Their [the terrorists’] targets were the institutions of American power that Chomsky despises: Wall Street (the Word Trade Centre) and the Pentagon. On the day of the attacks, the Twin Towers were filled – as they normally would be – with bankers, brokers, international traders, and corporate lawyers. Chomsky’s hated ‘ruling class’ – the very people who (he believes) were running the ‘global order’ so as to rob the poor on behalf of the rich.

In an article published in Outlook on 24 October 2001, Chomsky, reflecting on the attack on the Twin Towers, writes:

During these close to 200 years, we, the United States expelled or mostly exterminated the indigenous population, that’s many millions of people, conquered half of Mexico, carried out depredations all over the region, Caribbean and Central America, sometimes beyond, conquered Hawaii and the Philippines, killing several hundred thousand Filipinos in the process. Since the Second Word War, it has extended its reach around the world in ways I don’t have to describe. But it was always killing someone else, fighting was somewhere else, it was others who were getting slaughtered. Not here. Not the national territory.

As David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh have rightly pointed out, putting aside the malicious distortions, what Chomsky was saying boils down to this: ‘The attack on America is long overdue and is historically just.’ In addition, despite overwhelming evidence linking Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda to the attacks, Chomsky insists that there is ‘no evidence’ that bin Laden or the network he led was involved.

For Chomsky, America’s war against terror – i.e., its war against the Taliban – is the true act of terrorism. That war, Chomsky asserts, is ‘a plague, a cancer which is spread by barbarians, by “depraved opponents of civilisation.”’

Blinded by Hate

Much more can of course be said about Sontag and Chomsky, and indeed, about a whole contingent of leftist thinkers like them. But I would like to end this article with a brief analysis.

The question that naturally arises is what is the reason behind this love affair of people like Sontag and Chomsky with the world’s tyrants, despots and terrorists?

The answer to this question is quite complex, but we may say that it has mainly to do with their utter disdain for the society in which they live, their sheer hatred for the very social order that accords them the liberty and luxury to criticise it (an act which in many countries that they adore would be regarded as criminal).

According to Glazov, the root cause of this profound discomfiture is their acute sense of alienation from their own society – an alienation that they themselves are often not be entirely aware of or fully understand. And it is this deep frustration, oftentimes reflexive and amorphous, this sense that something is gravely amiss with their society, that shape their attitude towards it.

Glazov maintains that in essence this is a spiritual problem. It points to a vacuum that these intellectuals are desperately trying to fill. ‘Suffering from a spiritual emptiness, of which he himself is no cognizant, the believer [Glazov’s moniker for the leftist intellectual] forces non-spiritual solutions onto his spiritual problems.’

This diagnosis echoes that of the famous author of the Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote eloquently many years ago about the spiritual poverty of atheistic ideologies and their promoters.

Be that as it may, this existential angst, this profound sense of being out of joint with society, has led them to criticise and denounce everything that it represents, especially capitalism. In addition, it has also given them a distorting lens through which they view the world, causing them to see the supposed victims of capitalism and American ‘imperialism’ everywhere.

That is why they were able to valorise the acts of the 9/11 hijackers who crashed the planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. For these leftist public intellectuals, these actors show that an oppressed class truly exists. But more chillingly, for them, the rage of these hijackers against America and the violence it has motivated are legitimate.

Glazov explains:

They saw the hijacker as people who not only were performing a noble and necessary duty (i.e. dealing a deadly blow to America), but also were, like them, members of the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden classes. The believers lived vicariously through the hijackers’ violent strike against the supposed oppressors.

It is this gnawing hatred for their country that sparked their admiration for these totalitarian orders and their romance with their homicidal leaders. Undergirding the leftist intellectual’s devotion to tyrants and terrorists is a void and a sense of the loss of identity, the absence of the genuine feeling of belonging to his own country.

‘Beneath the believer’s veneration of the despotic enemy’, writes Glazov, ‘lies one of his most powerful yearnings: to submit his whole being to a totalist entity.’ He continues:

This psychological dynamic involves negative identification, whereby a person who has failed to identify positively with his own environment subjugates his individuality to a powerful, authoritarian entity, through which he vicariously experiences a feeling of power and purpose.

These intellectuals are attracted to powerful despots and dictators because the latter are able to counteract the overwhelming sense of powerlessness that they experience in their own lives. The historian David Potter explains this psychological state as follows:

Negative identification is itself a highly motivated, compensation-making form of societal estrangement. Sometimes when identification with a person fails, a great psychological void remains, and to fill this void people incapable of genuine interpersonal relationships will identify with an abstraction. An important historical instance of identification with abstract power has been the zealous support of totalitarian regimes by faceless multitudes of people. The totalitarian display of power for its own sake satisfies the impulse to identify with strength.

To be sure, not all leftists or libertarian socialists suffer from the psychosis or spiritual malady that Glazov, Potter and many others have described. But those who do have made many others the victims of the distortions and fantasies they have conjured, especially if they – like Sontag and Chomsky – are persuasive and compelling thinkers who command a large following.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.