April 24, 2010
Chomsky Stormcrow

One of Gandalf’s nicknames was Stormcrow, “a reference to his arrival being associated with times of trouble, often used by his detractors to mean he was a troublesome meddler in the affairs of others.”

Indeed, Gandalf did meddle in the affairs of others, to the benefit of the good guys and the detriment of the bad ones. He brought information whether it was wanted or not, and forced people to look at it. Some people called that egotistical.

Noam Chomsky hears that a lot too, though Norman Finkelstein has a simple demonstration that it ain’t so. What upsets people so much about Chomsky? Well, establishment figures don’t like the kind of reading on our democracy he gave Chris Hedges of TruthDig from a leading intellectual, even one who’s been blacklisted by commercial media.

“It is very similar to late Weimar Germany,” Chomsky told me when I called him at his office in Cambridge, Mass. “The parallels are striking. There was also tremendous disillusionment with the parliamentary system. The most striking fact about Weimar was not that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.”

“The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen,” Chomsky went on. “Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.”


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“I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime,” Chomsky added. “I am old enough to remember the 1930s. My whole family was unemployed. There were far more desperate conditions than today. But it was hopeful. People had hope. The CIO was organizing. No one wants to say it anymore but the Communist Party was the spearhead for labor and civil rights organizing. Even things like giving my unemployed seamstress aunt a week in the country. It was a life. There is nothing like that now. The mood of the country is frightening. The level of anger, frustration and hatred of institutions is not organized in a constructive way. It is going off into self-destructive fantasies.”

This certainly fits with what I’ve read in recent polls. Many of the reasonable people are disillusioned, and the crazies are locked and loaded, prodded by Murdoch but not requiring his provocations to engage in criminal acts that will seriously undermine the fabric of trust in society. The crazies are very likely to win in November because the Democrats are unenthused, the independents are turned off by both parties, and the only really active folks are the Tea Partiers.

We needed an FDR and we got a Carter. But as Chomsky would say, no FDR could be elected or even nominated today, and what FDR did, after all, was bring a corrupt and failing system back to life, when it might have better to replace large portions of it.

I tried to paraphrase Finkelstein’s defense of Chomsky but I couldn’t come up with anything as good as what he said.

“Most intellectuals have a self-understanding of themselves as the conscience of humanity,” said the Middle East scholar Norman Finkelstein. “They revel in and admire someone like Vaclav Havel. Chomsky is contemptuous of Havel. Chomsky embraces the Julien Benda view of the world. There are two sets of principles. They are the principles of power and privilege and the principles of truth and justice. If you pursue truth and justice it will always mean a diminution of power and privilege. If you pursue power and privilege it will always be at the expense of truth and justice. Benda says that the credo of any true intellectual has to be, as Christ said, ‘my kingdom is not of this world.’ Chomsky exposes the pretenses of those who claim to be the bearers of truth and justice. He shows that in fact these intellectuals are the bearers of power and privilege and all the evil that attends it.”

“Some of Chomsky’s books will consist of things like analyzing the misrepresentations of the Arias plan in Central America, and he will devote 200 pages to it,” Finkelstein said. “And two years later, who will have heard of Oscar Arias? It causes you to wonder would Chomsky have been wiser to write things on a grander scale, things with a more enduring quality so that you read them forty or sixty years later. This is what Russell did in books like ‘Marriage and Morals.’ Can you even read any longer what Chomsky wrote on Vietnam and Central America? The answer has to often be no. This tells you something about him. He is not writing for ego. If he were writing for ego he would have written in a grand style that would have buttressed his legacy. He is writing because he wants to effect political change. He cares about the lives of people and there the details count. He is trying to refute the daily lies spewed out by the establishment media. He could have devoted his time to writing philosophical treatises that would have endured like Kant or Russell. But he invested in the tiny details which make a difference to win a political battle.”

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Posted by Chuck Dupree at April 24, 2010 06:30 PM
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In times like these, I am glad that indeed there is the national security state. I believe in it. And I don't believe that this will happen. I understand Chomsky's concerns but I think our national security state will ensure that it doesn't happen. If I'm wrong, color me naive and foolish and paranoid. I do think Chomsky left out liberals as part of the groups to be targeted though. So if you think Chomsky is right and believe so and are a liberal, I'd suggest that you be afraid, be very afraid.

Posted by: Buck on April 24, 2010 7:20 PM

I don't know, Buck. See http://motherjones.com/politics/2010/03/oath-keepers

There's a lot of inoculation talk from these tea partiers that seems meant to preempt the obvious German 1930s analogies. Right-wing demagogues accuse democratic pluralists of anti-democratic intentions, so that when believers in democracy turn to make the obvious comparisons regarding the demagogues, it's the democrats who seem to be merely saying "you're another." I even wonder if Beck chose to dress up in that mid-20th-C European uniform with the high-crowned cap in order to confuse critics into silence.

The big problem -- the one that stumped democrats in the 1930s -- is how to respond to the pervasive sense of disgust with usual politics. It's wrong to create a hate movement, and it's also wrong to find inspiration in furious polarized opposition to the hate movement, because that only magnifies the sense of disorder and thereby prepares timid citizens to welcome a strong hand. Koestler gets this right, although he's dishonest about so much else.

It's just damn difficult to come up with stirring slogans in favor of peaceful reasonableness.

Anyone want to start trying? In, um, kind of a hurry?

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on April 24, 2010 10:57 PM

Incidentally, I have never seen an article about Chomsky in which the writer refers to Chomsky referring to the "liberal elite". I thought that was a right wing invention. But here it is in an alternet story where the term appears:

http://www.alternet.org/story/146523/facing_the_threat_from_the_far_right%2C_noam_chomsky_says_he_%27has_never_seen_anything_like_this%27

This makes we wonder who the articles intended audience is. Because if there are any "liberal elite", they are definitely not on television or on radio media as commentators. Those guys on the teevee are what Joe Bageant calls corporatists. At least they were before I convinced my wife to give up television and we have not not watched except for the occasional glance when we are at the doctors office. I was in a waiting room at a doctors office waiting on my wife and one gentleman was in there watching Fox News. After about 15 minutes, I thought it might be my turn and I asked if I might turn the channel to C-Span. He grudgingly complied but I was somewhat horrified and embarrassed when Joe Lieberman appeared on the screen. About 5 minutes later my wife appeared and as I was leaving the guy made a veiled reference to his being a marksman and his superb gunmanship. I am quite certain that the comments were directed at me for my request to watch what I had hoped would be neutral political commentary. But to Fox News watchers, nothing but Fox news is neutral. Everything else is unfair and unbalanced, just like the minds of those who watch it and believe what they hear. Of course, even I was horrified to see Lieberman on at that particular moment.

Posted by: Buck on April 25, 2010 1:03 AM

...it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans...

Dude, those are the only Republicans we have left!

Far be it from me to argue with Noam Chomsky, but I do think there is an element here that was not available in Weimar Germany. That is the American character. No, this is not to say we are all wonderful and can be counted on to do the right thing. However, there is a pattern to history and one of the things it shows us is this: Americans will certainly put up with any number of groups or individuals getting screwed. But they will not tolerate everyone getting screwed. And that, more than anything, is the point at which we find ourselves now.

The other thing history teaches us is just how powerful a force ordinary Americans can be - when they are paying attention. [Dr. King understood this. Key to his strategy was making sure that the rest of the country realized how badly their fellow citizens were being treated. He was convinced that if the rest of America only knew what it was like for African-Americans in the South, it would demand that there be a change.] This is something our conservative friends definitely understand - and it is why they worked so diligently to capture our media. Their greatest fear has always been that people will figure out what they are really up to. Well, Americans are paying attention now. They can't help it. At the very least, they see the empty houses and the vacant storefronts, and they know how close to those things they are themselves. (And our media still rushes to take pictures of the sinkholes. I'm sure that will stop if anyone points out that this is a foreseeable result of not paying for anything for thirty years or so.)

I would also suggest we've had our dangerous charismatic already - Ronald Reagan. I think we are near the inevitable end of the process that Reagan started 30 years ago. Every con man knows that sooner or late the mark is going to figure out what happened. That, too, is where we are now. (Of course, not all the marks have tumbled to the con yet, as our Tea Party friends demonstrate.)

There will be violence - always. That, too, is part of the American character. The smashing of the windows of Democratic representatives carries eerie echoes of kristallnacht. So no matter what we choose to be optimistic about, we must still be vigilant. Kevin Phillips suggested in the wake of the 2000 election that we were seeing not the final triumph of conservatism, but its last gasp. The last gasps of a big, stupid, vicious animal can still do a lot of damage.

Posted by: Roddy McCorley on April 25, 2010 12:12 PM

*Everyone* never gets screwed. It's only foreigners, minorities, oddballs and troublemakers. The question is whether Americans in the safe categories give a shit about the rest, and history answers, frequently not.

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on April 25, 2010 1:11 PM

P.S. Is anyone compiling a list of products made in Arizona so we can boycott them? Or does Arizona actually make anything other than real estate?

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on April 25, 2010 1:33 PM

Arizona makes a few things but its economy is mostly based on tourism and real estate sales and development. Large scale telescope mirrors and the odd agricultural or mineral product are not really suitable for boycott but the canceling of conventions and most notably the Super Bowl is what got MLK day rescued from the yahoos who run the state.

Major League Baseball has a proliferation of Hispanics and is the obvious place to start putting pressure on the state but I doubt that it has the moral fortitude to use its immense power in the state which hosts 11 Spring training teams. When the NFL under pressure from its black players and some enlightened owners canceled its Super Bowl plans, the first cracks in the bigot mentality appeared. It was downhill from there.

The Republican leadership in the state is comprised of the usual nuts, whackos, and imbeciles (apologies to the free spirits and mental defectives I just slandered here). A boycott would affect what is the only thing that matters to them: the respect they get from their constituency and their pocketbooks.

These people are such born losers they will soon, I hope, find out that the best indicator of citizenship an Hispanic or Hispanic-looking person can hold is a voter registration card. Digging holes they are in deeper is their specialty.

Posted by: Albaz on April 25, 2010 4:02 PM

Lots of great comments!

Roddy makes some good points. Although I have to disagree about the American character being likely to stand up for someone else, I do agree that ordinary Americans can be a very powerful force, and if I believed in a God you could pray to I'd be praying that they become one, quickly. There have been times when a subset of Americans stood up for others, but they were widely vilified from then on by a very vocal and active minority, and the majority allowed it to happen. I don't think we can count on the goodness of Americans if a charismatic comes along. That goodness is enough in the current circumstance, but an American Hitler would blow it away, I'm afraid.

I would add that I don't think Reagan was anywhere near what Chomsky means by a charismatic leader. Ronnie was no more charismatic than JFK, for example, at least in my book. What Chomsky means is somebody like a Huey Long, an actual leader, not someone like Reagan who had to be led to the bathroom, had no ideas of his own, and was only good at reading the teleprompter. Not someone who can be a charismatic figurehead, but an actual organizer, a person at the center of decision-making like Hitler.

I agree also that the right fears the distribution of knowledge, which is why they tried to control the major media, and succeeded. Now they have an enormous problem: the internet can't be controlled. As Emmanuel Todd says in After the Empire, literacy and the intrusion of knowledge usually result in internal violence. The heartland is being forced to become knowledgeable about the outside world, and it isn't happy about that.

One problem is that the Democrats also fear the distribution of knowledge, but they fear different knowledge. Chomsky, of course, would say that the Democrats are part of the right.

Finally, Albaz's comment suggests one thing people might do to exert pressure: write to Major League Baseball and tell them you'll never attend a spring-training game in Arizona. Write to your team if they winter there and complain. It's true that MLB has no moral fortitude, in fact no morals at all; but fans can reshape its external behavior by voting with their feet.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on April 25, 2010 4:41 PM

Here's an idea. I wonder if any of the Hispanic or Latin ballplayers, each of whom is presumably papered out the wazoo and completely legal, would take it upon themselves to circulate in the community during spring training, not in uniform or wearing any baseball gear. If one of them got taken into a police office, it would be national news and provoke worldwide ridicule.

Posted by: Chuck Dupree on April 25, 2010 4:49 PM

Good point about baseball. This is quite a few teams that play in Scottsdale Stadium:
http://www.scottsdaleaz.gov/stadium/springtraining.asp

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on April 25, 2010 6:50 PM

Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, list of corporate members:
http://www.azchamber.com/membership/corporate-members

Posted by: Martha Bridegam on April 25, 2010 11:36 PM
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