Manufacturing Dissent: Noam Chomsky and the Crisis of the Western Left
Morley, Gareth, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion
A FEW WEEKS AFTER THE ATTACKS ON THE WORLD TRADE CENTER, I was in a slightly funky bookstore in Vancouver. It was just at the moment when it was becoming obvious that, despite the fears of our leaders and the hopes of our enemies, no suicide hijackings were going to interfere with North American shopping habits. The bookstore itself confirmed the resilience of consumption: except for the somewhat greater prominence of books on anthrax and Afghanistan, the scene would have been completely indistinguishable from the same store on September 10. As a foot soldier in the battle to maintain aggregate demand, I picked up a book about the Taliban and Central Asian politics, and took my place in the purchase lineup.
A thin young man in a baggy jacket had started a conversation with the hipper-looking clerk about his purchase, a collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky, containing the great linguist's thoughts about the attacks of the month before. (1) Both were of the view that the United States had brought the attacks upon itself and was planning reprisals against Afghan civilians. I started to turn a little red. As a Canadian, I am opposed to intervening in conversations in shopping lines or on public transit, particularly if to do so would risk provoking controversy. But September 11 was recent enough that I felt a little ashamed of my Canadian scruples. Still, I likely would have remained silent had the customer not announced, "It must be true if it's in Chomsky," with neither irony in his voice nor opposition from the clerk. I replied in what I like to remember as a sweetly reasonable voice, "Chomsky's an apologist for genocide." (2)
They looked nonplussed. I told them that Chomsky, in a book still in print, had favourably compared the Khmer Rouge to the French Resistance. (3) The clerk gave me the kind of glassy-eyed look typically reserved for insistent adherents of Esperanto or veganism and said, "You certainly seem to know a lot about it, sir." The customer and clerk shared a smile; I paid for my purchase and walked away grumbling, feeling like a complete crank. I was surprised and a little embarrassed at my own vehemence, but reactions to Chomsky do tend toward the passionate.
Even Chomsky's greatest defenders do not claim he has a way with words. One of the century's greatest students of human language, he is nonetheless incomprehensible. As a political writer, he has two rhetorical styles: laboured irony and numbing detail. Many years ago, his publishers realized that transcribed interviews would sell better than the books he actually writes.
Chomsky refuses to talk about himself; he claims he will not watch Manufacturing Consent, a 1995 National Film Board of Canada movie about his political ideas, because he does not want to encourage a cult of personality. (4) More than almost any other political figure, he claims objectivity and factualness. Still, Chomsky inspires intense feelings of aversion or devotion, quite unlike the bored indifference most radical academics can expect.
There is no denying Chomsky's influence. More than six months after the September 11 attacks, his book on the subject ranks 191st on amazon.com, and he has two other books in the top 2,000--a result few writers of any kind, and no political writer, can match. Manufacturing Consent ranks as among the most viewed documentaries of all time. (5) Despite his claim that he is censored by the American media, Chomsky is among its 100 most-cited intellectuals, and some 90 per cent of those citations concern his political rather than linguistic writing. (6) An entire network of "alternative" media--Z Magazine, Pacifica Radio, South End Press--repeat his every word, while, as federal judge and legal scholar Richard Posner has shown, more mainstream sources give him considerable attention. Despite his complaints of total marginalization, Chomsky is a major part of the American political scene.
Chomsky has played mentor to three generations of leftists: to the 1968 generation, he was the cool, rational prosecutor of the Cold War: in the 70s, he fiercely denounced anyone with misgivings about the new Communist regimes of Indochina; in the 80s, those of us politicized by the movements against apartheid and American intervention in Central America relied on Chomsky for the kind of argumentation we could not get from Jello Biafra or The Clash. (7) The Cold War is now over, the generation of 1968 is threatening only in the actuarial sense, The Clash has given way to Rage Against the Machine, but Chomsky still sells.
Chomsky remains loyal to 1960s anti-imperialist orthodoxy. During the 90s, when much of the Left was decrying the callous indifference of Western powers to ethnic violence and calling for intervention in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda/Burundi, Sudan and less prominent places, Chomsky argued that the main enemy was, in fact, Western "military humanism." The emergence of the anti-globalization movement, with its fury at international institutions and its hostility to "Third Way" ideas about using markets to further the traditional goals of the Left, demonstrates that these issues remain alive.
Before 1989 and the fall of the Soviet Union, the Left had been divided between reformists and revolutionaries. The new division was between those who seek to envelop Western military hegemony and the global market in international, social-democratic institutions and those who see these institutions as themselves the principal vehicle for elite assault on the people of the world. Since September 11, these latter divisions have become increasingly bitter. Chomsky is important as the leading intellectual of the anti-globalization movement, as well as its living link with the Old Left of the 1930s and the New Left of the 1960s.
Surprisingly, though, Chomsky has had little serious critical attention as a political thinker. There are a number of book-length treatments of Chomsky's political thought by acolytes, (8) and he has conducted lengthy polemical exchanges with American intellectuals about the Middle East, Central America, and American foreign policy in general, in magazines like The New Republic and The Nation; Posner has recently collected some of Chomsky's more outrageous statements as evidence of the follies of academics who speak publicly outside their areas of specialization. (9) But despite the fact that Chomsky puts forward his political views as social science, there have been few attempts to subject his "science" to rigorous criticism.
Chomsky's body of political writing is enormous. His primary political influence has been as a critic of liberal thinking on American foreign policy and of the American media--particularly the quality, establishment newspapers …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Manufacturing Dissent: Noam Chomsky and the Crisis of the Western Left. Contributors: Morley, Gareth - Author. Magazine title: Inroads: A Journal of Opinion. Issue: 12 Publication date: Spring 2003. Page number: 84+. © 1996 Inroads, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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