- The more one dissents from political orthodoxies, the more the attacks focus on personality, style and character.
Noam Chomsky, delivering the Edward W. Said lecture in London on 18 March 2013 Photograph: guardian.co.uk
(updated below – Update II [Sun.])
One very common tactic for enforcing political orthodoxies is to malign the character, “style” and even mental health of those who challenge them. The most extreme version of this was an old Soviet favorite: to declare political dissidents mentally ill and put them in hospitals. In the US, those who take even the tiniest steps outside of political convention are instantly decreed “crazy”, as happened to the 2002 anti-war version of Howard Dean and the current iteration of Ron Paul (in most cases, what is actually “crazy” are the political orthodoxies this tactic seeks to shield from challenge).
This method is applied with particular aggression to those who engage in any meaningful dissent against the society’s most powerful factions and their institutions. Nixon White House officials sought to steal the files from Daniel Ellsberg‘s psychoanalyst’s office precisely because they knew they could best discredit his disclosures with irrelevant attacks on his psyche. Identically, the New York Times and partisan Obama supporters have led the way in depicting both Bradley Manning and Julian Assange as mentally unstable outcasts with serious personality deficiencies. The lesson is clear: only someone plagued by mental afflictions would take such extreme steps to subvert the power of the US government.
A subtler version of this technique is to attack the so-called “style” of the critic as a means of impugning, really avoiding, the substance of the critique. Although Paul Krugman is comfortably within mainstream political thought as a loyal Democrat and a New York Times columnist, his relentless attack against the austerity mindset is threatening to many. As a result, he is barraged with endless, substance-free complaints about his “tone”: he is too abrasive, he does not treat opponents with respect, he demonizes those who disagree with him, etc. The complaints are usually devoid of specifics to prevent meaningful refutation; one typical example: “[Krugman] often cloakshis claims in professional authority, overstates them, omits arguments that undermine his case, and is a bit of a bully.” All of that enables the substance of the critique to be avoided in lieu of alleged personality flaws.
Nobody has been subjected to these vapid discrediting techniques more than Noam Chomsky. The book on which I’m currently working explores how establishment media systems restrict the range of acceptable debate in US political discourse, and I’m using Chomsky’s treatment by (and ultimate exclusion from) establishment US media outlets as a window for understanding how that works. As a result, I’ve read a huge quantity of media discussions about Chomsky over the past year. And what is so striking is that virtually every mainstream discussion of him at some point inevitably recites the same set of personality and stylistic attacks designed to malign his advocacy without having to do the work of engaging the substance of his claims. Notably, these attacks come most frequently and viciously from establishment liberal venues, such as when the American Prospect’s 2005 foreign policy issue compared him to Dick Cheney on its cover (a cover he had framed and now proudly hangs on his office wall).
Last week, Chomsky was in London to give the annual Edward W. Said lecture, and as always happens when he speaks, the large auditorium was filled to the brim, having sold out shortly after it was announced. The Guardian’s Aida Edemariam interviewed him in London and produced an article, published Saturday morning, that features virtually all of those standard stylistic and personality critiques:
“When he starts speaking, it is in a monotone that makes no particular rhetorical claim on the audience’s attention; in fact, it’s almost soporific . . . . Within five minutes many of the hallmarks of Chomsky’s political writing, and speaking, are displayed: his anger, his extraordinary range of reference and experience . . . . . Fact upon fact upon fact, but also a withering, sweeping sarcasm – the atrocities are ‘tolerated politely by Europe as usual’. Harsh, vivid phrases – the ‘hideously charred corpses of murdered infants’; bodies ‘writhing in agony’ – unspool until they become almost a form of punctuation.
“You could argue that the latter is necessary, simply a description of atrocities that must be reported, but it is also a method that has diminishing returns. The facts speak for themselves; the adjectives and the sarcasm have the counterintuitive effect of cheapening them, of imposing on the world a disappointingly crude and simplistic argument. ‘The sentences,’ wrote Larissa MacFarquhar in a brilliant New Yorker profile of Chomsky 10 years ago, ‘are accusations of guilt, but not from a position of innocence or hope for something better: Chomsky’s sarcasm is the scowl of a fallen world, the sneer of hell’s veteran to its appalled naifs’ – and thus, in an odd way, static and ungenerative. . . .
“But he answers questions warmly, and seriously, if not always directly – a surprise, in a way, from someone who has earned a reputation for brutality of argument, and a need to win at all costs. ‘There really is an alpha-male dominance psychology at work there,’ a colleague once said of him. ‘He has some of the primate dominance moves. The staring down. The withering tone of voice.” Students have been known to visit him in pairs, so that one can defend the other. . . .
“Chomsky, the son of Hebrew teachers who emigrated from Ukraine and Russia at the turn of the last century, began as a Zionist – but the sort of Zionist who wanted a socialist state in which Jews and Arabs worked together as equals. Since then he has been accused of antisemitism (due to defending the right to free speech of a French professor who espoused such views, some 35 years ago), and been called, by the Nation, ‘America’s most prominent self-hating Jew’. These days he argues tirelessly for the rights of Palestinians. . . . . Does he think that in all these years of talking and arguing and writing, he has ever changed one specific thing?”
So to recap: Chomsky is a sarcastic, angry, soporific, scowling, sneering self-hating Jew, devoid of hope and speaking from hell, whose alpha-male brutality drives him to win at all costs, and who imposes on the world disappointingly crude and simplistic arguments to the point where he is so inconsequential that one wonders whether he has ever changed even a single thing in his 60 years of political work.
Edemariam includes several other passages more balanced and even complimentary. She notes his academic accolades (“One study of the most frequently cited academic sources of all time found that he ranked eighth, just below Plato and Freud”), his mastery of facts, his willingness to speak to hostile audiences, his touching life-long relationship with his now-deceased wife, and his remarkable commitment, even at the age of 84, to personally answering emails from people around the world whom he does not know (when I spoke at a college near Rochester two weeks ago, one of the students, a college senior studying to be a high school social studies teacher, gushed as he told me that he had emailed Chomsky and quickly received a very generous personal reply). She also includes Chomsky’s answer to her question about whether he has ever changed anything: a characteristically humble explanation that no one person – not even Martin Luther King – can or ever has by themselves changed anything.
But the entire piece is infused with these standard personality caricatures that offer the reader an easy means of mocking, deriding and scorning Chomsky without having to confront a single fact he presents. And that’s the point: as this 9-minute Guardian video excerpt about Iran and the Middle East from Chomsky’s London speech demonstrates, he rationally but aggressively debunks destructive mainstream falsehoods that huge numbers of people are taught to tacitly embrace. But all of that can be, and is, ignored in favor of hating his “style”, ridiculing his personality, and smearing him with horrible slurs (“self-hating Jew”).
What’s particularly strange about this set of personality and style attacks is what little relationship they bear to reality. Far from being some sort of brutal, domineering, and angry “alpha-male” savage, Chomsky – no matter your views of him – is one of the most soft-spoken and unfailingly civil and polite political advocates on the planet. It’s true that his critiques of those who wield power and influence can be withering – that’s the central function of an effective critic or just a human being with a conscience – but one would be hard-pressed to find someone as prominent as he who is as steadfastly polite and considerate and eager to listen when it comes to interacting with those who are powerless and voiceless. His humanism is legion. And far from being devoid of hope, it’s almost impossible to find an establishment critic more passionate and animated when talking about the ability of people to join together to create real social and political change.
Then there’s Edemariam’s statement, offered with no citation, that Chomsky has been called “America’s most prominent self-hating Jew” by the left-wing Nation magazine. This claim, though often repeated and obviously very serious, is inaccurate.
The Nation article which she seems to be referencing is not available online except by subscription. But what is freely available online is a 1993 article on Chomsky from the Chicago Tribune that makes clear that this did not come from the Nation itself, but from a single writer who, more importantly, was not himself calling Chomsky a “self-hating Jew” but was simply noting that this ishow he is often attacked (“one critic observed that Chomsky has ‘acquired the reputation as America’s most prominent self-hating Jew.'”). In 2010, the scholarly website 3 Quarks Daily noted an article on Chomsky from The Telegraph that also claimed without citation that “the Left-wing Nation magazine  called him ‘America’s most prominent self-hating Jew'”. Inquiries in the comment section for the source citation for this quote prompted this reply:
“I know this is a few years old, but the citation for the ‘most prominent self-hating Jew’ quote is: Morton, Brian. ‘Chomsky Then and Now.’ Nation 246, no. 18 (May 7, 1988): 646-652.
“With access to a full-text archive of The Nation, it took me only a few minutes to locate this. The full quote in context is ‘If Chomsky has acquired the reputation of being America’s most prominent self-hating Jew, this is because, in the United States, discussion about the Middle East has until recently taken place within very narrow bounds.’
“As you can see the point was quite the opposite of how it was presented. The Nation often includes different perspectives so attributing one reviewer’s comment to ‘The Nation’ as a whole would be dishonest anyway.
“Regardless of that however, the reviewer was actually making the point that Chomsky’s views only seem far out because the spectrum is so limited. . . . .This is just another example of the kind of lazy, dishonest way in which Chomsky’s views are generally reported.”
Having myself retrieved a full copy of Morton’s 1988 article, I can say with certainty that this comment is indeed 100% accurate. Even leaving aside the sloppiness of attributing one article by a freelance writer to “the Nation” itself, it is wildly inaccurate – on the substance – to claim that the Nation labelled Chomsky a “self-hating Jew”:
The oft-repeated claim that Chomsky has “been called, by the Nation,
‘America’s most prominent self-hating Jew'” is simply false. If anything, that Nation article debunked that accusation, and certainly did not embrace it.
But the strangest attack on Chomsky is the insinuation that he has changed nothing. Aside from the metrics demonstrating that he has more reach and influence than virtually any public intellectual in the world, some of which Edemariam cites, I’d say that there is no living political writer who has more radically changed how more people think in more parts of the world about political issues than he. If you accept the premise (as I do) that the key to political change is to convince people of pervasive injustice and the need to act, then it’s virtually laughable to depict him as inconsequential. Washington power-brokers and their media courtiers do not discuss him, and he does not make frequent (or any) appearances on US cable news outlets, but outside of those narrow and insular corridors – meaning around the world – few if any political thinkers are as well-known, influential or admired (to its credit, the Guardian, like some US liberal outlets, does periodically publish Chomsky’s essays).
Like any person with a significant political platform, Chomsky is fair game for all sorts of criticisms. Like anyone else, he should be subjected to intense critical and adversarial scrutiny. Even admirers should listen to his (and everyone else’s) pronouncements with a critical ear. Like anyone who makes prolific political arguments over the course of many years, he’s made mistakes.
But what is at play here is this destructive dynamic that the more one dissents from political orthodoxies, the more personalized, style-focused and substance-free the attacks become. That’s because once someone becomes sufficiently critical of establishment pieties, the goal is not merely to dispute their claims but to silence them. That’s accomplished by demonizing the person on personality and style grounds to the point where huge numbers of people decide that nothing they say should even be considered, let alone accepted. It’s a sorry and anti-intellectual tactic, to be sure, but a brutally effective one.
One of the passages from Edemariam’s Guardian article that I quoted above has now been edited. The article originally stated: “Since then he has been accused of antisemitism (due to defending the right to free speech of a French professor who espoused such views, some 35 years ago). . . “, but has now been changed (with an editor’s note appended to the bottom) as follows: “Since then he has been accused of antisemitism (due to defending some 35 years ago the right to free speech of a French professor who was later convicted of Holocaust denial). . . ” I note this to avoid any confusion, not because it affects any of the points I have raised here, especially the inaccurate attribution to the Nation as having called Chomsky a “self-hating Jew”.
UPDATE II [Sun.]
The following editor’s note has now been appended to Edemariam’s Guardian article:
“This article was further amended on 24 March 2013. An incorrect reference to Chomsky having been called ‘America’s most prominent self-hating Jew’ has been deleted. The error was the result of a quote being misconstrued.”
That correction will hopefully put an end to this oft-repeated myth.
- How Noam Chomsky is discussed | Glenn Greenwald (guardian.co.uk)
- | Noam Chomsky: ‘No individual changes anything alone!’ (truthaholics.wordpress.com)
- Noam Chomsky: The Amazing Rise and Fall of Presumption of Innocence (readersupportednews.org)
- Noam Chomsky and Me (therebel.org)
- Noam Chomsky: ‘No individual changes anything alone’ (guardian.co.uk)
- Lunch with Noam Chomsky (3quarksdaily.com)
- The Ten Best Noam Chomsky Quotes (prosebeforehos.com)