How some in the left-liberal commentariat think


I have written before of how one failing of our politics is that it focuses more on how we feel about the people who are on the side of the issues, and less on the issues themselves. Here is another example of that phenomenon, with a contributor to the liberal website Balloon-Juice smacking down Noam Chomsky.

The guy hasn’t been relevant to pretty much anything in about three decades, and hasn’t said anything different or original in that time either. To say nothing of the fact that his understanding of actual living people and what motivates them has never been any deeper than the superficial academic level as we all know. Isn’t it precious how much the right wing, generally populated by people with the same 1/4-inch deep intellectual understanding of actual human beings as Chomsky himself is so excited about this?

This is a remarkably dismissive critique of one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, who has inspired and energized and educated many generations of people all over the globe for half a century with his untiring work on behalf of the poor and oppressed and his exposure of right-wing, military-corporate-media, oligarchical, neocolonial structures. So what did Chomsky say that was able to generate this diatribe? Brace yourselves because he praised something that Sarah Palin said! Here is his ghastly transgression, made in an interview on Democracy Now:

Noam Chomsky, who’s written over 100 books, has said the former Alaska governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee was right about Barack Obama’s 2008 election slogans.

“I don’t usually admire Sarah Palin, but when she was making fun of this ‘hopey-changey’ stuff, she was right,” the noted linguist told Democracy Now.

Yes, he actually agreed with Palin that Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogans were just ‘marketing pablum’. Heresy! Surely Chomsky is smart enough to realize that politics means taking sides around people and not around issues, and at the current time the organizing principle in the liberal wing is ‘Obama=good, Palin=bad’. You must never, ever violate that maxim. If you do, you will be banished. Didn’t he get the memo?

Actually, if you read the other comments he made in the link that was given, you see that what Chomsky said was consistent with his long-time views of the toxic nexus between politics and marketing in the US.

Comments

  1. Al Dente says

    It is a truism in political science that the talents required to be elected are not the talents required to be an effective office holder.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Does a point have to be “different or original” to be valid?

    Chomsky’s core insights about power and discourse haven’t changed much over the decades, but he continues to apply them usefully and cogently. Though I feel I grasped (as much as I can of) Chomsky’s basic framework years ago, I keep on reading and learning from what he has to say because he still presents quotations and historical context exactly apropos to the points he makes, illuminating new crises in ways that gives them depth and trajectory.

    I’ve had a lot fewer disappointments from Noam Chomsky than I have from Barack Obama, but at least the former prepared me for the latter. Maybe the Balloon Juice guy should stick with Stephen Colbert – hey, sometimes he does hip-hop!

  3. says

    I think there is a tendency of many people, across the political spectrum to, to be very hostile to criticisms of leaders. I am not sure if this is because many people are somewhat authoritarian, or some other reason, but they expect everyone to toe the line and simply not be critical of those who may be on their side.

  4. wtfwhatever says

    “This is a remarkably dismissive critique of one of the world’s leading public intellectuals,”

    I think Mano, you are missing the forest for the trees,

    This is a remarkably dismissive critique of a human that disagrees with the commenter.

    And this sort of remarkably dismissive critique of a dissenter is found in way too many places on the net, and is rarely challenged by the in group.

    It thrives at FreeThoughtBlogs, especially at PZ’s, Zvan’s, Benson’s, Christina’s, Carrier’s blogs.

    I have seen it in your blog comments.

    I am certain it occurs in comments at conservative blogs, but it certainly is found at every major progressive website or blog, including Kos, HuffPo, Salon, Slate, … it’s ubiquitous, and it’s destructive.

  5. R Johnston says

    The problem with your reasoning, and Chomsky’s, is that context matters. When Palin criticizes Obama’s “hopey changey” bullshit for being bullshit what she’s saying is that Obama is a black democrat who deliberatlly lies to people in an effort to gosd them into supporting the imposition of communism and the total destruction of Democracy. Palin’s criticism of Obama in this case is inseparable from incoherent anti-rational right wing rage. Palin is emphatically not saying that Obama’s use of ostensibly inspirational political rhetoric was merely bog-standard political empty words. When Palin makes fun of “hopey changey” it is a call for impeachment and the imposition of christian theocracy, not a call for honesty from politicians.

    The problem with your reasoning is the same problem that exists when ostensible lefties voice support for Ron Paul Ron Paul is anti-war because he’s a xenophobic isolationist bent on disempowering the federal government to enable state level theocracy, and that matters when one decides whether to support him for being anti-war.

  6. smhll says

    Summary: Palin derides Obama’s “hope-y, change-y” slogan. Chomsky gives a thumbs up to Palin’s insight. Balloon-juice writer derides Chomsky.

    I’d like less derision and more substance. The B-J writer is awfully close to ad hom-ing Chomsky. (Sounds like he’s saying “we shouldn’t listen to this guy because…”) I can’t speak to whether his impetus comes from some kind of extreme Palinphobia. (I don’t like her, but it is, I suppose, possible to over-react to her.)

    Bland, hopeful slogans helped get Ronald Reagan elected. “It’s morning in America.”

    Slogans don’t substitute for well thought out policy. But well thought out policy makes terrible bumper stickers and terrible sound bites on the evening news. (I like that Obama often makes very nuanced and thoughtful statements when he speaks on the issue. Something that I didn’t see Palin doing much. Ahem.)

  7. unbound says

    The guy … hasn’t said anything different or original in that time

    Nothing really to say that is different or original when the masses still don’t get it and haven’t changed.

    According to Soonergrunt’s (author of the blurb) philosophy, we should excessively disappointed by physics since they never really change either. Heck, when was the last time they changed how you run doing the 100 meter dash. And don’t get me started about how these cars drive the same way for the past 100 years or so….

  8. says

    Oh the horror… someone on the (REAL) Left gave a right-winger credit for getting something right once. That’s one step away from treason!

    And look at the complaint in the first comment: Chomsky has principles, and he talks about them in public! He doesn’t compromise his principles to score meaningless political points! What an evil, stupid person!

  9. Jeffrey Johnson says

    What is annoying about Chomsky’s point in praising Palin is that it seems like a bitter jab at the people he knows it will annoy rather than a sincere crediting of Palin with making an astute and insightful judgement about the state of American politics. We know how Palin arrived at the Hopey Changey thing, and it wasn’t from a standpoint of an intellectual critique of political marketing, but rather from her mean girl id, which was only calculating a way to smear her opponent’s image so that she could advance her own shallow political marketing messages like “country first” or “the real America”. So there is something fundamentally dishonest about Chomsky’s point.

    Not that I’m defending the baloon juice contributor, who should have avoided the ad hominem and dealt directly with what Chomsky said about Palin and why it was lacking in value or importance. His remarks are probably more related to his economic struggle to get noticed and establish credentials, and attacking big names is frequently a tactic used by young up and comers to gin up controversy that might translate into financial reward. Of course lots of that logic probably happens unconsciously, but nonetheless it seems real to me.

    Regarding “Hope” and “Change”, personally those slogans were meaningful to me, because since the day of the Bush v Gore decision I was quite full of despair and without hope for the country in very many respects. I didn’t blame Bush for 9/11, but I hated his responses to it, especially the war in Iraq, the implementation of a torture regime, the expansion of state secrets privilege from merely blocking specific evidence to blocking entire trials, and the simple minded way in which he dumbed down his foreign policy ideals and objectives. Overall, I felt ashamed for the country every time he opened his mouth publicly.

    When Obama ran I knew better than to expect miracles, and judging from much of the criticism of Obama from the left, seemingly based on pure emotional moral intuition with very little context of the practical limits, constraints, and obstacles imposed by the realities of many nations, many interests, and many conflicting struggles competing for attention, power, and control, it doesn’t seem too far fetched to think that this anger is caused as much by the disappointment of extremely idealistic and overinflated expectations as it is by the shortcomings of Obama.

    Did “hope and change” cause those expectations? When I listened to Obama campaign, I didn’t just listen to him talk about the great changes to come, but I paid attention to remarks where he said he can’t do it alone, that it’s the beginning of a long journey, and that it won’t be easy. So many people had their hope crushed by the time 2010 midterms rolled around because we didn’t have single payer or a public option, or because Obama hadn’t yet purged the nation of every bad conservative idea and established a liberal paradise yet. They failed to notice that some valuable and good concrete changes had been accomplished, and they failed to realize that change was neither quick nor easy.

    I have had disappointments with Obama, and I’ve written about some of them in other threads on this blog. But compared to the direction the country was taking under Bush, there have been some notable changes, and these are enough to transform me from a feeling of total despair to a position where hope is possible. In case anyone hasn’t noticed, every step of the way Obama has been backstabbed by Republicans, slandered by the conservative media, and consequently he has to walk a fine line in order to survive politically at all. The GOP was able to hand him a crushing defeat in 2010 using deceitful misrepresentations to stir up white anxiety and irrational fear of Obamacare, while the left collapsed like a limp noodle and let the right get away with it because “Boo hoo, I wanted a public option” or “I wanted Guantanamo closed, waaaah”, or “Obama is just a Republican in disguise”. Any reasonably informed person could have understood the political and budgetary reasons those things were not acheived, and they weren’t Obama’s fault. And to fail to make the distinction between Obama’s positions and Republican positions was simply ignorant.

    Regarding marketing and politics, I don’t blame the politicians as much as I blame people for these things. If people respond to politics emotionally without developing a keener sense of what the facts and realities are, then politicians can get away with that stuff. At some level, a politician has to do what is needed to get elected. If you believe in yourself and think you can do some good, you really have no choice but to play the game by the rules that the public responds to at the voting booth. If the people wise up, the politicians will need to change.

    I would like to see laws limiting the role of money, requiring full disclosure, and possibly even some kind of truth in advertising restrictions on political lying. I know this last would be hard to implement, but the one thing that gives me hope is that our trial system has rules for witness testimony and evidence that enable a somewhat objective evaluation of what kinds of statements are permissable and what statements are not. There is some reason to believe that a rigorous standard could be developed that detected and could objectively punish the worst kinds of political lying in advertising. Certainly the deliberate out-of-context deceptive video editing of your opponent’s words could be prevented in some way.

  10. R Johnston says

    Jeffrey Johnson @9:

    We know how Palin arrived at the Hopey Changey thing, and it wasn’t from a standpoint of an intellectual critique of political marketing, but rather from her mean girl id, which was only calculating a way to smear her opponent’s image so that she could advance her own shallow political marketing messages like “country first” or “the real America”. So there is something fundamentally dishonest about Chomsky’s point.

    Not that I’m defending the baloon juice contributor, who should have avoided the ad hominem and dealt directly with what Chomsky said about Palin and why it was lacking in value or importance.

    When the Balloon Juice poster says about Chomsky:

    To say nothing of the fact that his understanding of actual living people and what motivates them has never been any deeper than the superficial academic level as we all know.</he's saying exactly what you want him to say in substance, just not so nicely or beating around the bush.

    Chomsky in his agreement with Palin by taking her at face value effectively attributes some sort of good faith reasonableness to her, while in the real world Palin is an exemplar of bad faith idiocy. She is the mean girl con artist marketing herself to the stupidest of rubes. This is a pattern with Chomsky. He willfully fails to understand people's motivations and thereby fails to understand what they're actually saying. Attributing good faith reasonableness to Palin is merely the latest and a perfect example of "the fact that [Chomsky's] understanding of actual living people and what motivates them has [is not] any deeper than the superficial academic level."

  11. R Johnston says

    Ack. Blockquote fail. Sorry.

    Jeffrey Johnson @9:

    We know how Palin arrived at the Hopey Changey thing, and it wasn’t from a standpoint of an intellectual critique of political marketing, but rather from her mean girl id, which was only calculating a way to smear her opponent’s image so that she could advance her own shallow political marketing messages like “country first” or “the real America”. So there is something fundamentally dishonest about Chomsky’s point.

    Not that I’m defending the baloon juice contributor, who should have avoided the ad hominem and dealt directly with what Chomsky said about Palin and why it was lacking in value or importance.

    When the Balloon Juice poster says about Chomsky:

    To say nothing of the fact that his understanding of actual living people and what motivates them has never been any deeper than the superficial academic level as we all know.

    he’s saying exactly what you want him to say in substance, just not so nicely or beating around the bush.

    Chomsky in his agreement with Palin by taking her at face value effectively attributes some sort of good faith reasonableness to her, while in the real world Palin is an exemplar of bad faith idiocy. She is the mean girl con artist marketing herself to the stupidest of rubes. This is a pattern with Chomsky. He willfully fails to understand people’s motivations and thereby fails to understand what they’re actually saying. Attributing good faith reasonableness to Palin is merely the latest and a perfect example of “the fact that [Chomsky’s] understanding of actual living people and what motivates them has [is not] any deeper than the superficial academic level.”

  12. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Okay, good point. Perhaps he did get the criticism mostly right.

    It seems on first glance like there was an unnecessary effort to dehumanize Chomsky. I think Chomsky is mostly very sincere in his analysis, and brutally honest, and there is value in his perspective.

    But I have to admit, there is a kind of almost manic vindictiveness, and his critiques seem coldly logical, with an odd detachment from the awareness of the chaos and fallibility of human nature, as if his thinking is coming from the high functioning end of the autism spectrum. I don’t mean that as a slight to Chomsky. We are all what we are born to be, and Chomsky is obviously brilliant and hard working and very well meaning, but he comes across to me as excessively bitter, which like it or not, impacts his effectiveness as a communicator to the more mundanely featured merely average humans.

    It may be this aspect of Chomsky that contributes to the main stream media ignoring him as much as it does, because he doesn’t play well emotionally, which in its own right is a very shallow perspective on the part of the main stream media and its consumer base. But also he too often challenges the convenient fictions that comfort the more mediocre minds. The main stream and the appetites of popular culture, ironically epitomized by “Survivor” type reality shows, always remind me of “Lord of the Flies”. The numerous majority of hangers-on desperately seeking models and icons to cling to, are savage and tribal, while Chomsky is a unique independent thinker, a loner like John the Baptist calling out in the wilderness with a message that deserves to be taken seriously. It may be his somehow super-human focus and intensity that alienates the superficial typical members of ordinary humanity from him.

  13. Pierce R. Butler says

    … Chomsky … comes across to me as excessively bitter…

    If you want somebody to discuss chronic lies, corruption, and wholesale crimes against humanity with little smiley faces and hearts all over – well, hell, Noam’s not your guy.

    Maybe you should try these folks.

    Chomsky himself says he declines the vast majority of corporate media invitations because they want him to speak in short sound bites, and nobody can explain anything outside the conventional framework that way.

    It may be his somehow super-human focus and intensity that alienates the superficial typical members of ordinary humanity from him.

    [bragbrag] I’ve spoken to Noam one-on-one, face-to-face, twice. [/bragbrag] He’s friendly, patient, listens carefully and speaks clearly, without jargon or pretentiousness. When you see someone only via recorded speeches, he or she will always seem to be delivering a lecture…

  14. MNb says

    A skeptic worth that name is always willing to consider the validity of the statements of his/her opponents. Yes, even Flat Earthers and YECers can have a point.

  15. jamessweet says

    I tend to feel Chomsky is overrated. Hopefully I am allowed to think that ;p OTOH, yeah, he’s exactly right in this case, and it’s weird that this would inspire such a diatribe. The only thing I might say in response s that Obama’s slogans weren’t any more vapid than any other politician in the last who-knows-how-many-decades (and maybe, forever — how much you wanna bet that when Ingluk was running for first tribal elder, he promised “Mammoth skull you can believe in”?). But that doesn’t make Chomsky wrong about it by any means. And it’s important we keep pointing that out. Just because the emperor’s been naked for thousands of years doesn’t mean we should stop pointing it out.

  16. brucegee1962 says

    It sounds to me like h’s just making a standard rhetorical flourish — as in “My point is so obvious that even someone of limited intelligence can grasp it.” As such, it doesn’t really seem worth all this discussion.

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