Friday, October 06, 2006

Counterculture's Saint Chomsky Goes Mainstream

“You know, we’re not living in a fascist state,” he says. “We don’t have to face torture chambers and secret police and so on. Consumerism is a much easier threat to face than torture chambers."

I should say so. But is there anything here that "vindicates" Chomsky?

All we've got to go on is that nobody bothers trying to bust up Chomsky's lecture events anymore and most Americans are now as despairing, cynical, alienated and overcome by hopelessness as Chomsky was when he started writing counterculture critiques almost 40 years ago.

This is progress?

Chomsky looks on the bright side: "I mean, we have every possible opportunity, and an incomparable legacy of freedom, of privilege, of opportunity, and there’s numbers that I’ve never seen involved, engaged, and concerned."

America the Beautiful, then.

But still, the hopelessness, which Chomsky attributes to the erosion of unions, the general atomizing trend of America's consumer society, increasing debt loads borne by ordinary people, a growing materialism, and the stagnation of real wages: "I mean, if you’re working 50 hours a week to try to maintain family income, and your children have the kinds of aspirations that come from being flooded with television from age one, and associations have declined, people end up hopeless, even though they have every option.”

Nervermind that last contradiction. In his conversation with Brian Lynch, Chomsky succinctly and accurately describes certain objective conditions, as we used to say, that prevail among most Americans. But it's his analysis I don't quite buy: The 1960s was a golden age, and we're all still suffering from the establishment's backlash against all the great things that were accomplished in that decade - in fact "we're in the middle of that period now."

I know it's apostasy for hippie geezers and other 60s' enthusiasts to contemplate this question, so I'll ask it for them: Isn't it just remotely possible that the rise of the counterculture left - with its flakiness, its frivolous politics, its narcissism and its bourgeois, self-congratulatory arrogance - is just maybe at least part of the reason for the alienation and the cynicism of the masses of ordinary American people?

Chomsky is a brilliant American linguist who has contributed much to analyses and critiques of American power. You have to give him that. But there's another brilliant linguist, this one a Canadian, teaching in the UK, that you should also know a little about.

Shalom Lappin is concerned with the same objective conditions that Chomsky finds in the lives of ordinary people, but what distinguishes Shalom's analysis is its refusal to engage in the weirdly ritualistic litany-recitals that have come to define Chomsky's polemics, and which are also a defining and crippling characteristic of the Chomskyite left. As an intellectual firmly and unambiguously situated on the left, Shalom is not afraid to suggest that we might benefit from a bit of self-criticism. Yes, Lappin argues, a juncture was reached in the 1960s and the "left" took a particular path. Where has this got us?

First, much of what remains of the radical left has aligned itself with extreme Islamic political movements that promote the establishment of religious regimes in Asia and Africa, with the ultimate objective of a global caliphate. In Europe a not insignificant part of what currently passes for the liberal left also expresses sympathy for these movements. Second, in the United States, working-class voters consistently and consciously vote against their class interests by supporting conservative Republican politicians whose plutocratic economic policies they reject. Although these phenomena seem to be unrelated, it is possible to discern a connection between them when one looks at the more general historical context within which they have emerged.

So by all means, read, learn and recite your Chomsky. While I don't much go for the for-or-against approach, it's true he has legions of detractors, and I mean legions, and much as it might discomfit the more ardent among Chomsky's personality cult, the fact is The Great One has quite a few intellectual detractors on the left. Some of them are positively bonkers, of course. But I warn you: If you approach these controversies with an open mind and a legitimate curiosity, you just may find yourself experiencing the very thing Hamish Hamilton describes:

Reading Failed States, I had an epiphany: that by applying a Chomskian analysis to his own writing, you discover exactly the same subtle textual biases, evasions and elisions of meaning as used by those he calls 'the doctrinal managers' of the 'powerful elites'. The mighty Chomsky, the world's greatest public intellectual, is prone to playing fast and loose.
It is important to recognise this fact because the Chomskian analysis has become the defining dissident voice of the blogosphere and a certain kind of far-left academia. So a sense of its integrity is crucial. It is obsessively well-read, but rather famished in original research, except when it is counting how often the liberal media say this or that in their search for hidden, and sometimes not-so-hidden, bias. Crucially, it is not interested in debate, because balance is a ruse of the liberal media elites used to con the dumb masses.


Oliver Kamm, though a bit of a miseryguts, has noticed the same kind of thing, and is similarly disinclined to Chomsky hagiography.

Rebel Sell is also a valuable companion to any Chomsky text.

Keep an eye on Andy.

11 Comments:

Blogger double-plus-ungood said...

It seems that there is quite an intellectual market for ongoing criticism of "the left" by other elements of the left.

For example: I know it's apostasy for hippie geezers and other 60s' enthusiasts to contemplate this question, so I'll ask it for them: Isn't it just remotely possible that the rise of the counterculture left - with its flakiness, its frivolous politics, its narcissism and its bourgeois, self-congratulatory arrogance - is just maybe at least part of the reason for the alienation and the cynicism of the masses of ordinary American people?

The quick answer: yes, of course this is part of the reason. But isn't it also likely that the greater part of the fault is a mass consumer based society? And greater by a magnitude, at the very least?

Does someone on the left owe you money or something, Terry?

And the above paragraph is obvious crank-turning. Apologies in advance.

11:33 AM  
Blogger tglavin said...

Apology accepted.

That was really funny, actually.

"But isn't it also likely that the greater part of the fault is a mass consumer based society? And greater by a magnitude, at the very least?"

If you read Rebel Sell, you might come away seeing much less of a distinction between the two - the counterculture and the rise of consumer culture - so comparing the magnitude of "fault" to assign to each be comes less useful.

More humour, please. Maybe a caption contest for the photo: "Cardinal Richelieu And Episcopalian Bishop Noam Chomsky Discuss With-Burning Methods"

1:22 PM  
Blogger tglavin said...

er. . . that should be Witch Burning.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Scout said...

left, right, center, extremes at either end. neo-cons in power tearing up anything that remotley resembles left or center. the abolition of some of the very things that allowed their female m.p.'s to hold seats in the first place. 'thekelowna accord gone with the tides of the confederate wind that's blowing strong from the south.

chomski...read one small piece once, ivory tower blatherings don't do it for me. just more convoluted wranglings for those out of touch with their own ability to think and garner the truth, which comes from nature.

left against left, right against right. yuppified left and narrowed minds (and what bigger evil was there then that during hippie-com?) , effects from 'the system' of faux democracy' , the drudgery of nine to five whiile raising kids to get that thar education to qualify as a retial manager with a b.a. gotta buy the house , gotta have enough for the kids, and then retirement. kids gotta get good jobs to do the same and pay for horrendous rip-off funeral for parental units.

grumpyy ex-anything's not comfortable with something that doesn't fit into their realm of birds of a feather. 'oh, THAT group, we did that when we were young and it went nowhere'. a type of egotism , maybe a threat?

ex-hippies or not, the boomers want their complacency , and why not? they did their time, are tired and dream of retirement. meanwhile that very complacency is allowing theocracy to slip in. nice timing, dubya and steve.

the more the current counter culture uprises the more the neo-cons will rise and vice-versa. the rainbow children are growing in numbers and they threaten ANY political leaning, just as the hippies did way back when. moms and pops fear their kid's will catch the rainbow wind. it's fear.

i say give up reading most anything that is offerring political/social perspective and instead sit on a rock in the woods.

2:57 PM  
Blogger tglavin said...

A bit long for a photo caption, Scout. But it did have its moments.

Cheers.

3:58 PM  
Blogger dirk buchholz said...

I agree self-criticism is very much lacking these days.and yes the left must be more self-critical. Self-criticism seems to be something in short supply,no matter what side of the political spectrum one counts him herself part of.
As Marx said "doubt everything".
That said,Terry,you have been a "one-trick pony", these past few days.
The "left" this the "left" that...

6:03 PM  
Blogger Scout said...

ha, good one terry , i'll work on 'healing the editor within' :)

6:35 PM  
Blogger tglavin said...

Dirk: There are lots of other blogs, and lots that would welcome your comments. No one's making you hang around here. Besides, you don't have a photo caption.

7:55 PM  
Blogger Dirk Buchholz said...

joke Terry..I am working on a new blog,its in the construction phase right now.
Photo caption,will be included...

I do appreciate your viewpoint,why ,though I do have some differances of opinion/view on some of your writings

8:13 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

"Isn't it just remotely possible that the rise of the counterculture left - with its flakiness, its frivolous politics, its narcissism and its bourgeois, self-congratulatory arrogance - is just maybe at least part of the reason for the alienation and the cynicism of the masses of ordinary American people?"

Yes absolutely, but I wouldn't accuse Chomsky of those things.

There is lots of room for criticism of Chomsky. I do not worship the ground he walks on, though I certainly do admire him. I will say this in Chomsky's defence. He is not really that much of a polemicist. His writings are filled with references to back up his words. Everything he says of a factual nature is on the public record.

He can be a little dry and droning. If you're looking for an inspirational speaker like MLK, the Dalai Lama or Mandela, he is not your man.

However, in his years as a writer on political affairs he has made a tremendous contribution in informing concerned citizens wishing to understand the powers that oppress us.

8:32 PM  
Blogger John said...

Hi Terry--

Also worth checking out are Thomas Frank's books on the 60s "counterculture," such as The Conquest of Cool and Commodify Your Dissent, which argue that much of the apparent antiestablishment ethos of the 60s was the construction of marketing departments in corporations early in that decade and even before then.

8:35 AM  

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