Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Heads Will Explode

Via Amnesty's Twitter page:

Jon Snow is interviewing Noam Chomsky for Amnesty - anybody got a question they'd like to be asked? Let us know!


Nick Cohen: feel the love! OK, this is largely off-topic, but I saw that and thought of our Nick. What does he have against Jon Snow? And I'm sure he's slated both Amnesty and Chomsky in the past. Any theories on why all the above provoke the reactions they do?

35 Comments:

Anonymous Phil said...

I admire both Jon Snow and Amnesty, but Chomsky makes me gibber. I can speculate as to why that is if anyone's interested.

8/12/2009 08:54:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Why he makes you gibber. I know you've explained before, but I forget the reason.
Personally I find Chomsky's analysis of power very simplistic, and somewhat naive, but I doubt this is Nick's reasoning.

8/12/2009 09:54:00 PM  
Blogger Mr Kitty said...

I've alway found Chomsky naive on power but (fairly) rigorous on facts, which I admire.

As for NC on NC I reckon Nick is jealous. Chomsky has never really back-tracked since Vietnam (unlike Hitchens et al for example). One would be pressed to accuse Chomsky of hypocrisy, though I could be very wrong there.

As for Amnesty hate-mongering Nick has indeed said some very strange things IIRC.

8/12/2009 10:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Well, I wrote somewhere that a more accurate and less emotive name for the 'propaganda model' might be the 'tendency for the perpetuation of received ideas by the capitalist media model' - and that the PM was in any case so well buttressed with qualifications and exceptions as to be effectively immune to disproof. I don't like righteous anger - I especially don't like righteous sarcasm, which has been a bit of a speciality of Chomsky's ever since American Power and the New Mandarins - and I don't like big claims with lots of small print. (These people are LYING BASTARDS who write WHATEVER THEY'RE TOLD! Well, not all of them obviously, and not all the time. But that's the general tendency, albeit with a number of significant honourable exceptions. I never said they were all lying bastards, you can check that.)

8/13/2009 07:25:00 AM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I've always thought that the hating on the trio above is to do with a lazy belief that they 'stand for' certain things - it's the same place the Guardianista rubbish comes from.

for Cohen I think they're all hypocrite relativists who are disproportionately anti-Western, or something - a cursory google shows that he 'gave up on them' when they called guantanmo 'the gluag of our times'. emotive language, yeah, but this from the man who not only thinks 'Liberal Fascism' is a coherent and in-no-way-offensive work of historical analysis, but who finished a piece on the Green party by saying 'hitler was interested in organic food too'?

In reality cohen's hatred of the three is just more unthinking guardianista-bashing. I don't think he's ever read Chomsky, either.

8/13/2009 08:08:00 AM  
Blogger cian said...

That seems reasonable, Phil. I'd add to it a few things:
1) Chomsky tends to assume state actors are operating for the worst and basest reasons. So for example, he assumes that nobody in power believed in the Domino theory, and buttresses this argument with a couple of statements taken out of context.
2) He treats the establishment as a monolithic entity that agrees on everything, and shares the same goals/beliefs/knowledge.

8/13/2009 08:36:00 AM  
Blogger Mr Kitty said...

Possibly the wrong forum for this tangent on the above comments on Chomsky's concept of power, but I'd suggest that Foucault was grappling with his naive formulation in ways that have remained elusive to Chomsky, to this day, as witnessed in this debate.

8/13/2009 10:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Possibly the wrong forum for this tangent on the above comments on Chomsky's concept of power, but I'd suggest that Foucault was grappling with his naive formulation in ways that have remained elusive to Chomsky, to this day, as witnessed in this debate.

And there was me thinking Foucault was spouting impenetrable pretentious guff. Could you perhaps explain, for those naifs out there with their wide-eyed, unworldly cynicism about government motives, what Chomsky's error is? I mean, I realise Trots have to distance themselves from him, but I'd like to hear some kind of substance.

8/13/2009 10:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

I realise Trots have to distance themselves from him

Do they? Any other examples of Trots distancing themselves from Chomsky (in ways which suggest an inner compulsion rather than analysis)?

8/13/2009 11:13:00 PM  
Blogger Mr Kitty said...

Anon: "And there was me thinking Foucault was spouting impenetrable pretentious guff. Could you perhaps explain, for those naifs out there with their wide-eyed, unworldly cynicism about government motives, what Chomsky's error is? I mean, I realise Trots have to distance themselves from him, but I'd like to hear some kind of substance."

Which is why I prefaced the comment with "Possibly the wrong forum".

As a wider criticism of Chomsky as outlined by Phil and Cian there is, or was, a steadfastness to Chomsky's polemics.

In terms of the debate between Foucault and Chomsky I'm essentially interested in it as a philosophical dialogue on justice and power.

It comes into contact with Chomsky's ideas on "power" and hence Foucault's ideas which took a Nietzchean turn around the time of their discussion.

I made no comment on Chomsky's "error", as you put it, but merely drew attention to the reasoned debate on his ideas of how power operates when it is not as straight-forward as initially appears.

I'd be intrigued to explore your comment "And there was me thinking Foucault was spouting impenetrable pretentious guff." Especially with regard to the debate I mentioned.
Though I do not wish to hog AW space.

A few questions:

Are you saying that there is no substance to Foucault's argument?

Is Chomsky the last word on power?

8/13/2009 11:16:00 PM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

And there was me thinking Foucault was spouting impenetrable pretentious guff.

and there you will remain, unless Mr Kitty is in an extravagantly generous mood when it comes to running an adult education class for the benefit of anonymous drive-by commenters, because I'm certainly not.

8/13/2009 11:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and there you will remain, unless Mr Kitty is in an extravagantly generous mood when it comes to running an adult education class for the benefit of anonymous drive-by commenters, because I'm certainly not.

It's fortunate then that I have no interest in and did not ask your opinion. A handy clue to this effect: I quoted somebody else, not you. Feel free to take this up in whatever class pseudo-economist stockbrokers take in their spare time.

8/14/2009 04:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Do they? Any other examples of Trots distancing themselves from Chomsky (in ways which suggest an inner compulsion rather than analysis)?


I simply mean that Trots ultimately have to distance themselves from Chomsky because he's an anarchist and isn't very interested in Marx. In practice, exactly as here, that tends to lead to airy claims of theoretical sophistication.

8/14/2009 04:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you saying that there is no substance to Foucault's argument?

OK, I watched that again - I watched it a few years ago - and Foucault is not as opaque as I remembered him being. I was too dismissive of him in this debate.

Is Chomsky the last word on power?

Not at all. I just don't think Foucault's contribution is remotely as useful as Chomsky's on anything practical like, say the Vietnam War. I'm aware that Foucault did actually involve himself in real campaigns, unlike most of the frauds who followed him in the po-mo world, but I just don't see much relation between his theorising and actual exercise of power as the world currently is constructed.

Does Chomsky oversimplify? Yes. I think that's inevitable when you're trying to reach the general public rather than university faculties. Dismissals based on his supposed naivete do not, in my view, follow.

8/14/2009 04:57:00 AM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

hmmm, the only person who regularly reads this blog and who thinks it is a fantastic cruching insult to mention the job I do is the person-pretending-to-be-a-political-party called "SIAW".

8/14/2009 06:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

In practice, exactly as here, that tends to lead to airy claims of theoretical sophistication.

As I said, do any other examples spring to mind of Trots distancing themselves from Chomsky (in ways which suggest an inner compulsion rather than analysis)? Or are you just sounding off?

8/14/2009 08:55:00 AM  
Blogger Robin said...

But SIAW is/was a Decent Leftist and therefore would not have much truck with Chomsky (or at least "the latter Chomsky"). Surely?

8/14/2009 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

for those naifs out there with their wide-eyed, unworldly cynicism about government motives, what Chomsky's error is?

You mean other than to have a theory of power that treats the US financial, industrial, media, military and governmental elites as a single entity? Or to have a theory of global politics that treats the US as the principal actor in almost any global situation? Or perhaps its the way that he dismisses the possibility of serious policy disagreemnts between elites. Maybe its the way he ignores the ways in which foreign policy debates in the US can be monopolised by stupid, but powerful, senators (such as the current, dumb as rocks, vice-president).

I mean Chomsky barely has a theory of power. Activism is all very well, but Chomsky's political fame largely rests upon his skills as an analyst.

8/14/2009 01:48:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

You can kind of see some of the weaknesses of Chomsky's approach in the ways that he has dismissed the growing evidence that Kennedy was trying to find a way out of Vietnam.

8/14/2009 01:49:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Anonymous above was me. I have no idea why blogger fucked that post up, but it did. So there it is.

8/14/2009 01:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8/14/2009 04:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mean other than to have a theory of power that treats the US financial, industrial, media, military and governmental elites as a single entity?

I don't think that's a fair summary of his position. He has set out how he believes the various actors interact, and it isn't as part of a monolithic entity. For instance, his propaganda model clearly separates the media from corporate interests and political elites.

As for the claim that "he dismisses the possibility of serious policy disagreemnts between elites", that's flat-out false. On the subject of the Iraq War he pointed to the serious policy disagreements between elites as a reason for a real debate being held in the mainstream media.

Yes, I agree, his greatest contribution is in his analysis of the world, not in constructing grand theories of power. But, while he has a book out called "Understanding Power", it is a compendium and I haven't seen him claim any grand unified theory. I don't see why the failure to provide such is a reason, taken alone, to criticise him.

It's certainly true that he doesn't focus on individual politicians' differences. But the purpose of his books, as I understand them, is as a corrective/balancing view against the media obsession with personalities and village politicking. You would be an idiot to read only his books and think you understood the world. They aren't rounded histories; they present what he believes has been omitted from mainstream accounts. I can't recall him suggesting they were anything else.

8/14/2009 04:54:00 PM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

Comment above deleted because it's simply bad manners to mention someone's employer without googleproofing it, and my tolerance for bad manners on this blog is very heavily weighted against anonymous drivebys.

8/14/2009 05:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

his propaganda model clearly separates the media from corporate interests and political elites

But surely the question isn't whether he and Herman developed a theoretical model which makes such a separation, but whether his polemical work consistently makes that separation in practice.

I haven't seen him claim any grand unified theory. I don't see why the failure to provide such is a reason, taken alone, to criticise him

Well, it might be quite a good reason for criticising him for failing to provide an overall theory of power, if the critic thought that providing such a theory was appropriate for someone in Chomsky's line of work. Apparently Chomsky thinks it's not appropriate - and hence that any such criticism would be ungrounded - but I don't see that we need to take that as the last word on the matter.

8/14/2009 06:17:00 PM  
Blogger Mr Kitty said...

Anon:

"I just don't think Foucault's contribution is remotely as useful as Chomsky's on anything practical like, say the Vietnam War. I'm aware that Foucault did actually involve himself in real campaigns, unlike most of the frauds who followed him in the po-mo world, but I just don't see much relation between his theorising and actual exercise of power as the world currently is constructed."


This pre-supposes that the “actual exercise of power as the world currently is constructed“ is straight-forward. Which is why I suggest Chomsky is naive in their televised debate at the very least. But I could go the whole hog on this one as I’m reviewing an entire book on their exchange.

In terms of “practical”, what does this actually mean? Foucault was heavily into civil disobedience around the time of 68 onward, critical psychiatry in Poland, prison reform and so on.

He practically founded the whole arm of the Queer Studies part of academia.

Is “practical” only that which can be used concretely without an analysis of motives? Not sure Chomsky would agree on that.

8/14/2009 07:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Alex Higgins said...

I'm late to this particular discussion - shame, it was interesting!

I might briefly post some defence of Chomsky here, replying to some of what Phil and Cian said...

"1) Chomsky tends to assume state actors are operating for the worst and basest reasons. So for example, he assumes that nobody in power believed in the Domino theory, and buttresses this argument with a couple of statements taken out of context."

Is this correct? My understanding is that Chomsky actually attributes a version of the Domino Theory as the principal motive for US involvement in Vietnam - namely that US foreign policy planners feared indpendent economic development in one country precisely because the idea might prove attractive throughout the region if Vietnamese Communism had some real achivements to its name.

The general point about Chomsky attributing the worst motives to state sectors has some merit, I think. To rely on Chomsky as a single source for describing the foreign policy or internal politics of the US, let alone elsewhere, would produce a somewhat distorted view.

You can read Chomsky on the US invasion of Grenada, for example, and not end up knowing much about Grenada or what happened there.

But Chomsky's political writing reflects a very specific moral intent which he is perfectly clear about - he is trying to inspire political activism and knock down any misleading ideas that serve as obstacles to it.

"2) He treats the establishment as a monolithic entity that agrees on everything, and shares the same goals/beliefs/knowledge."

Well, he doesn't exactly but for the same reason he doesn't dwell on internal disputes between different sectors of the economy, political class etc. because his main point is to make people aware of the similarities in their goals and actions that should compel morally engaged but relatively powerless citizens to try and change policies and institutions.

"These people are LYING BASTARDS who write WHATEVER THEY'RE TOLD! Well, not all of them obviously, and not all the time..."

Something like Nick Davies' 'Flat Earth News' (which we await NC's expose of...) is much better at explaining what editors and journalists do in their day-to-day role that produces distorting effects on information.

But the Propaganda Model still works pretty well, taken as a model. When it comes to explaining outcomes - particularly how inconvenient information which is reported simply disappears from the national conversation (elections in Venezuela is an obvious one), while bogus factoids that serve an obvious self-interest thrive - I think it is very powerful.

8/16/2009 01:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anscombe said...

(1) Chomsky tends to assume state actors are operating for the worst and basest reasons. So for example, he assumes that nobody in power believed in the Domino theory, and buttresses this argument with a couple of statements taken out of context."

--'Tends' is weasley, and meaningless without examples. One of the things his essay 'Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship' argues for is that many US planners acted for misguided reasons, but not base ones. Their reasons were a combination of anti-Communist conviction, and notions of rational self-interest which dominate economics departments to this day. His essay 'The Revolutionary Pacificism of A J Muste' does much the same for the case of pre-WWII Japanese imperialism.

(2) But Chomsky's political writing reflect a very specific moral intent which he is perfectly clear about - he is trying to inspire political activism and knock down any misleading ideas that serve as obstacles to it.

--Yes, but he is not only doing that. He is trying to report the facts as they are; his writings on the post-US invasion Cambodia are a notable example of this, as are his numerous favourable comments about the freedom of US society - comments he would not make if he were *merely* trying to inspire activism.

3) He treats the establishment as a monolithic entity that agrees on everything, and shares the same goals/beliefs/knowledge

--Again, it is pointless to make these assertions without examples. And the assertions are false. Chomsky goes out of his way to point out the differences between liberal and hawkish attitudes towards foreign polcicy, for example, even as he also points out their similarities. See, for example, 'The Revolutionary Pacifism of A J Muste', and 'The Backroom Boys'.

(4) "These people are LYING BASTARDS who write WHATEVER THEY'RE TOLD!"

-- This is manifestly not what Chomsky thinks, as anyone even passingly familiar with the propaganda model would know. It is essential to that model that journalists believe that they are acting freely, and are telling the (hard) truth. The point of the system of filters is to explain how, in spite of this, and even in part because of it, the media is effectively an instrument of propaganda.

Now *of course* I do not think Chomsky is without his flaws. But it is depressing to read these ungrounded, unsubstantiated, and false assertions about Chomsky from the thinking people who contribute to on AW. This sort of stuff belongs on Harry's Place, not here.

8/16/2009 04:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

This is manifestly not what Chomsky thinks, as anyone even passingly familiar with the propaganda model would know.

I didn't say it was what he thinks, and I certainly didn't offer it as a description of the propaganda model. I said it was how he writes, which is a different matter. I don't think it's possible to read the outrage and contempt which Chomsky directs against establishment commentators and conclude that he believes they're operating in good faith within the structural determinations of a capitalist media system. He believes they're purveying lies in defence of power, and that they deserve to be despised. Or that's the impression I've always got, from AP&TNM onward. Hence "propaganda" rather than "perpetuation of received ideas", I guss.

8/16/2009 07:35:00 PM  
OpenID splinteredsunrise said...

Yeah, it's the thundering righteousness in Chomsky. I actually like his sarcasm - if he didn't throw in some humour he'd be unbearable.

I quite like Jon Snow as well, but I have serious reservations about Amnesty. But I suspect my reservations are not the same as Nick's. My problem is with Amnesty widening their remit and getting involved in campaigns around domestic politics. The Irish section, which avoided saying anything domestic during the Troubles, is currently banging the drums for abortion and gay marriage. Which are fair enough issues to get active around, but I don't see how they fit into what Amnesty is supposed to be doing.

8/16/2009 08:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Which are fair enough issues to get active around, but I don't see how they fit into what Amnesty is supposed to be doing.

See also Conor.

8/16/2009 09:37:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Alex Higgins: well he assumes that they didn't believe in the communist Domino Theory, but rather had the alternate domino theory that you outline. There's some truth to this, but you have to disregard a fair bit of documentary evidence to conclude that nobody believed this stuff. Chomsky seems to generally that the US response to communism was largely a sham (or at least fear of popular democracy, rather than the Soviet Union).

As counter-propoganda this makes sense, as it cuts away at the standard liberal pieties about Vietnam/S. America generally. A lot of liberal's will excuse anything (or at least talk about excesses) if the "Great War of Communism" is brought up. As a propogandist, Chomsky is very powerful and valuable. Which is fine, you need propoganda. But if you want to understand the world, propoganda is not the most effective guide.

Chomsky's most accurate when US actions fit his prejudices. That is when the US is effectively the sole actor, US leaders are acting duplicitiously and there is a fair bit of unity on a particular subject. On S. America he tends to be brilliant, as what happens largely fits his view of the world. On Yugoslavia he was terrible, because it didn't remotely fit his model, on the Middle East and Africa he's eccentric and on SE Asia he's useful as a counter to establishment histories.

But Chomsky's political writing reflects a very specific moral intent which he is perfectly clear about - he is trying to inspire political activism and knock down any misleading ideas that serve as obstacles to it.

Exactly, its propoganda in a cause that I guess everyone on this board largely agrees with. And lets face it, propoganda is going to capture more hearts and minds than reasoned, detailed, analysis. But if you want reasoned, detailed, analysis - Chomsky is an unreliable guide.

Whis main point is to make people aware of the similarities in their goals and actions that should compel morally engaged but relatively powerless citizens to try and change policies and institutions.

Propoganda in other words. You cannae trust the bastards. Anarchist public choice theory... Which I don't entirely disagree with, but there are some pretty sizable fractures in the US elites nonetheless. Wall Street vs manufacturing. Health Care vs remainder of business sector. CIA vs the Pentagon. CIA analysts vs CIA dirty tricks. CIA vs the State department. The ways in which Senators can act on behalf of lobbyists in opposition to presidential foreign policy. Cheap energy interests vs Expensive energy interests. As soon as an issue gets a little complex, then Chomsky's model becomes rather incoherent.

But the Propaganda Model still works pretty well, taken as a model.

Up to a point. But it ignores the fact that journalists (at least in my experience) do generally believe the stuff they write. Journalists are members of the establishment (or want to be), and the creates a powerful corrective. If you want to be taken seriously by people who matter...well, that will affect how you write and how you see the world.
Similarly, editors want reliable journalists who aren't going to results in lots of angry letters (at least in the US. I realise the Guardian differs in that it actively antagonises its readership), or problems. Newspapers like material that is cheap. Which again means that you're likely to get product (and journalists) that is mediocre.
There is perhaps more evidence in foreign journalism, but even there much of the interference seems to come from editors who simply don't believe the stories that their correspondants are filing.

8/17/2009 08:22:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Anscombe,
well you're unlikely to get examples out of me as I haven't read Chomsky since getting annoyed by him post 9/11 and don't plan to do so just for a message board argument. Its at least 15 years since I read Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, so I couldn't possibly comment on it. Though I don't remember it being about the elites who make the decisions, but rather those who justify them (useful idiots of US academe). I'm probably misremembering.

as are his numerous favourable comments about the freedom of US society

Funny, I've always read that as a defense against accusations that he thinks the US is as bad as totalitarian countries, or that it is because of those kinds of policies that the US carries out actions. I actually think one of his strengths is his understanding of how democracy is undermined, incidentally.

And the assertions are false. Chomsky goes out of his way to point out the differences between liberal and hawkish attitudes

That's not really what I meant though. That's simply part of his project of showing that the "electoral political" differences are simply window dressing. Which I agree on up to a point. The Hawks vs Doves debate used to be seen as a massive issue in US politics, btw, which is why he addresses so much energy on it. There's not really an equivalent in UK politics.

8/17/2009 08:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Alex Higgins said...

cian,

As I understand it, I think we pretty much agree with each other's points, so there's not too much to add to that.

I had a running correspondence with Chomsky on the former Yugoslavia because I disagreed with him on some points (we didn't really convince each other), though I would defend him against most of his critics.

8/17/2009 11:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anscombe said...

Phil said:

"I didn't say it was what [Chomsky] thinks, and I certainly didn't offer it as a description of the propaganda model. I said it was how he writes, which is a different matter. I don't think it's possible to read the outrage and contempt which Chomsky directs against establishment commentators and conclude that he believes they're operating in good faith within the structural determinations of a capitalist media system. He believes they're purveying lies in defence of power, and that they deserve to be despised."

In your second post, you said that you do not like Chomsky's tendency to use "righteous sarcasm". And immdiately after saying that you said "and I don't like big claims with lots of small print", and then in bold "(These people are LYING BASTARDS..."). Admittedly that is hardly pellucid writing. But it does suggest that you think that Chomsky thinks they are liars. In your most recent post, you deny you said that. But then you proceed to say that you do think that Chomsky thinks they are liars. So, you can hardly accuse me of misrepresenting you. And, once again, you provide no evidence whatsoever for your claim that Chomsky thinks they are liars. You do cite the fact that Chomsky refers to many journalists with contempt. But not even Oliver Kamm would treat that as admissable evidence for the claim, for it might show any of many different things. The most charitable assumption is that it shows that Chomsky thinks they do not deviate from US goverment line - not becuase he thinks that they are lying (although perhaps they are sometimes), but because of the aforementioned filters. They are worthy of contempt for that reason alone, in his, and in my, opinion.

8/22/2009 02:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anscombe said...

cian said:

Anscombe,
Its at least 15 years since I read Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, so I couldn't possibly comment on it. Though I don't remember it being about the elites who make the decisions, but rather those who justify them (useful idiots of US academe). I'm probably misremembering.

--It is centrally about the useful idiots in the academy. But it is also about the reasons which guide decision-makers. That is one of the things it is about, and I only said that it was one of the things it was about, not that it was the only thing, or even the central thing.

I said: And the assertions are false. Chomsky goes out of his way to point out the differences between liberal and hawkish attitudes

Cian said: That's not really what I meant though. That's simply part of his project of showing that the "electoral political" differences are simply window dressing. Which I agree on up to a point.

--Okay. But you did say that Chomsky "treats the establishment as a monolithic entity that agrees on everything, and shares the same goals/beliefs/knowledge". That is an extraordinarily strong claim, and not one that Chomsky anywhere makes (indeed he says the opposite - but of course it is consistent with him saying the opposite that he also says that the differences are not as significant as the mass media make out). I'd be intersted to know what you did mean.

Sorry to keep going on about this. Chomsky-bashing strikes me as an absurd occupation for anyone to engage in. Legitimate Chomsky criticism is another matter, of course.

8/22/2009 02:28:00 PM  

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