Monday, July 05, 2010

You have to face up to the facts ...

... and the facts are that the Observer doesn't fucking like Noam Chomsky and they never will. Excellent review-of-a-review, which really does capture the strangely posterized colours of any engagement between Chomsky and Decency - all the arguments are basically the same, but the colour, brightness and contrast get turned up to max.

36 Comments:

Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

I managed to miss that review in the paper yesterday. I find that 'implies' thing really strange:

The worst catastrophe to befall our species, Chomsky implies, was Columbus’s collision with an uncharted continent in 1492

A reviewer has to be pretty ballsy to criticise an 'implication' of the work without evidence of how that 'implication' came about. I mean, Nick Cohen's writing, for example, implies a lot of seriously dodgy things at the best of times, if one decides to read it uncharitably (hell, even if one doesn't)...

it's also sad that Behr ends up with that most tedious of Chomsky review tropes:

the irony that he owes his considerable success to a system he despises

the phrase 'self-hating american' springs to mind.

i do find it weird, liek the author of that piece, how the Obs in particular seems incapable of giving Chomsky reviews to anyone with an open mind.

7/05/2010 03:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Brian Weatherson said...

How close are the party lines of the Guardian and the Observer here? I noticed that you said that the Observer doesn't like Chomsky, and the link has a lot of evidence for that. On the other hand, Matt Kennard frequently talks about the "Guardian/Observer" as if they are a single entity. And one of the stories he discusses, the Emma Brockes story in G2, was in the Guardian, though the rest were Observer product.

I vaguely remember some discussion here about the Observer having a much more pro-Decent line on Iraq than the Guardian. (And some US warbloggers using this fact to trot out the "Even the liberal Guardian..." posts.) Is the same true about Chomsky?

I agree, BTW, that Kennard's meta-review is excellent - and this post is a great meta-meta-review.

7/05/2010 03:25:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

commenter 'dwearing' does well in the obs comments too:



Fantastic. Another opportunity to play Chomsky-Book-Review-Bingo. Simply write down all the old clichés and favourites, and then read the review to see how many show up. Here, its almost all of them:

1/ Chomsky presented as a fringe voice: "off the scale entirely". We're not told what the "scale" is, or who defines it. Chomsky's enduring, massive popularity appears to have no bearing on the judgement, except to say

2/ "He has dedicated followers who see him as guru and gadfly". Note - it is not a question of rational people reading Chomsky's books and finding his analysis persuasive. Can't be that. Its more like he's a cult leader. Or something.

3/ The "least worst" defence of US power. I love this one. The reviewer defends the US government from Chomsky's critique on the grounds that it is not as bad as [insert random bad-people]. Here its Communist China. It could be Stalin, or the Nazis or whoever. Those, apparently, are the standards by which we judge our governments. The simple idea that we might live up to our own (repeatedly and loudly) claimed liberal standards is too zany and radical to be considered. The mild suggestion that we might, say, stop backing some of the most vicious tyrannies and human rights abusers in the Middle East, stop backing Israel's brutal colonisation of Palestine, not launch aggressive wars, not impose economic policies on poor countries that impoverish them further while enriching our own elites, all that is "an abstract ideal of beneficent global stewardship".

Maybe later I'll go out and mug a pensioner, and then, when brought before the judge, argue that I can't be expected to live up "an abstract ideal of beneficent citizenship" and that, in this best of all possible words, at least I didn't kill her.

And then we end on the classic.

4/ The ivory-tower US intellectual who doesn't realise he's got it so good. Chomsky can say as many times as he likes that the US has more freedoms than anywhere else in the world, and that the responsibility to challenge US power when it has such grievous effects on one's fellow human beings in other countries rests on him and his fellow US citizens precisely because those freedoms exist for them. He can say as many times as he likes that someone in his particular, privileged position as an established academic and intellectual has an additional, unique responsibility to challenge power. No matter how many times he repeats those simple points, they will continue to be ignored in cookie-cutter reviews like this one, which will invariably condemn him for the sheer ingratitude of his criticisms of his government.

Note that through all of this, Behr hardly attempts to engage with the substance of Chomsky's argument. There is no serious attempt to deal with Chomsky's account of the nature of the US state as being overwhelmingly influenced by concentrations of socio-economic power, and the implications this has for the nature of government policy. There is barely an attempt to refute the account of the factual record that Chomsky presents on US foreign and economic policy (save for when we're told that "He dismisses vast tracts of history in a few splenetic paragraphs", but not where, or how). Instead, the review is padded out with a series of boringly over-familiar riffs, clichés, and lazy non-arguments. Perfect if you need an excuse to dismiss Chomsky's conclusions without going to all the bothersome trouble of, like, engaging with what he actually says.

Oh, and I forgot to mention.....

In that sense, Hopes and Prospects is like one of those live albums that veteran bands release when they've stopped producing new singles; slightly different versions of familiar hits bashed out for an easily pleased audience

5/ Total absence of self awareness

7/05/2010 03:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Dreadful party-line review, but I'm not sure I'd file it under Decency. Chomsky's polemical style does piss a lot of people off, and has done for some time; Behr is the latest in a long line of people who have tried to convict him of exaggeration, oversimplification, inconsistency, excessive negativity and generally BACAI. Unfortunately it's very hard to do - he's a very careful & qualified writer - so the line of attempted hatchet jobs goes on.

7/05/2010 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Did Brockes lose the tape? I'd not heard that one before.

7/05/2010 05:55:00 PM  
Anonymous darkhorse said...

The last time the Guardian interviewed Chomsky, they got Seamus Milne to do the job, didn't they?

(probably to make up for Emma Brockes fabricating the "massacre"-in-quotes quote debacle. Chomsky being a world-class nit-picker, you simply aren't going to get away with that one..)

7/05/2010 06:53:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Indeed he did. Justin is right, BTW, I can't find any reference to Ms Brockes losing the tape. The Guardian's Corrections and clarifications:

Prof Chomsky has been obliged to point out that he has never said or believed any such thing. The Guardian has no evidence whatsoever to the contrary and retracts the statement with an unreserved apology to Prof Chomsky.

The headline used on the interview, about which Prof Chomsky also complained, added to the misleading impression given by the treatment of the word massacre. It read: Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated? A: My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough.

No question in that form was put to Prof Chomsky.


"No evidence to the contrary" could mean the tape has been lost; but that's not my take, given "No question in that form was put to Prof Chomsky."

As for the Guardian and the Observer - they share a publisher and a website. I'm sure most online readers now confuse them. I do anyway. The distinction seems unimportant now.

7/05/2010 07:14:00 PM  
Anonymous dd said...

Phil does make a good point that Chomsky himself is hardly innocent of BACAI, and I also think that although it is basically impossible to do the "how ironic that Chomsky is a socialist, and yet sells lots of books" thing without it sounding unattractively like sour grapes, I think the case could certainly me made that on the basis of his rhetoric, he owes his readers an answer to Gerry Cohen's question "If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?".

But Behr's review is just so totally obviously an excoriation of him for being right on questions where the Obs was horribly, totally wrong. He doesn't even bother to mention the cases like Cambodia or Faurisson where the Observer was right and Chomsky was wrong - he is specifically hating on NC for his good points, not his bad ones. That's the pathological bit.

I think the Observer is a lot more party-line antiChomskivist - although the infamous Brockes interview was in the Guardian, I seem to recall that EB herself was a bit of a mate and/or protege of Aaro (hence the notorious letter and Ombudsman debacle). I think basically the issue is that the Guardian has always been a more commercially stable organisation, and generally has stronger personality types and career journos working for it, while the Observer has tended to be much more staffed by free-floating semi-detached Fabians. Then there's also the issue these days that Guardian and Observer hate each other worse than rooks and owls over the attempt to kill off the Observer.

God, I'm worse now than I was in the 1990s, when I was able to chart the lives and loves of about three dozen people in Camden, knowing nothing more about them than what was written in the back page of the NME.

7/05/2010 07:20:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Oh, yes, there was the attempt to kill the Observer. As I basically think it's shit, I don't actually care. A seven-day Guardian would make sense to me (I still wouldn't buy it).

7/05/2010 07:25:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I think the case could certainly me made that on the basis of his rhetoric, he owes his readers an answer to Gerry Cohen's question "If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?".

Maybe, but only because people ask it anyway and because in principle it's a reasonable question if asked (as it almost never is) reasonably rather than rhetorically.

I imagine a possible answer would be "I was first asked that question in 1963 and I refer you now to the answer I gave then".

Of course a much better question remains "if you've got a Double First, is this the best you can fucking do?"

7/05/2010 07:43:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For all Chomsky's faults, which are not insignificant, I don't think that the gotcha, "If You're An Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?", applies. He'd be rich and lionised without the politiking, which on balance must mostly register as a personal burden. If anything, I see his commitment to expressing his world-view so unrelentingly as semi-pathological, certainly not careerist. He's a flawed hero.

Chomsky's reviewer is, in contrast, a philistine. The idea that beneficiaries of western society should preface all critiques of US policy with expressions of 'due gratitude' is creepingly servile, and, I'd like to think, against the best traditions of US politics (both Left and Right).

Marc Mulholland.

7/05/2010 09:50:00 PM  
Blogger Vinny said...

One of the principal reasons for The Observer's support for the Iraq War was set out in Nick Davies 'Flat Earth News'

To wit, Kamal Ahmed, now City Editor at the Telegraph. Davies alleges the relatively inexperienced Ahmed became a conduit for Alastair Campbell.

Ahmed denies it. But other Observer journos say it was true and he even used to "jokingly" call himself 'Campbell Ahmed'

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/kamal-ahmed-nick-is-a-coward-ahmed-bites-back-780670.html


I'm not sure the Observer is a liberal paper anymore. A couple of weeks ago Andrew Rawnsley wrote a piece on the New Labour leadership contest which attacked the left with such vituperation the piece wouldn't have been out of place in the Daily Mail.

Rawnsley, who seems a tad lost with New Labour no longer in power, now gets dogs abuse every week in the 'Comment is Free' section with threats of cancelled subscriptions etc.

As for Chomsky, he's a successful and influential socialist who sympathizes with anarcho-syndicalism, of course 'liberals' are going to hate him!

It reminds me a little of '80s in Reagan's America, where the right were (successfully IMO) trying to make 'liberal' a term of abuse.

Liberals were protesting and calling for allies from different political viewpoints to help them. Some American socialists replied: "and when the same thing was happening to us you were where exactly?"

7/06/2010 02:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Here's an OK review from 2008 - it's not hatchet-jobs all the way.

I also thought Maya Jaggi's 2001 profile was pretty good (not least because she quoted me) - it's certainly more substantial than the Milne interview.

7/06/2010 07:18:00 AM  
Blogger Bruschettaboy said...

sorry Phil I'm in a hurry - when you say "an OK review", do you mean a review by Oliver Kamm, a review that first came out in OK! magazine, or both?

I kid, I kid.

7/06/2010 09:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Asteri said...

Chomsky was interviewed on Hard Talk last autumn, when asked about his critics he replied that they all took his words out of context every time, so their was nothing constructive to take from them. I spose all academics have big egos, but surely even he must concede even if in privet that he got Cambodia and Bosnia pretty wrong.

7/06/2010 11:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Asteri: could you be more specific about how Chomsky got Cambodia wrong?


Guano

7/06/2010 01:24:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

As I recall he didn't believe the atrocity stories that were coming out of there after the fall of Phnom Penh. Nor did a lot of other people, but he got it wrong all right.

(Can anybody perform the same service in re: Bosnia?)

7/06/2010 01:47:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7/06/2010 02:32:00 PM  
Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Apparently so, Justin. One of Vinny's from another thread also went AWOL. V strange. It was emailed to me, so I'll copy and paste it below. >

As I recall he didn't believe the atrocity stories that were coming out of there after the fall of Phnom Penh. Nor did a lot of other people, but he got it wrong all right.

(Can anybody perform the same service in re: Bosnia?)

7/06/2010 02:46:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Ah, mine's back now. If you can see it, you can probably safely remove mine and yours. And for that matter, the one I've deleted.

7/06/2010 04:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Asteri said...

In regards to Bosnia he lent his support to LM and the barbed wire story, It turned out that he and LM were wrong about the hole thing, I wouldn't blame him for it though.

The thing is Chomsky has got a lot of stick over Bosnia, accusations of "liar" and "genocide denier" weren't really applicable, but a lot of fuss was made by Vuillamy, Kamm, Aaro etc. The thing is, Chomsky is not an expert on the Balkans and certainly isn't regarded as one, yet certain people pretended that he was and made a great deal of 'expsoing' him as an apparent fraud.

As for Cambodia I think he wrote a few rather dodgy things in support of the Khmer Rouge while they were in power. I read this on Kamm's blog mind you so how honestly Kamm was presenting it it is open to debate.

7/06/2010 06:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

The thing is, Chomsky is not an expert on the Balkans and certainly isn't regarded as one, yet certain people pretended that he was and made a great deal of 'expsoing' him as an apparent fraud.

Not sure about this. He endorsed Diana Johnstone's work, in a way which went far beyond simply upholding her right to publish. (As I remember, most of the effort which went into 'exposing' Chomsky in this area was devoted to trying to hang this on him.)

As for not being an expert on the Balkans, there are two problems here. One is that he certainly is regarded as an authority on US imperialism and the mendacious justifications deployed to sustain it. In that context, his endorsement of Johnstone's work as an exposure of official lies carried a lot of weight - and consequently lent a lot of weight to some propositions about what actually happened in Bosnia.

And no, Chomsky's not an expert on the Balkans, and I'm sure he's said so - but how many people will read him saying "...but I'm not an expert on the Balkans" and think "sod that, then, I'd better read somebody who is"? I think a much more likely reaction is "he's talking a lot more sense than the Guardian... and he's not even an expert!" The underlying problem here is the Life of Brian-ish problem of the guru's modesty: I think he's reached a point where the expression of doubts or qualifications actually adds to his authority (since only the true guru would deny his authority). This comes through in the conclusion to that Seumas Milne interview - he wouldn't say he's a prophetic figure boldly speaking truth to power... because he's so humble!

On Cambodia, I don't think he ever went so far as to write in support of the Khmer Rouge. What he did say was that there were a lot of atrocity stories about an official enemy coming out of KR-controlled territory, and we should take it all with a bucket of salt - the US always lies about its enemies, the real body count was probably lower by three or four orders of magnitude, and as for the people who were getting killed, well, nasty things always happen in civil wars. I think I'm right in saying that his informant on Cambodia was Serge Thion, an ultra-leftist who went on to become a Holocaust denier - and tapped Chomsky for the notorious essay on Faurisson & freedom of speech.

7/06/2010 09:16:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

I don't know if I'm missing something, but what did he say had happened in Bosnia that had not happened, or say had not happened that had happened?

7/06/2010 09:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Asteri said...

I think we all know about the LM vs ITN thing, and Chomsky's defence of LM's right to free speach (which is fine) and of its rather serious accusations against ITN which were untrue.

7/06/2010 10:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Martin Wisse said...

When discussiing Chomsky's comments on Cambodia it's helpful to remember his most controversial remarks were made when little was yet known about the killing fields and it looked like the reports coming out were exaggerated (which they were, but not nearly as much as expected). He also committed the sin of putting the killings in context, arguing that they were only made possible by the mass bombardments and mass killings perpetuated by the Americans in their "secret" bombing campaign in the years before Pol Pot came into power.

As per usual, this was all ripped out of context and presented as him supporting the Khymer Rouge decades later.

7/07/2010 08:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Solomon Hughes said...

Ed Vulliamy wrote a couple of big , meaty pieces about how the Americans had caught an "Atom Spy" called Wen Ho Lee in one of their nuclear labs back in 1999. Only the thing was, Wen Ho Lee wasn't a spy, he was just caught by some extremely prejudiced FBI folk who harassed him and locked him up in solitary for 9 months trying to squeeze a confession out of him. Wen Ho Lee ended up getting an apology from President Clinton and a big compensation payout. Now Ed Vulliamy to my mind should have known - or at least acknowledged the possibility - that there was something fishy about the Wen Ho Lee case . As far as I recall, The Nation and similar publications were raising questions about the investigation. Instead, Vulliamy said "There were some in America who refused to believe that this had happened" as if they were daft, and instead relied on quotes from Robert Kagan about the perfidious Chinese as he "exposed" the terrible spy ring. Now to me this shows that even a good journalist can get it wrong, and that you always need to think twice about "official sources" , or indeed Robert Kagan. But presumably where I a more hysterical denounce-y type I could for evermore call Ed Vulliamy an "injustice denier" and an "FBI stooge" and "anti Chinese scientist"

7/07/2010 09:13:00 AM  
Blogger s.sjthomas said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7/07/2010 12:18:00 PM  
Blogger Stevo said...

And here you can read Vulliamy being taken apart for his Guardian/Observer piece on Chomsky and Amnesty International.
http://www.counterpunch.org/herman11232009.html

7/07/2010 12:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Asteri said...

"He endorsed Diana Johnstone's work, in a way which went far beyond simply upholding her right to publish. (As I remember, most of the effort which went into 'exposing' Chomsky in this area was devoted to trying to hang this on him.)"

Being one of the few people who actually read Johnstone's book, in my opinion its no where near as inflammatory as its been made out to be. By no means the best book on the Balkans, but certainly not the worst by far. I found it quite well researched and she made a better effort to go into the history of the region prior to the conflict. The apparent 'genocide denial' at worst is atrocity belittling or casting doubt over victim figures, she downplayed the number of casualties, but her wrong estimates of 60 thousand are actually closer to the now excepted figure of 100 thousand on all sides. The book deserved a better critical analysis than the hysterical one it got, especially coming from people who's moral sincerity I wouldn't really trust. I think the point Chomsky and Johnstone were trying to make was that there exists a "Bosnia mania" among a group of journalists and academics who have a tendency to go berserk at anyone who attempts to argue that the situation in the former Yugoslavia may in fact be slightly more complicated than the black and white picture of greater Serb evil against everyone else that they were portraying.

7/07/2010 12:29:00 PM  
Anonymous BenSix said...

It's all kicking off...

http://www.thecommentfactory.com/the-observers-chomsky-fetish-3252/#IDComment85522965

7/08/2010 05:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Tony McCarthy said...

I would recommend reading this piece (link below) on Chomsky re. Cambodia and the Faurisson affair. If anyone knows whether the defences offered in this article have been overturned I'd like to hear from them. If not, it would appear that Chomsky is not guilty of some of the charges hinted at above:
http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/1985----.htm (clearly this is Christopher Hitchens in pre 911 mode!).

7/11/2010 06:40:00 PM  
Anonymous Phil said...

I've read Vidal-Naquet's book Assassins of Memory, and I didn't feel that his case was quite as easy to knock down as Hitchens suggested. More generally, I think Hitchens yoked together two arguments which should be kept distinct. One is whether the arguments from Chomsky's opponents that he is a Denier of this or an Apologist for that - and therefore beyond the pale - should be taken seriously, in the light of whatever evidence can be dredged up that he's said something deny-ish or apology-like in the past. The other is whether, as it were between you and me, setting aside what people who already hate the guy may say, we think there's evidence of Chomsky having made significant errors of judgment in the past.

Hitchens treats the first question as if it could be resolved by the answer to the second, but in fact it should be dealt with separately. The answer to the question of whether Chomsky is a denier of genocide or an apologist for massacres is "no, don't be ridiculous" - the entire tenor of his work is against the idea. But I don't think that excludes the possibility that he screwed up significantly on particular occasions in the past. Even on the Faurisson affair, Hitchens seems to have felt honour-bound to give Chomsky a clean record - or a very small and qualified black mark - so as to continue to regard him as one of the good guys. But there's more to life than heroes and villains - you don't have to be above criticism to be basically on the right side.

7/11/2010 10:56:00 PM  
Anonymous BenSix said...

Tony -

Here's an attempt (I don't know enough to judge its merits, but I like its author - he's no hack).

7/12/2010 03:34:00 PM  
Anonymous BenSix said...

Tony -

Here's an attempt (I don't know enough to judge its merits, but I like its author - he's no hack).

7/12/2010 03:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

He might or might not be a hack, but this is an obvious logical fallacy:

Hitchens then proceeds to repeat the politically expedient claim that the violence of the Khmer Rouge (or, as he puts it, the "derangement of Cambodian society") was caused by the US bombing. This claim, however, does not withstand any scrutiny: Among the countries of Indochina, both Vietnam and Laos were bombarded more heavily than Cambodia. Neither of those countries, however, resorted to the massive violence of the Khmer Rouge.

That he continues with

There are other misrepresentations, as well...

doesn't say much for him.

7/13/2010 09:05:00 PM  
Anonymous BenSix said...

...doesn't say much for him.

Hrm, yes - agreed.

7/13/2010 10:01:00 PM  

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