Monday, December 12, 2005

Oliver Kamm being involved in the drafting of a tedious, over-long rant about Noam Chomsky? Surely not... Aaronovitch being involved is also not a surprise. Francis Wheen, however, I thought had more sense.

Note to everyone involved - Chomsky is merely a very tedious public speaker (if comptetent philologist) with an inexplicably obsessive fanbase, most of whom have misunderstood or inadvertently twisted most of his few interesting points. His political ideas are usually ill-thought-out at best - which is why they are often thought-provoking, because they leave so much unanswered in their wordy simplicity.

He is also a masterly self-publicist, as this little exercise proves - and to top it all appears to be a hypnotist, as brain-washing can surely be the only explanation (bar some kind of unrequited lust) for this continued relentless boredom of some people's never-ending insistence on "correcting" supposed misconceptions about the opinions of a man of whom the vast majority of the population have never heard.

9 Comments:

Blogger Jonn Elledge said...

There's something about Chomskey's writing I've never understood. Ever since Manufacturing Consent he's gone out of his way to suggest that he's only pointing to the way the structures of society tend to create media bias, that this isn't a conspiracy theory but simply an analysis of how he believes different powers in society interact...

...and yet every time you come away from reading his stuff with a very clear idea that there are dark powers manipulating politics and media coverage to obscure the truth.

How does he do this? How does he write thing yet somehow say the other? Is it some trick he's learn in his linguistic studies?

Bugger the political stuff, I want to know how he makes his rhetoric do that.

12/12/2005 02:51:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Is "Manufacturing Consent" the one where he goes on about Propaganda Theory? The thing where he reckons there's inherent bias in the US media because the New York Times rarely gave much prominence to what the US was up to in Central America in the 1980s? It's all just a reworking of Gramsci's Cultural Capital applied to the media, from what I can tell. (That was Gramsci, wasn't it? Or was it Bourdieu? I've just drunk two bottles of sake at lunch and honestly can't remember...)

Chomsky also seems to ignore the fact that if you've got paid-for media trying to appeal to a profitable audience you're going to concentrate on things people are actually interested in. Again, if it's the one I'm thinking of he seemed to neglect to acknowledge that perhaps the US media wasn't reporting on Central America because very few people actually cared.

At least with Gramsci/Bourdeiu/whoever it was there is some acknowledgement of lack of interest (based on a lack of "cultural capital" in specific areas, naturally) being a valid issue. Chomsky, however, seems to stretch "lack of cultural captial" from being merely a product of social conditions to being indicative of some deep complacency (at best), callousness (usually) or conspiracy (at worst, and so the one most often picked up on).

All of this has merely served to allow his enemies to use the case studies he proposes as evidence of his anti-Americanism. Case in point - how much has Chomsky had to say on the lack of media coverage of Africa over the years? Where's the outrage that over the weekend government forces in Chad opened fire on schoolchildren who were protesting at the fact their teachers haven't been paid in three months? Where's the outrage at the trumped-up charges against the opposition leader in Uganda? Why isn't he annoyed at the lack of attention paid to Zimbabwe, Sudan, Ethoipia, Eritrea, etc. etc. etc.? Pretty hard to find - because he only seems to pick up on issues of lack of media coverage where this could be spun to make the US look bad. Whether this is deliberate or not I have no idea, but it is very easy to use against him.

Of course, the thing that really pisses me off is that as Chomsky is the person now most associated with a "leftist" interpretation of 1980s US policy in Central America (possibly along with Oliver Stone, thanks to Salvidor, another person who does more harm than good to people with similar political opinons thanks to the style of his attacks), anyone who now tries to discuss it on anything more than a superficial level is almost obliged to take on or discuss some of Chomsky's points. And it also allows right-wingers the opportunity to attack left-wingers on the basis of things Chomsky has said being similar to a more general revulsion with what went on back then.

Sorry - as I said, rather a lot to drink at lunchtime... Chomsky sometimes has some valid points to make, but he never makes them very well, and the people who pick up on them generally take them far too far. That's my major problem with the guy.

12/12/2005 03:58:00 pm  
Blogger Jonn Elledge said...

Actually I think you may have identified exactly why he does read like a conspiracy theorist, even when he argues otherwise. By not referring to the effect of public interest (or lack thereof) on media coverage, he makes it look like an entirely top-down process, which is a rather sinister oversimplification.

Also, he does tend to stick to examples that pit the US against other powers - either in an attempt to make his argument about government influence over the media stronger, or just because he doesn't like the US very much. As a result it can't help but look like he's talking specifically about the machinations of western governments when, if his arguments really have any validity, they should be applicable a lot more widely.

I don't dislike Chomsky particularly, but agree his arguments are questionable and the fact he's been adopted as this leftie totem is just plain weird. I can only conclude it's because, unlike most guys writing about this stuff, he's actually quite readable. (Have you ever actually tried to read Habermas? I've only seen a translation but it's eye gougingly painful)

12/12/2005 04:57:00 pm  
Blogger talos said...

Personally I never come away from reading his stuff with a very clear idea that there are dark powers manipulating politics and media coverage to obscure the truth. No dark powers just a systematic bias, that's not even all-encompassing.

As for Chomsky's positions, I'm continuously impressed by the fact that no one (at least from the right - so this is not directed at you nosemonkey!) shows any inclination ever, to actually debate things that Chomsky actually supports, but prefer to attack a straw-Chomsky either overinterpreting (misinterpreting) things he actually has said, or focusing on detail number 15 of a list of 100, as weak ignoring the other 99. Chomsky's ethical stance is pretty simple I think: one (epecially an intellectual) is responsible for the things done in their name and things that they can actually have an influence on. This is pretty self-evident I think: if a Chinese intellectual were to focus sytematically on say, the human rights abuses of the US without condemning his country's rather unimpressive human rights record, he/she would certainly be dismissed as a "comissar" (to borrow Chomsky's favourite term). Yet people suggest that an American intellectual's prime mission is to... what, discuss the events in Chad? When his government is committing crimes against humanity galore as we speak in, say, occupied Iraq? But this rather obvious prioritization has been interpreted as some sort of "anti-americanism" (which is a bogus categorization of political views especially when referring to an American)

In fact the Chomsky/Herman model does not discuss the newsworthiness of media coverage at all. They just state that there are three types of atrocities as far as the (US in this case) media are concerned: those committed by friendly regimes which are underplayed and "rationalized", those that are committed by "enemies" which are overplayed and covered to death - and then the "neutral" atrocities on which coverage varies according to the circumstance. See for example the relative weight of the Darfur massacres in the press relative to the war in Congo (which was the bloodiest war since WWII). Note also how insignificant the coverage on the human rights violations in Azerbaijan is compared to the bruhaha over Yanukovich in Ukraine... And so on. I think the point he makes is quite obvious and visible.

BTW he does oversimplify things, especially things he talks in passing about. Yet even then the oversimplification is an intelligent oversimplification (the Balkans - not his forte, provide some good examples). And he never, ever makes the sort of ridiculous arguments implied in the dumped Guardian character asassination -such as "Srebrenica was not a massacre: In fact he has used the Srebrenica massacre in his writings as a "measuring stick" for "friendly" crimes.

Anyway, instead of ranting on, I refer you to this piece as a sort of FAQ on Chomsky with which I agree wholeheartedly.

12/12/2005 05:20:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes.. i'm a bit surprised at your response, nosemonkey. i generally agree wholeheartedly with what you say; but in your general down-ness on chomsky, i think you're rather throwing out the baby with the bathwater...

on the other hand it did occur to me that nosemonkey, sounds awfully like noamchomsky rearranged phonetically, so maybe you're trying to disguise your original identity... ;)

12/12/2005 06:05:00 pm  
Blogger Jonn Elledge said...

Chomsky's also one of those people who's become such an icon, so associated with a certain view of the world, that it's bloody difficult to seperate the man from the publicity.

This probably doesn't excuse those (like, er, me) who have lengthy arguments about him on the basis of having read two of his books several half-forgotten years ago; but I think it does mean it's possible to get justly angry with pro-Chomsky commentators, because a fair amount of the time they see exactly the same anti-American parody that those who desptie him see.

It's a lot easier to argue about Chomskyism than to argue about Chomsky.

12/12/2005 06:34:00 pm  
Blogger Unity said...

Cultural Capital is Bourdieu rather than Gramsci who's influence lies predominantly in his view of cultural hegemony.

The difficult I find with Chomsky is that he does oversimplify and often his arguments simply aren't fully realised, particularly by comparison to Debord's 'Society of the Spectacle'.

12/13/2005 12:16:00 am  
Blogger Phil said...

Jonn - I think the key element of Chomsky's analysis is the role of the 'elites'. Chomsky tells us that certain basic facts about society are either well-known or trivially easy to establish; he tells us that elite interests determine what does and doesn't get published; he tells us that individuals, including those who work in the media, are morally responsible for their actions; and he tells us that the media don't publish those well-known facts. Conspiracism is a logical deduction from these premises: They know the truth, but They are lying to us - knowingly, deliberately, culpably.

Clive - Bourdieu is 'cultural capital', Gramsci's hegemony. (Although Chomsky's more of a Schachtmanite than anything, as far as I can see.)

Chomsky reminds me a lot of Orwell. Both have a rhetorical and highly-worked writing style which is presented as plain and transparent; both have a distinctive and idiosyncratic political stance which is passed off as plain common sense; and both tend to deny the possibility of honest disagreement, portraying their antagonists as either unpardonably ignorant or malicious. And both have hordes of devoted admirers - in the case of Orwell I was one, once - who spring to their defence if they're criticised. It's unpleasantly reminiscent of a cult mindset.

I doubt that the continuing fallout from the (admittedly idiotic) Brockes interview will make much of an impact on the Chomsky fanbase, but it might at least slow its growth. More power to Ollie and Aaro, I say, and you won't hear me say that very often.

12/13/2005 12:21:00 am  
Anonymous Alan Connor said...

With an ounce of confidence, La Reproduction is Bourdieu and Passeron. What fine books, regardless of their reinterpretation!

But moreso vive Boudon!

12/14/2005 12:56:00 am  

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