Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Anti-American Zealots

I've been fascinated lately by certain aspects (or certain kinds) of modern conservative thought. This is in part because of the ways in which it misses the point so colossally while yet making some good, even important observations. I'm interested not just in the disconnect (the ability to somehow miss so many giant elephants, no pun intended) but also some of the observations themselves, which I think are all too often missed by liberals or by the left.

I'm not going to get into that in this post, but it does help explain what I was doing recently looking at the Summer 2009 issue of City Journal, the conservative glossy published by the Manhattan Institute. I hope to say more about some of this magazine's content (which I consider wrong-headed, but, as noted, in occasionally interesting ways), but for now I want to talk about some thoughts prompted by an ad that does not reflect the kind of interesting conservative thought I'm referring to. The ad appeared on the back cover of the magazine and is for a book called I Can’t Believe I’m Sitting Next to a Republican: A Survival Guide for Conservatives Marooned Among the Angry, Smug, and Terminally Self-Righteous, by Harry Stein. Sounds like a laugh riot, no? The ad features a blurb by Brian Anderson, who is editor of City Journal, that includes the following:
...Stein takes the reader on a provocative, hilarious, and insightful guided tour of Liberaland, where anti-American zealots like Noam Chomsky are considered mainstream and reasonable people like, well, Harry Stein are denounced by their neighbors as fascist...
In truth, my normal reaction to this kind of thing is to roll my eyes, and roll my eyes I did when I first read it. But I do find the construction both telling and curious. After all, if anyone truly hates Chomsky's work it's liberals--this much should be clear to anyone with the most basic sense of the differences between the Left and liberals. Indeed, it's only on the far left, generally, where Chomsky could be said to be anything like what "mainstream" means in this sentence. And what does it mean, "anti-American zealot"? Neither term applies even remotely to Chomsky.

"Anti-American": this is a term that Chomsky himself finds curious. For example, here is what he said in an interview from December 2002:
The concept "anti-American" is an interesting one. The counterpart is used only in totalitarian states or military dictatorships [...]. Thus, in the old Soviet Union, dissidents were condemned as "anti-Soviet." That's a natural usage among people with deeply rooted totalitarian instincts, which identify state policy with the society, the people, the culture. In contrast, people with even the slightest concept of democracy treat such notions with ridicule and contempt. Suppose someone in Italy who criticizes Italian state policy were condemned as "anti-Italian." It would be regarded as too ridiculous even to merit laughter. Maybe under Mussolini, but surely not otherwise.
Presumably "anti-American" means something like opposed to America and/or all that America stands for. But why would someone think this is a suitable description of Chomsky? What does he really do? What is the focus, the purpose of his political writing? He's not really an activist, certainly not at this stage of his life. What he does, most frequently, is write about the claims made by the ruling class as against the needs actually served by various state actions; the coverage and acceptance of those claims by the press, and the nature of the coverage or non-coverage of those actions; and the intellectual justifications and defenses of those same actions and claims. What he does, then, quite simply, is use politicians' and journalists' and intellectuals' words against themselves, for the purposes of explaining what is really going on. For this he is called anti-American? He is called a "zealot"? A zealot for what? What Chomsky does is meticulously construct a compelling counter-narrative to the horseshit we are expected to swallow on a daily basis, year after year. He is far from the only person doing this, but he's been doing it the longest and he continues, at the age of 80, to do it very well. It is this very counter-narrative that people can't abide. But, then, it's usually liberals who can't abide it; as far as I've ever been able to tell, conservatives or right-wingers rarely bother with the guy. When they do bother, it usually seems clear that they're only tangentially familiar with his writings. I often get the sense that what they've read is a bullet-pointed "fact sheet", with all the alleged negatives highlighted for easy consumption and reproduction (you know, "Faurisson, check. Pol Pot, check. Etc."). So, for example, it doesn't seem likely that Brian Anderson or Harry Stein can have read Chomsky at all, at least not very well. He merely serves, here, as a convenient stand-in for all left-wing, which for them is to say "Liberal" commentary, which is all, by definition, "anti-American" (and "smug", if the title of the book is any indication).

But what does it mean to say one "opposes America" or "all it stands for"? What does America stand for? Freedom? Democracy? Liberty? Every July 4th there is much blather about how this great nation was formed in pursuit of an idea, the idea, presumably, being liberty. Now, it does no one any good to pretend that people did not think something new was happening with the United States, even if it can be demonstrated that the Constitution was, from the beginning, part of an anti-democratic counter-revolution against the very liberty that many people thought they were fighting for (an idea I wrote about a little bit here). We're supposed to take it on faith that, because there was a revolution fought and won in the name of liberty and freedom, America always and forever stands for liberty and freedom. We're supposed to take it on faith that the people who are elected to national office mean the same things that ordinary people mean by such concepts. Effectively, not believing these propositions makes one "anti-American"--when one would think, logically, that if the ideas for which America supposedly stands for actually mean something, then pointing out the deficiencies might make one the very opposite of "anti-American". But no. How curious.

1 comment:

Jacob Russell said...

Thanks for this... woke up some sleeping brain cells. After several edits and re-edits (on barking dog)... I think it helped me bridge a divide that's that been blocking me for some time.