Wednesday, Oct 22nd, 2014

The Observer’s Chomsky fetish

Chomsky is big enough to put up with this kind of rubbish, but can the Guardian or Observer, the most influential left-wing journal in the English-speaking world, really not find one journalist who doesn’t have a visceral dislike of Noam Chomsky? Sadly, but maybe predictably, for a newspaper made up of liberals pickled in the self-righteous playfields of Oxbridge liberalism, I guess they don’t

By on Monday, July 5th, 2010 - 1,283 words.

New Chomsky title

Another Chomsky book, another bilious review in the Guardian/Observer.

It really staggers the mind that the newspaper that markets itself as a leading liberal voice in the English-speaking world continues to denigrate – in the most obtuse and ad hominem manner – the most influential and celebrated left-wing intellectual in the world today.

In the Observer yesterday was a “review” of the new Chomsky work Hopes and Prospects by one Rafael Behr. I must admit I haven’t read the book yet, but there’s not much indication that Mr Behr has either, so I don’t feel too presumptuous having a little look at the worthless piece of flatulence Behr produced.

As the chief leader writer of the Observer, Behr is the gatekeeper of the Oxbridge liberalism that his publication oversees, so maybe it wasn’t a surprise he doesn’t like Prof Chomsky: a lot of his esteemed colleagues have forged this path before, although this was write-up was particularly bad it has to be said.

As tantrums go, this was the most blubbering and weepy I’ve seen for at least a while.

I try to ignore reviews of Chomsky from the Guardian and Observer. But sometimes it’s like reading the back of the shampoo bottle when you’re on the bog because there’s nothing else to read. You know it’s going to be boring and formulaic, but there’s nothing else about so you have a gander. This Sunday was one of those shampoo bottle moments.

But let’s start at the beginning. This one is a real peach.

Behr starts by saying that tells us that: “US policymakers in the early part of this decade genuinely thought that liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein was a noble thing to do.” He doesn’t mention that the same people were friends with Saddam during the 1980s. But point taken, maybe Chomsky should have written: “Donald Rumseld really, really believed in taking democracy to Iraq and got really upset when far-left radicals accused him of not caring about the Iraqi people. He could never understand how he had sold Saddam chemical weapons to massacre the Kurds in the al-Anfal campaign.”

He says Noam Chomsky is “off the scale completely”. Yeah, if you work for the Observer, sure.

He denigrates Chomsky for writing a “slightly different version of familiar hits”, the imputation being that saying opposite things from year to year is a sign of sophistication; if he had done a Hitchens and supported the devastation of Iraq, like the Observer, that would have been a sign of his balance, obviously.

It’s worth noting as an aside that the review doesn’t contain one quote, which is par for the course when the Obs liberals “unpick” Chomsky, straw man is much easier. Even so it means I don’t trust Behr when he writes: “The worst catastrophe to befall our species, Chomsky implies, was Columbus’s collision with an uncharted continent in 1492.” If he implies it, why not quote him so we can judge ourselves?

Some would say that the continent was “charted” by the people who happened to live there, but let’s ignore that.

Laughably, Behr castigates Chomsky for his “reluctance to adopt the mainstream vocabulary of “globalisation” – i.e. the vocabularly of the IMF and the World Bank. Oh, and the Observer, obviously. Because remember the “word implies everyone’s inclusion in a unified economic enterprise.” Excuse me? The word implies that if you read official literature from the IMF, probably not if you are a farmer in the developing world having your livelihood destroyed by this same “inclusive” consensus.

Some of what Behr characterises Chomsky’s ideas as is not straw man. And that’s the best bit of the review. I’m nodding my head when he writes (with a patronising tone, of course): “Free markets are an illusion” and the “US imperial model that emerged in the 20th century… borrowed heavily from the earlier British one”.

Of course, we can’t believe all that. Why? Because, Behr tells us, it’s a “cripplingly bleak philosophy”. Give us some sun, Chommo! But wait, isn’t the book called Hopes and Prospects? Is that a marketing ploy, or does Chomsky mention some of the places that hope is emerging, and you left it out, because it didn’t fit into your crumbling narrative?

But Behr is not finished yet. This boy has a straw man to build, and no “far left intellectual” is gonna stop him finishing up. His tantrum sinks so far by the end he reverts to the oldest and most hollow anti-Chomsky tropes. Its hard to read at this point, like a live version of an old Guardian review of an old Chomsky book. He asks Chomsky “Globalisation under the Chinese Communist party, anyone?” or “Anti-American exile in Tehran?”

Like that’s the only option. If you criticise a rapacious economic system that ruins countless lives all over the poor world through a rigged trade system you by definition support Chinese tyranny or Ahmadinejad. Good one.

But Behr has further to go. Behr would be placated he said if Chomsky showed “some occasional flicker of admiration for the achievements of western civilization”. Is this guy serious? I suppose, maybe Chomsky could write: “The US overthrew Guatemalan democracy in 1954 unleashing a 40 year civil war, which saw 200,000 murdered and a nation in such devastation it has never recovered. Oh, but also don’t forget that in 1824, Ludwig van Beethoven finished his Ninth Symphony.”

Now Behr is getting a bit teary. He implores Chomsky at the last to find it in his heart to recognise “the irony that he owes his considerable success to a system he despises”. Come on, Noam. Stop criticising the destruction of Iraq, the rise of the far-right in America, the iniquities of the “drug war”. Go do something useful! Talk about how much you love baseball and beef jerky!

“Does it bother him, perhaps, that he has lived the American dream?” is the line Behr finishes with, his pen delivering the final crushing blow to Chomsky’s intellectual edifice, rendering his 100′s of books useless and devoid of merit.

Behr’s tantrum is staggeringly empty of intellectual value; so bad in fact that it’s impossible to decipher from the review any of what is in the book apart from some strange cartoon character drawn up in the Observer news room. What it is useful for is a demonstration of what happens to the gatekeepers of liberal discourse when someone sits “a few mm’s to left of them” and upsets the righteous little bubble they reside in.

A couple of years back the Guardian sent its hard-hitting resident expert on theatre musicals, Emma Brockes, to do an interview that ended up so packed with lies and defamation she had to miraculously lose the tape of the interview when asked to produce it by the newspaper’s internal investigation into the shambles. The Guardian pulled it from their website, but you can still read it on Chomsky’s website.

In a 2006 review of Failed States by foreign editor, Peter Beaumont, it’s a similar story. Beaumont asks as he hits his crescendo: “Which leads to a question: is that really what you see, Mr Chomsky, from the window of your library at MIT? Is it the stench of the gulag wafting over the Charles River?”

Chomsky is big enough to put up with this kind of rubbish, but can the Guardian or Observer, the most influential left-wing journal in the English-speaking world, really not find one journalist who doesn’t have a visceral dislike of Noam Chomsky? Sadly, but maybe predictably for a newspaper made up of journalists pickled in the self-righteous playfields of Oxbridge liberalism, I guess they don’t.

Oh, I didn’t mention Nick Cohen reviewed Hegemony or Survival in 2003. I can’t even be bothered to open that can of beans.


  1. OwenB says:

    Aplogies for repost in error

  2. OwenB says:

    Chomsky could have justified his argument to Amnesty International, he could have done so to David Campbell. Instead he simply blustered. He falls back on Philip Knightley's speculative musings and then quits the field, leaving it to Herman and Peterson to try to make the case for him, blethering on about their fantasy Bosnian Genocide Lobbies and Thought Police, and now to you as well talking about the massive industry of anti-Serb propaganda. I'm afraid I'm not an industry but I do know some people who experienced terrible things at Serb hands that are not what I would describe as propaganda.

  3. mattkennard says:

    “You've acknowledged that you insinuated that Brockes had fiddled her interview and disposed of the materials.”

    Without being inside Brockes head, how can anyone disprove her claim?

    “You demand evidence but you don't seem that bothered with it yourself. OK, say that you're not interested, by all means, but don't make out that you're a journalist, this is all playboy stuff.”

    That’s complete rubbish. I didn’t say I wasn’t bothered with evidence. I’m not bothered with Kamm. He has a nasty history in which he has bullied and tried to end the career of a journalist Neil Clark for writing a bad review of his book. He supported the invasion of Iraq, and the massacres in Lebanon in 06 and Gaza in 08-09. He’s on a witch hunt.

    I just don’t have time to debate with someone like that, I find his bullyboy tactics unsavoury. He can do his peacocking somewhere else.

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Matt Kennard

Matt Kennard graduated from the Journalism School at Columbia University as a Toni Stabile Investigative scholar in 2008. He has written for the Guardian, Salon and the Chicago Tribune, amongst others. In 2006 he won the Guardian Student Feature Writer of the Year Award.

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