what's left

The Responsibility of Intellectuals

with 21 comments

By Stephen Gowans

An article by reporter Rory Carroll in last Sunday’s Observer titled “Noam Chomsky criticises old friend Hugo Chavez for ‘assault’ on democracy” has set off a storm of controversy among Chomsky and Chavez supporters.

Some, angry at the leftist intellectual for criticizing the Venezuelan president, demanded an explanation. Chomsky replied that Carroll’s article was “dishonest” and “deceptive.”

But a transcript of the interview—which Chomsky told one blogger did not exist—suggests it is Chomsky, not Carroll, who is dishonest and deceptive.

“Let’s begin with the headline: complete deception,” Chomsky replies to one blogger.

Really?

Here’s what Chomsky told the Observer reporter.

Carroll. Finally, professor, the concerns about the concentration of executive power in Venezuela: to what extent might that be undermining democracy in Venezuela?

Chomsky: Concentration of executive power, unless it’s very temporary, and for specific circumstances, let’s say fighting world war two, it’s an assault on democracy (my emphasis).

Carroll: And so in the case of Venezuela is that what’s happening or at risk of happening?

Chomsky: As I said you can debate whether circumstances require it—both internal circumstances and the external threat of attack and so on, so that’s a legitimate debate—but my own judgment in that debate is that it does not.

Earlier in the interview Chomsky told Carroll that, “Anywhere in Latin America there is a potential threat of the pathology of caudillismo and it has to be guarded against. Whether it’s over too far in that direction in Venezuela I’m not sure but I think perhaps it is” (my emphasis).

So, Chomsky tells Carroll that concentration of executive power is an assault on democracy, that there’s a tendency toward concentration in Venezuela, and that in his judgment the circumstances don’t require it.

So how is it that the headline “Noam Chomsky criticises old friend Hugo Chavez for ‘assault’ on democracy” is deceptive and dishonest? Granted, Chavez might not be an old friend, at least not in the literal sense, but the Observer headline hardly seems to misrepresent Chomsky’s words.

Now, we can go around in circles about whether Carroll fairly or dishonestly recounted his conversation with Chomsky (though it looks like the dishonesty here isn’t Carroll’s), but anyone who insists that Chomsky didn’t criticize Chavez is going to have to do a fair amount of straw clutching. Yes, the leftist intellectual did criticize Washington in his interview with Carroll, and he did point out all the good that has happened in Venezuela (which Carroll acknowledges in his article.) But so what? That doesn’t negate Chomsky’s open criticism of Chavez — which is what a number of Chavez partisans are agitated about.

The occasion for the interview was Chomsky’s open letter criticizing the detention of Judge Maria Lourdes Affiuni. Affiuni had freed banker Eligio Cedeno in 2009. Cedeno, who had faced corruption charges, immediately fled the country. Chavez denounced the judge as a criminal and demanded that she be jailed for 30 years.

We can debate whether Chavez’s treatment of Affiuni is heavy-handed, but it doesn’t take a high-profile intellectual of Chomsky’s caliber to figure out that the establishment press will use all the ammunition it can lay its hands on to vilify Chavez, and the best ammunition of all is that which comes from the Left. It’s one thing for a US state official to raise concerns about Chavez. You expect it. It’s quite another for a leftist intellectual to do the same.

It might be said that Chomsky didn’t know the Observer would use his criticism to blacken Chavez’s reputation, but that would be dishonest and deceptive.  It’s hard to swallow the canard that poor old Noam–whose understanding of the media is second to none–blindly stumbled into an ambush. “I should know by now that I should insist on a transcript with the Guardian, unless it’s a writer I know and trust,” Chomsky lamented.

Yeah, right.

Media Lens, springing to Chomsky’s defense, noted perspicaciously that ‘the Guardian (the Observer’s sister newspaper) is normally happy to ignore (Chomsky) and his views. But when Chomsky expresses criticism of an official enemy of the West, he suddenly does exist and matter for the Guardian.”

But hadn’t the co-author of Manufacturing Consent figured this out long ago?

I think it would be fair to suppose he has. That he went ahead anyway, and allowed the press to add his criticisms of Chavez to what he himself calls the “vicious, unremitting attack by the United States and the west generally” on Venezuela, could mean one of two things.

Either Chomsky is a press-hound.

Or he’s not as much of a friend of Chavez as Carroll–and a good number of leftists-think.

Or both.

Written by what's left

July 6, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Posted in Media, Venezuela

21 Responses

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  1. Of what importance is Noam Chomsky, exactly? This is not a rhetorical question. He is not a reporter, investigator, political theorist, spokesman or leader of a group or movement with any power. His main function in the world seems to be to crank off periodically on random targets. I doubt his remarks are going to have any discernible effects on Chavez, Venezuela, or the rest of the universe.

    Anarcissie

    July 7, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    • Nor was Jesus a reporter, investigator, political theorist, spokesman or leader of a group or movement with any power, but that hardly made him unimportant. Like it or not, Chomsky is an enormously important opinion leader within the Western left. I think, however, your point may be that the Western left is largely insignificant, and that being enormously important as an opinion leader within it, means little. I agree.

      gowans

      July 7, 2011 at 10:52 pm

  2. Just so people know, Chomsky was only a contributer to Manufacturing Consent. In fact, he contributed very little at all! The real author of that work is Edward S. Herman. Just thought people, and Gowans, should know.

    BJ Murphy

    July 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    • Well, I know that Chomsky is the co-author of the work, and indeed, said so in the article. People would probably be interested in knowing how you came to acquire the information that Chomsky contributed very little to the writing of the book and that Herman is the “real” author. Did Chomsky or Herman acknowledge this somewhere, and if so, where?

      gowans

      July 7, 2011 at 10:57 pm

      • Chomsky sent an email to a comrade to the effect. I can forward it to you if you like.

        More Left Than Thou

        July 8, 2011 at 8:19 pm

  3. Yeah, Chomsky told me personally in an email he wasn’t really the author. What little Chomsky contributed to the book is mostly just borrowing of stuff he had already wrote. Herman is the true author of Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky’s name is on it just to sell copies.

    a source

    July 7, 2011 at 4:15 pm

    • Interesting. Perhaps you can share the e-mail with us.

      gowans

      July 7, 2011 at 11:01 pm

  4. “Noam Chomsky criticises old friend Hugo Chavez for ‘assault’ on democracy” is deceptive and dishonest?

    My answer is YES, it is. Because Chomsky included de word “perhaps”, a doubt, something to be checked, an hipotesis which is missed in the title

    PERHAPS

    N.C. said : “Anywhere in Latin America there is a potential threat of the pathology of caudillismo and it has to be guarded against. Whether it’s over too far in that direction in Venezuela I’m not sure but I think perhaps it is” (my emphasis).

    So, Chomsky tells Carroll that concentration of executive power is an assault on democracy, that there’s a tendency toward concentration in Venezuela as in any other South American country, that perhaps the tendency became a reality and, if such thing is real, in his judgment the circumstances don’t require it.

    So N.C. just said: Beware of caudillismo (what is no the same to say “beware of concentration of executive power”)

    baridosk

    July 8, 2011 at 7:18 pm

    • Perhaps you’re an idiot. I’m not saying you are. It’s a doubt, something to be checked, a hypothesis. And if you claim I said you’re an idiot, well, you’re being dishonest and deceptive.

      gowans

      July 16, 2011 at 12:38 pm

  5. I feel that Chomsky’s beliefs in bourgeois democracy shine through from time to time.

    More Left Than Thou

    July 8, 2011 at 8:21 pm

  6. I was puzzled with Chomsky for some time and had deep suspicion of him and his “progressiveness”. The institution that employ him is the major military contractor. It is impossible that MIT would be holding for a long time someone who is genuinely interested in people’s cause and who is genuinely anti-imperialist.

    Than I found this, and I think this is real and true Chomsky – celebrity scientist and corporate darling of military industrial complex.

    “Key intellectual and technical developments were being funded by the American military. These and other corporate forces required a new version of cognitive and linguistic science, having little in common
    with what they saw as Marxist-inspired versions of sociology or anthropology. What was needed was a psychology and a linguistics completely stripped of social content or political awareness – a version of these disciplines rigorously re-engineered and fine-tuned to serve the computer age in the name of ‘cognitive revolution’. But how could the left’s ‘natural’ ascendancy in these disciplines be overturned? Corporate America needed someone of intellectual integrity – and preferably of unimpeachable political integrity – to act as its standard-bearer in organizing the necessary coup. Ideally, this person should not only be ‘left-wing’ in an ordinary, run-of-the-mill sense. The perfect candidate would be sufficiently
    left-wing to outflank everyone else in the race. Chomsky, in 1957, was the right person arriving in the right position at exactly the right time.”

    “Alienated from the academic mainstream, this talented individual was in effect selected by corporate America to do an extraordinary double-act, playing the role of chief enforcer for the new corporate science at home, while using this very status to gain a hearing as the most eloquent academic critic of US policies elsewhere across the globe.”

    neretva'43

    July 9, 2011 at 11:46 am

    • Where is that quote from?

      Sean Mulligan

      July 10, 2011 at 8:09 pm

  7. “But a transcript of the interview—which Chomsky told one blogger did not exist—suggests it is Chomsky, not Carroll, who is dishonest and deceptive”

    The key word in that sentence of yours is of course, ‘suggests’.

    Chomsky doesn’t specifically refer to Venezuela in those comments you quoted. Clearly he was talking about democracy in general.

    It’s quite obvious from the quotes in the media lens report- which Rory Carroll omitted- that Chomsky doesn’t think Venezuela is going backwards.

    traveller

    July 10, 2011 at 9:17 am

    • Some of the comments I get on this blog are really dumb. Not yours of course. Clearly, I’m talking about commenters in general.

      gowans

      July 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm

  8. Judging by your quick resort to snidey-ness over argument there, Mr Gowan, I think you should reconsider your self-awarded title of intellectual.

    For those who still don’t ‘get it’:

    “RC: And so in the case of Venezuela is that what’s happening or at risk of happening?

    NC: As I said you can debate whether circumstances require it – both internal circumstances and the external threat of attack and so on, so that’s a legitimate debate – but my own judgment in that debate is that it does not.”

    Chomsky does not say that ‘this’ (concentration of power in Venezeula) is what is occuring or at risk of occuring in Venezeula, only that it is debatable that a national crisis of some kind can justify the accumulation of power by a government.

    traveller

    July 11, 2011 at 8:55 am

    • There is indeed an argument here that has much to do with the idea of context. I think, however, that you missed it. For my part, I missed where it was that I awarded myself the title of intellectual.

      gowans

      July 11, 2011 at 11:45 am

  9. neretva'43

    July 13, 2011 at 12:50 am

  10. I’m 100% behind the content of this article, but it brings up an old worry of mine. As much as I like the analysis here, I’m not crazy about the periods which Gowans devotes to criticizing minor right-wing/pseudo leftist thinkers (Zunes, Ackerman, etc.). This was fine because Chomsky’s a big deal, but just from a reading perspective I think it would be better in general to move away from this direction.

    Z-Morg

    July 25, 2011 at 12:39 am

    • You allude to an old worry. Can you elaborate?

      gowans

      July 25, 2011 at 4:53 pm

      • I don’t mean anything serious, I was just referring to the topics of the articles.

        Z-Morg

        August 4, 2011 at 2:26 pm


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