You’re Welcome, Noam

13 Apr
Some three years ago 3 Quarks Daily, the superlative scholarly portal blog, posted an excerpt from a then-recent profile of Noam Chomsky in the UK newspaper, The Telegraph.One generally knows what to expect from articles like this. There’s a long-running tradition in mainstream Western journalism of periodically putting out a shallow, invidious, and ultimately dismissive profile of everyone’s favorite octogenarian anarchist (sorry Murray Bookchin!*).The journalist assumes the posture of a neutral observer, endowed with the sort unflagging “common sense” found only in people who veer relentlessly toward centrist, moderate, establishment-approved positions. Their take on Chomsky’s decidedly inverse approach to politics thus finds him depicted as a strange and quaint curiosity of possible interest to the general reader in the way that ligers or an amateur rocketry enthusiast’s successful launch of a home-made projectile into orbit might command some passing, inconsequential hold on the idle page-skimmer’s attention.

These profiles tend to be so predictable that it probably wouldn’t take much effort for a more patient (or masochistic) student of political discourse to draw up a reliably predictive template. By turns grudgingly or condescendingly pointing out his immense impact on the social sciences and his sweeping command of recent political history, they ultimately dismiss his political positions and activism as naïve ivory tower idealism, fatally corrupted by anti-American tunnel vision.

Basically, a disgraceful host of respected journalists have used their coveted, blandishment-laden “serious writer” platforms to perpetuate an endless, desultory parade of bad faith, Chomsky-belittling boilerplate dreck. And almost without fail, each insipid recycling amounts to just one more lazy, drawn-out variation on this well-worn passage from Paul Robinson’s 1979 write-up of Language and Responsibility in the New York Times Book Review:

Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today. He is also a disturbingly divided intellectual. On the one hand there is a large body of revolutionary and highly technical linguistic scholarship, much of it too difficult for anyone but the professional linguist or philosopher; on the other an equally substantial body of political writings, accessible to any literate person but often maddeningly simple-minded.
So, an unremarkable observance of this mainstream press ritual in the Telegraph, excerpted on 3QD’s homepage. I skimmed it and came across a puzzling quotation branding Chomsky as “America’s most prominent self-hating Jew”.The discursive weaponization of the slur “self-hating Jew” is, sadly, fairly standard in right-wing Zionist discourse on Jewish critics of Israeli policy (the corresponding smear for Israel’s critics among the goyim is, of course, an allegation that she or he is an anti-Semite). What made this particular instance of that vile trope so bizarre was that it was said to have appeared in the pages of The Nation, the flagship weekly magazine of the American Left. This was hard to believe first and foremost because Chomsky’s articles have been prominently featured in this very publication for decades. (!!!)Moreover, for as long as I’d been reading, The Nation’s masthead had been emblazoned with names far more prone to ignite the rage of the AIPAC crowd: unapologetic champions of the Palestinian cause like Naomi Klein, Richard Falk, and the late Alexander Cockburn. (After all, none of these admirable figures can claim, as Chomsky can, to have identified as a Zionist since age 5.)

So anyway, I dashed off the following:

Does anyone have a citation for this quote? I don’t know much about what Nation’s content was like before I started reading around 5 years ago, but I have a hard time believing that their editorial board (or one remotely like it) would endorse such a ridiculous, scurrilous statement.
Luckily, someone did. Oddly, they provided it three years later, at which point I had long forgotten the Telegraph article and the comment thread under 3QD’s portal excerpt, as had, presumably, the rest of human civilization. But oh!, it was a felicitous thing, that long delayed answer. For it turns out that this question, hastily posted in that 3 Quarks Daily comments thread, inadvertently led to Glenn Greenwald shaming Aida Edemariam into removing the dishonest and defamatory quotation about Noam Chomsky from her recent (largely execrable) profile of that world-historical mensch:
Then there’s Edemariam’s statement, offered with no citation, that Chomsky has been called “America’s most prominent self-hating Jew” by the left-wing Nation magazine. This claim, though often repeated and obviously very serious, is inaccurate.The Nation article which she seems to be referencing is not available online except by subscription. But what is freely available online is a 1993 article on Chomsky from the Chicago Tribune that makes clear that this did not come from the Nation itself, but from a single writer who, more importantly, was not himself calling Chomsky a “self-hating Jew” but was simply noting that this is how he is often attacked (“one critic observed that Chomsky has ‘acquired the reputation as America’s most prominent self-hating Jew.’”). In 2010, the scholarly website 3 Quarks Daily noted an article on Chomsky from The Telegraph that also claimed without citation that “the Left-wing Nation magazine [] called him ‘America’s most prominent self-hating Jew’”. Inquiries in the comment section for the source citation for this quote prompted this reply:“I know this is a few years old, but the citation for the ‘most prominent self-hating Jew’ quote is: Morton, Brian. ‘Chomsky Then and Now.’ Nation 246, no. 18 (May 7, 1988): 646-652.

“With access to a full-text archive of The Nation, it took me only a few minutes to locate this. The full quote in context is ‘If Chomsky has acquired the reputation of being America’s most prominent self-hating Jew, this is because, in the United States, discussion about the Middle East has until recently taken place within very narrow bounds.’

“As you can see the point was quite the opposite of how it was presented. The Nation often includes different perspectives so attributing one reviewer’s comment to ‘The Nation’ as a whole would be dishonest anyway.

“Regardless of that however, the reviewer was actually making the point that Chomsky’s views only seem far out because the spectrum is so limited… . .This is just another example of the kind of lazy, dishonest way in which Chomsky’s views are generally reported.”

Having myself retrieved a full copy of Morton’s 1988 article, I can say with certainty that this comment is indeed 100% accurate. Even leaving aside the sloppiness of attributing one article by a freelance writer to “the Nation” itself, it is wildly inaccurate – on the substance – to claim that the Nation labelled Chomsky a “self-hating Jew”:

The oft-repeated claim that Chomsky has “been called, by the Nation,‘America’s most prominent self-hating Jew’” is simply false. If anything, that Nation article debunked that accusation, and certainly did not embrace it.

Lest there I be any confusion, I should note for the record that I am not the same Will who followed up on my query with the full original quotation and info on the source text, although of course my hat goes off to that gallant stranger.*It saddens me to report that shortly after publishing this post it was brought to my attention that Murray Bookchin died in 2006.

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4 Responses to “You’re Welcome, Noam”

  1. Remona June 22, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    Howdy! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you
    I truly enjoy reading your blog posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that
    go over the same subjects? Thank you so much!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Remarks on Samantha Power | Nomad Sun - June 14, 2013

    […] Earth, from Lloyd Blankfein to King Abdullah–but that review reads like it was written from a template for halfhearted mainstream Chomsky write-ups. I guess she was too busy polishing apples for the revanchist gasbags on the New Republic masthead […]

  2. xiaoling - July 6, 2013

    7

    Your article is here, the feeling of a mere individual can gains more.Let these people from all over the world, even in the heart with empathy. We are not solitary.

  3. hotblogqx8 - July 11, 2013

    8

    I appreciate your article.Your article is like a big tree, so that we can squat in your tree, feel yourself a real. I feel very moved, very weal.

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