Monthly Archives: September 2006

How does one speak of the unspeakable ?

“One” in this instance is the New York Times, and the “unspeakable” is Noam Chomsky — structural linguist and critic of the political status quo in all its forms, the one taken by the New York Times in particular.

But never fear, the Times will find a way as Motoko Rich proves in a carefully composed item about Professor Chomky’s recent, quite unexpected, ascendancy into the media spotlight.:

“All the authors currently clamoring for a seat on Oprah Winfrey’s couch might do well to send copies of their books to the latest publishing tastemaker: Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez.
Ever since Mr. Chávez held up a copy of a 301-page book by Noam Chomsky, the linguist and left-wing political commentator, during a speech at the United Nations on Wednesday, sales of the book have climbed best-seller lists at and, the online site for the book retailer Barnes & Noble, and booksellers around the country have noted a spike in sales.”

Well there’s very little fear of Noam Chomsky ending up on Oprah. It’s not merely that what he has to say isn’t easily reduced to simplistic catch-phrases, he doesn’t provide the sort of glowing “self-empowering” life-lessons that the media’s most insistent purveyor of middle-class banality devotes her considerable energies to on an almost-daily basis.

But who needs Oprah when you’ve got the U.N. ?

In his speech, in which Mr. Chávez excoriated President George W. Bush as the “devil,” he held up a copy of “Hegemony” and urged his audience “very respectfully, to those who have not read this book, to read it.”
Calling it an “excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century,” Mr. Chávez added, “I think that the first people who should read this book are our brothers and sisters in the United States, because their threat is right in their own house.”

Seinfeld fans will doubtless appreciate Chavez’s evocation of the Kathy Griffin episodes of that peerless sitcom. But dealing with “what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century” has indeed been Chomsky’s principle project.

And because he takes this project seriously one isn’t likely to find the Professor on any of talking heads “news shows” or an NYT op-ed. The film Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media explains why, while providing Chomsky an opportunity to speak directly to part of an audience that has been otherwise kept clear of the pernicious influence of his insight.

“Julia Versau, 50, a real estate writer in Valparaiso, Ind., said she saw Mr. Chávez holding up the book during a newscast on CNN. Although she had read Mr. Chomsky’s work on propaganda at least a decade ago, she said, Mr. Chávez’s speech reminded her to try the book.
“I saw the title and I went darn, I haven’t read that one,” Ms. Versau said in a telephone interview. “If he’s reading that I better go check it out.” She said that she had previously found Mr. Chomsky’s work “a little dense,” but said that “our democracy could use more people telling the truth and more people taking the time to read and get themselves educated.”

Well isn’t that special? Far be it from the NYT to so much as attempt to summarize Chomsky’s ideas, or seek the opinion of a peer — Gore Vidal for instance. A “real estate writer in Valparaiso, Ind” will to quite nicely, especially as she produces the key meme “a little dense,” thus labelling Chomsky as someone it’s about to “know about” rather than actually know.

“Mr. Chomsky, who has retired from teaching full time at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, did not return calls or an e-mail message yesterday seeking comment. In an interview with The New York Times on Thursday, he said he would be happy to meet Mr. Chávez.”

The NYT dodged a bullet on that one. Sure he gave them an interview on Thursday, but the fact that he wasn’t bothering to answer on Friday serves to provide a sheen of “due diligence” on the paper’s benign neglect (my favorte Reagan-era term) of Chomsky in the past.

“Up until now, the book, which Samantha Power, writing in The New York Times Book Review in 2004, called “a raging and often meandering assault on United States foreign policy,” has been a steady seller but never hit the best-seller lists. To date it has sold about 66,000 copies in hardcover and nearly 55,000 in paperback, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks bookstores and other outlets that usually account for 60 to 70 percent of a title’s sales. “

Noam Chomsky neither rages nor meanders. The documentary previously cited makes that quite clear. Raging and meandering is the province of those who would dismiss Chomsky — like Alan Dershowitz, who the NYT has no trouble tracking down to his well-appointed lair (where he doubtless awaits his next celebrity murderer.)

“I don’t know anybody who’s ever read a Chomsky book,” said Mr. Dershowitz, who said he first met Mr. Chomsky in 1948 at a Hebrew-speaking Zionist camp in the Pocono Mountains where Mr. Dershowitz was a camper and Mr. Chomsky was a counselor.

Yoo Hoo — over here! I’ve been reading Chomsky for decades, as have countless others. The Culture of Terrorism is my favorite, describing as it does U.S. “Foreign Policy” with cool, bone-chilling accuracy, bolstered by page after page of irrefutable facts.

Moreover this isn’t Chomsky’s first brush with mass success as his 9-11 was a bestseller too.
Needless to say the NYT isn’t interested in mentioning that face.

“You buy them, you put them in your pockets, you put them out on your coffee table,” said Mr. Dershowitz, a longtime critic of Mr. Chomsky. The people who are buying “Hegemony” now, he added, “I promise you they are not going to get to the end of the book.”
He continued: “He does not write page turners, he writes page stoppers. There are a lot of bent pages in Noam Chomsky’s books, and they are usually at about Page 16.”

See? Nothing to look at folks. Keep moving.

But those less lemming-inclined would be advised to check out Chomsky’s Failed States as well as Media Control the Spectacular
and of course
Aspects of the Theory of Syntax

But be advised. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. After Chomsky you’ll never read the NYT, or any other information-providers of our famously “free press” in the same way again.

And you’re sure to get past page 16.