I'll call him Paul. He went to Canada during Vietnam and came back when the fighting was over. He never saw an American president or foreign policy he didn't like (though he dislikes Democratic ones slightly less than Republican ones). He never protested a war or a dictatorship unless there was a U.S. interest behind it. He works in my office. He's got prematurely shock-white hair and skin that colors from pink to beet red depending on his anger level. Recently he's been on "code orange" or higher every day. By "recently" I mean since George Bush Jr. led America into a war in Iraq. People become pacifists by many routes, but one of the most-travelled is the one that comes from an irreconciled inner conflict about your own power, authority, and anger. Paul is the kind of pacifist you just know it's unwise to tick off.
Another co-worker I'll call Tom. He's a smart enough guy, worked in D.C., comes from a long line of newspaper people and writers whose names you'd know, but basically he's a gool ol' boy from West Virginia at heart: pick-up truck, gun rack, Confederate flag and all. And he's somewhat naive about the ways of ex-hippies.
One day, Paul was waxing and ranting to Tom on the crimes of the U.S. military industrial complex. He sat back, comfortable, with his hands clasped behind his head, damning America's political leadership and America's history of military violence. And Tom chimed in with what he thought was an agreement: "Like Sherman's march through Georgia. That was a crime, they should have all been tried."
"Well ..." Paul said, looking away from Tom and staring at his phone, as though wishing it would ring and give him an exit strategy from a suddenly knotty conversation. Tom, without knowing it, had said the exact right thing. After some huffing and hemming, Paul managed to dismiss the intrusive comment with:
"That was OK, because we did it to ourselves."
Paul likes to tell me about Michael Moore, who is his secular god. Recently he showed me a column by Ann Coulter, which ran in the other newspaper, then told me what Michael Moore says about her.
Coulter first got my attention, and many other people's, with her notorious post-9/11 column that recommended this American response to the Islamic lands that harbored or supported the terrorists: "we should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity." In her defense, I thought, she had lost a good friend on the plane that was flown into the Pentagon.
But I've read some more, and that line's typical for her. Her style, no doubt carefully cultivated, is a literary slap in the face. So is Moore's. Even when you approve of whoever it is they're slapping, it's not very informative. And both are so sloppy and twisty with facts, I avoid them for fear of unwittingly absorbing a slop or a twist when I agree with what they're saying, essentially.
Coulter simply gets the facts wrong too often. Like when she made the claim that George C. Scott refused the "Patton" Oscar in protest of Hollywood liberalism.
I don't have time for writers who don't have time to check their facts. Or who are more committed to pissing someone off than to improving the world. George Will, who writes as many columns a week as Coulter, has serious problems with conflicts of interest. He may forget those from time to time, but he rarely if ever fumbles the nuts and bolts he's using to build up his arguments.
Coulter is interesting to me, instead, because of the number of times I hear people lower their voices and tell me gossip they know from someone inside the Beltway about what a slut she really is. These are mostly the same people who were appalled that President Clinton's sex life would be an issue, or who deride any opposition to any female Democrat as "sexism."
So if I don't have time for Ann Coulter, I guess I also don't have time for people who are obsessed with Ann Coulter. But that's not the only reason I think Michael Moore, a gifted filmmaker, stinks as a polemicist.
I have no more use for someone who calls his book "Stupid White Men" than I do for someone who calls his "Stupid Black Lesbians." Yet some of the white men I work with adore this guy. Why is it funny in that case? I guess because, "We did it to ourselves."
Like Coulter, Moore often writes or says things that are just plain ... well, "stupid." "Many families have been devastated tonight," he said while New York was still burning on Sept. 11. "This just is not right. They did not deserve to die. If someone did this to get back at Bush, then they did so by killing thousands of people who did not vote for him! Boston, New York, D.C., and the planes' destination of California -- these were places that voted against Bush!" OK, so presumably he would have applauded terrorist murders in, say, Atlanta, or on flights bound for Denver.
Moore twists quotes. He suggests things were said by people who didn't say them. He manipulates the reality that his camera captures. All those things are good tricks of the filmmaker's craft. That's art. But it becomes lie when it pretends to be truth.
There's more. He asks Kansas University for a $38,000 speaking fee. He pitches a temper tantrum in a London theater. "[Moore] raged against everyone connected with the Roundhouse and complained that he was being paid a measly $750 a night. 'He completely lost the plot,' a member of the stage crew told the London Evening Standard. 'He stormed around all day screaming at everyone, even the 5 pound-an-hour bar staff, telling them how we were all con men and useless. Then he went on stage and did it in public.' At his last appearance, staffers refused to work or even open the theater's doors." [New York Post, Jan. 8, 2003].
One expects a certain level of hypocrisy in American public life, but this seems extreme even by our standards. How does a guy who boasts about his wealth, sends his child to private schools, and is prone to pitching hissy fits that would make Christina Aguilera blanch get off being the champion of the lunchpail guys and the single moms mired in McJobs?
Recently I was asked if I had seen "F-911," and I said I would not see it, because I did not care to put money in that man's pockets, but I had read extensively about it and I thought it was propaganda. I was told, "you need to see it before you express an opinion about it." I offered that I didn't need to drink cyanide to know it was poison, and I might even give a lecture about the chemical composition of cyanide and its effects on human anatomy without ever having tasted a drop of it.
OK, I wasn't that quick-thinking, but I did manage a comeback of sorts in that direction.
And I pointed out that most of F-9/11 was cobbled together from archival footage that anyone with access to Lexis-Nexis could go and find in its proper context. I pointed out the obvious example of the Bush quote about "some people call you the haves and have mores," etc., which was made at a charity fund-raiser dinner in which the custom is for the guest speakers to mock themselves (a self-roast), and during which Al Gore, the same evening, boasted about "inventing the Internet."
This is one of the favorite clips among my colleagues, however, and some of them did not take kindly to its deconstruction. It's the detail that perfectly encapsulates their contempt of Bush. It's the metaphor for all they feel about it. They won't let anyone take it away from them. So I got accused of relying on "right-wing Web sites" for my information, as though the truth of something has political "wings." If a right wing Web site says the sky is blue, must it be paisley instead? And believe me, if I could have found a "left wing" site that had any interest in fact-checking Moore, I gladly would have studied it.
But realizing that I probably had the goods, at least on that particular bit of propaganda, the loudest of the arguers shifted the debate to a familiar retreat position: equivalency. Moore may be a propagandist, but so are those voices of the right like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. They just balance each other out.
I disagreed, but not too strenuously, as I was feeling the employment sword of Damoclese dangling over my head again. Moore has far more reach than Coulter because he's an entertainer, a P.T. Barnum showman. He reaches into movie houses full of people who have not firmed up their beliefs by a lot of reading, and who can be galvanized into his worldview by his brilliant manipulation of images. My entire family is avowedly voting against Bush, and F-9/11 looms large in their decision; in some cases it is the sole justification.
But, like I said, I didn't push it. Yet today I remembered to do something I had meant to do back then. I went to the AP leaf desk, which stores the pictures the AP has moved to its affiliate newspapers for the last couple of days. I did a search for "Ann Coulter." There were no pictures. I did a search for "Rush Limbaugh." Two file photo headshots of him in connection with a story about his medical records being seized. I did a search for "Michael Moore," and even after weeding out the picture captions that only mentioned him, but did not show him, there were 31 pictures.
Many had to do with his tour of college. There are dozens or hundreds of speakers touring college campuses in any given week. Right-wing blowhard Sean Hannity is out there on a regular basis (search for "Hannity" = no hits). But everywhere Moore went, newspapers sent photographers, who took (generally) warm, fuzzy pictures of him beaming from the podium, shaking hands with students, raising his arm in some gesture of truth-dispensing certainty. When you see news photographers at work for long enough (21 years, in my case), you get to recognize when they're trying to make someone look good or trying to make someone look bad or just bored by the assignment and angling for an interesting shot. They were making him look like a saint.
And they all sent two or three versions of their artwork to the AP, and the AP moved them all on the wire for the benefit of the rest of the country.
As for us, Moore never got within 100 miles of here. Yet my newspaper shipped off a reporter to his nearest college town appearance anyhow -- it happened to be at my alma mater. They've never sent a photographer to that town before. Normally, they wouldn't budget travel expenses for the Second Coming, if it happened six feet over the county line.
[UPDATE: AP moved a batch more Moore pictures tonight, so the number now stands at 36.]
My co-worker Paul's other deity is clearly more important, because he's got a worldwide audience that even Moore hasn't achieved. Noam Chomsky may be the most widely read American non-fiction writer on the planet today.
[UPDATE UPDATE: As of 11:30 p.m., 40 MM photos on the AP wire. Still none of Ann Coulter, though I'm sure they'd be slightly easier on the eyes.]
Chomsky's response to 9/11 was more notable than either Moore's or Coulter's. He wrote a book called "9/11," little more than a loose collection of e-mail interviews, but it was translated into 23 languages and made the best-seller lists in Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, and New Zealand. He's become the guiding light of the new dissidence, which arose out of the shock of Sept. 11.
Samantha Power, herself a non-fiction writer of some power, had an excellent review in the "New York Times" [Jan. 4, 2004] of Chomsky's latest book, "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance." Before finding much to praise in the man's work, she perfectly skewers the extremism of his post-Sept. 11 world-view:
"For Chomsky, the world is divided into oppressor and oppressed. America, the prime oppressor, can do no right, while the sins of those categorized as oppressed receive scant mention. Because he deems American foreign policy inherently violent and expansionist, he is unconcerned with the motives behind particular policies, or the ethics of particular individuals in government. And since he considers the United States the leading terrorist state, little distinguishes American air strikes in Serbia undertaken at night with high-precision weaponry from World Trade Center attacks timed to maximize the number of office workers who have just sat down with their morning coffee."
Chomsky falls into the same bad habits that plague Coulter and Moore. It comes of spending too much time preaching to the choir. When he agrees with a claim, Chomsky credits it to "distinguished authorities." Yet his footnotes often lead nowhere -- sometimes to vague references, sometimes to his own previous works. And when he's quoting something he doesn't like, he dismisses the source as the "prevailing intellectual culture" or the "educated classes." Does the distinguished MIT professor of linguistics expect us to think he is a longshoreman?
"It is inconceivable, in Chomsky's view, that American power could be harnessed for good. Thus, the billions of dollars in foreign aid earmarked each year for disaster relief, schools, famine prevention, AIDS treatment, etc. -- and the interventions in Kosovo and East Timor -- have to be explained away. The Kosovo and Timor operations' prime achievement, he writes, was to establish the norm of resort to force without Security Council authorization. On this both the Kosovars and the Timorese, whose welfare Chomsky has heroically championed over the years, would strongly disagree."
It's a shame, because Chomsky does have something important to say at this point in history, which perhaps only he can say. His critiques of the mainstream media I've always found penetrating and unignorable. And as Power points out in her review, "The radicalism ... of the Bush administration has laid bare many of the structural defects in American foreign policy, defects that Chomsky has long assailed." Instead of contributing to a sane dialogue, he chooses to marginalize himself, at least in the U.S., by telling us that the only thing he has to say is, it's all our own fault.
Anyone unfortunate enough to have a Chomskyite for a friend/co-worker/in-law can benefit from this exercise in petard-hoisting. Meanwhile, the best critique of Chomsky and his followers that I've seen lately is a piece by Nick Cohen, in The Observer [Dec. 14, 2003], reviewing "Hegemony or Survival." It's so forceful and tight that it almost can't be excerpted, so here's the piece entire:
Whatever other crimes it committed or covered up in the twentieth century, the Left could be relied upon to fight fascism. A regime that launched genocidal extermination campaigns against impure minorities would be recognised for what it was and denounced.
Paul, my co-worker, who is given to uttering "as Chomsky says" in the tones a preacher uses to invoke Scripture, had his own peculiar reaction to Sept. 11. A day or two afterward, when we still were busy filling page after page of the newpspaper with stories of heroism and tragedy, before anyone in the White House had made a move to strike back at the terrorists or their hosts, Paul turned to me and said, in an undertone, "Don't you think we're over-reacting to this whole thing?"
Not the least of the casualties of the Iraq war is the death of anti-fascism. Patriots could oppose Bush and Blair by saying that it wasn't in Britain's interests to follow America. Liberals could put the UN first and insist that the United States proved [sic.] its claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the court of world opinion. Adherents to both perspectives were free to tell fascism's victims, 'We're sorry to leave you under a tyranny and realise that many more of you will die, but that's your problem.'
The Left, which has been formally committed to the Enlightenment ideal of universal freedom for two centuries, couldn't bring itself to be as honest. Instead millions abandoned their comrades in Iraq and engaged in mass evasion. If you think that it was asking too much to expect it to listen to people in Iraq when they said there was no other way of ending 35 years of oppression, consider the sequel. Years after the war, the Kurdish survivors of genocide and groups from communists through to conventional democrats had the right to expect fraternal support against the insurgency by the remnants of the Baath Party. They are being met with indifference or active hostility because they have committed the unforgivable sin of cooperating with the Americans. For the first time in its history the Left has nothing to say to the victims of fascism.
Defeat explains much of the betrayal. The past 20 years have witnessed the collapse of communism, the triumph of US capitalism and the recognition of the awkward fact that many Third World revolutions are powered by a religious fundamentalism so strange the traditional Left can't look it in the eye. The result of the corruption of defeat is an opposition to whatever America does; a looking-glass politics where hypocrisies of power are matched by equal hypocrisies in the opposite direction.
The contortions are almost funny. In the Eighties, when the US and Europe were the de facto allies of Saddam, the Left wept rivers for his Kurdish and Arab victims. The concern dimmed when Saddam spoilt everything by invading Kuwait and turning himself into America's enemy. In the Nineties, the tyrant of Iraq was no longer responsible for conditions in the tyranny of Iraq. Its suffering was the fault of UN sanctions. By the spring of this year, evasion had reached outright denial as the reflection in the looking glass completed its about turn and opposed the only means of overthrowing Saddam.
Noam Chomsky is the master of looking-glass politics. His writing exemplifies the ability of the Western Left to criticise everything from the West - except itself. He is immensely popular; but his popularity is mystifying on the first reading. His work is dense and filled with non sequiturs (here he seeks to use the Cuban missile crisis to explain the Iraq war, which is a little like using the first Moon landing to explain the dotcom boom). He claims to confront the comfortable with uncomfortable facts they don't want to face. Yet his audience is primarily a comfortable Western audience.
The appeal lies in the simple argument that underlies the convoluted prose. Capitalism, particularly American capitalism, is responsible for the world's problems, it runs. Resistance, however perverted, is inevitable. If the resistance is barbaric the barbarism is the fault of capitalism.
Most of the time, the argument is hidden because, although it can stand up in a many circumstances, it is an absurd universal claim. But every now and again, the veil lifts and the professor is explicit. 'Recognition that control of opinion is the foundation of government, from the most despotic to the most free, goes back at least to Hume,' he writes. 'But a qualification should be added. It is far more important in the most free societies, where obedience cannot be maintained by the lash.'
Got that? Not that propaganda is more subtle in the United States than, say, China, or harder to detect in Britain than say, North Korea, but 'more important'. To the far Left, accustomed to decades of defeat, Chomsky's account of the brainwashing of the dumb masses provides an excuse for failure. For others he presents a curiously ethno-centric and soothing view of the world.
The lesson of 11 September is that no constraints of morality or conscience would stop al-Qaeda exploding a nuclear weapon. If however, it is all our fault, as Chomsky says, perhaps we can avert catastrophe by being nicer and better people. Perhaps we can, but Chomsky is as reluctant to admit that al Qaeda is an autonomous movement as he is to admit the existence of the democratic and socialist opposition to Saddam Hussein.
He wasn't always so coy. In his younger and better days he condemned the dishonesty of intellectuals who went along with America's crimes in Indochina and South America. It would be heartening if he could apply the same standards to himself. Just before the war, Jose Ramos-Horta, one of the leaders of the struggle for independence of East Timor, looked on the anti-war protesters and asked: 'Why did I not see one single banner or hear one speech calling for the end of human rights abuses in Iraq, the removal of the dictator and freedom for the Iraqis and the Kurdish people?'
Perhaps Professor Chomsky would like to carry on his campaign against hypocrisy by answering him.