Trawling the web for texts on the history of ‘white nationalism’, I stumbledupon a new book by US writer Leonard Zeskind titled Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009). The subject is one in which I have a keen interest, so naturally when I obtain an over-priced copy in 10 years time at one of Melbourne’s better second-hand bookshops, I will read it. Until then, I will have to content myself with listening to the interview Leonard Lopate conducted with Zeskind on the subject of his book for WNYC in June 2009 (see above link).
As it happens, I’ve encountered Zeskind’s name before — he’s written quite extensively on the subject of white supremacy and the far right in the United States.
So, I looked at his website.
There, I noticed Uncle Leonard had written about Uncle Noam (and er, the Dixie Chicks): ‘Dixie Chicks and Noam Chomsky: Two Sides of Americanism & Anti-Americanism in the USA’, January 2, 2003. Here, Zeskind’s argument rests on the notion that:
…anti-Americanism is a solid part of American life. But consideration of its ramifications is largely absent from the discourse inside the left… The questions must be asked: Are some opponents of U.S. imperialism also fundamentally anti-American? Do some anti-Americans serve as a core anti-imperialist opposition? The answer is “yes” on both counts.
I see: ‘anti-Americanism’ is as American as cherry pie (and ah, violence). To not be anti-American, then, is to be anti-American.
As for Chomsky, according to Zeskind, Uncle Noam:
…is representative of [a] trend on the left, a trend that mirrors conservatives on the right. Rather than finding the two-sidedness of American national life, they see only one aspect. The conservatives love their mono-dimensional country unconditionally and believe all others to be traitors. Those like Chomsky abjure their mono-dimensional enemy with unqualified contempt and believe all others to be morally bankrupt. It is a tendency rooted in the anti-imperialist movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, and the search for revolutionary agency.
Zeskind then goes on to describe this movement as it manifested in the United States, claiming that Chomsky “has emerged as the principal spokesperson for [this] older “anti-American” anti-imperialism”.
In essence, Chomsky embodies ‘anti-Americanism’.
According to Zeskind, he is also:
…an “anarchist,” we are informed, which he defines as a “libertarian socialist.” He is a free speech absolutist, we are reminded whenever a protest is lodged about his relationship to Holocaust denial and Robert Faurrison. And for twenty-five years [sic] he has been an indefatigable fighter against U.S. foreign policy, writing books faster than many people read the Sunday paper and giving speeches at every available venue. He has often skewered the hypocrisy of American elites, but at the same time he has demonstrated little understanding of the dynamics at work among the American people. For two decades, Chomsky has repeatedly sung one analytical note. Sometimes he hits the right target. Other times he has been remarkably tone deaf. One note. One idea.
America is Bad, mmmkay?
Among Chomsky’s many (other) crimes, Zeskind nominates: his delivery of a speech on the subject of US imperialism in May 1990 at the university in Hamburg — while at the same time ‘foreigners’ “were being burned out of their homes and attacked in every city”; his ridicule of the notion of ‘anti-Americanism’ and; his failure “to find a democratic or progressive thread within the American national narrative”, especially as it is to be found in the work of Eric Foner and “the industrial labor movements that culminated in the formation of the CIO in the 1930s”. In summary, according to Zeskind, Chomsky’s “frame of reference for democracy remains completely in the Third World”.
Finally, while noting that he is “not a neo-Nazi”, and does not deny the occurrence of the Holocaust, “Chomsky most certainly does not capitalize the H in Holocaust and give the event its proper name”, and fails (or failed) to note “any evidence of anti-Semitism… in Faurisson’s writings on the Holocaust”, describing him instead as ‘some sort of liberal’. In summary:
Simply put, on the issue of anti-Semitism, Chomsky is blind in both the left eye and the right eye. Two questions are then posed for left-wing intellectuals and anti-globalist street activists: Is it this man and this analysis that you want to follow when marching against war in Iraq or in opposition to free trade treaties? If irrational anti-Americanism becomes tinged with anti-Semitism, would Chomsky recognize it? Based on the evidence, the answer is an obvious no.
For my part, two questions are posed by Zeskind’s scribblings: Is this man serious? And: if he can read, why doesn’t he?
- Oh yeah. As for the Dixie Chicks:
In response to Zeskind:
To begin with, the apparent fact that Chomsky gave a speech in Germany on US imperialism in May 1990, while assorted neo-Nazis were running around the country doing what neo-Nazis do best, is — like Zeskind’s other observations — just plain weird. The implication, clearly, is that Uncle Noam should have been drawing attention to these crimes, rather than those of the US state. Zeskind’s criticism of the (then) 62-year-old Jewish scholar was predicated on the fact that, rather than address this topic, Chomsky should have been denouncing neo-Nazism, or even been out there on the streets — along with Zeskind, of course — directly confronting those responsible for the attacks on ‘foreigners’.
Maybe Chomsky should have, but if so, I’m not aware of any complaints from German antifa that Chomsky failed to lead them into battle when they themselves took to the streets (see : George Katsiaficas, The Subversion of Politics: European Autonomous Social Movements and the Decolonization of Everyday Life, Second Edition, AK Press, 2006, esp. pp.165–168). Further, I’m unaware of his address having prevented any Germans from battling fascists — apart, of course, for the few hours (I assume) those who attended his speech spent listening to Chomsky.
Zeskind’s exceedingly bizarre assertion that Chomsky ‘refuses’ to capitalise the word ‘Holocaust’ is easily disproven by references to essays of his in which he does just that; but perhaps Zeskind is implying that Chomsky does not accord the Holocaust its proper place in history. In reality, in 1992, Chomsky stated the following (‘Israel, the Holocaust, and Anti-Semitism’, Excerpted from Chronicles of Dissent):
QUESTION: I ask you this question because I know that you have been plagued and hounded around the United States specifically on this issue of the Holocaust. It’s been said that Noam Chomsky is somehow agnostic on the issue of whether the Holocaust occurred or not.
CHOMSKY: I described the Holocaust years ago as the most fantastic outburst of insanity in human history, so much so that if we even agree to discuss the matter we demean ourselves. Those statements and numerous others like them are in print, but they’re basically irrelevant because you have to understand that this is part of a Stalinist-style technique to silence critics of the holy state and therefore the truth is entirely irrelevant, you just tell as many lies as you can and hope that some of the mud will stick. It’s a standard technique used by the Stalinist parties, by the Nazis and by these guys.
On the question of Chomsky’s attitude towards ‘democracy’, Zeskind relies upon a single piece of evidence: the response Chomsky gave to a question put to him in an interview conducted in 1992 for Rolling Stone magazine. Here is the question and Chomsky’s answer:
QUESTION: Let’s start with the title of your latest book, Deterring Democracy. What do you mean by ‘democracy,’ what do our rulers mean by ‘democracy,’ and why are they deterring what you mean by ‘democracy’?
CHOMSKY: Well, like most terms of political discourse, democracy has two quite different meanings. There’s the dictionary meaning, and then there’s the meaning that is used for purposes of power and profit. According to the dictionary, you can say a system is democratic to the extent that citizens have ways to participate in some meaningful fashion in decisions about public affairs. That’s not a yes or a no matter. You have a lot of different dimensions in different societies. In the ideological sense of democracy — the Orwellian sense, in which the word is actually used — a society is democratic if it’s run by business sectors that are subordinated to the business sectors that run the United States. If it has that property, it’s a democracy. If it doesn’t, then it’s not.
So, for example, Guatemala in the early Fifties was a capitalist democracy in the dictionary sense of the word. In fact, it was one of the most democratic governments in the Third World anywhere. It had lots of popular support, there’s no doubt about that. Read the CIA analyses. One of the things they were worried about was that the government had so much support. But Guatemala was following policies of which the United States did not approve: independent nationalism, domestic development, land reform and so on. This was harming the interests of the elements that the United States regards as the natural rulers — they being the business classes that are linked to U.S. corporations and the military, insofar as they follow U.S. orders. Therefore the United States had to overthrow that government in 1954 to safeguard what we call democracy.
Or Nicaragua in the Eighties, to take a more recent case. An election occurred there in 1984, in fact, but not according to U.S. ideology. In newspapers, in journals of opinion, there wasn’t an election. The first election was in 1990. In historical reality, there was one in 1984. There has probably never been an election in history so closely investigated. The Latin American Studies Association, the professional association of Latin American scholars, did its first detailed analysis of any Latin American election. The Dutch government, which is very reactionary and pro-American, sent a delegation. The Irish parliament sent a delegation. Masses of observers. And the general conclusion, even by the most reactionary of them, was that this was a pretty effective election.
Of course, contra Zeskind, this is not the only occasion upon which Chomsky has had reason to refer to ‘democracy’, either according to a standard definition or that employed by apologists for US imperialism. For example: in 1977, Chomsky spoke of the ‘crisis of democracy’ detected by US elites and investigated on their behalf by the Trilateral Commission; in May 2002, he stated:
The Commission was a mostly liberal internationalist elite, from Europe, the United States, and Japan. It was mostly people like the Carter administration, liberal in the American sense of social democrats and internationalists. What they were deeply concerned about was an increase in democracy, that is, through the 1960s parts of the public that had usually been apathetic and passive began to get organized and to enter the political arena and press their demands and so on. That included women, working people, minorities, the elderly —in general the large part of the population that was usually passive. The way it’s supposed to work is that the political system is supposed to be in the hands of private tyrannies, private power, and that was beginning to erode. What they said is that there’s too much democracy and that’s no good, it’s a crisis, that we have to have more moderation in democracy, and we have to restore people to passive apathy.
In another interview (‘Radical Democracy’, Noam Chomsky interviewed by John Nichols, Capital Times, March 3, 1997), Chomsky refers to Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, and union struggles of the 1920s: “It’s a battle right through history. It’s not just the United States, of course. It was the same struggle in the English Revolution, which came before the revolution in the United States, and in every popular struggle since. And it’s going on right in front of our eyes today. It’s a never-ending struggle.” In ‘That Dangerous Radical Aristotle’ (Noam Chomsky, Excerpted from The Common Good, 1998), Chomsky says:
Aristotle [in Politics] took it for granted that a democracy should be fully participatory (with some notable exceptions, like women and slaves) and that it should aim for the common good. In order to achieve that, it has to ensure relative equality, “moderate and sufficient property” and “lasting prosperity” for everyone. In other words, Aristotle felt that if you have extremes of poor and rich, you can’t talk seriously about democracy. Any true democracy has to be what we call today a welfare state — actually, an extreme form of one, far beyond anything envisioned in this century.
In outlining his “anarchist” or “libertarian socialist” political views in yet another of umpteen interviews (‘Activism, Anarchism, and Power’, Noam Chomsky interviewed by Harry Kreisler, Conversations with History, March 22, 2002), Chomsky makes specific reference to American working class movements, arguing that in America:
…it has roots. Coming back to the United States, it has very strong roots in the American working class movements. So if you go back to, say, the 1850s, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, right around the area where I live, in Eastern Massachusetts, in the textile plants and so on, the people working on those plants were, in part, young women coming off the farm. They were called “factory girls,” the women from the farms who worked in the textile plants. Some of them were Irish, immigrants in Boston and that group of people. They had an extremely rich and interesting culture. They’re kind of like my uncle who never went past fourth grade — very educated, reading modern literature. They didn’t bother with European radicalism, that had no effect on them, but the general literary culture, they were very much a part of. And they developed their own conceptions of how the world ought to be organized.
They had their own newspapers. In fact, the period of the freest press in the United States was probably around the 1850s. In the 1850s, the scale of the popular press, meaning run by the factory girls in Lowell and so on, was on the scale of the commercial press or even greater. These were independent newspapers — a lot of interesting scholarship on them, if you can read them now. They [arose] spontaneously, without any background. [The writers had] never heard of Marx or Bakunin or anyone else; they developed the same ideas. From their point of view, what they called “wage slavery,” renting yourself to an owner, was not very different from the chattel slavery that they were fighting a civil war about. You have to recall that in the mid-nineteenth century, that was a common view in the United States — for example, the position of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln’s position. It’s not an odd view, that there isn’t much difference between selling yourself and renting yourself. So the idea of renting yourself, meaning working for wages, was degrading. It was an attack on your personal integrity. They despised the industrial system that was developing, that was destroying their culture, destroying their independence, their individuality, constraining them to be subordinate to masters.
There was a tradition of what was called Republicanism in the United States. We’re free people, you know, the first free people in the world. This was destroying and undermining that freedom. This was the core of the labor movement all over, and included in it was the assumption, just taken for granted, that “those who work in the mills should own them.” In fact, one of the their main slogans, I’ll just quote it, was they condemned what they called the “new spirit of the age: gain wealth, forgetting all but self.” That new spirit, that you should only be interested in gaining wealth and forgetting about your relations to other people, they regarded it as a violation of fundamental human nature, and a degrading idea.
That was a strong, rich American culture, which was crushed by violence. The United States has a very violent labor history, much more so than Europe. It was wiped out over a long period, with extreme violence. By the time it picked up again in the 1930s, that’s when I personally came into the tail end of it. After the Second World War it was crushed. By now, it’s forgotten. But it’s very real. I don’t really think it’s forgotten, I think it’s just below the surface in people’s consciousness.
And, of course, there are Chomsky’s voluminous writings. Most appropriate, perhaps, in the current context, is the essay Chomsky wrote 40 years ago on ‘Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship’:
If it is plausible that ideology will in general serve as a mask for self-interest, then it is a natural presumption that intellectuals, in interpreting history or formulating policy, will tend to adopt an elitist position, condemning popular movements and mass participation in decision-making, and emphasizing rather the necessity for supervision by those who possess the knowledge and understanding that is required (so they claim) to manage society and control social change. This is hardly a novel thought. One major element in the anarchist critique of Marxism a century ago was the prediction that, as Bakunin formulated it:
“According to the theory of Mr. Marx, the people not only must not destroy [the state] but must strengthen it and place it at the complete disposal of their benefactors, guardians, and teachers-the leaders of the Communist party, namely Mr. Marx and his friends, who will proceed to liberate humankind in their own Way. They will concentrate the reins of government in a strong hand, because the ignorant people require an exceedingly firm guardianship; they Will establish a single state bank, concentrating in its hands all commercial, industrial, agricultural and even scientific production, and then divide the masses into two armies-industrial and agricultural-under the direct command of the state engineers, who will constitute a new privileged scientific-political estate.”
One cannot fail to be struck by the parallel between this prediction and that of Daniel Bell – the prediction that in the new postindustrial society, not only the best talents, but eventually the entire complex of social prestige and social status, will be rooted in the intellectual and scientific communities Pursuing the parallel for a moment, it might be asked whether the left-wing critique of Leninist elitism can be applied, under very different conditions, to the liberal ideology of the intellectual elite that aspires to a dominant role in managing the Welfare state.
Zeskind, in avoiding any reference to these and many other examples of Chomsky’s views on ‘democracy’, has accomplished some feat. This avoidance, of course, being necessary to maintain the fiction that his “frame of reference for democracy remains completely in the Third World”. The grain of truth in this assertion lies in the fact that Chomsky does indeed comment upon and draw inspiration from popular movements in the ‘Third World’ (as do millions of his fellow Americans) and, further, in his contention that the peoples of the ‘Third World’ — rather than the US state, and the elites which frame its foreign policy — are those who should determine their own fate. Hence, the application of the term ‘anti-American’, and — given the consistency with which he has advocated this rather straightforward, ethical and political proposition — Zeskind’s complaint that Chomsky is “tone deaf”.
Finally, inre Zeskind’s warning to “left-wing intellectuals and anti-globalist street activists” of the perils of allowing this irrational bigot to assume some kinda leadership role within ‘progressive’ social movements — “Is it this man and this analysis that you want to follow when marching against war in Iraq or in opposition to free trade treaties?” — the question, like Zeskind’s critique as a whole, rests on very shaky premises. Marching against war in Iraq — or even taking direct action against the military-industrial-entertainment complex — is more likely to be(/have been) inspired by revulsion at criminal mass murder than it is Chomsky’s alleged ‘anti-Americanism’. By the same taken, ‘opposition to free-trade treaties’ — or even to capitalism as a whole — proceeds from an understanding of its effects upon those subjected to its provisions.
‘An Exchange on Manufacturing Consent’, Noam Chomsky interviewed by various activists, Excerpted from Understanding Power, The New Press, 2002:
WOMAN: But the critique of the media in the film is taken from speeches that you gave.
CHOMSKY: Yeah, but that’s because other people are doing important things and I’m not doing important things — that’s what it literally comes down to. I mean, years ago I used to be involved in organizing too — I’d go to meetings, get involved in resistance, go to jail, all of that stuff — and I was just no good at it at all; some of these people here can tell you. So sort of a division of labor developed: I decided to do what I’m doing now, and other people kept doing the other things. Friends of mine who were basically the same as me — went to the same colleges and graduate schools, won the same prizes, teach at M.I.T. and so on — just went a different way. They spend their time organizing, which is much more important work — so they’re not in a film. That’s what the difference is. I mean, I do something basically less important — it is, in fact. It’s adding something, and I can do it, so I do it — I don’t have any false modesty about it. And it’s helpful. But it’s helpful to people who are doing the real work. And every popular movement I know of in history has been like that.
In fact, it’s extremely important for people with power not to let anybody understand this, to make them think there are big leaders around who somehow get things going, and then what everybody else has to do is follow them. That’s one of the ways of demeaning people, and degrading them and making them passive. I don’t know how to overcome this exactly, but it’s really something people ought to work on.
Despite noting the fact that Chomsky has written many scores of books, hundreds of essays, and given thousands of interviews and speeches, Zeskind relies on exactly two texts to support his arguments, neither of which are long or especially comprehensive: ‘Anarchy in the U.S.A.’, Noam Chomsky interviewed by Charles M. Young, Rolling Stone, May 28, 1992 and ‘Is Chomsky ‘anti-American’?’, Noam Chomsky interviewed by Jacklyn Martin, The Herald, December 9, 2002.
On the subject of Chomsky and the
Holocaust holocaust Holocaust, Zeskind cites: ‘Some Elementary Comments on The Rights of Freedom of Expression’, Noam Chomsky, Appeared as a Preface to Robert Faurisson, Mémoire en défense, October 11, 1980 and ‘His Right to Say It’, Noam Chomsky, The Nation, February 28, 1981; of further relevance is ‘The Faurisson Affair’, Noam Chomsky writes to Lawrence K. Kolodney, Circa 1989-1991.
See also : Windschuttle on Chomsky (April 16, 2008) | Windschuttle on Chomsky (2) (April 17, 2008) | ‘A Longtime Anti-Racism Activist’s Take on History’, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, Reviewed by Loretta J. Ross, The Public Eye, Summer 2009.