This is just a brief post to keep the conversation going and to let people know that I intend to continue with this series. I also want to give people some idea of what I intend for it and where I am going with it.
I am getting a bit of a reputation for purism and for being the guy that hates everyone. This seems odd, really, since my focus is almost entirely on people with vastly more influence and money than I, or most people, have. I can’t imagine what kind of person regards as ‘everyone’, a group of U.S.-born left celebrities who, in keeping with their distribution in public life, are all white, mostly male and wealthy and whose politics fall within a tightly circumscribed range. I also can’t imagine taking people with such a narrow, elitist conception of ‘everyone’ — which I increasingly see as a class marker — at all seriously on the soundness of my politics.
I am equally uninterested in appeasing people who think left or anti-authoritarian politics can be in any way reconciled – ever – with shielding influential people from scrutiny. That skepticism, and even anger, toward left icons is fully warranted, seems a surprisingly hard sell for some people, presumably because the fantasy of activist celebrity is just too dreamy to abandon, though also apparently too tenuous to be quietly savored without obnoxiously insisting that others share the dream.
As to purism, I don’t expect any of the people I write about here to be any different than what they are. My point, which should be obvious by now, is that our gaze has been directed to people like Chomsky because they serve power in the guise of defying it. That doesn’t mean these people are entirely without merit. To the contrary, for them to be useful to power in the way I think they are, they have to be in some way useful or attractive to those who wish to temper or disrupt it. In my first post on Chomsky, I specifically said that I owe a lot of how I see things to him, and I appreciate it. In fact, my present impulse to slap him with a warning label and move on comes out of how I read his valuable work on how the system filters out and punishes disruptive individuals. But in the end I think an assessment of good deeds against harm puts Chomsky in the minus column along with the rest, which is why I feel no obligation to be particularly deferential.
My last post was about Chomsky’s shocking response to Aaron Swartz’s death, which is rich with lessons, both about what Chomsky really stands for, and about who survives in this system and who doesn’t. When contemplating a figure like Chomsky against a figure like Swartz, it is useful to ask yourself, if this person is disruptive, why is the system lavishing him or her with rewards, while this other person was destroyed? Chomsky will die a millionaire in his 80s or 90s. Swartz was made bankrupt and driven to suicide in his 20s. Chomsky began pissing on Swartz’s grave and whitewashing his persecution within days of his death. In fact, Chomsky’s conduct with respect to Swartz is so strikingly awful in its allegiance to both capital and state power, it confirms my assessment of his social function more convincingly than I would have imagined before seeing it for myself.
I have chosen Chomsky for the last phase of what has grown, somewhat haphazardly, into a lengthy repudiation of dissent mediated by elite-anointed rebels. I made this choice because he really is the full-on embodiment of everything I dislike and distrust in anointed lefts, all wrapped up in unassailable credibility and an anarchist brand. My repudiation of icons has been moving ever leftward, and he is the man at the gates, with the sign that says, ‘This far and no more’. I am going to breeze on by, but not before having a word.
I think Chomsky’s celebrity marks a turning point, or an innovation, in the containment and shaping of middle class dissent, through the commoditization of revulsion, and the reconfiguration of handwringing as resistance. His legacy has much less in common with politics than religion, where the benefits all go to the priests and those above them, and the yield for everyone else is indefinitely deferred, no explanation required. I will attempt to explore this and related matters in subsequent posts.