I’m nowadays content to leave the Snowwald cult to their increasingly bizarre yet indefatigably dull devices except when something unusual or particularly illustrative comes up. Such a thing did come up on a recent episode of Blogging Heads where Robert Wright and Greenwald discussed media constraints and Noam Chomsky. That’s, of course, right up the alley of this blog, so I’ve transcribed the most important bits below. Some of my own remarks follow.
RW: There are certain things you’re not supposed to say if you want to remain a member [of the Establishment] in good standing. You run the risk of surrendering influence if you say certain things…what’s interesting to me about you is you really push some of the boundaries and yet you haven’t been thoroughly expelled yet from the establishment. I mean an example is the question you’ve raised with respect to the word terrorist and other people have said one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, and your point is, that’s actually true…when you say things like that, you’re really starting to mess with the code, y’know, the Establishment. First of all do you consider yourself a member in good standing of the Establishment? You remain influential. You’re asked to go on respectable media. I heard you were going to be on NPR this morning and the Brian Lehrer show in New York and so on. What is your view of what space you occupy?
GG: It’s interesting, because, before someone named Edward Snowden entered my life, I was working on a book about Noam Chomsky and the way in which he had been systematically excluded from mainstream American political discourse and using that as an illustration, a window into understanding how the American media and the institutions that own and control it do really rigidly control the range of debate that can be heard even though we like to tell ourselves we have a free press. You can turn on MSNBC or Fox News and hear two people arguing and hear one Democrat and one Republican and say oh my god there’s arguments everywhere we must have a free press when in reality a huge number of viewpoints that are held by large numbers of people around the world are never heard on those shows.
I remember I had this long discussion with [Chomsky] at his office at MIT in which I basically said I kind of think a legitimate criticism of your career is that you’ve allowed yourself to be marginalized in this way that wasn’t necessary by just refusing to do just very minor compromises that wouldn’t be compromises of your intellectual integrity or the things that you believe but like learn how to talk in soundbites, put on a suit, um, you know, be a little friendly with like tv producers, or people who can put you on tv, like isnt it self-indulgent to take the view that I’m just gonna lose my access to mainstream audiences. And he said he didn’t think that was a valid criticism because he thought, essentially what you suggested, which is that automatically as soon as you have certain views you’re instantly expelled from those forum because they’re designed to make sure that those views aren’t heard.
So I’ve always tried very hard strategically…to find that balance between how do you make certain that you don’t get marginalized — I mean you’re going to be marginalized to some extent and I have been, I mean there are certain shows that would never have me on…but by and large I’ve been able to keep at least one foot in that mainstream establishment realm — but at the same time not compromise the things that you really think and be able to go around saying you think the things that the United States government does routinely is classic terrorism or that we are the ones that are sort of causing a lot of the anti-American violence launched against us for rational reasons you know, if someone were constantly bombing us, attacking us, we would want to do violence back to them without losing that access and I think it’s really important to try to maintain that balance…but it is true that these structures do exist so that there are certain views that if you express enough and if you’re not really strategic about it, you’re just not going to be heard. And there’s so many examples of views that are held by hundreds of millions of people around the world that if you go on American television and say you will not be invited back. So it’s really hard to think about how to navigate that balance but I think it’s so important.
Can anyone who has any interest in the topic under discussion not be curious about what the things are that even Greenwald regards as unsayable, and what “really strategic” means in this context? What the tradeoffs and benefits are in relation to the objective, and what that objective is? But as is now customary in these situations, Greenwald’s interlocutor did not burden him with any question not conducive to Fearless and Adversarial™ self-mythology.
I might write more on this but a couple things hit me right off the bat as being worthy of comment. One, Greenwald has very much more than one foot in the mainstream. He’s got a Pulitzer, a Polk, a book translated into more than 20 languages, a movie deal and a job under the 26th richest person in the world, a man with visiting rights to the White House and a partnership with USAID in soft imperialism. So cut the one foot bullshit. The guy is beyond mainstream. He’s deep inside private power at its most powerful. This means, indisputably, that he is either mostly pleasing to the people and institutions that control the media — which would explain all the cash, prizes, interviews and hagiographies — or the left media critique he and Wright are vulgarizing needs to be chucked altogether.
In a similar vein, it is entirely ridiculous to speak of Chomsky as marginalized simply because he is not a regular feature on cable news chat shows. Chomsky is the official radical, a position he attained not through moving up the ranks of social movements, but by the patronage of the bourgeoisie, which began with defense-funded research at MIT and progressed to his anointing as one of our most, possibly the most, important living intellectual(s). We on the left look to him largely because of the prestige and visibility the bourgeoisie has imparted to him. It was an article that Chomsky wrote in 1967 for the The New York Review of Books about the complicity of intellectuals in the Vietnam War that established the MIT linguistics professor as a left-wing political commentator. The meaning of all this Establishment patronage has eluded Chomsky and his followers, because the critical flaw of his media analysis is his baseless, preemptive exemption of the professional left and himself from the constraints he and Ed Herman so usefully described.
That said, Greenwald and Chomsky do occupy vastly differing locations in relation to the mainstream — especially post-Snowden — and these positions offer instruction on what can be said where and what mustn’t be said ever. One way of inferring the unsayable things that Greenwald did not name — or at least some of them — is to identify where Chomsky and Greenwald align and where they don’t. One glaring difference is that Chomsky is at least nominally anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. There is nothing to suggest that Greenwald is either.
It’s revealing that the two examples Robert Wright and Greenwald provide to illustrate how he’s “messing with the code” are really quite doctrinaire. No less than paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan coined “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist” and he did so years ago. Greenwald’s spiel about terrorism being revenge for U. S. atrocities, is also very near conventional wisdom, as well as a whitewash of the U.S. role in fostering terrorism by funding and directing it. Among Greenwald’s great contributions to his benefactors is reframing doctrine and routine middle class disaffection as the outer limits, even radical.
Greenwald, like Chomsky, stakes out a place at the ostensible margins — largely with smoke and mirrors — for the purpose of authenticating a fairly anodyne, at times even conservative critique that is entirely free of prescription as to what must be done, and in Greenwald’s case, equally free of system-wide analysis or condemnation. This is why he is so generously indulged. Far more talented, well-spoken, and insightful people labor to his and Chomsky’s left, but in relative obscurity, because, unlike Chomsky and Greenwald, they offer nothing to the bourgeoisie. Hence, their marginality is genuine, as opposed to trumped up, and so it will remain through no shortcomings of their own.
As for Greenwald’s suit and soundbite nonsense, I’m tempted to leave that to others, since it’s not clear if by the end of his discussion with Chomsky he still believes what he’d said at the time, some variation of which has haunted insipid “why we lose” conversations for years. However, observant reader Hieroglyph pointed out in comments on my first draft that Chomsky has several times described how soundbites are insidious on their own and can’t be harmlessly embraced in the way Greenwald suggests. That Greenwald doesn’t seem to know this betrays quite a lot of ignorance of Chomsky basics. Here’s Chomsky from a speech featured in the 1992 documentary, Noam Chomsky and The Media.
Noam Chomsky: The beauty of concision, you know, saying a couple sentences between two commercials, the beauty of that is you can only repeat conventional thoughts. Suppose I go on Nightline, whatever it is, two minutes, and I say Gaddafi is a terrorist, Khomeini is a murderer etcetera etcetera…I don’t need any evidence, everyone just nods. On the other hand, suppose you’re saying something that isn’t just regurgitating conventional pieties, suppose you say something that’s the least bit unexpected or controversial, people will quite reasonably expect to know what you mean. If you said that you’d better have a reason, better have some evidence. You can’t give evidence if you’re stuck with concision. That’s the genius of this structural constraint.