Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chomsky on understanding the Right

Noted anarchist/socialist Noam Chomsky puts together a surprisingly good case for dealing with the Right in ways other than ridicule:
So take right now, for example, there is a right-wing populist uprising. It's very common, even on the left, to just ridicule them, but that's not the right reaction. If you look at those people and listen to them on talk radio, these are people with real grievances. I listen to talk radio a lot and it's kind of interesting. If you can sort of suspend your knowledge of the world and just enter into the world of the people who are calling in, you can understand them. I've never seen a study, but my sense is that these are people who feel really aggrieved. These people think, "I've done everything right all my life, I'm a god-fearing Christian, I'm white, I'm male, I've worked hard, and I carry a gun. I do everything I'm supposed to do. And I'm getting shafted." And in fact they are getting shafted. For 30 years their wages have stagnated or declined, the social conditions have worsened, the children are going crazy, there are no schools, there's nothing, so somebody must be doing something to them, and they want to know who it is. Well Rush Limbaugh has answered - it's the rich liberals who own the banks and run the government, and of course run the media, and they don't care about you—they just want to give everything away to illegal immigrants and gays and communists and so on.

Well, you know, the reaction we should be having to them is not ridicule, but rather self-criticism. Why aren't we organizing them? I mean, we are the ones that ought to be organizing them, not Rush Limbaugh. There are historical analogs, which are not exact, of course, but are close enough to be worrisome. This is a whiff of early Nazi Germany. Hitler was appealing to groups with similar grievances, and giving them crazy answers, but at least they were answers; these groups weren't getting them anywhere else. It was the Jews and the Bolsheviks [that were the problem].

I mean, the liberal democrats aren't going to tell the average American, "Yeah, you're being shafted because of the policies that we've established over the years that we're maintaining now." That's not going to be an answer. And they're not getting answers from the left. So, there's an internal coherence and logic to what they get from Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the rest of these guys. And they sound very convincing, they're very self-confident, and they have an answer to everything—a crazy answer, but it's an answer. And it's our fault if that goes on. So one thing to be done is don't ridicule these people, join them, and talk about their real grievances and give them a sensible answer, like, "Take over your factories."
I find this an interesting, immediately appealing perspective. There was a time that I felt a very real sense of comfort in the simplistic worldview of neoconservatism - the idea that outsiders (both geographical outsiders and people proposing foreign ideas and points of view) were to blame for most of our problems, that authority figures need not be bound by petty codes of law in keeping us "safe," and that appeals to ambiguity and open-mindedness were left-wing tricks designed to cloud the truths I already believed in - truths that were immediately appealing, self-justifying, and, most importantly, simple.

All of this changed once I began to appreciate subtlety, ambiguity, and the sort of relativism that comes from understanding others. It seems appropriate that the intellectual Left, long a proponent of this sort of thinking, ought to consider Right-wingers on their own terms and work to understand and benefit them rather than dismissing them as a caricature of selfish ignorance. Obviously I've been guilty of this behavior in the past (and the powerful who manipulate the unenlightened masses really do deserve condemnation), though it seems beneficial to strive for an ideal of mutual understanding rather than thoughtless denunciation.



  1. Chomsky is one of my fave dudes.

  2. Very thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing it.

    I'd say that finger-pointing happens just as often from the political Left as from the Right. It may be cooler and subtler (devoid of "Limbaugh-esque sensationalism") but it's finger pointing nonetheless. Political groups rarely (if ever) are willing to account for their own mistakes, and they certainly don't have all the answers.

    Also: Who is Chomsky referring to when he says "we [should be] organizing them?"

  3. Well, naturally Chomsky is a socialist/anarchist and believes the middle-class Right to be essentially an exploited worker class who actively props up their oppressors. So his end may be different from yours.

    But this has to do more with dealing with the recent "grassroots" conservative movement. The point here is that left-wingers tend to marginalize them or merely insult their intelligence rather than looking at the sorts of things that have caused them to believe what they believe. Rather than feeling exasperated, then, at the corporate influences that flay wage-earners alive while preaching freedom to them, Chomsky's point is to change the terms of the debate.


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