Thursday, October 05, 2006

Liberals on Conservatives on Liberals

I remember walking through Dinkytown on the University of Minnesota campus a few years ago, trying to articulate to a friend and fellow liberal why liberals were bugging me so much. As a lefty, I found it odd that the mere mention of the word "corporation" by a fellow traveler would make my eyes glaze over. What was it about the rhetorical style of liberals that seemed so smarmy?

The answer is this: when people stop speaking to their opposition, they lose their edge. Loud campus leftists had a shorthand that they used -- used with everyone. Campus republicans developed a similar language, equally shrill. These groups each have their own cheers to rouse themselves and taunt their opponents. Each side has their own back-slapping platitudes that they exchange with themselves as mutual admiration exercises. When they confront each other, voices raise and quiver, not out of indignation so much as a frustration with the other side's inability to parse their shorthand arguments. What I'm saying, is that we're lazy.

Consequently, I feel it is my duty to read as much conservative opinion as I can stomach. Alas, it isn't much -- lately I can't find the will to read any opinion. But learned, articulate writers are fun to read, no matter their stripe. William F. Buckley is a personal favorite of mine. I think he's a yahoo, but I love to read him.

It is in this spirit that I ventured to the Wall Street Journal's online Opinion Journal, to an editorial by Roger Scruton, which I found via the inimitable Arts & Letters Daily.

Scruton breaks down the whole "Chomsky thing" for his readers. Who is this Chomsky guy? Why is a Venezuelan president -- the one who said the dais, recently held by G.W. Bush, still smelled like sulphur -- holding up his book in front of the U.N.? Here, I thought, would be a reasoned introduction to the ideas and left-wing appeal of erstwhile linguist Noam Chomsky for the fiscally conservative audience.

Instead, I found a surprisingly emotional dismissal of Chomsky. Let me show you the part where my eyes started to glaze over:
"For Prof. Chomsky long ago cast off his academic gown and donned the mantle of the prophet. For several decades now he has been devoting his energies to denouncing his native country, usually before packed halls of fans who couldn't care a fig about the theory of syntax. And many of his public appearances are in America: the only country in the whole world that rewards those who denounce it with the honors and opportunities that make denouncing it into a rewarding way of life."
Suddenly, I hear an angry voice in my head shrieking, "Chomsky hates freedom! Chomsky's a terrorist!"

The problem with Scruton's essay is that it stopped trying to convince me at the third paragraph. To say that Chomsky denounces America is disingenuous. I don't even have to read Chomsky to tell you that he denounces politicians, administrations, and policies. Not entire countries, cultures, and peoples. Any conservative who says that's too much nuance is selling him or herself too short: I don't believe you guys are stupid, just manipulative.

And Scruton seems to be blaming Chomsky for taking advantage of something Scruton ostensibly celebrates -- freedom of speech, invoked when Scruton says our country rewards those who denounce it. Don't act so uncomfortable with democracy, Scruton.

He had a chance to write an enduring contrary essay on the Chomsky phenomenon, but he chose the low road. He gives it to us pre-chewed, like a mama bird to her helpless babies:
"And it is surely undeniable that his habit of excusing or passing over the faults of America's enemies, in order to pin all crime on his native country, suggests that he has invested more in his posture of accusation than he has invested in the truth."
Shortcuts, Scruton. What ammunition has he left his readers with to fend off the liberal hordes? Very little, save a few ad hominems and some nasty intimations. Like the one where he says Chomsky supported the genocidal dictator Pol Pot, but generously adds that Chomsky didn't know any better at the time. If Scruton gave us more, even a liberal might agree with him. But he knows we won't, so he doesn't even try.

In the end, Scruton's point is that Chomsky's words don't matter as much as his knack for rabble-rousing: "For it is his ability to excite not just contempt for American foreign policy but a lively sense that it is guided by some kind of criminal conspiracy that provides the motive for Prof. Chomsky's unceasing diatribes and the explanation of his influence." And, ironically:
"Not everything he says by way of criticizing his country is wrong. However, he is not valued for his truths but for his rage, which stokes the rage of his admirers. He feeds the self-righteousness of America's enemies, who feed the self-righteousness of Prof. Chomsky. And in the ensuing blaze everything is sacrificed, including the constructive criticism that America so much needs, and that America--unlike its enemies, Prof. Chomsky included--is prepared to listen to."
Ironic because here Scruton does precisely what he accuses Chomsky of doing: Sacrificing constructive criticism. Adding to the ensuing blaze.

Scruton has nothing to offer conservatives or liberals but the old "freedom hater" routine. I'm betting a lot of conservatives are just as bored with that as I am.



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11:44 PM  

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