Preemptive interactivity

In today’s Observer, foreign affairs editor Peter Beaumont delivers a wonderfully barbed review of Noam Chomsky‘s latest attack on America. Then, knowing the storm this would set off in certain circles, Beaumont writes a separate piece answering his attackers before they even attack (and attack, they did).

First, let me savor Beaumont’s review of Chomsky’s “Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy.”

I will admit one thing from the start. When I read Noam Chomsky, the voice I hear is that of Chloe, the terrier-like computer geek in 24. This is not without reason. I met Chomsky once at a New Statesman lunch and that nagging, bullying, wheedling voice has stuck with me since. It is a voice that brooks no dissent from his dissident view . . . .

What is most troubling about all this is that there is much that Chomsky and I should agree on. Like him, I was opposed to what I believed was an illegal war in Iraq. In my travels in that country, I, too, have been troubled by the consequences of occupation. Where I differ from him, however, is that I reject Chomsky’s view that American misdeeds are printed through history like the lettering in a stick of rock. . . .

Reading Failed States, I had an epiphany: that by applying a Chomskian analysis to his own writing, you discover exactly the same subtle textual biases, evasions and elisions of meaning as used by those he calls ‘the doctrinal managers’ of the ‘powerful elites’. The mighty Chomsky, the world’s greatest public intellectual, is prone to playing fast and loose.

It is important to recognise this fact because the Chomskian analysis has become the defining dissident voice of the blogosphere and a certain kind of far-left academia. So a sense of its integrity is crucial. It is obsessively well-read, but rather famished in original research, except when it is counting how often the liberal media say this or that in their search for hidden, and sometimes not-so-hidden, bias. Crucially, it is not interested in debate, because balance is a ruse of the liberal media elites used to con the dumb masses. Chomsky is essential to save you, dear reader, from the lies we peddle. . . .

Failed States posits, tendentiously, that the US has become the ultimate ‘failed state’, a term usually reserved for places like Somalia. It is a terrorist state and a rogue state, a country that has brought us to the brink of annihilating darkness. These big claims are bolstered by his familiar arsenal of exaggeration, sarcasm and allusion. . . .

These are all serious matters, but Chomsky chooses to deal with America’s growing democratic deficit not by putting it under a microscope, but by reaching for hyperbole. He suggests an America in the grip of a ‘demonic messianism’ comparable to that of Hitler’s National Socialism. Except that it isn’t. Conveniently missing from Chomsky’s account is the fact that the failure and overreach of George W Bush’s policies, both on the domestic and the international front, has had serious consequences for his brand of neo-conservatism: disastrously collapsing public-approval ratings. . . .

But what I find most noxious about Chomsky’s argument is his desire to create a moral – or rather immoral – equivalence between the US and the greatest criminals in history. Thus on page 129, comparing a somewhat belated US conversion to the case for democracy in Iraq after the failure to find WMD, Chomsky claims: ‘Professions of benign intent by leaders should be dismissed by any rational observer. They are near universal and predictable, and hence carry virtually no information. The worst monsters – Hitler, Stalin, Japanese fascists, Suharto, Saddam Hussein and many others – have produced moving flights of rhetoric about their nobility of purpose.’

Which leads to a question: is that really what you see, Mr Chomsky, from the window of your library at MIT? Is it the stench of the gulag wafting over the Charles River? Do you walk in fear of persecution and murder for expressing your dissident views? Or do you make a damn good living out of it? The faults of the Bush administration will not be changed by books such as Failed States. They will be swept away by ordinary, decent Americans in the world’s greatest – if flawed and selfish – democracy going to the polls.

Go get ‘im, mate! I enjoyed that (go read the rest) but then came the real punchline: Baumont’s preemptive strike against the snark mongers who go after him.

So, this time I’m going to get my dibs in first before the usual suspects start hyper-ventilating about ‘smears’ and ‘hatchet jobs’, ‘hidden mainstream corporate media agendas’ and all the usual nonsense.

Let’s get one thing straight from the very start – yes, there are problems with the media. We are not – most of us – unbiased. I’m very bloody biased about all sorts of things, at least half of which drive my editor nuts. Because he supported the war in Iraq and I did not. But here’s the thing about the ‘biased liberal elites’: I might have had shouting matches with the Boss about the war, and he’s certainly condemned me as a ‘bloody Maoist’, but he has never tried to censor what I write.

Instead, The Observer is a conversation. It is not a commune, so some voices are louder than others, but it remains a conversation.

Which is more than can be said for groups such as Medialens with their endless email campaigns. Because there is no conversation between them and their victims. . . .

Which leads to the question, what is the aim of these self-appointed media watchdogs? At first, I thought there was some use in them. The media too often has a tendency to be arrogant and insular and, yes, is sometimes too close to power. There is a tremendous value in a debate between media workers and concerned readers.

But that is not what this is all about. In truth these groups – and Medialens is a good example – have discovered that, through the increasing presence of print and broadcast media on the internet, they can exploit their ‘critical relationship’ with the media to create a virtual soap box for their views. For journalists like myself, the voice of the disgruntled left we hear is not that of the silent hundreds of thousands I marched with against the war in 2003, but the small, shrill, squeaky voice of an extreme.

He then goes a bit far, saying his finger is poised over the ‘delete’ button for the emails he’ll be sure to get. The Observer will be more of a conversation when the discussion can occur there as well as it occurs elsewhere.

In any case, that was a stick poked into the hornets’ nest, though they tried to keep the buzzing to a controlled pitch. From a few posts in the bulletin board:

If journalists like Beaumont weren’t smearing Medialnes I’d strongly suspect we were all doing something very wrong. Keep up the good work guys. . . .

The point is that Media Lens is not a wicked, rabble-rousing bunch of fanatics deluding otherwise happy media consumers into bombarding journalists with critical comments. It’s no good the media blaming us! The reality is that we are a tiny drop in an ocean of people who have at last found a quick and easy way of letting journalists know what they really think. It is just that journalists like Beaumont were always protected from this in the past.

They also loved the publicity, the argument being the point, after all. From another post:

A professional journalist for a ‘quality’ paper using it to print that kind of personalised name calling and drivel is a great way to draw attention to the kind of things we’re concerned about. Love this idea that we’re a cohesive group out to get people. What did he say … a leftie politburo. Great stuff.