Wednesday, January 28, 2009

But How Many Divisions Does He Have?

Now and then over the past couple of decades I've subscribed to In These Times, most recently from 2006 to 2007, so I'm still on their e-mail list. Today I got their latest e-mail newsletter, which included a link to an article, "Moving Forward Without Dogma," by one of their regular online columnists, Ken Brociner. It's a painfully bad piece, badly written and devoid of thought.

Brociner praises "progressives" for having "approached politics in a principled and pragmatic manner" in the past year. They didn't make any third-party moves, and better yet, progressives resisted the "temptation of political purists to sit on the sidelines as a presidential election hung in the balance because the Democratic nominee wasn’t progressive enough."
In short, the unrestrained progressive activism during the campaign signals a weakening of the dogma that has previously stifled the left. To build on this momentum, we should do all we can to further minimize both doctrinaire thinking and shrill rhetoric within our ranks. By doing so, we’ll be able to enhance our movement’s ability to communicate with the American public.
As I said, Brociner writes badly, tossing a fine salad of clich├ęs: "doctrinaire thinking," "shrill rhetoric," "enhance our movement's ability to communicate with the American public" (as though liberals and progressives weren't part of the American public). Judging by the articles listed in the sidebar, "dogma" is one of Brociner's cusswords. And "unrestrained progressive activism"? Where did that come from? What does it even refer to, in the context of the Obama campaign, which harnessed the energy of many progressives in the service of a center-right candidate? Oh, I don't know... "unrestrained" sounds so cool, like an ad for tampons or feminine hygiene spray; it's marketing talk, not argument.

Brociner begins his article by exulting, "Liberals, progressives and leftists worked their tails off to help elect Barack Obama—and this time we won!" Did "we"? What exactly did "we" win? Yes, "our" candidate was elected, but he's given nothing back to the "liberals, progressives and leftists" who worked their tails off to help elect him. His advisors and cabinet appointees are overwhelmingly right-wing, with the notable exception of Hilda Solis, who's under attack from the Republicans for her pro-labor stance. (There's a good article on Solis at the In These Times site. The author thinks that the Republican attacks won't succeed in blocking her appointment. I hope he's right; Obama has already backed down on support for contraception in his economic stimulus plan, under attack from the usual Republican suspects.) Brociner sounds like a sports fan to me, happy because "we" -- the corporate-owned team he roots for -- won. After his victory, Obama moved quickly and decisively to reward his corporate and party supporters; he has not been so generous to liberals, progressives, and leftists.

(P.S. February 1: It turns out that it isn't the Republicans who are blocking Solis' nomination in committee; it's the Democrats, with Obama's encouragement.)

Argument generally is in short supply in Brociner's piece. All is not well in Progressiveland, for "even progressive icons can, at times, have a negative influence on the movement’s ideological understanding of the world." Brociner has a bone to pick with two such "icons", Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein.

He begins by praising Chomsky in a way that strongly suggests he knows him only as an icon; he doesn't seem to have read his writings much.
One of Chomsky’s many strengths has been his uncanny ability to deconstruct propaganda and, in doing so, expose the hypocritical—and often criminal—nature of our government’s actions.

Chomsky has often complained about fans who think he "deconstructs" anything, claiming in his endearing Old-Left Philistine way that he doesn't even know what "deconstruct" means. Well, neither does Brociner. As Chomsky has always insisted, what he does is nothing particularly complex or technical; he just reads a lot and pays attention to what he reads, much as the journalist I. F. Stone used to do.

However, while Chomsky’s biting skepticism towards practically everything that emanates from official sources is generally on target, his bitterness, has at times, come to cloud his better judgment. Furthermore, his writings all too often tend to convey an overly conspiratorial view of world politics.

Ah, "bitterness." Numerous people have accused Chomsky of such things. I've been trying to track down a review of one his books in The Nation, from the 1990s I believe, which lamented that while the great man had been on-target during the Vietnam era, as time went on and he was ignored by the Powers That Be, his work took on a harsh and bitter tone. This prompted me to reread American Power and the New Mandarins, Chomsky's first book of political writing. It seemed to me that if anything, Chomsky was harsher and more excoriating when he was younger. Not that it matters: even if he was bitter, that wouldn't prove him wrong.

For example, when the Clinton administration finally did the right thing by intervening in order to stop Milosevic’s brutal aggression in Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999), Chomsky adopted positions that assigned such sinister motives to NATO that they crossed over into a form of demonization.

According to Chomsky the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Bosnia was really driven by the interests of “wealth and power.” As for Kosovo, Chomsky pronounced that “in brief, it was well understood by the NATO leadership that the bombing was not a response to the huge [Serbian] atrocities in Kosovo, but was their cause, exactly as anticipated.” (Monthly Review, Sept. 2008)

Brociner doesn't try to explain why Chomsky was wrong about US motives in Bosnia and Kosovo -- he just knows, dogmatically, that the US "finally did the right thing", and for the right reasons. Chomsky doesn't merely "pronounce," he always marshalls evidence for his arguments and claims, and he documented that the NATO bombing was a cause of Serbian atrocities, not a response to them, and that NATO anticipated this result. If Brociner objects to what Chomsky says, he needs at least to point to evidence that supports his position, not indulge in name-calling.

Brociner continues:
Fast forward to the 2008 presidential election and we hear a similarly dogmatic—and cynical—reaction from Chomsky. “So, every year, the advertising industry gives a prize to, you know, to the best marketing campaign of the year. This year, Obama won the prize. Beat out Apple company. The best marketing campaign of 2008. Which is correct, it is essentially what happened.”
First of all, it happens to be true that Barack Obama's presidential campaign won an Advertising Age award for marketer of the year, beating out Apple Computers. So who's cynical, Chomsky or the advertising mavens who anointed Obama as one of them? Nor was Chomsky being dogmatic: he explained in detail (via Distant Ocean) why he said what he did, and what he meant by it. If Brociner objects, he needs to construct an argument, not call Chomsky names. But that would be, like, hard.

Second, if Brociner wants to lump Chomsky together with "purists" who "sit on the sidelines as a presidential election hung in the balance because the Democratic nominee wasn’t progressive enough", he's in error, to put it as gently and neutrally as I can. Chomsky has always urged leftists to vote in elections, including Presidential elections, and 2008 was no exception. Even when the differences between the candidates are small, as they were in 2004 and 2008, "given the magnitude of U.S. power, ‘small differences can translate into large outcomes.’” This is an utterly pragmatic, non-dogmatic position, and a fairly well-known one, since numerous leftists have criticized Chomsky for it. But evidently Ken Brociner is unaware of it, perhaps because it clashes with his shrill, dogmatic rhetoric. Or maybe he just considers it unacceptable to express any doubts whatever about the candidate to which a liberal, progressive, or leftist has hitched his or her star.

Brociner takes the same tack with Naomi Klein; I'll leave the dissection of his critique as an exercise for the reader.

He concludes his piece with a ringing peroration.
In order to effectively move forward, we’ll need to reject any and all dogma—wherever and whomever it may come from. By doing so, we’ll be in a better position to understand the nuances of the obstacles and opportunities that we will be facing in the critical years ahead.
Ouch. That is some bad writing, but I agree with him this far: it's always a good idea to reject dogma, including the dogmas of people like Ken Brociner.