Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Circling the Wagons; or, All These People Who Aren't My Boss

I've been meaning to write about freedom of expression here for some time.  Several recent events pushed me - Trump claiming that Twitter or Facebook had censored him; my Twitter account locked for a few weeks; etc.  I'll try to return to these matters later, but today the Twitterverse is aflame over an open letter published by Harper's Magazine and signed by numerous celebrities, among them Noam Chomsky.

I probably shouldn't write about it, because I agree with those people who've declared the letter a distraction, like the Gravel Teens: "pretty incredible that amid mass joblessness and a deadly pandemic all our 'leading intellectuals' can talk about is the deadly threat of 'cancel culture'".  But one: this isn't entirely fair: many of the signatories, including Chomsky, are talking about joblessness, a deadly pandemic, climate change, war, and other important issues.  Many of us can multitask.  Two: it's clear that many of our random non-intellectuals are all too ready to be distracted by it.  Include me in that company if you wish.

Among the many issues raised by the responses I'm seeing to this rather vacuous and dishonest document is the anger, even fury, over it.  There's a lot of babble about "thought control" and "manufacturing consent" on the Internet, and whatever else you can say, this open letter doesn't do either.  The signatories are a motley bunch, with a variety of complaints and motives, but the letter represents an Establishment that is crumbling under the weight of its own incompetence, so it's lashing out at its critics.  I can point and giggle and make rude noises at them, or I can ignore them; I don't think they will make anything happen by attaching their names to this complaint.  I think that many of their left critics have been echoing their position: these people are trying to silence me!  Perhaps they are, but I don't think they will succeed.

In particular many left-identified persons are attacking Chomsky for setting himself up as some kind of shining example of the Left, or anarchism, whatever, and this old guy who doesn't know anything about the Internet is telling them what to think!!!  Before this particular kerfluffle, Chomsky was getting heat for arguing that people should vote strategically, as if anyone had to do what he said.  I've written about this before, about people who say that Chomsky treats his opponents with contempt (oh noes!), or that he demands unquestioning obedience to his authoritarian declarations (false), that you can't disagree with him (also false).  Interestingly, these claims come from individuals on the right, the center, and the left. Whatever influence Chomsky has, he can't make you do anything: you don't have to listen to him, you don't have to read him, you certainly don't have to agree with him.  Yes, if you're on the left, you'll probably encounter people who will cite him as Scripture. which is probably annoying, but that just gives you an opportunity to refute him -- if you can; rational debate is hard work.  But I don't see how it could more annoying than encountering people who attack him inaccurately and irrationally, and I run into a lot of people like that, in person or online.

I respect Chomsky, I honor his dedication and persistence, but he's not my boss and I don't always agree with him.  If I feel strongly enough, I write a critique of him. Therefore I don't feel threatened when he says something I disagree with.  Funny that so many bold free-thinkers have such a different reaction.