by Peter Collier
February 3, 2010
Every so often we experience what Jung called synchronicity—the sudden perception of a possibly meaningful pattern in apparently unrelated events. I had one of these moments myself last week.
The first element was the passing of Howard Zinn. I believe as much as the next guy that every man’s death diminishes me, but to be honest, in this case I was hard pressed to feel a sense of loss. Matt Damon might regard him as Parkman’s equal, but in truth Zinn was a savage parody of a historian, one of those radical hacks whose every word subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.
The best and worst that can be said of his People’s History of the United States is that it has benumbed the faculties of many young people over the last couple of decades. It is perhaps the best example in recent years of the way in which some of the fecal matter thrown onto the wall of our intellectual culture not only sticks but becomes a lasting act of defacement.
In checking out the obits on the internet, I ran into Amy Goodman’s tribute to Zinn at democracynow.org. She interviewed by telephone Alice Walker, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. Predictably, all three remembered Zinn as a rebel truth teller to the end, someone whose passing embodied the kitschy defiance of Joe Hill’s last words: “Don’t mourn, organize.” But the Chomsky’s interview appeared to have a little something more.
To digress for a moment, I should say that while many of my friends have tried to deconstruct the complex intellectual pathology behind Chomsky’s lifelong effort to affirm the transcendent evil of America, I’ve always thought of him simply as someone with a truth problem—not only in what he says but even more in what he says about what he has said. He associated himself with a rancid group of French Holocaust deniers, for instance, but when called on it claimed he was only defending their rights to free speech. Long after the fact, he continued to supply backup for Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia, but when called on this, he said that his detractors were just a bunch of neo-Nazis out to get him (a compartmentalized response that ignores his support for exactly such neo-Nazis in the Holocaust denial matter.)
When it comes to the truth, in other words, Noam Chomsky is slipperier than a whole school of fish. Lying for him is an art form, a squid’s ink which he emits and then uses as cover to escape from responsibility for what he has just said.
Even so, it was a shock to see Chomsky’s response when Goodman asked him about Zinn’s 1967 book The Logic of Withdrawal. Chomsky replied that it was brilliant and that Zinn, because the reviewing establishment was ignoring it, asked him to write about it in Ramparts, which he did. According to the transcript of the interview on Goodman’s website, Chomsky went on to describe Ramparts as “a left wing journal I was running then.” (See here.)
Chomsky never “ran” Ramparts. He was a distant voice in the years I was an editor at this premier magazine of the New Left–someone a coast away who tended to repeat over and over again criticisms he initially made in the New York Review of Books of the intellectual elite that ran the Vietnam War. My strongest memory of him is from 1967. I solicited an article more or less on what had become his standard topic. It arrived poorly written and requiring considerable work. Because he didn’t like the changes I made, Chomsky told me that he would never again write for Ramparts and in fact did not for several years. (I recently reviewed the Ramparts experience here.)
Claiming to have run a publication that kept him at arm’s length would have been an odd lie, even for a mendacity addict like Chomsky. My colleague David Swindle found a link to the audio of the Goodman show. I listened to it and Chomsky appears actually to have said “a left wing magazine that was running then,” without the “I.” Vile phrasing for someone who is accounted to be an expert in language, but not the bald faced lie that the printed transcript suggests and not the synecdoche that it first appeared for the body of lies which comprises Chomsky’s oeuvre since the ’60s.
But back to the rush of synchronicity I alluded to above. It came a day after the Goodman interview, when Osama bin Laden spoke up from whatever dreary cave in which he is presently immured. After attacking the Great Satan for causing climate change in a diatribe that called up a possible Jon Stewart monologue (“…the arch terrorist provided a kiss of death for global warming theory today by offering his unqualified support for it just as the East Anglia Climategate was calling the whole deal into question…”), bin Laden got down to the business of blackguarding America as a global terror state. And who did he cite as proof for this theorem? None other than Chomsky himself. Bin Laden had praised him two years earlier for showing how public opinion is “manufactured” by decadent democracies; now he gave it up again for his hero: “Noam Chomsky was correct when he compared the U.S. polices to those of the Mafia.”
Bin Laden, Zinn, and Chomsky. How synchronous their harmonies. How collaborative the ideas in their weave. How much they deserve each other.