Oliver Kamm: “Tendentious Whimsy”

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[Hat tip to Oliver Kamm. Like Mr. Kamm, I’ve enjoyed the writings of Jonathan Rauch for quite a while. His article, “In Defense of Prejudice,” is required reading in my Introduction to American Politics course. Students read it after President Lincoln’s “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”]

By Oliver Kamm

Jonathan Rauch is a commentator whose writings I first came across 15 years ago in the wake of the Rushdie affair and have valued since. He wrote a fine book called Kindly Inquisitors, 1992, on the threats to free speech arising from claims to compassion and the avoidance of hurt. I drew on this book’s argument and quoted from it in a piece I wrote recently for the magazine Index on Censorship. Rauch has also written a book advancing a compelling case for gay marriage; I cited that book too in a recent post.

Rauch has now written a review for the Washington Post of a new book by Noam Chomsky, Interventions. I have just read the book myself and was thinking of reviewing it somewhere. I cannot express my feelings on it more accurately than in Rauch’s words, however:

To be sure, Chomsky’s trademark barbs and provocations are here, but so are his flights to a separate reality. In Chomsky’s universe, the 2001 U.S. attack on Afghanistan’s Taliban “was undertaken with the expectation that it might drive several million people over the edge of starvation.” And North Korea’s counterfeiting racket may actually be a CIA operation. And the Clinton administration intervened militarily in Kosovo not in order to prevent ethnic cleansing but to impose Washington’s neoliberal economic agenda. And President Bush — the first and only U.S. president to declare formal American support for a Palestinian state — is the obstacle to a two-state solution that Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran are all prepared to accept. (I am not making that up.)

This kind of tendentious whimsy is more peculiar than interesting; as the pages turn, one becomes inured to it and begins to yawn. Also working against readability is that some columns ramble, some repeat, and some are compilations of news clippings. None of those flaws, however, would condemn Chomsky’s collection to instant forgettability if it offered fresh analysis or supple argument. Instead the reader gets the sneaking suspicion that the author has not felt the need to adjust an opinion in 30 or so years.

The last sentence I’ve quoted is especially apt. (I would add that the format as well as the thesis of the book is characteristic of Chomsky’s output over at least the past two decades.) Chomsky’s appeal is directed to a generation with a short attention span, limited historical appreciation and a susceptibility to conspiracy theory.

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