Sunday, February 25, 2007

Old lions

Some wise person said recently that if we focus too much on hating Bush, we end up as shallow as he is. I can see this tendency in myself, and I know I see it in others. The point is not that we’re supposed to love a criminal head of state, although a Quaker might say just that, but that the energy for change isn’t sustained by personal animosity.

One of the things I like about Noam Chomsky is that he analyzes ideas and institutions, and doesn’t spend much time talking about personalities. He might mention Cheney or Wolfowitz once in awhile, but identifying individuals to blame is really not the point. Read this recent interview, for instance, and you’ll see how Chomsky tries to understand not only the sociopolitical forces at work, but the general ways of thinking that drive them. His central insight—that the elites of the West actually hate democracy—will purge your mind of a lot of foolish beliefs assumed in the mainstream, if you can take it in.

Because of this impersonal approach, Chomsky seems to come off as a little cold—not brimming with the outrage we might expect, but looking at things from several steps backwards and seeing the continuities between our current situation and the stages we have traveled through to get here. He was practical enough to recommend a vote for Kerry in ’04, simply because the Bush regime represents a kind of radical nationalism that poses a very dangerous threat to the world. At the same time, he knows that Kerry and other establishment politicians do not challenge the assumptions of corporate imperialism. For those who place a lot of hope in the possibilities of Democratic Party opposition, Chomsky must seem discouraging. Yet he continually expresses optimism about the potential of organized resistance, because he knows that the only real change is going to come from the bottom up, and we’ve seen a greater resurgence of progressive activism under Bush than in the previous twenty years. It’s too bad that it’s taken this steep a plunge to wake people up, but perhaps that’s how it had to be.

Chomsky is 78 years old. Howard Zinn—warm and folksy where Chomsky is rigorously academic, yet sharing Chomsky’s broad historical vantage point—is 84. Gore Vidal is a different sort altogether—a kind of patrician satirist who definitely likes to focus on personalities yet brings years of wit and wisdom to the debate. He’s 81. These people aren’t going to be with us very much longer, and that actually scares me a little. We need people with the long view, fearless and tireless, in the coming years, which promise to be full of tumult. I would like to know what figures in the next generation will sustain their work. Who do you think they are? And how can we support them?

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