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Smart people, bad choices

By Michael J. Smith on Thursday March 27, 2008 06:02 PM

More -- maybe more than anybody wanted to read -- on what you might call the Ehrenreich Paradox: Why do smart people, whose hearts are in the right place, nevertheless fall time after time for the lesser-evil argument?

The problem just gets worse and worse. It's one thing when a Barbara Ehrenreich does it. Much as I like and admire Ehrenreich, she's nevertheless just another scribbler -- a very good one, to be sure, but still a persona of the moment; at the end of the day, a mayfly like the rest of us.

It's another matter when Noam Chomsky does it. Chomsky is a different breed of cat altogether. Chomsky is probably the only person I've actually met whose name will be familiar three or four hundred years from now -- a guy whose effigy will adorn some pantheon of the minds that have made a difference, up there rubbing uneasy subway-like shoulders with Marx and Rousseau and Descartes.

Yet Chomsky, back in '04, signed a statement that ran as follows:

We, the undersigned, were selected by Ralph Nader to be members of his 113-person national "Nader 2000 Citizens Committee." This year, we urge support for Kerry/Edwards in all "swing states," even while we strongly disagree with Kerry's policies on Iraq and other issues. For people seeking progressive social change in the United States, removing George W. Bush from office should be the top priority in the 2004 presidential election. Progressive votes for John Kerry in swing states may prove decisive in attaining this vital goal.
Well, shee-it, as they say where I come from. If Chomsky be for him, who am I to be against him -- to be against this whole line of reasoning? Chomsky is, after all, the Smartest Living Human, as I have been telling everybody who will listen for the last forty years or so.

It gets worse. Chomsky, I feel sure, is utterly immune to the successful Pwoggie's false sense of consequence. And he doesn't think the Empire can be turned into a Good Thing, and he doesn't believe that its instrumentalities can be used for good ends.

Chomsky's reasoning, as I understand him, is purely moral: voting is an easy act, a Democrat might be marginally less horrible for the people of the world than a Republican, therefore one ought to vote to the Democrat. It costs essentially nothing, and in particular it doesn't prevent you from being an activist in ways that Chomsky believes (and I agree) make more of a difference.

It's not clear that Chomsky is on completely firm factual ground in thinking that the Democrat is that likely to be less horrible -- their record on starting wars, for example, provides little basis for confidence. But a number of people whom I respect do agree with Chomsky on this point, and certainly the case can be made. So let's grant it for the sake of argument and move on to an aspect of the problem that I think is actually more important.

Chomsky, unlike Ehrenreich and her Obamaphile colleagues, is a severely logical man. For him, trooping down to the polls and pulling a lever once every four years doesn't interfere with his really constructive political work. So I think maybe he doesn't quite understand how duopoly electoral politics, if you get at all intellectually or emotionally invested in it, does operate for most people to block real, meaningful political engagement. In fact it blocks even thinking about politics in a clear-headed, un-obfuscated way. Chomsky himself is not muddled and confused in this particular way, and it's very hard to imagine the condition of a person who doesn't grasp something that's crystal-clear to you.

But few of us are as clear-headed as Noam Chomsky. For most people, the electoral charade provides a kind of relief valve for angers and frustrations that might otherwise seek a more effectual outlet. And while Noam Chomsky may pull a lever as a purely utilitarian act, for most of us it involves a kind of implicit assent to the social machinery that lies behind the lever. For most of us, if we touch pitch, we're defiled.

In other words, I think the semiotic and self-emancipatory value of abstaining exceeds by far any possible utilitarian value that we can reasonably expect from electing a Democrat. And so, with the greatest possible respect for Chomsky, I have to part company with him on this point. I think he's mistaken to tell people that their lesser-evil votes count.

To step into the voting booth for the purpose of electing a Democrat is like putting one hoof over the threshold of the abattoir. Sure, you can always back out. But you're one hoof nearer to the butcher's mallet.

Comments (4)

Tim D:


By the way, last time I was in DC, I was in a bookstore in Penn Station and saw a little yellow book called "Do as I say, not as I do", which purported to show how leading liberals and leftists were hypocrites. The section on Chomsky was rather disturbing, assuming it's true. The libertarians at Reason reviewed it here:

All of that notwithstanding (and i should note that my main concern is the pentagon connection, not the expensive house or tax-free trust funds), my admiration for his writing remains undiminished and facts still remain facts: i.e. imperialism kills wantonly.

Well, this is very tricky territory. Chomsky urged Kerry voting in 2004 on the grounds that Bush was that bad. Personally, I agreed with and did that, ugly as it was.

But you know, of course, that Chomsky would also never throw acid at Nader voters like so many of the other urgers always do. With him, I really believe that he's just sharing his own analysis. He never claims he's to be obeyed.

And I also wonder sometimes if we who like the idea of abstaining or Nader voting don't suffer from our own case of failing to understand why others don't see what's so crystal clear to us. What would be the most common actual, real-world impact of encouraging people to abstain? I'm not sure it wouldn't confuse most people and send them off to TVland, rather than movement meetings.

It's easy to forget how much luck and labor are involved in gaining any clarity of vision in this massively indoctrinated and commercialized nation-state.

Tim, dude, it's no surprise that "libertarians," whose entire game is based on the willful refusal to think through the social nature of human individuality, would peddle this kind of shit about Chomsky. Does Chomsky favor and advocate a world with equal incomes and equal political power for all? Absolutely, yes, of course. Does he favor the Pentagon? Has he ever done anything meaningful to further its goals? No way.

So, what is to be gained by him letting the USG and the Pentagon take his money when he dies? Will it alter power one iota? Will it set some shining example? No and no.

Should I vote for president in November?

1. My vote for president won't matter. The California presidential election won't come down to my one vote, and if by some miracle it does, the result of the national election will be a foregone conclusion.

2. On the other hand, I rather like voting, and I'm sure I'll be at the polling place anyway to try to defeat some horrific ballot initiative, or to make a futile gesture in our local school board election.

3. One reasonable criterion choosing who to vote for for president is to consider who I'm going to have to listen to for the next 4-8 years. That is, if my vote mattered, which it doesn't. Easy choice, I think, but in California I have the luxury of making another futile gesture, and probably will.

4. Chomsky. Eh.

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