On Feeling Good and Doing Good: Chomsky Turns 92

Here’s a suggestion for admirers of Noam Chomsky.

The best way to celebrate his 92nd birthday would be to pay attention to what he has to say.

A case in point came up a couple of days ago with Barack Obama’s criticism of the slogan “Defund the police.” Those promoting it are, according to Obama, often more concerned with “feel(ing) good among the people (they) already agree with.” What they should be concerned with is “get(ting) something done.”

The left was universal in its disdain, denunciations flowing from Jacobin, Current Affairs as well as AOC and all of the members of the squad.

Chomsky’s reaction? “He’s basically right.”

Racing to the Abyss

As Chomsky explained it, “Most of my life, back to the ’60s, I’ve been trying to get activists to distinguish between ‘feel good’ and ‘do good’ tactics.” This was the case a half century ago when Chomsky confronted the Weatherman faction of the SDS, an experience which “included surreal meetings with Mark Rudd and others who were intent on racing to the abyss.”

The abyss had to do with the introduction of violence into what had been a strictly non-violent civil rights and anti war movement. What had been widespread public support easily fell prey to the smears of Republicans directed towards a rural silent majority resenting what they regarded as the childish tantrums of a privileged minority.

The election of Nixon soon followed with consequences we are suffering from to this day.

Fortunately, the tactics of Black Lives Matter did not lead to the apocalypse of a Republican victory. But many of the 74 million who voted for Donald Trump were effectively mobilized by Republican campaign materials associating Democrats with rioters seeking to abolish the police. As Obama observed, the slogan “Defund the Police” did not convey to them “Let’s reform the police department so that everybody’s being treated fairly” but rather a dead phone line after a 911 call reporting a robbery, spousal assault or a murder.

Obama’s Half Truth

While he accepts the substance of Obama’s concern as far as it goes, Chomsky supplies the missing context Obama ignores: “In this case, he might have had the decency to say that he’s repeating what Sanders and many others have been saying about how to interpret the slogan ‘defund the police.’ But since the cancel culture that he’s part of silences those voices, few hear them.”

This is only the most recent of Chomsky’s criticisms of Obama going back to the first months of the Obama administration when the left was willfully blind to the vacuous neoliberal substance being sold under the Obama brand. The bank bailouts, signature drone strikes, the unconscionably inhumane immigration policy, and the wholesale green lighting of fracking were not only predictable but predicted based on Chomsky warnings about who Obama was.  The same can be said of the unabated epidemic of racialized police violence Obama worked to obscure with his ridiculous beer summit involving Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates and the Cambridge Police officer who arrested Gates in his own apartment building.*

In the present instance, Obama happens to be telling half of a truth which Chomsky has recognized for half a century.

Among the better gifts we could provide Chomsky is to finally stop denying it.

* Thanks to Steve Rendall for suggesting that Obama’s problematic response to police violence be included.

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