News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

I've re-done the format for this essay. Unfortunately, reformatting has to be done every time I put up a blog, because MS Word formatting is not accepted by Blogger's software (a serious shortcoming)... Biff...

Chomsky and the Barbarians

I first came across Noam Chomsky on television in the US. He was giving one of his lectures and I was immediately unimpressed with the dry professorial tone. I was bored.

Boredom is not a sign of immaturity or a pathologically deficient attention span. It's the product of a body of sophisticated filtering and feed-back processes, and as a reader/writer I've come to trust boredom over conscious decision-making. If my subconscious tells me I'm bored, whatever I'm trying to stuff into my brain is reliably inappropriate. The next step is figuring out why.

And this brings us to the first problem with Chomsky. He's truly, devastatingly, perennially boring. He may or may not be persuasive, but he's seldom interesting.

In part it's because he throws volumes of scattered information at you and, unless you're already versed in the material, it sounds and feels like a lecture for freshman students. You want to cut class, but feel guilt-ridden and embarrassed if you don't know the material when tested in a social situation: "So, like, what do you think of, you know, Chomsky, man?"

In my experience formal education is generally administered incompetently by professional incompetents according to an imbecile instruction format. And most of us are taught to blame ourselves for the shortcomings of our bad educations. For years one engages in useless self-recrimination when the problem, for once, is not oneself, but the incompetence of others. Chomsky takes advantage of this delusion, of the false belief that learning is and should be painful and boring, that serious knowledge must be imparted with seriousness. It's no laughing matter. Infotainment is baaaad.

And with Chomsky's lectures, once the immensity of verbal chaff is removed, one finds surprisingly little grain. I suspect he suspects this too. He realizes that it makes for smoother sailing to overwhelm people's senses with shotgun patterns of information. His Nobel winning professorial imprimatur carries the vote for him.

Fortunately, when a speaker's arguments are flawed, it's usually because the person's fundamental departure points are flawed. And thus, if you're patient, you'll find that you usually don't need a detailed background on any given subject to pick apart the arguments.

For example, in Chomsky's book Secrets, Lies, and Democracy (1994), a series of interviews with the Great Critic, he smothers his arguments in a snowstorm of references, but the problems wink through just the same. In the second page of the first interview he says:

Over long periods, the involvement of the public in planning or implementation of public policy has been quite marginal. This is a business-run society. The political parties have reflected business interests for a long time.

But surely the public's marginalization is a willing, even eager, one. If not for successful businessmen or their trophy wives: who would run things? The public wants entertainment television and sports, not politics, whether domestic or foreign.

One version of this view which I think has a lot of power behind it is what political scientist Thomas Ferguson calls "the investment theory of politics." He believes that the state is controlled by coalitions of investors who join together around some common interest. To participate in the political arena, you must have enough resources and private power to become part of such a coalition.

If business participates in the political arena, then Chomsky imputes investment motives. If it was religious folks, then Chomsky would impute evangelical means and millenarian motives. When he turns the torch on the educated, he ascribes elitist motives. If the public really did participate in planning or influencing public policy, then Chomsky would impute them with low and improvident motives. Chomsky's instincts are those of the best reporters that money can buy.

Since the early nineteenth century, Ferguson argues, there's been a struggle for power among such groups of investors. The long periods when nothing very major seemed to be going on are simply times when the major groups of investors have seen more or less eye to eye on what public policy should look like. Moments of conflict come along when groups of investors have differing points of view.

Was WWII, ethnic cleansing, and Fascism a disagreement between groups of investors? Perhaps, for example, WWII was designed to facilitate concentration camps of slave laborers all around the world. Perhaps the camps were facilitated by elitist think-tanks who came up with the thought-constructs and by investors who contracted the real-world design and execution stages. Really? And is any other variant on this theme any more plausible?

And the current bogus war against terror? A disagreement between the Bush and bin Laden investment teams? And how about the various Balkan interventions that were going on around the time (1994) this book was being put together? And the Rwanda intervention?

Take the Cold War for example: after Stalin died, there was not a chance that Khrushchev or Brezhnev would attack the United States. The 1950's Red Scare and the 1919 Red Scare were invented by ladder-climbing politically ambitious types and foisted upon an ever-credulous and ever-timorous public. Things were so friendly during the 1960s and 1970s, that KGB and CIA agents overseas commonly had each other over to their homes for dinner and to meet the wife and kids. No joke. It was ambitious pioneers (almost all of whom came from working-class parents) who invented the Drug War, the Yellow Peril, McCarthyism, Communism, the Cold War, and the heterosexual AIDS scare.

Noam Chomsky was ambitious. And a pioneer of sorts.

Surely many investors have made a lot of money from conflict, as insiders always do when the public believes what it reads in newspapers. (Every time Taiwan's stock market plunges due to political concerns, US brokerages jump in, buying low and selling high a week or two later)

But Nancy Reagan took orders from astrologers. George Bush and his fellow prayer-meeting brethren take theirs straight from the top. Bill Clinton was so incompetent that he continued getting embroiled in sex scandals for twenty years. Is one really supposed to believe that these clowns are part of an investor's cabal that controls the United States and the world? Couldn't the investors find a brighter set of reps and shills? On the other hand, if one strives earnestly to apply the professor's theory, then these nefarious feebs are indeed representative of the sinister herds of investors that conspire daily for world domination. If the latter is so, then I, for one, ain't worried.

Perhaps Professor Chomsky, like the prophet Marx, has spent little time with business folk. Most investors lost a pile, whether in Taiwan, or in the United States, during the last stock crash. And how about chief investor and international cabbalist Kenny-boy and the exploding ENRON house of cards? How could this multinational imperialist borderless stateless mercantile champion evildoer to the Champagne Socialist and compassion fascist gang allow his corporation to collapse at the first pinprick of the recession, its air-lane stocks disintegrating into blizzards of confetti? For that matter, if investors control the state, why do they allow such massive state intervention in the marketplace (which is, after all, the primary cause of stock market crashes, inflation, pollution, unemployment, job discrimination, etc.)? Given that the United States federal government is the biggest monopoly in America and the greatest hindrance to business people, (and a poor investment for the rest of us too, I might add) how is it that the United States federal government has steadily increased in scope since the Civil War?

In other words, the professor, like the prophet, is a mighty conspiracy theorist.

But before I go into that any further, let's take a quick look at his views on business and economics. Economic sounds so difficult. It's called the dismal science by some, and isn't it just really boring? Again, incompetent professors are boring; incompetent books are boring; incompetent reporters are boring. Nothing is intrinsically boring. Boredom is manmade, a sort of artificial additive.

Economics, like every other field of human endeavor, is simple in terms of its ideas. A given field may encompass a lot of ideas, or a few. But there is no such thing as a difficult idea. I've never come across one in 30+ years. What I have come across are people who are incompetent at explaining their ideas. With that, I have 30+ years of experience.

Here's Dr. Chomsky from the same book:

Under Reagan, the US managed to drive labor costs way below the level of our competitors (except for Britain). That's produced consequences not only in Mexico and the US but all across the industrial world.

But of course, this is because the US economy was moving from labor to services (ex: to aerospace, computer, and biotech R&D. You don't need a CS degree to work in computer science. Most people in the field don't have one.) It's somehow hard to imagine Dr. Chomsky in a rush to get a job on an assembly-line. Why labor for a living if you can be an arm-chair professor and earn two or three times more cash.

For example, one of the effects of the so-called free trade agreement with Canada was to stimulate a big flow of jobs from Canada to the southeast US, because that's an essentially nonunion area. Wages are lower; you don't have to worry about benefits; workers can barely organize. So that's an attack against Canadian workers.

Bringing jobs to a poor section of the southeast US is bad. That's an attack. Sounds violent. It's better that unemployment in the southeast US and world peace reign supreme. And who did professor Chomsky steal his job from? From a European University no doubt. Is he willing to give it back?

Daimler-Benz, which is Germany's biggest conglomerate, was seeking essentially Third World conditions. They managed to get our southeastern states to compete against one another to see who could force the public to pay the largest bribe to bring them there. Alabama won. It offered hundreds of millions of dollars in tax benefits, practically gave Daimler-Benz the land on which to construct their plant, and agreed to build all sorts of infrastructure for them.

It is somehow hard for me to conceive that the southeast US has essentially Third World conditions. Methinks the keyword there is essentially, which is the Great Linguist's code for sort of, but not really, but maybe, with a stretch, it could be. And of course the rhetoric continues with force the public to pay the largest bribe. I'm curious as to how that force was applied: with truncheons and pepper spray? And the bribe word. I never realized that a down payment on a home was actually a bribe. According to the Chomsky code, Taipei is essentially suffering from Third World conditions and going to the 7-11 to buy my favorite chocolate bar entails being forced to hand over a NT $23 bribe to the conglomerate.

I'll end this critique with a quick discussion of conspiracy theories. Dr. Chomsky is a big fan of sinister forces, clouds of unseen investors' hands, friendly and hostile mergers among world elites. What distinguishes Dr. Chomsky from amateur conspiracy theorists is the vast amount of footnoted ivory-tower blather that he wraps around what is essentially a medieval mindset.

To me, conspiracy theories are a sort of halfway house between the blithely ignorant mainstream perspective and an informed point of view.

For example, one reads the newspapers and starts out with the notion that China has a huge population and can invade Taiwan when it wishes. If the Taiwan government pushes China too far, it's going to launch an invasion. But at least we're safe from a missile attack here in Taipei because of the patriot missile batteries.

When you realize the newspapers are full of it, the first stop on your trip to enlightenment is usually the lunatic fringe. It's colorful and exciting with its info-maniacs, oddball activists, evangelists, and fanatics of all kinds, some of whom are even respectable and prominent. It also offers a rapid learning curve with astounding facts and figures that stick to your ribs. It changes your world, dude. You depart the respectable urban legends and the high-school feel-good glossing of politics and history. You leave behind the patronizing media campaigns of hysteria. You move onward and upward from these weather-beaten, intelligence-insulting frauds and launch into a psychedelic cartoon. After all, being weaned for decades on sensationalism and emotionalism in the free press, the phlegmatic detachment and industrious cross-referencing required to develop an informed view are not yet appealing.

The conspiracy theorists will tell you that there are spies everywhere, that every second fire that breaks out in Taiwan is an arson started by a mainland provocateur, that US military technology sold to Taiwan is second rate whereas the Chinese have the best of the Russian military arsenal at their disposal, and that George Bush, who went into Iraq to steal the oil and avenge Poppy, will never protect Taiwan because he's too scared of China and because the United States has too much money invested in China. Hurry, hurry, there's no time to waste (or think).

An informed point of view might be that if China could invade Taiwan, it would do so immediately. If it could have done so 10 years ago, it would have done so then. China got its ass kicked by Vietnam in 1978. And a military, i.e. China's, that has not fought against a significant enemy in 25 years is a military that cannot fight period. Source after source agrees that China has not even constructed the landing craft necessary to launch an army at Taiwan. The Washington Post and Jane's Defense Weekly will tell you that the patriot missile is useless. My informants tell me that the last public demonstration in Taiwan was rigged with a remote control. History shows that Russian Air Force technology is near-garbage and Russia wouldn't sell anything worth the name to China even if it had it. History also indicates that George Bush will protect Taiwan because it's in the US national interest to do so. G.W. is in Iraq because of two 1970's oil embargoes, three decades of Middle Eastern wars, coups, revolutions, and most recently 9/11. His cabinet fears another oil embargo.

With an informed point of view, one learns to see things in terms of history and patterns. You look at economics, political economy, martial history, social history, and so forth and come across all sorts of patterns, and particularly all sorts of checks and balances. Individuals oppose each other, systems oppose each other. You see the same thing in the animal world, the plant world, the microbial world. You see the same thing today, 500 years ago, 2000 years ago. You become detached particularly because much of what you're reading is historical, so it's impersonal. When you return to the present, it's hard not to remain detached because, in part you've become alienated from the present, and comfortably so. It's hard not to look at present day struggles from a much longer perspective and see them as being so many tempests in teapots. You see a story developing today and you already know the ending. There's no suspense. Therefore, there's no climax. Neither is there a denouement. The result is that there is a marked absence of emotionalism in one's own perspectives. But there is also a marked sense of confidence, security, and ease.

With Professor Chomsky, the opposite is the case. Beneath the statistics, the historical examples, and the drawing in and weaving of connections, lies a hot-headed fidgeting conspiracy theorist: One who believes that his selection of individual events is key, pivotal, and crucial; who believes that doom lurks just over the horizon or is in the mail, special delivery; who believes in good and evil; who believes in the moral and the just; who believes that he or she is fundamentally in the know and at the center of events. Clearly this is sophomoric. It may be comforting emotionally to preserve such delusions, and we all have our delusions certainly, but they should be discarded when we wish to achieve something in the real world.

One last perspective on conspiracy theories: religion (I'll be very brief)

Animism is the belief that spirits inhabit mountains, trees, houses, graves, animals, people, storms etc. This is an early stage of human thinking whereby cause and effect are understood to work at a larger than life level. What's important here is that all events are now presumed to happen deliberately; cause and effect has been anthropomorphized. In other words, not only is their cause and effect, but also good and bad, with the accompanying praise and blame. Spirits do things on purpose to help or hinder you. To use words that have gone long out of fashion, this was/is a barbarous or savage worldview.

Organized religion: in the Christian faith, for example, there are a myriad of seraphs, cherubim, and archangels, the Trinity, and so forth controlling events. There is the notion that God has his eyes on all people at all times as well as upon the animal and plant kingdom. Again, you have cause and effect mingled with good and bad, praise and blame. But here you also have organizations and interlinking systems that can be penetrated and analyzed, assisted or preempted. You have the whole-hog invention of conspiracies that foment good or evil. I call this a medieval worldview.

I heard this worldview bandied about endlessly in Belfast as a child and was immediately struck by it on reading the conspiracy theories that constitute the bread and butter of Karl Marx. It is this same point of view that Professor Chomsky has at heart. He is a lover and a hater, a pious despiser of the iniquitous, a righteous champion of the noble and the downtrodden. In other words, he's a simple-minded lunatic on par with King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table.

2500 years ago, the more enlightened of the Greek Athenians had already put this sort of folly behind them. They realized that events happened for reasons that were often beyond the human capacity for understanding; that events often, if not always, took place due to an internal logic not amenable to such nomenclature as noble or evil. They understood that shit happens. This is a concept too advanced for Mr. Chomsky.

At the beginning of the 21st-century, tin-pot messiahs like Noam Chomsky promote sophisticated medieval worldviews like those popular in Galileo's time. 100 years ago, at the turn of the 20th century, William Jennings Bryan, the leading messiah of his age and nominated thrice for presidential candidate, promoted a barbarous worldview; one which would've been in sync with the metaphysical nonsense doing the rounds 5,000 years ago in Egypt, Assyria, or ancient China. Bryan went out fighting the good fight in a last gallant bout in Tennessee. There, at the Scopes Trial, he led the successful charge opposing the teaching of evolution in the nation's high schools. I suppose there is solace in the fact that the modern shyster encourages the reading of more than just one book per lifetime.

Test post...

A review of The Wisdom of Korea authored by Professor Chao Yi-ping.

It was the blurb on the cover which first attracted me to this book:

Over the past 2000 years, the Korean people have never given up their own cultural characteristics. They have never spiritually given in to evil forces. Most importantly of all, they have never given up hope. When they have come across the implacable force of fate, they have yet, from beginning to end, maintained hope and patience. They have put up with enormous difficulties, and developed a myriad ways to persevere to the end. This is the essence of ' hate.'
- from the Chin Ta-Zhong Collection

That sentence about hate really caught my attention.

It reminded me of something P.J. O'Rourke wrote in "Seoul Brothers": When the kid in the front row at the rally bit off the tip of his little finger and wrote, Kim Dae Jong, in blood on his fancy white ski jacket -- I think that was the first time I ever really felt like a foreign correspondent. I mean, here was something really fucking foreign.

Despite the gabble about not giving up their own cultural characteristics, that blurb was placed right below a picture of a distinctively Chinese looking temple, a shot of martial arts, and a Taoist drum with the yinyang symbol. But it is inspiring that the Koreans have never given up hope. The sentence following this one is more political slogan than history; more of an attempt at poetry than a try to convey information or meaning. As far as the essence of hate is concerned, a Taiwanese historian had pointed that out in another book and I had been suspicious. Not anymore.

The book starts off with an introduction to the history of Korea. It outlines with great sympathy the achievements of various heroic tyrants and tries to demonstrate an unbroken connection between the wisdom of Koreans in traditional times and modern times. Wisdom presumably refers to cunning and deftness in everything from negotiations with imperial China to protecting the national borders to extirpating other clans, muzzling the intelligentsia, milking businesspeople, and assassinating dissidents. Judging by the tough times that Korea had to put up with through 1987, when democracy finally arrived, the author has a point.

One gets the feeling that historically proud nationalists, like the author, and who arise from the great grandfather cultures of the Far East, have a rather limited appreciation and fondness for democracy. Like many of the region's nationalists, he's caught in a limbo between fascism and statism: with the first representing the right and the second representing the left; conservatism versus liberalism as he conceives it. Methinks he's not quite thought through this. He might be confused. But he clearly and emphatically wants some fellow border-protecting charismatic genius, a brand-new Great White Korean Hope, with a grand vision of the big picture, and no time for details like collateral damage, to pick us up and take us to glory.

And this author continues the tradition of filling in awkward gaps in historical knowledge to make history more appealing to the public. There is a repeated conflation of fact and authorial fiction, the addition of dialogue invented to make the story more populist and accessible; to convince readers that these historical figures are guys and dolls just like you and me. Mass murders, geniuses, witch-doctors, in-bred loony-tunes, etc, shared our world view. And everything happens for a simple and emotion-driven reason: honor, pride, jealousy, avarice, lust. His aim is to generate legend and folklore for (fellow) simpletons.

The last time a major American historian did this that I can recall was when Edmund Morris wrote a biography of Reagan entitled Dutch. Because Reagan was such a lummox, despite Morris buttonholing and trying to chat him up in the Great White Jail for years on end, it was simply impossible to get the man to utter more than political slogans. Beyond Reagan's dislike of talking about himself, there appears to have been Reagan's widely-reported feebleness.

..Mitterrand's judgment upon Reagan was scathing: "The man was a nonentity. A complete nonentity." - from Dying Without God: Francois Mitterrand's Meditations on Living and Dying

Morris felt he had not choice but to put his creative talents to work. He got tanned for it by the reviewers. Quite deservedly.

Another reason that historians such as Professor Chao turn to the writing of folklore instead of history is because they have nothing to add to the field. It's much easier to add simple and life-like human touches than to spit on one's hands and actually get down to the drudgery of doing one's homework. It's drudgery because for most professional historians, history is as boring today as it was back in high school. History is just another job, less exciting than driving a taxi perhaps but it pays better and provides better opportunities for laying coeds.

Alternatively, the author could have connected the dots and come up with something original. But nationalists tend not to think with their brains but rather to feel with their hearts. If he was in the habit of connecting the dots, it's much more likely that he would be an internationalist; a person who wants a borderless world.

This book also has the heavy stuffiness of the career academic hack who’s writing another publish or perish tome for a captive audience. The only people who will get to read this book in its entirety will be the publishers and a few poor students chained to their desks, required to purchase the professor's textbook on penalty of flunking.

It was also hard to avoid the conclusion that this author, a professor at Fudan University, is an academic edition of Lu Hsun's Ah-Q. The latter was a bumbling literary figure caught between Chinese traditional and contemporary values. At least one Chinese historian has suggested Ah-Q was a parody of the great national bumbler himself, Dr. Sun Yat-sen.

On the one hand, the author seems patently incapable of thinking for himself. It's much worse here given the rigidity of the national culture, where ideational sterility takes on the form of a paralytic psychosis. He has the rustic habit of repeating everything several times because he does not have the wherewithal to move from thought to thought without prodigies of mental labor. Farming culture, over thousands of years, has developed habits, mores, and traditions that are excellent for mass-producing peasants with the patience to watch cattle, plant rice, chew hay seeds, dig mulch, and otherwise be satisfied and satiated doing the same repeated farm chores day in and day out, year in and year out, till death do farmer and his chores part. This author seems to have suffered mightily as an academic and I feel certain he'd be much happier where he to be planted back on his folks farm.

To drive home my point, perhaps it's best I translate something of the professor's scholarship for you. I had to partake of forty pages of his sovereign wisdom and I'm happy to give you a homeopathic dose of it here. For those of us who work as translators, the following tail-chasing stuff seems all too familiar. This is from the last chapter I was able to get down. The chapter is entitled Peninsular Wisdom and Human Wisdom.

The histories of all peoples and nations, by definition, have all challenged their geopolitical and culturally fated histories. Even China and Japan are this way. It is not the case that it’s simply limited to the peninsula of Korea. However, when it comes to the wisdom that the Korean peninsula developed while challenging its own geopolitical and cultural fate, just what special characteristics does it display in comparison with others?

The most fundamental characteristic is its peninsular format. Korea's peninsular culture has an essence that can be described as a sort of peninsular culture. It is different from the continental culture that is representative of China's culture. It is different from the maritime culture or island culture that is representative of Japan's culture. It is right in the middle of these and intertwined with both. At the same time, it is however different from both.

As such, the traditional wisdom of the Korean peninsula, in its fundamentals, can be described as a sort of peninsular wisdom. It is a response to the basic peninsular culture. It is different from the Chinese style of continental wisdom and different from the Japanese style of maritime wisdom or island wisdom. It is caught right in between both and interacts with both. At the same time it is yet different from both.

Continental wisdom challenges continental geopolitics and cultural fate. Maritime wisdom or island wisdom challenges oceanic island geopolitical and cultural fates. Peninsular wisdom, naturally, challenges peninsular geopolitics and cultural fate.

Forty pages of this stuff. Imagine! And there's another 260 pages more.