Monday, March 8, 2010

Post 1 - Introduction

A few days ago, while looking over the book selection at my local Goodwill, I came across Noam Chomsky's book, The Common Good, a series of interviews of Chomsky done by David Barsamian. I hesitated slightly to touch it with my hands, since being caught reading Chomsky would seem to imply disloyalty among the people I grew up reading, but in the end I thought, "What the heck," and bought it.

Reading Chomsky in a work like this - one that a favorable reviewer on called "a mile wide and an inch deep" - has been interesting, since half the claims he makes are exactly the sort of things my Evangelical, Republican, very-conservative parents said every day to me as I was growing up, while the other half of his claims are subject to total anathemas.

"If any should deny that the free market is the best way to distribute resources, let him be anathema."

Growing up reading Tolkien and Lewis and Homer Price, harboring a traditionalist yen for New England farms and older, more tightly-knit communities of land-owning farmers and small-town businessmen, I hated in my soul the economic, cultural, spiritual, and legal forces that would drive a farmer off his land and turn his small dairy operation into a private development of twee little condominiums where the wealthy people of our city would turn his fields into perfect, manicured lawns with no disfiguring mud-pit on one end where home plate sat, no boards and sticks lying around for impromtu forts, no more deep forests or pastures for grazing - only a development with a guard house, a remodeled barn as offices, the farmer's empty old house (too close to the road), and a thousand people with their own perfect houses and private beach rights.

"But if any should deny that capitalism is what has made this country strong and wealthy and great, let him be anathema."

We were sold a fundamental loyalty to what we called the "capitalist free market" on the grounds that it would get us the best-quality goods. The shoddy workman would find himself out of a job, and the manufacturer of junk would go bankrupt. Freedom to compete within the marketplace would mean a lack of interference would allow the cream to rise to the top. And yet the can-openers my great-grandparents bought in the forties and fifties still work, and still work well, while my parents in my lifetime have bought piece after piece of fragile junk. They say you can still get good can-openers, but they aren't in any store where I live.

It turns out we were just naive. Of course the marketplace doesn't provide the best quality goods. It just provides whatever it provides because that, apparently, is most efficient. But I didn’t sign on to the efficiency project. The good of “efficiency” is not something I can judge until I know what it is we are efficient at. We are not supposed to ask. It is unanswerable.

We were told the unregulated marketplace gave the people only what they wanted. But what if they wanted to be able to browse the marketplace without being morally and sometimes physically assaulted? That the unregulated marketplace could not provide, especially after businessmen learned that moral assaults masked as daring transgressions of a repressive status quo were useful for wearing down potential customers’ sales-resistance.

But I’ve fallen into a manner of speaking that Chomsky falls into far too often, though here and there he admits it’s less than accurate. It sounded in the previous paragraph as though I were positing a grand conspiracy of malevolent businessmen: slimy schemers scheming in their secret schools of deceit, hoping to swipe people’s cash as they made men weak. Chomsky turns you off because he seems to assume the worst:

“It’s been well understood for a long time that the best defense against democracy is to distract people. That’s why 19th-century businessmen sponsored evangelical religion, people talking in tongues, etc” (53).

Mr. Chomsky doesn’t know what he’s talking about if he thinks that 19th-century businessmen sponsored evangelical religion for the sake of distracting people from their own governance. I do not deny that 19th-century businessmen sponsored evangelical religion. Neither do I deny (necessarily) that the people were distracted. I do not even deny (necessarily) that the businessmen benefited from the distraction. But I categorically deny that evangelical businessmen sponsored evangelical religion primarily because they thought it useful for distracting people from their own governance, and that is what Mr. Chomsky implies.

Speaking (and, perhaps, thinking) like this fools you into thinking you’ve found the problem, the root of this particular manifestation of evil – there it is: that evil man – when in fact the root lies deeper. Rarely do men join conspiracies. People don’t do eeeevil, they do evil, and they do evil because it presents itself as good. The 19th-century businessmen promoting evangelical religion believed in that evangelical religion. They believed it saved men and made them good, and they foolishly believed that the correlation between their advancement of evangelical religion (entirely for reasons of good faith) and their own (and hence, the nation’s) accumulation of wealth was the consequence of God’s blessings for obedience. They may have been na├»ve and overly pragmatic, but they were not conspirators. Rather, to understand how it was that evangelical businessmen could promote a form of religion that resulted in the end in the impoverishment and ruin of the very people they were trying to help, you must look at their sincerely held theology, study the historical and cultural setting of a religion over which these businessmen had no control, and analyze the confluence of phenomena whose consequences are only now so clearly seen (and, I suspect, not even now). I find that even when I agree with Mr. Chomsky, I have an urge to smack him (especially when he talks about my own people).

So this is what I am calling an Introduction and Post 1 of “Blogging Chomsky.” At the moment I intend it to be an honest, appreciative, and critical look at this man and what he says in this rather lightweight book, The Common Good, from the perspective of a Christian, Catholic, former-Evangelical, lifelong Republican and conservative. I want to find out and explain why I might disagree with Mr. Chomsky, but also why I might find myself agreeing with him more than I once thought I might: a year-long blogging project. Sort of like Julie and Julia, but more like Noam and Nobody.