Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Anarchy, rebellion, and Chomsky

            On pages 23-24 of The Banquet Years, The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I, Roger Shattuck writes, "The atmosphere of permanent explosion in artistic activity is evidence not only of anarchistic tendencies but also of the fierceness of its experiments.  New reviews appeared, principally La Vogue . . .  the long-lived Mercure de France, and the Natanson brothers' Revue Blanche. . . The Salon des Independents outgrew one building after another with more and more work from young painters, while ethnological museums were being filled with astounding art from Africa, the Pacific, and Egypt.  The new Schola Cantorum brought back old church modes, and composers began to collect the ancient songs of France.  Modernism coincided in significant fashion with primitivism.  Gauguin's 'flight' to Tahiti in 1891 may not have produced his best work but it reveals the integrity of his desire for another vision.  Anarchism itself can be seen as a form of political primitivism trying to return to an earlier stage of social evolution.  What one can overlook most easily in all this demonstration is its stubborn purpose to change the aspect of both life and art.  There was a connection and a difference between the irrepressible frivolity of the upper classes and the resolute gaiety of young artists.
            "Deep down at its center of gravity, however, the center turned slowly despite all this ferment.  It changed its pace for no man.  Artists who strained forward into the future found that their fresh trail was rarely being followed in a prosperous and complacent France.  In response they did what was only natural: they banded together for support.  They constituted what we have come to call the avant-garde, a 'tradition' of heterodoxy and opposition which defied civilized values in the name of individual consciousness.  They developed a systematic technique of scandal in order to keep their ideas before the public.  It amounted to an artistic underground, which began to break through to the surface in the latter part of the Banquet Years."
            COMMENT:  The "scorn and hate of every hierarchy of society" carried over from politics to art.  Artists, much like the political agitators, were not so much interested in a better system as in expressing their "scorn and hate of every hierarchy of society."  The political agitators ended up under the guillotine or in prison, but the artists, were inclined more toward the pen than the sword.  They concentrated upon scorn rather than hatred.  They wanted not only to produce something new but to shock the "powers that be" out of their complacency.  Why?  Why does the young son of today come home with a spiked hair cut and an ear-ring?  Why does the young girl come home with a tattoo?  They get noticed.  They get attention. 
            If Shattuck is right in seeing anarchy as not merely a reaction to the status quo, but as a seeking after the primitive, we can ask whether this is a good thing.  I don't know whether Anarchists ask themselves this question.  If one is caught up in the anticipated shock when mom sees that tattoo, the daughter may not have asked herself whether it is a good thing.  They step beyond "art for art's sake" and seek "art for shock's sake."  Not merely that, of course, the best of them wanted to be good, to be genuinely creative, but they enjoyed being shocking as well, and perhaps shock was all the lesser talents had going for them.
            I paused in writing this to eat dinner, and while eating watched the first part of a Netflix movie, Against the Dark.  Steven Seagal tells his fellow vampire hunters, "we're not in this to determine who's right and who's wrong, we're in this to determine who lives and who dies."  While the French Anarchists probably didn't pose the same threat that the vampires did in the movie, the threat did exist.  The French Anarchists did kill people and the French state didn't bother overly much with the idea of whether the Anarchists might be right, they determined that they should die.  They were a patent threat to French people, especially French leaders; so they were sent to the guillotine. 
            The threat of modern day Anarchists, the anti-Americans such as Noam Chomsky is not as severe.   He is a political agitator to be sure, but he isn't given to violence.  He isn't in it for the shock value like the Anarchist artists, the Avant-Garde, he truly hates America and sides with its enemies whenever possible.   One of the distinguishing marks of the American Anarchist is to hold American guilty in the present for sins committed in the past, and Chomsky has all those old sins memorized.   Chomsky hasn't the ability to step back and wonder whether all nations do or have done similar things to what America has, and he hasn't the ability to see improvement in America. 
            Furthermore he isn't willing to exercise that part of his social contract which allows him to immigrate to another nation should he so choose.  Why doesn't he leave?  Surely it isn't good for him psychologically or physically to stay in a nation he hates so much.  I can answer that question for him.  All nations are pretty much the same, that is, they have human beings in positions of authority, humans with a representative number of flaws -- flaws like everyone else has.  They make decisions which may be wrong.  Chomsky thinks it was wrong of American to remove the Saddam regime, for example.  His opinion wasn't universal.  The pros and cons were argued before the American people.  There were good arguments for removing Saddam.  Chomsky later wrote a book called Hegemony or Survival, America's Quest for Global Dominance, in which he refers to America's invasion of Iraq as a monumental crime.  George Bush was just like Joseph Stalin.  He wrote his book in 2003 when his arguments seemed plausible to some.  He was convinced Iraq would go from bad to worse.  Like so much of what Chomsky wrote, he was wrong.  Iraq is turning out to be what George Bush hoped it would be, a fledgling democracy, perhaps a democratic example to other nations in the Middle East.  Saddam Hussein had been a threat in the region.  I won't revisit the details, but other nations were afraid of him.   Now he is gone and Iraq is well on its way toward being a democracy.  Is Chomsky interested in that?  I suspect not.  I doubt that he will write a sequel entitled, "America's sacrifices for the good of Iraq and the Middle East."
            My point here isn't that the Anarchists should agree with me, but that they should understand that there were potent arguments of America doing what it did.  America isn't "guilty" simply because Chomsky assumes that it is.  He makes his assertions about America's guilt time after time, but he presents no argument.  He tells us invading Iraq is wrong, therefore America is guilty.   Is he capable of wrestling with the pros and cons of invasion as Kenneth Pollack did in The Threatening Storm, the case for invading Iraq?  That doesn't seem to be one of Chomsky's skills.

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