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The Devil in the Details

Chavez’s Reading, Bush’s Reading

by BRUCE JACKSON

Very soon after Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez recommended Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance in his U.N. speech last week, the book shot to the top of the Amazon and B&N paperback best seller lists.

About 25% of the New York Times September 23 article on the book’s surprising spurt in sales was devoted to Harvard law professor and torture advocate Alan M. Dershowitz, who used the opportunity to badmouth Chomsky’s books in general.

"I don’t know anybody who’s ever read a Chomsky book," Dershowitz said, which is probably more instructive about the range of his own political conversations than Chomsky’s readership. "You buy them, you put them in your pockets, you put them on your coffee table," he said. He is confident that the people who buy Hegemony "are not going to get to the end of the book [Chomsky] does not write page turners, he writes page stoppers. There are a lot of bent pages in Noam Chomsky’s books, and they are usually at about Page 16."

It’s not surprising that Dershowitz-none of whose continuing series of Jack Hornerish autobiographies is exactly a titillating bodice-ripper either-would express that kind of petulant jealousy of a highly-regarded neighbor. He used to insist that his hatred for civil rights attorney William M. Kunstler was simply because Kunstler took on unsavory clients, a few of whom were enemies of Israel, but it always seemed far more likely that the animus came from the fact that Kunstler was recognized everywhere and was liked by almost everyone who knew him, even his legal opponents, while Dershowitz had to introduce himself for people to know who he was and even that didn’t make him likeable. So those remarks sniping at Chomsky were just Dershowitz being Dershowitz.

What is is odd is that the Times would quote him at all in this context, let alone at such length. What is his expertise in South American affairs? What is his expertise in Chomsky, whose work, by his own admission, he buys but doesn’t read?

Perhaps it’s just the Times using Dershowitz as catspaw to help put down Hugo Chávez. Chávez’s U.N. speech received a huge ovation from the diplomats there (the U.S. pointedly sent a lower level clerk) and was widely and favorably covered in the foreign press. But much of the U.S. press has either trashed him or downplayed the key points in his energetic and witty speech.

His joke about George W. Bush’s sulphuric body odor, for example. Bush has been widely criticized around the world for his "axis of evil" metaphor and for his fondness for demonizing his perceived opponents, whether individual (like Chávez and Castro) or national (like Iran and Cuba).

For most of the world, Chávez using the U.N. bully-pulpit for turnabout was just fair play, and funny fair play it was. Bush says the leaders of countries he doesn’t like are therefore evil? Okay: we say Bush is the devil, he’s the one who’s evil, and if you were standing here you’d have the olfactory evidence.

People in the General Assembly chamber laughed when Chávez said that, and mock-crossed himself, but the U.S. press and U.S. politicians took him literally. Demons aren’t permitted to make jokes, you see. Even Democrats Nancy Pelosi, Christopher Dodd and Tom Harkin rushed to Bush’s defense against this villainous infamy. The Washington Post fairly frothed over it in both news and opinion columns. Boston city councilor Jerry McDermott asked the city to replace the landmark Citgo sign outside the left-field wall at Fenway Park with an American flag. Get a life, guys and gal, get a life.

Perhaps the dumbest Democratic response of all came from New York Congressman Charles Rangel, who said, "You don’t come into my country, you don’t come into my congressional district and you don’t condemn my president."

Chávez didn’t "condemn" anybody; he just said what Bush looks like from his point of view, which is no more or less legitimate than what Bush had done at the same podium a day earlier. More important, the United Nations is not, never has been and never will be, part of Charlie Rangel’s congressional district and neither is it part of the United States. The United Nations has all the political independence of any embassy anywhere in the world. Rangel’s angry and ill-informed chauvinism and jingoism are hardly rare in Washington these days, and they are among the reasons Chávez and many other national leaders question whether the U.S. is any longer the appropriate home for the world’s only truly international political body.

Lost in all the hoopla and name-calling were the very cogent things Chávez was saying. (His speech is here on Counterpunch; you can read it for yourself, and you can go to the White House web site for Bush’s empty speech of the previous day.) Far easier to throw hissy-fits about a deliberately misunderstood gag or haul in a legal hit-man from Harvard for a spurious sniper attack than address the issues Chávez raised and the reasons so many members of the U.N. responded so enthusiastically to them.

A final note on reading habits. Hugo Chávez held up a book by a well-known and highly-regarded political thinker of the left about the way the U.S. uses its military and economic power to advance its interests, to the detriment of smaller nations that the U.S. should be instead using its vast power to help. It is a book about greed, violence, and limited vision. Hugo Chávez read it, thought it applicable to his country and other countries of the south, and recommended it to the leaders of the nations of the world and to citizens of the U.S.

And what has George W. Bush been reading? He never talks about reading anything himself, but last summer his staff made a big deal about him having read Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger. In French, The Stranger is so short and is written in such simple language that it was for years the first novel given to American high school French students in their third semester. The English translation is just as simple, just as short. The Stranger raises profound questions about the nature of human existence, but only if it occurs to a reader that such questions exist in the first place. It is possible for a reader without imagination or curiosity to read the novel without ever moving off the surface of the narration.

The novel is the first person account of a French colonial in Algeria named Meursault who, on the day of his mother’s funeral picks up a girl at a beach and has sex with her. A week later he kills an Arab who had earlier been in a dispute with one of his friends. Meursault goes walking alone on the beach with his friend’s gun in his pocket. He comes upon the Arab, who is lying on the ground. Meursault stands there for two hours, during which time neither he nor the Arab moves. Meursault could leave, he has no argument with the Arab, but instead he advances toward him. The man on the ground takes a knife from his pocket but doesn’t make any attempt rise. Meursault shoots him anyway, pauses, then fires four more bullets into the motionless body. When the examining magistrate later asks Meursault why he fired the second, third, fourth and fifth bullets, Meursault says something unintelligible about the sun having been very bright that day. His rationale for the murder makes no sense to anyone, so he is condemned to death.

Hugo Chávez read a book about global economic forces and the disproportionate role played in the economic world by the United States and he wants the United Nations to rouse from its torpor and act as if every member were an equal member, as if the rights of the poor in the south were no less important than the rights of the rich in the north. And George Bush read a book about a European colonial who murdered an Arab for reasons that made no sense to anybody and who, on his way to the guillotine, still had not suffered a moment of regret for having pulled the trigger again and again and again and again. We know what conclusions Chávez drew from Noam Chomsky’s book because he stood up at the U.N. and told us. What conclusions did George Bush draw from Albert Camus’ book? He’s never said, so we can’t possibly know.

All we can know is what he does and says, which is all we can really know about anyone. Which is why the members of the U.N. marked the end of Bush’s speech with a smattering of polite applause and the end of Chávez’s speech with long, vigorous and heartfelt applause. They knew what each man had said and they’ve watched what each man has done. Even without being anywhere near close enough to know if the odor of brimstone in fact still lingered at the lectern, they had no difficulty at all making up their minds about the human vision offered by the two national leaders who had stood before them on two successive days.

BRUCE JACKSON is SUNY Distinguished Professor at University at Buffalo and editor of the web journal BuffaloReport.com. Temple University Press will publish his book "Telling Stories" early next year.