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The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual

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Noam Chomsky turns 90! Congratulations Professor. Even at his advanced age, Mr. Chomsky remains the second smartest person in America. The smartest is Chuck Mertz. Now I have no idea when Chuck’s birthday is, but it does seem likely that he was born about the same time as Christ (both guys have a flair for irony). So happy birthday Chuck, here’s to many more.

I have tried to slip in a Chomsky jab about every week for the last month. I wanted to stop, but pro-Chomsky pieces keep popping up. And he deserves all of them of course. One of the most courageous and admirable figures of our time. It is with the utmost sincerity that I say my heart warms up whenever I see Noam, who is most often spotted in an adorable sweater these days.

And yet, the Chomsky bots are just too much fun to provoke. It’s a group that is refreshingly cerebral, and openly, if not proudly, pretentious. And dutifully loyal to Master Noam. All in all, a group that enriches your mind far more than frustrates it. No group is more fun to poke and prod!

I was trying to pinpoint what exactly the traits of a Chomsky disciple are. They are, overall, very appealing people. They certainly care a lot about other human beings and spend a good deal of their time and energy attempting to prove, in a very matter-of-fact sort of way, how Chomsky has answers to the world’s troubles.

First and foremost, there is a privileging of the intellectual mind. This is a good thing. A very good thing as we see Republicans taking us back to the dark ages. The best book I’ve read this year was Tara Westover’s Educated: A Memoir. Much lauded by liberals, and for good reason. It becomes all too easy to take basic liberal assumptions for granted as the far-right gains steam across the world. Much of America still lives in the dark ages, bound to their conspiracies, unable to account for basic liberal assumptions: women are equal citizens, science is real, doctors aren’t trying to kill you, the news isn’t always lying, races can co-exist, school is important, government can do more good than bad, etc. So, go thinking! Point for Chomsky and co.

Still, I see that the intellectual class has lost, and stupidity, in the form of Donald Trump and Republicans, has won. The reason for this is mostly the same as everything else: the rich have hijacked everything, including the conversation. This accounts for why Chomsky is left out of the mainstream discussion, but it does not account for why he is wrong.

I am not talking about being wrong on the issues. Chomsky has been driving with his left blinker on for 90 years, with a book in hand for 89.8 of them (dangerous driving, sir!). Of course Chomsky is right. Arguing with him would be like trying to confront an honest encyclopedia. Near impossible!

But Chomsky is a taxidermist, as is just about every serious intellectual. There is a sort of inverse logic to most intellectuals that simply stuffs one’s head with knowledge without ever confronting why this approach itself will never really achieve its aims as long as the debate remains within the gates of intellectualism itself.

Worth a read is Chomsky’s classic The Responsibility of Intellectuals. In this work, Chomsky condemns intellectuals who lie. He notices that intellectuals have a unique right to not only speak their mind, but to seek the truth. He goes on to list example after example of intellectuals who lie about Vietnam. Chomsky, braver than I am, was willing to go to jail over his stance on Vietnam! Truly a hero. And yet, I have to ask the good professor, who the heck cares about what intellectuals think? Or, if they do have any influence, why, exactly, does this come as news that they would support the massacre of the Vietnamese? Hasn’t this always been the role of the ruling class?

The title of the essay is slightly misleading. It’s a rich work, full of information not related to the intellectuals at all. Although the premise of the essay as a whole seems to be an attempt to appeal to intellectuals, or at least to shame their complicity. Chomsky even has the audacity to assume that the intellectuals are influencing policy in Washington, through their various forms of “expertise”. Hopefully that self-serving assumption has gone out the window with this administration, who can’t even tweet straight.

The nice thing about Chomsky is that he tries to discredit the idea of an “expert” opinion on these subjects, but he falls into his own trap by remaining fixated on the expert opinions, even, if not especially when, they are wrong. On a side note, Chomsky’s obsession with French intellectuals is a fun one. He can talk about nuclear war with a straight face, but as soon as you mention his French rivals, Chomsky grows cold and passionate! 

This is all fine and good. But it’s also all very meta. If one is not a renowned intellectual, what the heck are you supposed to do with the information that they are all basically liars anyway? Doesn’t that push you right into the arms of the anti-expert Donald Trump?

Which brings me to my next point: I don’t think it’s completely accurate to dismiss expertise just because there is propaganda embedded in it. Clearly, there is value in many pills pharmaceutical companies sell, for example. The fact that they want to keep us psychologically unstable and dependent is important knowledge, but without assigning agency to the individual actually making the decision about whether or not to use the pills, we are just a step away from dismissing science, medicine, birth control, and the entire establishment, as Trump has done.

What I mean by assigning agency to the individual person in society is that we should not spend so much time focusing on how all the experts are wrong. They have financial interests, which are problematic. And yet, the average “expert” is on the wrong side of the means of production. Chomsky’s outright dismissal of expertise (seemingly just to prove himself as head of his own failed class) is as dangerous as it is extraneous. Most every expert is simply a pawn of capital, capable of doing what is right, or what is profitable, or even both. It doesn’t mean that there is no merit in their fields or their expertise. In many ways these developed ways of training are the only thing that separates our earning power from the countries we are oppressing through imperialism.

If experts deserve any critique it is this: 1. we fail to expand expertise to the countries we say we are liberating 2. the idea that expertise has merit in and of itself is purely a capitalist construct, as the potential to become an expert in anything is only possible because there is a means to profit from whatever you are an expert of, even if you are a professor teaching anti-capitalism.

So I guess the main point is this: There is nothing that distinguishes intellectuals, experts, or even the rich. They are no more special than any of us, and they deserve no more focus. There should be no more time wasted focusing on what “role” they should play. As long as capital remains a heavy incentive, it will remain a heavy motivator. But generalizing a nihilism assumes that because they have extraordinary abilities, they will be extraordinarily cruel. And my only quarrel with this is the experts have no extraordinary abilities, other than the ones they paid capitalism to train them for. To imagine a role for them as a specific personage is a mistake.

Given the date of Chomsky’s essay, we can not slight him for this next point, but it’s worth pointing that today the public intellectual, if he ever was alive, is dead. Authority in America, and this may be largely true throughout this country’s history, does not come from the teacher, but from the classmate. The most revered figures in society are more or less those who would be most popular in high school: those who are good looking, charismatic, and with a strength in extracurricular activity (such as music, theatre or sports). Alternatively, and this only cements my theory, there is authority in hating these people: The Republican Party and Fox News run on resentment. The intellectual acts as a teacher drawing on the whiteboard in a class run amok, overtaken by distractions concerning their most alluring classmates. There could be a moral role for a public intellectual, but this assumes that this figure exists. The mere statement public intellectual is an oxymoron and this is in a country hooked on oxy and full of morons.

Which brings me to the original point of this article. To wish a happy 90th to America’s finest intellectual: Chuck Mertz, assuming the world isn’t burned to a crisp by the time he reaches 90.

There was a date, largely forgotten in American history, when the two biggest towers of intellectualism collided. This was on Mertz’s show, just after 9/11. One day two towers went down, and later that week two towers of American thought stood together. I am not sure who to blame for this 9/11 joke that was far too soon. Would it be Mertz, the only one who would get the joke? Or would it be Chomsky, the only one to consider himself a tower? Considering that neither makes sense without the other giving up their assumed trait, we can leave this conspiracy theory for the left to figure out.

Throughout high school I was routinely awakened on Saturday mornings by a grumpy leftist raising a stink about capitalism, and occasionally offering up a far more pertinent hangover cure. At the time, I did not think much about my father and his fondness for this idiosyncratic (his word) radio man out of Evanston, Illinois. Something must have reassured me about that tiger Chuck Mertz though, as I soon drifted back to his radio show This Is Hell! 

Through the years I have been spun into Chuck’s dark and damp web of wide-ranging leftism. The harder I try to get out, the tighter Mertz’s grip is on me. I go through a pattern about every month where I grow furious at the radical leftist. In a fit of rage I unsubscribe from the podcast, only to warily resubscribe later that month (which, if Chuck is concerned, is a pattern that could lend him pretty big advertisers, seeing that it appears I am many people now).

My frustration with Mertz comes as I fail to wrestle him down. Unlike the mainstream media, there is no conclusion, no alarm bells rung, aside from the inevitable general doom of capitalism. Mertz’ pessimism doesn’t bother me, it offends me! How can a guy so smart really come to no conclusions? I leave every show thinking. Well, that sucked. I hate life. But so many thoughts are provoked by each interview, I cannot quit!

This is why I think Mertz may be a step ahead of all of us. He claims to be pessimistic, yet he celebrates the intellectual mind more than any person in the media landscape today. He claims to have given up hope, but he tries harder to discover the meaning of this world than anyone I can remember. He claims to be bitter, blind and gap-toothed! And yet, how could he be bitter with this show in hand? And while I cannot comment on his vision, have you guys seen a more prepossessing smile? If those are the dentists in late-stage capitalism, then sign me up!

Mertz is much like the honorable people at this website in that he is really hard to get a grasp of. He is wicked smart and always extremely well-informed on each of his guests. He’ll take you in a million different twists and turns (all seemingly to the left, but this makes it all the more engaging). Mertz will always be asking the tough questions that often arrive at the point of humble ambiguity—the highest point of theoretical thought.

It is Mertz’s desire to learn, and to keep learning, almost as a never-ending project, that keeps the listener on the edge of their seat. Mertz always, and it seems always, has a sly grin bursting out of his bitter laments on his gap teeth, capitalism, or the hangover headache he has. Hence, he keeps the listener on guard and never allows a follower of his to get overly strident. Mertz after all remains so curious and excited about his guest’s work that it is contagious.

I think I keep coming back to Mertz because he is the one figure in the media that I feel like I can relate to. Not because we have anything in common, but more because he is simply so open and honest. Even the rare person who is honest on the issues ceases to be honest on who they are. And while I need to see Mertz’s tax returns and deleted emails to really know the truth, he presents himself as a completely open guy. And I’m not just talking grimy working class as a Bernie style brand. I’m saying this about this is a weird guy who just acts weird. This creates a level of trust and intimacy between the listener and speaker that is unprecedented in our corporate media landscape.

To me this is why Mertz has more authority than Chomsky. Chomsky may be 100% correct, but my natural inclination is to disagree with him. Of course I try to qualify, if not dismiss my disagreement, but the distance remains. The distance between teacher and student remains.

I would consider Mertz an expert, but he gains authority not just through his expertise or even his honesty, but through his authenticity. Contrary to the mindset of politicians, acting like the “common man” is not Mertz’s game, not exactly at least. He is the uncommon man, because he is himself. But the man you know, so therefore he is common.

Ok, so I can’t help myself. Chomsky drives me bananas. I was taken back to my hellish night of reading What Happened by Hillary “Foresight 2020” Clinton. Bruce E. Levine wrote of the honorable leftist on Counterpunch:  “While Chomsky abhors any hero worship—especially of himself—he does value what can be learned from human experiments in living…At age 13, Noam commuted alone by train to New York City to visit relatives. He spent many hours with an uncle who ran a newsstand in Manhattan on 72nd Street, which was a lively “literary political salon” where an adolescent Chomsky was exposed to radical politics and Jewish working-class culture.”

For whatever reason, I was reminded of my reaction to Hillary’s book: “Hillary desperately shoves her humanity on top of us and it is hard to believe it. There are so many quaint stories that happen to “ordinary” people in this book. Including to Hillary herself. What she ate, what she wore, who she went on a walk with. Lots of “jokes” and “moments” that helped to get her through the day. Aren’t these things that come naturally to human beings? Do they have to be so forced?” It was not the first time I thought of Hillary and Noam together, despite their obvious divergence in policy. Both are highly rational beings who ultimately trust experts and from a young age, were engaged in professional, rather than personal, endeavors. Poor Noam! Not a charitable comparison. For the record, I think I may take the Levine tag team of Bruce and Andrew over the field of the entire internet if I had to choose who I could consume for the rest of my life. Why am I thinking of these disaster scenarios? Damn you late-stage capitalism!

I assume most people who are are reading this have been touched by Chuck Mertz, but when it comes to fame, he is not exactly Beyonce (sorry, Beyonce). There was a chance for Chuck to make it big, at least Amy Goodman big, and with that charming wit, hey maybe he would have been performing at the Super Bowl someday. Imagine what a grand show that would be! Mertz, surrounded by 100,000 screaming fans, lit only by a single arc lamp, beer in hand, offering up damning critiques of the very event that was hosting him. Assuming the Super Bowl wouldn’t collapse as a business, this would be the highest grossing halftime show ever, just based on the low cost of the lighting.

So, why haven’t we had a Chuck Mertz Super Bowl halftime show? Isn’t Chuck super enough? An excellent profile by The Daily Northwestern gives us some hints.  Mertz is certainly talented enough to bolt to greener pastures on the radio, but losing a web presence would be devastating to his national, even international audience. Mertz was even wooed by Pacifica, best known for sparking another American hero, Amy Goodman. Mertz was asked to send in a sample package to Pacifica. Amongst the selections was a critique of Pacifica itself, as Mertz went right after their more corporate ties. Incredible!

Some would argue it’s foolish, even unproductive for Mertz to not parlay his skills and popularity into a more popular setting. As satisfying as the label might be, it would be hard to call Amy Goodman a sellout. Yet who could imagine anything about Mertz—politics or otherwise—flying on the mainstream? It’s just as much the originality and independence that the mainstream would be allergic to as the leftism itself. Even if the long form interviews featuring socialists and communists were accepted, we’d miss out on the snide musings about everything from history to drugs to art.

Another factor to consider is that the mainstream media, and even the general population, would be unlikely to accept a legally blind radio host. This is sad to say but no doubt true when one looks at the life story of Chuck Mertz. To get by Chuck has worked a plethora of jobs, but all of them fire him when they find out about his vision. Chuck eventually got a scholarship to go to Michigan State from the National Federation of the Blind, but even they declared radio “unrealistic.” Chuck wouldn’t switch majors, and lost the scholarship. Can you blame him for being skeptical about the mainstream? If anyone could be the Jackie Robinson for blind folks, it’s Chuck, but that doesn’t mean the odds aren’t against him.

For now, I’ll just be grateful that I (and those of you foolish enough to consume propaganda from the internet) have access to Chuck Mertz. Noam Chomsky notes that while he is no fan of talk radio, he really likes Mertz, even appearing on the show. The mainstream hosts are literally the filthiest scum in the country. Just look at the top six earners of 2017: Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Ryan Seacrest, Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. Hard to think of a more obtuse group.

It is rare that Mertz and Rush Limbaugh go head to head, but I recall fondly a breezy summer day where this was just the case. Two doors down my neighbor was treating his chemically polluted lawn (which has taken down several squirrels). If you’re going to use poison, you better listen to poison; so this guy naturally had Rush Limbaugh on, loud enough for it to be seriously polluting our day in the backyard. My Dad fired back by pulling out some hellish ballads from Chuck Mertz, turning the man up to full volume (the background jazz helped out Mertz’s cause here). My neighbor in the middle, pretty much an Obama centrist, must have had a confusing afternoon.

That moment though seemed like a democracy. My neighbor in the middle would have been presented with a choice: Rush or Chuck. Thanks to Bill Clinton’s Telecommunications Act of 1996, a level playing field is harder to achieve than ever before. One must be as curious as Chuck himself to stumble upon his show, while must be simply as aimless as Rush to arrive at his.

For many Americans, finding Chuck remains as elusive as health care. Share the good news! Chuck is here. My world (and hopefully yours now too) does contain Chuck Mertz! What lucky bastards we all are! Smile Chuck. What would a world without the indispensable Chuck Mertz be like? Quite simply, it would be hell.

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Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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