This just in! Chavez didn’t think Chomsky was dead after all! (Chomsky still reading!)

As part of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s ebullient, unrestrained address at the UN not long ago he waved a copy of Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance at the assembled (and perhaps nonplussed) delegates. And as has been widely reported, the gesture did wonders for Chomsky’s book sales, but one of the more curious aspects to emerge from it all, at least in the New York Times coverage, was the assertion that Chavez suggested in his speech that Chomsky was dead. Yesterday the Times published this Editors’ Note that merits reading in full:

An article on Sept. 21 about criticism of President Bush at the United Nations by President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran reported that Mr. Chavez praised a book by Noam Chomsky, the linguist and social critic. It reported that later, at a news conference, Mr. Chavez said that he regretted not having met Mr. Chomsky before he died. The article noted that in fact, Mr. Chomsky is alive. The assertion that Mr. Chavez had made this misstatement was repeated in a Times interview with Mr. Chomsky the next day.

In fact, what Mr. Chavez said was, “I am an avid reader of Noam Chomsky, as I am of an American professor who died some time ago.” Two sentences later Mr. Chavez named John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard economist who died last April, calling both him and Mr. Chomsky great intellectual figures.

Mr. Chavez was speaking in Spanish at the news conference, but the simultaneous English translation by the United Nations left out the reference to Mr. Galbraith and made it sound as if the man who died was Mr. Chomsky.

Readers pointed out the error in e-mails to The Times soon after the first article was published. Reporters reviewed the recordings of the news conference in English and Spanish, but not carefully enough to detect the discrepancy, until after the Venezuelan government complained publicly on Wednesday.

Editors and reporters should have been more thorough earlier in checking the accuracy of the simultaneous translation. (Go to Article)

Editors’ Notes are something the Times only resorts to when it considers it – or Judith Miller – has made an especially egregious error (and/or, as in this instance, left uncorrected for some time an egregious error to which its attention had previously been drawn). Conspiracy theorists might be inclined to read some intent into both the original mistake, and the time it took to correct it. Certainly the error does little to help Chavez’s profile in the US. The idea that a President could endorse a scholar – and perhaps the world’s most famous extant left public intellectual to boot – while mistakenly believing him to be dead, does much to further the impression of Chavez as an unhinged wingnut (can a wingnut be unhinged?). The implication is that anyone with similar leftist views must be similarly unhinged and misinformed. [For the record, Chomsky told the Times of Chavez’s policies: “Personally, I think many of them are quite constructive. I would be happy to meet with him.”] But I’m not so sure the Times‘ error was deliberate in any direct sense. In such instances I’m generally more inclined to chalk up such “mistakes” to rank human incompetence. It is certainly the case, for example, that the Times also makes missteps that are of little help to the boosters of US global hegemony, as this correction, also from yesterday, attests to:

Because of an editing error, a caption on Wednesday about an American armored vehicle that ran into a ditch in Baghdad, attracting a crowd of children, misidentified the object in the left hand of a G.I. who was shown trying to disperse them. It was a glove, not a side arm. (Go to Article)

This does strike one as a not insignificant correction. However, to return to Chavez, it certainly seems possible that Times‘ editors, reporters, fact-checkers etc. would have had an easier time ascribing such an error to Chavez than, say, a more “credible”, more “balanced” (because less leftist) world leader. Granted Chavez is responsible for a lot of his own bad press, but it’s these kind of assumptions – the assumptions that are a central meaning of hegemony,* the manner in which the boundaries of common sense, the thinkable and unthinkable are formed – that are really in need of interrogation. But I’m not anticipating an Editors’ Note on that revolutionary topic anytime soon.

*Raymond Williams offers an excellent working definition of “hegemony” from what we (or me anyway) might call a disabused Marxist perspective:

For hegemony supposes the existence of something which is truly total, which is not merely secondary or susperstructural, like the weak sense of ideology, but which is lived at such a depth, which saturates the society to such an extent, and which, as Gramsci put it, even constitutes the substance and limits of common sense for most people under its sway, that it corresponds to the reality of social experience very much more clearly than any notions derived from the formula of base and superstructure. For if ideology were merely some abstract, imposed set of notions, if our social and cultural and political ideas and assumptions and habits were merely the result of specific manipulation, of a kind of overt training which might be simply ended or withdrawn, then the society would be very much easier to move and to change than in practice it has ever been or is. [Raymond Williams, “Base and Superstructure,” in Problems in Materialism and Culture (New York, 1980), 37]

Postscript: Interestingly, over on the New York Times quasi-endorsed Freakonomics blog (there’s a Freakonomics column in the NYT Magazine), much the same open-ended conclusion re: the Times‘ “mistake” is hit upon. The word “hegemony”, however, is notable by its absence:

It sounds to me like a very honest mistake. But it also suggests an interesting psychological element: we are probably more willing to identify and exploit a flaw in those whom we have already deemed very flawed.

To cite Tony Judt writing on Thomas Friedman in a recent article excoriating US liberals for their failure to oppose Bush, Freakonomics is perhaps rather proffering “pieties…road-tested for middlebrow political acceptability.” Actually, that’s more than a bit unfair to Freakonomics in this instance. Mostly I just needed an excuse to deploy that Judtian bon mot. That said, my point about the Freakonomics’ reading is that it fails to ask the (archæologically) prior question of how we ended up being convinced Chavez is “very flawed” in the first place.


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