Here are some words I never thought I would apply to a Noam Chomsky book: shallow, flimsy, ill-considered, dumb, and badly written.
And yet, here we are.
Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, the October selection of the Reading Through It Book Club, is a bad book. Requiem is basically a transcription of a documentary by the same name — Chomsky’s “final, long-form documentary interviews,” according to the jacket copy — and it fails on just about every conceivable level. It’s poorly structured. The arguments aren’t convincing. The narrative is rambling. Even the typeface is difficult to read.
Just about everyone at last night’s book club had a complaint about Requiem. Many were upset with the way the book continually referred to the 1950s as a golden age for America, when in fact the comfort of the middle class at that time was constructed on the backs of minorities. I hated the fact that Henry Ford was unapologetically cheered in the book as a positive force for the American worker, when in fact Ford was an anti-Semite and a Nazi sympathizer. Some resented the fact that the book criticized contemporary political economy without offering solid solutions.
And others took issue with this passage in particular:
I don’t usually agree with Sarah Palin, but when she mocks what she calls the “hopey changey stuff” — she’s right. First of all, Obama didn’t really promise anything, that’s mostly illusion. Go back to the campaign rhetoric and take a look at it. There’s very little discussion of policy issues, and for very good reason — because public opinion on policy is sharply disconnected from what the leadership of the two parties and their financial backers want. Policy, more and more, is focused on the private interests that fund the campaigns — with the public being marginalized.
Now, look. I appreciate that there are plenty of reasons to disagree with Obama from the left: drone warfare, wiretapping, a failure to confront income inequality. But this argument that Obama didn’t promote policy is nothing more than historical revisionism. (Here, for instance, is a 15-page paper on health care from the Obama 2008 website. There are plenty more of those papers where this came from.)
Someone in last night’s book club suggested that perhaps Chomsky was taking issue with the marketing of Obama as a figure who might enact momentous change when the reality turned out to be much more incremental. And perhaps that’s what Chomsky meant, and that’s a valid argument. But in the book, Chomsky sounds like one of those nincompoops who argued before the 2016 election that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were basically the same candidate.
While Obama should not have surrounded himself with so many Ivy League elites and Wall Street insiders, the fact is that he enacted a more progressive health care system than what existed before — something that every Democratic president in the late 20th century tried and failed to implement — and he changed the American conversation to the point that health care is now considered a right by a majority of the public. For Chomsky to diminish those accomplishments in the quest for an easy rhetorical point is downright irresponsible.
These inconsistencies and poor logical constructions would be forgivable if Requiem offered something meaty in return. Instead, it’s a collection of soundbites, a speed-run through Chomsky’s greatest hits with none of the intellectual rigor he brought to other books like Manufacturing Consent, Profit Over People, or Hegemony or Survival.
In fact, even Requiem’s title is lazy and problematic. Chomsky never really bothers to define the “American Dream” of the title. That’s a serious issue. As someone pointed out in the book club last night, young Americans likely don’t even believe in the same American Dream that Chomsky is discussing in Requiem. Is he hearkening back to the (nonexistent) good old days? Does he assume that everyone in America wants a suburban house and car and 40-hour-a-week job?
Or is it time to reinvestigate what the American Dream means? Maybe rather than calling for a reinstatement of Glass-Steagall and the reinvigoration of the American union, it’s time to come up with new solutions for modern America. Chomsky falls into the obvious trap of nostalgia for a time that never really was. It’s lazy thinking, and it transforms Requiem into a moronic journey to nowhere.
During this conversation about Requiem, members of the book club talked fondly about other books we’ve selected over the past year: No Is Not Enough, Dark Money, and Evicted, among others. In comparison with those books, we agreed, Requiem felt like the literary equivalent of junk food — empty calories and airy rhetoric, all wrapped up in glossy packaging. If you’re looking for answers, or even a sensible identification of the problems facing the country, you need to look elsewhere.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant