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Chomsky said WHAT?

Posted by Christopher Shea  January 15, 2009 10:31 AM

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chomsky.jpgDid Noam Chomsky call Barack Obama "a white man blackened by a couple of hours of sun-tanning" -- a dig at the President-elect's concessions to white conservatives? The MIT linguist and outspoken leftist outrages his political opponents, but he's not exactly known as a racial provocateur -- which is why the Harper's writer Sam Stark found it incredible that Chomsky would have said such a thing.

Yet the high-profile Slovenian intellectual Slavoj Zizek attributed that remark to Chomsky in two recent essays published in Europe. In fact, he kicked off the pieces with the quote.

The essays were revised and expanded versions of one Zizek published in the London Review of Books shortly before after the election. He began that article by quoting Chomsky as saying the left should vote for Obama "without illusions." Yet in post-election versions of the piece published in Germany and Slovenia Zizek switched to the quote implying Obama was a sell-out.

Asked by Stark, via email, whether he may have had in mind a famous, fatuous remark by the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ("Obama is young, handsome and also tanned"), Zizek countered that the Chomsky quote had been "widely reported." But there's no hint of it on Google and Chomsky denies saying anything of the kind.

So Zizek apologized. But the philosopher couldn't leave it at that, adding that if Chomsky had said Obama was a white man with a suntan, that wouldn't have been objectionable: "There are African-American intellectuals who allow themselves to be fully co-opted into the white-liberal academic establishment, and they are loved by the establishment precisely because they seem 'one of us,' white with a darkened skin." That's completely different from the sense of Berlusconi's statement, which "dismissed Obama's blackness as an endearing eccentricity, thus obliterating the historical meaning of the fact that an African-American was elected President." Glad that's cleared up.

(Photo: MIT)

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