Commentary — January 13, 2009, 2:34 pm

Žižek on Chomsky: Black, white, and red all over

The German culture magazine Lettre International, true to its name, publishes writing from around the world. Their Winter 2008 issue includes translations into German from Swedish, Italian, Hungarian, French, Spanish, and Greek. It also has an article, translated from the English, by the Slovenian philosopher and social critic Slavoj Žižek. The German title is “Hoffnungszeichen” (“Signs of Hope”). This is a longer version of “Use Your Illusions,” an essay published November 14 on the website of the London Review of Books, responding to Obama’s victory.

Readers who know Žižek’s work will be struck by the uncharacteristic earnestness of the English essay. It begins with a quote from a recent interview with Noam Chomsky, who had called for the left to vote for Obama but “without illusions.” Žižek shares Chomsky’s doubt that real change is afoot, he says, but he also adds that we should not deny or simplify the symbolic value of the victory. “Whatever our doubts,” he writes, “for that moment each of us was free and participating in the universal freedom of humanity.”

The German version in Lettre International includes this entire passage, but it has a different opening sentence:

Die zynischen Lesarten von Obamas Erfolg gipfelten in Noam Chomskys sarkastischer Bemerkung, Obama sei ein Weißer, der dadurch schwarz geworden sei, daß er sich ein paar Stunden in die Sonne gelegt habe.

The editors of Lettre International provided me with the English original:

The cynical reading of Obama’s success culminated in Noam Chomsky’s biting remark that Obama is a white man blackened by a couple of hours of sun-tanning.

Because this seemed to me to be an odd thing for Noam Chomsky to have said, and also because it seemed suspiciously like a famous remark by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who had greeted the news of Obama’s win with an off-kilter joke about the president-elect being “handsome, young, and suntanned,” I wrote Žižek an email asking for his source. He replied that the statement was “widely reported in the media.” I searched widely in the media. There was nothing. I checked the quote with Chomsky, who denied that he said it and also told me that someone else had written him to say that Žižek had published the same claim in the liberal Slovenian journal Mladina.

By Googling “Obama,” “Chomsky,” “Žižek,” and setting “language” to “Slovenian,” I found this article, as well as a Slovenian-language comment board with a link to it.I don’t speak Slovenian, but the emoticon seemed to convey the sense of the comment: “Chomskega pa ni zbudila take medijske pozornosti in licemerskega žurnalisti?nega zgražanja,” user “hopcefizelj” wrote, “kot izjava S. Berlusconija.

A Spanish translation of the essay, with error, had also been published on the website of the cultural review Ñ; the essay was published as well in the December Le Monde diplomatique, at least in the Norwegian edition. An alleged Italian version in Internazionale does not seem to be available online.

I emailed Žižek again, telling him I was sure that the quote was wrong and asking if he might have confused Noam Chomsky with Silvio Berlusconi. In emails and in a phone interview, he apologized for the error but denied that it was possible for him to have confused the two men. He remembered with “absolute certainty” that he had seen the quote attributed to Chomsky in “Slovene media.” It was not possible, he said, that he had confused the two quotes, for several reasons.

First, he had written the essay before Berlusconi’s remark. He had confirmed this, he said, by checking the dates on his computer. Berlusconi’s joke was made two days after the election; it would have to be very fast writing on Žižek’s part, but he does seem to write very fast. Second, he remembered clearly the quote as he had written it, with a syntax completely different than Berlusconi’s. And, finally, he emphatically condemned Berlusconi’s remark, while considering Chomsky’s “totally permissible to say.”

I asked Žižek if he would be willing to send me a brief statement on the matter. He wrote.

In attributing to Noam Chomsky the statement that Obama is a white guy who took some sun-tanning sessions, I repeated an untrue claim which appeared in Slovene media, so I can only offer my unreserved and unconditional apology.

I would like to add that, even if the statement I falsely attributed to Chomsky were to be truly made by him, I would not consider it a patronizingly racist slur, but a fully admissible characterization in our political and ideological struggle. 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. This is why, I think, the statement I falsely attributed to Chomsky does NOT amount to the same as Silvio Berlusconi’s misleadingly similar characterization of Obama as beautiful and well tanned: Berlusconi’s remark dismissed Obama’s blackness as an endearing eccentricity, thus obliterating the historical meaning of the fact that an African-American was elected President, while the remark I falsely attributed to Chomsky, if accurate, would point towards the ambiguous way Obama’s blackness can be instrumentalized to obfuscate our crucial political and economic struggles.

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