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.

Single Page

More from Sam Stark:

From the February 2015 issue

A Weimar Home Companion

Walter Benjamin on the air

Commentary January 21, 2011, 3:43 pm

United We Brand!

Weekly Review September 28, 2010, 12:00 am

Weekly Review

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



October 2019


Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Power of Attorney·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

Carlitos in Charge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I was in Midtown, sitting by a dry fountain, making a list of all the men I’d slept with since my last checkup—doctor’s orders. Afterward, I would head downtown and wait for Quimby at the bar, where there were only alcoholics and the graveyard shift this early. I’d just left the United Nations after a Friday morning session—likely my last. The agenda had included resolutions about a worldwide ban on plastic bags, condemnation of a Slobodan Miloševic statue, sanctions on Israel, and a truth and reconciliation commission in El Salvador. Except for the proclamation opposing the war criminal’s marble replica, everything was thwarted by the United States and a small contingent of its allies. None of this should have surprised me. Some version of these outcomes had been repeating weekly since World War II.

Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A group of researchers studying the Loch Ness Monster did not rule out the possibility of its existence, but speculated that it is possibly a giant eel.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today