Cast your mind back, if you will, one month. The bestseller lists
at the time were dominated by right-wing screeds; Michael Kinsley
even wrote a column
about it, which is helpful, because we can use it to remember where
those books once stood.
The most successful, then as now, was Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes
How the Media Distort the News, Bernard Goldberg’s screed against
the liberal tilt of America’s TV networks. It was Top Book, back then;
now, it stands at #7 on Amazon’s bestseller list.
One month ago, Kinsley found five right-wing books in the Amazon top
15; now, Bias stands alone in that group. Its former position at #1
is now held by The Wisdom of Menopause: Creating Physical and Emotional
Health and Healing During the Change, by Christiane Northrup,
Goldberg’s fellow-travellers, it turns out, have done pretty poorly.
Pat Buchanan, bless his cotton socks, is still up there: his charmingly-titled
The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions
Imperil Our Country and Civilization has slipped merely to #25
from #11. Meanwhile, Barbara Olson’s The Final Days: The Last,
Desperate Abuses of Power by the Clinton White House has dropped
down to #154 from #7, Peggy Noonan’s When Character was King: A
Story of Ronald Reagan has fallen to #263 from #10, and Bill O’Reilly’s
The No-Spin Zone: Confrontations with the Powerful and Famous in
America now languishes at #3,046, down from #8 a month ago.
Meanwhile, who do we find at #8 on the list but Michael Moore, of
all people. His Stupid White Men …and Other Sorry Excuses for
the State of the Nation! has got the one of the main criteria
of success (a really long title) down pat, but nobody seems to have
told him that you need to be a right-winger to write a bestseller.
The ellipsis and exclamation mark, however, are obviously there to
make up for the lack of a colon: Moore’s book is one of only three
in the top 15 without one. But the point is that Moore is well up
there already, and his book hasn’t even been published yet. Could
it be that the right-wing books on the bestseller lists were only
a temporary blip?
After all, the next political book after Buchanan’s on the list is
9-11, the admirably short-titled pamphlet by, of all people,
Noam Chomsky. Could it be that the nation’s flag-waving fervor in
the wake of the terrorist attacks has been replaced by second thoughts?
Have Americans suddenly developed an interest in how the world sees
them and what their nation has been up to overseas in the past few
The weird thing is that Chomsky is definitely losing the intra-Left
war against the likes of Christopher Hitchens over whether or not
America was to blame for the events of September 11. Conventional
wisdom on the Upper West Side these days has it that Chomsky might
be a great linguistic theorist, but that he’s a little bit over the
edge when it comes to politics.
Which is why it’s unfortunate for Chomsky that the latest issue of
the New York Review of Books carries a fabulous article – the
first of two, no less – about Chomsky by his old sparring partner
John Searle. Searle purports to be reviewing Chomsky’s latest philosophical
book, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, but in
fact he aims squarely at the whole history of Chomsky’s theories,
past and present. He spends a good amount of time gloating, in the
politest possible fashion, over the failure of Chomsky’s early linguistic
project, and then jauntily skewers the bizarre animal into which it
has now morphed.
The whole thing makes me very happy. I never got very much into Chomsky
during my undergraduate days, but what little I understood of him
seemed ridiculous on its face. I was always given to feel rather sheepish
about my opinions, however: many much more learned and intelligent
philosophers than I seemed to take Chomsky’s theories about language
being hard-wired into the brain perfectly seriously. The fact that
Chomsky himself now seems to have abandoned them makes me very thankful
I didn’t waste many hours trying to understand them further.
My only regret is that Chomsky seems to be far too busy bashing his
political drums to spend much time rebutting Searle: we probably won’t
see his response in the pages of the New York Review. Indeed, although
Searle is too polite to say so, even the book under review is not
a genuine scholarly work so much as it is a collection of relatively
short essays and papers which repeat themselves as much as they gloss
over any really knotty problems. Chomsky’s obsession with conspiracy
theories centering on Henry Kissinger has distracted him from his
linguistics: maybe deep down, he always knew the latter was going