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January 05, 2008

A Short Parable

In a far away land called Acirema, there lived a golden retriever named Professor Yksmohc. This golden retriever, who wasn't owned by anyone, claimed that people only liked brown dogs. And so, he said, the dogs that people chose as pets were almost all brown.

This golden retriever also claimed that pet dogs truly believed they'd been chosen at the pound because they were so friendly and nice, and it had nothing to do with them being brown. Coincidentally, that's exactly what their owners always told them: they'd been chosen because they were so friendly and nice.

Professor Yksmohc also said if you told brown dogs they'd been chosen because they were brown, they couldn't understand a word you were saying. In fact, when you said "you've been chosen because you're brown," they would hear, "you've been chosen because you're a chihuahua." (In this town, all the dogs hated chihuahuas.)

One day, a brown sheep dog learned about Professor Yksmohc. This brown sheep dog got very mad, and barked and barked until all the town's dogs had come running to see what was happening. Trembling with anger, the brown sheep dog told all the other dogs: "Professor Yksmohc says I was chosen by my owners because I'm a chihuahua. But I'm not! I'm a sheep dog! Stop insulting me, Professor Yksmohc!"

Hearing this, all the town's dogs looked at each other. Perhaps, they thought, Professor Yksmohc was onto something.

Now, this seems like a morality tale for children, far too simple-minded to describe reality. But in fact, it's not simplified at all. It's straight out of a review in the Ottawa Citizen of a new book of interviews with Noam Chomsky, What We Say Goes. Here's a representative sampling of what the reviewer, an Ottawa Citizen columnist named Kate Heartfield, says:

Often, when someone asks me about my job as an opinion writer, one of the questions is some variant on, "Who tells you what to write?"

"No one tells me what to write," I say.

This is followed by blank looks, disbelieving looks, or outright contradiction...People who hold a particular view of the mainstream media seem to find it inconceivable that I might actually, as Alice told the March Hare, mean what I write and write what I mean.

And for this, I blame Noam Chomsky...he has given the caricature of the lying journalist so much academic legitimacy that arguing against it seems almost pointless.

God damn you, Professor Yksmohc!

In fact, my guess is that you would find that the intellectual elite is the most heavily indoctrinated sector, for good reasons. It’s their role as a secular priesthood to really believe the nonsense that they put’s crucial that they believe it because, after all, they are the guardians of the faith. Except for a very rare person who’s an outright liar, it’s hard to be a convincing exponent of the faith unless you’ve internalized it and come to believe it. I find that intellectuals just look at me with blank stares of incomprehension...

And here's more of the golden retriever's damnable blather:

I remember columns by Tom Wicker saying, Look, nobody tells me what to say. I do anything I feel. It's an absolutely free system. And for him that's just right. After he had demonstrated to the satisfaction of the bosses that he had internalized their values, he was entirely free to write anything he wanted.

Hilariously, the publisher of the Ottawa Citizen was fired by its owners CanWest just a few years ago for writing the wrong thing:

CanWest executives said Mills was fired for failing to seek corporate approval of the story reporting the prime minister had repeatedly lied to Parliament and the related editorial calling for him to resign...The company's owners have been strong supporters of [Prime Minister] Chrétien and the Liberal Party.

And there's much more than this—CanWest is notorious in the journalism world for telling staffers what to write.

But no one tells Kate Heartfield what to write. She has, completely of her own free will, arrived at lots of opinions that don't get her fired. What a happy coincidence!

EXTRA HILARIOUSNESS: Here's more of what no one told Heartfield to write:

The title of the book, What We Say Goes, is a piece of dramatic irony: the "we" is meant to refer to the United States, but it could just as easily refer to Chomsky and his followers.

So Heartfield's bosses have demonstrated they can and will fire anyone who crosses the line. But the people who truly hold power in her life are "Chomsky and his followers."

I'd be happy to caricature Heartfield for this if it were possible. But that would like murdering someone who just committed suicide.

BUT: As part of my New Year's resolutions, I refuse to be angry about this. Heartfield merely occupies an evolutionary niche created by Canadian billionaires. There's no more reason to get angry at her personally than there is getting mad at a dung beetle for rolling dung.

(Review via John Caruso.)

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at January 5, 2008 11:09 PM

When dung beetles roll dung, they benefit the whole ecosystem, not dunno, the elephants? Whatever the equivalent of the Canadian billionaires would be.

IT'S DIFFERENT, is what I mean to say.

Posted by: ethan at January 6, 2008 12:55 AM

Jonathan: please stop torturing that analogy.

Posted by: saurabh at January 6, 2008 01:07 AM

...And then there's a dog who agrees with the golden retriever and, uh, another dog who pretty much agrees with everything the golden retriever and the second dog say, but for some reason doesn't like it when the second dog uses a painfully long but (he's certain!) well worthwhile analogy, and the third dog complains, and then because of that the sun explodes and all the dogs die and dog civilization is obliterated just because of the third dog. The End.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at January 6, 2008 01:20 AM

Thanks a lot, third dog. Now with dog civilization obliterated the Catofascists will just roll right in and take over. Good job! Why do third dogs hate our freedom?

Posted by: scats at January 6, 2008 01:48 AM

good grief. blair and clinton pretty much killed the credibility of the third dog analogy. what is the second dog smoking?

Posted by: hapa at January 6, 2008 03:10 AM

When I first saw her review a few months back I considered writing to her to explain that no, the point isn't that you're a liar, but that what you want to say is (in all important respects) what your employers want you to say, and if you were to decide to say certain other things that they don't want you to say you'd be made to understand that those things aren't welcome, and if you kept it up anyway, you'd be out of a job. I entertained that thought for about 10 seconds, and then it left in a huff., wait. I mean to say, there was this Australian cattle dog. And I, or I mean he, was going to write...uh, bark to her, and say, look, you're not a golden...chihuahua. No wait, brown. Right. You're NOT brown, you're a chihuahua. No, wait....

Posted by: John Caruso at January 6, 2008 03:42 AM

And then the very independent dog said, "I can has paycheck?"

Posted by: StO at January 6, 2008 04:51 AM

Any journalist who believes they are really free to write whatever they want should try submitting a text celebrating the genius of Stalin (for example) to their editor. No? Well, I guess there are limits after all then.

Posted by: Non Nato at January 6, 2008 08:50 AM

I wonder how she thinks she got her job writing an opinion column in a newspaper. Does she think her employers were completely unaware of what her opinions tended to be, before they hired her?

Was the New York Times not aware of Bill Kristol's politics before they hired him? "Hmmm... seems like a nice young man, I'm sure he must have some interesting things to say, whatever they may be!"

And didn't we have this whole true believer v. liar discussion recently with regard to a certain Kenneth M. Pollack? Score one for "true believer", also known to some as "stupid."

Posted by: SteveB at January 6, 2008 11:02 AM

What Ethan said. You beat me to it, you, you chihuahua!+

Posted by: catherine at January 6, 2008 11:56 AM

heh. and th'dogs are picked at the pound; domestication and hybridization are long past.

Posted by: hapa at January 6, 2008 11:56 AM

What Ethan said. You beat me to it, you . . . you. . . chihuahua!

Posted by: catherine at January 6, 2008 11:56 AM

I may be a chihuahua, but at least I'm a brown chihuahua.

Posted by: ethan at January 6, 2008 01:02 PM

That's why Diogenese didn't bother looking in the mirror.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 6, 2008 01:11 PM

I realize my worldview has been warped by years of biology, but I don't understand why this stuff is controversial in the first place. The "freedom" that Heartfield has to "write whatever she wants" is precisely the "freedom" that a particular jackrabbit has to stare down a particular coyote. Of course the jackrabbit could choose to stare down the coyote instead of running away! One might even speculate that the coyote would be fine with that. And yet, for some reason, you just don't see that very often.

It's not even as though the coyotes have to be "evil" or the jackrabbits have to be "cowards" for the system to work the way it does -- they just have to be jackrabbits and coyotes. I blame the decline of science education in the US, and apparently Canada as well...

Posted by: radish at January 6, 2008 01:12 PM

I was, um, confused by the dog analogy--the real life point that Chomsky makes is easily understood, unless your job depends on not understanding it.

That coyote/jackrabbit analogy is pretty good, though.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 6, 2008 01:23 PM

Noam and I - a true story

Noam Chomsky and I go back a long way, although not a deep way. In my undergraduate days I took a course from him, and got an A (it was "Intellectuals and Social Change" - a large lecture course - everybody got A's).

On a more personal level, in the early 1970s he and I worked in Building 20 at MIT - it was built of wood during World War II, and was still there three decades later (it lasted until 1998, I've been informed, and has more than one web site dedicated to it). One coffee break time we were both standing in front of a vending machine in the basement, and he asked if I had two nickels for a dime. I did. He acted just like a regular person, not a world-famous celebrity.

He and I have not talked since, but I still consider myself an intellectual interested in social change, and part of the continuing struggle against the MICFiC* - *M ilitary I ndustrial C ongressional Fi nancial C orporate Media Complex, a conspiracy to use, abuse, and confuse the people, to "milk, shear, and slaughter the sheeple", figuratively speaking - except the slaughter is literal.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at January 6, 2008 01:29 PM


Then there was a ninth dog, who criticized long, confusing analogies involving ants. That's because the ninth dog was a counterrevolutionary who was just begging for a good, long stint in the reeducation camp.

mistah charley,

Have you ever written at length about your MIT years? Between this and Michael Albert is seems like there's a lot to say.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at January 6, 2008 02:02 PM

CanWest--proud owners of The New Republic.

Posted by: at January 6, 2008 02:28 PM


If I understood you correctly, yikes. Or yipyipyip.

(That might have been funny if I knew a standard way to represent a dog's yelp. Grrr.)

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 7, 2008 03:14 PM