Chomsky Doesn’t Like Soccer or Soap Operas

Paul Austin Murphy
Mar 29, 2020 · 7 min read

i) Introduction
ii) Chomsky on Soccer
iii) Chomsky on Soap Operas

Professor Noam Chomsky once partly blamed the current Syrian crisis on global warming. He said:

“There was a drought of unprecedented scale in Syria… Therefore, the tragedy that has unfolded in Syria is partly a consequence of global warming.”

Following on from that, it may seem trivial (or beside the point) to focus on such a thing as Chomsky’s attitude towards soccer and soap operas. Chomsky himself thinks that soccer and soaps are trivial. Nonetheless, he also believes that they have a profound influence on American political realities.

When it comes specifically to soccer, Chomsky believes that it produces an

“irrational loyalty to some sort of meaningless community [is a] training for subordination to power and for chauvinism”.

Chomsky also deems soccer and soaps to be parts of capitalism’s “power systems”. They are yet more domains in which tens of millions of people “internalize the values of the elite”. In other words, Chomsky has resurrected the Marxist notion of false consciousness when he talks — as he often does — about such internalisations of the elite’s values.

Chomsky has also resurrected the Frankfurt School’s notion of the “culture industry” in which (this time) Marxist gross simplifications aren’t aimed at Chomsky’s hated soaps and soccer, but primarily at jazz and television. More specifically, Theodor Adorno said that the

“paradise offered by the culture industry is the same old drudgery”.

This is also why Chomsky is profoundly obsessed by the Mainstream Media (often used with a platonic ‘M’) — that solid block of “right-wing” and “capitalist” uniformity, agreement and “obedience to power”.

All this demonstrates the totalitarian — or ‘totalist’ (as hip philosophers put it) — mindset of Chomsky; regardless of the debates which can be had about his parallel commitments to totalitarian ideologies, systems, and regimes (which has been much discussed by many others).

Chomsky on Soccer

I’m not the only person to have taken umbrage to Chomsky’s extreme critiques of soccer. Giles Harvey, of The New Yorker, responded to Chomsky with these words:

“… the idea that sport is a meaningless activity beneath the intelligence of ordinary human beings is condescending at best. Sport, like art, sweetens life; whether they realize it or not, it is probably the source of many people’s notions of beauty, solidarity, and greatness.”

On the other hand, here’s Britain’s very own Marxist member of the Establishment, Professor Terry Eagleton, writing in the “progressive” British newspaper, The Guardian. He wrote:

“If every rightwing thinktank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labour, the solution in each case would be the same: football. No finer way of resolving the problems of capitalism has been dreamed up…”

(In that article Terry Eagleton even said that football should be abolished.)

Chomsky has many followers. Here’s one — from a blog by Marie Snyder — who faithfully replicates Chomsky on soccer and sports:

“He cautions us about getting sucked into the trivia created to distract us from reacting to real problems in the world, what he calls ‘de-politicizing’ intelligent people by getting them tracking sports statistics and the complex relationships on HBO series.”

So what, exactly, is wrong with soccer in Chomsky’s eyes?

i) It “builds up extremely anti-social aspects of human psychology”.

ii) It encourages “irrational competition” and “irrational loyalty to power systems”.

iii) It produces “passive acquiescence to quite awful values”.

iv) It “contributes more fundamentally to authoritarian attitudes” than almost anything else. But worst of all

v) It “keeps people away from other [political] things”.

Let’s take each point one at a time.

Chomsky talks about “irrational competition”. This implies that there are good types of competition. Nonetheless, if you read much left-wing literature (as well as Chomsky himself), all competition — or all types of competition- is deemed irrational and morally/politically reprehensible. (Even Chomsky competing against right-wing academics and journalists?)

As for “irrational loyalty to power systems”. The same argument applies to this statement. Chomsky doesn’t believe that there is rational loyalty to power systems because he claims to be against all power systems. This also begs the question as to what he means by the “power systems” and whether or not such things are automatically bad things. What about the power system that is Chomsky himself — as well as his monthly books? This man influenced and has influenced literally tens of thousands of young students — and even some non-students.

And what a terrible non-argument: that watching and enjoying football produces “passive acquiescence to quite awful values”. Firstly, there’s a terrible assumption here that all football fans are somehow committed to exactly the same “awful values”. It denies the possibility of being a football fan and also being committed to nice vales (presumably Chomsky’s leftwing ones). Finally, it rejects the possibility of the separation of values from watching and liking football; whether or not those values are negative or positive.

Chomsky also believes that soccer — or watching it — “contributes more fundamentally to authoritarian attitudes” than anything else. All this would depend on what Chomsky means by “authoritarian”. What he usually means by that word is non-leftwing authoritarianism because many aspects of Leftism are deeply authoritarian; including Chomsky’s own thought-processes and his way of seeing things. (Again, regardless to whether or not Chomsky has committed himself to authoritarian political regimes, ideologies and movements in the past.)

The final case against football — that it “keeps people away from other things” — is at the heart of Chomsky’s critique of sports. It’s at the heart of his critique because soccer is taking people away from embracing Chomskyite politics or Chomskyite positions on today’s political situations and realities.

It can be said that Chomsky’s four points against football — or watching it — are all psychological in nature. They all refer to the negative psychological effects of watching football. He says himself that it “builds up extremely anti-social aspects of human psychology”. And, according to Chomsky, from these negative psychological realities follow negative political consequences. Or, as Chomsky puts it, sports (as well as soap operas) are “a major part of the whole indoctrination and propaganda system”. This means that football “keeps people away from other things” and that it contains “capitalist” or “elite” indoctrination and propaganda.

Chomsky on Soap Operas

Chomsky also talks about soap operas. (He often lumps sports and soap operas together.)

For example, Chomsky believes that soap operas “teach people… passivity and absurdity”. Do all soap operas really do that? Even the liberal-left (and sometimes outright leftwing) ones such as the BBC’s EastEnders? (I can’t speak for all — or any — American soaps.) And do all soaps “say” the same kinds of thing in the same kinds of way? Surely not. In fact surely you could quite easily have a Chomskyite soap opera; except for the small fact that it would probably be irredeemably dull, self-righteous and be little more than agitprop. But, of course, Chomsky believes that all soaps are (more or less) agitprop anyway. In other words, if soaps were pure Chomskyite agitprop, he wouldn’t be against them — no matter how “absurd” and “pacifying” they were because they would be so in ideologically-correct ways.

At the heart of Chomsky’s criticism of soaps — as well as of football — is the assumption that entertainment for entertainment’s sake is automatically and necessarily a bad thing. Indeed it probably is a bad thing from a Chomskyite perspective. If art or sport has no “political or social content” (as many leftwingers have argued in the past), then it’s worthless. In fact it’s worse than worthless: it’s politically dangerous. (That’s why the Soviet Union and all socialist/communist states got to work on the arts and indeed on sport.)

Finally, Bertolt Brecht puts the Chomskyite (as well as the Soviet) position on football and soaps this way:

“… social [i.e., political] content is an absolutely decisive condition for such development [of ‘artistic forms’]. Any formal innovation which does not serve and derive its justification from its social [political] content will remain utterly frivolous.”

*****************************************************************

*) Most of Chomsky’s words in this piece can be found in this link or in the book Understanding Power: the Indispensable Chomsky, edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel, 2002.)

Common Sense Now

The leading conservative publication on Medium

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store