TCS Daily

Criticizing America

By Lee Harris - April 1, 2004 12:00 AM

Among the people who have generously taken the time and trouble to comment on my book, a few of them appear to be extremely annoyed that I did not criticize America for all the things that it has done wrong -- or, at least, for those enormities that are always sure to make the Top Ten list of anyone who has spent even a few hours in a college or junior college American history course. Why didn't I devote a chapter to the atrocities committed in the Philippines after the Spanish-American war -- one of the sentimental favorites of the any red-blooded Chomsky-ite?

Well, let me offer this anecdote as a justification of my omission.

A week after my book came out, a friend dragged me to the nearest Border's bookstore. Now what is interesting about this Border's is that it is located in Snellville, Georgia, the town that's celebrated for its boast that "everybody is somebody in Snellville." It is heavily Southern Baptist, and in the last election probably voted for George Bush by an overwhelming majority. In short, it is as American as apple pie and Chevrolet.

So we went to this Border's, where my friend, after a good bit of searching, finally discovered the obligatory one copy of my book on the shelf reserved for political science -- facing spine up, of course. Meanwhile I was standing at the front of the store, right where the friendly Border's staff sets out those long tables stacked high with best sellers, among which were prominently displayed piles of Noam Chomsky's most recent recycling of his anti-American diatribe, while next to this was Chalmers Johnson's latest lament about the tawdry depravity of the new American Empire. Though these stacks were nothing compared to the rows of Michael Moore's books that greeted you the moment you stepped through the door.

Now I am a firm believer in the usefulness of what Adam Smith called the division of labor. If you are going to make a simple pin, it is far better to divide the complex task of making this pin into a variety of even simpler tasks. This way each worker only needs to do one thing, and he quickly learns to do it very well, with the end result being an immense increase in the productivity of each of the individual workers. Whereas ten pin makers, each working on one pin, can produce 100 pins at the end of an hour, the division of labor multiplies this amount by many times -- and all because each worker sticks to doing what he knows best.

Seen in this light, can anyone doubt that Mr. Chomsky excels at telling what a menace America is to the world, or that Chalmers Johnson is a past master at lamenting America's loss of its pristine virtue? After all, simply look at how much practice these men have had sharpening their particular pins. How could a novice like me even hope to compete with them? Not to mention a worker like Michael Moore, always twisting his pin precisely the same way each time. Over and over again, these industrious and skilled workers perform exactly the same simple task -- no wonder they do it so well.

This explains too why they are so highly rewarded, both in terms of paychecks and in terms of praise; and it also explains why their wares are so prominently displayed for the public's attention in bookstores -- even in those parts of the world where they are more apt to be lynched than read.

But, this being so self-evidently the case, why on earth would anyone expect a humble drone such as me to try to compete with these masters of their craft? They have established a virtual Guild, and, like the Meistersingers of Wagner's opera, they are justifiably proud of their achievement.

At same time, there is a down side to all of this, and this too was pointed out by the same Adam Smith who first praised the division of labor. According to Smith, the unvarying performance of the same simple task over and over tends inevitably to create a kind of mental monotony approaching dullness even in the most skillful worker -- indeed, precisely in the most skillful worker.

Alas, I fear I have a long way to go before I reach this stage of perfection. And that is why I cannot complain about the obscure corner of the store in which my book was concealed. It is the price I must pay for being a mere amateur, and for being so inept at my one task that I am never quite sure that I have done it right, even after I have done it. Would you buy the pins of such an incompetent pin-maker?

Which allows me to address the question with which we began: Why didn't I spend time in my book criticizing America? Well, because there are people who are amply repaid for doing this very thing, and for doing it over and over and over, in exactly the same way each time. And who but a pinhead would try to compete with that?

Lee Harris is a TCS contributing editor. He recently wrote for TCS about Haiti and forgetfulness. His new book is Civilization and Its Enemies.


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