On the Clinton Scandal

Noam Chomsky

ZNet, The Ottawa Citizen and The Boston Phoenix, September, 1998 – Apirl, 1999

Source: ChomskyChat forum on ZNet:

CHOMSKY (09/19/98): Thoughts on Clinton situation (several queries, comments)

The issues themselves are too ridiculous to discuss. As in the case of Watergate or Iran-contra (where at least some real crimes were allowed to enter the periphery — very remote periphery — of discussion), the interesting questions have to do with the way the issues are being framed and presented. In this case, there’s a contrast between elite opinion and public opinion that is so stark that it’s received a good deal of mainstream comment: the topic is an elite affair (media elite, political class, etc.). The population generally has not been much interested, and has indicated long ago that they’ve had more than enough of it and want to go on to important things. By now, with the huge PR onslaught and the exploitation of the pornographic aspects, that’s probably changed. But in general the public reaction has seemed to me rather sane. As to what motivates elites, that’s a different matter: surely not the enormity of the crimes, surely not in comparison with others that can be brought up easily enough.

A natural suggestion is [what] someone describes as my “theory”: “that scandals serve as a kind of big public distractions, and that this is the result of the system, and not some conspiracy hatched in some back room.” I wouldn’t call it a theory; too hifalutin a term. Rather, an elementary observation, often valid. In this case I’m not convinced it’s the main story. The reasons may be more psycho-cultural in this case, I suspect, apart from the obvious political purposes of the fanatic right (not most of the mainstream business world, I think, who generally don’t like these types).


Source: The Ottawa Citizen, September 24, 1998:

… Of the current Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Chomsky pointed out that while the media and educated classes are obsessed with the issue, he and the general public couldn’t care less. “It means I save a lot of time,” he said. “I don’t have to read the first 15 pages of the New York Times.”


Source: ChomskyChat forum on ZNet:

CHOMSKY (9/26/98): Query about my statement that “The reasons may be more psycho-cultural in this case, I suspect…”, referring to the fascination of elite opinion (media elites, political class, intellectuals, etc.) with tawdry details of Clinton’s affairs, in which the public apparently has little or no interest.

We can be confident that it is not Clinton’s crimes that concern elite opinion (or Nixon’s, or Reagan’s). On that the facts are overwhelming, and I’m sure we agree. It’s also plain from polls that the public is on a totally different planet. So what’s going on?

On that we can only speculate, of course. My guess is that one factor, maybe a large one, is a pathetic streak of obsessive fascination with pornography and a love/fear relation to power. Nice educated folk don’t look at X-rated films (at least, while anyone is watching). But now they can do so, meanwhile posturing as very serious. Furthermore, the actors are folks in high places, which apparently adds to the titillation. A tempting feast for various pathologies.

Speculation, but I suspect that’s part of the story.


Source: “Who Runs America?”, The Boston Phoenix, April 1, 1999

[…T]take an unimportant issue, namely the one that has dominated the news for the last year: the silly scandals in Washington. Now, they’re an absolute obsession with elites. Educated elites across the spectrum have been completely obsessed with it. Journals, television, everything. The public was not interested; they wanted them to stop it a year ago. In fact, the split between public opinion and elite obsession became so extreme that it even aroused some commentary, which is unusual. But that was extremely clear. The elite could not get enough of the soft porn, and the public didn’t care. If they wanted soft porn they could find it somewhere else. And they wanted Congress and the executive to get on to some serious business. I mean, who cares if some guy had an affair?