This method is applied with particular aggression to those who engage in any meaningful dissent against the society's most powerful factions and their institutions. Nixon White House officials sought to steal the files from Daniel Ellsberg's psychoanalyst's office precisely because they knew they could best discredit his disclosures with irrelevant attacks on his psyche. Identically, the New York Times and partisan Obama supporters have led the way in depicting both Bradley Manning and Julian Assange as mentally unstable outcasts with serious personality deficiencies. The lesson is clear: only someone plagued by mental afflictions would take such extreme steps to subvert the power of the US government.
A subtler version of this technique is to attack the so-called "style" of the critic as a means of impugning, really avoiding, the substance of the critique. Although Paul Krugman is comfortably within mainstream political thought as a loyal Democrat and a New York Times columnist, his relentless attacks against the austerity mindset is threatening to many. As a result, he is barraged with endless, substance-free complaints about his "tone": he is too abrasive, he does not treat opponents with respect, he demonizes those who disagree with him, etc. The complaints are usually devoid of specifics to prevent meaningful refutation: one typical example: " [Krugman] often cloaks his claims in professional authority, overstates them, omits arguments that undermine his case, and is a bit of a bully"). All of that enables the substance of the critique to be avoided in lieu of alleged personality flaws.
Nobody has been subjected to these vapid discrediting techniques more than Noam Chomsky. The book on which I'm currently working explores how establishment media systems restrict the range of acceptable debate in US political discourse, and I'm using Chomsky's treatment by (and ultimate exclusion from) establishment US media outlets as a window for understanding how that works. As a result, I've read a huge quantity of media discussions about Chomsky over the past year. And what is so striking is that virtually every mainstream profile or discussion of him at some point inevitably recites the same set of personality and stylistic attacks designed to malign his advocacy without having to do the work to engage the substance of his claims. Notably, these attacks come most frequently and viciously from establishment liberal venues, such as when the American Prospect's 2005 foreign policy issue compared him to Dick Cheney on its cover (a cover he had framed and now proudly hangs on his office wall).
Last week, Chomsky was in London to give the annual Edward W. Said lecture, and as always happens when he speaks, the large auditorium was filled to the brim, having sold out shortly after it was announced. The Guardian's Aida Edemariam interviewed him in London and produced an article, published Saturday morning, that features virtually all of those standard stylistic and personality critiques:
"When he starts speaking, it is in a monotone that makes no particular rhetorical claim on the audience's attention; in fact, it's almost soporific . . . . Within five minutes many of the hallmarks of Chomsky's political writing, and speaking, are displayed: his anger, his extraordinary range of reference and experience . . . . . Fact upon fact upon fact, but also a withering, sweeping sarcasm – the atrocities are 'tolerated politely by Europe as usual'. Harsh, vivid phrases – the 'hideously charred corpses of murdered infants'; bodies 'writhing in agony' – unspool until they become almost a form of punctuation.