Noam Chomsky said in an interview once that the style of his polemics is, as numerous critics contend, turgid--because in order to get a hearing, he has to check and double-check his facts and footnote them meticulously--his critics are able to ignore facts at will, because they're writing from an accepted consensus view, and that leaves more latitude for spriteliness of style.
This is too harsh a self-judgment. Actually Chomsky's a far better than average stylist. Certainly he's a far more than averagely concise writer, though I recollect the opposite being alleged by a newspaper columnist once. It's an odd complaint to come from that quarter--I can count on the fingers of one hand the newspaper columnists I've read who are not tediously verbose, and this columnist was by no means one of those fingers. Even odder was the sentence he quoted to demonstrate this fault. It was a remark made in an interview, and few of us are as concise in speech as in writing, but I tried three times, and failed, to rework the sentence so that it said all that Chomsky had said, in fewer words. I wonder what the columnist thought concise actually meant?
There is one serious weakness in Chomsky's style, which he's acknowledged, but only by projection. A couple of times I recollect him saying that some recent move in the giddy whirl of power politics with its casual exterminations and cynical justifications "would have been too much even for the irony of Swift." They're certainly too much for Chomsky in one respect; he's able to apprehend these killing ironies comprehensively enough, and detail them. But he's certainly not able to make his indignation stand out unforgettably through persistent savaging wit, nor to sum up an enormity in one sharp sudden epiphet that pops the vanity of its perps. This is a weakness Swift conspicuously lacked.
(A weakness he lacked; I seriously need a coffee; ah well, let it stand.)
Swift said of the one Lord Lieutenant of Ireland he personally esteemed: "No one ever ruined a nation with greater reluctance." He could drop into a paragraph, as a throwaway line, the rhetorical question: "Is this an age of Man to consider a crime improbable merely because it is great?" With that gift for slashing wit he combined as meticulous a habit of checking, re-checking, cross-checking, double-, triple- and quadruple-checking his facts as any journalist or historian could ever boast, though he never did himself--simply regarded it as the bare minimum of integrity serious writing required.
Michael Moore, in relation to Swift, has roughly the opposite balance of weaknesses and strengths. While I'd certainly never accuse him of Swftian irony at the top of his form, he's able to give a vivid comic shape to his indignation. What he conspicuously lacks is Swift's passion to attack as vigorously and directly as occasion warrants, but never at the cost of fuzzy thinking or avoidable misrepresentation.
C 2007 Martin Heavisides