Is the world’s top public intellectual a brilliant expositor of linguistics and the US’s duplicitous foreign policy? Or a reflexive anti-American, cavalier with his sources?
Robin Blackburn celebrates a courageous truth-teller to power
The huge vote for Noam Chomsky as the world’s leading “public intellectual” should be no surprise at all. Who could match him for sheer intellectual achievement and political courage?
Very few transform an entire field of enquiry, as Chomsky has done in linguistics. Chomsky’s scientific work is still controversial, but his immense achievement is not in question, as may be easily confirmed by consulting the recent Cambridge Companion to Chomsky. He didn’t only transform linguistics in the 1950s and 1960s; he has remained in the forefront of controversy and research.
The huge admiration for Chomsky evident in Prospect’s poll is obviously not only, or even mainly, a response to intellectual achievement. Rather it goes to a brilliant thinker who is willing to step outside his study and devote himself to exposing the high crimes and misdemeanours of the most powerful country in the world and its complicity with venal and brutal rulers across four continents over half a century or more.
Some believe—as Paul Robinson, writing in the New York Times Book Review, once put it—that there is a “Chomsky problem.” On the one hand, he is the author of profound, though forbiddingly technical, contributions to linguistics. On the other, his political pronouncements are often “maddeningly simple-minded.”
In fact, it is not difficult to spot connections between the intellectual strategies Chomsky has adopted in science and in politics. Chomsky’s approach to syntax stressed the economy of explanation that could be achieved if similarities in the structure of human languages were seen as stemming from biologically rooted, innate capacities of the human mind, above all the recursive ability to generate an infinite number of statements from a finite set of words and symbols. Many modern critics of the radical academy are apt to bemoan its disregard for scientific method and evidence. This is not a reproach that can be aimed at Chomsky, who has pursued a naturalistic and reductionist standpoint in what he calls, in the title of his 1995 volume, The Minimalist Programme.
Chomsky’s political analyses also strive to keep it simple, but not at the expense of the evidence, which he can abundantly cite if challenged. But it is “maddening” none the less, just as the minimalist programme may be to some of his scientific colleagues. The apparent straightforwardness of Chomsky’s political judgements—his “predictable” or even “kneejerk” opposition to western, especially US, military intervention—could seem simplistic. Yet they are based on a mountain of evidence and an economical account of how power and information are shared, distributed and denied. Characteristically, Chomsky begins with a claim of stark simplicity which he elaborates into an intricate account of the different roles of government, military, media and business in the running of the world.
Chomsky’s apparently simple political stance is rooted in an anarchism and collectivism which generates its own sense of individuality and complexity. He was drawn to the study of language and syntax by a mentor, Zellig Harris, who also combined libertarianism with linguistics. Chomsky’s key idea of an innate, shared linguistic capacity for co-operation and innovation is a positive, rather than purely normative, rebuttal of the Straussian argument that natural human inequality vitiates democracy.
Andersen’s tale of the little boy who, to the fury of the courtiers, pointed out that the emperor was naked, has a Chomskian flavour, not simply because it told of speaking truth to power but also because the simple childish eye proved keener than the sophisticated adult eye. I was present when Chomsky addressed Karl Popper’s LSE seminar in the spring of 1969 and paid tribute to children’s intellectual powers (Chomsky secured my admittance to the seminar at a time when my employment at the LSE was suspended).
As I recall, Chomsky explained how the vowel shift that had occurred in late medieval English was part of a transformation that resulted from a generational dynamic. The parent generation spoke using small innovations of their own, arrived at in a spontaneous and ad hoc fashion. Growing youngsters, because of their innate syntactical capacity, ordered the language they heard their parents using by means of a more inclusive grammatical structure, which itself made possible more systematic change.
In politics, the child’s eye might see right through the humanitarian and democratic claptrap to the dismal results of western military interventions—shattered states, gangsterism, narco-traffic, elite competition for the occupiers’ favour, vicious communal and religious hatred.
Chomsky openly admits he prefers “pacifist platitudes” to belligerent mendacity. This makes some wrongly charge that he is “passive in the face of evil.” But neither apartheid in South Africa, nor Stalinism in Russia, nor military rule in much of Latin America were defeated or dismantled by bombardment and invasion. Chomsky had no difficulty supporting the ultimately successful campaign against apartheid, or for the Indonesian withdrawal from East Timor. He simply opposes putting US soldiers in harm’s way—also meaning where they will do harm and acquire a taste for it.
Chomsky’s victory in a parlour game should not be overpitched. But, like Marx’s win earlier this year in the BBC Radio 4 competition for “greatest philosopher,” it shows that thinking people are still attracted by the critical impulse, above all when it is directed with consistency at the trend towards a global pensée unique. The Prospect/FP list was sparing in its inclusion of critics of US foreign policy, which may have increased Chomsky’s lead a little. But no change in the list would have made a difference to the outcome. The editors had misjudged the mood and discernment of their own readers.
Oliver Kamm deplores his crude and dishonest arguments
In his book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Richard Posner noted that “a successful academic may be able to use his success to reach the general public on matters about which he is an idiot.” Judging by caustic remarks elsewhere in the book, he was thinking of Noam Chomsky. He was not wrong.
Chomsky remains the most influential figure in theoretical linguistics, known to the public for his ideas that language is a cognitive system and the realisation of an innate faculty. While those ideas enjoy a wide currency, many linguists reject them. His theories have come under criticism from those, such as the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who were once close to him. Paul Postal, one of Chomsky’s earliest colleagues, stresses the tendency for the grandiloquence of Chomsky’s claims to increase as he addresses non-specialist audiences. Frederick Newmeyer, a supporter of Chomsky’s ideas until the mid-1990s, notes: “One is left with the feeling that Chomsky’s ever-increasingly triumphalistic rhetoric is inversely proportional to the actual empirical results that he can point to.”
Prospect readers who voted for Chomsky will know his prominence in linguistics, but are more likely to have read his numerous popular critiques of western foreign policy. The connection, if any, between Chomsky’s linguistics and his politics is a matter of debate, but one obvious link is that in both fields he deploys dubious arguments leavened with extravagant rhetoric—which is what makes the notion of Chomsky as pre-eminent public intellectual untimely as well as unwarranted.
Chomsky’s first book on politics, American Power and the New Mandarins (1969) grew from protest against the Vietnam war. But Chomsky went beyond the standard left critique of US imperialism to the belief that “what is needed [in the US] is a kind of denazification.” This diagnosis is central to Chomsky’s political output. While he does not depict the US as an overtly repressive society—instead, it is a place where “money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print and marginalise dissent”—he does liken America’s conduct to that of Nazi Germany. In his newly published Imperial Ambitions, he maintains that “the pretences for the invasion [of Iraq] are no more convincing than Hitler’s.”
If this is your judgement of the US then it will be difficult to credit that its interventionism might ever serve humanitarian ends. Even so, Chomsky’s political judgements have only become more startling over the past decade.
In The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many (1994), Chomsky considered whether the west should bomb Serb encampments to stop the dismemberment of Bosnia, and by an absurdly tortuous route concluded “it’s not so simple.” By the time of the Kosovo war, this prophet of the amoral quietism of the Major government had progressed to depicting Milosevic’s regime as a wronged party: “Nato had no intention of living up to the scraps of paper it had signed, and moved at once to violate them.”
After 9/11, Chomsky deployed fanciful arithmetic to draw an equivalence between the destruction of the twin towers and the Clinton administration’s bombing of Sudan—in which a pharmaceutical factory, wrongly identified as a bomb factory, was destroyed and a nightwatchman killed. When the US-led coalition bombed Afghanistan, Chomsky depicted mass starvation as a conscious choice of US policy, declaring that “plans are being made and programmes implemented on the assumption that they may lead to the death of several million people in the next couple of weeks… very casually, with no particular thought about it.” His judgement was offered without evidence.
In A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West (2000), Chomsky wryly challenged advocates of Nato intervention in Kosovo to urge also the bombing of Jakarta, Washington and London in protest at Indonesia’s subjugation of East Timor. If necessary, citizens should be encouraged to do the bombing themselves, “perhaps joining the Bin Laden network.” Shortly after 9/11, the political theorist Jeffrey Isaac wrote of this thought experiment that, while it was intended metaphorically, “One wonders if Chomsky ever considered the possibility that someone lacking in his own logical rigour might read his book and carelessly draw the conclusion that the bombing of Washington is required.”
This episode gives an indication of the destructiveness of Chomsky’s advocacy even on issues where he has been right. Chomsky was an early critic of Indonesia’s brutal annexation of East Timor in 1975 in the face of the indolence, at best, of the Ford administration. The problem is not these criticisms, but Chomsky’s later use of them to rationalise his opposition to western efforts to halt genocide elsewhere. (Chomsky buttresses his argument, incidentally, with a peculiarly dishonest handling of source material. He manipulates a self-mocking reference in the memoirs of the then US ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, by running separate passages together as if they are sequential and attributing to Moynihan comments he did not make, to yield the conclusion that Moynihan took pride in Nazi-like policies. The victims of cold war realpolitik are real enough without such rhetorical expedients.)
If Chomsky’s political writings expressed merely an idée fixe, they would be a footnote in his career as a public intellectual. But Chomsky has a dedicated following among those of university education, and especially of university age, for judgements that have the veneer of scholarship and reason yet verge on the pathological. He once described the task of the media as “to select the facts, or to invent them, in such a way as to render the required conclusions not too transparently absurd—at least for properly disciplined minds.” There could scarcely be a nicer encapsulation of his own practice.
The author is grateful for the advice of Bob Borsley and Paul Postal.