What's wrong with Chomsky?
To talk about Chomsky’s coldness seems trivial, but I think it is crucially important. What Chomsky demonstrates is common amongst idealists: love of humanity, hatred of humans. The moment this came home to me was when Rage Against the Machine asked Chomsky about his taste in music.
TM: Are you a fan of any particular kind of music, and can we play a request for you? NC: If I told you what my tastes where, it would shock you.
TM: Oh no, you go right ahead. Shock me.
NC: Almost nothing. I am very much restricted to things in my childhood or before. Far before.
TM: Our CD catalog is pretty large, try me.
NC: I wouldn't even know what to say. Beethovens Late Quartets.
TM: Anything in R&B or pop music. Anything that rings a bell?
NC: I am so ignorant, it isn't even worth asking me. I sort of knew something when my kids were around, but that's a lot of years ago.
More well known is his denunciation of sport.
“Sports plays a societal role in engendering jingoist and chauvinist attitudes. They're designed to organize a community to be committed to their gladiators.”[ref]
Sport is “a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements -- in fact, it's training in irrational jingoism. That's also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that's why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.”[ref]
These two prejudices of Chomsky reveal his fundamentally elitist worldview, his distaste for the messy reality of ordinary human beings. You never read human stories in his books. People are just pawns manipulated by the great powers, sponges uncritically absorbing the lies told to them by Fox News, nameless innocentmenwomenandchildren to be mowed down by the evil empire and stacked up anonymously in a bodycount to be compared dispassionately to some other bodycount.
(On Chomsky’s anti-humanism: Compare Lenin. Contrast Orwell or CLR James.)
2. False scholarship and performing intelligence
I do not believe in the notion that the scholar should be impartial, neutral, disengaged, objective. The model of the scholar as white-coated scientist, standing above the hurly-burly of politics, is an illusion. I therefore have no problem with Chomsky using his academic status in order to gain the platform to act politically. In fact, like C Wright Mills or Hannah Arendt, I see political engagement as a far higher value than academic scholarship.
My problem is the way that Chomsky exploits the myth of academic objectivity and expertise. Through his mastery of the codes of academic speech, he has perfected the art of giving his pronouncements a veneer of ‘facticity’. He never uses the first person; he peppers his work with quotations, references and footnotes; he liberally sprinkles his work with numbers and statistics and factoids. This is an elitist rhetorical strategy, designed to bolster his authority as an author. We can call it scholasticism, rather than scholarship.
For those on his side who are unable to think for themselves, he appears to have done the thinking for them. For those who disagree with him, they find themselves up against a sheer glass cliff of fact and argument, impossible to challenge. When someone – like Oliver Kamm – takes the trouble to look up the references, though, or decipher the stats, they often turn out to be far shakier than Chomsky lets on.
Chomsky’s performance of scholarship and his coldness are, I believe, related on a deep level. His disregard for humans in favour of an abstract humanity fits well with his scholastic cultivation of dispassionate, fact- and number-heavy prose in his books.
Chomsky’s linguistic theory, which stresses innate human capacity to acquire language, sits squarely in an Enlightenment rationalist tradition that goes back to Descartes, which stresses the individual's rational capacities, tied to a theory of the innateness of knowledge. This philosophical tradition has flowed into classical liberal political theory, as exemplified in Voltaire’s thought and in the some of the documents of America’s Founders. One of the key elements in this rationalist liberal Enlightenment worldview is the doctrine of Free Speech.
For Free Speech fundamentalists, the right to speak freely is the highest of values. For some critics of Free Speech fundamentalism, free speech is one among many rights, and must be balanced against them, but also against our responsibilities as citizens. Thus Chomsky has fallen foul of anti-fascists and anti-racists who see the right to free speech as balanced against the right to live free of racist or fascist violence. Anti-fascists see Chomsky’s defence of genocide-deniers’ “right” to speak as placing freedom of speech above the lives of those who have died in the genocides denied – and the lives at risk from future acts of violence which denial makes more possible.
(Other critics of Free Speech fundamentalism stress instead the contingency of rights and the social construction of the ways we speak. Thus Chomsky and Foucault’s antagonism to each other. But that’s a different story.)
The liberal free speech doctrine complements Chomsky’s rationalist conception of the role of the intellectual – himself – as exemplar of humanity’s rational capacities. And again, Chomsky’s ultra-liberalism fits well with his moral coldness. To place an abstract morality of free speech above the suffering of real people, which is the essence of Free Speech fundamentalism, is pretty cold.
Increasingly in Chomsky’s writings, we find a manichean worldview – an evil ‘West’ against the innocent rest. ‘The West’, America, Zionism and capitalism have, over time, come to be more or less equivalent terms in Chomsky’s vocabulary. Anything evil you can name, Chomsky will either somehow trace it back to ‘The West’, or else compare it to the crimes of ‘The West’ and find it somehow less evil: “Yes, but we armed him.” “Yes, but that’s not as bad as that massacre we committed.” “Yes, but the real terrorist is America.” “Yes, but this is the chickens coming home to roost.”
This manicheanism means Chomsky is willing to use the language of moral judgment about actions by ‘the West’, but not about actions by the rest. His books talk about the My Lai massacre and “huge terror operations” perpetrated by America in Vietnam, but not about ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. At times, this can amount to pursuing double standards. At worst, it relativises, contextualises away, apologises for and excuses some of the most evil acts our time has seen. It is in this frame that we have to view his minimising away of Pol Pot’s genocide, of Osama’s attacks on New York, of the Serbian violence against Bosnians – and his defence of those who minimise genocide even more radically than he ever does, such as Faurisson or LM.
Once again, we can see this worldview as fundamentally disrespectful to human life, in the name of an abstract humanity. Those killed at Kishinev become a mere footnote – “only 49”; those who died in the Twin Towers become mere collateral damage.
5. Slippage from vulgar materialism to conspiracy theory
The fifth problem I have with Chomsky is the ontology that underlies his work. This used to be a version of what Marxists call “vulgar materialism”: the crude determinism that traces all human events back to economic causes. (The most prevalent version of vulgar materialism these days is the idiotic “blood for oil” psuedo-analysis of the Iraq wars.) This vulgar materialism has animated Chomsky’s truly impressive analyses of the political economy of the mass media and of the political economy of modern warfare. Increasingly, though, this vulgar materialism seems to give way in Chomsky’s writing to the vulgar materialism of fools: conspiracy theory.
When Chomsky portrays a gullible citizenry manipulated by a sophisticated web (I don’t think he’s actually ever used the word “cabal”) of shadowy financiers, media moguls and military strategists, he is sustaining a view of the world based on conspiracy theory. Hence the enthusiastic take-up of his work by people who think 9/11 didn’t happen or was a Mossad plot, the people who think Srebrenica or the massacre of Kosovan Albanians was fabricated, the people who see the Project for a New American Century as the latter-day Elders of Zion.
Again, this vulgar materialist/conspiracy theory mentality reflects his utter lack of respect for ordinary people, who are reduced to pawns in the power games of the mighty.
6. Chomsky as brand
Finally, in addition to these five issues, I am suspicious of Chomsky for the way he has become a star, a brand even. Chomskyites like to think of their guru as an archetype of “dissent”, as voicing something repressed from the “mainstream” media. Yet look in any bookstore, pick up any broadsheet, you will find it remarkably easy to access Chomsky’s views. Chomsky, like Michael Moore, is a hot commodity, and the ease with which capital commodifies and recuperates them for the market makes me suspicious. But that is not a fair criticism, as it is not a criticism of Chomsky, but rather of what is done with Chomsky – it is a problem not of Chomsky but of the culture of celebrity and branding and bullshit in which Chomsky seems to sit so easily.
Further reading: Norman Johnson: Yes, this appeaser was once my hero, Oliver Kamm: Chomsky and that 'correction', MA Hoare: Chomsky's Srebrenica Shame - and The Guardian's..., To the Tooting Station: Ecstasies of predictive despondency