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
Previous: Chomsky the revisionist?, Chomsky's coldness, The company Chomsky keeps
Trackback: On the Main Line sez: On לא-Noam Chomsky: BobFromBrockley hits it out of the ballpark.
But liking the late Beethoven Quartets over anything that "Rage Against The Machine" might like is a point in his favour in my book, and anything but "cold".
The fact he's interested in music at all is a surprise.
The fact that someone thinks this artical 'hits it out of the park' makes it even more laughable.
Now THAT is a well reasoned argument.
Your criticism of Chomsky for his "coldness" is a cricism of all social analysis; you would probably also confuse someone with Asperger's Syndrome with a socipath. Chomsky's analysis might be faulty, but his reasons just imply use of a brain.
My view of Chomsky's politics is that he is "professionally paranoid", but he deserves countervailing analysis, not hate.
P.s. I think his earlier works in particular are great and lots more is worth reading!
Coldness? Some people just don't relate to music: I know a couple of people who say music leaves them cold but they are far from cold themselves as individuals. I think this is just a non sequiteur. To relate his style to Lenin's dictatorial output is sheer nonsense. It sounds like you are using Lenin as an evil icon to demonise Chomsky. Sport: Well, I would mostly agree with what Chomsky says about it in your quote, because sport in our society has nothing to do with the messy lives of individuals. It's is a highly organised business and promoted by the state through the school system. It is the institution he is criticising. You seem to be denigrating him somehow because he is not a fan of popular culture. Can't make sense of that. Scholasticism? - (as you term it). It was the required style of acedemics of Chomsky's generation. But even so, in his talks and interviews, he often makes personal 'I' statements, so I don 't think you are being very accurate there. Maniceanism: Chomsky is a polemicist. The whole of the Western media and establishment are committed to the idea of the Western state as being fundamentally benign. He takes a position in oppostion to this as a counterwieght. And he frequently makes disclaimers about taking a manichean pro-terrorist (or whatever) position. Though, I agree with you, like many anarchists he does sometimes drift into seeming to support some horror-mongers because of his anti-western focus. He focuses his attacks on the American government, he says, because he is an American and as such, is in a position to do something about it.
'Coldness' is a wide-open term that ranges from lack of personal warmth to totalitarian vision. The left is often totalitarian in its worldview - very much agree - but the two things are not the same and don't necessarily have the same origins.
So must disagree. :-)
You are both right that love of music is not necessarily an indicator of humanity. My father is one of the most deeply humane people I know, but could happily live in a world with no music. And nor should love of sports be taken on its own as an indicator of humanity - I am not exactly the biggest sports person out there. Nonetheless, I think Chomsky is, like many intellectuals and many leftists, a deeply cold person and in his case I think there is a relationship between his utter lack of interest in popular culture, including music and sport, and this lack of interest in individual humans.
It is true, as well, that sport in capitalist culture is "a highly organised business and promoted by the state through the school system", as Hud says. But that is not all it is. The men and women who walk past my house after work to play 5-a-side in the public playing fields at the end of my street are not stooges in some mass culture plot; sport is central to their "messy reality", as I put it, and to show contempt for them, as Chomsky does (and Hud does) is unhumane.
Scholasticism was indeed the required style for acacedemics of his generation. But many escaped it - C Wright Mills, Howard Becker and Erving Goffman sprang to my mind. And there is a difference between being scholastic in a text about structural linguistics for a specialist audience and being scholastic in a text about geo-politics for a mass audience.
Waht Chomsky does is performs scholarship, by an overdose of footnotes and high-blown language, brow-beating less well-read people into trusting him as an authority, even though frequently his scholarship on international affairs turns out to be paper thin. In his talks and interviews, to be sure, it is true he "makes personal 'I' statements", but that hardly contradicts my point about his general style.
Manicheanism: Yes, Chomsky is a polemicist and over-stating one's case for effect is a legitimate thing to do from time to time. But my problem is not with the polemic, but with the analysis behind it. Once, Chomsky provided a subtle and sophsiticated analysis of how global capital, big states and the capitalist media work. But over time, the nuances have faded away, making him an increasingly unreliable guide to world affairs -- just at the very moment that he has become an increasingly heavily used guide to world affairs.
Finally, I have to confess I have never read Nabokov, though I did watch The Luzhin Defense on DVD the other night. I acknowledge this as a massive gap in my intellectual life - as testified to the many people I love and respect who are Nabokov fans.
Thanks for the reply, I wasn't expecting it. LOL, Male by the way. 'Hud' is an old and once common nickname for Richard.
But you now have me really puzzled. If you think that there is no necessary relationship between a dislike of popular culture and what you call 'coldness' and yet still think that there is a particular connection between these two things in Chomsky's case, I would be really interested to know what you think the nature of that connection is, and as it is particular to him, how you would know.
I'm asking this partly because you piqued me somewhat by referring at one point to my supposed contempt for the people who walk past your house to play 5-a-side football. I'd like on this point to tell you that you are talking nonsense. As this implies you have a tendency to make rash statements, and have also demonstrated such bad judgement of character in my own case(as I'd like to think :-)) that makes me wonder what that says about your judgements on Chomsky - or anyone else.
I agree with you up to a point on the inappropriateness of Chomsky's style for a mass audience and I certainly do not take his accuracy or veracity for granted, and yet his style is not impenetrable for anyone who wants to take the trouble to validate (or otherwise) what he says. At least he references his sources which is rather more than any popular journalist regularly does. Would you make a similar criticism of most journalism (aimed at an equally if not more 'popular' audience) which, for quite other reasons is even more impenetrable than Chomsky's? (Just trying to work out what the background agenda is here.)
I would still take issue with you, over your caricature of Chomsky's view that people are 'stooges in some mass culture plot'. It is a simple fact that your cultural behaviour and mine will have a lot more in common with each other than either will have to say that of say a Tibetan monk or an Indian hill farmer. A love of football, European style, may be personal to the individual, but it is deeply structured by the culture it comes from and it is inseparable from the economcic and social forces that act upon all of us.
There are many levels of social organisation and reducing everything to the personal is to relinquish any hope of understanding the world around us - which, if I read you right, is the ultimate conclusion to be drawn from your comments.
(By the way, the word 'mass' as in 'mass culture' has always been used as a pejorative and elitist term.)
Chomsky, as far as I can see, is a long way from a conspiracy theorist. And his focus on institutions not individuals is perfectly legitimate, because human society has many different levels of organisation.
If you are aiming your criticisms at the 'cold' authoritarinism of much of the left then we probably have much to agree on. But reference to an unqualified 'coldness' in itself, even if accurate, demonstrates nothing. And that is because at a much broader level, Chomsky's reasoning and accuracy will stand or fall by an analysis of his reasoning and accuracy, not by the making of ad hominem attacks on the man's personality.
I agree with you that there is no intrinsic connection between dislike of popular culture and sport and an authoritarian outlook, and that these features in Chomsky cannot be taken as proof of anything deeper. And clearly I overstated my case in calling you contemptuous of the 5-a-siders (in a "polemical" manichean style maybe!).
However, his anti-sports anti-music stance seems to me iconic of a feature of Chomsky that niggled at me whenever I saw him on TV or read his writings, even when I was a big fan of him. I feel an absence of interest in ordinary people, in their lives, in their sufferings, their hopes, their joys. This is not something I could possibly prove, precisely because it manifests as an absence. (I am not arguing for a reduction to the personal, just for an inclusion of the personal.)
I think this is serious, because I think that a love of humanity that is not accompanied by, say, a liking for (at least an interest in) actual humans has a theological quality to it which, I think, can lead easily to a willingness to sacrifice ordinary humans for the sake of humanity-in-general.
Obviously, Chomsky, lacking the power of other misanthropic "humanists" like, say, Pol Pot or Lenin (to, again, overstate my case), is not in a position to actually literally sacrifice them. (Although, thinking about it, Ted K (the Unabomber) was quite powerless and had a similar pathology...) But by sacrificing them to keep his theoretical edifice coherent, he gives intellectual ballast to a broader authoritarian stream of leftist thought. Does that make sense?
I don't actually think his style is inappropriate, exactly, for a mass audience. He is very articulate and clear to any minimally educated or minimally intelligent listener. This is one thing that drew me to him, when I first encountered him. I think his style is far from impenetrable. And, yes, he references his claims, making it easier to check out what he says, which is admirable.
The problem I have with him is not his inaccessibility, but the way he presents with the trappings of, the symbols of, academic expertise - and, indeed, gets a lot of his credibility from being such an expert on linguistics, at such a high prestige institute - in such a way that people, especially semi-educated people like I was when I first encountered him, just accept what he says as authoritative.
But behind these trappings, I believe, there often turns out to be poor scholarship, misquotation, selective use of the facts, manipulation of the data. Of course, popular journalists and other commentators do these things too, but it is worse when they are done by someone who passes himself off in such a scholarly way.
You are right, too, that a focus in the analysis of geopolitics on institutions not individuals is absolutely proper. As a materialist myself, it is the approach I would take. But in recent years, Chomsky’s focus on institutions has narrowed to an increasingly simplistic narrative of an American power elite. At times, its simplicity veers into fairly benign conspiracy theory of the “blood for oil” type (which should be contrasted to more rigorous materialist accounts, such as those of the Retort group, or the Aufheben group, or Loren Goldner). So, increasingly, Chomsky’s “reasoning and accuracy” no longer stands up to “an analysis of his reasoning and accuracy”.
And, in the simplicity and Manichean presentation, this benign vulgar materialism gives succour to more malignant forms of conspiracy theories, which is why you find material from Chomsky on so many websites which use phrases like “new world order” or “neocon cabal” or vague mutterings about Leo Strauss - or even phrases like “ZOG” or the nonsense of the 9/11 Truth Cult.
Finally, on the dupes of mass culture issue. Of course, our cultural tastes are shaped and constrained by the broader social contexts in which we live. Culture is never purely autonomous. But any account of culture which cannot see the enormous creativity of ordinary people, the creativity which constantly bubbles up in, for example, urban subcultures or black music or stand-up comedy or graffiti or witty football chants, is a deficient one. And deficient not just intellectually, in analysis, but deficient morally and politically because it demonstrates contempt for this creativity.
There isn't a lot in your last reply that I would disagree with, except (if disagree is the right word for what appears to be a very personal perspective) the original issue of 'coldness.'
If I think about this, what bothers me is that the concept is so general that it allows all sorts of very different things to rattle around inside it and be shoved together (in a polemical, ad hoc-ish sort of way) when they really ought to be kept apart.
And to be honest, I don't find Chomsky 'cold' at all. He's not effusive, but he always comes across as quite amiable to me. I have seen him rattled once or twice and then the signs of the vanity and egotism that lurk below the surface emerge. But these to my mind are very human very forgivable traits (and suggest insecurity rather than thick-skinned arrogance.) They are very different, for instance, from the quite repulsive hard-headed authoritarianism that I experience when I read Lenin or Trotsky, say.
Authoritarian arrogance (AA) is what bothers me, not 'coldness'. And I think that is my point: AA is cold, but cold ain't necessarily AA.
For me, it all comes down to the issue of genuine democratic principle. In my view, you don't have to be a populist to be a democrat. And I think, despite his supposed 'coldness,' and perhaps even despite his own personality (who knows?) Chomsky is (or at least appears to be) a democrat. Given that, I don't really mind if he isn't warm and cuddly (to be grossly, polemically manichean about this.)
What I appreciate about the man is the way that he makes radical ideas very accessible to a wide audience. Yes, his analysis is often a very simplistic 'logical moralism,'(though I sometimes wonder if that is a deliberate attempt to keep things popular) and yes, it is based on a (to my mind) shallow analysis of power, and yes, he is not always reliable in his facts - but even allowing for all that, I think his is a very necessary voice in the world - and I continue to think that even though I frequently disagree with him, sometimes profoundly.
Anyway, enough of this. This is your blog and I'm conscious of using up swathes of it. Good to talk.
A complaint you make about this kind of misrepresentation pretty much leaves it open to criticize the same kind of misrepresentation anywhere else, which is rife.
All in all, I would say Chomsky has been a brilliant success. I don't give a whit about his politics, or the quotes, but his willingness to say what gets glossed over is what I read for.
Chomsky doesn't say anything about conspiracies, but merely reiterates that people act in their own best interests, and that we should expect them to. We SHOULD be critical of what the wealthy and powerful tell us is the truth. We SHOULD be standing up for our own interests, and we should reject the notion that everything in the world is so complicated that no one could possibly understand it.
Yes, particularly from rich, disingenuous linguistics professors with a record of revisionism, apologism and negationism of extremists and totalitarian regimes.
And especially when they insist that such totalitarian-collectivist philosophies are the "best interest" for everyone.
Whatever Chomsky's failings (and there are many, although unlike Bob I think he's also done some very useful work), I don't think "fuck my neighbour" is a useful replacement.
I also think "totalitarian-collectivist" is a thoroughly wrong term for him.
My view on Chomsky is that he's no worse than most academics, probably better than a fair few. The main issue with him is his repeated drift into liberalism.
That (along with the whole US obsession with the mythical 'free speech' canard) is what I think lead to the infamous defence of a Holocaust denier.
In fact, the motivation for his work is exclusively to relieve people of suffering; as the U.S. is the most powerful state in the world, much of the suffering in the world happens to be inflicted by it. Our doctrinal system (the media and the government and corporations that dominate it) largely obfuscates this fact, so he feels he has to inform people about what is happening as a first step on the way to ending the suffering inflicted on people by the U.S. and its clients. This hardly shows a "hatred of humans."
Furthermore, he himself has frequently said that the U.S. is not particularly more malevolent than other states; all states behave more or less the same, it's just that the U.S. happens to be the most powerful, so it does the most harm. Also, he, being an American, feels it his duty to take responsibility for what it does. Add to this that fact that the crimes committed by the U.S. and its clients are either ignored or downplayed by the media, and you have a very compelling reason to offer criticism and denouncement of them.
Also, to claim that he is "cold" because he prefers Beethoven to modern pop music falls apart after 15 seconds of examination. I suppose there is nothing wrong with expressing how he strikes you as a person, but as a criticism of him as a scholar/activist, this is also irrelevant, even if it were true.
The problem with Chomsky is that he always seems to be pushing some kind of political agenda. He therefore comes across as a bit of a kook whose opinions I distrust. His glass is always deplorably half-empty, never being able to see any positive in anything. It's not so much that he's "wrong", but his views come across as highly distorted.