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So what’s the big deal guys? Chomsky, his friends and enemies… June 28, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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I’ve an uneasy relationship with Noam Chomsky – although, as with Madeleine Bunting, he doesn’t know me and couldn’t care less. I first read his works back in the late 1980s and was impressed, although not entirely convinced (being a good little pro-Soviet Marxist at the time) with his apparent thesis that the world’s ills devolved back to the US. I’d seen various Workers’ Party TDs et al with their CND pins, and their dislike of the US and it’s ‘militarism’, but oddly no clear problem with say Chinese or Soviet ‘militarism’. And that sort of thing tends to make a young lad cynical about the way the world really works. Hence my dislike for fetishistic and often one-sided displays of righteous moral indignation.

Another point that worried me, at the time, was the dichotomy between his apparently anarchistic ideology, yet oddly staunch (if indirect) support for statist regimes across the globe – however awful simply because…they’re not the US. Now, I don’t buy into anarcho-capitalism, but it strikes me that the US is much closer to a minimal state (and a better predictor of some of the negatives that might be implicit in a minarchy or most possible anarchies) than anywhere else on the globe, but I also wondered why he chooses to live in such an unhappy place.

However, he has on many occasions made interesting and pertinent observations about the relationship between power and the implementation of power. The US has been incredibly cynical in it’s machinations. It has allowed an uneasy, perhaps in some respects utterly corrupt relationship between corporate interests and national interests. The relationships it developed in Latin America with indigenous power-elites arguably stunted the development of democracy there by decades. The relationships developed in the Middle East, while from a strategic view necessary (and exactly the same as those developed by the USSR and other powers) were, as we’ve seen, counter-productive. And finally the lack of substance to the rhetoric of ‘democracy’ in these relationships has hobbled what should be the greatest asset it can deploy globally , that of an exemplar.

Yet, yet, yet. It’s all so one-sided. His world-view is entirely Manichean. The US is bad. All it’s works are bad. It’s much badder than anyone else. It’s a sort of reverse US supremacism. We’re the best! Cue wild cheers. At being bad! Cue more wild cheers…

His latest book ‘Failed States’ asserts that the US is now the ultimate er…’failed state’, hardly a new philosophical departure for him in the context of his previous work.

Two things also strike me. Chomsky is an academic. Which is good. But the basis for his academic credentials are not in the foreign policy studies or relations sphere which is something of a sideline, but in linguistics. That in and of itself is not a problem, but to my mind there has been an implicit projection of the latter part of his career being validated by the former. One doesn’t need to slip into faux-Chomskyian elision or conflation (such as the intriguing fact that the majority of those at the notorious SS Wannsee Conference in 1942, which was instrumental in the furtherance of the Final Solution, had MAs or PhDs) to believe that academic qualifications are not necessarily the only source of legitimation or indicator of intellectual brilliance. And intellectually brilliant he has been in the field of linguistics.

The other thing that strikes me is the absurdity of both his supporters and detractors. On the one hand we have letters as with today’s Irish Times where a fairly even handed review by Hugh Linehan of “Failed State” is eviscerated by a correspondent who explicitly proposes that the reason why Linehan (hardly the most conservative voice on the IT) “…finds some of Chomsky’s work so objectionable: it challenges these skewed narratives which journalists must internalise and defend in order to build careers in the mainstream media”. Well – yes and no. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with media studies, as Linehan clearly does, will not be entirely shielded from Marxist and other methodologies which elucidate the nature of state power, societal relationships and so on… Indeed the naivety of the charge indicates an interesting point made in another review of the book by Peter Beaumont in the Observer where he notes that “the Chomskian analysis has become the defining dissident voice of the blogosphere and a certain kind of far-left academia. So a sense of its integrity is crucial. It is obsessively well-read, but rather famished in original research, except when it is counting how often the liberal media say this or that in their search for hidden, and sometimes not-so-hidden, bias. Crucially, it is not interested in debate, because balance is a ruse of the liberal media elites used to con the dumb masses. Chomsky is essential to save you, dear reader, from the lies we peddle” (here).

And there you have it. As the letter writer to the Irish Times put it, Chomsky can’t be criticised because the act of criticism is in itself proof of the bias (or skewed narrative) of the person criticising. Now, the term Kafkaesque springs to mind…or as the Sex Pistols once so eloquently put it “No-one is innocent” and certainly no-one is above criticism.

Peter Beaumont is less favourable to Chomsky than Linehan, which is also interesting, since Beaumont is politically from almost precisely the same camp, being anti-Iraq War, and utterly cynical of US motivations.

On the other hand we have Oliver Kamm (and in passing it’s worth noting that this is a man who can use the phrase “Krauthammer’s superb op-ed” with no apparent irony) (here). Kamm is pursuing something of a one-man vendetta against Chomsky through his blog, picking over every word and sentence in order to point up inconsistencies and flaws. Recently he’s teamed up with Nick Cohen (someone who I’m becoming increasingly worried about) in order to complain about Chomsky on foot of the famous article in the Guardian which elicited quite a response – although I can’t seem to find it on their site and it appears to have been pulled.

One more voice to add to the mix is yet another letter writer in the Irish Times today, this time excoriating Chomsky, saying “Although there is insufficient space in a single letter to construct detailed arguments demonstrating the full extent of Chomsky’s impropriety, it has already been well documented for anyone caring to look, most recently in the previously mentioned Prospect article (“Against Chomsky”, November 2005). The fact alone that so many of Chomsky’s colleagues and peers object to his deeply flawed methodology deserves greater mention in Linehan’s review. The trait of deceit, in a would be scholarly work, is a disgrace”.

This is all very well, but I’d point to the fact that in serious foreign policy studies Chomsky isn’t taken seriously in the first place and his influence is minimal. Kamm and the writer to the Irish Times forget this. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing, considering the degree of inertia in that field is a different matter, but it’s telling in relation to the fuss and palaver which his every pronouncement is greeted with by both his detractors and supporters. As for being a scholarly work… in truth they’re more polemical than scholarly. That’s not a criticism because there is always a necessity for oppositional voices to be…well…oppositional.

Perhaps Beaumont puts it best when he notes that what he “finds most noxious about Chomsky’s argument is his desire to create a moral – or rather immoral – equivalence between the US and the greatest criminals in history. Thus on page 129, comparing a somewhat belated US conversion to the case for democracy in Iraq after the failure to find WMD, Chomsky claims: ‘Professions of benign intent by leaders should be dismissed by any rational observer. They are near universal and predictable, and hence carry virtually no information. The worst monsters – Hitler, Stalin, Japanese fascists, Suharto, Saddam Hussein and many others – have produced moving flights of rhetoric about their nobility of purpose.’ Which leads to a question: is that really what you see, Mr Chomsky, from the window of your library at MIT? Is it the stench of the gulag wafting over the Charles River? Do you walk in fear of persecution and murder for expressing your dissident views? Or do you make a damn good living out of it? The faults of the Bush administration will not be changed by books such as Failed States. They will be swept away by ordinary, decent Americans in the world’s greatest – if flawed and selfish – democracy going to the polls”.

I think it’s actually quite unfair to Chomsky to see him as being insincere, or simply in this for a ‘damn good living’ and perhaps Beaumont only use the term as a rhetorical flourish. But, there is a real problem for both the pro and anti-Chomsky side (and perhaps Chomsky himself). History will catch up with their delusions of the respective brilliance or malevolence of Chomsky when, as will inevitably happen, there is a change of power within the US, when the lessons of Iraq (long-predicted by the foreign policy studies community) filter through to the political elites, and when a more balanced assessment of a state which acts for the sometimes for the best of intentions and sometimes in the most cynical ways possible but in truth acts hardly better than some, and hardly worse than others, is finally made.

And yes, I’m entirely aware that this post in it’s miniscule way adds to that fuss and palaver, but for the mildly interested outsider there comes a point when one looks in and sees that it’s not just the King who is partially disrobed but everyone in the Royal Court…allies and adversaries…

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Comments»

1. joemomma - June 28, 2006

The Chomsky interview by Emma Brockes was removed from the Guardian’s web site as part of the fallout from Chomsky’s complaint about it (although I don’t believe anyone every specifically requested that it be sent down the memory hole). However you can read plenty of stuff about the whole episode on the web site, which probably makes the article seem a lot more momentous than it actually was.

On the substantive issue, I used to find Chomsky’s ideas intriguing and wished to subscribe to his newsletter. In fact I still do, but I wouldn’t bother reading any of his books. I think in the long term his more abstract ideas about international power relations, media control and so on will be seen as valuable. However his body of work on more specific international relations issues will probably not stand up so well.

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2. WorldbyStorm - June 28, 2006

It’s interesting, I’d have a very similar view. I think he has made some very valid insights, but that a predictability has set in in the past decade or so. Also it’s much more difficult once one has to make value judgements on specific contemporary instances of international relations. Then everyone has an axe to grind.

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3. badman - July 29, 2006

Or to paraphrase – “if he’s right then I really should do something about it. Better be a bit cynical about him so”.

Fucking liberals, any criticism accepted as long as it allows me my comfortable and intellectually self-gratified life.

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4. smiffy - July 29, 2006

Yeah, that’s not really a very good or accurate paraphrase of what was written above though, is it?

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5. WorldbyStorm - July 30, 2006

badman, you have no idea whether I am a liberal, nor whether I have a comfortable and intellectually self-gratified life. So let me enlighten you, the answers are: only to some degree, to some degree but not entirely so, hardly.

Nor are you paraphrasing what I’ve said above or, and I hesitate to speak for joemomma, what joemomma said. I made the – to me reasonable point – that above and beyond his detractors and supporters Chomsky, who has made some valid contributions, has become somewhat predictable and the application of some of his thought to contemporary issues is problematical. I’ve always been a bit cynical about him since I first read him in the 1980s for the reasons outlined above – but enjoyed his polemical aspect. As a dull old (Irish) WP member I was wary of the utopian socialist tradition but also aware of the contradictions between those who preached peace but were willing to align themselves in part with countries with vast militaries…etc…etc. I’m not blaming Chomsky for the latter, but noted his concentration on US policy and actions over say Soviet and other policies and actions. Which is fair enough since he was – as it were – within the belly of the beast.

Do I think he’s ‘right’ and does that lead me to thing ‘I really should do something about it’? Again the answers would be: in part and no because I’m already doing my part in my daily life politically and in my work to support a broad range of those who challenge consensus – any consensus – from both left and right.

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