chomsky Since language and politics are two of the blogosphere’s favourite topics, readers might like to know that there’s a profile of Noam Chomsky that deals with both subjects in this week’s New Yorker (not available, alas, in the online edition ).

Chomsky has recently alienated many of his supporters on the political left. He refuses, for example, to talk about his opposition to war in terms of morality, and focuses purely on whether it is reasonable to achieve the intended result. His opposition to the war on Iraq is therefore predicated on these ‘facts’: (a) Few countries have ever (and America has never) successfully replaced a country’s regime with one more acceptable to the people of that country. Only internal, civil revolutions have been successful in doing this (e.g. Marcos, Duvalier, Suharto, Ceausescu). (b) Iraq is an artificial construct imposed by the British, which means the only regimes likely to find enduring favour with the local populace are those that the U.S. could not tolerate (e.g. a Shiite muslim state closely allied with the similar state in Iran, and a Kurdish state allied with a break-away Turkish Kurdish state). Chomsky was recently in Turkey using his influence for the successful release of a Kurdish journalist charged with treason (for publishing Chomsky’s articles condemning Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds).

Chomsky seems to be as inept in many of his actions as he is brilliant in his thoughts. He inadvertently lent his name and his credibility to an anti-Semitic tract when he defended the author’s rights to free speech (his quote appeared as an ‘endorsement’ on the offensive book’s cover). His book on 9/11 has been vilified for its moral indifference: He compared the 9/11 attacks to Clinton’s bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant (the U.S. suspected it was a chemical weapons plant, and because of the error several thousand people died as a result of not getting their medicines). Regardless of intent or morality, he argued, neither attack could reasonably have been expected to have accomplished its objectives with minimal risk, so they were equally indefensible.

He has alienated many people in his field of linguistics as well. He has radically changed his basic thinking on the subject three times, each time turning his back contemptuously on supporters of his previous theories. He still believes that language is hard-wired in the brain (which is why babies learn it so easily, and ‘wild children’ who don’t learn language by adolescence spend the rest of their lives illiterate and culturally disconnected from the rest of the human race). He believes all human languages are intimately connected and remarkably and inevitably alike, although he has seemingly given up on the holy grail of a universal ‘proto-language’ or syntax. A passionate anti-behaviouralist, he thinks it possible that language could yet prove to be a Gouldian ‘spandrel’, an accident of human evolution that arose as a side-effect of some more  ‘purposeful’ evolutionary development.

The article left me with two unanswered questions:

  1. Is Chomsky’s ‘rational’, morally neutral approach to looking at political events and public policy better or worse than approaches that invoke morality, humanity, and altruism?
  2. Is Chomsky a linguistic speciesist, blinded by his narrow study of human language to believe that only humans have sophisticated, ‘hard-wired’ innate language ability, and hence reasoning and cognition? If he studied dolphins or ravens would he really come to understand what language and consciousness and reason is, how and why they evolved and what they’re for?

Anyone have any thoughts on these two issues, or other thoughts about Chomsky? Seems to me this might be diablogue material. What do we make of his incredible worldwide popularity, everywhere except in the U.S.? And what should we make of his wife’s weary comment that when he’s asked what to do about everything that’s wrong, he ‘fakes’ an answer rather than admit he has none?

Post-script: Since I’m pimping the New Yorker, I should note that the magazine cover I reproduced on my To Be Nobody But Yourself post (also on Monday) was, by an amazing coincidence, featured in this week’s New Yorker vintage cover collection ad. I now know the artist’s name: Charles E. Martin, and the date of initial publication, 1971. You can buy it, as I’m going to do, from their Cartoon Bank .

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  1. This might sound perverse, but I find Chomsky’s politics tainted by unconscious ethnocentrism. That is, by ascribing practically all of the evils of the world to the policies of the US and its allies, he denies “victim-cultures” the equal humanity of being capable themselves of calculated cruelty (beyond simple barbarism). Since he almost systematically disallows the possibility that others could be as sophisticated in pursuing their narrow and selfish interests as we are, his “realpolitik” analyses are necessarily incomplete. As a result, he is not only a moralist pretending to be pragmatic, he is not even on reasonable ground in his moral stance. Nevertheless, he often calls attention to facts that are worth considering in a more balanced framework.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    I think that’s a fair criticism, although it may be because he teaches at MIT and hence is principally concerned, in political discourse and activities, with U.S. actions and events. He is certainly active in opposing Turkish repression of the Kurds (for which he just won an award), and has said he would travel more (he travels a lot) if his wife, who fears at 74 he is burning himself out, did not forbid it. I agree with your assessment of his ‘collateral wisdom’: His Manufacturing Consent surfaced many ideas that were amplified and stated more compellingly in Ralston Saul’s Unconscious Civilization, for example.

  3. silly me says:

    Does he use language to judge (moral or otherwise)positions on a topic eliminating each until he has only one left standing or does he have a (moral or otherwise) position and attempts to manufacture the language for it and using that as a standard to judge the other positions?

  4. Adam Porter says:

    Cant agree with much of what you say.Firstly the idea that he ascribes all the worlds ills to the USA is simple rubbish. He doesn’t. He talks long and hard about Stalin to Pol Pot to Saddam and beyond. Fact is that we know these people were monsters, its generally accepted and well documented. The idea that he only says the US are self interested is factual nonsense.Your assertion that his wife says he `fakes` answers (your quote marks) is unsubstantiated. Source please.Thirdly one of the key points about his work is that he is a historian not a demagogue. Why should he give you answers? In exactly the same way as why should the free market, or Maos little red book or Karl Marx? Why do you think you shyould be given ideas from other people’s books? What kind of thinking is that? Subserviant and lazy.Chomsky deals in facts and makes assertions from that usually about Foriegn Policy matters. And then you want him to tell you what to do? No, that thinking has gone, its exactly that point that shows how little you understand of his work. Make your own answers don’t get them from doctrines.And you use of the word `moral` and `morality` is so subjective as to make the rest of what you say a waste of sdpace.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Adam, I’m a fan of Chomsky. I’m not the one saying he should provide answers, merely reporting that when he speaks, a lot of people ask him for them and seem disappointed he doesn’t provide them. Here’s the quote you asked for, ascribed to his wife, from the New Yorker article:”An early question in every Q&A is ‘You’ve told us everything that’s wrong but not what we can do about it.’ And they’re right. He hasn’t. So he gives what to me is a fake answer: ‘You’ve got to organize because a lot of people think these things but they’re isolated from each other’. He’s doing it because people walk out too depressed. He’s responding to people saying ‘Just give us something to hold on to.'”Please don’t shoot the messenger.

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