Cultural Caviar

A Portrait of Noam Chomsky: A Great Mind in a Weak Soul

September 15, 2017

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A Portrait of Noam Chomsky: A Great Mind in a Weak Soul

“Money is a new form of slavery,” Noam Chomsky tweeted on Sept. 5, “and is only distinguishable from the old slavery simply by the fact that it is impersonal.” Though you may find that claim simplistic, it would be futile to argue it with the man himself, for as William F. Buckley Jr. used to say about him, Noam Chomsky has a theological certainty regarding the truth of his own beliefs, which, as everybody knows, are incessantly critical of America. Indeed, Chomsky’s own colleagues have remarked that, whether it’s linguistics or foreign policy, the man always comes off as infallible.

Still, nobody would deny that Chomsky is a major figure in linguistics, and there are many who consider him to be the figure. He is certainly a genius, rightly influential across a vast range of disciplines, as well as a man of exceptional intellectual principle (albeit put to perverse use in politics). He has long stood up for free speech. “The Case Against B.F. Skinner,” Chomsky’s brilliant takedown of the confused behaviorist, demonstrates analytical powers of the highest order. The essay is a founding document in cognitive science, and like his work in linguistics, it spurred philosophy of mind to go in a non-reductive direction, allowing for the rich work of Jerry Fodor, of Hilary Putnam, of Thomas Nagel, and of others.

“Save the environment, he urges, though his actual problem is himself.”

Much less respectable are Chomsky’s writings on politics—especially on the U.S.—which for the most part range from mixed to dreadful. Where a man such as former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, whom Chomsky despises, looks at the world and perceives an endless array of conflicting values and interests, so that frequent tragedy is certain, Chomsky sees in U.S. foreign policy nothing but “imperialism.” When we give aid to Africa or elsewhere, the motive is never good; always we are secretly trying to support some evil regime or other, he thinks in paranoid fashion. Chomsky never shows an understanding that there is only so much room for morality in politics, an old truism of political philosophy. That nations are of necessity essentially instrumental and strategic in their relations with one another is a commonplace that Chomsky does not take seriously. Reading his tireless and highly influential polemics, which are naturally appealing to the self-righteous young and to insular academics in particular, one wonders: “Does this man not realize that if we didn’t dominate the world stage, China and other competitors would be happy to do so?”

Not to imply that Chomsky hasn’t often been right about the evils the U.S. has wrought in the world. But much of his criticisms, where they are reasonable, are consistent with those of any number of right-wing isolationists. He also seems to have little grasp of the human inability to control events once set in motion, even when we have the very best intentions. Things, always unspeakably complex, go wrong, and it’s always the U.S. that’s found fault with.

Chomsky is similarly naive on corporations. One of his favorite critical slogans is “profits over people,” and in his world corporations seem different in kind from the people, who are presumably less self-interested and more inclined to his ideal of “grassroots democracy.” His usage of that term reveals his fundamentally delusional sensibility. On the one hand, Chomsky is all about grassroots democracy, which, to be sure, however, must mean limited local government: Otherwise, where are the grassroots in a nation of well over 300 million people? The contradiction is that, on the other hand, he is an ardent statist when it comes to regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency that function as religious idols for the atheist.

The environment—specifically, climate change—has been on Chomsky’s mind a great deal lately, for like his other illusions, the matter causes him deep anxiety. In “Inside Chomsky-World,” Daniel Bonevac is acute in his analysis of George Yancy’s July 5 interview with Chomsky in The New York Times. For Chomsky, climate change is

an article of quasi-religious faith rather than a rational conclusion. Yancy and Chomsky assume that science shows us that we face an existential threat. Neither is trained in environmental science. Has either read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report—not the political summary, but the whole thing? Do they read scientific journals on the topic? Are they familiar with the arguments of critics such as Richard Lindzen and Roger Pielke? Do they read blogs by critics such as Watts Up with That? Can they discuss the differences between satellite data sets? The differences between those, oceanic measurements, and surface records? Are they familiar with the variation among existing models? Can they explain why some ought to be preferred to others? If so, no sign of it here. The issue isn’t up for debate.