Mention Noam Chomsky’s name to a group of contemporary academicians or students and you are most likely to be met with supercilious reverence for a man who has become the iconoclastic representation of the intellectual left. A self-described anarchist as well as accomplished linguist, Chomsky is given reverence more for his political philosophy than for his theories of language development. But, in contrast with his formal background in linguistics, Chomsky’s worldviews are not the product of any academic training or education, but rather an outgrowth of a uniquely socialist perspective that leaves little room for anything other than criticism of most things American.
How does a scholar in a rather lackluster area such as linguistics become one of the most cited authors of his time, not for his academic work but for his political views? For Chomsky, the move from linguistics to affairs of state was not as radical as his politics. In fact, it followed a rather logical, albeit somewhat deceptive, process that has its roots in his linguistic theories.
Chomsky’s theory of language development
At the heart of Chomsky’s linguistics is a process known as “transformational grammar.” While all of its intricacies are not easy to follow, what it basically entails is a “transformation” from the basic, original meaning of words to alternative, practical expressions. Since the same thought or meaning can be expressed several ways, transformational “rules” are used to insure that the various ways of saying the same thing all make sense. These rules allow for a single underlying thought to find a range of possible linguistic realizations in natural language. But while the words are rewritten, the actual intention and basic meaning remains the same.
Political arguments and Chomsky’s language development theory
As in his theory of language, Chomsky manages to transform meanings so that they fit his political worldview. In deceptively simple fashion, Chomsky’s logic of language development is used to create the type of political arguments that so many progressives find appealing and captivating. Here, however, transformations move far beyond simple alternative expressions of a particular thought and take on radical new meanings, making a quantum leap from truth to fiction.
Since political thought and political arguments involve assigning a particular meaning to a specific event or set of circumstances, using “rules” to assign meaning, albeit political meaning, to these events is natural. Chomsky, however, manages to cleverly apply his own theoretical logic when looking at things so that they manage to be consistent with his distinct brand of political philosophy.
How does Chomsky accomplish this?
The process is a bit complex, but very consistent and logical.
At the base of any Chomsky argument is a premise. These premises are often offered as indisputable truths, even though they are based on misleading, partial or patently false information. Somewhat more subtle and infinitely more deceptive than simple lying, Chomsky integrates a series of disingenuous comments into his fabric of basic premises, building a series of questionable points that represent and support his thinking in a logical and coherent flow of ideas. As in his theory of transformational grammar, Chomsky shows how one set of thoughts can easily be expressed differently and supposedly retain the same meaning. However, the basic premises upon which he bases his thinking are inherently flawed and in fact not true. By using a “transformational rule” to create an invalid argument and building on a supposed indisputable truth that is, in fact, untrue, Chomsky relies on the reader’s intellectual laziness not to investigate positions that cannot be supported with any corroborative evidence. Rather than presenting well-grounded arguments, Chomsky’s presentations are often simply examples of tainted personal dogma that lack intellectual honesty.
Since people intuitively try to make sense out of information they see around them, presenting them with seemingly logical information helps reduce confusion and aids in transforming loose and unintegrated information into ostensibly coherent meaning. In politics, information is often vague, disorganized and confusing, leaving much to the interpretation of the observer. Chomsky, recognizing how people assign meaning to language (including political language), takes advantage of this in his argumentation. Just as his linguistic theory would suggest, he presents a specific political premise that flows logically and is “transformed” from meaning to expression. In Chomsky’s case, however, the original premise is flawed and the transformation reflects the flawed meaning. The transformation process and “rewrite” is thus logical, but incorrect.
While the particular transformational technique may vary, Chomsky’s pattern is to misrepresent a faulty premise as accurate, and then transform it logically into a coherent thought. Insofar as the basis of his transformations are flawed, corrupted or otherwise tainted, so are the subsequent arguments he produces. In thus developing his political arguments, Chomsky tries to provide an air of scholarliness to what is no more than an exercise in intellectual deception.
If all this appears complicated, it really is not. A look at one of Chomsky’s pet arguments illustrates his rather straightforward technique in action.
Chomsky’s transformations of political issues
One of Chomsky’s favorite mantras is that the United States is a terrorist state. In a CNN interview discussing his book 9-11, Chomsky referred to the U.S. as “… the only state in the world that has been condemned by the World Court for international terrorism.”
To the naïve and initiated listener, and certainly to the Chomskyphile, this statement is sacrosanct. What Chomsky does here is present a premise as “fact” and then weave a set of arguments that logically flow from the premise. This is classic Chomsky, using “transformational rules” to, in this case, rewrite history.
What does Chomsky do? He “transforms” the meaning of the World Court decision into a fact that never was. Since no one would argue the logic that being condemned by the World Court for “international terrorism” makes one a terrorist state, Chomsky smugly builds on that decision to support his argument.
The only problem here is that, despite Chomsky’s rather direct statement, the World Court decision never did actually condemn the United States for international terrorism.
Is Chomsky lying?
Not according to his logic. What Chomsky did is take a case involving U.S. support for the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s and use it to promote his “terrorism” argument. In fact, the World Court never used the term “terror” or “international terrorism” to describe any American actions. Moreover, the court’s decision, which found the U.S. guilty of unlawful activity, was made without the United States even taking part in the discussions. Most importantly, all the complaints were dropped when a democratically elected government took over in Nicaragua following free elections.
Chomsky “transformed” the questionable findings of the court that the United States violated international law and rewrote them to imply that the United States was a “terrorist state.” To Chomsky, the fact that the original rendition of the court decision never used any term indicating terrorism is unimportant, since what he sees as a logical and appropriate “transformation” of the original meaning would make the inductive leap valid. Hence, creating fact from political fiction.
Even when confronted directly, Chomsky remains unrepentantly stoic. Take this exchange between Chomsky and Bill Bennett, which took place in 2002 on CNN.
CHOMSKY: First of all, the World Court condemned the United States for what it called “the unlawful use of force and violation of treaties.”
BENNETT: Which is not terrorism.
CHOMSKY: That’s international terrorism.
BENNETT: No, it is not.
CHOMSKY: Yes, it is exactly international terrorism.
BENNETT: No, it is not, sir.
Although Bennett could not “see” the quotes that the transcript above provides, the phrase “unlawful use of force and violation of treaties" does not appear in the court's decision.
Chomsky is equally deceptive in other areas, such as when he refers to Arabs as the “indigenous” occupants of what is now Israel. By establishing this false premise, Chomsky lays the groundwork for invalidating any claim by Jews for an independent state.
In all his arguments, Chomsky is insipidly predictable. Once he presents his false premises, the transformation of his argument follows an expected path along the guidelines of his political philosophy.
Challenging the myth
It is unlikely that any amount of reasoning will sway the true believer from the false logic of a Chomsky argument. For others, however, recognizing the method used to promote warped and baseless accusations is key to removing some of the luster from a man who moves about unchallenged in many circles. As with many myths, Chomsky has created an aura of mystique about himself that has taken on a life of its own.
Inherently unintellectual, Chomsky’s arguments appeal mostly to people who either do not know or do not care about the real facts of an issue. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that for the majority of individuals who can think for themselves, a closer look at Chomsky’s style and his pseudo-logical approach lays bare the shallowness of many who, against all common sense, think of themselves as the “intellectual” left.