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The Most Destructive Intellectual By: Oliver Kamm
Prospect | Thursday, October 20, 2005

Last month, the political journals Foreign Policy and Prospect held a joint poll to rank the world’s top public intellectuals. Choosing from a list of 100 people, over 20,000 people cast their vote. The winner – reportedly by an overwhelming margin – was the Hate-America guru Noam Chomsky. In a post-poll commentary that appeared in Prospect, writer Oliver Kamm casts doubt on the wisdom of that decision. -- The Editors.

In his book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Richard Posner noted that "a successful academic may be able to use his success to reach the general public on matters about which he is an idiot." Judging by caustic remarks elsewhere in the book, he was thinking of Noam Chomsky. He was not wrong.

Chomsky remains the most influential figure in theoretical linguistics, known to the public for his ideas that language is a cognitive system and the realisation of an innate faculty. While those ideas enjoy a wide currency, many linguists reject them. His theories have come under criticism from those, such as the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who were once close to him. Paul Postal, one of Chomsky's earliest colleagues, stresses the tendency for the grandiloquence of Chomsky's claims to increase as he addresses non-specialist audiences. Frederick Newmeyer, a supporter of Chomsky's ideas until the mid-1990s, notes: "One is left with the feeling that Chomsky's ever-increasingly triumphalistic rhetoric is inversely proportional to the actual empirical results that he can point to."

Prospect readers who voted for Chomsky will know his prominence in linguistics, but are more likely to have read his numerous popular critiques of western foreign policy. The connection, if any, between Chomsky's linguistics and his politics is a matter of debate, but one obvious link is that in both fields he deploys dubious arguments leavened with extravagant rhetoric—which is what makes the notion of Chomsky as pre-eminent public intellectual untimely as well as unwarranted.

Chomsky's first book on politics, American Power and the New Mandarins (1969) grew from protest against the Vietnam war. But Chomsky went beyond the standard left critique of US imperialism to the belief that "what is needed [in the US] is a kind of denazification." This diagnosis is central to Chomsky's political output. While he does not depict the US as an overtly repressive society—instead, it is a place where "money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print and marginalise dissent"—he does liken America's conduct to that of Nazi Germany. In his newly published Imperial Ambitions, he maintains that "the pretences for the invasion [of Iraq] are no more convincing than Hitler's."

If this is your judgement of the US then it will be difficult to credit that its interventionism might ever serve humanitarian ends. Even so, Chomsky's political judgements have only become more startling over the past decade.

In The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many (1994), Chomsky considered whether the west should bomb Serb encampments to stop the dismemberment of Bosnia, and by an absurdly tortuous route concluded "it's not so simple." By the time of the Kosovo war, this prophet of the amoral quietism of the Major government had progressed to depicting Milosevic's regime as a wronged party: "Nato had no intention of living up to the scraps of paper it had signed, and moved at once to violate them."

After 9/11, Chomsky deployed fanciful arithmetic to draw an equivalence between the destruction of the twin towers and the Clinton administration's bombing of Sudan—in which a pharmaceutical factory, wrongly identified as a bomb factory, was destroyed and a nightwatchman killed. When the US-led coalition bombed Afghanistan, Chomsky depicted mass starvation as a conscious choice of US policy, declaring that "plans are being made and programmes implemented on the assumption that they may lead to the death of several million people in the next couple of weeks… very casually, with no particular thought about it." His judgement was offered without evidence.

In A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West (2000), Chomsky wryly challenged advocates of Nato intervention in Kosovo to urge also the bombing of Jakarta, Washington and London in protest at Indonesia's subjugation of East Timor. If necessary, citizens should be encouraged to do the bombing themselves, "perhaps joining the Bin Laden network." Shortly after 9/11, the political theorist Jeffrey Isaac wrote of this thought experiment that, while it was intended metaphorically, "One wonders if Chomsky ever considered the possibility that someone lacking in his own logical rigour might read his book and carelessly draw the conclusion that the bombing of Washington is required."

This episode gives an indication of the destructiveness of Chomsky's advocacy even on issues where he has been right. Chomsky was an early critic of Indonesia's brutal annexation of East Timor in 1975 in the face of the indolence, at best, of the Ford administration. The problem is not these criticisms, but Chomsky's later use of them to rationalise his opposition to western efforts to halt genocide elsewhere. (Chomsky buttresses his argument, incidentally, with a peculiarly dishonest handling of source material. He manipulates a self-mocking reference in the memoirs of the then US ambassador to the UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, by running separate passages together as if they are sequential and attributing to Moynihan comments he did not make, to yield the conclusion that Moynihan took pride in Nazi-like policies. The victims of cold war realpolitik are real enough without such rhetorical expedients.)

If Chomsky's political writings expressed merely an idée fixe, they would be a footnote in his career as a public intellectual. But Chomsky has a dedicated following among those of university education, and especially of university age, for judgements that have the veneer of scholarship and reason yet verge on the pathological. He once described the task of the media as "to select the facts, or to invent them, in such a way as to render the required conclusions not too transparently absurd—at least for properly disciplined minds." There could scarcely be a nicer encapsulation of his own practice.

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Read Oliver Kamm's weblog at http://oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog.

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