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Chomsky's Book Burners By: Tom Nichols
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Why do Noam Chomsky’s admirers panic at any criticism of the man or his work? Given their constant assertions that Chomsky’s views are supported by simply unassailable scholarship, one would think that they’d be more confident in their idol. But to judge from some of the reactions to the appearance of The Anti-Chomsky Reader, the anthology edited by David Horowitz and Peter Collier (and to which I am a contributor), Chomsky’s defenders seem just a tad jumpy about any effort to scrutinize the work of what is supposed to be one of America’s most important thinkers.

Shortly after the book appeared, an anonymous post appeared:

A vicious reactionary book has been published against Prof. Noam Chomsky. Let us post 1 million negative reviews of this filth on amazon.com.

David Horowitz, a stone reactionary racist fascist dog, has co-authored a vicious assault on progressive Professor Noam Chomsky, called The Anti-Chomsky Reader. This is part of the neo-fascist right's growing cultural assault on civil liberties and progressive movements in the U.S. It is the responsibility of everyone who has learned from Chomsky to come to his assistance. On Amazon.com, you can post reviews of this vicious filth and rate the so-called book which is a pack of lies against Chomsky (unfortunately you can only give 1 star on a 5 star system, not the zero stars it deserves). Tell everyone you know to do this. Let us have 1 million negative reviews of this crap posted. Also, boycott stores that carry this crap.

Aside from the weird 1960s retread verbiage here, I was curious about this hysterical call to arms (which David mentioned in his blog last summer), and so I decided to read the reviews. I found several readers engaged in what are sometimes called Amazon.com “Star Wars.” There are currently 92 reviews posted, with a good portion of them critical of the book, and their tone and content are revealing. Perhaps most important is that many of them, like the post above, show no evidence of actually having read the book—and a few even admit it. (A tip of the hat to Amazon reader Hans Buchheim of Germany, who noted the evident unfamiliarity of the critics with the book, and whose own review also piqued my curiosity to read the various posts to see if he was correct. He is.)

Anyway, as one of the contributors to the volume, I’ve volunteered to step in and read the mail, and offer a few responses.

The first negative review arrived last June, from “a reader” who wondered if the book is “a pre-emptive attack.” (An attack on what, I have no idea, unless the reader thinks we’re somehow “pre-emptively” striking Chomsky,  but I have no idea what that could mean.) Still, “reader” is to be commended for noting that “This book is worth picking up for a different perspective once you have some background.” Fair enough and thank you, reader.

Later criticisms, to put it mildly, were less measured.

A certain N. Cooper took issue not with the book, but with the Amazon blurb describing the book (which was a real time-saver, since it apparently obviated any need to read the actual volume). Mr. or Ms. Cooper noted that “to use the term [anti-Americanism] when talking about an American citizen, who clearly likes some things about this country (the dude still lives here!) is ridiculous. Critiquing government policies is never anti-American.”

The “dude” probably still lives here, reader Cooper, because he has a job from which he can never be fired, is a celebrity among some of his fellow citizens, and is well-compensated for his spiteful politics: he’d therefore be a fool to move anywhere else. And sure, honest and well-intentioned criticism of one’s own government is not anti-American, and is indeed our right and obligation as citizens. But saying that your country is fundamentally a force for evil in the world, and that the government and economy are run by murderous maniacs (even if you have to make up “facts” to support the charge) is not exactly in the best spirit of civic criticism.

We then come to one “M. Wilson,” whose criticism of the book boiled down to attacking David Horowitz, calling him a former Stalinist. There’s no actual discussion of the contents of the work; instead reader Wilson laments about how no one really understands communism. (If you say so, M.)

Shortly thereafter, someone with the rather infelicitous posting name of “MassiveFacialTrauma” criticized the book by…no, wait, he didn’t criticize the book, either, but instead also castigated David Horowitz for a full paragraph. “The book’s value,” reader Trauma avers in conclusion, “lies only in its insight into the anfractuous reasoning of its author, a man who decided many years ago that he'd rather apostasize than fight an uphill battle.” (Former comrade of yours, David?)

“Trauma” incorrectly identifies David Horowitz as the sole author of the book, which suggests that he or she did not even get as far as N. Cooper, who at least read the blurbs. I assumed no one else would make such an obvious mistake, given that the Amazon description clearly indicates that there are other authors involved.

I was wrong to assume this. Very wrong.

A day after the screed by MassiveFacialTrauma, reader “Dan S.” offered this take on the book:

The purpose is clear, and so is the technique. In order to try and refute Chomsky’s monumental body of work, these two [Collier and Horowitz] scream, and whine, and yelp in a common tactic of the most rancid far-right: invent as much garbage as you can and throw it around. Somebody may even believe it, even if only part of it. The result of the authors’ clumsy tantrum is hardly worthy of a couple of pre-school kids. You can find actual arguments against progressive ideas around. No need to waste your time with this joke.

Some nice zingers there, Dan, but you goofed on the important fact that Collier and Horowitz weren’t the sole authors. You would have known this if you’d actually read the book.  It’s an edited volume, Dan, and so you go to the Reader’s Penalty Box for pretending to have read a volume when you clearly haven’t even read the cover.

Dan is joined by Los Angeles reader “polaris11,” whose first language, we must note in fairness, may or may not be English.  I reproduce “polaris11’s” comments here as posted, and with the original spelling and punctuation:

“Horowits and Derschowitz ,,both much less smarter than chomsky,it seems to me, after failing to get anything done in their books, finally turned to attacking the one of the smartest and the most honest man in the world. Before actually reading this book written by those zionists, read actual chomsky's book to see how clear and straight argument he is commanding. Mr chomsky is the one who will be remembered as one of real hero both in linguist and human rights activity.. And those anti -chomsky authors will be remembered as transient useless critics.”

First of all, a helpful note to polaris11: regardless of your mother tongue, it doesn’t help your credibility if you can’t spell David Horowitz’s name properly even when the name is right on the computer screen in front of you. Also, it might help to know that Alan Dershowitz only blurbed the book, he didn’t actually write any of it. I leave it to David or Prof. Dershowitz to comment on being labeled “Zionists,” a charge I think speaks for itself.

Reader “JM” says: “If you hate any decent American ideal, this book is for you.” He or she believes the book is full of “ranting” but no substance; all one can say in response is that much the same could be said for JM’s post, since again, it shows no evidence of any familiarity with the book whatsoever.

A truly impressive entry in the “didn’t read it, but commented anyway” posts comes from a reader named okiguessso (which I think means “OK, I guess so,” and who claims to hail from “woodstock nation”), who opened his or her comments with this:

This is a vicious fascist assault against progressive Professor Noam Chomsky by two co-authors who are cheerleaders for the U.S. government and Pentagon and their horrible wars against the people of the world. Full of lies, devoid of facts, and wrong and evil in its purposes, this book deserves minus 1,000 stars, but Amazon doesn't let you indicate such a rating.

Actually, okiguessso, there were eleven authors involved in this, er, fascist assault…again, something which you and the others would know had you actually read the book. (And to be honest, I’m getting a little tired of Peter and David getting all the credit for the book after all the work I and my co-authors had to put in slogging through the swamps of Chomsky’s writings for our chapters.) In addition, okiguessso is concerned that “one could imagine [Horowitz] being the Goebbels of a U.S. fascist regime in the near future.” It’s always a nice, warm touch when a leftist compares a Jewish man to a Nazi thug.

A reader named Lance Murdoch seems to at least have read the table of contents, but it’s not clear he read the book. “Thankfully,” he writes, “this is nothing but mindless mud-slinging, hyperbole and meat for the dittoheads, with no real critique of Chomsky, but what else would one expect from Horowitz?” Again, how about the rest of us, Lance? (And how did Rush Limbaugh’s listeners get dragged into this?)

Some readers were a little more honest. Chris in London, bless him, comes right out at the top of his post and admits he didn’t read the whole book, just “as I have not read all of Chomsky.” This did not stop our intrepid British correspondent, however, from going on for four more paragraphs about why he didn’t like the book anyway. Michael Kuzmyak of California joins Chris in admitting candidly that he “only had the opportunity to read parts of this book.” Nonetheless, he finds “some comparisons very short-sighted and distorting.” In more recent weeks, a G. Hilton joined the chorus of those who believe in reviewing books after partial readings, noting that he/she only read “some excepts from this obvious monstrosity of a book and some of the reviews.” Fair enough, G., so in turn we will only read an excerpt from your review and leave it at that.

A reader named “slain”—and wow, do these people have issues?—harped on a theme common to a lot of the critical posters, which is that the book was nothing more than a “personal attack” on the sainted professor. This is an odd charge given that the book, in its way, actually took Chomsky’s works seriously enough to contend with them on an intellectual level. Other reviews making similar claims paradoxically claimed that the book is nothing but a despicable hatchet job, replete with personal attacks, and then responded to these putative ad hominem attacks by….personally attacking the authors.

For example, reader Jonathan Shockley in San Francisco—please, no snickering—is upset that “the book contains every logical fallacy one can think of.” Unfortunately, Mr. Shockley doesn’t present even one of these logical fallacies. But that may be because Mr. Shockley has no interest in an actual discussion with the authors, of whom he says that the “commissars who wrote this book lack any type of intellectual integrity. They are servile to power, and they'll lie or do anything to serve it.” (Having spent a good portion of my life studying the Soviet Union, I choose to take exception at being called a “commissar.”)

Meanwhile, Kenneth Garing, also of San Francisco, claims to have bought a used copy of the book for five dollars in a bookstore, but then raises some suspicion about whether he bought it or just thought he did when he writes:

A funny book! This is like Ann Coulter with maybe three more brain cells. Actually, more like two. Horowitz is so out of it, it's amazing! He thinks he has some special insight into the left, because of his activist past and whatever it was he did with the Black Panthers, god knows when.

Ann Coulter isn’t my cup of tea politically, Ken, but she went to a top law school, so you might want to back off on making fun of her smarts. And if you want to know “whatever it was” David did with the Panthers “god knows when,” pick up his books and find out.

A Ms Millicent Pwers (that’s the way she spells it), yet again of San Francisco—wait, I sense a pattern here—had this to say:

This book is real garbage, and anyone with an IQ above room temperature and some sense of morality, will realize from all the kicking and screaming, the rabid, insulting tone, that this book is very suspicious. Please do try to refute Chomsky. I encourage and challenge you.

Well, Ms. Pwers, we took up your challenge, and found that refuting Chomsky wasn’t all that hard to do. However, I encourage and challenge you, Millicent, to read our chapters, and show us where we’re wrong (or where we “kicked and screamed”). If you truly believe in free inquiry, then challenge Chomsky as well, and dare him to prove his most incendiary points without referring you to three or four footnotes that only contain citations that only refer back to his own books—which he no doubt would very much like you to buy.

Although Peter Collier and particularly David Horowitz took most of the abuse from critical posters, “SethGecko” (and hey, I loved that movie, too) believes the book is “tripe,” and this time actually saved some venom for the rest of us. The authors, he writes, are “a ‘who’s who’ roster of B-grade neoconservative pseudo-scholars and wonks from nefarious groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Townhall.com, and JewishWorldReview.com.”

Now just hold on there, pardner. Speaking for myself, I am not a neocon (largely because I don’t know what that word means, other than as a kind of vaguely racist slur connoting “conservative Jew”), nor am I a wonk. I have been a teacher at accredited educational institutions for nearly 20 years, and have written several peer-reviewed books and articles, and so I get to take the “pseudo” off my “scholar” merit badge. (So there.) Whether I’m B-grade, well…that’s a matter of taste. I am not associated with any “nefarious” groups, although I would guess that you and your fellow critics would argue that my current employer would count as such. And since I happen to know my fellow author Steve Morris—who was one of my professors when I was a pup in college—I would encourage Seth to see how “pseudo-scholarly” Dr. Morris is by reading his internationally renowned works, or maybe by having a conversation with Steve in any of the challenging languages he speaks.

A small Canadian delegation joined in the fray as well. “Jamie Richards” of Canada claims that the book is just based on personal hatred of Chomsky, a man he sees as trying to tell us important truths, and he implores us to “WAKE UP AMERICA.” No offense, Jamie, but although I have a deep affection for Canada—I’m not kidding, I really do—I think it’s fair to say that here in the Lower 48 we’ve all had just about enough whining from the Canadian left lately, thank you very much. (Anyway, we’re plenty wide awake, as you saw last election day.) There was also a “mmmmmmike” from Canada who finds the book “boring” and “Uninspired truely a painfull book to get through.” All I can say, “mike,” is if you read like you spell, any book would be painful to get through—not that there’s any evidence in your or Jamie’s post that you read ours in any case. There was also a Canadian who called himself  “machinegunjubblies” (and I liked that movie, too), but posting under that handle sort of obviates the comic appeal of reproducing his comments.

Returning to the States, there is an interesting post from a Mr. Nick Stathoulopoulos of Brooklyn, who wondered why the book even exists, and why Collier and Horowitz are all lathered up. Chomsky, he writes, is just a guy “who is thinking about the real world and is trying to explain it,” so why all the fuss? Let me first commend Nick for actually appearing to have read the book. I won’t speak for David and Peter, but I can tell him why I was willing to write my part: because I’m tired of having to undo the intellectual damage that Chomsky spreads around. As I’ve said many times, I find Chomsky’s methods almost as reprehensible as his politics (which I find to be cruel and divisive). Chomsky’s adherents are walking examples of the old adage that the big problem “ain’t what you don’t know, it’s what you do know that ain’t so.” Every wasted minute I have to spend with a friend or student to show them that so much of Chomsky’s work is built on false foundations is a minute I could have spent discussing something more useful with them.

In a wonderful post that shows the narrow-mindedness of at least some of Chomsky’s followers, a reviewer named “Critic” admonished potential readers: “Shame on You for Even Considering This Book Worth Reading.” (Clearly, the spirit of open inquiry and the free exchange of ideas lives.) “Critic” has no comments about the book, but rather critiques the criticisms on the Amazon website, which is easier, and certainly cheaper, than actually reading the book. In a similar vein, someone named “J. Krall” who calls himself “The Captain” from “Moonshine Alley”—way to enhance your credibility there, J—called anyone who didn’t read Chomsky first before picking up the book “close-minded sheep who’ll believe anything.” Good to see someone so open to the intellectual process.

In an interesting attempt at changing the subject, “J. Corson” from Boston pleads with us not to focus on Chomsky, probably because reasonable leftists (and yes, I realize there are many) grasp what an embarrassment Chomsky really is:

quit focusing on chomsky. the left is not a monolith that believes in his work. neither is the intellectual left. it is funny that i haven't heard much dispute over his statistical info. the argument against his south american views is unbearably weak. but please, pay attention to less public intellectuals. think of great economists such as joseph stiglitz or sociologist tariq ali. try to write the same book on intellectuals of that ilk. or david harvey, the brilliant geographer.

With all due respect, J, when Stiglitz or Harvey are deceiving as many people as Chomsky with baseless propaganda, I’ll spend more time on them. While I prefer to focus on the immediate problem, I think many of us in the book would sincerely take your point that there are honest men and women on the left who care about things like social justice, and who would not have anything to do with someone as irresponsible and cruel as Chomsky. In a way, I share your frustration that Chomsky’s ravings crowd out more responsible social criticism, in the process cheapening the debate. But alas, we deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

A relatively intelligent reader named “Andrew Parodi” attempted a spirited defense of Chomsky in October 2004. Clearly, Mr. Parodi has read at least some parts of the book, and he is incensed that some of us have charged that Chomsky has not backed up his arguments with evidence. He then directs us to the footnotes to Understanding Power, which are “so extensive that they are stored in a website and not in the book.” First, Mr. Parodi, let me suggest that “extensive” does not mean “useful”, but that’s another matter. Nonetheless, point taken, and perhaps in the next edition, if there is one, we’ll all spend more time unraveling Chomsky’s footnotes in order to show you just how useless so many of them really are.

Speaking of footnotes: Dan McKenzie, a self-described Scot living in Los Angeles, is upset because he thinks that Chomsky is being nitpicked. He says that Chomsky’s “footnotes are challenged - um, so he self-references, like all other scholars, and sometimes uses hard to find sources, again, so what?”

Dan, let me tell you “so what.” First, “hard to find” is not normally a defense in scholarly work. For example, I’ve done research in archives in the basement of a college in Hungary and used sources that might be thought of as “hard to find,” but if you follow my footnotes it will take you all of maybe thirty minutes to find my references (that is, if you happen to be in lovely Budapest, I grant you). Chomsky’s books, on the other hand, have certain footnotes where no amount of frequent flyer miles will let you replicate his research. And the problem isn’t that Chomsky self-references—as you say, all scholars do it (including me).  The problem is that if you go back to the original reference, there’s no “there” there. Writing a book in which you make a wild claim with little or no substantiation, and then citing that book in your next book as “evidence,” is not actually what anyone would recognize as “research,” but in fact is more like a word, as Ronald Reagan once said, with deep roots in our agricultural heritage.

Along these lines, I have to admit to a certain amount of admiration for a Mr. Darrell Gorsuch of Denver, who read the book and took up the issue of footnotes. He presented some reasonable criticism of the book, and of my chapter in particular—even rightly zinging me for using a footnote for which I might have criticized Chomsky had he used a similar reference. (Ouch. But I still maintain I’m a far more careful and honest scholar than Chomsky, Mr. Gorsuch.) He even helped me to find the origins of one of Chomsky’s typically elliptical and sloppy footnotes. In doing so, however, Mr. Gorsuch inadvertently makes my point for me about how Chomsky’s footnotes are more about self-promotion than scholarship. Here, he unravels the source of a comment Chomsky attributed to the State Department:                      

It is true that Chomsky provides no citation for the quoted remark, but in the first footnote to the chapter in question, he writes “For sources where not given here, see Deterring Democracy, chap. 1; Year 501, chap. 2.” In fact, Nichols himself quotes the above explanation one page before his comment above, but in the context of trying to show that “...to track Chomsky's sources in just one footnote, the reader must follow a trail of two more useless citations that lead only to a dead end in which Chomsky cites himself at length.” This is simply false, though admittedly it does take some effort to track down the source.

The first chapter of Deterring Democracy does refer to another book by Chomsky, Towards A New Cold War (New York: Pantheon, 1982), as its source for the above quote. And it is true that no page number is given. But by perusing the table of contents, one comes across “American Foreign Policy in the Middle East” as the title of chapter eleven, and three pages into the chapter, we find the remark in question. Turning to the corresponding footnote, we find: “U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1945, VIII, 45; cited in Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power (New York: Harper &

One can only wonder how long it took, but bravo for finding that particular needle in the haystack, Mr. Gorsuch. Still, if that “footnote” was not an attempt to get you to buy more books, than I don’t know what else it could be, because it certainly wasn’t there to help you find Chomsky’s original sources. Consider that to find the provenance of this one statement, you had to consult two more of Chomsky’s own books (serendipitously, you had them on hand, where I’m guessing most people wouldn’t), and use the table of contents in one of them essentially to guess at which chapter might have the note. We then find that Chomsky didn’t even bother to cite the original document (which is from a series of reference books commonly found in college libraries anywhere), but instead, used a secondary citation of it—meaning that we still don’t know exactly who in the State Department said it, or why—from a book by two fellow leftists, the Kolkos. That’s a heck of a long way to go for what should have been a simple and clear reference to an easily obtainable source. But clearly, the intention is not to help the reader track Chomsky’s evidence; rather, it is to force the reader to tromp through more of Chomsky’s books.

For those who wonder, by the way, whether the rest of us who write for a living could stand such scrutiny, I would just answer that most of us have to submit to (and very often benefit from) peer-review, as well as testy editors who insist on clarity and simplicity. It’s not clear that Chomsky even has editors in his books, but his political works certainly would not survive sustained peer-review—as they didn’t in The Anti-Chomsky Reader.

In the end, I admit I’m just having a bit of fun here with the indignant Amazon reviewers, but what’s to be learned from all this?

For one thing, it’s clear that anything called an “Anti-Chomsky Reader” is going to literally panic a certain number of Chomsky’s fans. Their belief system is so self-contained that they are apparently not interested in (or capable of) actual debate or discussion, and rather than contend with arguments against their beloved leader, they simply pillory a book they haven’t read. The “Star Warriors” on Amazon confirm that for at least some people, Chomsky’s views, in effect, are not part of a political stance but more like a religion, and one which can brook no heresy.

For another, it shows that hatefulness is not, as the left would have it, the sole privilege of the American right. The sheer vitriol surrounding the appearance of The Anti-Chomsky Reader serves as a stark reminder of the viciousness of at least some who purport to speak in the name of compassion and justice.

To those who posted positive comments on the book, I (and I’m sure the other authors) thank you, although it’s probable that at least some of our supporters didn’t read the book, either. (For example, a recent review from a South African reader fulminates against Chomsky for an entire page but says nothing about the book itself. Such is the nature of Amazon’s “Star Wars.”) And for those of you who read the book and disagreed with us, thank you for at least joining us in the spirit of open debate and free inquiry. But for those of you who basically…well, freaked out, for want of better words…I urge you: try to live up to your professed standards of honest scholarship and open-minded dialogue, and actually read the book.

Chomsky himself, according to one poster, has not read the book and does not intend to. And good for him: why should he? He’s an entrepreneur. His work is not about free speech and intellectual discourse, it’s about agitating gullible people and making money. This is a free society and an entrepreneurial economy, so I don’t begrudge him that, and neither should you. But the rest of us can certainly do better.

Tom Nichols is the Chairman of the Department of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI.

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