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Symposium: Noam Chomsky: Academic Insider or Outsider? By: Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, February 21, 2005


Is Noam Chomsky an icon in academia today? Or has he been marginalized into invisibility? To discuss this issue with us today, Frontpage Symposium has assembled a distinguished panel. Our guests today:

John H. Summers, a doctoral candidate in American history at the University of Rochester. He teaches social studies at Harvard. He is the author of the Counterpunch article 30 Books, Not One Review: Chomsky and Academic History, which generated the idea for this symposium.

Tom Nichols, the chairman of the Department of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of “Chomsky and the Cold War” in Peter Collier and David Horowitz (editors), The Anti-Chomsky Reader;

George Scialabba, a book critic, with an expertise on Noam Chomsky, whose reviews appear frequently in the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Nation, the Boston Review, and other prominent journals.

 

and

 

Daniel J. Flynn, the author of Why the Left Hates America and of the new book Intellectual Morons : How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas.

 

FP: John H. Summers, Tom Nichols, George Scialabba and Daniel Flynn, welcome to Frontpage Sympsoium, It is a pleasure to have you here.

 

John Summers, let me begin with you. In examining Chomsky’s status in academia, you have argued that the way the MIT professor is treated by academic journals is extremely telling. In your Counterpunch article, you contend that Chomsky has been shunned by academic reviews. Could you briefly tell us your findings and what you consider to be their significance?

 

Summers: Bibliography has gone digital, with sophisticated search functions, so it is now relatively easy to see patterns if one is willing to look for them. I looked for Noam Chomsky in the review sections of the leading history journals because I had started to read him more seriously, and because as a historian, I was interested to know what my colleagues had to say. But I found nothing. I don't "argue" that he has been shunned so much as I present the fact of his shunning.

 

Given that the journals regularly review nonhistorians as well as public intellectuals, and given their willingness to entertain Marxists, I grew curious as to the explanation for the shunning. I think the answer has something to do with Chomsky's interpretation of responsibility, which is hostile to institutional power for its own sake. But I am not so sure about my answer, and I'm happy to take up that problem at greater length. The main point in the essay is straightforward. If intellectual freedom in the academy is to mean something more than the formal absence of restraint, then it ought to engage thinkers of Chomsky's influence, at least in a minimal way. I try to add that, if you like, forget the argument from principle and look at it on consequentialist grounds. Self-segregation is bad for everyone.

 

FP: Mr. Nichols, what do you make of the argument that academic journals shun Chomsky and Mr. Summers’ insight into the reason for it?

 

Nichols: Well, Mr. Summers is right that Chomsky is ignored in the academic journals, and he has come up with a rather elegant explanation of why that might be. But there's a much simpler and sensible answer: Chomsky is ignored because his work is not serious work. It has nothing do with Chomsky's faux-anarchism or his discomfiting aging tenured radicals--and I would remind Mr Summers that Chomsky does his work from a comfortable tenured perch at a major university--and has everything to do with the fact that Chomsky's works are not scholarly works of history or politics, but deceptively-written propaganda masquerading as scholarship. Basically, large chunks of them are fiction, and so the journals don't review his books for the same reason they don't review comic books or Danielle Steel novels.

Mr. Summers says he began recently to read Chomsky "seriously." But there's the rub: Chomsky can't be read seriously, because Chomsky himself pays no attention to even basic rules of evidence or argument. If he needs to invent material to support an argument, he does, and then audaciously creates an empty footnote to make it appear as though he's done his homework and is referencing an actual fact. In his article, Mr. Summers lauds Chomsky's scholarship, but I defy him to do what I did in The Anti-Chomsky Reader, and actually try to follow some of Chomsky's footnotes. As every scholar knows, the whole point of references are to allow other scholars to replicate your research and thus confirm or debate your interpretation, but Chomsky's references are meant to obscure the fact that he's basically making stuff up. When you have, for example, footnotes that support important and controversial points by referencing four or five books in their *entirety*--including, most often, Chomsky's own books--that's not only lousy scholarship, it's a terrible insult to the reader.

So, in my view, Chomsky's invisibility in the academic world has nothing to do with his politics or his views on "power," and everything to do with the fact that his books are really fundamentally silly and not worth the time or attention of a serious reviewer. I've written a lot of book reviews in my career, and as we all know, they take a lot of time and intellectual energy. Since Chomsky doesn't bother to respect his readers--and I have come to suspect that Chomsky knows that most of his readers are not intellectually equipped to really evaluate either his arguments or his methods anyway--why should serious readers bother to respect his works or treat them as though they were written in a true spirit of scholarly inquiry, which they so obviously were not?

 

FP: Fair enough. So Mr. Scialabba, we can agree, then, that Chomsky’s works are not reviewed by academic journals basically for the same reason that, as Mr. Nichols points out, comic books or Danielle Steele novels aren’t reviewed by them either, right?

 

This is an individual who has tried to deny Pol Pot’s killing fields and other myriad communist atrocities. As a Jew, he has fervently worked for the destruction of Israel. He has compared his own country to Nazi Germany and, among other things, praised the vicious despotisms of communist China and Vietnam.

 

After 9/11, Chomsky was in clear ecstasy, going on at length about how America had brought the terror attacks onto itself. He made all these absurd prophecies about how the Americans were planning to perpetrate a genocide against 3-4 million Afghans. Then when it didn’t happen, he pretended he never said it.

 

We are obviously dealing with quite a sick and demented individual who can’t really be taken seriously. Who in their right mind would actually write a serious review of Chomsky’s work, unless it was a psychiatric diagnosis of some kind? Correct?

 

Scialabba: My compliments, Jamie, on that excruciatingly fair-minded formulation.

 

Chomsky is not a historian or a political scientist; he is a political critic. He addresses his readers as fellow citizens responsible for the actions of their government, not as fellow members of a disciplinary community. Just as you would not expect members of a history dissertation committee to award a history PhD for a brilliant piece of sociological investigation that did not address "historical" problems by properly "historiographical" methods, historians may legitimately, at least to some extent, ignore political criticism, however brilliant and accurate, that seems to them "extra-disciplinary." Of course, they are also citizens; but how to combine one's professional and civic responsibilities, or whether they are best kept apart, is a difficult question, requiring scruple and dispassion.

As such, I can't help feeling it's a bit out of place in this company. I understand that Jamie's jibes about Chomsky were just good-natured provocation, meant to make me feel at ease and welcome me to the discussion. But Tom Nichols's more considered comments above are, like his chapter in "The Anti-Chomsky Reader," simply rubbish. Let me, to begin with, offer an example from that chapter of an error so egregious that it calls into question Nichols's credibility in flinging around the kind of insults he does there and here. Only five-and-a-half paragraphs into "Chomsky and the Cold War," Nichols writes that Chomsky "saw the USSR as the near-twin of the United States in its repressiveness and aggression -- an assertion of moral equivalence common to his denunciations of America." In the introduction to his first book, "American Power and the New Mandarins," Chomsky wrote: "It would be criminal to overlook the serious flaws and inadequacies in our institutions, or to fail to utilize the substantial degree of freedom that most of us enjoy, to modify them ... " [My italics.]  In "Towards a New Cold War," he wrote: "It should be noted that the United States is in certain important respects an 'open society,' not only in that dissident opinion is not crushed by state violence ... but also in the freedom of inquiry and expression, which is in many respects unusual even in comparison with other industrial democracies such as Great Britain." I could cite dozens of other examples; and in fact, in virtually every talk by Chomsky I have ever attended, he has referred to the US as "the freest country in the world." Nichols cites no examples, nor could he, that Chomsky has ever called the US the "near-twin" of the USSR in repressiveness.

So here we have: 1) a grave accusation, 2) with not a particle of evidence supporting it, and 3) abundant and readily available evidence contradicting it. That seems to me virtually a definition of intellectual irresponsibility. In the thousands of pages I have read by Chomsky, I have never encountered anything so flagrant. The rest of "Chomsky and the Cold War" is almost as bad, and much of "The Anti-Chomsky Reader" is worse.

 

FP: Yes, Chomsky often quips, always in passing, something about the U.S. being the “freest country in the world.” Unfortunately, this is never a significant part of any of his main arguments (i.e. His arguments don’t go like this: America is the freest country in the world, therefore we must cherish it and protect it and fight the enemies of freedom etc). No, to the contrary. And it remains a mystery why, if the U.S. is the freest nation in the world, by Chomsky’s own admission, that this leftist guru spends his entire life demonizing the U.S. above all other nations.

 

If we were to count the words Chomsky has written to expose the injustice of American “oppression” and “imperialism” to the words he has written deconstructing the barbarity of America’s totalitarian adversaries, I wonder what the result would be? It’s obviously not a trick question and the answer is the key point – a point that legitimizes Mr. Nichols’ argument.

 

In any case, Mr. Flynn, go ahead, it’s your turn.

 

Flynn: I disagree with the premise that academics ignore Chomsky. Biographer Robert Barsky points out that Chomsky "is the most cited living person--four thousand citations of his work are listed in the Arts and Humanities Citation Index for the years 1980 through 1992--and eighth on a shortlist, which includes the likes of Marx and Freud, of the most cited figures of all time."

 

The arts and humanities citations, of course, are in addition to Chomsky's many citations in academic journals in the hard sciences, which tend to focus more on his work in linguistics. Richard Posner examines the scholarly citations of "public intellectuals" in his book by that name. The number of scholarly citations between 1995 and 2000 of Chomsky's work exceeds 5,000, putting him at fifth place on the top-100 list and ahead of the likes of Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Rorty, Milton Friedman, Jean-Paul Sartre, and John Maynard Keynes.

 

The notion that Chomsky is shut out of serious academic debate is a useful myth for the professor's friends and foes alike. The former group uses this fiction to portray their hero as the lonely outsider fighting the good fight against the academic establishment, while the latter group uses it to push the idea that Chomsky is a fringe figure even in academia and thus to be dismissed. The truth is that it's not just conspiracy theorists attending International ANSWER rallies who read Chomsky, but many tenured professors and graduate students too. If you think about it, we really wouldn't be talking about him here if it were otherwise.

 

FP:  This is all getting very confusing. Either Chomsky is shunned in academia or he isn’t.

 

Mr. Summers, in light of what Mr. Flynn is saying, are you referring solely to book reviews in academic journals, and not necessarily to how much Chomsky is cited in academia in general? You cannot deny that he is venerated on the academic campus in general. When I was in graduate studies, I remember that even the hint of being critical of Chomsky could quickly and abruptly turn you into a non-person.

 

Summers: I wish readers to understand that I am not pleading the case of Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky is amply equipped to take up his own cause, insofar as he cares to. I am calling into doubt the judgment of historians who, devoted as they seem to be to the widest possible scope of inquiry, nonetheless convict him of uselessness without trying him out.

 

In my view, the criteria for inclusion in the history journals ought to have little to do with professional credentials or political affiliations. We ought merely to ask whether the author uses the historical dimension to give us a fuller knowledge of ourselves and of our rulers, or whether, in reviewing common knowledge, the author brings us to a greater awareness of our responsibilities as citizens. Does the author enhance our capacity to think on our own? Accordingly, the burden ought to weight heaviest on those who would exclude. In any circle of intellectuals that respected fullness of mind, all this would seem to be elementary. That it is not elementary has a lot to do with the evolution of our academic communities, which seem to me to be too restrictive in their boundaries. This, at least, is the point from which I hoped to start debate.

Yet it seems to be lost to the contributors, who wish, not to use the case of Chomsky to take up a discussion of intellectual freedom in the academy, but to present prefabricated agendas. I suspect that if one were to write the name "Noam Chomsky" at the top of a blank sheet of paper, one would call out the same responses as appear above. But I will play along.

-Mr. Flynn disagrees that Chomsky has been excluded from the academic world, and cites 4,000 quotations from the Arts and Humanities Citation Index. Richard Posner has found 5,000 citations. On the strength of these numbers, Mr. Flynn accuses me of being a useful idiot in the Chomsky cult, and says that I am peddling a conspiracy. In order to advance these insults, however, he must first claim too much my argument, which then allows him to show my inadequacies.

 

To repeat: I wrote that Chomsky is shut out not of "serious academic debate"--his linguistics work alone would qualify him in that arena--but out of the leading history journals. Can Mr. Flynn can find a single review or essay in the thousands of pages of these journals to have been printed in the last thirty years? As I write in my essay, it is precisely BECAUSE Chomsky is well discussed in many forums that his exclusion from history requires an explanation. Then again, to pursue this line of inquiry requires, at the least, some curiosity and discrimination. Mr. Flynn has splattered statistics against a wall.

The key to this debate seems to me to lie in Jamie Glazov's response to Scialabba. Scialabba noted that Nichols offers little in the way of scruple or evidence for his smears against Chomsky, and indeed ignores evidence that (to be generous) complicates his smears. To this, Glazov responds:

"Yes, Chomsky often quips, always in passing, something about the U.S. being the 'freest country in the world.' Unfortunately, this is never a significant part of any of his main arguments (i.e. His arguments don't go like this: America is the freest country in the world, therefore we must cherish it and protect it and fight the enemies of freedom etc). No, to the contrary."

What Glazov is saying there is that Chomsky does not argue what Glazov says he should argue. The quotation above makes clear that Glazov is charging Chomsky with a failure to obey a politically correct line. Look at it again: "His arguments don't go like this: America is the freest country in the world, therefore we must cherish it and protect it and fight the enemies of freedom etc."

As with all cases of political correctness, the target is not really Chomsky. From the entries above, I don't get a clear sense that Glazov, Nichols, and Flynn want us to think about Chomsky in any particular way. I get the sense that they want us to stop thinking, period. The nasty tone, the insults, the summary judgments, the smear by association, all these suggest a police psychology.

FP: What suggests a police psychology is when someone exploits your words to suggest that you said something you didn’t.

 

Mr. Summers, please re-read Mr. Scialabba’s criticism of Nichols in reference to Chomsky and then my defense of Nichols, and then maybe try this again. If you need me to hold your hand and walk you through this, I will:

 

The last thing I care about is trying to stop you from thinking about Chomsky. And the second last thing I want Chomsky, or anyone else, to do is to obey any political line.

 

What I said is that if we are going to be discussing Chomsky, let’s stay away from the nonsense that he is an individual that stresses, AS A MAIN THESIS, that America is a free society. Chomsky DOES NOT believe America is a better and more civilized nation than its totalitarian and terrorist adversaries.

 

I am not maintaining that Chomsky should be saying anything. I am pointing out that Mr. Scialabba is incorrect in arguing that Nichols is mistaken in his premise that Chomsky has demonized America and applied moral equivalency between it and its enemies. I counter by saying that all because Chomsky has, in passing, quipped that America is the “freest country in the world,” this has always been something that Chomsky mumbles without it being any serious factor in his arguments. It doesn’t discredit Nichols’ point at all.

 

The bottom line is that Chomsky equates America with the most barbarous nations in the world. And in terms of how much time and words he spends on this preoccupation, it is apparent that he considers America to be the most barbarous country in the world.

 

If he doesn’t think this, then it remains a mystery why he spends his entire life deconstructing America’s sins while ignoring and excusing the monstrous, vicious, sadistic and heinous crimes of its adversaries.

 

Mr. Nichols, go ahead.

 

Nichols: Mr. Summers has argued that qualifications should not be the gate pass for entry into the academic journals. Well, okay, I can agree with that, although I think at least some basic understanding of the rules of evidence is important. After all, people like Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly are part of a public political debate, too, and they have sold zillions of books. But they won't be getting reviewed in the academic journals any time soon, either -- nor should they. Why should Chomsky be any different? Simply because he adds empty footnotes to his sentences and resides in a university?

 

Noam Chomsky has no more training or background (or practical experience) in the political subjects he writes on than Ann Coulter does. (Actually, I take that back as unfair to Coulter, who has worked in politics and has a law degree.) If the American Political Science Review isn't going to review Coulter's hyperventilation about Cold War liberals as traitors, why should it review Chomsky's conspiracy-theory rantings about sinister cabals of privilege running the world?

The issue in the end is still about basic intellectual integrity. I would suggest to Mr Summers that on his methods alone, Chomsky is essentially "unreviewable," because the only thing that can sustain Chomsky's accusations (especially some of the goofier stuff) is the supposedly unassailable scholarship behind them. But this means that any reviewer finds himself in a vicious circle: to review Chomsky's arguments means reviewing his evidence. This in turn requires unscrewing intricately constructed and deceptive passages and unspooling labyrinthine footnotes to find out there's little substance in them. The point then falls apart, over and over. Frankly, most scholars have better things to do than play this kind of intellectual footsie with a dilettante from the linguistics department.

I would add that the kind of responses we're seeing here from Mssrs. Scialabba and Summers are at least one good indication of why it's difficult to engage Chomsky's work seriously: when anyone points to Chomsky's evasive prose and egregious violation of even minimal intellectual standards, it produces this kind of petulant foot-stomping about "smears" and "rubbish." Nowhere in this are the problems of Chomsky's methods and allegations engaged; nor are the questions of Chomsky's putative "scholarship" ever answered. With Chomsky as with too many of his supporters, there is a constant pattern of attacking the source rather than just dealing with the charge.

Let's take the example at hand. Since Mr. Scialabba claims that I have made an untrue charge against Chomsky, I will beg Jamie's indulgence in allowing me to address it, because I think it illustrates the kind of tiresomeness of dealing with Chomsky and his supporters that I'm talking about.

Mr. Scialabba argues that I am wrong in ascribing to Chomsky a view that the US and the USSR were near twins in their aggression and repressiveness, noting that Chomsky has often pointed out the relatively freer nature of the United States, and that I could never find evidence to support that charge in "thousands of pages."

And yet, right in front of Scialabba in the chapter he derides, there is a good example of exactly what I mean in the scathing, enraged letter that Chomsky sent to Alexander Cockburn and that I quote at length.

Just to remind Mr. Scialabba and for the benefit of anyone who has not read it, Chomsky was fulminating at the happy reception given to Vaclav Havel when he spoke to Congress in 1990. Chomsky laments "the total and complete intellectual and moral corruption of Western culture." He notes that "in comparison to the conditions imposed by US tyranny and violence, East Europe under Russian rule was practically a paradise." In a particularly winsome turn of phrase, Chomsky lashes out: "The sign of a truly totalitarian culture is that important truths simply lack cognitive meaning and are interpretable only at the level of 'Fuck You', so they can then elicit a perfectly predictable torrent of abuse in response. We've long ago reached that level..."

Elsewhere Chomsky has written that the Cold War "system" (an interesting choice of word, too) was "a macabre dance of death in which the rulers of the superpowers mobilize their own populations to support harsh and brutal measures directed against victims within what they take to be their respective domains." If that's not an argument for moral equivalence--or worse--then Mr. Scialabba and I apparently don't use the same dictionary.  By the way, Mr. Scialabba seems to have forgotten that even Chomsky's admission that America is "free" doesn't mean much, since he has also written that "formal" freedom is not the issue: "As long as each individual is facing the television tube alone, formal freedom poses no threat to privilege."

So which is it? Are we "free," or a "totalitarian culture?" Chomsky has said both. Mr Scialabba has cherry-picked the instances where Chomsky has accepted that the US is a free country, and I've found many more where Chomsky has said we're as bad as the Soviets, or even worse.  (I've only seen Chomsky speak once, back in the 80s at Boston University, and it was a fairly incoherent harangue. The one thing I remember vividly is that he boasted to us about how he made Nixon's enemies list. Yawn.)

I too could go on and on with examples, but it's simply laughable for Mr. Scialabba to say that somehow Chomsky does not make the kind of argument that he has made over and over--instead, it is easier to imitate the tactics of Chomsky himself and simply deny it, even though the evidence was in the very chapter that Scialabba was criticizing. Now that is rubbish.

In any case--and I apologize for the long response--let me just repeat my challenge more directly to Mr. Summers: if you want to see Chomsky reviewed in the journals, do what we in The Anti Chomsky  Reader  did, and sit down to write a serious review essay of any number of Chomsky's works. Follow his footnotes. Force him to substantiate every charge he makes. Try to replicate his research. (I cited concrete examples in my chapter where it is simply impossible to do this with Chomsky's work.)  Read with a critical eye, and ask yourself, for example, why so much of his writing is in the passive voice.

In other words, do what responsible scholars do for each other every day, and see if the most controversial of his claims can sustain an empirical, adversarial challenge. Then ask yourself if this kind of work is something you would really ask your colleagues to bother with, or if it's something you'd even take a moment to read in a journal if they published it. The answer might surprise you.

I want to add one more thing. I guess I'm wondering a bit at Mr Summers' whole project here, because if I can say one thing to Chomsky's credit, it's that I get the sense reading him that he really isn't trying to speak to political scientists or historians, or even trying to engage in a real dialogue with his political critics. Instead, I think he's basically an entrepreneur trying to sell books to people who already agree with him and are a ready market for his brand of propaganda. His stuff is for the true believers, and not written as part of an honest conversation with any sort of scholarly or academic community.  So why waste time reviewing them?  And why complain that he isn't being reviewed, when he clearly is not aiming at an academic audience anyway?

 

Scialabba: First, a few words from our sponsor, or moderator. Here is one of Jamie Glazov's comments: "Let’s stay away from the nonsense that [Chomsky] stresses, AS A MAIN THESIS, that America is a free society." Why would Chomsky, or anyone, stress something so obvious, much less make it his MAIN THESIS? He has acknowledged, in the two places I cited earlier and in many others, that America is a free society, and he has never written anything to the contrary.

 

Glazov again: "Chomsky DOES NOT believe America is a better and more civilized nation than its totalitarian and terrorist adversaries." Look again at the words I quoted: "the United States is in certain important respects an 'open society,' not only in that dissident opinion is not crushed by state violence" -- an obvious reference to totalitarian countries, where it is crushed -- "but also in the freedom of inquiry and expression, which is in many respects unusual even in comparison with other industrial democracies." Glazov again: "Chomsky equates America with the most barbarous nations in the world." Compare again, the words just quoted; also my other quote, where Chomsky speaks of "the substantial degree of freedom that most of us enjoy."


I quoted Tom Nichols as saying that Chomsky sees "the USSR as the near-twin of the United States in its repressiveness and aggression." Anyone reading these words would, I imagine, assume that Nichols means that Chomsky believes the US is as repressive as the USSR was: ie, that our government denies its population freedom of speech, association, religion, the press, travel, etc., much as the USSR's government did. That seems to me the plain meaning of Nichols's words.

 

It is obvious, I trust, from the two quotations I produced, that Chomsky believes no such thing. I repeat: those were two of many passages in which Chomsky remarks in passing, as something everyone knows and no one would dream of disputing (or, for that matter, asserting as a MAIN THESIS), that the United States is a far freer society than the USSR.

 

Nichols produces no evidence whatever that Chomsky believes that citizens of the United States do not enjoy freedom of speech, the press, etc. in far greater measure than citizens of the USSR did, or that these are not genuine freedoms. Nichols defends himself above by saying: "Mr Scialabba has cherry-picked the instances where Chomsky has accepted that the US is a free country, and I've found many more where Chomsky has said we're as bad as the Soviets, or even worse." I can only repeat: Nichols has not found -- because there does not exist -- a single instance of Chomsky's saying anything remotely like "the US suppresses the civil liberties of its citizens just as much as the Soviet Union did, or even more" -- which, again, is the plain meaning of Nichols's words.

What Nichols does produce by way of example is a passage from a personal letter in which Chomsky writes that widespread failure to perceive obvious but politically inconvenient truths is "the sign of a truly totalitarian culture." Why Chomsky chose to use that phrase, even in a personal letter, I don't know; but what he means is plain from the context, and from everything else he has written: namely, that the "manufacture of consent" (the title of one of his major books) in capitalist democracies can be remarkably effective.

 

Here is what he means by the "manufacture of consent": "In sum, the mass media of the United States are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without significant overt coercion." (Chomsky and Herman, "Manufacturing Consent," p. 306) A few pages earlier, he and Edward Herman specifically distinguish this process from totalitarian repression: "As we have stressed throughout this book, the US media do not function in the manner of the propaganda system of a totalitarian state. Rather, they permit -- indeed, encourage -- spirited debate, criticism, and dissent, as long as these remain faithfully within the system of presuppositions and principles that constitute an elite consensus, a system so powerful as to be internalized largely without awareness." ("Manufacturing Consent, "302) Whether or not one finds Chomsky and Herman's "propaganda model" persuasive (I do), it is plainly absurd to suggest, as Nichols does, that, having summarized the message of his major work on American ideology in the terms I have just quoted, Chomsky nevertheless believes that the US is a "totalitarian" society in the same sense as the USSR was.

"So which is it?" Nichols asks, crushingly. "Are we 'free,' or a 'totalitarian culture'?" Chomsky's answer, as a competent and responsible critic would have ascertained before making the kinds of charges Nichols makes in his "serious review essay," is that the US is a free society with considerable inequalities, in which those with sufficient resources to control the media can "filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public" by means of news filters that "fix the premises of discourse and interpretation, and the definition of what is newsworthy in the first place." ("Manufacture of Consent," p. 2) As is the case throughout his essay (and like many other contributors to The Anti-Chomsky Reader), Nichols not only does not engage with Chomsky's arguments, he does not even recognize them. 

It's clear, I hope, that if the charge of "moral equivalence" is meant to suggest that Chomsky alleges any similarity between the character of American society and political culture and that of totalitarian societies like the former USSR, it's completely groundless. What about "moral equivalence" in their international behavior? That Chomsky regarded the Soviet Union as an evil empire is not in doubt: in addition to its Eastern European domain (which nonetheless it did also undoubtedly consider a defensive buffer zone along the route by which it had been repeatedly invaded from the West), the USSR "sought targets of opportunity where it could find them, entering into friendly and supportive relations with the most miserable tyrants and gangsters -- Mengistu in Ethiopia and the neo-Nazi Argentine generals, to name only two examples" (Chomsky, "Deterring Democracy," p. 27).

 

That the United States has also, and on at least as large a scale, entered into friendly and supportive relations with the most miserable tyrants and gangsters -- in Central and South America, in Southeast Asia, in Central and South Africa, and in the Middle East -- is also not in doubt. Bringing that fact, its causes, and its enormous and horrific consequences to the attention of the American public, who bear ultimate moral responsibility for it, is Chomsky's purpose. Whether this amounts to alleging "moral equivalence" in any sense that justifies Nichols's and Glazov's astounded indignation is a question that -- if only because I'm running out of space -- I must leave to the reader.

Finally, returning to our main question: Daniel Flynn points out that Chomsky is frequently cited and very influential. This may be true, but it doesn't quite respond to John Summers's question: "Why are Chomsky's writings not more widely discussed among historians?" I offered a tentative answer in my first comment; let me restate it here. I see three possible answers to Summers's question. The first, Professor Nichols's, is that Chomsky's writings are simply not worth discussing, by historians or anyone else. The second -- possibly Summers's, possibly not -- is that they indeed raise important questions relevant to what historians do, but that most historians are either too blinkered and unimaginative to recognize this or too timid and conformist to act on the recognition. The third is that professional history-writing is a craft and professional historians a guild, whose materials are mainly (though not exclusively) archival or documentary or otherwise "primary" sources, not previously published or at least not widely available. Work judged "original" or a "contribution to historical knowledge" and deemed worthy of publication or review in professional journals must, as a rule, use such materials. Work (like Chomsky's) that doesn't, whatever its subject or quality, should be published or reviewed elsewhere. I find the first answer wholly implausible, the second somewhat plausible, the third most plausible.

 

To continue reading this symposium, click here.


Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.


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