Who's Afraid of Noam Chomsky?

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The Prolific Iconoclast

Noam Chomsky is a fierce critic of US wars and foreign policy,
and a brilliant analyst of the propaganda and psychological mechanisms
through which the liberal-bureaucratic establishment achieves
public consent and endorsement of the aggressive actions of the
state. For this he is intensely admired in some quarters, and
detested and reviled in others. Between the extremes of the uncritical
campus adulation and the vicious ad hominem abuse to which
he is sometimes subjected, there are genuine critiques to be made
and refreshing doses of the unvarnished truth to be found in
voluminous output over the years.

has published a large number of books dealing with world events
and American foreign policy, since his first collection of political
essays, American
Power and the New Mandarins
, came out in 19691.
In this book he rightly and tellingly criticized the ostensibly
value-neutral approach of the managers of the United States’ war
on Vietnam and their apologists, pointing out that all statements
of action under declaredly objective and neutral intent are in
fact a power-serving and often cynical defense of the status quo
and of a particular, dominant ideology.

more than 30 years this book is still, for me, the quintessential
demolition job on the pretensions of social scientists and bureaucratic
state managers to moral neutrality in the analysis of foreign
policy and cost-effectiveness in its execution. They put noble
rhetoric to work to justify aggressive war-making against comparatively
defenseless peoples, involving experiments of unknown cost with
novel, lethal technologies and long-term destruction of essential
sources of life on earth. "Throughout
history," writes Chomsky in u2018Selective
Memory and a Dishonest Doctrine
,’ "even the harshest
and most shameful measures are regularly accompanied by professions
of noble intent — and rhetoric about bestowing freedom and

most recent work on world affairs, Hegemony
or Survival — America’s Quest for Global Dominance

(2003) necessarily and unsurprisingly deals with similar dispensing
of death and destruction in the name of the national security
state. By now, some 35 years later, it is on a larger, wider and
more existentially alarming scale, as weaponry has become more
lethal and sophisticated, and US war-fighting strategists dream
of instantly zapping potential earth-based foes from outer

book is highly readable, and I recommend it for an up-to-the-minute,
consciously polemical review of US global policy in the light
of the 2002 National
Security Strategy
. The only slight reservation I have about
Hegemony or Survival is that it is in places marred by
a tone of caustic irony. This jars with Chomsky’s life-long commitment
to an idealistic, humane conception of man’s freedom and dignity,
based on a positive conviction of innate human potential and creativity.

judge for yourself: excerpts are online at the author’s
own website
, and supplementary material for the book is also
online in the 2003 Guerrilla
News Network interview
and as part of the thought-provoking
American Empire
website developed by Tom
and Steve Fraser. This site also features the highly
recommended The
Sorrows of Empire
, by Chalmers Johnston.

wealth of other Chomsky material from the intervening years can
also be found on the web: two of the best summaries of these resources
are the Chomsky Archive
(particularly the links to books,
both excerpted and complete) and the Noam
Chomsky Resources

own long-term favorites are two early books which encapsulate
the essence of Chomsky’s political writings. In addition, despite
the fact Chomsky has tended to downplay the connections between
his politics and his work on language, they help us to understand
what links his writings on politics, media and society to his
academic work in linguistics. They are the interesting slim volume
of Knowledge and Freedom
(1972), and the 1973 collection,
Reasons of State

Knowledge and Freedom

of Knowledge and Freedom contains the Bertrand Russell Memorial
lectures which Chomsky delivered at Cambridge University in 1971,
the first entitled u2018On Interpreting the World,’ which deals with
language and meaning, and the second u2018On Changing the World,’
dealing with socio-political theory and foreign policy.

first of these lectures explored the themes of u2018How do we know
what we know, specifically in the context of language, and how
do we know what rules, or syntax, govern our use of that language.’
Chomsky writes, quoting Bertrand Russell:

u2018true life’ consists u2018in art and thought and love, in the creation
and contemplation of beauty and in the scientific understanding
of the world,’ if this is u2018the true glory of man,’ then it is
the intrinsic principles of mind that should be the object of
our awe and, if possible, our inquiry. In investigating some
of the most familiar achievements of human intelligence —
the ordinary use of language, for example — we are struck
at once by their creative character, by the character of free
creation within a system of rule.

Noam Chomsky, Problems of Knowledge and Freedom, 1971,
page 46

is the Chomskyan guiding principle. Today, at 75, he maintains
with remarkable consistency the intellectually and morally compassionate
approach which this principle implies, coupled with, in my view,
a notable humility in the face of the infinite nature of the task
involved in the quest for knowledge and understanding of the world.
He himself has said that the philosophical predilection for innateness
is really nothing new, and places its origins several hundred
years back in time, with philosophers such as Descartes.

believe his overriding concern — the innate or hard-wired
element of Chomsky, if you like — has always been a curiosity
about the intrinsic workings of the human mind. The resulting
quest to critique process and understand structure lies at the
heart of his worldly activities in both linguistics and political
commentary. The political aspect came into play because of a strong,
but ultimately secondary, interest in freedom and what makes it
possible. This was derived from cultural, ethnic and educational
influences during his upbringing and youth in the 1930s and early

to this a perceived moral responsibility to make productive use
of the restless intellect with which he was endowed, a profound
bias against discrimination and coercive aggression in any form,
and a willingness to admit mistakes (or maybe sometimes not to),
and you can see why I am inclined ultimately to give him a place
in a long line of maddening, fearless, enquiring, dissenting rationalist
philosophers. Bertrand
is his most immediate and conspicuous predecessor
in the great realm of philosophical enquiry and, perhaps not coincidentally,
in the ranks of anti-war activism.
A large
photograph of Russell is on the wall in Chomsky’s
office at MIT

explanation also helps to account for the inconsistency and uncertainties
(some say the vacuum) in Chomsky’s output when it comes to matters
of political and economic substance. The fact is that as an individual
he doesn’t have the answers as to how to change the world (who
does?), even if he has thought a lot about it, and even though
has been able brilliantly to expose the humbug and hypocrisy underlying
academic and bureaucratic apologias for American and other imperial
adventures. What he said about Russell in his second 1971 lecture
applies as much to Chomsky himself in 2004:

approach to this range of topics (libertarian socialism, the
power of the centralized state and how to achieve real freedom
or democracy) seems to me eminently reasonable, and —
after half a century of tragedy — as remote as ever from
any likelihood of achievement."

Chomsky, Problems of Knowledge and Freedom, page 53

Linguistics and the Language Instinct

made his name in the field of linguistics, despite the fact that,
by his own admission, he came into the field almost by accident,
because he had a teacher with whom he shared political interests.
Many commentators pass over this area out of dumb respect for
specialization, or because they judge it too complex and arcane,
but in my opinion it needs to be generally understood. What follows
is a necessarily simplified, layman’s view of this topic, whereby
I hope to show that this field, and Chomsky’s contribution to
it, are not as mysterious as they are sometimes made out to be,
and that they are relevant to his worldview and to his political

his academic
work in linguistics
, Chomsky developed the conviction of innate
human potential and creativity into an extensive theory. In place
of earlier, empirically-based theories, he developed and consolidated
the idea — more philosophical than linguistic — that
there are intrinsic (even biological) qualities of mind which
enable us to generate rules of grammar and use of language without
having first had to learn them all.

so doing, Chomsky countered the mechanistic conception that we
start out like a completely blank sheet of paper on which environmental
factors — instructors, social engineers, culture —
work their influences and totally shape the resulting human being.
This was forcefully put in his essay entitled u2018Psychology and
Ideology,’2 a rightly celebrated
demolition of then highly influential behaviorist arguments of
B. F. Skinner, whose best-known work was, notoriously, entitled
Freedom and Dignity

grammar and the innateness of the
language instinct
have established a strong institutional
presence, particularly in American higher education, but there
is by no means universal agreement on the merits and qualities
of Chomskyan theory in this domain. Debate continues as to what
exactly he did or did not draw from significant precursors such
as Zellig Harris,
and similar issues are raised in relation to Chomsky’s influence
— or lack of influence — on those who have come after
him. Some, like Geoffrey
of Sussex University, simply accuse Chomsky of building
his theories on sand. Many
other linguists
have debated and contested the implications
of Chomsky’s work.

temperament and belief, I personally sympathize with the Chomskyan
preference for nativism, but I can see that empirical factors
like culture and environment clearly play a role, even in language
acquisition: this does not actually negate the potential or actual
truth of a theory of universal intrinsic generative capability
in the human mind. The truth is that after nearly 50 years of
the u2018Chomsky linguistics revolution,’ and several refinements
of the original theories, the key issues in this hundreds-of-years-old
debate (nature vs. nurture, innate capabilities vs. environmental
influences, a priori knowledge vs. empirical findings)
are as alive and unresolved as ever.

is more, the issues have acquired a new and even greater urgency
in an age when prospects of cloning and biological
engineering or control of human beings
loom on the horizon,
potentially making a total mockery of human dignity and freedom.
I suspect Chomsky would say (and I would agree with him) that
this disturbing prospect makes it all the more important to fight
for and elucidate our intrinsic humanity, against those who would
enslave us by turning us all into machines with varying degrees
of responsiveness to external stimuli, or to instructions received
via subcutaneously implanted microchips.

with how human dignity and freedom are achieved, and maintained,
moves us into the realm of philosophy of mind and an understanding
of system and process. It is in these areas that the legacy of
Chomsky will, I believe, be substantial and enduring. Eminent
linguistician Sir John Lyons made this assessment in his 1970

(Chomsky) is saying is that the most important reason for being
interested in the scientific study of language, and more especially
in generative grammar, is that it has a contribution to make
to our understanding of mental processes."

John Lyons, Chomsky,

The Analysis of Mental Processes, and Its Uses

is generally regarded as a man of the political left, and his
early and continuing sympathy with left-libertarian and anarchist
ideas still no doubt alienates those who reflexively place themselves
on the political right. Of late the liberal, humanitarian interventionist
left has turned against him as well, principally on account of
his anti-war views. Like many opponents of war, he has managed
to upset people of both right and left, and not surprisingly in
the post-9/11 looking-glass world, he is also dubbed anti-American
and anti-Israel.

views on Israel have not changed since the 1940s, but nevertheless
attract much hostility. Prior to 1948 he supported the idea of
forming a democratic state for both Jews and Arabs in Palestine,
rather than a Jewish state. This was not a mainstream position
among Zionist Jews, but was still considered acceptable in debate.
Today in the US, however, any such talk of a democratic secular
state is considered anti-Zionist, despite the fact it still has
adherents in Israel itself, where discussion of these issues is
probably now more candid and open than in the United States.

root cause of hostility to Chomsky does not lie in any labels
such as u2018left’ and u2018right,’ and apologists for government everywhere
consistently accuse the opponents of the state’s exercise of the
territorial monopoly of violence of being unpatriotic. It comes
down to his outstanding ability and undoubted willingness, in
the interest of speaking truth to power in the field of intervention
in other countries and the domination of subject peoples, to dissect
the psychological processes which underlie the propaganda and
the machinations of the apologists of state power — whatever
political or ethnic quadrant they hail from.

his article entitled "Does
Noam Chomsky Hate America?
" (contrary to what you may
read elsewhere, Chomsky does not hate America), Anthony Gancarski

would be the first to agree that, in terms of effecting real
political change, it doesn’t matter what we say. … [He adheres]
to the u2018investment theory’ of politics, which holds that all
meaningful, high-stakes political action amounts to battles
between ever-shifting u2018coalitions of investors competing to
control the state’ and its u2018monopoly of violence.’"

those coalitions of u2018investors’ (the gangs of power-seekers) and
their sycophants dislike, more than anything, is for their intentions
and their propaganda to be shown up for what they are: and in
my opinion Chomsky’s primary skill lies in doing just that, in
the psychological work of analyzing and unmasking underlying structures
and processes. Somewhat ironically in the light of his general
hostility to all
things postmodern
, his innate ability to understand process
has made him a master of the deconstruction of language and texts,
enabling him to expose the unquestioned assumptions and inconsistencies
they contain. Because of his early anarchist sympathies, he has
exercised that skill above all in deconstructing the language
of the aggressive managerial state and its apologists in academia
and in the mass media.

is hardly surprising therefore that the mainstream media today
regard Chomsky as a dangerous man to have around for interviews
and debates. In my opinion he has attracted so much hostility
precisely because of his effectiveness in these psychological
domains, and because he applies a morally consistent approach
to the examination of disturbing foreign policy issues and events
which many would rather not know about, or simply cannot deal
with. Others reject that approach because it counters their particular
social or political agenda. On this latter topic, I strongly recommend
the indispensable 1988 book which he co-authored with Edward Herman,
Consent — The Political Economy of the Mass Media

(revised edition 2002).

Critiques of Chomsky

are many critiques of Chomsky, some of which are valuable. I have
discussed those which apply in the field of linguistics. Other
areas which I consider below are economics, politics (the differences
between u2018right’ and u2018left’ libertarianism in particular), and
conspiracy theory. Finally, I take a look at the so-called anti-Chomskyites,
who have developed very unpleasant forms of Chomsky-bashing into
a fully-fledged journalistic and online pastime.

Chomsky’s Economics

Ostrowski has made the best overall critique of the utopian nature
of Chomsky’s ideas in his January 2003 article entitled "Chomsky’s
." He writes:

requires study and systematic thinking about the implications
of action, choice, and ownership in a world of scarcity. It
is a science that delineates the limits of how far the human
mind can wander when thinking about what society can and should
be. This is one reason that intellectuals, even great ones,
take such pains to avoid studying economics, and instead latch
on to fantasies like socialism and syndicalism."

also quotes Chomsky as once having said, "There are supposed
to be laws of economics. I can’t understand them." This pinpoints
a seemingly willful ignorance when it comes to economic matters.
I do not find this surprising in the context of Chomsky’s intellectual
interests but, as the passage of time has demonstrated, it of
course limits the application of his ideas to the real world,
and to bringing about any substantive changes to that world.

Chomsky and Libertarianism

a brief explanation. The description u2018libertarian’ is claimed
by both u2018left-libertarians’ and u2018right-libertarians.’ Left-libertarians
and left-anarchists, including Chomsky, see libertarian socialism
(or non-aggressive, non-violent anarchism) as the true legacy
of classical liberalism, while anarcho-capitalists and libertarians
of the right, because of their focus on economics, tend to see
u2018libertarian socialism’ as a contradiction in terms: for them,
libertarian is diametrically opposed to collectivist, and socialism
is by definition collectivist.

of the problem lies in what left and right define as u2018socialism.’
However, it is sufficient to understand that the tussles between
left and right over the legitimate use of the words u2018libertarian’
and u2018socialist’ tend to generate misunderstandings and to confuse
the issues. In fact, there is much common ground between left-
and right-libertarianism, principally the opposition to state
power and to war. Chomsky has acknowledged this in the past:

find myself in substantial agreement with people who consider
themselves anarcho-capitalists on a whole range of issues; and
for some years, was able to write only in their journals. And
I also admire their commitment to rationality — which
is rare…."

Noam Chomsky, in an interview
entitled "Noam Chomsky on Anarchism," December 1996

the same excerpt, however, Chomsky goes on to say, "…I do
not think they see the consequences of the doctrines they espouse,
or their profound moral failings." Here he is referring to
the alleged inability of anarcho-capitalists to admit that concentrations
of private power (as found, for example, in large American and
multinational corporations) can be as bad or worse than the coercive
power of the state. As far as Chomsky is concerned, this is the
additional and vital humanistic element in his preferred, leftist
form of anarchism, as opposed to right-anarchism or anarcho-capitalism.

problem with this approach, as critics have pointed out, is that
it produces seemingly arbitrary support for coercive or aggressive
state action, in situations where state action is deemed the lesser
of two evils. Chomsky believes that in such situations the state
can and should act as a restraining influence so as to check "the
ravages of an unconstrained corporate-capitalist system,"
a typical expression which he used in a recent
. It is for this reason that he has been called u2018the
coercive anarchist
.’ Joe Peacott writes in "Chomsky’s

bases his support for the federal government on his contention
that private power wielded by corporations is much more dangerous
to people than state action, and that government can, and should,
protect its defenseless citizens against the depredations of
the capitalists. While the power of private corporations in
the United States is truly awesome and oppressive, this power
exists because these businesses are supported by the state,
a point that Chomsky concedes."

can see why Julian
begins his article "Two Cheers for Chomskyism"
with the words, "Libertarians are not supposed to like Noam
Chomsky." Chomsky rather unthinkingly dismisses the (right-)libertarian
vision laid out in, for example, Murray Rothbard’s For
a New Liberty
as "a world so full of hate that no
human being would want to live in it, … a world built on hatred,"
something "not even worth talking about … a special American
aberration, it’s not really serious." And yet, as Sanchez
points out, he is "a hell of a lot closer to [right-]libertarians
than he or his groupies dare admit." Is this not because
the ultimate objection is not to capital itself, but to the corporatism
under which some capitalists cozy up to the state, contriving
monopolies, subsidies, and other distortions of the true free
market, while others simply take possession of the apparatus and
offensive capability of the state to rig the markets in their

end-result of all this is that all one can say about Chomsky’s
form of politics with any certainty is that he is more often anti-state
than not. This is hardly satisfactory for anyone looking for a
clear and positive political stance, or a straw man to knock down,
but is comprehensible when you realize that Chomsky would probably
much rather not adopt any particular political stance, and I suspect
does not much care whether he is judged an anarchist or not, or
whether he understands the laws of economics: his ultimate interest
is in process and structure. Empirical facts are of course important
to him, but like any true polemicist, he is selective in his choice
of those facts. That he is still criticized for this is indicative
of the extent to which the belief in desirability of objective
neutrality and balance in socio-political analysis still prevails.
Chomsky implicitly condemns this idea in all his work: for him,
supposed objectivity and balance mask underlying ideologies of
dominance and discrimination.

Chomsky and Conspiracy Theory

common grouse against Chomsky is that he refuses to countenance
anything but the official versions of the stories of the JFK assassination
and 9/11 (and, it appears, Pearl
). One can argue that this is a political choice, but
I believe it is of a piece with his general preference for innateness
over empiricism, coupled with a need to ensure a minimum level
of personal security in his professional life, in other words
plain survival for one who is consistently challenging conventional

Chomsky at one time was apparently interested in investigating
the JFK assassination, he rejected this possibility and adopted
the official position that u2018a lone nut did it’, mainly on the
grounds that the investigation of all possible alternatives would
not lead anywhere useful. This position conveniently avoids conflict
with the powers that be — conflict that Chomsky would probably
see as unnecessary and fruitless. For this, he has been heavily
criticized. Michael Parenti writes in connection with the JFK

is able to maintain his criticism that no credible evidence
has come to light only by remaining determinedly unacquainted
with the mountain of evidence that has been uncovered….

remarkable thing about [those] on the Left who attack the Kennedy
conspiracy findings is they remain invincibly ignorant of the
critical investigations that have been carried out. I have repeatedly
pointed this out in exchanges with them and they never deny
it. They have not read any of the many studies by independent
researchers who implicate the CIA in a conspiracy to kill the
president and in the even more protracted and extensive conspiracy
to cover up the murder. But this does not prevent them from
dismissing the conspiracy charge in the most general and unsubstantiated

Michael Parenti, Dirty
, chapter 3

see Chomsky’s refusal to delve into deeper truthseeking as part
of the u2018left
gatekeeper’ phenomenon
, one of the manifestations of which
(beyond those cases involving fear of potential offense to financial
sponsors) is psychological denial. August West, writing in his
2002 article entitled "Left
Denial on 9/11
" on why the left seems so eager to accept
official reality, states:

lies at the heart of this unusual Left reaction. Many activists
have looked at the questions, thought about the answers for
a bit, and retreated in horror in the face of implications.
If the government had foreknowledge and let the attacks happen,
or worse, actually took part in facilitating them, then the
American state is far more vicious than they could have imagined.
And if so, what would happen to them should they vocalize this?
Needless to say, this would greatly raise the stakes of political
action well beyond the relatively superficial level that even
many leftists operate at."

are not alone. There is a widespread consciousness, even on the
Internet, that if as an
investigative journalist
, for example, you stray beyond certain
limits, you are getting into the realm of serious risk to life
and limb.

The Anti-Chomskyites

so I come to the anti-Chomskyites. Most of their material would
be unworthy of serious comment, were it not for the baneful influence
they wield on current public opinion in America and the venomous
nature of their personal attacks on Chomsky. Among these are the
material put out by former leftist and now neoconservative writer
David Horowitz, who accuses Chomsky of having a u2018sick
,’ well-known torture advocate Alan
, and Harvard professor Werner Cohn, who variously
tag Chomsky with the worn-out labels u2018anti-American’ and u2018anti-Semitic,’
and much else besides. Werner Cohn’s 1995 book, Partners
in Hate
, additionally smears Chomsky with the charge of being
a Holocaust denier by association. These smears must be especially
ironic and galling for Chomsky who, as an adolescent, experienced
at first hand the genuine and truly lamentable anti-Jewish prejudice
which afflicted America in the 1930s.

Horowitz has recently co-edited a collection of Chomsky-clobbering
essays called "The
Anti-Chomsky Reader
," a title designed to echo and counteract
the "Chomsky
" of 1983. A weblog has also sprung up, called
"Diary of an Anti-Chomskyite,"
which advertises itself as being "dedicated to the permanent
and total discrediting of the work of Noam Chomsky and his fellow

of this criticism and commentary is abusive, and has little worth
other than to discredit those who convey it or to pander to the
prejudices of fellow warmongers. Most of it, however, is couched
in terms of the prevailing ideological medium of the new world
order: the war on terrorism. It does not take a genius to see
the origins and motivations of such dogmas. Unconditional, jingoistic
flag-wavers, of the u2018my country right or wrong’ variety, for whom
the only freedom of expression permitted is freedom of the kind
of speech they like, are among those who take most unkindly to
having their mental processes analyzed and their assumptions exposed,
whether those assumptions be hypocritical, as they often are,
or genuinely well-meaning. Unfortunately, in the latter case,
they may be even worse in their effects than the barefaced lies
and hypocrisy which are the order of the day in the politics of
the war on terrorism.


are sympathetic to the plight of intellectuals and academics who
are either denied tenure or ostracized for their opinions. Noam
Chomsky has been fortunate in that he is not in that situation,
and Julian Sanchez half-jokingly describes him as u2018the tenured
anarchist,’ but he has on occasion been close to much worse: as
biographer Robert Barsky notes, he was at one time threatened
with the possibility of lengthy jail terms, Richard Nixon had
him put on an enemies list, he had one of his books (Counter-revolutionary
Violence) effectively suppressed by its American publisher and,
despite the enormous world-wide audiences for his talks and books,
he has historically been distrusted and shunned by the US mainstream

for all his worries and outbursts at the depredations of the capitalist
system Chomsky, as a purveyor of ideas and best-selling author
and, in the overblown blurb-speak of the New York Times, u2018arguably
the most important intellectual alive,’ is, dare I say it, the
living embodiment of a free market success story in book publishing.
People want to hear what he has to say.

fact remains that, because of the consistency of his anti-war
views, his unflinching commitment to rationality, and his unwillingness
to compromise, Chomsky is nonetheless a lonely intellectual3.
Long ago he was already aware of this:

the dominant voice in any society is that of the beneficiaries
of the status quo, the u2018alienated intellectual’ who tries to
pursue the normal path of honest enquiry — perhaps falling
into error on the way — and thus often finds himself challenging
the conventional wisdom, tends to be a lonely figure."

Noam Chomsky, "The Function of the University in a
Time of Crisis" in For Reasons of State (1973),
p. 91

given the climate of fear which has come to prevail in the wake
of the events of September 11, 2001, it is no accident that Chomsky’s
polemics have been in much greater evidence over the last 3 years,
possibly more so than at any time since the late 1960s and the
end of the Vietnam war. As the deluge of pseudo-patriotic flotsam
generated by government fear-mongering for the war on terrorism
has risen, so Chomsky, despite his age, has re-emerged —
in print, on the net and via the spoken word — to identify
and demolish the myths of the national security state, and once
again to try to turn the tide
of propaganda and falsehood.

Links and Further Reading


  1. This link
    goes to the recent (2002) re-edition of American
    Power and the New Mandarins
    , with foreword by Howard
    Zinn .
  2. The essay
    ‘Psychology and Ideology’ is reproduced in Chomsky’s For
    Reasons of State
    (this link goes to a new edition, published
    in 2002).
  3. Arundhati
    wrote an interesting article around a year ago entitled
    Loneliness of Noam Chomsky

17, 2004

Wall (send him mail) has a
Master’s degree in International Relations from the London School
of Economics & Political Science, and lives in Estoril, Portugal,
where he currently works as a freelance writer and translator.

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