Who's Afraid of Noam Chomsky?

I. The Prolific Iconoclast

Professor 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 his voluminous output over the years.

Chomsky 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.

After 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 independence."

Chomsky’s 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 space.

The 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.

But 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 Project website developed by Tom Engelhardt and Steve Fraser. This site also features the highly recommended The Sorrows of Empire, by Chalmers Johnston.

A 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 page.

My 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 Problems of Knowledge and Freedom (1972), and the 1973 collection, For Reasons of State.

II. Knowledge and Freedom

Problems 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.

The 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:

If…man’s 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

This 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.

I 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 1940s.

Add 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 Russell 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.

This 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:

"Russell’s 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

III. Linguistics and the Language Instinct

Chomsky 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 writings.

In 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.

In 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 Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1972).

Generative 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 Sampson 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.

By 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.

What 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.

Concern 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 study:

"What (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, 1970

IV. The Analysis of Mental Processes, and Its Uses

Chomsky 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.

Chomsky’s 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.

The 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.

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

"Chomsky 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.’"

What 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.

It 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, Manufacturing Consent — The Political Economy of the Mass Media (revised edition 2002).

V. Critiques of Chomsky

There 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.

V.i Chomsky’s Economics

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

"Economics 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."

He 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.

V.ii Chomsky and Libertarianism

First, 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.

Part 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:

"I 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

In 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.

The 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 interview. It is for this reason that he has been called u2018the coercive anarchist.’ Joe Peacott writes in "Chomsky’s Statism":

"Chomsky 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."

One can see why Julian Sanchez 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 favor?

The 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.

V.iii Chomsky and Conspiracy Theory

Another 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 Harbor). 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 assumptions.

While 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 assassination:

"Chomsky 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….

The 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 terms."

~ Michael Parenti, Dirty Truths, chapter 3

Others 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:

"Denial 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."

They 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.

V.iv The Anti-Chomskyites

And 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 mind,’ well-known torture advocate Alan Dershowitz, 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.

David 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 Reader" 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 travelers."

Some 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.

VI. Conclusions

Libertarians 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 media.

As 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.

The 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:

"Since 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

Finally, 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.

Additional 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 Roy wrote an interesting article around a year ago entitled “The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky.”

August 17, 2004

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