Noam Chomsky, the well known critic of US foreign policy and now retired Professor of Linguistics at MIT was recently named the worlds "top public intellectual" by Prospect magazine. I know nothing about his theories on linguistics and only a little about his politics, but it was his politics that got him on this list. The more I read about this guy, the more I wish folks on the left would distance themselves from his critiques. His logic, such as it is, is entirely incongruous with any conception of a moral high ground. I.e., since personal politics boils down to which ideology most reflects your broad ideas of right or wrong, consistency matters. If one truly cares about the plight of oppressed people, one does not flippantly excuse the actions of a despotic/totalitarian regime. This interview from the Guardian, hardly a bastion of conservative journalism, offers a pretty dramatic example of how morally capricious this fellow is.

"on the pogroms of Russia, which none the less Chomsky can't help qualifying as "not very bad, by contemporary standards. In the worst of the major massacres, I think about 49 people were killed."
"Being smart, he believes, is a function of a plodding, unsexy, application to the facts and "using your intelligence to decide what's right".

This is, of course, what Chomsky has been doing for the last 35 years, and his conclusions remain controversial: that practically every US president since the second world war has been guilty of war crimes; that in the overall context of Cambodian history, the Khmer Rouge weren't as bad as everyone makes out; that during the Bosnian war the "massacre" at Srebrenica was probably overstated. (Chomsky uses quotations marks to undermine things he disagrees with and, in print at least, it can come across less as academic than as witheringly teenage; like, Srebrenica was so not a massacre.)"
More profound examples of these basic views online, simply google his name and browse through the results. The most concise and efficient grouping of critiques is can be found on Wikipedia.


Andrew said...

Good post. I’ve always been amazed that for people with leftist leanings who are intellectually accomplished in a certain area it is generally assumed that anything else they opine on must be taken for profundity while similarly accomplished conservatives are seen as having a kind of Ted Kaczynski aura. If I had a dollar for every time Einstein’s childlike opinions on socialism were used by leftists in its defense I could buy the utopia Academics like Chomsky believe their fertile brains can produce and stop them from stunting another generation’s intellectual/moral development.

Joe said...

I'm pretty skeptical of this guy too, along with Howard Zinn and the other people who have lots of books for sale in any given section of the bookstore. Public intellectuals are public because they write books that are accesible to the layman, which is perhaps a worthy goal, but which also means their intellectual capacity is unproven.

The things he mentions do strike a chord with me in one sense. The more you learn about history and the world, the more difficult it is to retain a "normal" sense of morality. For instance, it's tough to feel bad for the people affected by Hurrican Katrina when you know the details about the Tsunami and the earthquakes in Bam and in Pakistan. Similarly, it's tough to feel bad about stealing a candybar when you have Hitler and Pol Pot framing the moral compass.

Andrew said...

Or is Chomsky simply stricken with the common ivory tower affliction of assimilating large amounts of information without challenge, context or application? Without benefit of these refining factors information can obscure reality as much as illuminate it. When one is allowed to exist in an environment abstracted from reality long enough the opinion that there are “no anti-Semitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers or even denial of the Holocaust” shouldn’t be surprising.