2005-10-31

Oh, why bother?

Before he became famous in politics for combining a talent for saying things everyone knows with a language nobody can understand (allowing him to slip in a lot of claims which are simply not true, but obscure enough for most people to pass over), Noam Chomsky built a reputation in linguistics for claiming that everyone innately understands things that he imagines they know. All of which led to the definition of the adjective "chomsky" in Dan Dennett's Philosophical lexicon:
chomsky, adj. Said of a theory that draws extravagant metaphysical implications from scientifically established facts. "Essentially, Hume's criticism of the Argument from Design is that it leads in all its forms to blatantly chomsky conclusions." "The conclusions drawn from Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle are not only on average chomskier than those drawn from Godel's theorem; most of them are downright merleau-ponty."

But he's old, and apparently a lot of people like him. Which is what lets him get away with this sort of appalling intellectual laziness, all of which can be reduced to arguments from personal authority.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Chomsky, on Bosnia, jumped the shark almost before there was a shark to jump.

It's nice to see the Guardian printing something that's not purely adulatory. (I suppose it should be set against the recent nauseating spate of Neil Clark columns.)

I do love the bit about how "it doesn't matter if they were telling the truth, they were right".


Doug M.

Yakima_Gulag said...

He is the most insufferable, patronizeing idiotic example of Political Correctness. I've never liked the guy.
This article only confirms me in it. That kind of intellectual laziness is very bad for the academic world, it brings discredit on it and at a time when this is not needed.

Today's Special Klingon Word of the Day:hgtfjqzv it translates roughly as 'ajde!' only more emphatic.

talos said...

A Chomsky apologist's quick reaction: Argh. This smells from ten miles that it's cut and pasted to produce a staged interview. Note that from the first few lines Brockes makes quite evident her distaste for Chomsky and never allows the opportunity to make (or edit in, possibly) a snide remark.

Anyway: Chomsky says as much and he's writing a letter to the Guardian apparently:

Begins just the right way for the Guardian. The answer she quotes from me is correct, but it was to an entirely different question, asking whether I regret supporting Diana Johnstone's right to publish when her book was withdrawn by the publisher after vicious and dishonest press attacks, which I reviewed in an open letter, as she knows.

How, I wonder, can Brockes be critical of other people's "journalism" while she so blatantly misquotes her interviewees?

Anyway, as I've said to Doug, Brockes blew any credibility she might have when she repeated the tired canard of Chomsky being a Pol Pot apologist. The accusation was rubbish when it first surfaced three decades ago and it remains rubbish today.

Doug: re-read the passage, as "It doesn't matter even if she got things wrong, her work is valuable". That way it does make more sense, whether you agree with the statement or not.

Eric Gordy said...

I checked out the link, it's a note from Chomsky which appears to be a personal response to the article. The line that caught my eye was this:

"my impression is that it's rather typical of the way they deal with people a few mm to the left of what they regard as acceptable."

I know that there are US rightists who don't like Chomsky. My objection to him is different -- it's that he is not to the left at all, as long as he makes elabrate apologies for the far right internationally. He can dress it up as anti-imperialism or not, he's far right and not even one mm to the left.

talos said...

Eric: leaving Bosnia aside, where else is Chomsky supporting, as you say, the far right? His statement as far as the Grauniad is concerned is, anyway, true as it is obvious the journalist in question(who I assume will soon produce the transcript of the interview so we might know what was said and what not) quite obviously considers him an extreme leftist. Which he isn't anyway.

Eric Gordy said...

To be honest, I don't think he is important enough a figure that his leftiness or rightiness really matters.

Raoul Djukanovic said...

I won't wade into the Chomsky good or bad thing - just wanted to say thanks to Talos, Eric and Doug for the earlier threads here and at Histologion about Diana Johnstone and Srebrenica, which I stumbled across yesterday.

Cheers,
Raoul

Eric Gordy said...

Raoul, are you blogging regularly anywhere? Blogger points me to the "Ulcer," but it looks like it hasn't been updated in a while.

Raoul Djukanovic said...

Hi Eric,

Not been blogging very regularly at all really. The ulcer splutters occasionally, but it's running low on bile. The IHT satire might one day take off, but for now I'm too lazy when not preoccupied with other stuff. So much easier to litter comment boxes than attract people to them anyhow...

Good work on East Ethnia - encore, encore, if time permits. Nice set of links too.

talos said...

Just one final point: Chomsky has written to the Guardian saying that:

"Even when the words attributed [in the Brockes interview] to me have some resemblance to accuracy, I take no responsibility for them, because of the invented contexts in which they appear."

His views on Srebrenica can be glimpsed in this interview where he compares Fallujah to Srebrenica:

Alam: They herded all the males, I think, they didn't let them escape the corridor.

Chomsky: Which incidentally is very much like Srebrenica - which is universally condemned as genocide -- Srebrenica was an enclave, lightly protected by UN forces, which was being used as a base for attacking nearby Serb villages. It was known that there's going to be retaliation. When there was a retaliation, it was vicious. They trucked out all the women and children, they kept the men inside, and apparently slaughtered them. The estimates are thousands of people slaughtered.

Well, with Fallujah, the US didn't truck out the women and children, it bombed them out. There was about a month of bombing, bombed out of the city, if they could get out somehow, a couple hundred thousand people fled, or somehow got out, and as you say men were kept in and we don't know what happened after that, we don't estimate [the casualties for which we are responsible].


Which doesn't sound like "genocide denial" to me...

Sorry to insist, but if there is one single thing that really bothers me about the way the media deal with Chomsky, it's the series of straw men over virtually everything he has said, something which makes it quite difficult to criticise him based on what he said rather than what is attributed to him.

Cheers

Eric Gordy said...

Talos, I'm not with the crowd that accuses Chomsky of genocide denial. I think the problem is something else -- the question is why he is so uncritical of the people who are deniers. It's that he proceeds from an ideological position that forces him to ignore facts, plus he is not a researcher so he relies on this set table of sources. It applies to his "propaganda theory" (he thinks it's a great innovation, but if he were conversant with the history of media effects research he would know that he has reproduced a model that was introduced by Harold Lasswell and has been completely out of use since the 1940s because it has been discredited), and it applies to his dilletantish understanding of the Balkans (where he assumes that opposing the 1999 bombing campaign means having to dismiss everything that preceded it). It leads him to these hugely irresponsible positions, which are just adored by the extreme right in all the places where he does not promote himself as a spokesman for the left. None of the consumers of his extensive media publicity are aware of the actual situations he makes pronouncements about, so they maintain the illusion that some sort of vague Cold war-era "anti-imperialism" makes it worthwhile to support nutters in distant places that they would never support at home.

From my point of view, he is not on my side or on the opposite side, he is an amateur who just doesn't have a place at the table.

talos said...

Eric: He is an amateur... what? Certainly he is no historian, but that he would be willing to agree with and in fact already has. He is a political activist, much in the tradition of Bertrand Russell, and doesn't pretend otherwise. He seems to consider it his *duty* as an intellectual to help uncover the lies and propaganda of the state - and argue against the actions of his country, because he feels that's what he's responsible for. Indeed had there been a significant number of intellectuals in the Balkans closer to Chomsky's ethos (i.e. my sides crimes are the ones I should uncover) we possibly would not have suffered through the Srebrenicas, large and small of recent history. It is indeed ironic that nationalists in the Balkans are using Chomsky to prop up their mythologies, but I can't really agree with the idea that a writer is responsible for the potential misuses of his arguments. Again, all politics is (and should be) the work of amateurs in a democracy, and people who have access to information and possess analytical skills, have a duty to sound the alarm against any form of power. In that, Chomsky is exemplary.

The usefulness of Chomsky - and indeed his dangerousness, is witnessed by the simple fact that I know of no fair criticisms of his positions from the right in the US. Attempts to criticise him from the right are littered with the corpses of Straw Men and immersed in straightforowrd lies (see Brockes interview as a prime example). That's the impressive thing that caught my attention about Chomsky. No one was willing to argue what he says, only some misguided or fabricated interpretation of what he said.

BTW he does know and consistently acknowledges Lasswell's "contributions to the theory of Propaganda". Lasswell AFAIK was on the other side however: an exemplary state intellectual who argued why propaganda was necessary for the state to function. Again Chomsky frequently quotes him (Google Chomsky, Harold Lasswell) - yet I' m not at all sure that Lasswell's model is even all that close to the Chomsky/Herman model.

Finally re: nutters in distant places. Leaving aside Bosnia (where of course he doesn't support the nutters, see the previous quote), I'm not sure there are nutters he does *support* elsewhere. I could be wrong but I can't recall any.

Eric Gordy said...

Talos, I respect your position, but I'm not sure there is much point in pursuing a back and forth here. I'm not from the right, so the critiques from the right don't interest me much. Beyond that, a discussion of Chomsky's contribution to understanding the Balkans is like a discussion of Kenny G's contribution to jazz.

Raoul Djukanovic said...

a discussion of Chomsky's contribution to understanding the Balkans is like a discussion of Kenny G's contribution to jazz

Yep, that seems to be the point of departure in this discussion. In many ways Chomsky's a one-trick pony in his foreign policy analysis, as has been observed here already. If you want a litany of American malfeasance overseas, albeit framed in some ways many appear to find difficult to digest, then read on. If you're looking to understand a particular region as a whole, he's not the place to look for comprehensive coverage, as he would no doubt say himself, since he doesn't regard that as his job or even a personal forte, any more than Eric does.

In which case one could argue that his contribution is of limited, if any, value to specialists, which I'd be happy to go along with if they're equally willing to focus on the warts of foreign policymaking.

One might also argue that he's of marginal use to the layman, and perhaps even a hindrance, if people read him thinking they're getting a comprehensive overview.

But again, that's kind of missing the point, since that's not what he claims to offer. It seemed to me that this was what Talos was driving at - it's rare to read a critique of Chomsky that takes him at face value. Fair enough to disagree with him or even to rubbish his arguments, provided they're engaged with on their own terms.

Anyhow, enough of my half-baked musings. Hardly an earth-shattering insight, but there you go.