If Noam Chomsky’s linguistics are problematic, can his politics be far behind?
May 21, 2011 - 12:55 am
Those who regard Noam Chomsky as one of the world’s premier thinkers might be advised to reconsider. It is, of course, mainly his political writings that have earned him his current reputation for crusading fearlessness, uncompromising candor, and lacerating intelligence. That they consist largely of cant and drivel erected on a foundation of dishonesty escapes his acolytes’ attention completely, likely because he speaks to their prejudices and because they have not done their homework. And possibly because they are influenced by the New York Times, which beatifies Chomsky as “arguably the most important intellectual alive.” But then, that’s the Times, for which the provision of evidence was never a desideratum.“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence,” to quote Christopher Hitchens’ aphorism on the beatification of Mother Teresa, whom he regards as “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud” — epithets which would more aptly apply to Chomsky. I will, however, provide evidence for my dismissal of Chomsky as a world-class quack, as did Hitchens with Mother Teresa in his devil’s advocate volume on the saintly imposter.
As I’ve written before, Chomsky’s dishonesty is palpable. He rages furiously and sanctimoniously against the U.S. “war machine,” but as Peter Schweizer reveals in Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy, Chomsky wrote his world-famous Syntactic Structures on grants from the American military establishment. America is, for Chomsky, “the land of Pentagon contracts, lucrative real estate holdings, stock market wealth, and a tax-sheltered trust for his children.” Yet, despite his fierce denunciations, he squats there like an orb spider, his web sagging with the weight of juicy flies. He makes disingenuous millionaire Michael Moore look like a small-time piker.
As for his political ravings, the sheer nonsense of most of his claims is outstripped only by the abyssal gullibility of his auditors and readers, who do not realize that Chomsky is a contaminated witness. “It would be easy to demonstrate,” writes David Horowitz in an article titled “The Sick Mind of Noam Chomsky,” “how on every page of every book and in every statement that Chomsky has written, the facts are twisted, the political context is distorted (and often inverted) and the historical record is systematically traduced,” expressing “a pathological hatred of his own country.” A recent book has accomplished precisely such a demonstration. Chomsky’s doctoring of sources, dubious or obscure references, misquotations, convenient abridgments, significant omissions and gross misinterpretations have been abundantly documented in The Anti-Chomsky Reader, a volume which should be consulted by those who are still impressed by Chomsky’s glowing nimbus and public prominence as a “libertarian socialist.”
Noted jurist and author Richard Posner concurs with the book’s findings. In his Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Posner writes that Chomsky’s tone and one-sidedness is “all too typical” of his oeuvre. “Chomsky’s use of sources is uncritical, and his methodology unsatisfactory — it consists simply of changing the subject.” Nor does Chomsky feel obliged to defend his assertions no matter how outrageous or tendentious since “[h]e never acknowledges error.” Chomsky appears to regard himself as a political sage, perhaps even a prophet, whose insights cannot be questioned and whose pronouncements are infallible. One recalls his confident prediction to an MIT audience in a lecture of October 18, 2001, scarcely a month after 9/11, that the U.S. was preparing a “silent genocide” against Afghanistan, planning “to murder three or four million people.” This should tell us all we need to know about his powers of divination.
According to Thomas Sowell in Intellectuals and Society, Chomsky is one of those public intellectuals who has ranged “beyond the confines of his specialty” and made “inflammatory comments on things for which he had no qualifications.” But the shabby scholarship alone, evident both in the pulpiteering style and the abject referencing, as well as the apodictic claptrap he purveys, should have set off alarm bells for responsible readers and prompted them to do a bit of supplementary research. If they had, they would have realized that Chomsky is so far off the wall he makes Humpty Dumpty look like a paragon of stability.
It would be no less instructive to leave the politics aside for the nonce and go back to his earlier technical writings in the field of psycholinguistics that established his reputation in the first place. As Posner says, “a successful academic may be able to use his success to reach the general public on matters about which he is an idiot.” But it goes deeper than that. If Chomsky’s reasoning is flawed or tenuous or unprovable in his scholarly work, which was considered seminal and yielded whole university disciplines, then it may well be, by extrapolation, that his reasoning is equally suspect in his other endeavors. It won’t do to read only books like Hopes and Prospects, Failed States, or Hegemony or Survival, the latter praised by the ruthless despot Hugo Chavez. I have in mind books like Syntactic Structures, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, and his somewhat later The Minimalist Program, which loyal Chomskyites should look into if they really wish to honor their master and justify their professions of regard. They should read the “scholarship,” not the propaganda, to determine if their hero merits his acclaim.
I must apologize in advance for a brief and regrettably superficial excursion into the technical realm of linguistics. I don’t have the space here to hack my way any great distance into it and I don’t want to try my reader’s patience any more than I have to. There may be some consolation to be found in that I avoid the really turgid, off-putting stuff that can drive even the most dedicated student into the nether regions of terminal despair. But some peripheral remarks are in order if we are serious in trying to figure out how Chomsky’s mind works. Chomsky, as we will see, is essentially an intellectual tyrant. He does not give clear and indisputable evidence when developing a thesis; he dictates. And he subsequently expects us to believe.