A Dead Cert

The New Criterion looks back on Noam Chomsky’s intellectual career and shakes its head in disappointment. “One of the main reasons Noam Chomsky’s political views are taken seriously in universities and the media is because he has an awesome reputation for scientific accomplishment in the field of linguistics. He is among the ten most cited authors in the humanities—trailing only Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, the Bible, Aristotle, Plato, and Freud—and the only living member of the top ten. Last year The New Yorker called him ‘one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century’.”


Were it not for this status, many of his obsessive and outlandish political ideas would by now have disqualified him from reasoned debate. He thinks every president of the United States since Franklin Roosevelt should have been impeached because “they’ve all been either outright war criminals or involved in serious war crimes.” He claims the United States actively collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviet Union in the latter stages of World War II. He once supported the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, claiming the genocidal evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1976 was due to a failed rice crop and “may actually have saved many lives.” He describes Israel as a terror state with “points of similarity” to the Third Reich. And he has defended an anti-Semitic French academic who claims the Holocaust was a “historical lie.” Chomsky describes him as nothing more than an “apolitical liberal” whose work is based on “extensive historical research.”

But he did not exist in an intellectual vacuum. He filled a need. Contemporary politics needed someone to dignify a particular point of view with intellectual legitimacy; or perhaps supply just the appearance of it. Polemicists needed Chomsky–some out of sincerity, some out of cynicism. They needed a line of patter and he had it.

It’s impossible to evaluate Chomsky without also passing judgment on the Marxist enterprise of which he was a part. The strongest defense for Marxism’s record is they “meant well.” It’s hard to argue that an ideology that killed a hundred million “did well,” though they haven’t given up.  They’ll get it right “someday.” How could it be otherwise; for in their minds people so intellectually superior just had to be right. The proof of Marxism’s worth were the Marxists themselves, and they saw in themselves a kind of QED. Was their excellence not obvious? Or so it seemed to those regarding themselves in the mirror. “We are the people we’ve been waiting for” is the ultimate self-referential argument, and it’s very persuasive.


By this metric, their triumph was foregone. MIT would beat Palooka College; it had to, hands down. What the philosopher-kings never anticipated was that reality, history, time — whatever you wish to call it — should take one look at their intellectual tower, laugh and crumble it to dust. That it should reject them was the last thing they expected. How could history do this to people so smart, to the vanguard? To be fair, in Chomsky’s heyday it really seemed possible and even probable that Communism would take over the world. A hundred Vietnams were set to ignite. Khrushchev promised “we will bury you!”  Communism came on like a freight train:

    • The Great October Revolution;
    • The Bolshevik victory in the Russian civil war;
    • The reported “miracle industrialization” of the USSR;
    • Stalin’s victory over Nazi Germany;
    • Mao’s takeover of China;
    • The Korean war stalemate;
    • The crushing of Hungary’s uprising;
    • Castro’s victory in Cuba; and
    • the fall of Saigon.

With this track record, how could it lose? The forecast line seemed solid, scientific even. What went wrong? Perhaps the forgotten fact that real information is surprise. The future is inherently uncertain, and technological advancements, contingent events or natural phenomena can disrupt our models. The world is a complex system. The interactions and interdependencies produce emergent events that are challenging to anticipate. We have limited information, something that was not apparent to material determinists of the late 1960s. Finally we have human agency. It might not have occurred to our excellent intellectuals that people might not like Communism. It’s really not Chomsky’s fault that he lost a bet on what, back then, seemed a sure thing. It’s just that reality had other ideas.



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