September 16, 2003

Paul Berman on Noam Chomsky

The following is an excerpt from Paul Berman's excellent book Terror and Liberalism, which I feel is the first "great" book of the 21st Century. So, for the reader's edification:

IN THE MIDST of those other, smaller, suicide attacks came the much bigger one, the 9/11 attack on American targets. And, at once, with the alacrity of firehouse dogs responding to a bell, any number of people stood up all over the world to propose yet another variation on the same systematic denial. There was the same reasoned insistence that nothing unreasonable was taking place, the same argument that everything was rational, the same claim that it was foolish to be shocked, and the same affirmation that ordinary explanations of normal human behavior could account for every last amazing development, if only we would open our eyes. Some of the people with those explanations turned out to be marvelously articulate, too. And no one was more articulate, or quicker into print, or longer-winded, or more energetic, than Noam Chomsky--a peculiar case, you may suppose. But I do not think that Chomsky was a peculiar case. I think that Chomsky and his explanations of the terrorist attacks bring us to the heart of our present dilemma.

Chomsky, it must be remembered, is a scientist, in the specialized field of linguistics [which may not be all that scientific, since it's invariably about the interpretation of the means of interpretation]. He has always maintained that his political analysis and his linguistic theories are separate entities, without a logical bridge leading from one to the other. This seems to me not quite true. A single thought underlies the original version of Chomsky's linguistic theory, and it is this: Man's inner nature can be calculated according to a very small number of factors, which can be analyzed rationally. No shadow of the mysterious falls across the nature of man. Other linguists, Chomsky's predecessors and rivals, have maintained that man developed language as a method of communication, and that language arose in more or less the same way as the rest of human culture. But Chomsky has argued that, on the contrary, no one created language, nor can language be usefully regarded as an element of culture. The fundamentals of language, in Chomsky's theory, are a genetic fact. No murk surrounds those fundamentals, even if we can not yet explain every aspect. Language lies at the heart of human nature; but language is merely a biological code, which we will someday crack.

In later years, Chomsky has backed away from some of his early formulations. John Searle, one of his critics, maintains that Chomsky's theory was always much too simple and that, in his later formulations, Chomsky has abandoned his own ideas. Chomsky, responding to Searle, has argued that, on the contrary, he has merely ascended from one useful hypothesis to the next in the course of his scientific career, on a ladder of research and self-correction--thus proving, in retrospect, the usefulness of his original ideas. I have no way to judge this dispute, except to observe that even Searle, Chomsky's critic, regards Chomsky as not just a scientist but a very great scientist. I do appreciate the point about modifying one's views as the mark of true scientific investigation. Here the gap is undeniable between Chomsky's linguistics, which have changed substantially over the years, and his politics, which have changed barely at all.

Still, if we take Chomsky's linguistics in their pristine version, and then glance at his analyses of international politics, it becomes obvious that Chomsky looks at language and at international affairs in the same light. He sees a possibility of accounting for every last quirk of human behavior by invoking a tiny number of factors--the possibility of analyzing world events according to a handful of identifiable elements. In matters of international affairs, he is the last of the nineteenth-century rationalists, one more thinker with a theory of human behavior that rests on a tiny number of factors--in his case, two factors, in dialectical opposition.

The first of those factors is greed for wealth and power, which is embodied in the giant American corporations--though Chomsky has always recognized that powerful institutions in other countries sometimes draw on that same instinct and behave pretty much the same way that American corporations do. The corporations wish to maximize power and profits. They command the services of government, and they buy and bully journalists and intellectuals to create, on behalf of corporations, a picture of the world that makes the general public bend to the corporations' will. And, with government and the intellectuals and the press at their disposal, the corporations, acting in their own interest, drench the world in blood and misery.

Still, a second factor intervenes in world events, and this second factor, he has suggested, may even be a further genetic trait, not unlike the gene for language. It is an instinct for freedom. The instinct for freedom leads people around the world to resist the giant corporations. and so, a giant battle deploys across the globe, with giant corporations and their intellectual and governmental servants on one side, and people who are animated by a generic or genetic-like instinct for freedom on the other: the greedy instinct versus the freedom instinct. The corporations usually win, due to their immense power. Sometimes, the instinct for freedom wins. Stalemates are not uncommon. But these two factors suffice to explain everything--or very nearly. And world events, upon close examination, turn out to resemble the human ability to speak, as presented in the early version of Chomsky's theory: a seemingly complex and murky phenomenon that can actually be illuminated through a simple accounting of a very few number of predictable factors.

Chomsky unveiled his theory of language in the 1950s, which made his scientific reputation and he unveiled his vision of politics in the mid-1960s, in a series of essays about American policy in the Vietnam War, and the essays made his reputation as a political thinker. He seemed to command a vast army of facts in those essays, seemed to have read everything, and seemed preternaturally self-assured. He demonstrated an astonishing intellectual energy. And he hurled all of these personal traits and achievements at the American policy in Vietnam. In those days, Chomsky's furor against American policy was refreshing to see, at least for everyone among his readers who had despaired of the Vietnam War. Perhaps the emotion of the moment made the extreme simplicity of Chomsky's notion of politics a little hard to see. The blizzard of detail in his polemics tended to cover over the nature of his reasoning, too. Anyway, the simplicity in his argument didn't seem to matter, so long as he was battling against what his readers already knew to be a disastrous policy.

But the American military eventually withdrew from Indochina, and then the difficulties in Chomsky's view did lead to some noticeable problems. It was not so easy to explain what happened in Indochina once the Americans were gone. The million and a half boat people who fled from South Vietnam seemed to suggest, by their sheer numbers alone, that realities in Vietnam were a little more complicated than some of the anti-war arguments had once maintained. And how was anyone to explain the outright genocide that began to take place in Cambodia, under its new Communist rulers? The Communist forces in Cambodia had been thought to represent the instinct for freedom, as opposed to the greed of the American corporations; yet here were the Communists committing unimaginable crimes, with the whole of Cambodian society as their victim.

It began to look as if pathological mass movements do exist. The evidence was plastered across the newspapers. But the evidence could only mean that human motivation is not as simple as Chomsky had said--could only mean that rational analysis of the instincts for greed and freedom cannot account for the role that irrational factors likewise play in world events. It was a devastating moment for the political theories of Noam Chomsky. And he responded by setting out resolutely to demonstrate that, in Indochina, despite everything published by the newspapers, mass pathological movements did not, in fact, exist.

Well-known journalists reported one set of data, but Chomsky assembled immense supplies of alternative data, which he drew from the recollections of random tourists, wandering church workers, and articles in little-known left-wing magazines. The alternative data, in his interpretation, refuted the accounts of the well-known journalists. And, by piling up his data, Chomsky (writing with a co-author, Edward S. Herman, in their two-volume Political Economy of Human Rights--Chomsky's single most ambitious work of political analysis) made two different arguments. He showed that genocide had never occurred; and, conversely, he showed that, if genocide did occur, it was the fault of the American military intervention, which had driven the Cambodians mad.

In either case, the stories about genocide in Cambodia revealed that America's principal institutions were even more guilty than anyone had previously imagined. For the genocide was either a web of lies spun by propagandists for The New York Times and other organs of the giant corporations--in which case, the big American institutions were capable of perpetrating the most hideous and elaborate of deceptions on all mankind. Or, alternatively, if genocide in Cambodia was really a fact (which plainly seemed to him less likely), then the American military was guilty twice over--first, for having made war in Cambodia; and, second, for having provoked the Cambodians into committing their own crimes. Either way, genocide in Cambodia told against the United States. The rational nature of world events was shown to be real--the rational behavior that led America's corporations to behave in sinister and violent ways, and the perfectly understandable response of the corporations' victims in faraway Cambodia. And there was no need to recognize the possibility of another factor--of a mass movement devoted to mass slaughter for irrational reasons.

Chomsky has written many thousands of pages devoted to that particular logic. It is his habit of mind, in regard to world events. That was why, when the 9/11 attacks took place, he did not need to collect his thoughts. He was unfazed. The entire purpose of his political outlook was to be unfazed, even by the worst of horrors. He knew exactly what to say. The notion that, in large parts of the world, a mass movement of radical Islamists had arisen, devoted to mad hatreds and conspiracy theories; the notion that radical Islamists were slaughtering people in one country after another for the purpose of slaughtering them; the notion that radical Islamists ought to be taken at their word and that shariah and the seventh-century Caliphate were their goals, and that Jews and Christians were demonic figures worthy of death; the notion that bin Laden had ordered random killings of Americans strictly for the purpose of killing Americans--all of this was, from Chomsky's perspective, not even worth discussing.

It was because, to Chomsky, movements of that particular nature and style do not exist. What do exist are, instead, the two factors in his political theory; the instincts for greed and the instinct for freedom. How, then, to explain the 9/11 attacks? Chomsky knew what to think because it was what he had always thought. He could hardly deny that the 9/11 attacks had taken place. But his first impulse was to deny that the attacks were especially bad.. He compared the attacks to Clinton's missile strike on the Sudan in 1998--Clinton's feeble effort to attack bin Laden and his enterprise. In Clinton's attack on the Sudan, a pharmaceuticals factory (which the Clinton administration apparently in error, had identified as a bomb factory) was demolished. One person was killed--possibly two people. In Chomsky's interpretation, the damage that resulted from this attack easily outweighed the damage that resulted from the 9/11 attacks.

Clinton's missile strike was exceptionally deadly, Chomsky thought, because it destroyed the Sudan's supply of medicines, destroyed the Sudan's political tranquility, and destroyed the Sudan's economy, all of which led to far more death and misery than were produced by the 9/11 attacks. Such was Chomsky's contention. It was peculiar. Still, in one sense, it was deserving of respect. Who in America or in the other rich countries thinks to tally up the sufferings that descend on people in remote parts of the world from actions taken by the wealthy cosmopolises? Chomsky was proposing to do that. Yet his tally was preposterous, in each of its elements and as a whole.

The Sudan had other pharmaceuticals factories and other ways to buy medicines; radical Islamism and other factors had already destroyed the political tranquility; and the single missile attack was not going to destroy the economy.. Losses that came out of the attack on the United States on 9/11 were, on other hand, simply staggering, if you follow Chomsky's own procedure and tally up the indirect costs alone. For the 9/11 attacks jolted the American economy--the destruction of the buildings alone was an economic blow--the effect on commerce in any number of other countries around the world, in poor countries especially, was bound to be devastating. The damage done to Mexico by itself had to be fairly painful, even if we leave aside the special hopes that Mexico had entertained, prior to 9/11, for sounder and more profitable relations with the United States. Somebody could go from region to region, all over the globe, identifying the miserable effects of the 9/11 attacks that fell upon already poor people.

Still, Chomsky stood by his argument, and did so with his customary blizzard of references to obscure sources. And having made that one argument, he went on to a second theme, which was to rehearse the entire history of American violence toward other people, beginning with the American Indians (who, for his purposes, were considered as non-Americans). He predicted what was likely to come of President Bush's plan--not yet put into execution--to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan and uproot Al Qaeda's headquarters and training camps. Genocide against the Afghan people was likely to result, in Chomsky's estimation. This prediction conformed to Chomsky's picture of the many genocides of the American past. And, with this picture of America and its genocidal past and future in mind, he asked, why would anyone have attacked the United States on 9/11?

He knew the answer. The attacks on 9/11 represented the reply of oppressed people from the Third World to centuries of American depredations. The attacks represented, at long last, an active reprisal, and not just an effort at self-defense. The 9/11 attacks, from this point of view, were entirely predictable--logical events, even if bin Laden was not an attractive figure. Chomsky had no basis at all to attribute those centuries of Third World motivation to bin Laden. The notion of a Saudi plutocrat as a tribune of the oppressed was fairly ridiculous. Still, Chomsky stuck with this argument, too. And both of his arguments--the argument that wildly exaggerated the damage caused by Clinton's missile on the pharmaceuticals factory, and the argument that Al Qaeda was avenging the oppressed Third World--pointed in the same direction. The arguments showed that, if 9/11 was bad, America itself was ultimately responsible. World events could be rationally analyzed. The greed of American corporations, and the long history of American greed in the past, sufficed to explain every last astounding act of suicide terror. For there are no pathological or irrational movements, no movements that yearn to commit slaughters, no movements that yearn for death--and, if such movements do exist, it is because they have been conjured into existence by other forces.

Chomsky said these things in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in a series of interviews and articles, and his publisher gathered them together quickly and issued them as a pamphlet called 9/11. In the United States, the principal newspapers and magazines have tended to ignore Chomsky's political writings for many years now, because of his reputation as a crank. None of the most prestigious journals bothered even to review his book.

Even so, Chomsky's pamphlet became a giant best-seller.

(Berman, pp. 144-152.)

I was initially somewhat taken aback by the implication that Chomsky might be too rational. The problem I had with the observation is the notion that rationality can lead one to adopt such a counter-rational argument. For instance, he appears to take a rational position regarding the secondary and tertiary consequences of the attack on the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, but doesn't consider the consequences of the attack on the World Trade Center in the same light. I'm not quite willing to call this overly rational. I think, rather, that Chomsky's error is that his rationality is dimensionally impoverished. And furthermore, his impoverishment has its origins in his ideology, and what I have elsewhere taken to calling a "good time" attitude about human nature. And this, in turn, isn't very unlike the idea that lies behind a number of Karl Marx's critical concepts, including alienation, primitive appropriation, and false consciousness. The basic ideological imperative is that if we somehow erase or suppress the evil activities associated with greed the human archetype that will emerge will be innately fulfilled, complete, happy, and free, without any impulse to intervene in or interfere with the "true consciousness" of others. Chomsky simply has no conceptual framework for coping with any evil of the sort that isn't a direct result of greed, in the form of a capitalist quest for extraordinary returns. So Berman is correct in identifying the flaw as "wishful thinking." And he is also correct in surmising that all Ur-myths have a similar flaw. It is as though they all hypothesize a certain fundamental quality X, that if allowed to obtain its full potential would correct all imbalances, mistakes, and errors, allowing human nature to attain perfection, or near perfection. For Noam Chomsky X is freedom. For Karl Marx X is true consciousness. For Sayyid Qutb X is submission to a version of Allah crystallized in the Shari`a. They are all the cult equivalent of snake oil.

Posted by Demosophist at September 16, 2003 11:49 PM

This is all a rather laughable presentation. Chomsky doesn't believe that when you eradicate capitalism people turn into saints: he has himself quoted Marx on the concept that once we eliminate those barriers there will be new ones that we can deal with as humans. He also hasn't said "There weren't any irrational movements in Indochina", but rather "The Khmer Rouge were horrible monsters, created likely in response to US bombing, committing crimes on the scale of US bombing, and further the US supported the Khmer Rouge in its incarnation as Democratic Kampuchea." This is a classic Chomsky smear: When I have to explain Chomsky, I have to explain very nuanced positions that, once explained, people often say "Well, hey, that makes sense", EVEN if they don't disagree with me. Uninformed, contrary to even a basic reading of Chomsky, and idiotic.

Posted by: Frederic Christie at December 20, 2004 11:47 PM

The preponderance of chomsky misrepresentations makes me even more convinced that his arguments are sound. To understand chomsky is to see the world with eyes unclouded.

Posted by: extempore at February 4, 2005 01:59 AM
The preponderance of chomsky misrepresentations makes me even more convinced that his arguments are sound.

You realize, of course, that this isn't even close to valid logic. Assuming that what you call "misrepresentations" are.

To understand chomsky is to see the world with eyes unclouded.

Spoken like a true cultist. Simply from the perspective of his presentation of the Khmer Rouge you ought to have at least a little teensy bit of doubt.

By the way, have you seen Jean Miro's "The River." Not that it's terribly profound in a socio-political sense, but it's a convincing romantic story. And it also captures the essence of the 1950's that Chomsky seems to have slept through. I'm amazed that anyone would think Chomsky knows diddly, frankly. If he weren't such an arrogant poop he might have reached the same level of enlightenment as by childhood barber, Jimmy O'Toole, who was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. But alas, he falls way short of Jimmy.

Posted by: Demosophist at February 4, 2005 07:58 PM

"By the way, have you seen Jean Miro's "The River." Not that it's terribly profound in a socio-political sense, but it's a convincing romantic story. And it also captures the essence of the 1950's that Chomsky seems to have slept through. I'm amazed that anyone would think Chomsky knows diddly, frankly. If he weren't such an arrogant poop he might have reached the same level of enlightenment as by childhood barber, Jimmy O'Toole, who was a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge. But alas, he falls way short of Jimmy."

The fact that you said this with misspellings ["by childhood barber"], punctuation errors, and with almost zero content to prove it (what does a 50s movie have to do with Cambodia and/or Chomsky) makes me seriously doubt how "unclouded" your eyes are.

Posted by: Frederic Christie at February 7, 2005 05:19 AM
The fact that you said this with misspellings ["by childhood barber"], punctuation errors, and with almost zero content to prove it (what does a 50s movie have to do with Cambodia and/or Chomsky) makes me seriously doubt how "unclouded" your eyes are.

The fact that you seem to think typos have anything to do with teh thoughts that lie behind the flyinng fingers (a transposition and a double strike being typical examples) tells me you haven't very much behind your position. As for the off topic reference, that has more to do with changing the subject as a result of the opacity of your vision. i.e. Chomsky has never had a coherent response to the manifestation of human evil that took place in the wake of the American withdrawal from S.E. Asia. His poverty is revealed by the fact that he first tried to deny the evidence by supplying anecdotal "testimony" of his own, and when that was laughed away, he adopted the non-falsifiable argument that US presence (which was chiefly there to husband a democracy) had driven the Cambodians insane. It is, in fact, only non-falsifiable in the sense that if one fails to see it as ridiculous on it's face there isn't much more to add. It's a bit like saying a fellow murdered his wife because he drove her to such distraction that when he left she committed suicide. Even if it's true it says nothing about whether her insanity was justified by his presence, rather than by the perfectly reasonable hypothesis that she was influenced by clinical depression (or in the case of the Cambodians, by a pernicious totalitarian ideology). Chomsky's cure for the Cambodian genocide? Why, more of the same thankyou very much! Just imagine writing off the ideological rant itself in order to make some stupidass point about the invalidity of Yankee and Lockean respect for private property and individual sovereignty!

Chomsky is such an obvious fool that the clearly better first-option to engaging in an argument with a cult-follower is to bring up a movie I happened to like. Ah well, next time I guess.

Posted by: Demosophist at February 8, 2005 02:58 PM