Chomsky for Beginners (Essay)
September 27, 2006        


If Groucho Marx had been a Marxist and had stopped in the middle of A Night at the Opera to praise Karl Marx, the effect might have been a little like the effect of Venezuela’s very entertaining president, Hugo Chavez, lauding Noam Chomsky at the United Nations General Assembly last week. Marx’s Capital would undoubtedly have shot to the top of the Amazon bestseller list, just as Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival, which Chavez recommended to the UN delegates, has done. I’m glad about this, but grudgingly. I’ve written half a dozen rave reviews of Chomsky’s books over the years – why does Hugo get all the attention?
Marx was an unlikely celebrity – almost an anti-celebrity – and so is Chomsky. For all their political and philosophical differences, they have in common astonishing mental power and extraordinary moral passion. Marx was more literary by temperament, Chomsky more scientific; and Chomsky had the advantage of growing up in the United States, which has made him a more consistent democrat than Marx. But in both cases, their rigor, intensity, and austerity – their radical seriousness – doesn’t seem like a recipe for popularity. And yet, in recent polls, Marx was voted the most influential thinker in history and Chomsky the most influential intellectual alive.
I first encountered Chomsky thirty years ago, as a gentle but insistently reasonable voice emanating from my radio. When the interview was over, I rushed out, bought his books, and was hooked. Whether or not you agree with Marx’s Capital, or with Chomsky or Edmund Burke or Leon Trotsky, there’s something exhilarating about reading any of them: the power, the momentum, the sense of a vast argument gathering force like a storm system. If you do agree – if, like Chomsky, you think that part of the colossal amount of unnecessary suffering in the world is caused by your own government and the business/financial class who mostly control it, and that the privilege of being an American citizen makes you responsible for doing something about that – then reading him can feel like a revelation and a summons.
Actually, that radio interview wasn’t the first time I’d heard Chomsky’s name. Leonard Bernstein, in The Unanswered Question, his 1973 Norton Lectures, quoted Chomsky’s famous specimen sentence: “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” That was the other world-renowned Noam Chomsky, who had re-invented linguistics in his thirties. Linguistic theorists used to believe that language was a skill, like mathematics or piano-playing, learned step-by-step, stimulus and response. But, Chomsky showed, children are always saying new things they could not have explicitly learned. How is that possible? Perhaps, he suggested, our language faculty is more like an organ than a skill: it grows, and new stages appear at age-determined times, as with walking or sex. Chomsky was the first to propose this new, biologically-based model, and it has turned the study of language upside down. None of his books on linguistics have become Amazon bestsellers, but the Chomskian revolution in cognitive science does appear to be permanent.
Do Chomsky’s thirty or so books about politics have a common theme? Yes, according to his critics: that America is omnipotent, monolithic, and uniquely malevolent, as bad as Nazi Germany and responsible for all the evil in the contemporary world. If that were true, you might wonder why anyone would bother reading him. But it’s not. On the contrary: according to Chomsky, America is like every other country that has ever existed in this fundamental sense: it contains powerful elites who try, with much success, to influence government policy in their own interests while at the same time portraying those interests as the “national interest” or “general good.”
This is all but obvious in domestic politics. Practically no one believes that the insurance industry or the pharmaceutical industry or the credit-card industry or the banking industry or the energy industry or the entertainment industry has the public welfare at heart, or anyone’s welfare at heart except their executives’ and shareholders’. And few people who read the newspapers believe that those or any other industries behave fairly or democratically in promoting their interests. But apparently skepticism stops at the water’s edge. Most Americans, including most intellectuals, believe that, unlike every other country that has ever existed, the United States acts internationally to advance noble ideals – liberty and justice for all – rather than to advance the interests of its dominant elites.
Nonsense, Chomsky replies. Sometimes American foreign policy aims to benefit individual industries, as when we overthrew the government of Guatemala on behalf of American agribusiness and the government of Iran on behalf of American oil companies. Sometimes it aims to control valuable resources, like Venezuelan or Middle Eastern oil and gas. Above all, it aims to set the rules of the global economic game – to establish a favorable business climate over as much of the world as possible. How that is accomplished, how it is disguised by intellectuals, and what it implies for those on the receiving end of American policy: this, in harrowing detail and lucid, impassioned prose, is the substance of those thirty books.
This argument plays well in the rest of the world, which is pretty much unanimous in regarding the United States as a rogue empire. But American intellectuals resent being portrayed as deluded or conformist. And not only neoconservatives, who have responded with books like The Anti-Chomsky Reader and several incensed websites. Even sterling liberals like Todd Gitlin, Michael Tomasky, Paul Berman, and Michael Walzer have taken aim at Chomsky.
What’s the rap? Apart from the all-purpose and not very informative putdown, “simplistic,” there are four main topics of complaint: Israel, Cambodia, Kosovo, and 9/11. Chomsky claims that Israel’s determination to hold on to occupied territories and disproportionate use of force against Palestinians is partly to blame for the stalemate. His critics reply that he understates Israel’s vulnerability and Palestinian hostility. Chomsky claimed that, as of 1979, Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia was not proven. His critics reply that he is incapable of recognizing evil unless committed by the US. Chomsky claimed that the US bombed Serbia in 1999 for geostrategic reasons, to assert NATO’s jurisdiction. His critics reply that Chomsky’s insistence on blaming America kept him from recognizing that genocide in Kosovo was imminent. Chomsky pointed out after 9/11 that the US has also committed atrocities, some quite recently. His critics reply that this was in poor taste.
Whether there is a grain (or a bushel) of truth in these criticisms, you’ll have to decide for yourself. I’m too much of a partisan to pronounce. But even if you decide to toss out 25 percent or 50 percent or 75 percent of Chomsky’s charges against American foreign policy, that still leaves quite a tidy pile of unnecessary suffering that the United States is responsible for. And it’s your country.