History

Deconstructing Chomsky

America's leading leftist intellectual sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.

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The Anti-Chomsky Reader, edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, San Francisco: Encounter Books, 260 pages, $17.95

"One of the peculiar phenomena of our time is the renegade Liberal," wrote George Orwell in 1945. He meant not the classical liberal who believed in individual freedoms and small government but the leftist liberal who glorified communist experiments and disdained middle-class life. To Orwell, the existence of intellectuals who loved the Soviet Union despite the purges, mocked "bourgeois liberty" despite the pleasing bourgeois circumstances of their own lives, and identified with revolutionary movements that would speedily ship them off to camps–this was a fact in need of explanation.

The same puzzle is presented by today's leading leftist intellectual, Noam Chomsky. For 40 years, in books, lectures, articles, and TV and radio shows, Chomsky has pioneered the leftist critique of Western imperialism, media conglomerates, and U.S.-style capitalism. The charges he raises are familiar–corporations subjugate the Third World, mass media peddle pro-capitalist propaganda, etc.–but he evidently has the ability to make them seem fresh; millions idolize him as the clear-eyed conscience of the times.

Further to his advantage, while Chomsky's discourse is extreme and accusatory, his demeanor is equable and deliberate. He is, after all, a distinguished professor at MIT and the most renowned linguist of the 20th century. For many, the combination of virulent radicalism and reasoned temperament is wholly seductive, and attacks upon Chomsky by conservatives and centrists have only granted him a martyr's aura.

Chomsky's antipathy toward the U.S. government has never wavered. Even 9/11 was fitted to the theme of U.S. guilt. The killing of 3,000 Americans, accompanied by the "you had it coming" glee of some leftists abroad, put many American progressives on the defensive. But not Chomsky. In the weeks after the attacks, he systematically interpreted them as a logical outcome of U.S. history and policy.

In 9/11, a set of interviews published in late 2001, Chomsky spared the nation no culpability: "The U.S. is a leading terrorist state, as are its clients." American history was but one bloody aggression after another, each whitewashed by compliant news media and fed to a gullible public. Chomsky was careful to describe the 9/11 attacks as a "horrendous atrocity," but he also painted violence against the U.S. as an understandable reaction to American foreign policy. In a lecture at MIT, where Chomsky has taught since 1955, he even found a silver lining in a past surprise attack: "The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor led to many very good things. If you follow the trail, it led to kicking Europeans out of Asia–that saved tens of millions of lives in India alone."

Curiously, such rhetoric, which seemed to wear thin in the 1990s, gained a newfound visibility after 9/11. The attacks brought renewed scrutiny to America's place in the world, and Chomsky offered an extreme moral vision that in its intensity, if not its content, fit the aftermath climate. The press seemed to fumble for unambiguous interpreters of the event, and Chomsky, previously a minor figure at best in the American media, provided a seamless understanding of U.S. guilt. He appeared on CNN to debate William Bennett. He was the subject of a 2003 New Yorker profile. Last year he showed up on Bill Maher's HBO talk show. His post-9/11 book reportedly sold more than 300,000 copies, and activists besiege him for help and endorsements.

The Anti-Chomsky Reader is a polemical broadside intended to slam Chomsky into oblivion. Reviewing his career and ideas, the discussion reaches back to the 1960s and his anti-war activism, then moves to the Cold War, the media, Israel, the Holocaust, 9/11, and, finally, Chomsky's linguistics. The editors, Peter Collier and David Horowitz, are active intellectuals in the Republican Party: Collier is the publisher of Encounter Books, a conservative press in San Francisco, and Horowitz, the editor of FrontPageMag.com, is a prolific writer who courts confrontation with the left. Other contributors also are experienced culture warriors. They include Ronald Radosh, a former Communist and SDS member who steered rightward after he researched the Rosenberg case and found evidence of guilt; Eli Lehrer, a former editor at American Enterprise magazine; and Stephen Morris, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute and long-serving anti-communist scholar.

Their aim is to topple Chomsky's standing–a task easier to conceive than to complete. Chomsky's unyielding anticapitalism tempts many critics into an equally strident anti-Chomskyism. The temptation is particularly strong for Collier and Horowitz, who have complex personal histories dating back to their days editing Ramparts, a leading leftist magazine in the 1960s and early '70s. Now staunch conservatives, they have renounced their former comrades, especially icons such as Chomsky.

They and the other contributors do not hesitate to call him a liar and self-promoter, a man of "devious ambiguity" and "fevered imaginings." The frustration they feel at Chomsky's fame and influence suffuses the prose and sometimes blunts the argument. The final entry by amateur linguist John Williamson, for instance, documents a 10-month e-mail exchange between the author and Chomsky on matters of linguistics and war in which Chomsky betrayed his hauteur and mendacity as if on cue. (Needless to say, displaying Chomsky's arrogance in a private communication does little to alter his standing.)

But it would be wrong to judge this volume as merely the opposite of the adulation of Chomsky's fans. Collier and Horowitz understand well the manufactured reality of political fame, and to dismantle it requires not contrary vitriol or clever rejoinders but direct, fact-based assertions that undermine the authenticity of the image. To that end, the contributors follow a simple procedure: Quote actual statements by Chomsky and test them for evidence and logic. The best contributions to the volume add the effective and timely tactic of citing Chomsky's progressive virtues and revealing how smoothly he abandons them.

According to his followers, for example, one of Chomsky's signal talents is his ability to penetrate the veneer of mass politics and uproot hidden facts and motives. In his words, he aims to see through "professed goals" and uncover "background factors" in political events.

Stephen Morris tests that capacity in his discussion of Chomsky's thoughts on America's misadventures in Southeast Asia. Thirty-five years ago, Chomsky approached the war as if it were a propaganda endeavor that discerning critics like himself were able to puncture. But what happened to that discernment, Morris wonders, when Chomsky toured North Vietnam in April 1970?

Chomsky's analysis of U.S. actions plunged deep into dark U.S. machinations, but when traveling among the Communists he rested content with appearances. The countryside outside Hanoi, he reported in The New York Review of Books, displayed "a high degree of democratic participation at the village and regional levels." But how could he tell? Chomsky did not speak Vietnamese, and so he depended on government translators, tour guides, and handlers for information. In Vietnamese hands, the clear-eyed skepticism turned into willing credulousness.

Another virtue Chomsky prizes is a solid grasp of historical facts. In his thinking, popular U.S. history is an insidious rationalization of racism and greed. To understand the past rightly, he insists, one must contrast a real truth (the U.S. is a violent empire) with a widespread myth (the U.S. promulgates freedom and prosperity). As the editors of Chomsky's book What Uncle Sam Really Wants put it, "Chomsky is a scholar; the facts in this book are just that, and every conclusion is backed by massive evidence."

Thomas Nichols takes on this historiographic talent in his entry on Chomsky's use of facts and footnotes. Nichols points out that Chomsky's footnotes are red herrings, his numbers exaggerated, and his facts tendentious. For instance, a footnote in Chomsky's World Orders Old and New that purports to demonstrate a point in fact leads only to an earlier Chomsky title, and in that text the relevant passage footnotes still an earlier Chomsky title.

But his most damning discovery is broader: that Chomsky lacks a historian's openness to fresh evidence. All historians know that understanding history is an unfolding enterprise, ever subject to revision. And yet not one revelation of the last 20 years has led to a moment's reassessment by Chomsky. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the opening of KGB archives, testimony by dissidents and ex-Communists–nothing alters his outlook. When Vaclav Havel addressed Congress in 1990 and praised the U.S. for inspiring those under the totalitarian boot, Chomsky scorned this freedom fighter for uttering an "embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant Sunday School sermon in Congress." The truth remained: "In comparison to the conditions imposed by U.S. tyranny and violence, East Europe under Russian rule was practically a paradise."

With its record of crimes and hypocrisies, Chomsky argues, the U.S. could sustain its moral identity only if it had a press primed to play lieutenant to the capitalists and generals. This raises another commended Chomskyan asset: media savvy. In 1988's Manufacturing Consent (co-authored with Edward Herman), Chomsky launched a widely repeated argument against the consolidation of media and their goal of propagandizing for a power elite. The book (along with a documentary based on it) remains a favorite on college campuses; even among Chomsky's critics, few are willing to defend centralized media. Indeed, media savvy is a valuable trait, and one would think that an anti-conglomeration media theorist would keep abreast of changes in media structures and deliveries.

And yet Eli Lehrer finds that, in the last 10 years, Chomsky has all but ignored the most striking new medium of our time: the Internet. He says little about the weblogs and other virtual newsroom start-ups that have done the very work he advocates, forcing into the public eye stories that traditional media outlets ignored. When he does heed the Internet, he makes the same charges he leveled against the networks, in the process misrepresenting basic aspects of online communication. The Internet is just the kind of populist medium that Chomsky supposedly reveres, but all he can do is squeeze it into a conspiracy theory.

Other essays in the volume recount similar failings of Chomsky on Chomskyan grounds. He downplays the Holocaust and anti-Israeli terrorism. A philosopher of language, he tosses around the words genocide and terror indiscriminately. (As the U.S. prepared to invade Afghanistan, he predicted, "Looks like what's happening is some sort of silent genocide.") An uncritical defender of the Third World revolutionaries, Chomsky limits the motives of terrorists to reflexive moves against U.S. aggression, a refusal of responsibility that mirrors the paternalism of the colonialist. The only independent thought and action he allows them is the formation of socialist movements.

In turning Chomsky's virtues against him, The Anti-Chomsky Reader offers a challenge to those who fixate on only the crimes in U.S. history. At its best, the volume transcends the pro-Chomsky/anti-Chomsky debate to focus on larger outcomes in a post-9/11 world. Let us have pointed dissent, it suggests, but without an obsession with U.S. guilt. Keep the virtues–mistrusting government, exploding myths, analyzing media–but apply them impartially. Chomsky is caught in a Vietnam-Watergate time zone, when the Pentagon and White House assumed the most fiendish place in democratic protest. It's time to recognize that fiends may collect wherever power is concentrated.?

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