Inside Chomsky-World

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 July 9, 2017|
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Some 35 years ago I attended a party in honor of Noam Chomsky. A group of us stood around him, hearing his thoughts on the relevance of psychology to linguistic theory. Inevitably, conversation flagged—not least because he didn’t see much relevance in it—so I piped in. I had just seen an ad in Forbes featuring Chomsky, and I asked him how that had come about. What followed was an hour-long lecture on American Middle-East policy. The group dwindled as he went on. Soon I was the only one left listening. His account was multifaceted, intricate, and utterly brilliant. As far as I could tell, it touched on reality only lightly. But it was an intellectual tour de force of a sort.

That brings me to philosopher George Yancy’s interview with Chomsky the other day in the New York Times. To say that it touches on reality lightly would be far too kind.

So, why talk about it at all? Because some people are still listening. I have friends on the Left who think highly of this interview. They believe it captures something important. And I want to understand what they see in it. I’m interested in how people on the Left are thinking about our current political moment.

I used to understand liberals. We tended to share the same goals, though we might prioritize them differently. We disagreed about various empirical questions. But we could discuss them openly and rationally.

That rarely seems possible now. I no longer understand why many of my political opponents see the world as they do. Whatever they are, they aren’t liberals. I find it hard to find common ground. And that worries me.

Consider Yancy’s opening question: “Given our ‘post-truth’ political moment and the growing authoritarianism we are witnessing under President Trump . . . .”

Stop right there. What “growing authoritarianism”? Let’s see, it’s been five months. Has Trump sent stormtroopers to assault members of other parties? Has he jailed thousands of Democrats, including their political leaders, for thought crimes? Has he cajoled the Congress to grant all legislative power to his cabinet? Did he burn down the Capitol and blame it on the Democrats? Has he opened concentration camps for his political opponents? Have his followers roamed campuses burning books? No? Within five months of seizing power Hitler had done all that.

What are these people talking about?

Apparently, Chomsky’s answer reveals, climate change, “a truly existential threat to survival of organized human life.” That’s right. Climate change—and the North Carolina legislature and Trump administration declining to act on it.

If this seems out of proportion to authoritarianism rhetoric, that’s because it is.

It’s also an article of quasi-religious faith rather than a rational conclusion. Yancy and Chomsky assume that science shows us that we face an existential threat. Neither is trained in environmental science. Has either read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report—not the political summary, but the whole thing? Do they read scientific journals on the topic? Are they familiar with the arguments of critics such as Richard Lindzen and Roger Pielke? Do they read blogs by critics such as Watts Up with That? Can they discuss the differences between satellite data sets? The differences between those, oceanic measurements, and surface records? Are they familiar with the variation among existing models? Can they explain why some ought to be preferred to others? If so, no sign of it here. The issue isn’t up for debate.

North Carolina’s legislators, like members of the Trump Administration, view climate change models with skepticism, as the products of political activism as much as science. (Disclosure: I studied environmental physics in the 1970s, when the big fear was global cooling. That alone makes me skeptical. But, also, I do follow the science, which seems to me inconclusive on the causal questions that would drive policy.)

But maybe Chomsky is right. Why is disagreeing with him on climate issues “authoritarian”? His explanation: Trump has decided to “ban regulations and even research and discussion of environmental threats and race to the precipice as quickly as possible (in the interests of short-term profit and power).”

Notice the conflations evident in this passage. “Ban regulations”? The president is the head of the executive branch. He has the authority to issue orders to his subordinates; it’s not authoritarian to use the authority you legitimately possess. And deciding not to regulate something—not to exert control over it—is not authoritarian.

“Ban… even research and discussion”? That starts to sound authoritarian. But no one has done it. Within the executive branch, again, the president has the right to order people not to spend their work time pursuing such matters. They are free to research and discuss whatever they want when not on the clock. Scientists outside government face no restrictions at all.

“Race to the precipice as quickly as possible”? To my knowledge the president has not commanded that emissions be maximized.

“In the interests of short-term profit and power”? Note Chomsky’s willingness to ascribe motives to his opposition without bothering to examining what they believe and why.

Chomsky’s conflations are instructive, for we get a hint here of what he finds authoritarian: exerting control over the administrative state. Regulatory agencies, in his view, should be able to act independently of any higher executive or legislative authority. Like a group of Platonic guardians, they should have complete authority over their domains; attempts to encroach on their independence are inherently pernicious. Chomsky’s vision is oligarchic. His opposition, in contrast, finds the risk of authoritarianism in the power of the administrative state. Holding it accountable to the people by way of Congress or the president isn’t authoritarian. It’s precisely the opposite.

Yancy asks what people can do when the situation is “so incredibly hopeless and repressive.” Why he finds it so remains unexplained.

Chomsky is more optimistic. He smears the Republican Party as “ultra-reactionary,” for reasons that again go unexplained, but finds hope in the 2016 Sanders campaign, which failed only because “elections are pretty much bought.”

That’s why Jeb Bush won the Republican nomination and Hillary won the election.

But could someone as far Left as Sanders have won? On Chomsky’s political spectrum, Sanders was a moderate; he merely advocated “mildly progressive (basically New Deal) programs.” Remember: Sanders repeatedly called for a political revolution. Anyone remember FDR doing that? Roosevelt didn’t promise a universal basic income or free college to everyone, either.

That tells us something about Chomsky’s spectrum, and about the way Leftists tend to see American politics more generally. I have heard others make similar remarks over the years, as if having a radically shifted spectrum were a badge of honor. Chomsky concludes that the Democrats have been failing because they haven’t gone far enough to the left!

Chomsky outlines Trump’s designs:

  • “Creating a tiny America”—MAGA!
  • “Isolated from the world”—How? Trump is no isolationist, as his foreign policy so far has demonstrated amply.
  • “Cowering in fear behind walls”—You mean, actually pursuing an immigration policy based on our self-interest, which virtually every other nation on earth outside the EU does?
  • “While pursuing the Paul Ryan-style domestic policies that represent the most savage wing of the Republican establishment.”—Brother, if you think Paul Ryan is savage, you really need to meet my alt-right friends.

What, other than global warming, worries Chomsky? Modernizing our nuclear arsenal: “As we have recently learned”—Chomsky often speaks as if new information (surprise!) has demonstrated conclusively what he has been saying all along—“the modernized U.S. nuclear force is seriously fraying the slender thread on which survival is suspended.” He somehow misses that the point of a nuclear arsenal lies not in its use but in deterrence. If no one has confidence that your weapons will fire or explode because they were built 40 years ago, their deterrent effect is reduced.

What is this new information to which Chomsky is privy? It’s in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. To quote Obi-wan Kenobi, “Now that’s a name I haven’t heard in a long, long time.” Those are the guys with Communist connections and the doomsday clock always pointed to a few minutes before midnight. They were ridiculous alarmists in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s and haven’t gotten any better. They think Trump has brought us back to 1953 levels of hostility. He’s out to provoke nuclear war with Russia!

If Donald Trump is an authoritarian monster who wants nuclear war, why do so many people support him? Yancy refers to their “servile deference.”

[In a robotic voice: All hail Donald! He never lies, and he’s always right!]

But Chomsky demurs, arguing that Trump voters are affluent, reactionary, nervous about their social and economic position, and of course racist and sexist. He does note that median income has fallen significantly in the past decade. That might have had something to do with voters’ rejection of Hillary’s promise of more of the same. But Chomsky finds that explanation too simple. The real problem, he says, is “Fox News, talk radio and other practitioners of alternative facts.”

We could easily turn that around: Democrats are so disconnected from reality because they depend on the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, and other “practitioners of alternative facts.”

Faced with divergent accounts of reality, shaped as much by what they omit as by what they include and how much of it is true, a reasonable person ought to seek ways of evaluating those accounts or, failing that, suspend judgment. But Chomsky simply takes his account for granted and moves on.

The Republicans aren’t just wrong; they’re criminal. Republicans want “to destroy the conditions for organized social existence.” They want “to enhance the already dire threat of terminal nuclear war.” They want “to deprive tens of millions of health care and to drive helpless people out of nursing homes.” Evidently, in Chomsky-world, Donald Trump seeks to blow up the world and send us all back to the Stone Age. He wants to take us back to the situation before St. Obama, when there were tens of millions dying in the streets, when the death rate was astronomical, when the elderly wandered through neighborhoods, begging for scraps of food, peering through windows longing for a glimpse of what they used to have, looking in vain for a place to die . . . .

Chomsky concludes: “It’s easy to condemn those we place on the other side of some divide”—finally, something this interview amply demonstrates.

About the Author:

Daniel Bonevac
Daniel Bonevac is professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.
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  • Jack

    I find this dissolution of reality troubling on many fronts. But let’s part with the notion that these people can be reasoned with. This insanity of liberalism is a mental disorder that is leaking into general population like a toxin. It has infected the minds of our neighbors and created the zombie stormtroopers they claim to decry. The antifa and Hodgekinson are the likely and probable outcomes of liberalism. Any position to the left of conservatism gets sucked into the blackholed maw of Communism. Chomsky one of the many Jokers of our time, happy to watch the world burn no matter the screams of parents and children alike!

  • Alex Furlong

    For someone who is supposedly the Great God of Linguistics… Chomsky is remarkably loose with language.

    I’m getting the impression that this interview wasn’t intended to pull forth any new information or insight. It’s closer to a reassurance that the High Bishop of Leftist Thought still believes and is still up to date with the various goings-on in his church.

    Interviewer: “Is it still all the Republicans’ fault?”
    Chomsky: “Yes, my child. And they are racists, too.”
    I: “What do they fear, father?”
    C: “They fear loss of their riches, the color of our skin and the might of our collective will.”
    I: “What should we do, oh Chomsky?”
    C: “We should seize the means of production, make everyone equal in wealth, and purge the nonbelievers from our midst. In the name of the Chairman, the Proletariat, and the Revolutionary, Amen.”
    I: “Amen, father. I shall carry your words to faithful.”

  • Wolfie the Destroyer

    Well said! Furthermore, Chomsky shall suffer the same fate as the CNN Black Knight!

    Epic Trump CNN Sword Battle
    https://twitter.com/HanAsshole/status/883816740681068546

  • Beauceron

    I only know Yancy from the NY Times “Dear White America” editorial he penned and the Times saw fit to gift America with on Christmas eve 2015. The usual vapid Leftist, SJW tripe about how every single white person is racist, people married to a Person of Color with interracial children were racist, a 5 year old is racist– basically, racism is something white people are born with.

    I despise that sort of thinking.

  • MikeRazar

    Good article. Chomsky is at best a charlatan. His linguistic theories are crap too.

  • J.j. Cintia

    Its called projection you fool. Clowns like Chomsky are always complaining about Authoritarianism. Not because they’re afraid of it, but because they have wet dreams all night about murdering their political opponents in a massive bloodbath. This coward isn’t brave enough to fight, but these code words go out to his dumb brown hordes to attack his enemies. What do they care? Its not like they have any future. Attack his opponents and get some cheese. Cheese is scarce in the diseased mudhole they call their “culture”.

  • Bad Wolf

    The bubble reality of Democrats – demonstrably absurd assumptions about human nature, the motives of others, economic conditions – amplified by the echo chamber of the bubble. Absolutely clueless about the real world. Absolutely clueless about American history. Absolutely clueless about why people came here, stayed, made their lives, and raised their families. A consciousness dominated by the fantasies of people who could not change a tire, wire a room, defend themselves if assaulted, make a business plan work, persuade a customer to buy something, survive outdoors with no supplies other than a flint, bandage a wound or inflict a wound, deal with a hostile large animal, or handle any sort of real world problem. Helpless, pathetic little people with narrow experience in the world talking to each other about how terrible those scary people out there in the real world are. Basically people who should never leave a large urban center where everything is provided because they could not cut it without their money and pre-made supply chain. Pathetic.

  • CosmotKat

    For progressives and people like the alt-reality Chomsky it’s not the shallowness of their ideas, or the serial failure of those ides when turned into policy, it’s not their weak grasp on the issues, it’s the fact there those who disagree and for that they are evil. Chomsky is oblivious to his own hubris and how shallow his political arguments really are. Chomsky’s use of vapid left wing talking points indicates his intellect is closing in on senility.

  • sotto voce

    It’s bracing to read a precise dissection of Chomsky’s blather. I never could understand the reverence heaped on the man, but then I’m not a member of his intended audience.

    Out of curiosity I did read the interview and something leapt out immediately: Chomsky says he’s “not sure just what Karl Marx had in mind” when he wrote that philosophers only interpret the world when the point is to change it. For someone of Chomsky’s supposed intellectual acuity, who lived through the 20th Century and witnessed the bloody fruits of Marxism, to still claim befuddlement over Marx’s aims is astonishing. No wonder his acolytes love him.

  • OkiefromMuskogee

    Chomsky, a typical IYI (intellectual yet idiot). Thank you N. Taleb for the tag.

  • RJones

    Anyone can construct an intellectual tour-de-force if allowed to jump, unsupported, to conclusions that build upon one another. The point of such an exercise is not truth seeking but construction of alternate reality, I.e., fiction. Fun perhaps, but ultimately useless for anything but exciting acolytes unable to think for themselves. The game I guess is to undermine the idea of truth, which these folks believe impedes their effort to implement utopia for all.

    While off topic, I will say that questioning nuclear weapons policy is not crazy in my view. NNSA says they need $1.2T (which just last year was $1T) over 30y to rebuild everything.

    First of all, this estimate assumes a spending profile which if not authorized could easily double or triple the overall cost. Failure to execute as planned could also ballon the cost. This is an astonishing amount of money and one must question both what else we could buy with such a sum and whether there are any any engineering/technical alternates. Personally, as a technical person, I dismiss any assertion that alternatives to plan A do not exist.

    Secondly, how can one commit this amount of money to an agency that has failed to implement a long term lifecycle management strategy up to now? This situation is like running an IT shop on a budget of $X million/yr and then, after 5 yr, telling the CEO the company will have to shut down unless he dedicates 10X to re-buy all the IT equipment. Nobody runs IT like that. Plans are made for items becoming obsolete over time. So why give this enormous sum of money to folks have already mismanaged their portfolio? Blaming congress is not permitted. Whatever budget was allocated, a portion should have been committed to replacement. I get the testing hindrances, the complexity, and the life extension work, but everyone knew this stuff would eventually need replacement. The proposed approach is a Big Bang strategy, which is irresponsible. The management team must be held to account for this failure.

    Thirdly, NNSA’s record of successfully executing large, technically complex projects is poor. Changes to address this are required. This proposed effort is sort of like trying to rebuild Hoover Dam, which many people think could not be done in today’s environment of Davis-bacon labor cost and extreme environmental, safety, and security rules. How can we be assured this effort will not result in an enormous black hole that does nothing but swallow money and create cushy government jobs with little expectation of results?

    Lastly, this effort needs to be broken up into a bunch of little programs, each of which is scrutinized intently. It might make sense to implement a permanent panel to maintain continuous external oversight. Both government and contractor should maintain project management teams and both should be fired in their entirety if the program fails.