Inside Chomsky-World

By | 2017-07-13T14:48:59+00:00 July 9th, 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.