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SOURCE: “Chomsky's Revolution in Linguistics,” in New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972, pp. 16-24.
[ In the following excerpt, Searle provides an overview of Chomsky's theories about language and their impact and influence on the study of linguistics. While hailing the importance of Chomsky's insights into the...
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SOURCE: “Chomsky's Revolution in Linguistics,” in New York Review of Books, June 29, 1972, pp. 16-24.
[In the following excerpt, Searle provides an overview of Chomsky's theories about language and their impact and influence on the study of linguistics. While hailing the importance of Chomsky's insights into the structure of syntax, Searle finds inadequacies in the semantic component of his linguistic theory.]
Throughout the history of the study of man there has been a fundamental opposition between those who believe that progress is to be made by a rigorous observation of man's actual behavior and those who believe that such observations are interesting only in so far as they reveal to us hidden and possibly fairly mysterious underlying laws that only partially and in distorted form reveal themselves to us in behavior. Freud, for example, is in the latter class, most of American social science in the former.
Noam Chomsky is unashamedly with the searchers after hidden laws. Actual speech behavior, speech performance, for him is only the top of a large iceberg of linguistic competence distorted in its shape by many factors irrelevant to linguistics. Indeed he once remarked that the very expression “behavioral sciences” suggests a fundamental confusion between evidence and subject matter. Psychology, for example, he claims is the science of mind; to call psychology a behavioral science is like calling physics a science of meter readings. One uses human behavior as evidence for the laws of the operation of the mind, but to suppose that the laws must be laws of behavior is to suppose that the evidence must be the subject matter.
In this opposition between the methodology of confining research to observable facts and that of using the observable facts as clues to hidden and underlying laws, Chomsky's revolution is doubly interesting: first, within the field of linguistics, it has precipitated a conflict which is an example of the wider conflict; and secondly, Chomsky has used his results about language to try to develop general anti-behaviorist and anti-empiricist conclusions about the nature of the human mind that go beyond the scope of linguistics.
His revolution followed fairly closely the general pattern described in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: the accepted model or “paradigm” of linguistics was confronted, largely by Chomsky's work, with increasing numbers of nagging counter-examples and recalcitrant data which the paradigm could not deal with. Eventually the counter-examples led Chomsky to break the old model altogether and to create a completely new one. Prior to the publication of his Syntactic Structures in 1957, many, probably most, American linguists regarded the aim of their discipline as being the classification of the elements of human languages. Linguistics was to be a sort of verbal botany. As Hockett wrote in 1942, “Linguistics is a classificatory science.”1
Suppose, for example, that such a linguist is giving a description of a language, whether an exotic language like Cherokee or a familiar one like English. He proceeds by first collecting his “data,” he gathers a large number of utterances of the language, which he records on his tape recorder or in a phonetic script. This “corpus” of the language constitutes his subject matter. He then classifies the elements of the corpus at their different linguistic levels: first he classifies the smallest significant functioning units of sound, the phonemes, then at the next level the phonemes unite into the minimally significant bearers of meaning, the morphemes (in English, for example, the word “cat” is a single morpheme made up of three phonemes; the word “uninteresting” is made up of three morphemes: “un,” “interest,” and “ing”), at the next higher level the morphemes join together to form words and word classes such as noun phrases and verb phrases, and at the highest level of all come sequences of word classes, the possible sentences and, sentence types.
The aim of linguistic theory was to provide the linguist with a set of rigorous methods, a set of discovery procedures which he would use to extract from the “corpus” the phonemes, the morphemes, and so on. The study of the meanings of sentences or of the uses to which speakers of the language put the sentences had little place in this enterprise. Meanings, scientifically construed, were thought to be patterns of behavior determined by stimulus and response; they were properly speaking the subject matter of psychologists. Alternatively they might be some mysterious mental entities altogether outside the scope of a sober science or, worse yet, they might involve the speaker's whole knowledge of the world around him and thus fall beyond the scope of a study restricted only to linguistic facts.
Structural linguistics, with its insistence on objective methods of verification and precisely specified techniques of discovery, with its refusal to allow any talk of meanings or mental entities or unobservable features, derives from the “behavioral sciences” approach to the study of man, and is also largely a consequence of the philosophical assumptions of logical positivism. Chomsky was brought up in this tradition at the University of Pennsylvania as a student of both Zellig Harris, the linguist, and Nelson Goodman, the philosopher.
Chomsky's work is interesting in large part because, while it is a major attack on the conception of man implicit in the behavioral sciences, the attack is made from within the very tradition of scientific rigor and precision that the behavioral sciences have been aspiring to. His attack on the view that human psychology can be described by correlating stimulus and response is not an a priori conceptual argument, much less is it the cry of an anguished humanist resentful at being treated as a machine or an animal. Rather it is a claim that a really rigorous analysis of language will show that such methods when applied to language produce nothing but falsehoods or trivialities, that their practitioners have simply imitated “the surface features of science” without having its “significant intellectual content.”
As a graduate student at Pennsylvania, Chomsky attempted to apply the conventional methods of structural linguistics to the study of syntax, but found that the methods that had apparently worked so well with phonemes and morphemes did not work very well with sentences. Each language has a finite number of phonemes and a finite though quite large number of morphemes. It is possible to get a list of each; but the number of sentences in any natural language like French or English is, strictly speaking, infinite. There is no limit to the number of new sentences that can be produced; and for each sentence, no matter how long, it is always possible to produce a longer one. Within structuralist assumptions it is not easy to account for the fact that languages have an infinite number of sentences.
Furthermore the structuralist methods of classification do not seem able to account for all of the internal relations within sentences, or the relations that different sentences have to each other. For example, to take a famous case, the two sentences “John is easy to please” and “John is eager to please” look as if they had exactly the same grammatical structure. Each is a sequence of noun-copula-adjective-infinitive verb. But in spite of this surface similarly the grammar of the two is quite different. In the first sentence, though it is not apparent from the surface word order, “John” functions as the direct object of the verb to please, the sentence means it is easy for someone to please John. Whereas in the second “John” functions as the subject of the verb to please; the sentence means John is eager that he please someone. That this is a difference in the syntax of the sentences comes out clearly in the fact that English allows us to form the noun phrase “John's eagerness to please” out of the second, but not “John's easiness to please” out of the first. There is no easy or natural way to account for these facts within structuralist assumptions.
Another set of syntactical facts that structuralist assumptions are inadequate to handle is the existence of certain types of ambiguous sentences where the ambiguity derives not from the words in the sentence but from the syntactical structure. Consider the sentence “The shooting of the hunters is terrible.” This can mean that it is terrible that the hunters are being shot or that the hunters are terrible at shooting or that the hunters are being shot in a terrible fashion. Another example is “I like her cooking.” In spite of the fact that it contains no ambiguous words (or morphemes) and has a very simple superficial grammatical structure of noun-verb-possessive pronoun-noun, this sentence is in fact remarkably ambiguous. It can mean, among other things, I like what she cooks, I like the way she cooks, I like the fact that she cooks, even, I like the fact that she is being cooked.
Such “syntactically ambiguous” sentences form a crucial test case for any theory of syntax. The examples are ordinary pedestrian English sentences, there is nothing fancy about them. But it is not easy to see how to account for them. The meaning of any sentence is determined by the meanings of the component words (or morphemes) and their syntactical arrangement. How then can we account for these cases where one sentence containing unambiguous words (and morphemes) has several different meanings? Structuralist linguists had little or nothing to say about these cases; they simply ignored them. Chomsky was eventually led up claim that these sentences have several different syntactical structures, that the uniform surface structure of, e.g., “I like her cooking” conceals several different underlying structures which he called “deep” structures. The introduction of the notion of the deep structure of sentences, not always visible in the surface structure, is a crucial element of the Chomsky revolution, and I shall explain it in more detail later.
One of the merits of Chomsky's work has been that he has persistently tried to call attention to the puzzling character of facts that are so familiar that we all tend to take them for granted as not requiring explanation. Just as physics begins in wonder at such obvious facts as that apples fall to the ground or genetics in wonder that plants and animals reproduce themselves, so the study of the structure of language beings in wondering at such humdrum facts as that “I like her cooking” has different meanings. “John is eager to please” isn't quite the same in structure as “John is easy to please,” and the equally obvious but often overlooked facts that we continually find ourselves saying and hearing things we have never said or heard before and that the number of possible new sentences is infinite.
The inability of structuralist methods to account for such syntactical facts eventually led Chomsky to challenge not only the methods but the goals and indeed the definition of the subject matter of linguistics given by the structuralist linguists. Instead of a taxonomic goal of classifying elements by performing sets of operations on a corpus of utterances, Chomsky argued that the goal of linguistic description should be to construct a theory that would account for the infinite number of sentences of a natural language. Such a theory would show which strings of words were sentences and which were not, and would provide a description of the grammatical structure of each sentence.
Such descriptions would have to be able to account for such facts as the internal grammatical relations and the ambiguities described above. The description of a natural language would be a formal deductive theory which would contain a set of grammatical rules that could generate the infinite set of sentences of the language would not generate anything that was not a sentence, and would provide a description of the grammatical structure of each sentence. Such a theory came to be called a “generative grammar” because of its aim of constructing a device that would generate all and only the sentences of a language.
This conception of the goal of linguistics then altered the conception of the methods and the subject matter. Chomsky argued that since any language contains an infinite number of sentences, any “corpus,” even if it contained as many sentences as there are in all the books of the Library of Congress, would still be trivially small. Instead of the appropriate subject matter of linguistics being a randomly or arbitrarily selected set of sentences, the proper object of study was the speaker's underlying knowledge of the language, his “linguistic competence” that enables him to produce and understand sentences he has never heard before.
Once the conception of the “corpus” as the subject matter is rejected, then the notion of mechanical procedures for discovering linguistic truths goes as well. Chomsky argues that no science has a mechanical procedure for discovering the truth anyway. Rather, what happens is that the scientist formulates hypotheses and tests them against evidence. Linguistics is no different: the linguist makes conjectures about linguistic facts and tests them against the evidence provided by native speakers of the language. He has in short a procedure for evaluating rival hypotheses, but no procedure for discovering true theories by mechanically processing evidence. …
Most of this revolution was already presented in Chomsky's book Syntactic Structures. As one linguist remarked. “The extraordinary and traumatic impact of the publication of Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky in 1957 can hardly be appreciated by one who did not live through this upheaval.”2 In the years after 1957 the spread of the revolution was made more rapid and more traumatic by certain special features of the organization of linguistics as a discipline in the United States. Only a few universities had separate departments of linguistics. The discipline was (by contrast to say, philosophy or psychology), and still is, a rather cozy one. Practitioners were few; they all tended to know one another; they read the same very limited number of journals; they had, and indeed still have, an annual get-together at the Summer Linguistics Institute of the Linguistic Society of America, where issues are thrashed out and family squabbles are aired in public meetings.
All of this facilitated a rapid dissemination of new ideas and a dramatic and visible clash of conflicting views. Chomsky did not convince the established leaders of the field but he did something more important, he convinced their graduate students. And he attracted some fiery disciples, notably Robert Lees and Paul Postal.
The spread of Chomsky's revolution, like the spread of analytic philosophy during the same period, was a striking example of the Young Turk phenomenon in American academic life. The graduate students became generative grammarians even in departments that had traditionalist faculties. All of this also engendered a good deal of passion and animosity, much of which still survives. Many of the older generation still cling resentfully to the great traditions, regarding Chomsky and his “epigones” as philistines and vulgarians. Meanwhile Chomsky's views have become the conventional wisdom, and as Chomsky and his disciples of the Sixties very quickly become Old Turks a new generation of Young Turks (many of them among Chomsky's best students) arise and challenge Chomsky's views with a new theory of “generative semantics.”
The aim of the linguistic theory expounded by Chomsky in Syntactic Structures (1957) was essentially to describe syntax, that is, to specify the grammatical rules underlying the construction of sentences. In Chomsky's mature theory, as expounded in Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), the aims become more ambitious: to explain all of the linguistic relationships between the sound system and the meaning system of the language. To achieve this, the complete “grammar” of a language, in Chomsky's technical sense of the word, must have three parts, a syntactical component that generates and describes the internal structure of the infinite number of sentences of the language, a phonological component that describes the sound structure of the sentences generated by the syntactical component, and a semantic component that describes the meaning structure of the sentences. The heart of the grammar is the syntax; the phonology and the semantics are purely “interpretative,” in the sense that they describe the sound and the meaning of the sentences produced by the syntax but do not generate any sentences themselves.
The first task of Chomsky's syntax is to account for the speaker's understanding of the internal structure of sentences. Sentences are not unordered strings of words, rather the words and morphemes are grouped into functional constituents such as the subject of the sentence, the predicate, the direct object, and so on. Chomsky and other grammarians can represent much, though not all, of the speaker's knowledge of the internal structure of sentences with rules called “phrase structure” rules. …
At the time of the publication of Aspects of the Theory of Syntax it seemed that all of the semantically relevant parts of the sentence, all the things that determine its meaning, were contained in the deep structure of the sentence. The examples we mentioned above fit in nicely with this view. “I like her cooking” has different meanings because it has different deep structures though only one surface structure. “The boy will read the book” and “The book will be read by the boy” have different surface structures, but one and the same deep structure, hence they have the same meaning.
This produced a rather elegant theory of the relation of syntax to semantics and phonology: the two components of the syntax, the base component and the transformational component, generate deep structures and surface structures respectively. Deep structures are the input to the semantic component, which describes their meaning. Surface structures are the input to the phonological component, which describes their sound. In short, deep structure determines meaning, surface structure determines sound. …
Seen as an attack on the methods and assumptions of structural linguistics, Chomsky's revolution appears to many of his students to be not quite revolutionary enough. Chomsky inherits and maintains from his structuralist upbringing the conviction that syntax can and should be studied independently of semantics; that form is to be characterized independently of meaning. As early as Syntactic Structures he was arguing that “investigation of such [semantic] proposals invariably leads to the conclusion that only a purely formal basis can provide a firm and productive foundation for the construction of grammatical theory.”3
The structuralists feared the intrusion of semantics into syntax because meaning seemed too vaporous and unscientific a notion for use in a rigorous science of language. Some of this attitude appears to survive in Chomsky's persistent preference for syntactical over semantic explanations of linguistic phenomena. But, I believe, the desire to keep syntax autonomous springs from a more profound philosophical commitment: man, for Chomsky, is essentially a syntactical animal. The structure of his brain determines the structure of his syntax, and for this reason the study of syntax is one of the keys, perhaps the most important key, to the study of the human mind.
It is of course true, Chomsky would say, that men use their syntactical objects for semantic purposes (that is, they talk with their sentences), but the semantic purposes do not determine the form of the syntax or even influence it in any significant way. It is because form is only incidentally related to function that the study of language as a formal system is such a marvelous way of studying the human mind.
It is important to emphasize how peculiar and eccentric Chomsky's overall approach to language is. Most sympathetic commentators have been so dazzled by the results in syntax that they have not noted how much of the theory runs counter to quite ordinary, plausible and common sense assumptions about language. The common sense picture of human language runs something like this. The purpose of language is communication in much the same sense that the purpose of the heart is to pump blood. In both cases it is possible to study the structure independently of function but pointless and perverse to do so, since structure and function so obviously interact. We communicate primarily with other people, but also with ourselves, as when we talk or think in words to ourselves. Human languages are among several systems of human communication (some others are gestures, symbol systems, and representational art) but language has immeasurably greater communicative power than the others.
We don't know how language evolved in human prehistory, but it is quite reasonable to suppose that the needs of communication influenced the structure. For example, transformational rules facilitate economy and so have survival value: we don't have to say, “I like it that she cooks in a certain way,” we can say, simply, “I like her cooking.” We pay a small price for such economies in having ambiguities, but it does not hamper communication much to have ambiguous sentences because when people actually talk the context usually sorts out the ambiguities. Transformations also facilitate communication by enabling us to emphasize certain things at the expense of others: we can say not only “Bill loves Sally” but also “It is Bill that loves Sally” and “It is Sally that Bill loves.” In general an understanding of syntactical facts requires as understanding of their function in communication since communication is what language is all about.
Chomsky's picture, on the other hand, seems to be something like this: except for having such general purposes as the expression of human thoughts, language doesn't have any essential purpose, or if it does there is no interesting connection between its purpose and its structure. The syntactical structures of human languages are the products of innate features of the human mind, and they have no significant connection with communication, though, of course, people do use them for, among other purposes, communication. The essential thing about languages, their defining trait, is their structure. The so-called “bee language,” for example, is not a language at all because it doesn't have the right structure, and the fact that bees apparently use it to communicate is irrelevant. If human beings evolved to the point where they used syntactical forms to communicate that are quite unlike the forms we have now and would be beyond our present comprehension, then human beings would no longer have language, but something else.
For Chomsky language is defined by syntactical structure (not by the use of the structure in communication) and syntactical structure is determined by innate properties of the human mind (not by the needs of communication). On this picture of language it is not surprising that Chomsky's main contribution has been to syntax. The semantic results that he and his colleagues have achieved have so far been trivial.
Many of Chomsky's best students find this picture of language implausible and the linguistic theory that emerges from it unnecessarily cumbersome. They argue that one of the crucial factors shaping syntactic structure is semantics. Even such notions as “a grammatically correct sentence” or a “well-formed” sentence, they claim, require the introduction of semantic concepts. For example, the sentence “John called Mary a Republican and then SHE insulted HIM”4 is a well-formed sentence only on the assumption that the participants regard it as insulting to be called a Republican.
Much as Chomsky once argued that structuralists could not comfortably accommodate the syntactical facts of language, so the generative semanticists now argue that his system cannot comfortably account for the facts of the interpenetration of semantics and syntax. There is no unanimity among Chomsky's critics—Ross, Postal, Lakoff, McCawley, Fillmore (some of these are among his best students)—but they generally agree that syntax and semantics cannot be sharply separated, and hence there is no need to postulate the existence of purely syntactical deep structures.
Those who call themselves generative semanticists believe that the generative component of a linguistic theory is not the syntax, as in the above diagrams, but the semantics, that the grammar starts with a description of the meaning of a sentence and then generates the syntactical structures through the introduction of syntactical rules and lexical rules. The syntax then becomes just a collection of rules for expressing meaning.
It is too early to assess the conflict between Chomsky's generative syntax and the new theory of generative semantics, partly because at present the arguments are so confused. Chomsky himself thinks that there is no substance to the issues because his critics have only rephrased his theory in a new terminology.5
But it is clear that a great deal of Chomsky's over-all vision of language hangs on the issue of whether there is such a thing as syntactical deep structure. Chomsky argues that if there were no deep structure, linguistics as a study would be much less interesting because one could not then argue from syntax to the structure of the human mind, which for Chomsky is the chief interest of linguistics. I believe on the contrary that if the generative semanticists are right (and it is by no means clear that they are) that there is no boundary between syntax and semantics and hence no syntactical deep structures, linguistics if anything would be even more interesting because we could then begin the systematic investigation of the way form and function interact, how use and structure influence each other, instead of arbitrarily assuming that they do not, as Chomsky has so often tended to assume.
It is one of the ironies of the Chomsky revolution that the author of the revolution now occupies a minority position in the movement he created. Most of the active people in generative grammar regard Chomsky's position as having been rendered obsolete by the various arguments concerning the interaction between syntax and semantics. The old time structuralists whom Chomsky originally attacked look on with delight at this revolution within the revolution, rubbing their hands in glee at the sight of their adversaries fighting each other. “Those TG [transformational grammar] people are in deep trouble,” one warhorse of the old school told me. But the traditionalists are mistaken to regard the fight as support for their position. The conflict is being carried on entirely within a conceptual system that Chomsky created. Whoever wins, the old structuralism will be the loser.
The most spectacular conclusion about the nature of the human mind that Chomsky derives from his work in linguistics is that his results vindicate the claims of the seventeenth-century rationalist philosophers, Descartes, Leibniz, and others, that there are innate ideas in the mind. The rationalists claim that human beings have knowledge that is not derived from experience but is prior to all experience and determines the form of the knowledge that can be gained from experience. The empiricist tradition by contrast, from Locke down to contemporary behaviorist learning theorists, has tended to treat the mind as a tabula rasa, containing no knowledge prior to experience and placing no constraints on the forms of possible knowledge, except that they must be derived from experience by such mechanisms as the association of ideas or the habitual connection of stimulus and response. For empiricists all knowledge comes from experience, for rationalists some knowledge is implanted innately and prior to experience. In his bluntest moods, Chomsky claims to have refuted the empiricists and vindicated the rationalists.
His argument centers around the way in which children learn language. Suppose we assume that the account of the structure of natural languages we gave in Section II is correct. Then the grammar of a natural language will consist of a set of phrase structure rules that generate underlying phrase markers, a set of transformational rules that map deep structures onto surface structures, a set of phonological rules that assign phonetic interpretations to surface structures, and so on. Now, asks Chomsky, if all of this is part of the child's linguistic competence, how does he ever acquire it? That is, in learning how to talk, how does the child acquire that part of knowing how to talk which is described by the grammar and which constitutes his linguistic competence?
Notice, Chomsky says, several features of the learning situation: the information that the child is presented with—when other people address him or when he hears them talk to each other—is limited in amount, fragmentary, and imperfect. There seems to be no way the child could learn the language just by generalizing from his inadequate experiences, from the utterances he hears. Furthermore, the child acquires the language at a very early age, before his general intellectual faculties are developed.
Indeed, the ability to learn a language is only marginally dependent on intelligence and motivation. Stupid children and intelligent children, motivated and unmotivated children, all learn to speak their native tongue. If a child does not acquire his first language by puberty, it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, for him to learn one after that time. Formal teaching of the first language is unnecessary; the child may have to go to school to learn to read and write but he does not have to go to school to learn how to talk.
Now, in spite of all these facts the child who learns his first language, claims Chomsky, performs a remarkable intellectual feat in “internalizing” the grammar: he does something akin to constructing a theory of the language. The only explanation for all these facts, says Chomsky, is that the mind is not a tabula rasa, but rather, the child has the form of the language already built into his mind before he ever learns to talk. The child has a universal grammar, so to speak, programmed into his brain as part of his genetic inheritance. In the most ambitious versions of this theory, Chomsky speaks of the child as being born “with a perfect knowledge of universal grammar, that is, with a fixed schematism that he uses, … in acquiring language.”6 A child can learn any human language on the basis of very imperfect information. That being the case, he must have the forms that are common to all human languages as part of his innate mental equipment.
As further evidence in support of a specifically human “facult de langage” Chomsky points out that animal communication systems are radically unlike human languages. Animal systems have only a finite number of communicative devices, and they are usually controlled by certain stimuli. Human languages, by contrast, all have an infinite generative capacity and the utterances of sentences are not predictable on the basis of external stimuli. This “creative aspect of language use” is peculiarly human.
One traditional argument against the existence of an innate language learning faculty is that human languages are so diverse. The differences between Chinese, Nootka, Hungarian, and English, for example, are so great as to destroy the possibility of any universal grammar, and hence languages could only be learned by a general intelligence, not by any innate language learning device. Chomsky has attempted to turn this argument on its head: in spite of surface differences, all human languages have very similar underlying structures; they all have phrase structure rules and transformational rules. They all contain sentences, and these sentences are composed of subject noun phrases and predicate verb phrases, etc.
Chomsky is really making two claims here. First, a historical claim that his views on language were prefigured by the seventeenth-century rationalists, especially Descartes. Second, a theoretical claim that empiricist learning theory cannot account for the acquisition of language. Both claims are more tenuous than he suggests. Descartes did indeed claim that we have innate ideas, such as the idea of a triangle or the idea of perfection or the idea of God. But I know of no passage in Descartes to suggest that he thought the syntax of natural languages was innate. Quite the contrary, Descartes appears to have thought that language was arbitrary: he thought that we arbitrarily attach words to our ideas. Concepts for Descartes are innate, whereas language is arbitrary and acquired. Furthermore Descartes does not allow for the possibility of unconscious knowledge, a notion that is crucial to Chomsky's system. Chomsky cites correctly Descartes's claim that the creative use of language distinguishes man from the lower animals. But that by itself does not support the thesis that Descartes is a precursor of Chomsky's theory of innate ideas.
The positions are in fact crucially different. Descartes thought of man as essentially a language-using animal who arbitrarily assigns verbal labels to an innate system of concepts. Chomsky, as remarked earlier, thinks of man as essentially a syntactical animal producing and understanding sentences by virtue of possessing an innate system of grammar, triggered in various possible forms by the different human languages to which he has been exposed. A better historical analogy than with Descartes is with Leibniz, who claimed that innate ideas are in us in the way that the statue is already prefigured in a block of marble. In a passage of Leibniz Chomsky frequently quotes, Leibniz makes
… the comparison of a block of marble which has veins, rather than a block of marble wholly even, or of blank tablets, i.e., of what is called among philosophers, a tabula rasa. For if the soul resembles these blank tablets, truth would be in us as the figure of Hercules is in the marble, when the marble is wholly indifferent to the reception of this figure or some other. But if there were veins in the block which would indicate the figure of Hercules rather than other figures, this block would be more determined thereto, and Hercules would be in it as in some sense innate, although it would be needful to labor to discover these veins, to clear them by polishing, and by cutting away what prevents them from appearing. Thus, it is that ideas and truths are for us innate, as inclinations, dispositions, habits, or natural potentialities, and not as actions, although these potentialities are always accompanied by some actions, often insensible, which correspond to them.7
But if the correct model for the notion of innate ideas is the block of marble that contains the figure of Hercules as “disposition,” “inclination,” or “natural potentiality,” then at least some of the dispute between Chomsky and the empiricist learning theorists will dissolve like so much mist on a hot morning. Many of the fiercest partisans of empiricist and behaviorist learning theories are willing to concede that the child has innate learning capacities in the sense that he has innate dispositions, inclinations, and natural potentialities. Just as the block of marble has the innate capacity of being turned into a statue, so the child has the innate capacity of learning. W. V. Quine, for example, in his response to Chomsky's innateness hypothesis argues, “The behaviorist is knowingly and cheerfully up to his neck in innate mechanisms of learning readiness.” Indeed, claims Quine, “Innate biases and dispositions are the cornerstone of behaviorism.”8
If innateness is the cornerstone of behaviorism what then is left of the dispute? Even after all these ecumenical disclaimers by behaviorists to the effect that of course behaviorism and empiricism require innate mechanisms to make the stimulus-response patterns work, there still remains a hard core of genuine disagreement. Chomsky is arguing not simply that the child must have “learning readiness,” “biases,” and “dispositions,” but that he must have a specific set of linguistic mechanisms at work. Claims by behaviorists that general learning strategies are based on mechanisms of feedback, information processing, analogy, and so on are not going to be enough. One has to postulate an innate faculty of language in order to account for the fact that the child comes up with the right grammar on the basis of his exposure to the language.
The heart of Chomsky's argument is that the syntactical core of any language is so complicated and so specific in its form, so unlike other kinds of knowledge, that no child could learn it unless he already had the form of the grammar programmed into his brain, unless, that is, he had “perfect knowledge of a universal grammar.” Since there is at the present state of neuro-physiology no way to test such a hypothesis by inspection of the brain, the evidence for the conclusion rests entirely on the facts of the grammar. In order to meet the argument, the anti-Chomskyan would have to propose a simpler grammar that would account for the child's ability to learn a language and for linguistic competence in general. No defender of traditional learning theory has so far done this (though the generative grammarians do claim that their account of competence is much simpler than the diagram we drew in Section II above).
The behaviorist and empiricist learning theorist who concedes the complexity of grammar is faced with a dilemma: either he relies solely on stimulus-response mechanisms, in which case he cannot account for the acquisition of the grammar, or he concedes, à la Quine, that there are innate mechanisms which enable the child to learn the language. But as soon as the mechanisms are rich enough to account for the complexity and specificity of the grammar, then the stimulus-response part of the theory, which was supposed to be its core, becomes uninteresting; for such interest as it still has now derives entirely from its ability to trigger the innate mechanisms that are now the crucial element of the learning theory. Either way, the behaviorist has no effective reply to Chomsky's arguments.
The weakest element of Chomsky's grammar is the semantic component, as he himself repeatedly admits.9 But while he believes that the semantic component suffers from various minor technical limitations, I think that it is radically inadequate; that the theory of meaning it contains is too impoverished to enable the grammar to achieve its objective of explaining all the linguistic relationships between sound and meaning.
Most, though not all, of the diverse theories of meaning advanced in the past several centuries from Locke to Chomsky and Quine are guilty of exactly the same fallacy. The fallacy can be put in the form of a dilemma for the theory: either the analysis of meaning itself contains certain of the crucial elements of the notion to be analyzed, in which case the analysis fails because of circularity; or the analysis reduces the thing to be analyzed into simpler elements which lack its crucial features, in which case the analysis falls because of inadequacy.
Before we apply this dilemma to Chomsky let us see how it works for a simple theory of meaning such as is found in the classical empirical philosophers, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. These great British empiricists all thought that words got their meaning by standing for ideas in the mind. A sentence like “The flower is red” gets its meaning from the fact that anyone who understands the sentence will conjoin in his mind an idea of a flower with an idea of redness. Historically there were various arguments about the details of the theory (e.g., were the ideas for which general words stood themselves general ideas or were they particular ideas that were made “general in their representation”?). But the broad outlines of the theory were accepted by all. To understand a sentence is to associate ideas in the mind with the descriptive terms in the sentence.
But immediately the theory is faced with a difficulty. What makes the ideas in the mind into a judgment? What makes the sequence of images into a representation, of the speech act of stating that the flower is red? According to the theory, first I have an idea of a flower, then I have an idea of redness. So far the sequence is just a sequence of unconnected images and does not amount to the judgment that the flower is red, which is what is expressed in the sentence. I can assume that the ideas come, to someone who understands the sentence in the form of a judgment, that they just air somehow connected as representing the speech act of stating that the flower is red in which case we have the first horn of our dilemma and the theory in circular, since it employs some of the crucial elements of the notion of meaning in the effort to explain meaning. Or on the other hand if I do not assume the ideas come in the form of a judgment then I have only a sequence of images in my mind and not the crucial feature of the original sentence, namely, the fact that the sentence says that the flower is red in which case we have the second horn of our dilemma and the analysis fails because it is inadequate to account for the meaning of the sentence.
The semantic theory of Chomsky's generative grammar commits exactly the same fallacy. To show this I will first give a sketch of what the theory is supposed to do. Just as the syntactical component of the grammar is supposed to describe the speaker's syntactical competence (his knowledge of the structure of sentences) and the phonological component is supposed to describe his phonological competence (his knowledge of how the sentences of his language sound), so the semantic component is supposed to describe the speaker's semantic competence (his knowledge of what the sentences mean and how they mean what they mean).
The semantic component of a grammar of a language embodies the semantic theory of that language. It consists of the set of rules that determine the meanings of the sentences of the language. It operates on the assumption, surely a correct one, that the meaning of any sentence is determined by the meaning of all the meaningful elements of the sentence and by their syntactical combination. Since these elements and their arrangement are represented in the deep structure of the sentence, the “input” to the semantic component of the grammar will consist of deep structures of sentences as generated by the syntactic component, in the way we described in Section II.
The “output” is a set of “readings” for each sentence, where the readings are supposed to be a “semantic representation” of the sentence; that is, they are supposed to be descriptions of the meanings of the sentence. If, for example, a sentence has three different meanings, the semantic component will duplicate the speaker's competence by producing three different readings. If the sentence is nonsense, the semantic component will produce no readings. If two sentences mean the same thing, it will produce the same reading for both sentences. If a sentence is “analytic,” that is, if it is true by definition because the meaning of the predicate is contained in the meaning of the subject (for example, “All bachelors are unmarried” is analytic because the meaning of the subject “bachelor” contains the meaning of the predicate “unmarried”), the semantic component will produce a reading for the sentence in which the reading of the predicate is contained in the reading of the subject.
Chomsky's grammarian in constructing a semantic component tries to construct a set of rules that will provide a model of the speaker's semantic competence. The model must duplicate the speaker's understanding of ambiguity, synonymy, nonsense, analyticity, self-contradiction, and so on. Thus, for example, consider the ambiguous sentence “I went to the bank.” As part of his competence the speaker of English knows that the sentence is ambiguous because the word “bank” has at least two different meanings. The sentence can mean either I went to the finance house or I went to the side of the river. The aim of the grammarian is to describe this kind of competence; he describe it by constructing a model, a set of rules, that will duplicate it. His semantic theory must produce two readings for this sentence.
If, on the other hand, the sentence is “I went to the bank and deposited some money in my account” the semantic component will produce only one reading because the portion of the sentence about depositing money determines that the other meaning of bank—namely, side of the river—is excluded as a possible meaning in this sentence. The semantic component then will have to contain a set of rules describing which kinds of combinations of words make which kind of sense, and this is supposed to account for the speaker's knowledge of which kinds of combinations of words in his language make which kind of sense.
All of this can be, and indeed has been, worked up into a very elaborate formal theory by Chomsky and his followers; but when we have constructed a description of what the semantic component is supposed to look like, a nagging question remains: what exactly, are these “readings”? What is the string of symbols that comes out of the semantic component supposed to represent or express in such a way as to constitute a description of the meaning of a sentence?
The same dilemma with which we confronted Locke applies here: either the readings are just paraphrases, in which case the analysis is circular, or the readings consist only of lists of elements, in which case the analysis fails because of inadequacy; it cannot account for the fact that the sentence expresses a statement. Consider each horn of the dilemma. In the example above when giving two different readings for “I went to the bank” I gave two English paraphrases, but that possibility is not open to a semantic theory which seeks to explain competence in English, since the ability to understand paraphrases presupposes the very competence the semantic theory is seeking to explain. I cannot explain general competence in English by translating English sentences into other English sentences. In the literature of the Chomskyan an semantic theorists, the examples given of “readings” are usually rather bad paraphrases of English sentences together with some jargon about “semantic markers” and “distinguishers” and so on.10 We are assured that the paraphrases are only for illustrative purposes, that they are not the real readings.
But what can the real readings be? The purely formal constraints placed on the semantic theory are not much help in telling us what the readings are. They tell us only that a sentence that is ambiguous in three ways must have three readings, a nonsense sentence no readings, two synonymous sentences must have the same readings, and so on. But so far as these requirements go, the readings need not be composed of words but could be composed of any formally specifiable set of objects. They could be numerals, piles of stones, old cars, strings of symbols, anything whatever. Suppose we decide to interpret the readings as piles of stones. Then for a three-ways ambiguous sentence the theory will give us three piles of stones, for a nonsense sentence, no piles of stones, for an analytic sentence the arrangement of stones in the predicate pile will be duplicated in the subject pile, and so on. There is nothing in the formal properties of the semantic component to prevent us from interpreting it in this way. But clearly this will not do because now instead of explaining the relationships between sound and meaning, the theory has produced an unexplained relationship between sounds and stones.
When confronted with this objection, the semantic theorists always make the same reply. Though we cannot produce adequate readings at present, ultimately the readings will be expressed in a yet to be discovered universal semantic alphabet. The elements in the alphabet will stand for the meaning units in all languages in much the way that the universal phonetic alphabet now represents the sound units in all languages. But would a universal semantic alphabet escape the dilemma? I think not.
Either the alphabet is a kind of a new artificial language, a new Esperanto, and the readings are once again paraphrases, only this time in the Esperanto and not in the original language; or we have the second horn of the dilemma and the readings in the semantic alphabet are just a list of features of language, and the analysis is inadequate because it substitutes a list of elements for a speech act.
The semantic theory of Chomsky's grammar does indeed give us a useful and interesting adjunct to the theory of semantic competence, since it give us a model that duplicates the speaker's competence in recognizing ambiguity, synonymy, nonsense, etc. But as soon as we ask what exactly the speaker is recognizing when he recognizes one, of these semantic properties, or as soon as we try to take the seman-theory as a general account of semantic competence, it cannot cope with the dilemma. Either it gives us a sterile formalism, an uninterpreted list of elements, or it gives us paraphrases, which explain nothing.
Various philosophers working on as account of meaning in the past generation11 have provided as with a way out of this dilemma. But to accept the solution would involve enriching the semantic theory in ways not so far contemplated by Chomsky or the other Cambridge grammarians. Chomsky characterizes the speaker's linguistic competence as his ability to “produce and understand” sentences. But this is at best very misleading: a person's knowledge of the meaning of sentences consists in large part in his knowledge of how to use sentences to make statements, ask questions, give orders, make requests, make promises, warnings, etc., and to understand other people when they use sentences for such purposes. Semantic competence is in large part the ability to perform and understand what philosophers and linguists call speech acts.
Now if we approach the study of semantic competence from the point of view of the ability to use sentences to perform speech acts, we discover that speech acts have two properties, the combination of which will get us out of the dilemma: they are governed by rules and they are intentional. The speaker who utters a sentence and means it literally utters it in accordance with certain semantic rules and with the intention of invoking those rules to render his utterance the performance of a certain speech act.
This is not the place to recapitulate the whole theory of meaning and speech acts,12 but the basic idea is this. Saying something and meaning it is essentially a matter of saying it with the intention to produce certain effects on the hearer. And these effects are determined by the rules that attach to the sentence that is uttered. Thus, for example, the speaker who knows the meaning of the sentence “The flower is red” knows that its utterance constitutes the making of a statement. But making a statement to the effect that the flower is red consists in performing an action with the intention of producing in the hearer the belief that the speaker is committed, to the existence of a certain state of affairs, as determined by the semantic rules attaching to the sentence.
Semantic competence is largely a matter of knowing the relationships between semantic intentions, rules, and conditions specified by the rules: Such an analysis of competence may in the end prove incorrect, but it is not open to the obvious dilemmas I have posed to classical empiricist and Chomskyan semantic theorists. It is not reduced to providing us with paraphrase or a list of elements. The glue that holds the elements together into a speech act is the semantic intentions of the speaker.
The defect of the Chomskyan theory arises from the same weakness we noted earlier, the failure to see the essential connection between language and communication, between meaning and speech acts. The picture that underlies the semantic theory and indeed Chomsky's whole theory of language is that sentences are abstract objects that are produced and understood independently of their role in communication. Indeed, Chomsky sometimes writes as if sentences were only incidentally used to talk with.13 I am claiming that any attempt to account for the meaning of sentences within such assumptions is either circular or inadequate.
The dilemma is not just an argumentative trick, it reveals a more profound inadequacy. Any attempt to account for the meaning of sentences must take into account their role in communication, in the performance of speech acts, because an essential part of the meaning of any sentence is its potential for being used to perform a speech act. There are two radically different conceptions of language in conflict here: one, Chomsky's, sees language as a self-contained formal system used more of less incidentally for communication. The other sees language as essentially a system for communication.
The limitations of Chomsky's assumptions become clear only when we attempt to account for the meaning of sentences within his system, because there is no way to account for the meaning of a sentence without considering its role in communication, since the two are essentially connected. So long as we confine our research to syntax, where in fact most of Chomsky's work has been done, it is possible to conceal the limitations of the approach, because syntax can be studied as a formal system independently of its use, just as we could study the currency and credit system of an economy as an abstract formal system independently of the fact that people use money to buy things with or we could study the rules of baseball as a formal system independently of the fact that baseball is a game people play. But as soon as we attempt to account for meaning, for semantic competence, such a purely formalistic approach breaks down, because it cannot account for the fact that semantic competence is mostly a matter of knowing how to talk, i.e., how to perform speech acts.
The Chomsky revolution is largely a revolution in the study of syntax. The obvious next step in the development of the study of language is to graft the study of syntax onto the study of speech acts. And this is indeed happening, though Chomsky continues to fight a rearguard action against it, or at least against the version of it that the generative semanticists who are building on his own work now present.
There are, I believe, several reasons why Chomsky is reluctant to incorporate a theory of speech acts into his grammar: first, he has a mistaken conception of the distinction between performance and competence. He seems to think that a theory of speech acts must be a theory of performance rather than of competence, because he fails to see that competence is ultimately the competence to perform, and that for this reason a study of the linguistic aspects of the ability to perform speech acts is a study of the linguistic competence. Secondly, Chomsky seems to have a residual suspicion that any theory that treats the speech act, a piece of speech behavior, as the basic unit of meaning must involve some kind of a retreat to behaviorism. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is one of the ironies of the history of behaviorism that behaviorists should have failed to see that the notion of a human action must be a “mentalistic” and “introspective” notion since it essentially involves the notion of human intentions.
The study of speech acts is indeed the study of a certain kind of human behavior, but for that reason it is in conflict with any form of behaviorism, which is conceptually incapable of studying human behavior. But the third, and most important reason, I believe, is Chomsky's only partly articulated belief that language does not have any essential connection with communication, but is an abstract formal system produced by the innate properties of the human mind.
Chomsky's work is one of the most remarkable intellectual achievements of the present era, comparable in scope and coherence to the work of Keynes or Freud. It has done more than simply produce a revolution in linguistics; it has created a new discipline of generative grammar and is having a revolutionary effect on two other subjects, philosophy and psychology. Not the least of its merits is that it provides an extremely powerful tool even for those who disagree with many features of Chomsky's approach to language. In the long run, I believe his greatest contribution will be that he has taken a major step toward restoring the traditional conception of the dignity and uniqueness of man.
Quoted in R.H. Robins, A Short History of Linguistics (Indiana University Press, 1967), p. 239.
Howard Maclay, “Overview,” in D. Steinberg and L. Jacobovitz, eds., Semantics (Cambridge University Press, 1971), p. 163.
Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures (Mouton & Co., 1957), p. 100.
As distinct from “John called Mary beautiful and then she INSULTED him.”
Cf., e.g., Noam Chomsky, “Deep Structure, Surface Structure, and Semantic Interpretation,” in D. Steinberg and L. Jacobovitz, eds., Semantics (Cambridge University Press, 1971).
Noam Chomsky. “Linguistics and Philosophy,” in S. Hook, ed., Language and Philosophy (NYU Press, 1969), p. 88.
G. Leibniz, New Essays Concerning Human Understanding (Open Court, 1949), pp. 45-46.
W.V.O. Quine, “Linguistics and Philosophy,” in S. Hook, ed., Language and Philosophy (NYU Press, 1969), pp. 95-96.
I am a little reluctant to attribute the semantic component to Chomsky, since most of its features were worked out not by him but by his colleagues at MIT; nonetheless since he incorporates it entirely as part of his grammar I shall assess it as such.
For example, one of the readings given for the sentence “The man hits the colorful ball” contains the elements: [Some contextually definite] (Physical object) (Human) (Adult) (Male) (Action) (Instancy) (Intensity) [Collides with an impact] [Some contextually definite] (Physical object) (Color) [[Abounding in contrast or variety of bright colors] [Having a globular shape]] J. Katz and J. Fodor, “The Structure of a Semantic Theory,” in The Structure of Language, J. Katz and J. Fodor, eds., (Prentice-Hall, 1964), p. 513.
In, e.g., L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Macmillan, 1953); J.L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Harvard, 1962); P. Grice “Meaning,” in Philosophical Review 1957; J. R. Searle, Speech Acts, An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge University Press, 1969) and P.F. Strawson, Logico-Linguistic Papers (Methuen, 1971).
For an attempt to work out some of the details, see J. R. Searle, Speech Acts, An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge University Press, 1969), Chapters 1-3.
E.g., meaning, he writes, “need not involve communication or even the attempt to communicate,” Problems of Knowledge and Freedom (Pantheon Books, 1971), p. 19.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3178
SOURCE: “Where Chomsky Stands,” in New York Review of Books, November 11, 1976, pp. 43-5.
[In the following review of Chomsky's Reflections on Language and Gilbert Harman's On Noam Chomsky, William provides discussion of Chomsky's linguistic studies, critical reaction to his theses, and some political implications of his ideas.]
Since the publication of Syntactic Structures nineteen years ago the general shape of Chomsky's position in linguistic theory has become familiar. The subject, as he conceives it, is a branch of cognitive psychology; its basic problem is posed by the human capacity to acquire a natural language, something which Chomsky has insisted we should see as remarkable, with regard both to what the child experiences and to what he acquires. What he acquires is an indefinitely extensive creative capacity to produce and to understand an open-ended set of sentences that he has never heard before. What he is offered by his elders (or rather from them, since Chomsky thinks little importance can be attached to directed language teaching) is evidence, as he has put it, “not only meager in scope, but degenerate in quality.” The actual performances the child is exposed to are fragmented and distorted relative to his recognition, apparent in the competence he acquires, of what would be an acceptable sentence of his language.
To explain the gross disproportion between what is acquired (in the form of competence) and what is experienced (in the form of speech) we need to posit a strongly constrained, internal, innate mechanism which, when triggered by the experience of speech, builds a cognitive structure, a grammar of the language, within limits set by very specialized schemata. Any human child, moreover, can learn naturally any human language, so the schemata must be universal, and when Chomsky refers to the properties of the innate mechanism, he often indicates that each of us possesses, indeed knows, the principles of a universal grammar. His model, though cognitive, is also biological, and in the present book, which consists of three lectures given in 1975, together with a long paper which is a revision of one submitted for a Festschrift, he particularly favors an embryological analogy, in which development of language is compared to the genetically controlled development of an animal.
As Chomsky has tirelessly pointed out to his critics, the mere idea of an innate component in learning a language is undisputed and uninteresting: the blankest theory of behaviorism requires some innate mechanism, however minimal. The important question concerns how complex and how specific to language acquisition the mechanism is supposed to be. In particular, Chomsky has differed from the empiricist tradition in regarding the mechanism as not simply one that applies a general learning strategy to language. Discussion over the past years, however, has made it clear that this particular difference between Chomsky and the empiricists is ambiguous, and some recognition of the ambiguity can be traced in the present book.
A “general learning capacity” might be defined in terms of some very simple learning theory, such as the traditional empiricist theories of “association” or of “inductive” generalization. In this sense, Chomsky convincingly insists that no one has offered a plausible or even coherent way of representing the learning of language by such empiricist learning theories. But it might also be true that very little that is learned can be represented in these simple empiricist terms; maybe most learning requires innate mechanisms more complex, and with more defined limits, than empiricism traditionally has allowed. If this is so, then the important question for language concerns how specific the capacity for language acquisition is, not the extent to which it is, peculiarly, innate.
The general issue is to some degree, but only to some, independent of what exactly the principles of the grammar of a human language have to be. Chomsky has retained, of course, his original picture of grammatical rules as being “generative.” They include transformational rules which turn abstract “deep structures” into “surface structures.” These surface structures take on a particular phonological form and emerge as the sentences one actually hears.
But many other more particular aspects of the theory have changed over the years. Above all on the matter of the relations between syntax (how and why a sentence is well formed or, in most everyday senses, “grammatical”) and semantics (what a sentence means, what it refers to, what has to obtain for it to be true), Chomsky has abandoned the “standard” theory of Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965), by which semantic interpretation was applied to deep structure. He now applies semantic interpretation to surface structure, a notable modification of his earlier views. On a verbal matter, Chomsky in these pages proposes giving up the well-known phrase “deep structure” for those initial abstract base sentences to which the transformations are applied. His grounds for doing so are revealing of what he cares most about. He argues that not only these base sentences, but processes applied at the level of surface structure as well, are “deep” in the only interesting sense—namely, expressive of important and hidden human powers.
On the questions of the relations of syntax and semantics, many other positions are possible and have been vigorously discussed. Some expressions of these disagreements about the place of semantics in transformational grammar are to be found in some of the papers collected in the book edited by Gilbert Harman; other papers take the discussion further, into questions about how semantics in general is to be understood and pursued by using a theory of truth, for instance, as proposed by Donald Davidson, or by certain abstract structures of “possible words,” advocated here by David Lewis. It is exceptionally difficult for someone like myself, who is not engaged full-time in the technical literature of these subjects (difficult, also, I suspect, for those who are), to have any full sense of how these various approaches relate to one another and to generative grammar, or to understand how far these and other semantic theories exclude one another, or are rather dealing in complementary questions.
Harman's collection, though it contains much good material, is not going to help anyone with this problem. His introduction is useful as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough; and while the book is called On Noam Chomsky, in the case of one or two papers it would take someone with a sophisticated understanding of the subject to grasp why the matters discussed bear on issues raised by Chomsky at all.
Even when proposals about the nature of semantics are explicitly related to Chomsky, the size, weight, and exact location of disagreement can remain obscure. Harman valuably reprints John Searle's admirable piece “Chomsky's Revolution in Linguistics,” which appeared in this journal in 1972. In it Searle criticizes Chomsky for not associating semantic study with the notion of communicative intention; he urges his own and Grice's theories of speech-acts, which link the meaning of the sentence to the intentions of the speaker, to fill what he sees as a void in the Chomskyan system—the point of language. Chomsky, in the present book, replies to Searle, but chiefly to deny, once more, the necessity of communicative intent, and to insist that uses of language can be thoroughly and seriously meant though not intended to influence any hearer.
As a graduate student, I spent two years writing a lengthy manuscript, assuming throughout that it would never be published or read by anyone. I meant everything I wrote, intending nothing as to what anyone would believe about my beliefs, in fact taking it for granted that there would be no audience.
But how could the existence of such cases possibly be the main issue? One would like to know whether, if what Searle says about the connections of meaning and intention were true, much or any of Chomsky's views would be upset. It might be true that, despite exceptions, language is primarily or centrally connected with intentions to influence hearers' attitudes; and yet some Chomskyan account of the capacities to produce and understand those utterances could also be true.
All through this field, as in other places where exciting work is going on, views which may well be compatible nevertheless struggle with one another. This is because they struggle for attention; the research programs may be compatible in content, but the thought that goes with each of them, “this is the way to go on,” excludes the others. This thought may be essential to the researcher—the synoptic peacemaker who pleads for compatibility is up in the observer's balloon, not engaged at the scientific front. In Chomsky's own case, however, a further dimension is involved, and a more important one. He associates his own approach with an affirmation of the depth of the human mind and the value of the individual, and he is suspicious on more than theoretical grounds of many styles of opposing theory.
Chomsky's arguments with his opponents are painstakingly reasoned and academic in tone (though he is unduly given to that polemicists' put-down, “unfortunately,” as in, “Unfortunately, X is rather careless in his references,” page 218). It is only after technical argument—but still too soon, granted some complexities we shall come to—that he falls back on ideological explanation, associating empiricist opposition to his views with social reaction. But through the laborious and sometimes peripheral self-defense, one can see that he is deeply distrustful and disapproving of some other ways of doing linguistics and the other human sciences, and that his linguistic theories, in their central contentions, have an ideological significance which relates them in some unclear but powerful way to his political and social outlook. This comes to the surface in a few pages of Chomsky's present book, and it gets very brief consideration in the last item in Harman's collection, Dell Hymes's informative review of John Lyons's book on Chomsky in the Modern Masters series (Viking, 1970). It is worth exploring further.
What exactly is involved in the innate component, what principles the language-acquisition device is armed with, are of course technical matters. But whatever they may exactly turn out to be, the more general question comes up of how to describe their presence. Chomsky has favored the terminology of unconscious, innate, knowledge, and this has helped to connect his theories with those Rationalist thinkers of the seventeenth century and later whom he has claimed, always with some caution, as his intellectual ancestors. Whether “knowledge” is the right concept, however, is a hard question. Certainly many objections which have been put to Chomsky, such as that, on his principles, a falling stone must know how to fall, entirely miss the point, and ignore the cognitive character of the states governed by Chomsky's innate schemata, as Thomas Nagel well argues in Harman's book. Yet, as Nagel also points out, there remains a long step to accepting the concept of knowledge as applying to the presence of the schemata themselves, and there are theoretical embarrassments in the use of that concept.
There is, for example, the question (raised elsewhere by Harman) of the vehicle by which this knowledge is represented in the mind, a vehicle looking suspiciously like another already mastered language. There is also the related problem that knowledge which is more than merely skill should imply the possession of concepts, and we have no reason to ascribe to the language-learner, at any level, the theoretical concepts of universal grammar. Chomsky's own embryological analogy hardly points unwaveringly in the direction of a model that uses the notion of knowledge. In the present book he suggests that whether we call these potentialities “knowledge” is a verbal question, and he is prepared to let the word go; but how slight a concession this is becomes clear when he agrees to put, in place of “know,” the word “cognize.”
Chomsky's insistence on a cognitive vocabulary to describe the presence of the innate schemata seems to be sustained by one of his strongest convictions, the power of linguistic theory to reveal the depth of the human mind. It implies an uncovering of lower, but continuously related, levels of human thought, and historically it helps to tie his theory to earlier Rationalist speculations. These however, usually look a less naturalistic view of the mind than Chomsky does—the idea of a cognitive study as a branch of human biology is for Descartes's own system unintelligible. But their views can, like his, be handily opposed to an empiricist outlook, which takes a shallower and more mechanical view of the psychological. That empiricist outlook can, moreover, Chomsky believes, be easily associated with a denial that there is a human nature, and with a manipulative and authoritarian conception of what can be done to human beings.
This opposition between rationalist and empiricist approaches (though, as Hymes says, Chomsky's own theoretical work has transcended it) has great ideological significance for Chomsky. The empiricist conception of human beings as unpredisposed objects for conditioning he associates with potentialities for technological oppression. Chomsky admits that empiricist systems of ideas do, as a matter of historical fact, strongly resist being categorized in the way he requires, since the idea that there is no fixed human nature, but that man is a social product, has very often been associated (for instance, by many Marxists) with “progressive and even revolutionary social thinking,” while the opposite view has supported conservative and pessimistic outlooks.
“But a deeper look,” he goes on (page 132), “will show that the concept of the ‘empty organism,’ plastic and unstructured, apart from being false, also serves naturally as the support for the most reactionary social doctrines.” “Serves naturally” here is pure ideologists sticky tape, no better than “goes with.” Similarly unreliable connections are made when Chomsky goes into historical interpretation:
Empiricism rose to ascendancy in association with a doctrine of “possesive [sic] individualism” that was integral to early capitalism, in an age of empire, with the concomitant growth (one might almost say “creation”) of racist ideology. [Page 130]
In so far as this offers anything except evasive insinuation, it invites a quick answer in any sense in which classical empiricism was “in association with” early capitalism, slavery, etc., so was its near contemporary, classical rationalism. No historical speculations of this sort can effect anything, and Chomsky's other admissions show that he is, or at least has good reason to be, uneasy with them. He is likely to find better ground in certain features of the present. Now, when psychological technology is a conscious weapon of political power, and the notion of human needs as opposed to contingent preferences has been moved by many forces into the center of serious social thought, there really is a case for saying that the spirit of empiricist and, above all, behaviorist outlooks must, apart from their intellectual inadequacies, turn us in the wrong direction. Here Chomsky's negative view, at least, seems to have real power.
But even so, it is more doubtful whether Chomsky's own innatist doctrines can turn us in the right direction: they might even help to do the opposite. For here the question of the specificity of the language capacity, mentioned earlier, takes on a considerable and unexpected ideological significance. Chomsky's claims have always been for the special character of man's capacity for linguistic learning, and part of his evidence for this has precisely been that, the grossly defective apart, men are equal in this capacity, while differing in general intelligence and in their capacities to learn other things, such as physics. But now why should these distributions of innate capacities have any tendency at all to encourage belief in the foundations of libertarian socialism? Chomsky speaks of his hopes for progress toward human self-determination and genuine freedom; but the basic linguistic competence, as he describes it, has no connection with notions of progress at all—it is perfect as it is. What does leave room for progress, and indeed progress toward self-determination and freedom, is man's lexical sophistication and conceptual grasp—but that, precisely, is a linguistic dimension in which men do differ, and in which the results of learning are not the same for all, and the innatist element correspondingly weaker.
Again, why should Chomsky's theory have any power against racism, association with which was one of his more sinister charges against empiricism? In so far as racism has any coherent relation at all to opinions about different intellectual capacities, why should the fact of an equal innate capacity for language acquisition be thought to help against it? No theorist of apartheid is likely to be daunted by being reminded that the African child can effortlessly acquire Xhosa—or, come to that, Afrikaans.
If, on the other hand, the innatist claims are substantially extended from the field of language acquisition into other forms of learning (for instance, as Chomsky seems to speculate at one point, into moral capacities), the charge of their irrelevance to racist issues may decline, but the possibility of an unfortunate and destructive type of belief in their “relevance” might increase. It seems odd that anyone should need reminding at the moment that it is the environmentalist view on matters of “intelligence” which has been identified as the liberal one. The entire question of the ideological significance of such studies is now a notorious moral and intellectual mess, but to accept their ideological significance while cleaving to innatist styles of explanation may not necessarily be the most progressive way out of it.
An important point here is that in the field of language acquisition, Chomsky has good reason to equate what is genetically determined with what is common to the species. That equation may very well hold for all innate human cognitive capacities, but there is no a priori guarantee from the nature of genetics or anything else that it must be so.
The ideological implications of Chomsky's theories are by no means straightforward or unambiguous, and Chomsky himself moves with dangerous speed and simplicity between his theoretical preoccupations and the political ideals for which he has so conspicuously stood up. In fact, the ideological effect of Chomsky's work in language seems to me not so much to support or express distinctively socialist aspirations for society, or opposition to oppression, but rather, a stage further back, to assist a humane revaluation of tough-minded inquiry in the psychological sciences. His work, apart from its spectacular and ongoing effect in linguistics, constitutes the most powerful and encouraging reassurance that a psychological science which is recognizably continuous with the natural sciences does not have to treat human beings as very boring machines.
The recognition that human beings might be scientifically understood but are yet not just machines could well coexist with more than one kind of social or political view, not all equally liberal. But as well as being a vital truth in itself, it is a necessary step to any adequate views on these issues at all, including any adequate liberal views. It is here, in the humane understanding of science itself, rather than in more direct ideological interpretation, that the most general significance of Chomsky's deeply impressive work is likely to be found.
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SOURCE: “Chomsky and His Critics,” in New York Review of Books, October 23, 1980, pp. 47-50.
[In the following review of Rules and Representations and Language and Learning, Hacking provides analysis of Chomsky's linguistic innovations, critical challenges to his conclusions, and discussion of Chomsky's debate with Swiss scholar Jean Piaget.]
From time to time, ever since Plato, grammar has been more than the bane of schoolchildren or a topic for scholars. It owes its present prominence outside linguistics to some theses stated twenty-five years ago by Noam Chomsky. There is, he said, a universal grammar common to all human languages. Children are born with it: their inheritance explains the ease with which they pick up the language they hear around them. Universal grammar is like an organ of the body whose structure is genetically determined. It is a characteristic of the human mind and an essential part of the discontinuity between people and beasts.
That is quite an array of paradoxes. How could so arid a subject as grammar be part of the definition of our humanity? When hardly anyone can talk grammatically in more than two languages and when many are deficient in one, what is so universal? There is also a prejudice that Chomsky makes us a little ashamed to confess: grammar is just not the kind of thing one could inherit.
Paradoxes alone did not fuel Chomsky's success. From the start he had a neat definition of grammar as a set of rules that can be mechanically applied to test whether a string of words forms a grammatical sentence. Then he obtained a negative result. Taking a natural and widespread approach to grammar, he cast that approach into a precise form and proved that it is necessarily incapable of providing an adequate grammar for English. This result was important not only for what it said but also because it suggested a new kind of thing to do—that sort of result had not been thought of before.
Then Chomsky did much positive work. He polished up a current idea of grammatical transformation and made it plausible as the main tool for doing grammar. He used an ear-catching phrase: “deep structure.” By this he meant that the sentences we use in thinking and speaking are the result of transformations, on structures that underlie the surface arrangement of nouns, verbs, prepositions, and so forth. The speaker is not consciously aware of these structures or the operations upon them; they must be inferred from linguistic abilities. Deep structure added to the appeal of universal grammar, for the “universal” in grammar might be down there at the not-so-conscious level of deep structure, which is why we never noticed it before.
These proposals have since evolved, and Rules and Representations is a useful book with which to catch up on the state of the art. The book consists of four lectures (the Woodbridge Lectures at Columbia also given as the Kant Lectures at Stanford) and two related pieces. There is nothing technical in the book but to read it you do need a relish for argument. The lectures might be called “Chomsky Against the Philosophers.” Philosophers have much admired him but have also criticized some features of his work. Here he examines their arguments. It is like watching the grand master play, blindfolded, thirty-six simultaneous chess matches against the local worthies. He almost always wins.
There is perhaps some general lesson about reason to be gleaned from this book. Chomsky must be one of the most reasoning of living men. I've heard him called Talmudic but there is nothing ethnic about this: to me he sounds like a Presbyterian preaching double predestinarianism. He runs through arguments again and again, so that some are repeated in the two papers tacked on to the lectures, and were also found in Reflections on Language (1975). Chomsky is sometimes a teacher saying, “You haven't quite seen the point, come, let's go over it again, here is the first premise. …”
This passion for reason allows one to forgive what would, in another writer, be repetition. But I liked a remark in the second book under review, which derives from a symposium in France featuring a debate between Chomsky and Jean Piaget, the great Swiss pioneer of the genesis of concepts in the child.1 The philosopher Hilary Putnam starts his contribution to the symposium by noting “the sense of great intellectual power” one gets on reading Chomsky, and then announces with exasperation, “Yet I want to claim that individual arguments are not good.” Putnam is Chomsky's equal as reasoner, but many attentive readers will be unsure who wins this skirmish. Once argumentation has been pushed to this limit, reason alone will not settle much. What matters is the outcome of the research. All we can hope from arguments is the conviction that the research is well motivated—and that, in this case, we get in abundance.
Chomsky used to say that children have innate knowledge of universal grammar. Philosophers have queried whether this could properly be called “knowledge.” Irritated, Chomsky says call it something else; say children “cognize” grammar. What is important for him is that this cognition is a physiological state which will manifest itself in behavior but is not to be defined in terms of behavior. We should not think of cognitive abilities arising from one undifferentiated organ (the brain?) but we should expect a lot of units, or modules, that interact to perform various jobs. Even to produce a single grammatical sentence the brain will employ different modules which may have matured at different stages of development. An infant that has not yet begun to speak still “cognizes” grammar in the sense that it has the appropriate modules which can be triggered by various stimuli as it grows up. If it becomes a feral child growing up alone, it will never mature into speech, but this is just because the appropriate modules have not been triggered.
Such speculations leave untouched many philosophers' questions about knowledge, but in my opinion they are well left untouched, at least here. There are metaphysical questions about knowledge and there are physiological ones. Even the “rules and representations” of Chomsky's title turn into physiology. What he means by a rule is plain enough from his examples. There should be a rule for forming questions out of declarative sentences, say, take the verb that comes after the first noun phrase and move it up front. (“The man who wore black was ill” becomes “Was the man who wore black ill?”) Such a rule works on an analysis of the sentence—it does not say, move the first verb (“wore”) but, move the first verb after the noun phrase (“was.”)
Deep structure is no longer prominent in Chomsky's work. The rules he examines now work close to the surface of the words we actually utter. I say “close to the surface” because the rules do not act only on the strings of words that we utter or hear, but also on something like echoes of other sentences. The rules involve unuttered “traces” of transformations, and so this development is called trace theory. For example, colloquial English can contract “want to” to “wanna”—“Who do you wanna meet?” But though this is a contraction of “Who do you want to meet?” we do not contract “Who do you want to meet Bill?” (“Who do you wanna meet Bill?” is odd). Chomsky explains the difference by saying that questions bear a trace of the declarative sentence. “You want to meet x” is a declarative form whose question is “Who do you want to meet t?” Here the trace t marks the place that the “who” came from. The declarative form “You want y to meet Bill” has the question “Who do you want t to meet Bill?” Here the unuttered trace t comes between “want” and “to,” and stops the contraction “wanna.” This representation of traces, of echoes just below the level of the uttered surface of words, is what Chomsky calls “S-level.”
A sentence may be represented by the words we utter; it may be represented at S-level; it may be represented at deeper levels of analysis. Rules operate on representations, at some level or other. In the above example, the rule operates at the S-level. Such representations are all themselves bits of language. Most grammarians want nothing more than an analysis stated in language. But Chomsky calls himself a psychological realist. For every item of psychology, such as a representation of a sentence, there is to be a corresponding bit of physiology. There must be a representation in the brain, to which a rule, in the brain, applies. Maybe a mechanical analogy will help to explain this.
Take a really old-fashioned calculator, a nineteenth-century difference machine made of brass and steel. Given a sequence of numbers it could calculate, say, the second differences, that is, the differences between the differences between the members of the sequence—not just the difference, for example, between numbers a and b but between their difference and the difference between c and d. (This was part of the trick of making tables of logarithms.) Set some numbers on the machine, turn the crank, and it prints out a sequence of second differences. We have a rule expressed in natural languages such as English (“print the sequence of second differences”) and output in English, the printout of numbers. But we also have a nonlinguistic version of the rule and the sequence, in the settings on brass and steel. The rule is made incarnate in brass and steel, and so is the sequence of numbers. As you crank it, the machine first arrives at and then operates on a “representation” of first differences in order to calculate the second differences; but there is nothing linguistic about this, it is just an arrangement of brass and steel.
In the same way, Chomsky thinks of representations made incarnate in flesh and blood, and the rules, themselves incarnate, act on these. Doubtless, he says, different modules are employed in connection with different levels of representation. The machine is a poor analogy with Chomsky's thought because it ignores the creative aspect of language use. The difference machine is determined from its initial setting to its final printout while the mind has a lot of freedom. I use the machine to emphasize that representations of sentences need not be anything linguistic, although we can put each representation into a linguistic form: we can produce a blueprint of the first-difference stage of the machine's operations, something linguistic corresponding to the nonlinguistic arrangement of brass and steel.
The idea of flesh-and-blood representations escapes an objection that derives from Wittgenstein and other philosophers. At the very beginning of the lectures Chomsky refers to “the myth of the museum”—the idea that our minds are like museums containing mental objects that we can inspect and that are called meanings. In explaining meanings, so goes the Wittgensteinian argument, it is no use postulating mental objects, like museum specimens, as what we intend. That would invite a regress, for how do we pick out the right mental object? Do we need a mental rule to do so? If we use a mental rule to apply a verbal rule, how do we apply the mental rule? As Chomsky says, if this objection were sound, it would seem to apply quite generally. Hence it would be a threat to the postulation of any mental entities to explain intentional behavior, including speech. Now the Wittgensteinian argument regards the mental entities as themselves language-like—that is how the “regress” is effected. Chomsky's internal rules and representations, as I understand them, are not language-like at all, and so the regress is blocked. The flesh-and-blood rules can be described in language (e.g., by a grammarian) just as the brass-and-steel settings on the difference machine can be shown on a blueprint. But the blueprint is not what causes the machine to work, and the grammarian's description of the rules and representations is not what we use, either consciously or unconsciously, in producing sentences. The grammarian's description is part of an account of a flesh-and-blood module in the brain that we do use.
The Chomsky program is easily misunderstood on this point because at a quite different level we also use rules of grammar to regiment our children and to make sense out of long-winded authors who need to be parsed in order to be understood. It cannot be too much emphasized that Chomsky's rules and representations are not tools for pedants but descriptions of the brain. Would Wittgenstein be happy with this gloss? No, for he says, sometimes, that we should not aim at explanation at all, and in particular, our communication could have the character it does regardless of how the brain worked. And perhaps there is still a regress lurking around the corner—how do I know what I want the grammatical module to allow me to say, right now, with this sentence? Well, that will be a matter of interacting with other modules. There seems to be some nagging ill-formulated question that would arise even if we knew about all the modules—a question about which we may learn more from reading Wittgenstein than Chomsky.
Chomsky's psychological realism in any case has had plenty of critics, for he cannot point to any modules in the brain. He defends it as good methodology. It is the standard method of science, the “Galilean style,” which has been the only show in town for the last three and a half centuries. Frame powerful hypotheses rich in explanatory power and try to work them out in detail. All hypotheses are tentative. Some will be refuted and all will be revised. A hypothesis made in this spirit takes for granted that what it is talking about is real. Certainly, grants Chomsky, there are philosophical questions about the “reality” of theoretical entities, but these are questions about physics just as much as psychology. By all means ask whether atoms and electrons are real, but don't think there is some special question about psychological realism.
Historians will have qualms about this simplified history of scientific method since Galileo, but certainly the method of hypothesis is respectable right now. We should distinguish two kinds of things: (1) a picture of what reality might be like and (2) a hypothesis which has some immediate experimental hookup with some observable consequences. Democritus and Lucretius told a story about atoms, saying, that is what the world is like, “atoms and the void.” Powerful as this picture was, it had no observable consequence. Even the seventeenth-century atomists whose culmination was Newton chiefly advocated a picture of a world composed of little bouncy balls, with precious few observational consequences.
Only at the beginning of the nineteenth century did the atomist picture start to interlock with observational data, and only at the beginning of our century did the majority of physicists become convinced atomists. We might say that the picture guided the minds of men, but did not do any work. A hypothesis does work when it has specific observational consequences; such a hypothesis, when it involves theoretical entities, certainly takes for granted the reality of its entities. The critics of Chomsky's psychological realism may be thinking that he is offering only a picture, and then trying to pass that off as a hypothesis that does some work. To see if that is correct we should distinguish some parts of the doctrine.
There are four main ideas in Chomsky's work:
1) Transformational grammar: a conjectured and constantly revised set of rules and representations for some parts of English.
2) Universal grammar: the claim that all human languages share a common grammatical core.
3) Psychological realism: the grammar of a language is incarnate in the flesh and blood of its speakers.
4) Genetic grammar: a central part of everyone's grammar is inherited in his genes.
Genetic grammar commits you to universal grammar and psychological realism, but otherwise these four are pretty independent. The best transformational grammar may come from the pen of someone who hotly denies 2, 3, and 4. A psychological realist could reject universal and genetic grammar, holding that each language has its own psychological reality. A universal grammarian can reject inheritance—that seems to be Piaget's position during his debate with Chomsky.
A conjectured transformational grammar for English is of course a hypothesis that, in the terms I have been using here, does some work. One tests it against the phenomena of English sentences. What about the claim for universal grammar? That does work exactly once in these two books, rather late in the Debate. Chomsky examines relative and restrictive clauses. (“The man who came to dinner was ill” has the clause “who came to dinner” that restricts the subject. “The man, who came to dinner, was ill” contains a relative clause that says something about the man already singled out.) The kinds of clause behave differently. Chomsky offers a rule to explain the difference. But it does not apply in Japanese; indeed that language does not have a clear distinction between the two kinds of clause. So, we are told, something must be wrong with the rule. But we are given no rule that holds in Anglo-Japanese. This is a case in which the idea of universal grammar is doing some work. Several writers have tried to carry on discussions of it in this way, but there is no evidence in the books under review of much success. Only when we are getting somewhere with universal grammar will its critics think this is a working hypothesis and not a mere picture.
A picture of what the world might be like is very often vastly more important—and more long-lived—than any hypothesis. Atomism has endured forever. It was first propounded to explain some puzzles about motion and solidity that we have not quite forgotten. It is worth recalling the facts which Chomsky thinks are most surprising, and most worthy of understanding. There are two.
1) The fact that children come to talk grammatically at quite an early age. In general children are not taught to speak, and the words they overhear are insufficient to fix the grammar which, in fact, they acquire when quite young.
2) The fact that there is a sensation of grammar. We can tell almost at once which short sentences are grammatical. Chomsky drew our attention to a special case of this. Some sentences are ambiguous simply in virtue of their grammar; while very similar sentences are not; how come we so instantly tell the two kinds apart?
Chomsky has always found these two facts dramatic, demanding an explanation as profound as genetic universal grammar. This is not a hypothesis that explains the facts in any detail, but a picture of what the world might be like, and a proposal of where to look for detailed hypotheses. If one does not like the picture one has an obligation to produce another one (possibly playing down Chomsky's facts and emphasizing others). Hence the debate with Jean Piaget was a good idea, for here is another school of cognitive psychology that might give us another picture of the grammatical child.
Piaget has long studied the ways in which children mature in their abilities. His work has the greatest interest for our conceptions of space and time, topics which, for him, have a Kantian motivation. He is skeptical of standard evolutionary theory, for he thinks there is still some room for Lamarck-like adaptation of successive generations of a kind of organism to its environment. He thinks that a child, as it matures, repeats some of the stages in the intellectual development of mankind, so that the emergence of its reasoning skills resembles the history of mathematics itself. He claims to have found sharp discontinuities in the development of a child's abilities, discontinuities that correspond to differences in logical structure. He thinks human minds are born pretty empty but form successive spatial structures in the course of interacting with the world; the final product is “our” spatial world. Before that there are other spaces that the child inhabits, preconditions for the final spatialization that derives from the way in which the child comes to handle objects. If we transform this to the grammatical sphere, there would be no grammar carried in the genes. Just as there is a sequence of spatial structures that are “constructed” by the child in interaction with its environment, so we might by analogy expect a sequence of grammars, of which the end product is a grammar of English. The intervening grammars would apply to various levels of childish talk, and we might look for sharp differences between them. We would expect each successive child-grammar to be the product of the child's interaction with the people that talk to it, and its own attempts to communicate. Moreover, we could suppose that each child-grammar must be constructed before the child can pass on to the next more complex grammar, leading in due course to the steady state of adult English.
The Debate had promise but was a failure. Piaget is conciliatory, Chomsky firm. Piaget and his associates do not really attend to what I call the “sensation” of grammar. The format for the Debate was a French conference to which a small number of distinguished scientists and philosophers were invited. Interesting things were said and this book is a good bedside dipper. It is fun to read about David Premack teaching plastic “words” to his chimpanzees. The implied argument is that the animals acquire a syntax too, so grammar can't be as specific to humans as Chomsky contends. I was glad to find Jean-Pierre Changeux complaining that linguists and the like keep on treating the brain and genetics as a “black box” when a lot is known. He speculates on the amount of information that can be genetically carried, notes that it is too little for something like grammar, but then makes a fairly standard remark of importance. If the genetic material is deployed in a hierarchical way, the possibilities of inheritance are immensely increased along with possibilities for minor deviations. As he says, this could be made to fit with Piaget's picture. But no one has yet made Piaget's picture mesh with the facts of grammar that Chomsky thinks are important. The conversations recorded in the Debate are about learning. They are quite idle until one thinks about the “sensation” of grammar. Hence the two sides in the debate simply don't speak to each other.
Is there any picture of grammar that can rival Chomsky's? There is a naïve picture. A child overhears lots of sentences and has a marvelous memory. Maybe we should not say “memory” but invent a world like the “cognize” that Chomsky substitutes for “know.” Anyway the child files away lots of sentences, and constructs others by ringing a few changes on these. Most children do a lot of rehearsing in their cribs, and that, says the naïve picture, is a matter of storing sentences in the head, as well as hoping for some parental correction.
How does the naïve view differ from Chomsky's? It can have psychological realism. What a child learns is encoded at a physiological level. It can have universal grammar, but only on the side. It assumes all sorts of innate abilities, like the ability to imitate sounds. It might even use early work by Chomsky and Miller on the relation between short term and long term memory.
The naïve view can make no sense of deep structure, so the development of Chomsky's ideas away from deep structure lessens the contrast between these two pictures. The echo of a transformation that was used to prevent “want to” from turning into “wanna” is just what the naïve theorist would expect. There might be a big file of sentences encoded in the brain and the child hears “echoes” of these and so says “want to.” Could trace theory be the theory that brings Chomsky back to naïve reflections on language?
The answer is a resounding NO but only because we come back, as always, to where Chomsky started. His first philosophy teacher was Nelson Goodman, who was Chomsky's sponsor when he was a Junior Fellow at Harvard, but who has no truck with innatism. Goodman showed in a vivid way that past experience is an inadequate guide to future experience. In Chomsky's terms, the past experience of a child is an inadequate guide to the grammar it so firmly masters. One step in Chomsky's argument has convinced almost every one of his readers: it is now a commonplace. But if we are to reconsider the naïve theory for a moment, nothing should be commonplace. He says the child learns an infinite language on the basis of finite input. To which the naïve theorist can say Yes and No. Yes, for on the basis of the “sensation” of grammar, the child can then go to school and learn some rules, devised long ago by Latin teachers, or nowadays by mathematicians, on the basis of which it can both parse long obscure sentences and see how to generate indefinitely long sentences (“He swam” add “and” add “He swam” add “and” add etc.). But this reasoning surely uses a different module from the ones connected with the “sensation” of grammar which it was our task to explain? The class of sentences for which we have a “sensation” of grammar—and which gets the whole program going—does seem large but finite.
Is the grammar that the child acquires too “large” to be based on what it overhears? That is where we come down to details. In both books under review Chomsky cites some curious distinctions in our usage of reciprocal phrases such as “each other.” He says all children make the distinctions but these cannot have been based on what they overheard. If you doubt this, he says in the course of the Debate, do an experiment. It would be some crazy experiment based on videotapes of twelve years of the lives of lots of children, but, says Chomsky, we'd learn little relevant from that. The naïve theorist will agree, but say that is because we have no idea what questions to ask from such an impossible videotape. What we need is a better theory of what the child remembers, when, and how it echoes its memories through trace theory.
When we have some such picture we can start to ask Piaget-like questions, Piaget found that there are sharp discontinuities between the ages at which children perform only slightly different spatial tasks. It would be an achievement to find similar discontinuities in the “sensation” of grammar. That would prove nothing about Piaget's picture, Chomsky would say we had only discovered facts about the triggering of grammatical modules. But one such single discovery would move two competing pictures a little closer to the point at which they would become working hypotheses. That, as always, is the way that speculation gets turned into knowledge.
He died as this issue was going to press.
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SOURCE: “Aboard Noam's Ark,” in New Statesman, January 2, 1981, p. 68.
[In the following review, Richardson discusses Chomsky's elaboration of his linguistic concepts in Rules and Representations and the publication of two critical commentaries related to Chomsky's work.]
Even the proverbial person-in-the-street must be aware that something exciting is going on in the scientific investigation of language. For the academic, however, the subject is boiling and the name of the prime instigator of all the excitement, Noam Chomsky, looms very large. Indeed his name is very rarely absent from any philosophical debate today, and probably comes top of a 20th-century citations league table in the human sciences.
The term revolution is regularly used to describe Chomsky's achievements in linguistics. On the other hand there is a barrage of criticism testifying to the fact that it's a very odd revolution indeed. What is strange about it is the way in which the dazzling new insights articulated by Chomsky about the nature of language have been framed in some astonishingly antiquated psychological lumber, in particular the theory stemming from Descartes and traceable to Plato that the essential qualities of language are genetically preprogrammed or ‘inborn’ like the sneeze, suckling and swallowing reflexes.
The theory is consistent with some of the most striking peculiarities of language: for instance, the presence in all languages of certain common features, or ‘linguistic universals’, such as the subject and predicate categories; the effortlessness and rapidity with which infants learn their language seemingly without overt instruction; and the fact that they do so in the face of only very imperfect or ‘degenerate’ language samples. It's the alarming implications of the theory for the whole nature of the human mind that cause all the trouble.
For instance the theory forces us into the belief that, since genetically preprogrammed, language must exist as a distinct ‘faculty’ of the mind alongside other, similarly preprogrammed, faculties such as numeracy (historians may here be reminded of the 18th- and 19th-century faculty psychologists who assessed people's characters by measuring the bumps on their heads); that experience serves merely as a triggering or priming function to the development of abilities which aren't learned but just ‘grow’ (we don't ‘learn’ to develop arms instead of wings, says Chomsky); and, most alarming of all, that what humans can ever know has already been laid down in our genetic endowments, other things (the understanding of human behaviour, perhaps) being ‘beyond our cognitive reach’, i.e. unknowable.
Because of the issues thus raised in psychology, the brain sciences and philosophy, as well as linguistics, there is little doubt that the whole event will be recorded as one of the outstanding debates of the 20th century. The present three books deal with most of these issues in different ways. Smith and Wilson provide a lucid account of ‘Chomsky's theory’ and of the most important criticisms of it. Modern Linguistics is especially instructive on the most original aspects of the theory—the nature of the so-called deep-structures, transformational rules, and so on—and provides abundant illustrations and a useful glossary. Even the naive reader will get something from it although the effort required will probably be more than the authors envisage.
In his most recent book, Rules and Representations—another series of lectures involving a great deal of repetition—Chomsky does not attempt to write anything new so much as extend and clarify things that he has written before. It summarises his own views (in parts much revised over the years) of his theory today and of at least some of his critics. Unfortunately it also reveals still further the tendency often to be found in ‘authorities’, of writing with increasingly dogmatic tones. Here the theory is put more stridently and confidently than ever but too often in the form of assertions that are not backed up. This makes Chomsky appear very slippery at times. For instance, in support of his theory of innate language programming, he has often claimed that the language which infants actually hear is so imperfect as to make it unlikely that they could learn anything from it, except with great difficulty (listen to the umms and aahs, hesitations, false starts, grammatical errors, and so on, in an average conversation between adults and you'll know what he means). But this turns out not to be so for the special case of adults' talk to infants. Taped samples of such speech have shown it to consist of short, well-formed, simply-constructed utterances as if to deliberately provide the ideal stimulus for language learning (again the reader can make a rough check with some careful observation). Chomsky's response to this research tends to be dismissive—either not to discuss it, as in the present book, or, elsewhere, to state that it's of little relevance to the veracity of his theory anyway.
This is not to suggest that Chomsky is dogmatic: he can be eminently reasonable. What does come across from this and other recent works is his growing impatience with a refractory opposition, which, while remaining unconverted, has only puny alternatives to offer. ‘Present me with a better theory and I'll start listening’, is what Chomsky seems to be saying.
In Making Sense, Geoffrey Sampson attempts something along those lines by attacking the ‘limited mind’ view of the Chomsky school and replacing it with the ‘creative mind’ view based on the philosophy of science of Sir Karl Popper. The book is written in a lively style and the view he attacks most clearly portrayed, but his reply is often philosophical, often technical and often extremely thin. For instance, one of the corollaries of Chomsky's theory of genetic programming is that we are all born with the same potential for linguistic attainment. Unfortunately such is the complexity of language in use that no-one has yet seriously suggested how we might test this corollary. Sampson, however, finds it so distasteful as to put forward as ‘evidence’ his own ‘strong impression that there are particular syntactic constructions … which are mastered only by the more competent speakers of a language’.
Chomsky has a right to expect more than this. But few critics are capable of grappling with the totality of the brilliant linguistic insights in their archaic psychological shell. The problem seems to be that the description of language, always the most impressive dimension of human behaviour, has far outstripped the psychological theory that can cope with it. This is a common phenomenon in science and the solution may just be a matter of time: present research in the so-called ‘pragmatics’ of communication, involving more complex presuppositions about the social context of language functions, is already throwing up new conceptions of language learning. But the anachronisms of modern linguistics are likely to persist until we are presented with entirely new theories of the whole nature of the human mind, which is what is really at issue in the Chomsky debate.
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SOURCE: “The Politics of Adolescence,” in The New Republic, Vol. 186, No. 12, March 24, 1982, pp. 37-9.
[In the following review of Towards the New Cold War, Laqueur finds serious flaws in Chomsky's factual distortions and political idealism, despite crediting Chomsky as an interesting and impassioned intellectual.]
There are, roughly speaking, two ways to review Mr. Chomsky's book [Towards the New Cold War]. One is to look for a particularly absurd statement or factual mistake (not necessarily of great relevance) early on in the book—for instance, the bomb explosion at the Munich Octoberfest in 1980, to which the author refers more than once. According to him, this was the second largest terrorist incident in Europe, killing fifty-three people. However, the number killed was in fact thirteen (even on the rare occasions when Mr. Chomsky is dealing with facts and not with fantasies, he exaggerates by a factor of, plus or minus, four or five). A few more minutes could then be spent in search of some glaring distortions—say on the origins of the cold war, or the militarism of the Kennedy Administration, or again on any number of factual points. Such an undertaking is not very arduous, for Chomsky transforms a well known Israeli writer into a general (Aluf Hareven), confuses a real general with a noted Russian novelist (Laskov), and mixes up a third general with Mussolini (Peled). A review of this kind would go on to point out that not much can be expected from a writer incapable of even spelling correctly the name of a well-known Harvard professor (Stanley Hoffmann), a writer for whom Jack Anderson and Israel Shahak are reliable witnesses for affairs of state, a writer who has tried to whitewash the mass murders in Cambodia, and collaborated with notorious French anti-Semites and neo-fascists in the denial of the Holocaust. Such a review would end with some suitable reflections about the kind of society in which such a squalid tract, such a clumsy piece of propaganda, such a ludicrous fabrication, intellectually worthless and morally grotesque, a parody of scholarship that reminds me of the worst excesses of Hitlerism and Stalinism, can be put out by a distinguished publishing house.
Le style c'est l'homme même, a distinguished Frenchman once said, but I am not sure whether he was altogether right. Even if he was, there are of course other ways to review books. But the problem of style apart, there still remains the question of whether one should take Mr. Chomsky seriously. Einstein played the violin, Freud played cards, Marx used to take walks in Hampstead Heath, but we do not look to them for guidance on these activities. Should Mr. Chomsky command respect as a writer on politics because he has made a name for himself in linguistics? I think he should; he has had a wide audience, even though the number of his admirers has shrunk as world events have lately failed to bear out his predictions. But he still manages to provoke and anger quite a few people.
My own feelings have been different. While I cannot honestly describe myself as an admirer of Mr. Chomsky's writings, I have found them of interest. And I believe that he has fulfilled a useful function for a variety of reasons, some positive, others negative, and yet others neutral. In an age of academic insipidity and pussyfooting, shrillness has a certain entertainment value. Chomsky presents a fascinating psychological case and an invaluable educational example. He genuinely believes that he has never been wrong. And since there is a bit of a Chomsky in most of us, we ought to be grateful, from time to time, to be reminded that there, but for the grace of God. …
In defense of Chomsky, it must be said that his bark is sometimes worse than his bite. His new book starts with a long and acrimonious attack on Mrs. Claire Sterling and her book, The Terror Network; “absurd” is one of the least offensive epithets he applies to the work. In the end the reader is bound to reach the conclusion that Mrs. Sterling has invented all her stories, that there are no international links between terrorist groups and are no big powers supporting them. But whoever bothers to read Mr. Chomsky's fine print will find to his surprise that “it would be remarkable indeed if the Soviet Union were not engaged in international terrorism.” Far from rejecting Mrs. Sterling's main argument, Chomsky actually accepts it. It should be noted in passing that although Mrs. Sterling was not able to substantiate some of her allegations in her book, a fact that was pointed out at the time by various reviewers (including the present writer), more evidence for linking the Red Brigades and other terrorists with Eastern Europe via Qaddafi and the PLO has since come to light, and not from American sources. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, no apologies have been extended to Mrs. Sterling by her critics.
If Mr. Chomsky is not always right, he is not always wrong. He may mix up the Israeli generals and his comments are curiously restrained when he deals with the Arab Begins. But this does not invalidate his criticisms of the disturbing developments in Israel. Coming from him, spiced with exaggerations, derived partly from doubtful sources, and altogether one-sided, these criticisms will have no impact whatever on those they should reach. They will be read with sympathetic interest in the offices of the oil companies and the international banks, in the Secretariat of the United Nations and the foreign ministries of many countries which, quite independently of Mr. Chomsky and for different reasons, have reached the conclusion that Israel is a nuisance and should be abolished. Once upon a time it was perhaps a little unpopular to criticize Israel's domestic and foreign policies in the American media. Now there is a global consensus against Israel, extending from the far right to the extreme left, and including the CIA and the Pentagon. Chomsky, the erstwhile outsider, has become a mainstream spokesman; if he feels a little uncomfortable in this company, he certainly does not show it.
But these are relatively minor issues. What makes the Chomsky phenomenon so interesting is rooted in a deeper level: time for him stood still in 1947 or thereabouts. True, the action may have moved to different countries since the early postwar years; but the basic issues have remained the same and so have his instincts, those of an eighteen-year-old product of the radical Zionist-socialist youth movement who has read Marx and, being a little precocious, has already proceeded to Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek, whose visions of unconditional internationalism he fully shares. He is possessed by a surfeit of idealism, a burning wish to change the world, to search for total freedom and absolute social justice; an abhorrence of war and chauvinism; a contempt for those willing to compromise with the world as it is and who end up as traitors to the cause. From the perspective of an eighteen-year-old, the history of mankind is just beginning and everything is possible—provided only that there is the unconditional will to fight for the great revolution which will solve all problems, which will make Palestine a binational state and transform the Arab countries, Iran, and the third world in general, into genuine democratic societies, free from nationalist and racist prejudices and imbued with the spirit of humanism, tolerance, and nonviolence. This is the revolution that will destroy American imperialism, while the Soviet bureaucratic distortion of real socialism will wither away, no longer menaced by external enemies, or simply be swept away by the people. From afar a mighty chorus is already heard, “C'est la lutte finale, groupons-nous, et demain / l'Internationale sera le genre humain.”
This, then, is the vision, and I restate it here not in a spirit of ridicule. For it is in many ways a very attractive vision in its idealism, its refusal to be discouraged by the bitter experience of the past, when revolutions failed and brought worse tyranny. Without idealism and optimism there is not much hope for mankind, and Martin Buber was of course right when he wrote about adolescence as the eternal chance (Glückschance) of mankind. (I, however, am no longer certain that Buber had politics in mind when he wrote those lines, except perhaps in the vaguest way.)
But how is the vision to be realized? College freshmen reading the classics of political science will learn that politics as a vocation means compromise with realities; means giving a finger (and, on occasion, the whole hand) to the devil; means that there is no freedom, equality, and democracy even in revolutionary movements; means that the ethics of politics are not those of the prophet Isaiah and the Sermon on the Mount; means that post-revolutionary regimes are not markedly less oppressive and intolerant than their predecessors. The young Chomskys, needless to say, will reject such defeatist talk. But in the long run they cannot fail to notice that most of their contemporaries do not share their values and visions, be they of libertarian socialism or a binational state in Palestine; and that this rejection is not just limited to a few monopoly capitalists, their servants, and the fools brainwashed by the media into a false consciousness. Perhaps they need a little coercion for their own good?
The case of the binational state is a perfect illustration of Chomskyan politics. There is no denying that in a sensible world this would have been the ideal solution for both Jews and Arabs. Unfortunately, binationalism has not worked in India any better than in Cyprus or Lebanon. It does not function well even in such highly civilized countries as Canada or Belgium. It never had a chance in Palestine. Quoting a friendly witness, Mr. Chomsky puts the blame on the “Europe-oriented Israeli leadership afraid of the Levantinization of their society.” But in fact almost all advocates of Arab-Jewish rapprochement came from these European-oriented circles, whereas Jews of Middle Eastern background (from whom Mr. Begin derives the majority of his votes) were always far more suspicious and hostile toward the Arabs. As for the Arabs, they regarded binationalism as a joke and not a very good one at that.
Mr. Chomsky presents essays “on the current crisis and how we got there.” Let us assume for argument's sake that his descriptions and analyses are correct. Let us then imagine him a senior decision maker in Washington or Jerusalem and ask how would he lead us out of the crisis. The concerned reader will look in vain for answers—except perhaps such obvious advice as to engage in unilateral disarmament, to dismantle the industrial-military complex, to refrain from interventionism, to share our wealth with the third world, and to read Marx, Bakunin, and Pannekoek. Mr. Chomsky must know that if all these demands were fulfilled, even if America disappeared from the map altogether, the world would still not be a more peaceful place, nor would there be less oppression and injustice. He would probably argue that it is not the task of the intellectual to provide alternative strategies but to be critical, to negate. The only strategies he develops are for the use of sectarian groups, and they have the immense advantage that they need not bear any relation to realities: any statement, any promise can be made and any problem can be solved on the level of abstraction. For there is not the slightest danger that the ideological platform will ever be put to a test, that it will have any effect on the course of events, except perhaps in a negative way.
Thus we are back to the politics of adolescence and the youth movement of ideological purity, of unlimited idealism and of irresponsibility as a way of life. The idealism has meanwhile turned into almost pathological aggression; Saint-Just is now in his fifties. The growing divorce from reality makes it impossible to refute Mr. Chomsky, but it also makes rational discourse well-nigh impossible. Mr. Marcus Raskin in a blurb on the cover of the book says that Mr. Chomsky's essays are a strong blend of reason and passion. He forgot to add that the ratio of passion to reason is about ten to one, and that it is the kind of passion about which the poet wrote that “it left the ground to lose itself in the sky.”
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SOURCE: “Impasse in the Middle East,” in The Progressive, Vol. 48, No. 6, June, 1984, pp. 40-1.
[In the following review, Steif offers positive evaluation of The Fateful Triangle, which he praises as “a powerful and thoroughly documented tract.”]
Each day's news brings fresh evidence of the disastrous policies the United States and its surrogate, Israel, pursue in the Middle East. The development of those policies over the past half-century, and their role in the continuing victimization of the Palestinian people, is the theme of Noam Chomsky's The Fateful Triangle.
Many American liberals will hate this book. People like Arthur Goldberg, Irving Howe, and The New Republic's Martin Peretz (whom Chomsky singles out for special shellacking) will condemn or dismiss it. So will many sectors of the American media that have been taken into camp by the Washington-Tel Aviv axis. Chomsky will be accused of anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and that worst sin of any American Jew, “self-hate.”
But The Fateful Triangle is a powerful and thoroughly documented tract. It demonstrates the increasing brutality of Israel and its sponsor, the United States, in the Middle East. In Chomsky's book, the chief victims appear to be Palestinians, but today he could also include the Lebanese, both Moslem and Christian.
After brief introductory remarks, Chomsky devotes more than 460 pages to just six chapters, each looking at an aspect of policy development:
The Fateful Triangle begins by discussing the origin of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, focusing on American pressure groups, American liberal and ideological support for Israel, and the concept of Israel as a “strategic asset,” which translates as “client state.”
In an analysis of “rejectionism” Chomsky turns that idea on its head. He notes that most Americans believe the Arab states (except for Egypt since 1977) and the Palestinian Liberation Organization have steadfastly rejected recognition of Israel. Actually, he shows, there have been Arab-PLO overtures toward a Middle Eastern settlement, including recognition of Israel, since well before the 1973 Yom Kippur War. He demonstrates that it is the Israelis who have rejected all Arab overtures because they were intent on creating a Greater Israel, encompassing the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and possibly even the “North Bank” to the Litani or Awali Rivers in Lebanon. In this, says Chomsky, both major Israeli political groupings, Labor and the Likud, have been backed by the United States, which is eager to maintain its “strategic asset”—now the world's fourth-strongest military power—as a Middle East bulwark against the Soviet Union.
Chomsky's summary of the history of Palestine and Israel, from the British Mandate and the early Zionists to the present, stresses the Israeli rationalization for what he calls “the use of terror” against Arab civilian targets. He dredges up the terrorist backgrounds of Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon, and Yitzhak Shamir, noting that “the PLO has the same sort of legitimacy that the Zionist movement had in the pre-state period.” That fact, he says, is “recognized at some level within Israel and, I think, accounts for the bitter hatred of the PLO which, rational people must concede, has been recognized by Palestinians as ‘their sole representative’ whenever they have had a chance to express themselves.”
In a 148-page chapter entitled “Peace for Galilee,” the invading Israelis' slogan in June 1982, Chomsky recounts the awful massacres Lebanese Phalangists and Palestinians visited on one another in the 1970s, the cease-fire that preceded the Israeli invasion, and the Israeli pretext for the invasion. The author offers a cogent critique of the American media, the Syrian role, and the Israeli Defense Force's “humanitarianism,” which wasn't humanitarian at all.
A chapter entitled “Aftermath” gives a blow-by-blow account of the Israeli invasion of Beirut, the Sabra-Shatila massacre, the Reagan “peace” plan, and the results of “Peace for Galilee.” Chomsky reports on opposition within Israel to the Begin-Sharon-Shamir policies, and quotes Hebrew University Professor Yeshayahu Leibovitz, editor of Encyclopedia Hebraica, on the Sabra-Shatila atrocity: “The massacre was done by us. The Phalangists are mercenaries, exactly as the Ukrainians and the Croatians and the Slovakians were the mercenaries of Hitler, who organized them as soldiers to do the work for him. Even so have we organized the assassins in Lebanon in order to murder the Palestinians.”
Chomsky concludes with a short chapter, “The Road to Armageddon,” in which he addresses the threat that Israel might use nuclear warheads at some future point. He tags this the “Samson complex”—Samson's revenge on the Philistines, in which the strong man brought the Temple to ruins and “killed more Philistines than he had in a lifetime”—and argues that this is “not something to be taken lightly.” It could be “a final solution from which few will escape.”
Chomsky is often heavy-handed; the reader can do without obvious ironies that simply slow up his narrative. And he is by no means a master of the incisive word or the deft phrase; rather, he writes like what he is—an angry academic. But it is also his academic quality—his scholarly eagerness to nail down every point—that gives The Fateful Triangle its punch. The book contains 956 numbered footnotes, plus dozens of asterisked notes, and sometimes these are more interesting than the main text. I found citations of many friends and acquaintances in both the American and Israeli press, and saw only one obvious error—the misspelling of a reporter's name.
Another quibble: Chomsky doesn't tell us enough about himself or how he came to his intense interest in the Middle East. He relies heavily on Israel's lively and outspoken press, but does he read Hebrew? Did he do his own translating?
I also miss a sense of time and place. I have no idea, after reading Chomsky's book, whether he has ever been on the main street of Sidon, or in the rubble-strewn remnants of Palestinian refugee camps—like Ain el-Hilweh or Rashidieh. The reader needs occasional mental pictures of places like Galerie Semaan, a crossing point between East and West Beirut, as well as at least a glimpse of the studied elegance of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saeb Salam's house in West Beirut.
But Chomsky's analysis is on target. The Fateful Triangle should cause a profound reassessment of American policy. It should, but I doubt that it will.
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SOURCE: “Institutional Structure Blues,” in New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1986, p. 28.
[In the following review, Tonelson offers unfavorable assessment of Turning the Tide, citing flaws in Chomsky's polemical tone and unwillingness to propose viable alternatives to the contemporary foreign policy he condemns.]
Today, in the flush of the Reagan era, it is easy to forget America's debt to the New Left scholars and writers who have explored the dark side of American history, politics and foreign policy. This loosely knit band of thinkers has been much less successful, however, at turning its findings into a convincing wholesale indictment of current American public policies, much less a sound program for the future. The strengths and weaknesses of the New Left's approach are all showcased in Turning the Tide, a broadside against the United States record in Central America and around the world written by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist and New Left stalwart Noam Chomsky.
Mr. Chomsky's thesis is simple—which, much contemporary foreign policy wisdom notwithstanding, is not necessarily a bad thing. He argues that “much of what U.S. governments do in the world” stems from the determination of American leaders to secure and preserve what he calls a “Fifth Freedom” utterly unlike Franklin Roosevelt's first Four: “the freedom to rob and to exploit” around the world. Worse, this drive is “rooted in the unchanging institutional structure” of “military-based state capitalism” that dominates American society. In its quest for tight control of foreign markets and resources, he argues, United States policy has “sought to destroy human rights, to lower living standards, and to prevent democratization, often with considerable passion and violence.”
No one should dismiss Mr. Chomsky's arguments as perverse, 60's-era America-bashing without finishing his first and third chapters, which detail the horrifying atrocities committed in this century against Central American populations by local forces with which Washington worked closely, then and now. Like most of the book, these sections are “clip jobs” drawn from secondary source histories, from news articles and from reports by the usual assortment of liberal and left-leaning Latin America and human-rights groups.
But as the debate over United States involvement in Central America intensifies, it becomes doubly important to recognize how much high-quality evidence challenges the Administration's claims that in El Salvador decent civilians are firmly in control and the guerrillas are practically defeated, or that the Sandinistas are so repressive and so dangerous to the hemisphere that America simply has to do something. Indeed, the degree to which Mr. Chomsky can not only challenge but also persuasively reverse such claims about those forces responsible for the worst repression and aggression in Central America should jolt any fair-minded person who still buys the Administration's moral case for current United States policy. In addition, Mr. Chomsky amply documents his charge that even the country's best news organizations have too often swallowed the essentials of the Reagan Administration line in this conflict; he should only train his sights on some Congressional Democrats next.
Yet Turning the Tide—much of it turgidly written—is profoundly flawed. Mr. Chomsky should not have to call Jeane Kirkpatrick the Administration's “chief sadist-in-residence”; any record that is truly atrocious should speak for itself. Further, the author doesn't seem to know the difference between attributed and unattributed quotes, frequently treating the statements of nameless “U.S. officials” and “informed sources” who agree with him as revealed truth. Like most participants in the Central American controversy, Mr. Chomsky is often highly selective in his use of evidence. And it would be much harder to label him reflexively anti-Israel if, just once in his harsh description of the Jewish state as the handmaiden to American oppressors in Central America and a brutal colonizer at home, he mentioned that most of Israel's neighbors do not recognize the country's right to exist and remain officially at war with it.
Big theoretical problems abound too. A compelling one-dimensional interpretation of American foreign policy is not inconceivable, but Mr. Chomsky's version—“The guiding concern of U.S. foreign policy is the climate for U.S. business operations”—ignores too much of what the postwar world's Western creators not only said, but did. A corporate oppressor state that built up industrial centers in Western Europe and Japan in the stated hope that they would soon rival the United States is behaving in too peculiar a manner to warrant that title. And a system of domination that, for all the misery it may have helped to create, has not only brought record prosperity to the people of the industrialized world, but to South Korea, Taiwan and others in the third world as well—and permitted all of these populations to exercise unprecedented control over their destinies—cannot be explained by blanket condemnation.
Mr. Chomsky's analysis shows that his neglect of these points stems neither, from the polemicist's need to deceive, as his critics usually charge, nor from a sense of guilt run wild. Rather, it reflects a failure to think of United States national interests in a Hobbesian world in which tragic choices are sometimes unavoidable. Nowhere in Turning the Tide is there a serious discussion of what America needs to do in the world to provide for its security or prosperity. The author simply heaps scorn on the notion that America confronts forces that would be hostile no matter how benign Washington's international actions. And he tends to discuss America's material well-being as a right that is or is not due us—as though the international system we are stuck with for the foreseeable future permits us to deal with such matters primarily in legal or moral terms.
The choices made by America leaders might have been hideously or pathetically wrong. But they are most accurately seen as choices made to preserve specific interests (even if they have not honestly been presented as such) and best criticized as counterproductive, dangerous and or unnecessary. Otherwise one is reduced, like Mr. Chomsky, to debating points that are factually valid but useless as guides to American policy.
Because Mr. Chomsky provides rhetorical ammunition from a too-often-ignored and maligned perspective, he enlarges the bounds of today's foreign policy debate. But the terms of the debate remain largely sterile. How politically and militarily active does America need to be in this hemisphere to preserve its interests? How active does it need to be in the world? What roles, if any, can moralistic and legalistic concerns play in safeguarding American interests in today's state system? Merely posing these questions—and suggesting that not all worthy foreign policy goals are mutually re-enforcing—are acts of thinking far more radical than anything in Turning the Tide.
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SOURCE: “Noam Chomsky: An American Dissident,” in The Progressive, Vol. 51, No. 7, July, 1987, pp. 22-5.
[In the following interview, Chomsky discusses his political views, objection to the Vietnam War, alternatives to Western capitalist society, and the problem of public ignorance concerning politics and international affairs.]
Noam Chomsky, Ferrari P. Ward Professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is widely regarded as the world's foremost authority in the field of structural linguistics. Since the mid-1960s, he has also been one of America's leading political dissidents, particularly in his outspoken criticism of U.S. policy toward the Third World.
Chomsky's Pirates and Emperors: International Terrorism in the Real World was published last year by Claremont Research and Publications. Other recent books include Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace (South End Press, 1985), and The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians (South End Press, 1983).
Rejecting the clichés and easy assumptions of both Left and Right, Chomsky calls himself a libertarian and anarchist. “Ever since I've had any political awareness,” he says. “I've felt either alone or part of a tiny minority.”
[Peck]: How many of the books you wrote over the years have been reviewed in the major professional journals?
[Chomsky]: Well, in this country I don't recall offhand any case, ever. I suppose the reason is largely that this work is critical not only of the United States and U.S. policy but more crucially of the role of intellectuals in the United States. As a result, it's just beyond the pale. And when there are references, I think they are notable for their almost total lack of even a pretense of rational argument or concern for evidence.
The same is true pretty much of the media. My books on contemporary issues are generally reviewed quite widely in Canada, England, Australia, and elsewhere, but only sporadically here. I also find easy access to national TV and radio outside the United States, as well as journals. Though I've been highly critical of Israeli policy, I've been asked to write in the mainstream Israeli press. That is virtually unthinkable here.
Apart from the Soviet bloc, where I am under a total ban (including even linguistics), the United States is probably the country where I have least access to the media or journals of opinion. My experience in this respect is not at all unique; the same is true commonly for critics of U.S. policy and ideology.
When there is some reference to what I or other critics have said, it often seems that the commentators are barely aware of what the argument is, or what position is actually being formulated. I have found all sorts of strange illusions about what, say, my attitude was toward the Vietnam war, because elite intellectuals often simply cannot perceive that one could have the opinions that I do hold.
My attitude toward the American war in Vietnam was based on the principle that aggression is wrong, including the aggression of the United States against South Vietnam. There's only a small number of people in American academic circles who could even hear those words. They wouldn't know what I'm referring to when I talk about American aggression in South Vietnam. There is no such event in official history, though there clearly was in the real world. It seems difficult for elite intellectuals to believe that my opposition to the American attack against South Vietnam was based on the same principle that led me to oppose the Russian invasions of Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan.
There was a hope, at least in the 1960s, that people in the capitalist world could learn something from the Third World. Do you think that is so today?
I never thought the Third World liberation movements of the 1960s were likely to provide any useful lessons for Western socialists. They were confronted with all kinds of problems that we do not face, even apart from the problems of foreign attack and domestic national consolidation. We do not confront the problem of developing an industrial society under the onerous conditions that hold throughout most of the Third World. Honest libertarians should recognize these facts.
Take the Vietnam war. It was clear by the end of the 1960s that the United States had achieved its primary objectives. It had effectively destroyed the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and the Pathet Lao in Laos, ensuring that only the harshest and most authoritarian elements in Indochina would survive, if any would. This was a major victory for U.S. aggression. Principled opponents of the U.S. war were therefore in the position of, in effect, helping to defend the only surviving resistance in Vietnam, which happened to be highly authoritarian state-socialist groups.
Now, I don't think that was a reason for not opposing the American war in Vietnam, but it was a reason why many anarchists could not throw themselves into that struggle with the energy and sympathy that they might have. Some did, but others were reluctant because they were highly critical of the regime that was to emerge, as I was. Within peace-movement groups, I tried to dissociate opposition to the American war from support for state socialism in Vietnam, but it was not easy to undertake serious opposition to imperial aggression, with the very real personal cost that this entailed, on such a basis.
In fact, the American movement tended to become quite pro-North Vietnamese—segments of it, at least. They felt they were not simply opposing the American war but defending the North Vietnamese vision of a future society.
I think there was the wish on the part of some to see a genuinely humane alternative society.
Yes. And many felt that this is what the North Vietnamese, the state-socialist bureaucrats, would create, which was highly unlikely, particularly as the war progressed with mounting terror and destruction.
The United States has never terminated its effort to win the war in Vietnam. It's still trying to win it, and in many ways it is winning. One of the ways it's winning is by imposing conditions which will bring out the repressive elements that were present in the Vietnamese communist movement.
American dissidents have to face the fact that they are living in a state with enormous power, used for murderous and destructive ends. What we do, the very acts we perform, will be exploited where possible for those ends. Honest people will have to fact the fact that they are morally responsible for the predictable human consequences of their acts. One of these acts is accurate criticism, accurate critical analysis of authoritarian state socialism in North Vietnam or in Cuba or in other countries that the United States is trying to undermine and subvert. The consequence of accurate critical analysis will be to buttress these efforts, contributing to suffering and oppression.
These dilemmas are hard to deal with. They are not unique to the United States. Should an honest Russian dissident, for example, publicly denounce the atrocities and oppressive character of the Afghan resistance, knowing that such accurate criticism will be exploited in support of Soviet aggression?
Suppose we could somehow manage to conduct this inquiry and discussion without contributing to the designs of imperialist power. For example, it's cheap and easy to say that these are repressive state-socialist societies. That's true. But then serious questions arise as to what one can do, say, in Indochina, in a society that has been so severely, almost lethally, damaged by destructive war and by a legacy of colonialism with horrifying effects, virtually unknown in the West.
Even apart from such colossal man-made disasters, what really are the prospects for development in Third World societies that are at a lower level of development today than were the industrializing societies of Europe and the United States in the Eighteenth Century? The industrializing societies of Europe and the United States were not faced with a hostile environment in which the major resources had already been preempted. These are really important things to think about. They raise the question whether development is even possible in the Third World.
You once wrote that if by some quirk of history the advanced Western powers should actually decide to genuinely give assistance to Third World countries, it wouldn't be all that easy to know what should be done or how to do it.
That's correct. These countries could become subsidiaries of Western capitalism. We have a good deal of experience with the consequences of that option. What other models of development are there? There's the authoritarian state-capitalist model of South Korea, or the authoritarian state-socialist model. Not very pretty, in many respects. But is there really a libertarian model of development that's meaningful? Maybe there is, but it requires some real work and thought to show that. It's not enough just to mouth slogans.
Intellectuals are often deeply involved with “traditions”—the “Marxist tradition.” the “Freudian tradition.” Is one of the aspects of the anarchist an uneasiness with any doctrine?
Well, anarchism isn't a doctrine. It's at most a historical tendency, a tendency of thought and action which has many different ways of developing and progressing and which, I would think, will continue as a permanent strand of human history.
Take the most optimistic assumptions: What we can expect is that in some new and better form of society in which certain oppressive structures have been overcome, we will simply discover new problems that haven't been obvious before. And the anarchists will then be revolutionaries trying to overcome these new kinds of oppression and unfairness and constraint that we weren't aware of before. Looking back over the past, that's pretty much what has happened.
Just take our own lifetimes: sexism, for example. Twenty years ago, it was not in the consciousness of most people as a form of oppression. Now it is a live issue which has reached a general level of consciousness and concern. The problems are still there, but at least they are on the agenda. And other will enter our awareness if the ones we now face are addressed.
What do you think of speaking in terms of a Marxist or Freudian tradition?
I think it's a bad idea. The whole concept of Marxist or Freudian or anything like that is very odd. These concepts belong to the history of organized religion. Any living person, no matter how gifted, will make some contributions intermingled with error and partial understanding. We try to understand and improve on their contributions and eliminate the errors. But how can you identify yourself as a Marxist, or a Freudian, or an X-ist, whoever X may be? That would be to treat the person as a God to be revered, not a human being whose contributions are to be assimilated and transcended. It's a crazy idea, a kind of idolatry.
And yet one to which many intellectuals have been drawn.
Well, because in subjects that really don't have a great deal of intellectual depth, that are not living intellectual disciplines that confront problems and try to overcome them, what you can do is accept the faith and repeat it.
I don't mean to suggest that this is a fair characterization of the work of those individuals who call themselves “Marxists” or “Freudians.” But the fact that such concepts persist and are taken seriously is a sign of the intellectual inadequacy of the traditions, and probably hampers their further development. We should not be worshiping at shrines, but learning what we can from people who had something serious to say, or who did something valuable in their lives, while trying to overcome the inevitable errors and flaws.
Are there any particular movements toward building alternative structures today within Western capitalist societies that you find hopeful?
It's a complicated matter. Take the moves toward workers' self-management that you can detect with a sufficiently powerful microscope in Europe, and sometimes here. On the one hand, these integrate the work force into the system. They might lead to class harmony, suppression of industrial strife, acceptance of lower wages and higher profits. In this sense, they serve as a device for socializing the work force within the existing system of oppression.
On the other hand, they also have the possibility of developing the awareness and understanding that it is perfectly possible for workers to manage without authoritarian structures; that bosses are not needed; that there's no God-given necessity to have hierarchical structure of authority in the work place of a kind that we would call fascist in the political domain. It can lead to that.
The question is, how do these tendencies play themselves out? From the point of view of the capitalists themselves or the managerial elite or the state management, of course, any such forms of worker participation would be used to the extent possible as a technique of subordinating the work force. And the question is, to what extent can self-conscious working-class groups struggle against this and try to turn these efforts into something else?
You have spoken—in some places you call it a “Cartesian common sense”—of the common-sense capacities of the people. What do you mean by common sense? What does it mean in a society like ours?
Well, let me give an example. When I'm driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I'm listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it's plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday, and so on.
These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it's at a level of superficiality which is beyond belief.
I think this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that's far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that's in fact what they do. I'm sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.
Now it seems to me that some intellectual skill and capacity for understanding and for accumulating evidence and gaining information and thinking through problems could be used—would be used—under different systems of governance which involve popular participation in important decision-making, in areas that really matter to human life. There are areas where you need specialized knowledge; I'm not suggesting a kind of anti-intellectualism. But many things can be understood quite well without a very far-reaching, specialized knowledge. And, in fact, even a specialized knowledge in these areas is not beyond the reach of people who happen to be interested.
To take apart the system of illusions and deception which functions to prevent understanding of contemporary reality—that's not a task that requires extraordinary skill or understanding. It requires the kind of normal skepticism and willingness to apply one's analytical skills that almost all normal people have and can exercise. It just happens that they exercise them in analyzing what the New England Patriots ought to do next Sunday instead of questions that really matter for human life, their own included.
Are experts and intellectuals afraid of people who could apply the intelligence of sport to their own areas of competency in foreign affairs, social sciences, and so on?
I suspect this is rather common. Those areas of inquiry that have to do with problems of immediate human concern do not happen to be particularly profound or inaccessible to the ordinary person lacking any special training who takes the trouble to learn something about them. Commentary on public affairs in the mainstream literature is often shallow and uninformed. Everyone who writes or speaks about these matters knows how much you can get away with as long as you keep close to received doctrine.
I'm sure just about everyone exploits these privileges. I know I do. When I refer to Nazi crimes or Soviet atrocities, for example, I know that I will not be called upon to back up what I say, but a detailed scholarly apparatus is necessary if I say anything critical of one of the Holy States—the United States or Israel. This freedom from the requirements of evidence or even rationality is quite a convenience, as any informed reader of the media and journals of opinion, or even much of the scholarly literature, will quickly discover. It makes life easy, and permits expression of a good deal of nonsense or ignorant bias with impunity, also sheer slander. Evidence is unnecessary, argument beside the point.
Thus, a standard charge against American dissidents or even American liberals is that they claim that the United States is the sole source of evil in the world, or other similar idiocies. The convention is that such charges are entirely legitimate when the target is someone who does not march in the appropriate parades, and they are therefore produced without even a pretense of evidence. Adherence to the party line confers the right to act in ways that would properly be regarded as scandalous on the part of any critic of received orthodoxies. Too much public awareness might lead to a demand that standards of integrity should be met, which would certainly save a lot of forests from destruction, and would send many a reputation tumbling.
The right to lie in the service of power is guarded with considerable vigor and passion. This becomes evident whenever anyone takes the trouble to demonstrate that charges against some official enemy are inaccurate or, sometimes, pure invention. Anyone who points out that some charge against Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, or some other official enemy is dubious or false will immediately be labeled an apologist for real or alleged crimes, a useful technique to ensure that rational standards will not be imposed.
The critic typically has little access to the media, and the personal consequences for the critic are sufficiently annoying to deter many from taking this course, particularly because some journals—The New Republic, for example—sink to the ultimate level of dishonesty and cowardice, regularly refusing even the right of response to slanders they publish. Hence the sacred right to lie is likely to be preserved without too serious a threat.
You have said that most intellectuals end up obfuscating reality. Do they understand the reality they are obfuscating? Do they understand the social processes they mystify?
Most people are not liars. They can't tolerate too much cognitive dissonance. I don't want to deny that there are outright liars, just brazen propagandists; you can find them in journalism and in the academic professions as well. But I don't think that's the norm. The norm is obedience, adoption of uncritical attitudes, taking the easy path of self-deception.
I think there's also a selective process in the academic professions and journalism—that is, people who are independent-minded and cannot be trusted to be obedient don't make it, by and large. They're often filtered out along the way.
You've written that Henry Kissinger's memoirs “give the impression of a middle-level manager who has learned to conceal vacuity with pretentious verbiage.” You doubt that he has any subtle “conceptual framework” or global design. Why do such individuals gain such extraordinary reputations, given what you say about his actual abilities? What does this say about how our society operates?
Our society is not really based on public participation in decision-making in any significant sense. Rather, it is a system of elite decision and periodic public ratification. Certainly people would like to think there's somebody up there who knows what he's doing. Since we don't participate, we don't control, and we don't even think about questions of crucial importance, we hope somebody who has some competence is paying attention. Let's hope the ship has a captain, in other words. I think that's a factor.
But also, it is an important feature of the ideological system to impose on people the feeling that they really are incompetent to deal with these complex and important issues: They'd better leave it to the captain. One device is to develop a star system, an array of figures who are often media creations or creations of the academic propaganda establishment, whose deep insights we are supposed to admire and to whom we must happily and confidently assign the right to control our lives and control international affairs.
In fact, power is very highly concentrated in small interpenetrating elites, ultimately based on ownership of the private economy in large measure, but also on related ideological and political and managerial elites. This means that you have to establish the pretense that the participants of that elite know what they are doing and have the kind of understanding and access to information that is denied the rest of us, so that we poor slobs ought to just watch, not interfere.
It's in this context that we can understand the Kissinger phenomenon. His ignorance and foolishness really are a phenomenon, but he did have a marvelous talent, namely of playing the role of the philosopher who understands profound things in ways that are beyond the capacity of the ordinary person. He played that role quite elegantly. That's one reason why I think he was so attractive to the people who actually have power. That's just the kind of person they need.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 966
SOURCE: “Don't Look Away,” in New Statesman, March 11, 1988, p. 33.
[In the following review, Osborne discusses Chomsky's political activities and offers positive assessment of The Chomsky Reader and The Culture of Terror.]
There was much concern among American political scientists in the late 1970s about the spread of something they called “Vietnam Syndrome”. This was not, as might be supposed, anything to do with the US government's apparently incurable tendency to intervene militarily in the internal affairs of foreign states. Rather, it was a condition taken to be affecting the American people themselves: a morbid aversion to the consequences of just such interventions.
If, despite the tactical adjustment represented by the use of proxies in Central America, this syndrome remains at all widespread (and there is evidence to suggest that it does), it is largely thanks to Noam Chomsky and those like him, who have devoted their time and energy to publicising and documenting the human rights abuses which are so integral a part of US foreign policy. More than anyone else, perhaps, Chomsky has acted as the moral conscience of the American people; holding up a mirror to the acts of government in order to show just what it means to the people of Third World countries for their governments to become the recipients of “humanitarian aid” from the USA.
Chomsky is probably best known in Britain for his work in linguistics. Yet, as the lengthy interview about his intellectual development which prefaces The Chomsky Reader reveals, politics and its morality (or, more generally, its lack of it) has always been his main concern. Brought up in the cauldron of Jewish radicalism amongst the East coast immigrant communities of the United States before the war, Chomsky's political roots lie deep in the European anarchist and syndicalist traditions of the 1930s. And it is anarchist themes which continue to dominate his work: the critique of the state and of the complicity of intellectuals in justifying and sustaining its abuses of power; the violence and hypocrisy which underlie the liberal-democratic “consensus”; and, perhaps most important of all, an emphasis on the role of popular-democratic movements in the maintenance and extension of political freedoms.
The pieces collected together to form The Chomsky Reader range across the spectrum of Chomsky's political writings: from his essays on the responsibilities of intellectuals from the mid-'60s to excerpts and articles from the '80s on the New Cold War, the Middle East and Central America. A number of things stand out. One is the sheer geographical range of his interests, as he records the grim consequences of America's global role. Another, the thematic unity which nonetheless underlies and structures his depiction of that role. A third is the single-mindedness and moral seriousness with which he pursues his theme: the steady accumulation of evidence, the clarity and directness of the narrative line, the incisive use of historical and cross-cultural comparisons.
The argument—that economic self-interest, pursued by violence abroad and secrecy and deceit at home, lies at the core of American history—is a familiar one. It is in the detail of the demonstration and the disgust at its consequences (exemplified once more in his two recent pieces in the New Statesman) that the power of Chomsky's writing lies. Roosevelt's Four Freedoms (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear), he argues, have in practice always been subordinated to a Fifth: “the freedom to rob, to exploit and dominate, to undertake any course of action to ensure that existing privilege is protected and advanced”. It is through a deepening of his sense of the complexity of the processes through which this “Fifth Freedom” is exercised that Chomsky's writings have grown in strength over the years.
The renewed vigour which this gradual deepening of political perspective has imparted to Chomsky's work is displayed at full strength in The Culture of Terrorism, the latest in a series of analyses of the current operational state of US policy. The book began life as a postscript to certain foreign editions of Turning the Tide (1985). This was subsequently expanded and appears now as what is effectively a companion volume to Chomsky's recent Managua lectures, published in the USA in 1987 as On Power and Ideology. Its topic is the twists and turns of policy which have followed the Iran-contra scandal since the autumn of 1986; its theme: the light which this episode throws upon the basic character of American political culture, and upon the possible constraints which may nonetheless be imposed upon the exercise of power within this culture, however indirectly, by popular protest.
In particular, Chomsky is concerned to stress the “not insubstantial achievement” of popular oppositional movements in forcing US state terror underground in the late 1970s. For, he argues, this created the conditions for the foreign policy scandals of the mid-1980s. These have, if only temporarily, both weakened the government's position and given a fresh impulse to the opposition. This, in turn, has created a small “window of opportunity” for regional attempts to secure an alternative basis for the resolution of current conflicts. And what Chomsky maintains is that the “passive compliance” of those who fail actively to oppose the existing system is at base no different, morally, from that of those who chose “to look the other way” during the persecution of Jews in Germany in the '30s.
One may have reservations about the way in which, in certain of his more theoretical pieces, Chomsky seems to over-generalise his critique of American political science to throw doubt upon the usefulness of any social scientific approach to human behaviour; or harbour doubts about the moral simplicity of his populism. Yet it is precisely in this simplicity that the distinctiveness of Chomsky's contribution to the political thought of the time lies.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6065
SOURCE: “Chomsky Then and Now,” in The Nation, May 7, 1988, pp. 646-52.
[In the following review of The Chomsky Reader and The Culture of Terrorism,Morton provides an overview of Chomsky's controversial political writings and activities and his largely unfavorable critical reception.]
If only for the role he played during the Vietnam War, Noam Chomsky should be honored as a national hero. His later work requires delicate assessment … but let's begin at the beginning.
The antiwar movement was composed of several different strands. Many young people romanticized the National Liberation Front, cherishing visions of the gentle land Vietnam would become if the United States withdrew. Chomsky gave due weight to the fact that the N.L.F. and not the Saigon government represented Vietnamese nationalism, but he was never its partisan; he stressed that U.S. intervention in Vietnam was wrong in itself. “Just what might emerge from the shattered debris of South Vietnamese society, no one can predict with any confidence,” he wrote in 1968. “It is clear, however, that under the American occupation there can be only unending tragedy.”
When Chomsky looks back on the 1960s, his main concern is to defend the student movement, and so he speaks of the “notable improvement in the moral and intellectual climate” that it brought about. I think this is the right emphasis, but in putting it this way Chomsky doesn't quite do himself justice: it's easy to forget that he was often a sympathetic critic of the New Left. “We must guard against the kind of revolutionary rhetoric that would have had Karl Marx burn down the British Museum because it was merely part of a repressive society,” he wrote in American Power and the New Mandarins (1967). “One who pays some attention to history will not be surprised if those who cry most loudly that we must smash and destroy are later found among the administrators of some new system of repression.” He listened to the students, learned from them, argued with them.
Another strand of the antiwar movement was composed of the “pragmatic” or “responsible” critics: those who believed that the war was a misguided expression of our country's good intentions, and who turned against it only when they saw that we couldn't win it, or couldn't win it at an acceptable “cost.” It was this strand that Chomsky criticized most searchingly, laying bare its misunderstandings with a sober passion. The war owed nothing to benevolent intentions: “As in the Philippines and Latin America, our efforts are directed to organizing … the society so as to ensure the domination of those elements that will enter into partnership with us.” Nor was the cost of the war an admirable reason to oppose it: Chomsky urged a “recognition that what we have done in Vietnam is wrong, a criminal act.” His critique of the war was clearly and unapologetically a moral critique.
Today, despite the best efforts of Ronald Reagan and an army of ideologists, the United States refuses to be cured of the Vietnam syndrome: we've prevented Reagan from savaging Nicaragua as earlier Presidents savaged Vietnam. In part this resistance is “pragmatic”: not many objected to the quick and conclusive invasion of Grenada. But in part it's moral: Americans are no longer convinced that our government has the right to destroy any country it wants to. And to the extent that this is true, Chomsky, along with others like him, deserves much of the credit. He did his job well.
In case we were in danger of forgetting any of this, we now have The Chomsky Reader to remind us. A sampler of his political writings, the collection vividly illustrates the remarkable moral and intellectual consistency that he's maintained for more than twenty years.
Chomsky has often said that his political writings could have been done by anyone. In a sense this is true. There was nothing exotic about his critique of the U.S. role in Vietnam: He attempted no analysis of arcane economic or political structures. All he did was evaluate our government's actions by the same standards that we apply when we evaluate the actions of other governments.
Chomsky's accomplishment was to disenthrall himself from the delusions of nationalism. This is not to say that he tried to launch his critiques from somewhere in outer space: among the writers he drew on in his protest were Thoreau, Dwight Macdonald and Randolph Bourne. But he began from the premise that the United States “is no more engaged in programs of international good will than any other state has been.” A simple enough idea, but one that most of the war's liberal critics could never bring themselves to accept.
Many writers slough off the nationalism they were born into; but most of them smuggle in a different nationalism through the back door. Part of Chomsky's moral authority derives from the fact that he's never done this. When he criticizes the United States for violating international law, we know that he would criticize any country that did the same thing.
I say “we,” but this is just to be polite. Some of Chomsky's critics, with a comical inability to understand his point, have assumed that since he's such a severe critic of the United States, he must be some sort of Soviet apologist. This delusion won't survive the briefest glance at his writings.
An essay in The Chomsky Reader titled “Afghanistan and South Vietnam” makes this clear enough. Chomsky condemns the Soviet war against Afghanistan without reservation, and in exactly the same terms in which he'd condemned the U.S. war against Vietnam. He approvingly quotes from an editorial in The Economist: “An invader is an invader unless invited in by a government with a claim to legitimacy.” He adds that “the government installed by the USSR to invite them in can hardly make such a claim, outside of the world of Orwellian Newspeak.”
From his earliest political writings, Chomsky has been against both sides in the cold war. He views the cold war as an arrangement from which both superpowers benefit. The United States and the Soviet Union, he believes, are united in suppressing any strivings toward independence in less powerful nations. In the case of Nicaragua, for instance, Chomsky believes that the Reagan Administration has pursued a dual strategy. Its maximal goal has been to regain the kind of domination it enjoyed during the Somoza era. Its minimal goal has been to drive Nicaragua into the Soviet camp—to turn the country into the repressive Soviet satellite that Reagan claimed it already was.
There's some evidence for this picture of the cold war. In Seymour Hersh's The Price of Power, for instance, a former aide to Henry Kissinger is quoted as saying that Kissinger “saw Allende as being a far more serious threat than Castro. If Latin America ever became unraveled, it would never happen with a Castro. Allende was a living example of democratic social reform.”
I do think Chomsky often draws this picture too neatly. Reagan and his men may simply be too stupid to have entertained a strategy as sophisticated as this. E. P. Thompson's view of the cold war is close to Chomsky's, but less mechanical: Thompson has more sense of the strains within and between the blocs. He too says that the superpowers are playing a game that suits them both; but he has more feeling for the danger that at any moment one of the players might sweep away the cards, knock over the table, and lunge for the other's throat.
As Chomsky makes clear in an interview that serves as a sort of introduction to The Chomsky Reader, he's been strongly influenced by anarchist thought, and accordingly maintains a healthy disrespect for all nation-states. The only trace of nationalism I can find in his writings is a negative one: He maintains that, as a U.S. citizen, he has a special responsibility to protest the crimes of the United States. He explained his view of the cold war, and of his own responsibilities, in On Power and Ideology (South End Press), a collection of lectures he gave in Nicaragua. After one talk, a member of the audience was disturbed that he had referred to Soviet “imperialism.” Chomsky commented:
There are two superpowers, one a huge power which happens to have its boot on your neck, another, a smaller power which happens to have its boot on other people's necks. In fact these two superpowers have a form of tacit cooperation in controlling much of the world.
My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world … it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for.
But I am also involved in protesting Soviet imperialism. … And I think that anyone in the Third World would be making a grave error if they succumbed to illusions about these matters.
Chomsky's brand of libertarian socialism has few friends today. But this doesn't explain why he elicits such violent reactions. It's strange, isn't it, that he's never invited to write for The New York Times Op-Ed page or its Book Review, or for Harper's, or The Atlantic, or The Village Voice. Why is he so isolated?
In the Autumn 1985 issue of Grand Street, Christopher Hitchens examined the standard cases against Chomsky. It may be worthwhile to go over them again, both because many people never saw the article and because Hitchens, at some points, was too intent on acting as a counsel for the defense. He would have shown Chomsky more respect by arguing with him more.
One charge can be disposed of quickly. We sometimes hear that Chomsky was an apologist for the Khmer Rouge. His great offense, as it turns out, was to analyze critically the U.S. media's treatment of Cambodia. He never denied that terrible things were happening there: In The Political Economy of Human Rights, written with Edward S. Herman, he said that “the record of atrocities in Cambodia is substantial and often gruesome,” that the Cambodian revolution was “one of the bloodiest” of the twentieth century, and that “when the facts are in, it may turn out that the more extreme condemnations were in fact correct.” But he objected to the way in which ideologists here seized upon the most extreme claims, with no attempt to evaluate them, as a retrospective justification for the Vietnam War.
As Chomsky pointed out, massacres of similar scale were being committed at the same time by Indonesia in its invasion of East Timor. The United States could have used its considerable influence with Indonesia to stop these massacres. But the same editorialists who drew so much attention to Cambodia said almost nothing about East Timor. Cambodia was ideologically serviceable; East Timor was not.
Chomsky's attacks on Western ideologists did have a certain jeering tone, which, given the gravity of the subject, was out of place. The Chomsky Reader includes a more recent essay on Cambodia that is free of this tone.
The second complaint against Chomsky is that he defended the “right to lie” of Robert Faurisson, the French Holocaust revisionist. Faurisson, a professor of literature, had come out with an article denying the existence of the gas chambers. He was suspended from his classes—supposedly for his own protection, after he was assaulted by students—and was brought to trial for “falsification of history.” Chomsky was asked to sign a petition that called on university and government officials to “ensure [Faurisson's] safety and free exercise of his legal rights,” and he did so. The petition contained no endorsement of Faurisson's views. When Chomsky was assailed for having signed the petition, he wrote a short statement, “Some Elementary Comments on the Right of Freedom of Expression,” to clarify his reasons. Without Chomsky's consent, the essay was used as a preface for a book Faurisson wrote. Ever since then, Chomsky has been dogged by the charge that he endorsed the ideas of a neo-Nazi.
Chomsky wrote several things during this episode that should make even his admirers uncomfortable. By this I mean that he wrote several things that make me uncomfortable. We'll get to them later. The important point is that he's never written anything that can be taken as an endorsement of Faurisson's claims. Never.
His “Elementary Comments” essay was a straightforward defense of freedom of speech. Chomsky argued that “it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended”—otherwise the right will not survive. In other statements on this question he repeated what he'd written years before: that the Holocaust was “the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history.” In an interview with the French newspaper Lib ration he clarified his position further, saying that “it is not by silencing [Faurisson] that you prove that his theses are ill-founded. It is by using all the documents, all the testimony of witnesses now at our disposal—and God knows that they are not lacking—in order to produce an irrefutable denial.” Clear enough?
Chomsky is immensely productive: I'm reviewing two of his books because he came out with a second one before I could finish writing about the first. I can think of fifteen books he's published on political subjects, and I'm probably forgetting a few. If he did harbor any sneaking agnosticism about the existence of the Holocaust, it would have leaked out somewhere in his work.
No one who has attacked Chomsky on the Faurisson issue has ever tried to support the case with evidence from his other writings. There's a good reason for that—the evidence all goes the other way. Chomsky refers to Nazism often, and he always has; but never in the style of an agnostic. He's always given keen attention to the way governments do violence to language when they seek to mask the violence they do in the world. And when he wants us to see the wickedness of some apparently neutral phrase, he asks us to imagine it in the mouth of a Stalin or a Hitler. This is his standard method. From his earliest writings to his latest, Nazism has served him as a benchmark of pure and unquestionable evil.
Chomsky is a conscientious civil libertarian: He always signs petitions, in support of everybody's right to speak. If he had made an exception of Faurisson, that would have been odd. Some people have said that the revival of anti-Semitism in France makes this a special case. Chomsky's reply is that he doesn't think we should fight racism by denying racists their legal civil liberties.
It makes me angry that the ignorant and malicious picture of Chomsky as “soft on Nazism” is so widely believed. It makes me angry that I feel obliged to waste so many words going over it all again. If people want to argue with him, let them argue honestly; I want to argue with him too. But to harp on Faurisson is nothing but a way of avoiding real argument. And, sad to say, it's worked. Chomsky has become one of those people you don't have to read anymore. When his name comes up, sophisticated people smile. Chomsky … we all know where he ended up, don't we?
If some people cling to a distorted interpretation of the Faurisson affair, this may be because it helps them shrug off Chomsky's views about the Middle East.
“Surely it is obvious,” Chomsky once wrote, “that a critical analysis of Israel institutions and practices does not in itself imply antagonism to the people of Israel, denial of the national rights of the Jews in Israel, or lack of concern for their just aspirations and needs. The demand for equal rights for Palestinians does not imply a demand for Arab dominance in the former Palestine, or a denial of Jewish national rights.” If he believed this was obvious, he was optimistic. Fifteen years of wild responses to his writings on the Middle East have proved that it isn't obvious at all.
If Chomsky has acquired the reputation of being America's most prominent self-hating Jew, this is because, in the United States, discussion about the Middle East has until recently taken place within very narrow bounds. As Chomsky has often pointed out, many views that are considered at least worthy of discussion in Israel are considered unspeakably extreme here.
The many people who “know” what Chomsky thinks about the Middle East without having read his books might be surprised to learn that he views the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as a conflict of “right against right”; that he calls for a two-state solution; and that he's repeatedly condemned the violence of the Palestine Liberation Organization as well as that of Israel.
Those who have read Chomsky's books on the Middle East and who thought them too critical of Israel might be surprised if they took another look at them now—now that the Palestinian uprising and the policy of “force, might, beatings” have made the ugliness of the occupation impossible to ignore. What struck some readers as inflamed hyperbole a few years ago seems common sense today.
On an issue as delicate as this, it's better to quote than to paraphrase. This is what he was writing in 1969:
It is natural to think that security can be achieved only through strength and through the use of force against a threatening opponent. Perhaps so. But those who adopt this course must at least be clear about the likely dynamics of the process to which they are contributing: occupation, resistance, repression, more resistance, more repression, erosion of democracy, internal quandaries and demoralization, further polarization and extremism on both sides, and ultimately—one shrinks from the obvious conclusions. It is not evident that security is to be achieved through the use of force.
Terroristic attacks on civilians simply consolidate Israeli opinion and drive the population into the hands of those who advocate the reliance on force. If this process does succeed in destroying Israeli democracy and turning Israel into a police state, the Palestinian Arabs will have gained very little thereby. Similarly, collective punishment, razing of houses and villages, detention, and exile, surely have the effect of strengthening the hands of those in the Palestinian Arab movement who see the physical destruction of Israeli society as the only solution.
Shocking? Extreme? What's shocking is that this was once considered extreme. Chomsky's great crime was to look at the realities of the occupation when most Americans preferred not to. He once wrote that American “supporters of Israel”—those who believe their support precludes criticism—might better be described as supporters of the moral degeneration of Israel. Was he wrong?
Chomsky has written two books about the Middle East. In Peace in the Middle East?, published in 1974, he urged a reconsideration of the old Socialist-Zionist dream of a binational state. By 1983, when he published The Fateful Triangle, he was no longer writing of such prospects. Most of the book is about the brutality of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and the hypocrisy of most U.S. commentary on the Middle East. He criticizes Israel's refusal to negotiate with the P.L.O., which clearly represents the Palestinian people; he contrasts the “halting and sometimes ambiguous steps” that the mainstream of the P.L.O. has taken toward the acceptance of a two-state settlement with Israel's unwavering refusal to consider it; and he gives a long account of Operation Peace for Galilee—the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
These are both extraordinary books. But if we put them side by side, we begin to sense a change in Chomsky's work, and not a pleasing change. You might say that Chomsky's political writings thus far can be divided into two periods, or two manners, with the break occurring somewhere in the late 1970s. The change is evident in all his writings; but since he's written only two books about the Middle East, one in each of what I call his two periods, the change is easy to spot when we compare them.
The shift I think I sense is that, in Chomsky's later work, we hear less of a humane, less of a human voice. Take a look at chapter one of Peace in the Middle East? Chomsky begins by thanking his Arab and Israeli students for their helpful criticisms, adding that “from many conversations with them, I feel that they are much closer to one another, in their fundamental aspirations, than they sometimes realize.” Before discussing the problems of the Middle East in general, he talks about his personal reasons for caring about the subject:
I grew up with a deep interest in the revival of Hebrew culture associated with the settlement of Palestine. I found myself … enormously attracted, emotionally and intellectually, by what I saw as a dramatic effort to create, out of the wreckage of European civilization, some form of libertarian socialism in the Middle East. My sympathies were with those opposed to a Jewish state and concerned with Arab-Jewish cooperation, those who saw the primary issue not as a conflict of Arab and Jewish rights, but in very different terms: as a conflict between a potentially free, collective form of social organization as embodied in the Kibbutz and other socialist institutions on the one hand, and, on the other, the autocratic forms of modern social organization, either capitalist or state capitalist, or state socialist on the Soviet model. … I mention all of this to make clear that I inevitably view the continuing conflict from a very specific point of view. … Perhaps this personal history distorts my perspective. In any event, it should be understood by the reader.
Disavowing any claims to expertise, Chomsky also disavows any belief that Americans can solve the problems of the Middle East. But he says that “it is conceivable that Americans might make some contribution to the passive search for peace, by providing channels of communication, by broadening the scope of discussion and exploring basic issues in ways that are not easily open to those who see their lives as immediately threatened.”
I find these passages beautiful. This earlier book, and his early work in general, seems the work of a man deeply patient, deeply reasonable, deeply humane. It's suffused with a luminous moral intelligence.
By the time he wrote The Fateful Triangle, his way of expressing himself had coarsened. This is from the second page of that book:
Clearly, as long as the United States provides the wherewithal, Israel will use it for its purposes. These purposes are clear enough today, and have been clear to those who chose to understand for many years: to integrate the bulk of the occupied territories within Israel in some fashion while finding a way to reduce the Arab population; to disperse the scattered refugees and crush any manifestation of Palestinian nationalism or Palestinian culture; to gain control over southern Lebanon. Since these goals have long been obvious and have been shared in fundamental respects by the two major political groupings in Israel, there is little basis for condemning Israel when it exploits the position of regional power afforded it by the phenomenal quantities of U.S. aid in exactly the ways that would be anticipated by any person whose head is not buried in the sand.
The dominant feeling of the later book, as I read it, is anger. It's an admirable anger—he's angry about militarism and racism cloaking themselves in high morality—but I miss the gentleness that once accompanied the anger. Chomsky continues to say that the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians is a struggle of right against right: that hasn't changed. But the music is different. In his early work he wrote understandingly of the fears that keep each side from seeing the justice of the other's claims. He tried to be a peacemaker. He isn't trying to be that anymore.
In Peace in the Middle East? he writes that the Jewish “policy of Havlagah—restraint—in the late 1930s was not only a moral achievement of the highest order, but was also, it seems, reasonably effective as a tactic. There were groups in the Jewish settlement that did believe in the resort to terror. … [but] tensions between these groups and the Socialist-Zionist settlers ‘erupted in a miniature Jewish civil war early in the 1940s.’” In The Fateful Triangle he writes of the history and prehistory of the Jewish state almost as if it consisted of nothing but terror. He wrote the book just after the invasion of Lebanon, and he was exasperated by the widely held fiction (held less widely now) that Israel is uniquely gentle, even in war. He tells an important part of the story—the part that's traditionally been neglected or suppressed. But he tells it as if that's all there is to the story.
In Chomsky's early work, he was often careful to stress that he was offering opinions on subjects about which reasonable people might differ. The best example is “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship,” a 1968 essay included in The Chomsky Reader. Here he subjects the work of the historian Gabriel Jackson to a stringent critique, but keeps reminding the reader that Jackson's work is “outstanding,” “of very high caliber.” I can find no comparable example of charity toward an intellectual opponent in his later work. He now seems to believe that the people he criticizes fall into one of two classes: liars or dupes. He's grown fond of phrases like “no rational person would deny,” “no sane person could fail to see”—there are one or two of them in the passage I quoted from The Fateful Triangle. Even when he uses such phrases to introduce a claim that no rational person would deny, I still find it chilling. His fondness for such phrases sits uneasily with his libertarianism—there's a whiff of authoritarianism about them. I don't say that Chomsky has abandoned his libertarian beliefs; only that they're no longer so fully evident. They were once present even in his style. I don't think this is so anymore.
Chomsky's prose style was once measured, calm: it was a style that evidenced a faith in reason. From his current style, I get the impression that he continues to expose the reigning lies only because it's the moral thing to do, not because he expects to accomplish anything. Chomsky wouldn't say he believes this, for he always reminds his readers of the power of popular resistance. And yet his style exudes despair. In the old work as in the new, he criticizes the conformity of U.S. intellectuals. But look at his early essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” and then look through The Culture of Terrorism. In the early piece, he refers to “a real or feigned naiveté with regard to American actions,” to a “failure of skepticism,” to “the intellectual attitudes that lie in the background of the latest savagery.” He criticizes the intellectuals as a class, yes, but it's clear that the class is composed of human beings: The phrases I've quoted imply a world of human agency, a world in which people can sometimes be persuaded by reasonable arguments. When he speaks about conformity in his recent work, it's in a different voice. The Iran/contra scandal “imposed new demands for the ideological system, which must control the domestic damage and ensure that it is confined within narrow and politically meaningless bounds”; “furthermore, similar situations are bound to arise in the future, and historical engineering must ensure, without delay, that the proper arsenal of lessons will be available, to be deployed when needed.” It's no longer human beings who put forth misleading ideas: it's “the ideological system,” the “doctrinal system” or “historical engineering.” Chomsky has become more structuralist. His later tone is that of a man who doesn't expect anything to change.
When I think of Chomsky's recent work, I think of Yeats's lines about Jonathan Swift: “Savage indignation … lacerate[s] his breast.” Chomsky is savagely indignant because the values he cherishes are being strangled. But increasingly, the reasons for his indignation—the values he cherishes—are hard to see in his work. Only the indignation is clear.
One reason the Faurisson business has continued to dog him is that his exasperation led him to express himself in a way that invited misunderstandings. In the last paragraph of the “Elementary Comments,” he abruptly swerves away from the narrow and admirable defense of free speech to which he'd devoted the rest of the essay. “Putting this central issue aside,” he writes, “is it true that Faurisson is an anti-Semite or a neo-Nazi? As noted earlier, I do not know his work very well. But from what I have read—largely as a result of the nature of the attacks on him—I find no evidence to support either conclusion. … As far as I can determine, he is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort.”
This is strange. How can he absolve Faurisson of the charge of anti-Semitism if he doesn't know his work very well? And even if he knew Faurisson's work by heart, wouldn't he have to be morally tone-deaf to brush aside the question of anti-Semitism so brusquely? Responding to critics on this point, Chomsky has explained that Faurisson has said that those who resisted the Nazis fought in the “right cause.” It's conceivable, perhaps, that one can deny the existence of the gas chambers without being an anti-Semite. But if Chomsky thought this a point worth making, he should have argued it through, sensitively and patiently and clearly. Instead, he made a high-handed assertion, and left it at that.
Earlier in the “Elementary Comments” he refers to a critic's remark that the original petition supporting Faurisson's right to expression was “scandalous.” Chomsky writes that this critic evidently misunderstood the petition's reference to Faurisson's “findings”: “It is, of course, obvious that if I say that someone presented his ‘findings’ I imply nothing whatsoever about their character or validity; the statement is perfectly neutral in this respect.” But in fact, the word is ambiguous: It can mean opinions, or it can mean discoveries. Chomsky must know this: I take it that the author of The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory has a dictionary. Why couldn't he have acknowledged that the word is ambiguous? What would it have cost him to acknowledge that the petition should have been worded more precisely? The basic issue remains the same: Chomsky can be justly proud of his support for free expression. But why can't he admit that, about this one word, he was really, just a little bit, wrong?
Replying to another critic, Chomsky said that he had often spoken “in support of the right of people I regard as war criminals to teach or even to conduct counterinsurgency research, at a time when it was being used to murder and destroy.” This is true: Anyone who looks at David Caute's new book on 1968, The Year of the Barricades, will see that Chomsky consistently defended the rights of men he must have hated. He adds, “Since these stands evoked no protest, it follows that the uproar over my defense of Faurisson's rights is an exercise in hypocrisy, pure and simple.”
Well, no. It would follow, if people were moved solely by logic. But they aren't; and it doesn't follow at all. I have no doubt that many people keep this thing alive dishonestly, because it delights them to discredit Chomsky in any cheap way they can. But there are many people who don't have the time to sift through every exchange between Chomsky and his critics, and who, reading phrases from him like “apolitical liberal,” have thought the case closed. They judge too quickly, but it's easy to understand why they do. A fair-minded person who studied the matter would conclude that Chomsky is innocent of having endorsed Faurisson's views. But I suspect this person would conclude that Chomsky was innocent of sensitivity as well.
In the 1960s, Chomsky was widely respected. His articles on the war appeared in The New York Review of Books; Norman Mailer referred to the “tightly packed conceptual coils of Chomsky's intellections”; “his name,” as Hitchens puts it, “had a kind of cachet.” Around the mid-1970s this changed. The New York Review quietly dropped him; other liberal magazines followed suit. Perhaps his radicalism no longer appealed to them after the end of the war; perhaps they objected to his views on the Middle East, Cambodia and Faurisson gave the final turn to the screw. Chomsky is now treated with a weird mixture of neglect and abuse. His books are seldom even reviewed—he's not important enough for that, you see—but just about every journal in the country finds space to drop snide misrepresentations of what he's written about Cambodia, the Holocaust, Israel or anything else.
It's this, I think, that's put the bile in his voice. As he's been forced to the margins, he's become strident, rigid. But even if this does account for the change in his manner, it doesn't justify it.
The problems of Chomsky's later work are similar to the problems of the later work of Karl Marx—a writer whom Chomsky resembles a bit, in his searing logical rigor and his surgical sarcasm. Ignorant critics of Marx like to argue that his thought led in a straight line to Stalinism. It's a stupid idea, but I've often wished it were more obviously stupid.
After his beautiful philosophical work of the 1840s, Marx turned away from the language of morality. He grew so disgusted with the hypocrisies of bourgeois morality that he began to style himself an antimoralist, delighting in reductive demonstrations that moral claims were nothing more than masks for economic interests. Bending to a Darwinist age, he began to write as if socialism were an inevitability rather than a future that men and women might choose. He began to write in a less human voice. If you want to spend a month or so in the library you can come up with a strong case that Marx remained a humanist, remained an advocate of freedom to the end. But I've often wished that his voice were so humane, so generous, that this would be obvious to anyone who glanced at his work.
I wish the same of Chomsky. He's taken on too much of the harshness of the world he struggles against. I'd like to see him bring back into his work some of the gentleness, the generosity, of the world he envisions.
I look over what I've written, and I think it's right. But I'm hesitant about it all the same. I don't like the thought that my criticisms might be read with satisfaction by the people who enjoy misrepresenting Chomsky. So perhaps I should say explicitly that I take the trouble to argue with him only because I think he's the most valuable critic of American power that we have.
In American Power and the New Mandarins, Chomsky's first book of political essays, he gave us his responses to an unusual display in Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. “What can one say about a country where a museum of science in a great city can feature an exhibit in which people fire machine guns from a helicopter at Vietnamese huts, with a light flashing when a hit is scored? What can one say about a country where such an idea can even be considered? You have to weep for this country.”
From his earliest writings to his latest, Chomsky has looked with astonishment at what the powerful do to the powerless. He has never let his sense of outrage become dulled. If his voice has grown hoarse over twenty years, who can blame him? And who can feel superior? No one has given himself more deeply to the struggle against the horrors of our time. His hoarseness is a better thing than our suavity. I think again of Yeats's lines on Swift: “Imitate him if you dare … he / Served human liberty.”
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2126
SOURCE: A review of Knowledge of Language and Language and Problems of Knowledge, in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 56, No. 3, September, 1989, pp. 533-36.
[In the following review, Stabler provides favorable assessment and summary of Chomsky's Knowledge of Language and Language and Problems of Knowledge.]
Noam Chomsky has recently produced two more books about language for a general audience. (Earlier works of a similar character include Cartesian Linguistics (1966); Language and Mind (1968); Problems of Knowledge and Freedom (1971); Reflections on Language (1975); Language and Responsibility (1977); and Rules and Representations (1980).) They are both informal explorations of a wide range of issues relating to language and knowledge, refreshingly free of the academic parochialism that results from disciplinary inbreeding. Each covers new empirical ground, offering suggestions about how this material ought to be incorporated into the growing tradition of theoretical linguistics, and each offers some commentary on recent psychological and philosophical debates. Though the overarching perspectives of the two books are of course similar, they cover different material, and at different levels of sophistication—Knowledge of Language is the more demanding of the two. Either book could serve well as a language-oriented introduction to what is now called “cognitive science”. And although Chomsky's general orientation is familiar to those who know his earlier works, new empirical observations and stimulating new suggestions make each of these new works pleasant and valuable reading. Since this review is to be brief, I will just outline some of the main points discussed in each book, attempting to note especially the new and most significant material.
Knowledge of Language begins with an informal characterization of “Plato's problem”: “the problem of explaining how we can know so much given so little evidence”. The problem is illustrated with a variety of examples of what a competent speaker of English must know. The examples are motivated by current work in theoretical linguistics, but the discussion (with the exception of a technical section mentioned below) is readily intelligible to the general reader. The general conclusions about what a learner must bring to the learning situation, presumably on the basis of an innate endowment, are surprising enough to inspire in a novice an interest in getting a more sophisticated grasp of the theoretical background. This is exactly the effect that a good introduction should have!
In the second chapter of Knowledge of Language. Chomsky describes a shift in perspective on linguistic theory. Whereas it has sometimes been regarded as the abstract study of the sets of grammatical strings of a language, an “external” language or “E-language”, Chomsky urges persuasively that it is better regarded as the study of a speaker's “internal” knowledge of language, of “I-language”. It is interesting to note in this context that Chomsky's recent technical work, such as Barriers (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1986), relies primarily on relative grammaticality judgments rather than on simple yes or no judgments about whether a sentence is well-formed. And he has explicitly defined principles, such as “n-subjacency”, which admit of more and less serious violations (in this case, depending on the value of n and certain other factors). So, for example, we have in the following three sentences one that is perfectly grammatical, one that is not good, and one that is very much worse:
What do you wonder about?
*What do you wonder how John fixed?
* Who do you wonder how fixed the car?
The severe ungrammaticality of the last example is explained by showing that it violates a certain principle of grammar, a principle that is not violated by the second example, which has only a weak I-subjacency violation. The first example violates no principles. So, from this perspective, the knowledge of language can be regarded as providing principles that indicate the level of grammaticality of a structure, and the idea that linguists study only a fixed and determinate set of perfectly grammatical strings is obviously inappropriate. In any case, on the view that linguists should be seen as studying I-language, linguistics is clearly a subdiscipline of psychology, and so it is appropriate for Chomsky to consider the psychological question of how a speaker's knowledge of language could be acquired, as well as such things as the relation of these matters to neurophysiology, as he does here.
A substantial shift in the approach of recent linguistic theory is described in some detail in the third chapter of Knowledge of Language: the shift from rule systems to principles. This important development has altered quite radically the character of linguistic theory. Chomsky here explains how the shift can be seen as a step towards a solution of the language acquisition problem, allowing us to identify specific parameters of variation in a much larger set of universal principles that apply to all possible human languages. Parts of this chapter will be difficult for the general reader, but these parts contain a number of points of interest for the linguist. Among other things, it is proposed that a constituent is “visible” to receive a theta-role only if it has case; that all theta-governed positions that receive theta-roles are filled at D-structure; that case is transferred to all elements of a chain and also by expletive-argument relations; and that structural case (nominative, objective) is assigned at S-structure, while inherent case (oblique, genitive) is realized at D-structure. Chomsky has not presented these views elsewhere, though some of them foreshadow the work in Barriers.
Chomsky devotes the fourth chapter of Knowledge of Language to critiques of alternative views. He considers at some length Saul Kripke's suggestion that the proposed conception of “knowledge of language” is undermined by Wittgensteinian considerations. Kripke argues that “If one person is considered in isolation, the notion of a rule as guiding a person can have no substantive content” (Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983, p. 89). One of the ways Kripke defends this point is to claim that, apart from the intentions of the designer, there is no fact of the matter about what program a computing machine is following, because there could be no basis for distinguishing certain behaviour as a “malfunction”. Chomsky responds by arguing that this distinction can be drawn by “a more general account of the properties of the mind/brain, an account that defines ‘malfunction’ and ‘intrusion of extraneous factors,’ and is answerable to a wide range of empirical evidence” (p. 238). Unfortunately, he does not explain what sort of evidence could justify any particular definition of “malfunction”, and so some doubts may yet lurk in the philosophical reader.
Chomsky considers other critics of his approach more briefly. He agrees with Dennett that rule systems might be only “tacitly represented”, as the rules of addition are in a hand-calculator, but suggests that the best theories do not have this character: “Such possibilities cannot be ruled out a priori. The question is one of the best theory … objections of this nature … are beside the point” (p. 245). Chomsky rejects Quine's view that extensionally equivalent grammars cannot be empirically distinguished as representations of human linguistic competence unless they can be associated with distinct behavioural dispositions. He finds similar doubts about the legitimacy of attributing knowledge of language in Davidson, Dummett, and Searle. He says:
The argument at issue has two steps: The first step involves the tentative conclusion that the statements of the best theory of the language are true; the second, that the elements (rules, etc.) invoked to explain … behavior in the best theory we can construct in fact guide … behavior. (p. 249)
Chomsky argues that the first step by its very nature involves distinguishing “extensionally equivalent” rule systems. The second step should be a trivial matter: “I cannot see that anything is involved in attributing causal efficacy to rules beyond the claim that these rules are constituent elements of the states postulated in an explanatory theory of behavior and enter into our best account of this behavior” (p. 253). At this point, though, Chomsky does not consider the structure of the linguistic theory that explains our behavior in any detail. It is instructive to recall that earlier in the book he notes that the theory of how knowledge of language is put to use “breaks into two parts: a ‘perception problem’ and a ‘production problem’” (p. 25). He says, “The perception problem would be dealt with by construction of a parser that incorporates the rules of the I-language along with other elements: a certain organization of memory and access (perhaps a deterministic pushdown structure with a buffer of a certain size: see Marcus, 1980), certain heuristics, and so forth” (p. 25). If Marcus's work is to be taken as an example of the “incorporation” of the grammar that Chomsky envisions, then the relation between the grammar and the theories of linguistic performance will be quite remote—nearly as remote as the relation between rules for addition and the performance of the hand calculator. This is a familiar point, one that is surely familiar to Chomsky, so it is surprising that it is neglected here. The other aspect of language use, the production of linguistic behavior, is, Chomsky says, “considerably more obscure” (p. 25).
The fifth and final chapter of Knowledge of Language briefly notes that there seem to be domains unlike language in which knowledge acquisition seems to be a very difficult and precarious matter. Chomsky calls this “Orwell's problem,” and uses political and historical knowledge as his example.
The second book under review here, Language and Problems of Knowledge, is based on lectures given in Managua, Nicaragua in 1986. It provides a more basic and informal introduction to Chomsky's views on language than Knowledge of Language. Again, Plato's problem is introduced, but this time it is illustrated with examples from Spanish, and considerable attention is devoted to differences between Spanish and English and other languages. In this light, Chomsky is able to show rather clearly how the different aspects of the languages are sorted into those that must be learned and those that speakers do not learn but must bring to the learning environment. He uses examples from sound structure and semantics to illustrate that the presumption of an extensive unlearned competence is not peculiar to syntax, but seems to be essential in every case where we have very much evidence about uniformities in the acquisition of a body of knowledge. He uses the relation between declarative sentences and corresponding interrogatives to illustrate the surprising structure-dependence of linguistic principles, and uses this, in turn, to illustrate the importance of Plato's problem. He then considers “Descartes' problem”: “the problem of how language is used in the normal creative fashion” (p. 138). Here Chomsky takes the rather surprising line that the normal use of language is essentially non-deterministic. In other words, Descartes was right in thinking that we must be fundamentally different from, for example, computers that mimic human language performance, because a machine's performance is deterministic, compelled by its internal state and environment, whereas, in our language use, it is obvious that we are only “incited or inclined” by our state and environment. Chomsky says:
The human may often, or even always, do what it is inclined to do, but each of us knows from introspection that we have a choice in the matter over a large range. And we can determine by experiment that this is true of other humans as well. (p. 139)
Chomsky does not say what experiments would demonstrate the freedom of human action in a universe where the gross behavior of other large objects (like computers) is determined, and one might well wonder what he has in mind here. Chomsky goes on to consider the Cartesian proposal that the mind must be distinct from any physical object, but argues that we no longer have a coherent notion of physical object that allows us to formulate such a view, or any other interesting “mind/body” thesis. He suggests that Descartes' problem may simply be beyond the range of human intellectual capacities.
A good deal of Language and Problems of Knowledge is devoted to developing the basics of Spanish grammar in Chomsky's framework. Chomsky presents an argument for the view that simple Spanish sentences, like sentences of English and every other language, have (at some level of representation) an Aristotelian subject-predicate structure. The predicate contains the object in such a structure, so there is a subject-object asymmetry unlike, for example, the symmetry in binary atomic predications of standard first-order logics. A number of other universals are introduced informally and illustrated: binding principles, X-bar principles, the option of movement, the projection principle, and case theory. The treatment of the Spanish clitics in this framework is of particular interest. Examples of specific parameters of linguistic variation are also presented: the null subject parameter which distinguishes, for example, most Romance languages like Spanish and Italian from French; and the head-first paramater which distinguishes, for example, Spanish and Miskito.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8477
SOURCE: “Bewildering the Herd,” in The Humanist, Vol. 50, No. 6, November-December, 1990, pp. 8-17.
[In the following interview, Chomsky discusses contemporary world affairs, including U.S.-Iraq tensions shortly before the Gulf War, and the negative influence of the American mass media as a force of institutional propaganda and political misrepresentation.]
Reading the mainstream media, you'd never know that, for over 20 years, Noam Chomsky has been considered by many to be the most important political thinker in the United States. He is the author of American Power and the New Mandarins, Towards a New Cold War, On Power and Ideology, The Culture of Terrorism, and Necessary Illusions, to name but a few, and coauthor (with Edward S. Herman) of The Political Economy of Human Rights and Manufacturing Consent. Taken together, these works present an extraordinary critique of state and corporate power in the United States—particularly its influence on the media and American foreign policy. For his troubles, Chomsky has been virtually exiled from the media mainstream, as well as repeatedly vilified.
In 1939, while attending an experimental Deweyite school in his hometown of Philadelphia, Noam Chomsky published his first article: an editorial in the student newspaper on the fall of Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. It was a few weeks after his tenth birthday.
By the time he was 30, Chomsky had already revolutionized the fields of linguistics and cognitive science with his theories of “transformational” or “generative” grammar and language acquisition. By the time he was 40, he had become one of this nation's most forceful and articulate opponents of the Vietnam War, which in turn led to his decades-long commitment to political and social activism. It was around this time that Chomsky published his celebrated essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in the New York Review of Books, which read in part:
It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of government, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information, and from freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology, and class interest through which the events of current history are presented to us.
In 1988, just short of his sixtieth birthday, the Inamori Foundation announced that Chomsky had won the Kyoto Prize (often called the Japanese version of the Nobel Prize) in the basic sciences. The Humanist talked to Noam Chomsky on September 7, 1990.
[The Humanist:]: You take the average American who gets his or her information on the world at large from, say, the network news, from wire service reports in the daily newspaper, and maybe—if he or she is feeling especially dutiful—from CNN or “Nightline.” How good a picture do they actually have of what's really happening in the world?
[Chomsky]: They get a good picture of how the state-corporate nexus in the United States would like to depict the things that are happening in the world … and occasionally more than that.
Occasionally more than that?
Yeah. But not most of the time. Most of the time the press is very disciplined.
Well, in short, what I'm asking is how well served are Americans by the mainstream media?
If you follow the mainstream media with great care and skepticism and approach it with the right understanding of how propaganda works, then you can learn a lot. The normal viewer or reader gets fed a propaganda line.
You've frequently stated that the Western media constitute the most awesome propaganda system that has ever existed in world history. But at the same time, the press tries to cultivate a mythology or popular image of itself as tireless, fearless seekers after the truth. You have them taking on the politicians, such as Dan Rather challenging George Bush on the air, or even toppling them from office, as Woodward and Bernstein allegedly did with Nixon. That's the public image of the media, and I think many people are going to be surprised to hear that they are being fed a line of propaganda.
Well, I doubt that many people would. Most polls indicate that the majority of the population regards the media as too subservient to power. But it's quite true that for educated people it would come as a surprise. And that's because they are the ones most subject to propaganda. They also participate in the indoctrination, so therefore they're the most committed to the system. You mentioned that the media cultivate an image of a tribune of the people fighting power. Well, that's natural. How would a reasonable propaganda institution depict itself? But in order to determine the truth of the matter, you have to look at the particular cases. I think it is one of the best established conclusions in the social sciences that the media serve what we may call a propaganda function—that is, that they shape perceptions, select the events, offer interpretations, and so on, in conformity with the needs of the power centers in society, which are basically the state and the corporate world.
So, in other words, an adversarial press doesn't really exist in this country.
It exists out on the margins, and occasionally you'll find something in the mainstream. I mean, for example, there are cases where the press has stood up against a segment of power. In fact, the one you mentioned—Woodward and Bernstein helped topple a president—is the example that the media and everyone else constantly uses to show that the press is adversarial.
But there are very serious problems with that case that have been pointed out over and over again. In fact, what the example actually shows is the subordination of the media to power. And you can see that very clearly as soon as you take a look at the Watergate affair. What was the charge against Richard Nixon, after all? The charge against Nixon was that he attacked people with power—he sent a gang of petty criminals for some still unknown purpose to burglarize the Democratic party headquarters. Well, you know, the Democratic party represents essentially half of the corporate system. It's one of the two factions of the business party which runs the country. And that is real power. You don't attack real power, because people in power can defend themselves. We can easily demonstrate that that's exactly what was involved; in fact, history was kind enough to set up a controlled experiment for us. At the very moment of the Watergate exposures, there was also another set of exposures: namely, the FBI COINTELPRO operations which were exposed using the Freedom of Information Act right at the same time. Those were infinitely more serious than the Watergate caper. Those were actions not by a group of crooks mobilized by the president or a presidential committee but by the national political police. And it was not just Richard Nixon; it ran over a series of administrations. The exposures began with the Kennedy administration—in fact earlier, but primarily with the Kennedy administration—and ran right through the Nixon administration. What was exposed was extremely serious—far worse than anything in Watergate. For example, it included political assassination, instigation of ghetto riots, a long series of burglaries and harassment against a legal political party—namely, the Socialist Workers Party, which, unlike the Democratic party, is not powerful and did not have the capacity to defend itself. That aspect of COINTELPRO alone, which is just a tiny footnote to its operations, is far more important than Watergate.
So what we can look at is how the media responded to these two exposures: one, the relatively minor crookedness of the Watergate caper; and, two, a major government program of harassment, violence, assassination, attacks on legal political parties, and efforts to undermine popular organizations over a long period. The Watergate affair became a major issue, shaking the foundations of the republic. The COINTELPRO exposures are known only to a handful of people; the press wasn't interested in it. And that tells you exactly what was involved in Watergate: people with power can defend themselves, and the media will support people with power. Nothing else is involved.
Well, that's interesting, because you have the media reinforcing a false picture of what was going on then. I mean, they did not—
What I just said is virtually a truism. Here is something close to a controlled experiment. Two exposures at exactly the same time: one, an exposure of a very minor attack on people with power; the other, the exposure of a very major attack over a long period of time—with all sorts of ramifications—against a large part of the population, including political parties, without power. And how did the media respond to these two cases? Well, basically, they cared nothing about the major attack on the people without power, and they made a huge fuss about the minor attack on the people with power. So, what does a rational person conclude from this? Well, a rational person concludes from this example—which illustrates it rather dramatically—that the media serve power.
Well, I think it's especially pernicious, since Watergate was then touted as an example of the system working.
That shows how beautifully the propaganda system operates. It takes an example which proves its subordination to power and turns it into a demonstration of its adversarial role. That's brilliant.
You've made the continual argument that the function of the media is actually to obscure what's happening in the world.
To obscure … it's more complex than that. I mean, the media, after all, have a complex role. In fact, you can't put the media into a single category. First of all, let's make a rough distinction. On the one hand, there are the mass popular media—that includes everything from sports and sitcoms to network news and so forth—and their task is basically to divert the population, to make sure they don't get any funny ideas in their heads about participating in the shaping of public policy. On the other hand, there are the “elite” media, which are directed to what is sometimes called the “political class”: the more educated, wealthy, articulate part of the population, the “managers”—cultural managers, political managers, economic managers. I'm talking here about the New York Times and the Washington Post—at least their front sections. Now, those media have a somewhat more complicated task. They have to instill proper attitudes that serve as a mechanism of indoctrination in the interests of power. But they also have to present a tolerably realistic picture of the world, since, after all, their targets are the people actually making decisions, and those people better have a grasp of reality if the role they play is actually going to benefit those who wield power.
But you mean a specific kind of reality—
Well, you have to have some grasp of the real world, otherwise you get into trouble. So, take an investment banker or a state manager—someone involved in government—if those people don't have some grasp of reality, they're going to make moves which will be very harmful to the people who really pull the levers. So, therefore, they better have some grasp of reality. But that has to be shaped in the interests of power, and that's a delicate task. Universities have the same problem.
These are all the things you refer to as the ideological professions. But their version of reality is not necessarily my or your version of reality.
No, in fact, it's often quite different. And that's what you find in any system of power—the totalitarian state, the democratic state, and so on. In fact, it's just entirely natural that, where you have institutions with a degree of centralized power, they're going to use that power in their own interests. I don't think there's an exception to that in history. Now, we happen to live in a system with a very high degree of centralized power—primarily in the corporate world, which has enormous influences over all other institutions, including government and obviously the media; in fact, the media are major corporations. They have a point of view and shared interests and concerns—of course, there's some diversity within them—and naturally they are going to try to ensure that everything in their political, cultural, and ideological realm is going to be influenced to satisfy their needs. It would be astonishing if that were not true, and the evidence is overwhelming that it is true.
There have been a number of people, such as W. Lance Bennett in his book News: The Politics of Illusion, who have argued that the American people were somewhat better served by the media in the early days of the republic, when the press consisted of numerous small journals and newspapers, all with what would today be considered their own bias or partisan position or political axe to grind. What do you make of the deification or cult of objectivity that characterizes mainstream news reporting today?
Well, first of all, I think you want to be very careful about comparing different historical eras; it's a tricky question. It's certainly true that there was a lot more diversity in earlier years; you don't have to go back very far to find a lot of diversity.
On the other hand, it was also highly skewed toward power. For example, let's take the American Revolution. The position of noted American libertarians, such as Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers, was that there should be no tolerance at all for positions antagonistic to their own. The range of debate and discussion that was permitted in Nicaragua in the last 10 years while the country was under foreign attack was incomparably greater than anything Jefferson would have allowed—or that the United States has allowed under far less threatening circumstances.
As for the cult of objectivity, here, too, we have to be careful. Surely the media describe themselves as deeply committed to objectivity, but what propaganda institution would not make that claim? A serious person would want to ask if that were true. And the answer is that it's not true—it's very far from true.
A related question then is why do the media continually concentrate on the individual personalities involved in the issues rather than the institutional actors, which is something you yourself scrupulously avoid. For example, in the Iran-contra scandal, the media pretty willingly acquiesced to Reagan's efforts to make Oliver North and John Poindexter the fall guys.
Well, they also concentrated on Reagan himself. Remember, the big question was: did Reagan know—or did he remember—what the policies of his administration were? The reason the media concentrate on these matters is that they're irrelevant. And insignificant. What they obscure is the institutional factors that, in fact, determine policy. And in the Iran-contra affair, it was rather striking to see the way major issues were almost completely obscured. So, let's just take one of the obvious questions: you asked why they do that. Well, that's just in the service of their propaganda function. One of the main purposes of any ideological system is to divert attention away from the actual workings of power and to focus on marginal phenomena. Individuals can be replaced, and then these institutions can continue to function as they do. So, if you take a look at the Iran-contra thing, once again there are perfectly obvious questions that were never asked, which takes remarkable discipline.
For example, the Iran-contra affair focused on what had happened since the mid-1980s—from 1985, 1986 on—with regard to the U.S. sale of arms to Iran. Well, an obvious question arises: namely, what was going on before 1985? And there's an answer to this. Before 1985, the United States was authorizing the sale of arms to Iran via Israel—exactly as it was doing after 1985. Now at that time, remember, there were no hostages. So what's going on? If the whole operation was supposed to be an arms-for-hostages deal, how come we were doing exactly the same thing before there were any hostages?
Well, that's another obvious question, and there's an answer to that one, too. It's not a secret; for example, I was writing about it in 1982 and 1983. And the answer is that the United States was authorizing arms sales to Iran via Israel in an effort to find elements within the Iranian military with whom they could establish contacts and who might be able to carry out a military coup to overthrow Khomeini. That was frankly, openly, and publicly admitted by top Israeli officials, including people high in the Mossad and others. And all the people who were later exposed in the Iran-contra affair were speaking quite publicly about this in the early 1980s. One of them, Uri Lubrani, said that, if we can find somebody in the military who is willing and able to shoot down 10,000 people in the street, we'll be able to restore the kind of regime we want, basically meaning the Shah. That's standard policy whenever there's hostility to some government: cut off aid to that government but arm the military in the hopes that elements within the military will carry out a coup. That was done in Chile, Indonesia—in fact, that's just normal. And it was being done in Iran in the early 1980s.
So, was there any discussion of this in the Iran-contra hearings? No, because, even though the question “What was happening before 1985?” was so obvious that it could hardly fail to come to the mind of anybody looking at the issues, the trouble is, if you ask it, you get the wrong answers. Better not to ask it. Therefore, this became one of many aspects of the Iran-contra affair that were effaced in what was, in fact, a coverup operation by Congress and the media.
I think it's kind of interesting to note in your discussions of American government that when you do refer to the government you almost invariably mean the executive. Do you consider Congress a confederacy of political eunuchs?
Well, I do discuss Congress to some extent, but it doesn't vary very much. I mean, there's a little diversity in Congress. If you get down to the House of Representatives, you'll find a scattering of people who will raise hard questions, such as Henry Gonzalez of Texas or Ted Weiss of New York or Ron Dellums and various people in the Black Caucus. I mean, there's a scattering of people who raise questions that barely make it to the media. But, by and large, Congress is very much constrained within the same very narrow elite consensus.
Well, do you feel also … I mean, I know that you have advanced these arguments and a number of other people have also advanced these arguments—they are there to be found by anyone who wants to seek them out. … But at the same time, I think there's a great effort in the mainstream media to write these arguments off as conspiracy theory.
That's one of the devices by which power defends itself—by calling any critical analysis of institutions a conspiracy theory. If you call it by that name, then somehow you don't have to pay attention to it. Edward Herman and I, in our recent book, Manufacturing Consent, go into this ploy. What we discuss in that book is simply the institutional factors that essentially set parameters for reporting and interpretation in the ideological institutions. Now, to call that a conspiracy theory is a little bit like saying that, when General Motors tries to increase its market share, it's engaged in a conspiracy. It's not. I mean, part of the structure of corporate capitalism is that the players in the game try to increase profits and market shares; in fact, if they didn't, they would no longer be players in the game. Any economist knows this. And it's not conspiracy theory to point that out; it's just taken for granted. If someone were to say, “Oh, no, that's a conspiracy,” people would laugh.
Well, exactly the same is true when you discuss the more complex array of institutional factors that determine such things as what happens in the media. It's precisely the opposite of conspiracy theory. In fact, as you mentioned before, I generally tend to downplay the role of individuals—they're replaceable pieces. So, it's exactly the opposite of conspiracy theory. It's normal institutional analysis—the kind of analysis you do automatically when you're trying to understand how the world works. And to call it conspiracy theory is simply part of the effort to prevent an understanding of how the world works.
Well, I think also the term has been assigned a different meaning. If you look at the root of the term itself—conspire, to breathe together, breathe the same air—I mean, it seems to suggest a kind of shared interest on the part of the people “breathing together.” It just seems that the word has been coopted for a different use now.
Well, certainly, it's supposed to have some sort of sinister meaning; it's a bunch of people getting together in back rooms deciding what appears in all the newspapers in this country. And sometimes that does happen; but, by and large, that's not the way it works. The way it works is the way we described in Manufacturing Consent. In fact, the model that we used—what we called the propaganda model—is essentially an uncontroversial guided free-market model.
Guided free-market model—the kind that's virtually uncontroversial.
Hmmm. Well, can you say what issues the media reliably don't cover? I mean, are there a series of issues that—
Well, take some of the issues that we've mentioned. Any issue—anything that's going on—the media will shape and modify so that it serves the interests of established power. Now, established power may have several components, and these components may even be in conflict in some way, so you will get a diversity of tactical judgments.
Let's take, for example, the major foreign policy issue of the 1980s: Nicaragua. There was an elite consensus that we had to overthrow the Sandinistas and that we had to support murder and terror in El Salvador and Guatemala—that was a given. But within that consensus, there were some tactical variations. For example, how do you overthrow the Sandinistas? Do you do it by terror and violence, the way the Reaganites wanted? Or do you do it by economic strangulation and a lower level of terror and other sorts of pressures, the way the “doves” wanted? That was the debate. That was the only debate. And the media kept to that line. In fact, I've done a rather detailed analysis of this. The fact is that in news reporting, in editorials, and even in opinion columns—which are supposed to reflect a diversity of opinion—the commitment to this position approached 100 percent. So, if you take a look at, say, the opinion columns in the New York Times and the Washington Post, as I did during the peak periods of debate, you'll find close to 100 percent support for the position that the Sandinistas have to be over-thrown and a debate over how it should be done. Now, that's the kind of uniformity you find in a totalitarian state, and it's the same with all the other issues that I've looked at. Ed Herman and I and others have looked at a very wide range of cases, and that's what you find throughout.
You speak of the media engaging in a practice that you call feigning dissent. Is this an example of it?
Yes. For example, let's take the question of how to overthrow the Sandinistas. In 1986, a poll revealed that about 80 percent of the people called “leaders”—which includes corporate executives and so on—were opposed to the contra option and thought that other means should be used to destroy the Sandinistas and restore the rulers of their choice. Other forceful and illegal measures—but not contras. The reason was simply cost effectiveness. They recognized that the contras are—as the liberals put it—an “imperfect instrument” to achieve our goals. Now, if the media were simply reflecting corporate interests, then about 80 percent of the commentary would have opposed the contras. Actually, it was about 50 percent, which means that the media were more supportive of the government's position than a propaganda model would predict. So, if you want, there was a defect in our model—namely, that we underestimated the degree of subordination of the media to the government. But that's about it.
Do you think right now that the media are helping to lead us into war in the Persian Gulf?
Definitely. It's a complicated story, but the options are basically either war or a negotiated settlement. Now, what are the opportunities for a negotiated settlement? Well, there have been opportunities which have not been explored. And it's very interesting to watch the way the media treated them. For example, on August 12, Iraq apparently offered to withdraw from Kuwait as part of a general withdrawal from occupied Arab lands. That would mean, with the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied territories, they would give up Kuwait. Well, that's not an entirely unreasonable proposal; you can imagine a basis for discussion. It was dismissed. It was dismissed in the New York Times in one sentence—in the course of a news article on another topic. TV news just laughed about it.
On August 19, Saddam Hussein suggested a general settlement treating the problem of Kuwait as an Arab problem to be settled by the Arab states in the manner of Syria in Lebanon and Morocco in the western Sahara. Well, that, too, was rejected at once—this time on the very plausible grounds that, in that arena, Iraq could have prevailed because it's the most powerful force in that part of the world. Well, that's correct, but there's a small point we're missing here: namely, that Saddam Hussein was just stealing a leaf from our book. Every time a U.S. intervention takes place in the Western hemisphere, we immediately warn the world to keep away, even vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning U.S. aggression on the grounds that it's a hemispheric issue and others should not be allowed to interfere. Well, sure, it's a hemispheric issue because, in the hemisphere, we are so powerful compared to anyone else that we expect to prevail. If it's wrong for Saddam Hussein—as it is—then it's wrong for us.
Take a more striking case: on August 23, an offer was transmitted to Washington from Iraq by a former high U.S. official with Middle East connections. That offer was an interesting one. According to memoranda and the testimony of the people involved, which was basically recognized as accurate by the administration, the offer included complete withdrawal from Kuwait, Iraqi control of the Rumailah oil field, which is almost entirely in Iraq except for a small corner in Kuwait—Iraq claims, maybe rightly, that Kuwait has been draining its resources, so they want a settlement which would guarantee them control over that oil field—general negotiations over security issues, and so on. They didn't even mention U.S. withdrawal from Saudi Arabia. Well, that's an interesting offer. What was the reaction to it? Well, first of all, it wasn't published. Six days later, Newsday—which is not the national press—published it very prominently as the cover story and gave all the details. The next day, the New York Times—the newspaper of record—mentioned it in a small paragraph on the continuation page of a story on another topic. The Times opened by quoting the government as saying that the offer is baloney. Then, after having framed the issue properly—in other words, that the offer is baloney—it went on to concede quietly that the Newsday story was accurate and that the Times had had the same information a week earlier but hadn't published it. And that was the end of that story.
This reveals some things about the media. First of all, it shows that, outside the national press, you occasionally do get deviations. So, for example, the Newsday report was an exposure of information not wanted by those people in power who are trying to avoid negotiations. So, these deviations can happen, and, when they do, you move to the phase of damage control. The way you deal with this information is by marginalizing it. First you present it as baloney; then you quietly concede it's true and that you knew it all along but were suppressing it. And that's the end of the story.
Well, what does that tell you? The choice again is a negotiated settlement or war. And we see the way the possibilities for a negotiated settlement are being dealt with. Well, that happens to be Washington's priority at the moment, so therefore it's the media's priority.
Washington's priority is war?
Washington's priority is not war but, rather, to achieve our ends by the threat or use of force.
That brings up another question: how much of a crisis is there really in the Persian Gulf?
If it did explode into war, the consequences could be catastrophic.
I don't mean after Bush inserted the troops into Saudi Arabia; I mean before.
Even then it was serious; Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was a very serious matter, and everything should be done to get them out of there. I mean, on grounds of principle and international law, it's not fundamentally different from the U.S. invasion of Panama or the Israeli invasion of Lebanon or a dozen other cases we can think of where we didn't care or we supported the aggression. But on the grounds of, say, human rights, it doesn't begin to compare with the Indonesian invasion of Timor, which led to near genocide and which we tacitly supported. So, the only “principle” involved here is that might does not make right unless we want it to, and in the other cases we wanted it to. But this is significant because it involves energy. The Arabian peninsula is the major energy reserve of the world, and it's been a major commitment of the United States since World War II that we or our clients control that source of energy and that no independent indigenous force is allowed to have a significant influence. Actually, years ago, at the time of the first oil crisis, I referred to this as “axiom one” of international affairs. These resources are controlled by the United States, U.S. corporations, and U.S. clients like Saudi Arabia, and we're not going to tolerate any indigenous threat to that control. A large part of our foreign policy turns around that issue. And there's absolutely no doubt whatsoever that Saddam Hussein is a monster and a gangster. But, of course, Hussein was just as much a monster and a gangster six weeks ago when he was a favored client of the United States—in fact, the United States was his largest trading partner, and the Bush administration had gone out of its way to offer him loans, credits, and so on. All of this was suppressed—virtually suppressed—by the media for a long time. He was just as much of a monster then. He's still a monster. Now, however, his monstrous acts happen to be harming U.S. interests, so therefore he's portrayed as a monster in the media.
I have a feeling that so much of the country has been conditioned now by this demonization in the press of Saddam Hussein that they would say, “Why should we even take these proposals seriously?”
We should take them seriously because he's frightened. The demonization for once happens to be accurate; he is a demonic character, just as he was when the press was looking the other way. But the fact of the matter is that he got in over his head and he now realizes it, apparently. We don't know, incidentally, if these offers are genuine; there's only one way to find out—and that's to pursue them. And that's what Washington does not want to do. You can't miss the fact that the United States is isolated on this issue. Who else has troops in the region?
Well, it looks like the United States is bribing Egypt to put some troops in.
We're trying to turn the screws on other countries to get them to participate, which in itself is very striking. Right now, as you and I are talking, the U.S. government—Nicholas Brady and James Baker—are flying around the world trying very hard to get people to contribute. What does this mean that we're trying to get them to contribute? So far, they've refused, but, if we have to make them contribute, that shows our isolation. Yesterday [September 6], Germany announced that they would not pay anything for the American forces in Saudi Arabia—that this was a bilateral arrangement between the United States and Saudi Arabia and had nothing to do with Germany. Japan, the other major economic force in the world, has been saying that maybe they'll give some financial support to the countries that are being harmed by the embargo, or, you know, maybe they'll send a couple of jeeps. Egypt, which is a big, populous country with a very large army—a third of a million men—has sent 2,000 men armed with light weapons and jeeps. Hell, I can round up more than that from the people I know. As for Saudi Arabia, there were big headlines in this morning's paper saying that Saudi Arabia agrees to share the costs for the American soldiers. How very exciting. I mean, here are American soldiers sent to preserve the Saudi Arabian monarchy, and the Saudis are willing to pay some of the costs. Boy, that's really impressive.
Well, the United States wants to forgive Egypt its $7 billion debt and also make the Soviet Union a most-favored trading partner if they play along.
Play along just means give us a diplomatic cover—that's what it amounts to. Why is the United States so desperate for a diplomatic cover? In fact, why is everyone else in the world backing off from armed confrontation? These are things that a really objective media would want to be exploring. And again you find no discussion of it. And then you find an outraged editorial in the New York Times saying, “How come the world is playing the part of the bad guy?” But try to find some analyses of why that's true. Well, there are reasons; the reasons are pretty obvious. You know, the United States for a long period was the dominant force in the world—both economically and militarily. It was agreed on all sides that, when the United States was intervening in the Third World, it was “politically weak” but economically and militarily strong. And you tend to lead with your strength. We had military and economic strength. Now, we are only one out of three. It's a tripolar world from an economic point of view. But the United States is still unique in military force. Nobody comes close; we are the military power. And with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union from world affairs, we're freer to use military force than before, because the Soviet deterrent has disappeared. And there's a natural temptation to lead with your strength, which in our case happens to be military. Germany and Japan have different interests, and the resolution of the issue by the exercise of force is not in those interests.
Do you think that there was any good reason for Bush to put all those ground troops into Saudi Arabia?
Not really, no. I mean, I think there were reasons for the world community to make it clear that it would not tolerate Iraqi aggression, it would not tolerate the takeover of Kuwait, and it would certainly not tolerate any threat to Saudi Arabia. I think to make that clear and explicit was absolutely valid and right, and I think that Bush really knows there's agreement about that in the world. The question is where do you go from there?
But my question is was there any real need for those troops to be committed? And didn't that dangerously raise the stakes?
We could argue that; I'm not completely convinced that there was. But you could argue that a military presence was necessary. It would have been far preferable to do it under the U.N.'s auspices. That also was not pursued. Or, rather, it was pursued, but the U.N. would not go along; in fact, the other world powers still have not really agreed to enforce the embargo. After a lot of arm-twisting, we finally got a U.N. Security Council resolution, but it was a very cautious one: it refused to authorize even the minimal use of force. Again, the United States is relatively isolated.
I think it's interesting that in the media you see a different sort of picture. For example, you were talking earlier about how weak and frightened Hussein actually is at this point—or at least frightened.
Well, he looks it. But again, you don't know whether this is bluster and posing—just an effort to get what he can—or if he really is frightened. And, as I said, there's only one way to find that out—and that's to pursue a negotiated settlement.
So, do you think Hussein is militarily as powerful as the media have presented him?
On this issue, I think the media are pretty accurate. If you look closely at the military analysis, you'll see that his military power is partly papier-mache. The army has poor morale, a limited capacity … but it depends by what standards you're judging. By Middle Eastern standards, it's a very powerful army. But if there's a war with the United States, Iraq will lose. If we wanted, we could blow the country out of the universe.
And what about the media's newfound appreciation of the United Nations now that it's allegedly voting on our side?
Well, that's an interesting story. The U.N. has come in for some quite unaccustomed praise. There's been article after article about how, with the end of the Cold War, and with the Russians no longer dragging their feet, the U.N. can finally function in the way it was originally designed to function. There's one slight problem, though. Certainly for the last 20 years, the U.N. has not been able to function because the United States has blocked it. We're far in the lead—far, far in the lead—in terms of Security Council vetos. On a whole range of issues—including the Middle East, the observance of international law, disarmament, the environment, you name it—the United States has vetoed Security Council resolutions repeatedly and has voted alone, or along with one or two client states, in the General Assembly. That's happened over and over again.
So, what does that tell you? Well, if you look at the attitude toward the U.N. in the United States, you find that, in the late 1940s, the U.N. was regarded quite favorably. At that time, after World War II, the United States was overwhelmingly dominant in the world and the U.N. could be counted on to follow U.S. orders on virtually everything. So, at that time, the U.N. was a fine thing, and the Russians—who were being outvoted because we were using the U.N. as an instrument against them—were the bad guys. Then the U.N. gradually fell out of favor, as U.S. dominance in the world declined. And as Third World countries gained independence and were able to join, the U.N. fell under what we call the “tyranny of the majority”—otherwise known as democracy—because it was no longer following U.S. orders. So, slowly, over the years, we lost interest in the U.N. By about 1970, the situation had gotten to the point where the United States was becoming increasingly isolated. And, by that time, the U.N. was just bad news; it was full of irrational anti-Americanism and so forth.
It's interesting to see how the discussion changed over those years. In the 1950s, the debate was why are the Russians so awful? By 1985, the debate was why is the world so awful? You had stories in the New York Times Magazine by their U.N. correspondent asking how come the whole world seems to be out of step. I mean, they're voting against us on everything; so, what's the matter with the world? And there were a number of thoughtful ruminations on that topic. Now, in this one instance, the U.N. is more or less acting in accordance with U.S. wishes—more or less. So, all of a sudden, the U.N. is a wonderful institution.
Well, anybody looking at this record would regard it as a comedy. Any sane person would. The U.N. is considered favorably to the extent that it follows U.S. orders; to the extent that it doesn't, it is looked upon unfavorably. Furthermore, for the past 20 years, the Soviet Union has, by and large—in fact, overwhelmingly—voted with the majority, the large majority. Those are the facts of the matter. Try to find a report in the press that even comes close to describing that. Well, that again shows you what a remarkable institution of distortion and deception the media are.
Not only that but … I don't know if you've been watching “Nightline” recently?
I don't watch it.
Well, Barbara Walters was on hectoring a German journalist and a Japanese trade ministry representative about whether or not they were going to contribute money. There was Barbara Walters, you know, speaking almost on behalf of the American people, asking them where's their damn money.
Well, an obvious question arises; namely, why … let's say she's the voice of the American government, not the American people … why does she have to hector representatives of Germany and Japan about giving us money? Why do we have to twist their arms to get them to pay for this? After all, they're more reliant on Middle East oil than we are. So, what's the matter? Well, maybe this says something about us. The possibility that there's something wrong with our policy, our commitment … that's something that can't be raised. I mean, it's just a law of logic that we're right in whatever we do. And even if the whole world disagrees with us—not just on this but on many other issues—the world is wrong. The world is not on the “team,” you know, if it doesn't go along with us. We just take that for granted.
I brought that up because it wasn't as if this journalist had the keys to the German treasury. It wasn't news; it wasn't analysis. It just seemed to be a lot of posturing. Actually, this leads me to my next question. You concentrate mainly on the print media; is there any reason for that?
Yeah, I don't have the resources to cover television. Don't forget that, on this side of the fence, we don't have many resources. Everything I do is on my own time, mostly with my own money. On the other side of the fence, you have ample resources. And if you really want to cover television seriously, you have to go through the transcripts, which really takes time. Furthermore, to the extent that there have been studies of television—there have been some by others—it's almost invariably the case that the framing of the news on television is largely within the bounds set by the national print media. You can pretty well predict what's going to be on network television on any given evening by looking at the front page of the New York Times or the Washington Post.
Sure, even people within television freely admit that. Do you think there's any difference in terms of the effectiveness of indoctrination between broadcast media and the print media?
Yeah, for most of the population, television news' framing of the issues is probably much more influential.
Gore Vidal, among others, has suggested that people who are inundated by television news are easier to manipulate. Do you buy that?
Well, I think we again ought to make the distinction between the political class—those who are more active in political, economic, and cultural management, a minority of some 20 percent—and the rest of the population whose function is to be passive observers. For the large mass of the population, I suspect that the main impact of television comes not through the news but through mechanisms to divert their attention. That means network programming—everything from sports to sitcoms to fanciful pictures of the way life is “supposed” to be. Anything that has the effect of isolating people—keeping them separated from one another and focused on the tube—will make people passive observers.
Remember, after all, that this is basic liberal democratic theory—I'm not making it up. If you read, say, Walter Lippmann, the dean of American journalism, who is also considered a leading progressive, democratic theorist, his argument is that, for a democracy to function properly, there are two different roles that have to be played: one is the role of what he called the specialized class—the responsible men, a small minority—and the other is the role of the public, who he described as a “bewildered herd.” The role of the public, then, is to be spectators, not participants; their role is just to watch and occasionally to ratify. The decision-making has to be in the hands of the elite. That's democracy.
And that was to be consciously directed?
Oh, well, I'm quoting Lippmann and he means it to be completely conscious. You can trace this to the founding fathers: the public are to be observers. The country was founded on the idea that … Well, John Jay [the president of the Constitutional Convention and the first chief justice of the Supreme Court] put it very concisely: “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” That's the way the country was established, and that's the way it's been run.
Do you think things are getting better or worse in terms of the people's access to alternative news sources?
Oh, I think it's better.
For one thing, I think the media are better than they were 20, 25 years ago, and more open. I've been talking about how narrow they are, but it's a lot better than it was 25 to 30 years ago.
Why did this change occur?
Mainly because of the way everything changes—social change. Why do we have free speech? Not because anybody wrote it down on paper but because of centuries of struggle—popular struggle. Every social change comes about through a long-term process of struggle—whether it be the peace movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, or whatever.
And in the 1960s, there was a substantial popular awakening, which improved enormously the cultural and intellectual level of a large part of the population. And that's had an effect. There's been a tremendous effort to stamp it out, but I don't think it's working. It's had its effect on popular dissidence during the 1980s, which was greater than it has been in our recent history. And it's had an effect on the media and Congress. Many people have filtered into the system who came through that experience—and that's had an effect. So, now you have people in the media whose formative influences were in the 1960s' ferment—and sometimes you can see their effect. And the same thing holds true with Congress. Take the congressional human rights campaign, which is mistakenly attributed to the Carter administration; a lot of the initiative for it came from young people and grew out of the 1960s experience.
So, you think that people are getting—
I think it's marginally better in the mainstream institutions. Also, there are lots of alternatives. Take something like community-based radio, which is pretty widespread over the country—well, that really offers an alternative. Communities that have a community-based radio station are significantly different from others in terms of the liveliness and openness and vitality of the political discussion. I travel around the country a lot, and for me the difference is palpable.
So, you think that people are getting less manipulable then?
Yeah, I think so. You could see it in the 1980s. For example, when the Reagan administration came in, they expected to be able to carry out worldwide interventions the way the Kennedy administration did; Kennedy was their model. And the Kennedy administration was quite brazen about it; some of what they did was clandestine, but most of it was quite open. When they started bombing South Vietnam, it was on the front pages. When they sent troops to Vietnam, it was overt. The Reagan administration couldn't do that; they had to move at once to clandestine warfare—in fact, they mounted the largest campaign of clandestine terror in modern history, probably. Well, the scale of clandestine operations is a good measure of popular dissidence. Clandestine operations aren't secret from anybody except the domestic population. And they're inefficient. Any state will use overt violence if it can get away with it; it'll turn to covert violence when it can't get away with it.
Do you have any advice on how to escape this pervasive and continual indoctrination offered by the media?
People have to understand that it's necessary to undertake what you might call a course in intellectual self-defense. You have to understand the nature of the material that is being imposed upon you and its institutional sources. When you do that, you can make corrections. It's very hard to do that as an isolated individual. But in solidarity with others, in communication with others, it can be done. It was done, for example, by the Central American solidarity movement, which was a very effective movement in the 1980s, and also by the anti-apartheid network, by the “green” movement, and by the women's movement. That's the way you combat it. An isolated individual—unless he or she is really heroic—can't prevail.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735
SOURCE: “The Lone Arranger,” in New Statesman and Society, July 5, 1991, p. 35.
[In the following review, Edwards offers positive assessment of Deterring Democracy, though finds fault in Chomsky's “browbeating style.”]
The late Napoleon Duarte, president of El Salvador, was a right-wing Christian Democrat—demonstrably so after 1980, when a quarter of his party left and joined the guerrillas. At the time of the mid-1980s election in which Duarte lost power, the BBC news characterised him as “left of centre”. Given that the only candidate to Duarte's right was a neo-fascist, this is a bit like calling Harvey Proctor a Red. A veil of normality had to be thrown over the facts, though: the elections were being held with US (and British) government approval.
There are many stories here as unpleasantly revealing as this one: this is a good book, but not entirely a good read. Part of the problem is the browbeating style in which much of it is written, by turns belligerently partisan and heavily ironic. Above all, Chomsky is that rare beast, a consistent anti-imperialist. This gives him a gift for drawing unpalatable but entirely logical conclusions that his more liberal rivals cannot match. I finished this book feeling weary and bruised, but with a deepened understanding of the dynamics of global politics before, during and after the cold war.
“Before, during and after”; this, in a nutshell, is Chomsky's main argument. So far from confining the superpowers to arm-wrestling across the Berlin Wall, the cold war saw the US wage war, directly and by proxy, against the threat of political and economic independence in countries around the world. The USSR, meanwhile, did little more than assist ex-colonial states that preferred Soviet patronage to US control. As the cold war ends, a major constraint on US imperialism vanishes, and the remaining superpower has the world to itself. The results, from Kurdistan to Kampuchea, are not going to be pretty.
To understand this development, we do not need to ascribe sadistic tendencies to national security advisors and directors of the CIA (though some of the historical evidence on this point is equivocal). Despite some gloomy remarks about the “national psychosis” of the US, Chomsky recognises the economic roots of imperialism. At home, business needs stability and guaranteed investment; business therefore gets a choice of two pro-business parties and a system of military Keynesianism. (The free market is fine for other countries: it makes it that much easier for the US to win.)
Abroad, business needs materials and markets; business gets them, regardless of the human costs. Any nation where US interests set the limits of the possible is therefore a “democratic” nation led by “moderates” (which, Chomsky helpfully informs us, was how the State Department regarded Mussolini in the 1930s). The US élites both shape the world and define the terms in which we know it. Only one real challenge to their global dominance is presented here: the economic power of the rival élites of Germany and Japan.
The only significant flaw in this compendious and thought-provoking work stems from Chomsky's conception of the élite, which is at once his favourite theme and his blind spot. Considering the industrial democracies, he argues that in some countries élite power is imposed by consensual means and has no need of cruder methods of enforcement; he then gives a brisk rundown of occasions on which precisely those methods were used (half a page on the Italian conspirators of P2, seven lines on the Gehlen organisation).
Chomsky is uninterested in the crucial question of how these two faces of politics fit together: whether by running a secret army staffed by ex-Nazis or by cutting income tax, the élites always win. Beside them, moreover, stands the “secular priesthood” of intellectuals, dedicated to “serving the owners of the state capitalist systems” when they cannot take power in their own right (“in the Leninist model”).
So élite power rests on a trahison des clercs: an assumption that clarifies Chomsky's expressed contempt for Vaclav Havel as well as his general tendency to bellicose sarcasm. Looking outside the ranks of the élite, Chomsky gestures towards the “historic mission” of “people who regard themselves as moral agents”, but his own mission is plainly that of the lone incorruptible within the élite world-machine. It is a position in which some uncomfortable truths can be told, but that holds out very little hope of anything actually changing.
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SOURCE: “Impassioned Advocate,” in The Progressive, Vol. 55, No. 10, October, 1991, pp. 39-43.
[In the following review, Rothschild offers positive evaluation of Deterring Democracy, though he cites weaknesses in Chomsky's tendency toward conspiracy theory and contradictory portrayal of the American public's relationship to the media.]
Noam Chomsky is the leading dissident in the United States. For twenty years, he has provided the most coherent left-wing analysis of U.S. foreign policy and the most trenchant critique of the mainstream media.
Though Chomsky has become almost a cult figure on campuses and in many progressive circles, he is a serious scholar and an impassioned advocate of human rights and genuine democracy. He's no sham artist: he's the genuine article—a person morally outraged at the cruel policies and blatant hypocrisies of his native land.
Chomsky's latest work, Deterring Democracy, is a fine introduction to his theories. The essays in this book, mostly taken from his contributions to Z magazine over the last two years, are written in plain English; even the uninitiated can understand his points. If you're looking for one book to show a friend or relative who expresses an interest in left-wing political analysis, this is it.
The book needs to be taken as a whole, for Chomsky's main arguments run in and out of every essay. He often picks up a thread from a previous essay, so the reader needs to refer back and forth to grab the nuances of his case. His arguments fall into two categories: a devastating indictment of U.S. foreign policy in the Third World, and a scorching condemnation of the way the mainstream media serve as apologists for that cruel policy.
As a primer on the moral bankruptcy of U.S. foreign policy, Chomsky's book is indispensable. But his theory is not without its weaknesses, especially in its media criticism. At times, Chomsky's theory borders on conspiracy, seeming to require that thousands of policymakers and media personnel have taken secret oaths to dupe the American public.
Chomsky's view of the American public also seems faulty. On the one hand, he suggests that media indoctrination is so powerful that it not only shields U.S. policy from criticism but also allows little room for anyone to dissent. On the other, he acknowledges the failure of the media to persuade the American public to go along with every noxious policy. Yet he never allows in his theory for the varying successes and failures of the propaganda system.
However, these weaknesses do not invalidate Chomsky's main contention. He demonstrates, through an impressive arrangement of undeniable facts, that U.S. foreign policy has wreaked enormous damage on the peoples of the Third World. And he shows, through innumerable telling examples, how the media time and again not only fail to hold U.S. policy up to scrutiny but eagerly sell that policy to the American people.
Chomsky's indignation can border on the lurid, as when he notes “how easily we refrain from seeing piles of bones and rivers of blood when we are the agents of misery and despair.” But the central issue he grapples with—the suffering caused by U.S. policy, and why the American people allow it to go on—is crucial for all those who wish to understand and change our country's actions in the rest of the world.
Though he touches on earlier periods of U.S. history, Chomsky devotes most of his attention to the Cold War and post-Cold War era.
While conventional historians contend that the Cold War pitted the United States against the Soviet Union, Chomsky takes a different view. “For the U.S.S.R., the Cold War has been primarily a war against its satellites,” he writes, “and for the U.S., a war against the Third World.”
This war against the Third World will continue, Chomsky says. Expect “the post-Cold War era to be much like the past as far as relations between the United States and the Third World are concerned,” he says, warning of “persistent support for human-rights violations, the general hostility to social reform, and the principled antagonism to democracy.”
Since World War II, the United States has sought “to impose or maintain a global system that will serve state power and the closely linked interests of the masters of the private economy,” Chomsky argues. In this scheme, the Third World supplies the raw materials for U.S. corporations. Chomsky quotes George Kennan explicitly consigning the Third World to such a role.
The insistence on controlling Third World resources has motivated U.S. interventions for the past forty-five years, Chomsky says. The U.S. Government has repeatedly used its full weight to crush any Third World “nationalist force that might try to use its own resources in conflict with U.S. interests.” The overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954, the Indonesian government in 1965, the Chilean government in 1973, and the sabotaging of the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s all substantiate the argument.
The post-Cold War period is no different, though the rhetoric has changed because the Soviet Union is no longer a credible threat. This has created “the problem of the disappearing pretext,” Chomsky says. “The Evil Empire has been invoked when needed for domestic economic management and for controlling the world system. A replacement will not be easy to find.” Drug traffickers will not suffice, he says, for “the Third World itself is the real enemy.”
The first two interventions that inaugurated George Bush's New World Order demonstrate the “continuity” in U.S. policy, Chomsky says, and he discusses in detail the invasion of Panama and the war against Iraq.
“The invasion of Panama is so familiar an exercise of U.S. power as to be no more than a footnote to history,” he says. “Rhetoric aside, it remains a high priority to block independent nationalism.”
Manuel Noriega's thuggery had nothing to do with the invasion, except as pretext. “Noriega was known to be a thug when he was a U.S. ally,” says Chomsky, “and remained so with no relevant change as the Government (hence the media) turned against him.”
Similarly, Saddam Hussein's “villainy is not the reason for his assumption of the role of Great Satan in August 1990,” he argues. “It was apparent long before, and did not impede Washington's efforts to lend him aid and support. … Hussein became a demon in the usual fashion: when it was finally understood, beyond any doubt, that his independent nationalism threatened U.S. interests.”
Chomsky holds no brief for Saddam: “By any standards, Saddam Hussein is a monstrous figure,” he notes. But, says Chomsky, the only reason the United States turned against him was because he threatened U.S. control of oil.
Nor does Chomsky buy the argument that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction justified the war. “It is not the threat of mass destruction and the capacity to coerce that disturbs us,” he notes. “Rather, it is important that it be wielded by the proper hands: ours or our client's.”
The brutal U.S. policy in Central America in the 1980s outrages Chomsky perhaps more than any other. “Ten years ago, there were signs of hope for an end to the dark areas of terror and misery,” he writes. But no longer. “The United States and its local allies could claim substantial success. The challenge to the traditional order was effectively contained. … Some 200,000 people had been killed. Countless others were maimed, tortured, ‘disappeared,’ driven from their homes. The people, the communities, the environment were devastated, possibly beyond repair. It was truly a grand victory.”
The magnitude of the human suffering appalls Chomsky, as does the self-congratulation of U.S. policymakers and the media, who crow about the spread of democracy throughout Central America. As Chomsky devastatingly points out, behind the “façade of democratic forms … the power of the military and the privileged sectors was enhanced.”
While U.S. policy aided and applauded the governments in El Salvador and Guatemala—two of the worst human-rights violators in the world—during the 1980s, it waged war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, which was trying to improve the lives of its citizens. “Hypocrisy is the name of the game,” Chomsky says, and he proves the point with a damning indictment of the double standards the U.S. Government and the media imposed on Daniel Ortega.
Chomsky's reach is wide. He surveys not only the U.S. military interventions, but also the record of American economic interventions in the Third World. He cites the growing poverty, gross inequalities, and political repression in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and the Philippines, as well as the mass starvation in Africa.
“The record shows,” he says, “that the policies that are advocated or enforced by the Western powers, and the confident rhetoric that accompanies them, are guided by the self-interest of those who hold the reins, not by any solid understanding of the economics of development or any serious concern for the human impact of these decisions. Benefits that may accrue to others are largely incidental, as are the catastrophes that commonly ensue.”
These days, Chomsky is most widely known not for his radical critique of U.S. foreign, which he shares with many on the Left. What distinguishes him above all is his media criticism.
Chomsky argues that the U.S. Government and the media operate a highly organized and efficient “indoctrination system” to “eliminate public meddling in policy formation.” This postulate is the hinge between the two halves of Chomsky's theory, for it enables him to explain why the U.S. Government can get away with such an immoral foreign policy: The people have been duped.
“If ordinary folk are free to reflect on the causes of human misery,” he writes sardonically, “they may well draw all the wrong conclusions. Therefore, they must be indoctrinated or diverted, a task that requires unremitting efforts.”
Chomsky argues that since the United States is so free, the elite who run the country must depend on an elaborate propaganda system to serve their interests. Ruling elites in undemocratic governments can and do rely on force, he argues. But elites in formally democratic countries cannot rely so blatantly on force: instead, they must turn to controlling the thoughts of their citizens. “Control of thought is more important for governments that are free and popular than for despotic and military states.”
In significant ways, the United States is more free than other societies. Chomsky acknowledges. Hence, the elite in the United States needs a more sophisticated propaganda system. “The techniques of manufacture of consent are most finely honed in the United States,” he says.
What are these techniques? While Chomsky does not list them in any single place, he identifies several in the course of these essays. The first is diversion—with TV as the prime suspect.
“One fundamental goal of any well-crafted indoctrination program is to direct attention elsewhere, away from effective power, its roots, and the disguises it assumes,” he writes. The people must be “diverted with emotionally potent over-simplifications, marginalized, and isolated. Ideally, each person should be alone in front of the television screen watching sports, soap operas, or comedies.” This isolation is crucial, as it deprives citizens of the ability to think and organize together. “As long as each individual is facing the television alone, formal freedom poses no threat to privilege.”
But the dispensers of TV images are the least of Chomsky's culprits. His indictment is much more sweeping. He talks of a “hoax perpetrated by the media and intellectual community” to keep the public in the dark.
Their “task” or “assignment,” says Chomsky, is “to shape the perceived historical record and the picture of the contemporary world in the interest of the powerful, thus ensuring that the public, properly bewildered, keeps to its place and function.”
The media go about this task in several ways, he writes. They glorify the President, they “transmit” Washington's rhetoric, they insist on imputing the most benevolent motives to U.S. policy, they feast on fear, they ignore not only countervailing opinions but also countervailing facts, they apply double standards with impunity, and they constrict public debate so tightly that the views of fundamental critics are rarely, if ever, aired. Instead, they treat the public to a false debate between “hawks” and “doves,” who only disagree over tactics, not fundamental policy.
Unfortunately, Chomsky does not delineate these various techniques in a methodical manner. But he does provide ample evidence to buttress his contention that the media are “the loyal servants” of the elite.
For instance, he offers The New York Times diplomatic correspondent, Neil Lewis, who wrote: “The yearning to see American-style democracy duplicated throughout the world has been a persistent theme in American foreign policy.” Chomsky responds: “Even a cursory inspection of the historical record reveals that a persistent theme in American foreign policy has been the subversion and overthrow of parliamentary regimes, and the resort to violence to destroy popular organizations that might offer the majority of the population an opportunity to enter the political arena.”
To illustrate bias in the way news is selected, Chomsky cites among other instances the way the media depict the United Nations. They routinely disregard the organization when it denounces the United States for opposing a comprehensive test ban or when it condemns Israeli policy in the West Bank and Gaza. “None of this was reported in the Free Press, the ‘community of nations’ being irrelevant when it fails to perceive the Truth.” But when the United Nations goes along with the U.S. policy, the world body becomes legitimate. During the days leading up to the Iraq war, John Goshko of The Washington Post wrote that the United Nations “is suddenly working the way it was designed to,” Chomsky notes. He concludes that “the U.N. is ‘functional’ today because it is (more or less) doing what Washington wants.”
The media's use of double standards is most obvious in the case of Central America, Chomsky says. The media constantly ridiculed the Nicaraguan government under Daniel Ortega for using military measures to put down the contras, trained and financed by the CIA. One TV reporter called Ortega “the skunk at a picnic,” referring to a summit meeting of Central American leaders. But “one will search in vain for a suggestion that El Salvador—or Guatemala, where the situation is even worse—should rein in its military,” he writes. “Their leadership are not skunks at picnics, but estimable (if somewhat ineffectual) democrats, and the military rulers are ‘reforming’ and overcoming past harsh practices under benign U.S. influence—a permanent process, untroubled by annoying fact.”
The media's treatment of the Sandinistas was “in the style of a totalitarian state,” Chomsky writes. They greeted the defeat of the Sandinistas with “extraordinary uniformity,” Chomsky writes, and he backs up his claim with numerous examples. By contrast, the Latin American press had a much more balanced interpretation of the Sandinista defeat, placing strong emphasis on the destabilizing role the United States played, Chomsky notes.
The media also act as though left-wing activists or critics in the United States don't exist. After Ortega lost, Elaine Sciolino of The New York Times wrote an article headed, AMERICANS UNITED IN JOY, BUT DIVIDED OVER POLICY. This is just too much for Chomsky. “Such phrases as ‘United in Joy’ are not entirely unknown,” he writes. “One might find them, perhaps, in the North Korean or Albanian press.”
Chomsky devotes an entire chapter to “The Agenda of the Doves,” but by “doves” he means not genuinely radical critics but the liberals in the media and Congress who represent the furthest left-wing point on the continuum of acceptable debate.
Chomsky heaps scorn on these so-called doves for not disputing the underlying rationale of U.S. policy, for squabbling only over tactics. In this category, he places the commentators Hendrik Hertzberg, Michael Kinsley, Jefferson Morley, Stanley Hoffman, Mary McGrory, Tom Wicker, and Daniel Schorr. And he denounces such Democratic politicians as John Kerry, Patrick Leahy, Paul Tsongas, and Christopher Dodd.
“To understand our own cultural world, we must recognize that advocacy of terror is clear, explicit, and principled, across the political spectrum,” he says. “It is superfluous to invoke the thoughts of Jeane Kirkpatrick, George Will, and the like.” Instead, he cites the liberal doves.
“Consider political commentator Michael Kinsley, who represents ‘the Left’ in mainstream commentary and television debate,” Chomsky writes. “When the State Department publicly confirmed U.S. support for terrorist attacks on agricultural cooperatives in Nicaragua, Kinsley wrote that we should not be too quick to condemn this official policy. Such international terrorist operations doubtless cause ‘vast civilian suffering,’ he conceded. But if they manage ‘to undermine morale and confidence in the government,’ then they may be ‘perfectly legitimate.’”
When the media confine the “Left-Right” debate to such a narrow spectrum, they affect “the structuring of values and operative choices,” Chomsky says. Since the public is not exposed to alternative views, it can only choose from those the media present. And when the media present only views that accommodate the power elite, they succeed in keeping “the giddy multitude in a state of implicit submission.”
The difficulty I have with Chomsky's theory is not with his claim that the media serve the elite. By and large, they do. But he overstates the case; not every member of the mainstream media—and not every one of his excoriated doves—writes columns every time that support U.S. policy. Michael Kinsley opposed the Iraq war; Mary McGrory has denounced U.S. policy in El Salvador and Cambodia.
And his theory about why the media act so slavishly is inadequate. He implies—with such terms as “assignment,” and “task,” and “hoax”—that some kind of grand conspiracy exists to mislead the American people.
He is content to describe the media's functioning; he has little time for explaining it. He only adduces one argument for the media's behavior—that the media are themselves corporate giants that benefit from U.S. policy. “Articulate expression is shaped by the same private powers that control the economy,” he says. “It is largely dominated by major corporations that sell audiences to advertisers and naturally reflect the interests of the owners and their market.”
Certainly, this is part of the story. But there are other reasons for the media's behavior. For one thing, reporters and commentators are lazy and find it easier simply to transcribe the words of the policymakers than to dig for the truth. For another, they routinely censor themselves by cozying up to their sources in Washington. And finally—and here the argument turns viciously circular—the owners of the media are cowards when it comes to controversy, since they worry about alienating readers and viewers.
Chomsky disdains any inquiry into the media's—and the politicians'—conscious intentions. “In so far as one chooses to dwell on these insignificant questions, answers are highly uncertain,” he says. “While such matters may be of interest to those entranced by the personalities of leaders, for people concerned to understand the world, and perhaps to change it, they are of marginal concern at best … matters of tenth-order significance.”
But these questions aren't “insignificant.” Chomsky posits a conspiracy to mislead without proving an intention to mislead. That the public is misled there can be no doubt. Yet Chomsky does not spell out how the collaboration occurs.
Most of the time he argues that the politicians and the media consciously participate in the hoax. “Throughout, we find that more intelligent elements are aware of the fraud used to beguile others and to defend oneself from unpleasant reality,” he says. But then he hedges. It's not necessary to “assume conscious deceit,” he says. “Rather, it is necessary only to recall the ease with which people can come to believe whatever is convenient to believe, however ludicrous it may be, and the filtering process that excludes those lacking these talents from positions of state and cultural management.”
I also find Chomsky's discussion of the American public to be inadequate and contradictory. The thrust of his theory is to demonstrate the omnipotence of the media's propaganda system. Yet he shows repeatedly that “dissidence, activism, turbulence, and informal politics have been on the rise and impose constraints on state violence that are by no means negligible.”
But his theories in this book do not allow for such dissidence and activism. He fails to explain how individuals or whole sectors of the society manage to elude the thought control of the media. This weakness is common to cultural-hegemony theorists from György Lukács to Herbert Marcuse. Somehow, the theorists need to provide enough room to allow themselves and other dissidents to transcend the thought control that afflicts the rest of society.
Finally, his theory tends to overemphasize the role of the media—as separate from other cultural agencies—in filling American citizens with opinions, attitudes, values, and perceptions. Chomsky implies that if only the media's daily lies and distortions can be penetrated or discarded, progressive politics will make a great advance.
But Chomsky disregards the thick residue of reaction that lines the culture in less direct ways—through the schools, religion, family, and the myriad of other institutions that transmit values and attitudes predisposing people against progressive politics.
Despite the profoundly depressing situation he describes, Chomsky maintains hope for “libertarian socialist and radical democratic ideas.” He rests this hope on three assumptions.
The first is his claim that “the general public seems more opposed to violent intervention than before and—I hope, though I do not know—more committed to blocking it.” While this claim might have been valid as it pertained to U.S. intervention in Central America during the 1980s, it was disproved during the Iraq war earlier this year, which won 90 per cent approval ratings in the public opinion polls.
The second is more metaphysical. Chomsky suggests there is a “natural belief” in justice and freedom. This belief is “confirmed by the fact that despite all efforts to contain them, the rabble continue to fight for their fundamental rights.”
And third, buttressing this inherent inclination to fight for freedom, is the legacy of “Enlightenment thought on political and intellectual freedom,” Chomsky says. “These ideas and values retain their power and their pertinence, though they are very remote from realization, anywhere.”
Chomsky does not despair. He urges all of us to stand up against the immoral foreign policy of the U.S. Government and to foster the radically democratic values of the Enlightenment. Ending this powerful work, Chomsky offers the following admonition—and hope: “By denying the instinct for freedom, we will only prove that humans are a lethal mutation, an evolutionary dead end; by nurturing it, if it is real, we may find ways to deal with dreadful human tragedies and problems that are awesome in scale.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7618
SOURCE: “Noam Chomsky: Anarchy in the U.S.A.,” in Rolling Stone, May 28, 1992, pp. 42, 45-7, 70-3.
[In the following interview, preceded by an overview of Chomsky's career, Chomsky discusses his political and social views, his objection to media control and ideology, and his book Deterring Democracy.]
When Michael Albert went to Poland in 1980, he discovered that the Poles assumed there were two Noam Chomskys. “In linguistics, he's the Freud,” says Albert, Chomsky's editor at Z Magazine and a friend since the Sixties, when Albert, then a physics student, was organizing antiwar protests at MIT. “All the branches of modern linguistics stem from his work. And for over a quarter century his political analysis has inspired the peace movement. The Poles had no idea that one person could do all that.”
Maintaining two full-time careers has required sacrifice, of course. On a recent Saturday Night Live, as an obvious plug, one of the actors carried a copy of The Chomsky Reader throughout a skit. Albert telephoned Chomsky to say, “Hey, you're on television!” and found himself having to explain what Saturday Night Live is. So Chomsky doesn't know a lot about popular culture. He doesn't watch TV. Despite his status as a hero in the anarchist wing of punk, he doesn't listen much to rock & roll. He rarely goes to movies. He has little time for a private life.
What Noam Chomsky does know about is how the human brain creates language. Consider for a moment that you are now reading and understanding a sentence that you have never read or understood before. Consider that you do this hundreds of times a day in exchanges of information vastly more complicated than the last sentence. How can such a high level of intelligence and creativity—fully in possession of the average person—be explained? “There's only one answer to that,” says Chomsky. “It's built in. We're born with it. If a smart Martian came to Earth, he would see that. He would see that all human languages are the same. The trick is to find the fundamental rules of all languages—a formidable but reachable goal.”
Chomsky has spent his academic career doing highly technical research (anyone for finite automata theory?) in an effort to find those rules, called fixed universals. He theorizes that what we are born with is, roughly, a box of switches in the brain. The culture a child is born into determines how those switches are set. In one pattern the switches become Hungarian. In another, Urdu. In all cultures, the switches start clicking around the age of two, and the child will start producing original sentences much as he or she will start producing secondary sexual characteristics at eleven. A description of that box of switches will tell us a lot about how the brain thinks, which has hitherto been almost a complete mystery.
One of the implications of Chomsky's work (it isn't proved yet) is that human language and most behavior are “appropriate but uncaused,” a highly heretical notion in the behaviorist wing of psychology. In other words, we are born with an enormous, unpredictable capacity for creativity, an “instinct for freedom.” This concept places Chomsky at the frontier of psychology, philosophy and linguistics and square in the eighteenth-century tradition of the Enlightenment and radical libertarian philosophy.
Believing that the best way to maximize our genetically endowed freedom is through anarchism, which he defines as “libertarian socialism,” Chomsky has been unrelenting in his attacks on the American hierarchy and the nation-state in general. This has made him a prophet dishonored in his own land. One of the most respected and influential intellectuals in the world outside the United States, he is barely known to the average American. His books are rarely reviewed in the major media or standard academic journals. His essays appear only in small left-wing magazines like Z. Network TV ignores him in favor of the General Electric-approved weenies who appear on Sunday-morning talk shows. When he is mentioned at all, he is usually smeared as a “self-hating Jew” for his devastating criticism of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians. He has left the New York Times in an especially vulnerable spot: How to explain that one of the smartest people on earth thinks the newspaper of record is a reeking pile of lies about U.S. war crimes? Even worse, he proves it on a regular basis. With footnotes. Well, there's just no explanation for such a thing, so the paper ignores him.
Noam Chomsky was born December 7th, 1928, in Philadelphia. His father, William, a Hebrew scholar, had emigrated from a small village in the Ukraine to avoid the draft. His mother, Elsie, was also a Hebrew scholar and a writer of children's books. By all accounts, young Noam was highly precocious, and his parents had the foresight to enroll him at an experimental progressive school. By the age of ten he was writing editorials defending the anarchists in the Spanish civil war. As a teenager he often took the train to New York to hang out at his uncle's newsstand, where working-class Jewish radicals would gather to discuss politics and literature. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania and since 1955 has taught at MIT, where he has revolutionized his field several times. By the early Sixties, Chomsky had a very pleasant life carved out for himself: a house in the 'burbs, a young family he loved and fulfilling scientific work. Then he noticed the Vietnam War and began speaking against it long before it was physically safe to do so. He refused to pay his taxes (a protest he continued until the mid-Seventies) and helped to organize Resist, which counseled young men against the draft. When Dr. Benjamin Spock was put on trial for just that, Chomsky was an unindicted coconspirator. In 1967 he shared a jail cell with Norman Mailer after a demonstration at the Pentagon. In The Armies of the Night, Mailer noted that Chomsky, “although barely thirty, was considered a genius at MIT.” Mailer saw him then as “a slim sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression, and an air of gentle but absolute moral integrity.” The description remains apt.
Now sixty-three, Chomsky maintains a grueling schedule. By day he does his teaching and research. Several nights a week, in church basements around the nation, he gives lectures on the evils of U.S. foreign policy. In the isolated subculture of the genuine left, a Chomsky lecture will galvanize the atomized and leave a residue of moral energy for months. And he writes books faster than most of us read them. A good place to start is The Chomsky Reader (Pantheon), a collection of biting and often hilarious essays. His latest book is Deterring Democracy (Verso), a stunning evisceration of U.S. policy toward the Third World. If you prefer TV, you might try Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, an excellent two-part video biography. And many of his lectures are available on audiocassette (contact David Barsamian, P.O. Box 551, Boulder, CO 80306).
Oddly, he does not consider himself a writer. “I don't practice any craft,” he insists. He says he hasn't even read his essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” published in The New York Review of Books (which won't touch him now) in 1967. It was transcribed by a student from one of his off-the-cuff talks. Yet it defined the peace movement as much as any document and pushed the name Chomsky up there with Thoreau and Emerson in the literature of resistance. What is the responsibility of intellectuals? “To speak the truth and expose lies.”
[Young]: Let's start with the title of your latest book, Deterring Democracy.What do you mean by ‘democracy,’ what do our rulers mean by ‘democracy,’ and why are they deterring what you mean by ‘democracy’?
[Chomsky]: Well, like most terms of political discourse, democracy has two quite different meanings. There's the dictionary meaning, and then there's the meaning that is used for purposes of power and profit. According to the dictionary, you can say a system is democratic to the extent that citizens have ways to participate in some meaningful fashion in decisions about public affairs. That's not a yes or a no matter. You have a lot of different dimensions in different societies. In the ideological sense of democracy—the Orwellian sense, in which the word is actually used—a society is democratic if it's run by business sectors that are subordinated to the business sectors that run the United States. If it has that property, it's a democracy. If it doesn't, then it's not.
So, for example, Guatemala in the early Fifties was a capitalist democracy in the dictionary sense of the word. In fact, it was one of the most democratic governments in the Third World anywhere. It had lots of popular support, there's no doubt about that. Read the CIA analyses. One of the things they were worried about was that the government had so much support. But Guatemala was following policies of which the United States did not approve: independent nationalism, domestic development, land reform and so on. This was harming the interests of the elements that the United States regards as the natural rulers—they being the business classes that are linked to U.S. corporations and the military, insofar as they follow U.S. orders. Therefore the United States had to overthrow that government in 1954 to safeguard what we call democracy.
Or Nicaragua in the Eighties, to take a more recent case. An election occurred there in 1984, in fact, but not according to U.S. ideology. In newspapers, in journals of opinion, there wasn't an election. The first election was in 1990, In historical reality, there was one in 1984. There has probably never been an election in history so closely investigated. The Latin American Studies Association, the professional association of Latin American scholars, did its first detailed analysis of any Latin American election. The Dutch government, which is very reactionary and pro-American, sent a delegation. The Irish parliament sent a delegation. Masses of observers. And the general conclusion, even by the most reactionary of them, was that this was a pretty effective election.
I recall reading arguments in Z Magazinethat there was more democracy in Nicaragua than there is in the United States during most presidential elections.
In the dictionary sense, that is certainly arguable. In the formal sense—did the voting machines work and so on—it doesn't compare with the U.S. It's a Third World country. But it is quite common in Third World countries for there to be a broader range of choice than in the United States. That's because we have a democracy in the Orwellian sense. The government doesn't come in and stop candidates, but the breadth of choice is very narrow. Which is what we call an efficient democracy.
Anyhow, that election in 1984 did not take place, because it did not satisfy the condition that the U.S. could determine the outcome. In fact, the U.S. tried to disrupt the election in every possible way. The contras, who were just a terrorist force run by the U.S., did what they could to disrupt it. And did. They attacked polling booths and so forth. There was a U.S. candidate, a banker who had spent most of his life in the U.S. According to the press here, he was the popular candidate. There was no evidence for that. When it was clear he wasn't going to win, he was induced to withdraw. He was on the CIA payroll, it later turned out. And then the press here says, “Oh, there was no election, the major candidate withdrew.” It was pooh-poohed as not a real election, which made it legitimate to go on attacking Nicaragua. Somoza didn't bother us, but this bothered us.
Then when the 1990 election came along, the country had already been driven into total misery. It had been virtually ruined by the combination of contra attacks and economic warfare that was probably even more lethal. When Nicaragua announced the election, the White House announced pretty clearly that a vote for the U.S. candidate would mean an end to economic strangulation.
Meanwhile, in violation of the agreement of Central American presidents that the U.S. terrorist forces should be disbanded, we continued to maintain the contras. This was called “humanitarian aid,” which the World Court had already ruled was military aid. But that was only the World Court. And again we have the Orwellian question of what is law and what isn't. So we made it clear that the contras would continue their terrorist attacks unless the population voted our way. And then under conditions of terrorist attack and economic strangulation, an election took place. They voted George Bush's way, so that was an election. You can argue about why they did it. But the White House made it clear: “If you vote our way, you'll survive. If you vote the other way, Ethiopia will look good in comparison.” Therefore, that was a free election. And the first one, which the U.S. could not control, wasn't a free election. Incidentally, there was something like unanimous agreement on this in the United States across the articulate spectrum.
Everyone from Michael Kinsley to Patrick Buchanan, the full range of opinion, from left to right.
Anthony Lewis. Everybody was just euphoric about the outcome of this democratic election. The New York Times was particularly funny. They had a headline saying, AMERICANS UNITED IN JOY—the kind of headline you'd see in some weird, exotic, totalitarian state, like Albania. Maybe. Another headline said, VICTORY FOR U.S. FAIR PLAY, meaning, “Vote our way or you die.”
So you take your choice. Which language are you going to talk—English or Orwell? Orwell himself didn't have the imagination to think of these things.
Well, Nineteen Eighty-four was as much about the United States and England as it was about Stalinist Russia.
He may have meant it that way, but the only reason he became admired was that you could interpret both Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm as being just about the Soviet Union. That made him acceptable.
Do you get sick when some far-night ideologue like Norman Podhoretz cites himself as being in Orwell's tradition of standing up to power and seeing through propaganda?
Given the part of Orwell that Podhoretz is talking about, he isn't being completely unrealistic. He's interested in the part of Orwell that was condemning the official enemy. But you might just as well say that Podhoretz is in the tradition of every Soviet commissar. Any Soviet commissar would condemn U.S. crimes. In fact, you could read Pravda and have tears rolling down your cheeks at the terrible treatment of blacks in the American South or American crimes in Indochina. They're just terribly emotional about U.S. crimes. Just as Norman Podhoretz is terribly emotional about their crimes.
But honest people, whether in the Soviet Union or here, will care about the crimes of the state that they are a part of and for which they bear some responsibility. We understand this when we talk about the Russians. We don't honor Russian party hacks who condemn American crimes. We honor Soviet dissidents who condemn Soviet crimes. Except we don't apply that same logic at home. That would be inconceivable. That would be rational. And honest. And if you're rational and honest, you're pretty much excluded from the educated classes, from the privileged classes. Those are properties that are very dangerous.
If you read the standard conservative columnists, they're very consistent about taking anything that connotes good and attributing it to power and anything that connotes bad and attributing it to the poor or some other scapegoat.
Yes, it's very consistent. And it's the exact analogue of what you find in Pravda in the days of Stalin. But in the Soviet Union under Stalin, you could sort of understand why somebody would be a party hack or else shut up. It was just too dangerous. Try to be an honest person, you end up in the gulag. Try to be an honest person in the United States, nothing much will happen to you.
Here, they make you poor.
And they can vilify you. There's a penalty involved. But it's nothing like being tortured or murdered. Here, it's a lot easier. That means the people who don't do it here, particularly the privileged ones, are at a much lower moral level than the worst commissars under Stalin.
Why is there less murder and torture here? If you look at Central America, our leaders are plainly capable of it. My interpretation of the Sixties—events like Kent State, the assassination of Fred Hampton of the Black Panthers, the framing of Geronimo Pratt—is that those events were meant to send the message that the death squads can operate here, too.
You have to understand the nature of American society. There was assassination of Black Panthers. The worst case I know of was the assassination of Fred Hampton. It's striking that they would pick him. The Panthers, like a lot of groups that come out of the ghetto, were a very mixed group. They ranged from ordinary thugs to serious organizers who were regarded as a real threat. Fred Hampton was an effective organizer in the Chicago ghetto. He was one of the main targets of the FBI terror campaign, and they ended up killing him with the cooperation of the Chicago police department after an FBI setup. But you'll notice nobody cared about that.
For example, that didn't come up in the Watergate hearings. Nobody said to Richard Nixon, “Wait a minute, you organized the Gestapo-style assassination of an organizer in the ghetto.” What they said in the Watergate hearings was: “You called a powerful guy a bad name. The Constitution is collapsing.”
So Fred Hampton could be assassinated. But privileged whites did not get assassinated, even ones who were very outspoken. That reflects the nature of American society. It is not a totalitarian state. It is a very free society that is off toward the capitalist end of the spectrum. It's not pure capitalist society, of course. Such a society couldn't exist for a week.
Don't you think that if the left ever gets its act together in the Nineties, we'll see more of that sort of government activity?
No, I don't think so.
Not like COINTELPRO?
Well, COINTELPRO, yeah. COINTELPRO was differentiated. COINTELPRO directed against blacks was murder. Against whites it was disruption, defamation, circulating stories about sexual conduct, things like that. That was a big difference, and the difference had to do with who is privileged and who is not privileged. In our society, people with power and wealth are relatively free. Freedom is a commodity, like anything else in capitalist society. You have as much of it as you can buy. And if you're wealthy and the right color, you can buy a lot. The privileged people who actually run the country, they don't want the state to have power to go after people like them. So they'll actually protect the civil rights of people they hate if they come from the right class.
Do you ever wonder about the psychology of these American commissars? You've written about the filtering process by which the obedient rise to the top and the disobedient end up elsewhere, but I wonder what goes on in their heads.
I don't think it's that hard to figure out. All the people I've ever met, including me, have done bad things in their lives, things that they know they shouldn't have done. There are few people who say, “I really did something rotten.” What people usually do is make up a way of explaining why that was the right thing to do. That's pretty much the way belief formation works in general. You have some interest, something you want, and then you make up a belief system which makes that look right and just. And then you believe the belief system. It's a very common human failing.
Some people are better at it than others. The people who are best at it become commissars. It's always best to have columnists who believe what they're saying. Cynics tend to leave clues because they're always trying to get around the lying. So people who are capable of believing what is supportive of power and privilege—but coming at it, in their view, independently—those are the best.
The norm is that if you subordinate yourself to the interests of the powerful, whether it's parent or teacher or anybody else, and if you do it politely and willingly, you'll get ahead. Let's say you're a student in school and the teacher says something about American history and it's so absurd you feel like laughing. I remember this as a child. If you get up and say: “That's really foolish. Nobody could believe that. The facts are the other way around,” you're going to get in trouble.
Do you remember the fact you came up with?
Well, this happened so often. I got thrown out of classes … not a lot. … I don't want to suggest it was any real … there are people who did it constantly, and they end up as behavior problems. You raise too many questions, you ask for reasons instead of just following orders, they put you in certain categories: hyperactive. Undisciplined. Overemotional. It goes all through your education and professional life. A journalist who starts picking on the wrong stories will be called in by the editor and told: “You're losing your objectivity. You're getting a little too emotionally involved in your stories. Why don't you work in the police court until you get it right?”
That does start in childhood. If you quietly accept and go along no matter what your feelings are, ultimately you internalize what you're saying, because it's too hard to believe one thing and say another. I can see it very strikingly in my own background. Go to any elite university and you are usually speaking to very disciplined people, people who have been selected for obedience. And that makes sense. If you're resisted the temptation to tell the teacher, “You're an asshole,” which maybe he or she is, and if you don't say, “That's idiotic,” when you get a stupid assignment, you will gradually pass through the required filters. You will end up at a good college and eventually with a good job.
To me the question is, Why is that one kid more resistant to lying to get ahead? There is such a thing as moral courage. Some people have it and some don't.
There are individual differences which we don't understand. Just like we don't understand why some people like math and some people like rock & roll. Fortunately for the human race, people are very different from one another. If we were all alike, life wouldn't be worth living. Probably a lot of the differences are genetically determined. Some of them have to do with the effect of early training on your genetic endowment. There are all kinds of reasons. Nobody understands a word of this, so you can speculate or have any intuition you like.
On the other hand, there are some things that if we're honest, I think we'll recognize. One of them is the capacity to form beliefs that are self-serving and then to believe those beliefs. If that's a major feature of your intellectual makeup, chances are you'll go far.
Take that issue of the New York Times Book Review [October 20th, 1991] and look at the review of the James Reston memoir. It says this was a man that everybody admired, had an independent eye, hated the Vietnam War and so on and so forth. The fact of the matter is, James Reston made a career out of having lunch with Dean Acheson and writing a column the next day from what Dean Acheson told him to say. And that was called an “insider's scoop.” Very profound. As for hating the Vietnam War—he loved it. He was writing articles about how we were defining the principle that no people should be subjugated to anyone else. And our Creator endowed us with that destiny. The most embarrassing trash. But it doesn't matter. I'm sure whoever the reviewer was believes everything he was saying. And if he didn't believe it, he wouldn't be the reviewer.
It was Fred Barnes of The New Republic.
I don't know him. Maybe he thought he was telling the truth. Maybe he didn't. Maybe he's laughing.
You've never watched him on the Sunday talk shows?
No, I'm afraid I can't tolerate that. I wouldn't know him from Adam. Without knowing him, I suspect he believes it. My point is, the only people who make it to where they will be allowed to express themselves in that august medium are the ones who have already demonstrated their own subordination to power.
There are some journalists, I should tell you, who are very well aware of this and are trying to work within a system of power and authority that they understand very well. You know people like that. And I know people like that. I think it's very honorable to see what can be done within the institutions, despite their hierarchical, authoritarian structure.
During every election you read these heart-rending editorials about why it's so important to vote for whatever office happens to be on the ballot. Yet no one ever asks the question of why, if it's such a great idea to vote for your senator, it would not be an even greater idea to vote for your boss.
No, that's out. A crucial part of the ideology is that you're allowed to criticize Congress, the president, local politicians. You're allowed to say they're all crooks. But you're not allowed to say that the corporate system is at the heart of it all. In fact, you're not even allowed to see that. No, the idea of voting for your boss is just off the agenda.
But if you really believed in eighteenth-century libertarian doctrine, the doctrine of the Founding Fathers, that's just what you'd be asking. They were not just opposed to a powerful state. They were opposed to concentrations of power. It happened back in their day that the concentrations of power that were visible were the state and the feudal system and the church, so that's what they were against.
In the nineteenth century a new concentration of power came along that they hadn't paid a lot of attention to, namely corporate power; that had a degree of influence and domination over our lives well beyond what the Founding Fathers could have foreseen. Yet their principles would lead you to ask exactly that question: Why should we be subordinated to the boss? Why should investment decisions be in private hands? Why should private power determine what is produced and what is consumed and what are working conditions? Why should you follow orders? Why shouldn't everybody participate democratically and decide what is to be done?
Whenever the Times or any other newspaper writes about the destruction of the ozone layer, they present it as this unavoidable tragedy, like an earthquake or a hurricane. Yet the chemistry of what chlorofluorocarbons do to ozone molecules has been known since 1973. Du Pont and our political rulers have been stonewalling, and now we're in a situation where hundreds of thousands of people are going to die of skin cancer and get cataracts. If these chemicals had been manufactured in Eastern Europe, we'd surely be blaming communism. But the idea that capitalism did this to us …
Did this in its natural workings. Not out of corruption. It did it because what drives the system, and what's supposed to drive the system, is tomorrow's profit. People who think about long-term effects are out of the system, by its very nature. And that's supposed to be a good thing. In the economics literature, future lung cancers are called an “externality.” It doesn't show up in the market system. When you're selling chemicals, you're supposed to be maximizing profit for the stockholders. And if you're not doing that, it's immoral. You don't maximize profit by worrying about people getting cancer in twenty years. If you do worry about that, you won't be chairman of the board very long. That's the way the system is built, and it's admired because of that property. Ask Milton Friedman. If Du Pont had started to worry about the ozone layer and had shifted their resources to deal with it, somebody else could well have driven them out of business. That's the nature of the system.
This is not a very profound comment. A twelve-year-old can understand it. But they better not. Just like they better not understand that there's a question about why you shouldn't be allowed to vote for your boss. Why have a boss at all? Why not have collective decision making? Nobody's shown that it can't work. Take any successful scientific enterprise—and MIT is one—people work together. I taught a class yesterday, and I was standing up front and the students were down there, but they were telling me things as much as I was telling them things. And they come in afterwards and tell me that I'm wrong. And then we try to figure it out. That's the way that you make progress. It's just taken for granted. If we had a system in which I was telling them what to think and they were not allowed to tell me when they thought I was off the wall, we would have nonsense.
What is the practical difference between an anarchist and a Marxist? The wisdom of having a vanguard party?
I'm completely opposed to that. First of all, Marxism, in my view, belongs in the history of organized religion. In fact, as a rule of thumb, any concept with a person's name on it belongs to religion, not rational discourse. There aren't any physicists who call themselves Einsteinians. And the same would be true of anybody crazy enough to call themselves Chomskian. In the real world you have individuals who were in the right place at the right time, or maybe they got a good brain wave or something, and they did something interesting. But I never heard of anyone who didn't make mistakes and whose work wasn't quickly improved on by others. That means if you identify yourself as a Marxist or a Freudian or anything else, you're worshiping at someone's shrine.
If the field of social and historical and economic analysis was so trivial that what somebody wrote a hundred years ago could still be authoritative, you might as well talk about some other topic. But as I understand Marx, he constructed a somewhat interesting theory of a rather abstract model of nineteenth-century capitalism. He did good journalism. And he had interesting ideas about history. He probably had about five sentences in his entire body of work about what a postcapitalist society is supposed to look like. Insofar as he has a legacy of actual policy and organizing, that's Leninist, which is probably the most reactionary wing of Marxism. Lenin was a pretty orthodox Marxist and, as I read him, never really believed that socialism was possible in Russia. The iron laws of history mandated that it come about in the advanced industrial societies. In fact, he and Trotsky moved very quickly to squash and destroy the socialist tendencies in the Russian Revolution: factory councils, anarchist worker organizations.
Lenin's idea was that you have a group of revolutionary intellectuals, who are the smart guys, and they're to drive the society to a better future, which the slobs are too dumb to understand. That's basically the idea, which is not all that different from the ideology of capitalist democracy. You can almost interchange them. If that's Marxism, we ought to be very much opposed to it. In my view, socialism was dealt an enormous blow in Russia in 1917, from which it has yet to recover.
You once pointed out how it was in the interest of both the United States and the Soviet Union to claim that what was going on there was socialism.
Oh, yeah. Very much in their interest. For the U.S. it had the obvious purpose of defaming alternatives to capitalist autocracy. And for the Soviet Union it had the benefit of giving the moral appeal of socialism, which was enormous. So for both power systems it was very utilitarian to propagate this outlandish lie that the Bolshevik revolution was socialist. If socialism means anything, it means worker control over the means of production and decision making, That's the minimum.
Have you ever thought about giving up? A lot of my friends have concluded that people are just sheep. I say that if that's so, we might as well join the Republicans, steal as much money as possible and live comfortably.
If there's nothing to be done. Well, we don't know if there's anything to be done or there isn't. Outside of science, nobody knows a lot about anything. Especially when it comes to human beings, we know almost nothing except what you feel intuitively or what your experience tells you. But if you look over history, you can see definite improvement in the past twenty or thirty years. I think there's been a cultural revolution in this country, and people in power are scared to death of it.
That's why there's all this comical stuff about political correctness. It's a kind of joke; it's so silly. Here are people who have run the ideological system with an iron hand, and then in some literature department somewhere, somebody says something that isn't orthodox, and they go crazy. I must have read 200 articles about this new orthodoxy taking over the universities, destroying the golden age of absolute freedom of speech. I haven't read one article defending it. If this is an orthodoxy that has taken over everything, how come everybody is attacking it? To the simple mentality of a commissar, this idea won't occur.
This stuff about the quincentennial is interesting in this respect. There's a big fuss now about the “left fascists,” who are dumping on Columbus and denying all the wonderful things Columbus brought. What they're saying is, for 500 years we went along, denying two of the worst acts of genocide in human history, maybe the worst act—the destruction of the Native Americans, which was tens of millions of people—and the destruction of large numbers of Africans through the slave trade, both of which got their start through Columbus. We've been celebrating genocide for 500 years, and that's not a problem. The problem is that the left fascists are now reversing it.
Anyone with a gray cell ought to be saying. “Thank God the left fascists are taking over and trying to get this straight.” Virtually no one is saying that, of course. Our more educated circles are as retrograde as they ever were. That the controversy is taking place now is a reflection of a very substantial improvement in the cultural climate.
Is that the true legacy of the Sixties?
The Sixties left an enormous legacy. Do you think there would have been a word of protest about the quincentennial if it hadn't been for the Sixties? Would there have been one person who stood up for Anita Hill and said, “This is a form of sexual harassment”? That's why everyone hates the Sixties. It might lead to real democracy. There was a phrase for it in the Seventies. It was called “the crisis of democracy.” The crisis was that people weren't apathetic and passive anymore. They'd become organized and were trying to do something. This was the liberals, incidentally, who wrote the book The Crisis of Democracy, the people around Jimmy Carter, the Trilateral Commission.
The important aspect of the Sixties to understand is that the heroes were mostly people you never heard of: the Freedom Riders, the SNCC workers, the guys who were down there week after week getting their heads bashed in for organizing. In the Vietnam movement there was never any illusion about leadership. The leadership was whoever showed up. We're not allowed to understand that now. We are meant to think of popular movements as things that grow out of individual leadership and individual charisma. The reason we are meant to think that is that it disempowers people. It makes them think they can't do anything for themselves.
I'd like to ask you about another of your detractors. When Bill Moyers interviewed Tom Wolfe on PBS, Wolfe accused you of subscribing to the “cabal” theory of capitalism. In Deterring Democracy you refer disparagingly to his description of the Reagan era as “one of the great golden moments that humanity has ever experienced.”
For people at his income level, that's quite true. In my view, it was crucially responsible for—not 100 percent—the catastrophe of capitalism that just devastated the Third World in the Eighties. It was what they call the “lost decade” in the Third World. Tens of millions of people suffering and dying. In just the years 1980 to '88, South African terror around its borders, supported by the United States, was responsible for about a million and a half people killed. If you count up the children who died of malnutrition as income levels dropped, you get a real monstrous toll. It's bad enough what happened in the United States, if you look at any group other than the privileged. If you add all that up, it's been a very ugly period. A person who could call that one of the golden moments in history … well, take Germany in 1939. A person who could call that one of the golden moments in history, we'd know what to think of him.
Did you read Paul Johnson's book Intellectuals?
It was quite comical. He concludes there that my opposition to the Vietnam War was deduced from syntax. He literally says that. You have to be technically insane to be able to say a phrase like that.
I'd like you to respond to one quote from it: “Throughout the 1960s, intellectuals in the West … became increasingly agitated by American policy in Vietnam, and by the growing level of violence with which it was executed. Now therein lay a paradox. How came it that, at a time when intellectuals were increasingly willing to accept the use of violence in the pursuit of racial equality, or colonial liberation, or even by millenarian terrorist groups, they found it so repugnant when practised by a Western democratic government to protect three small territories from occupation by a totalitarian regime?”
Who were we saving it from? We attacked South Vietnam. There were no Russians, no Chinese, weren't even any North Vietnamese in the beginning. We attacked South Vietnam. That's saving? We brought Cambodia into the war by attacking it. We attacked Laos. For the sake of argument, let's forget that North Vietnam is Vietnam. Let's even forget that the government he says we were defending, Saigon, claimed that Vietnam was one indivisible country—that was article I of the constitution that the United States wrote for them. Let's forget all that stuff, and let's pretend that North Vietnam was the most monstrous society in history. We were attacking South Vietnam. As a commissar and party hack, Paul Johnson can't see that. He's not alone. Nobody can see it. The fact that the United States attacked South Vietnam, though trivially true, is just not a part of consciousness.
I remember a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times Book Review, there was a review of a book by Zalin Grant, a book about a Vietnamese collaborator. It was very laudatory about this man. He had collaborated with the French. Then he collaborated with the Americans. According to the book, around 1961 or 1962 he devised a technique by which the United States client regime sent out death squads to murder political organizers for the Viet Cong. These were called “counterterror teams.” Talk of the level of perversity here. We invade another country. We set up a puppet government which everyone admits had no popular support. We send out death squads to kill their political organizers in their country, and our death squads are called counterterrorists. That appears in the New York Times, and nobody bats an eyelash. That says a lot about our intellectual culture. Against this background, Paul Johnson can write such perfect nonsense, mirroring his models in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. And Norman Podhoretz will think it's fine.
Do you vote?
I tend to vote down at the lower levels, local officials, state representatives. Occasionally, I vote for president. I did vote against Ronald Reagan.
You voted for Walter Mondale?
I voted for whoever was running against Reagan. The Democrats could have nominated Charlie McCarthy, and I would have voted for him over Ronald Reagan and George Bush, because they're dangerous people. Well, not so much they themselves. Ronald Reagan wasn't president. It was a dirty secret that the reporters kept for eight years. During the Iran-contra hearings the Democrats were kind of surprised to discover that the president lied and nobody cared. That's because the population is sane. What difference does it make if this pathetic clown was told, or remembered, what the policy was. He wasn't supposed to know what was going on. He was supposed to show up now and then and read his lines. Maybe they told him, maybe they didn't. There could hardly be an issue of less significance.
But the point is, the people around him were extremely dangerous. They call themselves conservatives, which is nonsense. They're radical statists. They believe in a very powerful and violent and obtrusive state.
Do you have any wisdom on the current election campaign?
It's like one of the worst Third World elections. Take Honduras. Literally. They always have two rich guys with the same program, and the campaign consists of insults and comedy and circuses. There isn't any pretense of public involvement.
The only thing I like about Clinton is that he evaded the draft, and they're using that to nail him.
The one sensible thing that Clinton did in his entire life, and he's unwilling to stand up for it. It reminds me of Dukakis and the ACLU. The most shameful PR initiative in '88 was that line about Dukakis being a “card-carrying member of the ACLU,” which implies that if you're in favor of the Constitution, you're a Communist. And Dukakis wouldn't say that. All he would say is: “No, I'm not really a member of the ACLU. I don't really believe in the Constitution.” That was his only response, and that's what this thing is like. I have a feeling that the Democrats can't compete on this one. They're both business parties, but the Republicans make no claim of being anything else. The Democrats have all these pretenses about being the party of the people, and that keeps them so confused that they can't win these propaganda wars.
Will you bother to vote in November?
There is an issue that would make me vote—the prospect of another four years of court packing with ultraright jurists who hate civil rights. The court system has collapsed. The ACLU will simply not take cases to the federal courts anymore. Another four years of this will institute—I'm not joking—a fascist-style legal system in which civil rights just don't exist. If there's another issue, I can't find it.
The other night I was watching TV and a commercial came on for shock absorbers. The slogan was “It's not just your car, it's your freedom.” I thought of you and your theory that people have an “instinct for freedom.” Madison Avenue and our politicians must believe the same thing, because whenever they want to sell you shock absorbers or beer or a war, they try to associate it with freedom.
Sure. They know that's what people want. Like everything about human nature, you can't prove it. But in my experience and intuition, that's correct. People want to be free, independent, not oppressive, don't want to rob other people. I think most Americans would be horrified if they knew what they were doing in the world. And I think that's the reason for this whole edifice of lies.
It's an obvious question: Why don't our leaders tell the people the truth? When they're going to destroy Iraq, say, why don't they announce: “Look, we want to control the international oil system. We want to establish the principle that the world is ruled by force, because that's the only thing that we're good at. We want to prevent any independent nationalism. We've got nothing against Saddam Hussein. He's a friend of ours. He's tortured and gassed people. That was fine. But then he disobeyed orders. Therefore, he must be destroyed as a lesson to other people: Don't disobey orders.”
Why don't they just say that? It has the advantage of being true. It's much easier to tell the truth than to concoct all sorts of crazy lies. Much less work. Why don't they say that? Because they know that's the only reason for all the fabrication. Our leaders believe that people are decent and that there is hope. And I think they're right. In fact, the more distortion and lies and deceit you hear, the more you know that people have an instinct for freedom.
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SOURCE: “Strong Words,” in The Chicago Tribune, January 1, 1993, p. 1.
[In the following essay, Grossman provides an overview of Chomsky's career, achievements in the field of linguistics, and controversy surrounding his political views and activities.]
Somehow, Noam Chomsky has managed to make himself both the Pied Piper and the odd man out of the ivory tower.
His fellow professors of linguistics divide history into two ages, B.C. and A.D.: Before Chomsky and After his Discoveries. In 1987, he won Japan's prestigious academic prize, the $285,000 Kyoto Award, for the revolutionary theory of language with which he essentially created modern linguistics.
There is scarcely a university post in the field that isn't held by a student of his, a student of a student of his, or someone who has peppered their own scholarly papers with abundant references to Chomsky.
He is, in fact, the king of the footnotes, and not just in his own rather arcane field. Linguistics isn't one of the sexier disciplines, even on heady campuses like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky's longtime home base, or nearby Harvard University. Airport newsstands don't stock linguistics textbooks.
But a survey of a standard reference work, the Arts & Humanities Citation Index, found that over the last dozen years Chomsky was the most often cited living author. Among intellectual luminaries of all eras, Chomsky placed eighth, just behind Plato and Sigmund Freud.
Getting that many people to read your books is no mean trick if your literary style favors phrases such as “generative transformational grammar”—and Chomsky's does.
Like an opera star, his personal appearances are booked a year or two in advance, both for scientific lectures and political speeches.
Since serving as professorial point-man for the campus opposition to the Vietnam War 25 years ago, Chomsky has continuously toured America's universities preaching the cause of radical dissent.
His audiences remain SRO. But each year, the number of Chomsky's political friends diminishes, even on the Left in whose ideological ranks he has marched since adolescence.
The New York Review of Books, house organ of the Eastern intellectual set, has closed its pages to Chomsky, a former contributor. Martin Peretz, editor of the New Republic, proclaims Chomsky's political writings “outside the pale of intellectual responsibility.”
Writing in the leftish Nation magazine, one critic observed that Chomsky has “acquired the reputation as America's most prominent self-hating Jew.”
Presumably he won that title by his fervent opposition to Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza. But Chomsky also has a knack for getting under the skin of those whose causes he champions. Speaking to a gathering of Palestinian intellectuals in Jerusalem, Chomsky proclaimed the PLO a “terrorist organization.”
“I don't want any followers,” the 64-year-old Chomsky explained, sitting in his MIT office. “My message, especially to students, is that they shouldn't be following anyone.”
Chomsky is equally self-effacing about his scholarly accomplishments. Linguistics, he says, is still in the “pre-Galilean age,” a reference to the period before the 17th Century when physics was less science than superstition. But his peers consider Chomsky not just their discipline's Galileo, but its Newton and Einstein, as well.
That's not bad billing, considering that when Chomsky was a student many of his professors thought there was little more to be learned about how humans use language.
While working on his Ph.D. in the 1950s, Chomsky was asked to give a talk at the University of Chicago. Such invitations are the academic world's way of scouting new talent for future job openings. To be polite, Chomsky asked his host, a senior professor of linguistics, what his own research field was.
“The fellow said: ‘I'm not working on anything,’” Chomsky recalled. “He was convinced that linguistics was a completed science with nothing left to be discovered.”
It is not surprising Chomsky wasn't offered an instructorship: The premise of his talk was that much of what linguists thought they knew wasn't true.
Beginning in the 19th Century, a series of pioneering linguists developed ever more sophisticated analyses of the world's languages. Chomsky's father, William Chomsky, made a significant contribution to that effort with studies of the Hebrew language.
ASKING THE QUESTION
By the middle years of the 20th Century, linguistics textbooks were thick with the myriad rules, plus a legion of exceptions to those rules, by which humans use language. As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Chomsky took a look at that body of scholarship and asked himself a simple question. Asking the question proved to be the equivalent of the fabled apple that whizzed by Newton's head. “Discovery,” Chomsky said, with 40 years worth of hindsight, “is the ability to be puzzled by simple things.”
The question asked by undergraduate Chomsky: How do children learn to talk?
Chomsky noted that long before a child goes to school, he already knows a lot of language rules professional linguists took decades to discover. He doesn't know them by name as professors do. But in speaking, he knows to follow them.
In the 1950s, scholars assumed that children learn to speak by listening to their parents. Chomsky objected, noting that, if imitation is the route to speech, it should take children much longer to perfect their use of language. We should hear them struggling with one grammatical rule before trying another one. But children move from simple babbling to near mastery of their native tongue.
“Even as adults we're constantly producing sentences we've never heard before,” Chomsky said.
PROGRAMMED TO LEARN
Such data only makes sense, Chomsky reasoned, if we assume the human brain is pre-wired, so to speak, for language. As part of its genetic inheritance, a child has a mental apparatus in which the rules of language are already present before he starts listening to the adults around him.
He doesn't store their speech patterns for future use, as Chomsky's professors thought. Rather, the child's “language motor” is triggered into action by what he hears. That is why a little bit of experience quickly gives him a sophisticated grasp of grammar and syntax.
While only dimly realizing it, Chomsky had recreated a fundamental philosophical position. Known as rationalism, its origins run back through the 17th Century French philosopher Rene Descartes to the ancient Greek sage Plato. They taught that humans are born with a set of ideas implanted in their brains.
In recent times that concept had been out of favor, especially in American university circles, for seeming too mystical. Modern psychologists assumed the brain is a blank slate at birth, and that our ideas are formed on the basis of our experiences.
Running against the prevailing intellectual grain, Chomsky had a difficult time getting his academic career started.
After college, he moved to Israel and lived on a kibbutz. As an adolescent, he had been a Zionist, though belonging to a left-wing movement that hoped to create a bi-national Jewish and Palestinian state.
Until landing a job at MIT in 1955, Chomsky thought he'd be confined to the sidelines of the intellectual life, like his father, who spent years as a Hebrew schoolteacher.
No sooner did he get a foot in the academic door than Chomsky challenged a superstar, B. F. Skinner, the high priest of behaviorism.
MAKING THE BREAKTHROUGH
A Harvard professor, Skinner preached that it is useless to speculate about mental processes because they can't be scientifically measured. So Skinner had invented his famous Skinner Box, a neutral environment where psychologists observe a subject's response to various stimuli.
“It was a perfect experimental method,” Chomsky said. “The only problem with behaviorist psychology is it never discovered anything.”
To understand his verdict, Chomsky suggested the following arm-chair experiment. Pick up a good novel and read a bit. Do the same with a psychology textbook, then ask yourself: Which author has more insight into what makes humans tick?
In his earliest essays, Chomsky argued that Skinner's behaviorism had reduced psychology to a vapid discipline that could do little more than restate the obvious in scientific jargon. By now, Chomsky virtually has won the argument: Behaviorism no longer dominates the social sciences, and a newer generation of cognitive psychologists follows Chomsky's lead in investigating the structure of the mind.
Chomsky's methods have also influenced a wide variety of other disciplines from literary criticism to child development—whence came all those citations and quotes that make him the footnote king.
“The breakthrough was there,” Chomsky modestly said, “waiting to be made in the 1950s by anyone who knew something about computer theory, learned a little higher math and read a bit of European philosophy.”
Toss in a working knowledge of Old Left political thought, and you pretty much have Chomsky's intellectual biography. As a teenager, he gravitated toward an uncle who ran a New York City newspaper stand that was a rendezvous for political dissidents.
“First he was a follower of Trotsky, then an anti-Trotskyite,” Chomsky said. “He also taught himself so much of Freud he wound up as a lay psychoanalyst with a penthouse apartment.”
His uncle passed on to the teenage Chomsky a profound suspicion of all forms of government. Today, Chomsky calls himself an anarchist-socialist.
His left-wing connections also provided him a mentor when he most needed one. In college, Chomsky recalled, he was bored with each subject as soon as he took a course in it. Then someone put him in touch with Zelig Harris, a left-leaning faculty member.
Because Harris was a linguist, Chomsky took a few classes in that subject. But Harris also steered Chomsky to the free-ranging course of studies that subsequently gave him the broad intellectual base for his ground-breaking work in linguistics.
For many years, Chomsky was politically inactive, his energies being taken up by his research. But in 1964, he decided he could no longer keep still on the issue of Vietnam. So, too, did other professors, most of whom went back to the classroom when that conflict ended.
“But I had a feeling that if I put a foot into the political water, it would be an endless sea of causes,” Chomsky said. “Once the war was over, I knew I'd always find another issue I had to speak out on.”
That insight proved prophetic, and Chomsky has been on the stump ever since. His critics chiefly recall his attacks on American policies, which have been both frequent and shrill.
But during the Cold War, Chomsky dished out the vitriol to both sides, avoiding the Old Left's tendency to overlook the Soviet Union's failings and the New Left's idealization of Castro.
“There was a lot of irrationality among campus radicals,” Chomsky said. “It was easier for me to avoid that, since I started out as an anti-communist Leftist. I don't think that any state, whatever it calls itself, has any moral power over the individual.”
A few years ago, that conviction inspired Chomsky to come to the defense of a right-wing French professor, an episode that cost Chomsky a lot of old friends.
FREE SPEECH IS THE ISSUE
Robert Faurisson, a teacher of literature at the University of Lyons, had been fired for contending there were no Nazi death camps during World War II. Chomsky signed a petition protesting Faurisson's dismissal. He also sent the Frenchman a note that, unknown to Chomsky, became part of a forward to a book in which Faurisson set out his ideas.
Chomsky says he himself has not the slightest doubt that millions of Jews died in the gas chambers. But if freedom of expression and inquiry mean anything, Chomsky argues, it is that a professor shouldn't be fired for his views, no matter how distasteful. He says he's never even bothered to read Faurisson's book.
“I didn't read Salman Rushdie's book either, but I signed a petition for him,” Chomsky said.
And if Northwestern University ever tried to fire engineering professor Arthur Butz, who denies the existence of Holocaust death camps, “you can bet I'll campaign for his right of free speech too.”
Being cited in an academic journal is one approximation of intellectual influence. Here are the top 10 most-cited sources in arts and humanities academic journals over a seven-year period inspected by the Institute for Scientific Information, publisher of the Arts & Humanities Index:
1) Karl Marx
2) Vladimir Lenin
3) William Shakespeare
7) Sigmund Freud
8) Noam Chomsky
9) Georg Hegel
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SOURCE: “Noam on the Range,” in Dissent, Vol. 42, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 419-23.
[In the following review of World Orders, Old and New, Wolin finds fault in Chomsky's biased portrayal of the American government as a wholly negative, “monolithic” power structure.]
Toward the third hour of the hagiographic documentary about Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, a moment of truth emerges. Chomsky is lecturing at the University of Wyoming. He has just finished his familiar stump speech: fifty reasons why we live in a totalitarian society. Striving to revive the old thesis about American society as a form of “soft totalitarianism,” Chomsky argues that in the totalitarian societies of old, the state routinely used force to keep the public in line. In so-called democratic societies, he says, gentler techniques must be used to preserve order—thereby implying that though the means differ, the end results are more or less the same. During the ensuing question session an agitated undergraduate type steps to the microphone and has this to say:
For the last hour and forty-one minutes you've been whining about the elite and how the government has been using thought control to keep people like yourself out of the public limelight. Now I don't see any CIA men waiting to drag you off. You were in the paper; that's where everyone here heard you were coming from, and I'm sure they're going to publish your comments in the paper. In a lot of countries you would have been shot for what you've done today. So what are you whining about? We are allowing you to speak. I don't see any thought control.
In response, Chomsky says something about its not being a question of individuals: “It has to do with marginalizing the public and ensuring that they don't get in the way of elites who are supposed to run things without interference.” But his cover has been blown. The real difference between a genuine totalitarian society and our own—despite its manifest injustices and inequities—has suddenly been laid bare. In a real totalitarian society, someone like Chomsky would not be allowed to speak, let alone publish books (at an astronomical rate, one might add) that are widely discussed and reviewed. Why then does it take a twenty-year-old college student from Laramie, Wyoming, to point out the obvious?
What Chomsky seeks to show in World Orders, Old and New is that talk of a “new world order” is so much deceitful verbiage. Instead of a newfound international harmony, what we have now that communism has been expelled from the world stage is an unfettered opportunity for rapacious first world nations to exploit less fortunate inhabitants in other parts of the world. He begins with a review of U.S. foreign policy during the cold war, which he defines as a mechanism of “population control”: a pretext for creating a security state that was as much concerned with domestic repression as with expanding U.S. influence abroad. Along the way Chomsky serves up a number of timeworn left-wing platitudes. Readers of his earlier books will be readily familiar with the arguments. They are not wrong, but the picture they paint is extremely partial.
In Chomsky's view the first and last word on world orders, old and new, was set forth by Winston Churchill following World War II: “The government of the world must be entrusted to satisfied nations, who wished nothing more for themselves than what they had. If the world-government were in the hands of hungry nations, there would always be danger. … Our power placed us above the rest. We were like rich men dwelling at peace within their habitations.” Churchill's words become the book's leitmotif. As Chomsky glosses them: “To rule is the right and duty of rich men dwelling in deserved peace.” World order, past and present, boils down to a type of “codified international piracy.”
At several points in World Orders Chomsky describes contemporary American society as totalitarian in a nonmetaphorical sense. His only hesitancy concerns whether the United States is “totalitarian” or “fascist.” Often enough, he inclines toward the latter characterization. Journalistic support for the Gulf War amounted to an “exultant display of fascist values.” The hidden agenda of the recent Middle East peace agreement permits “the United States and Israel [to move] towards more rational forms of imperial control [of the Occupied Territories],” such as those used by “the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe [and] Nazi Germany in occupied France.” Concerning the chorus of media approval that greeted the Clinton administration's 1993 raid on Baghdad (in retaliation for Iraq's alleged plans to assassinate President Bush on a 1992 visit to Kuwait), Chomsky remarks: “The rulers of any totalitarian state would be impressed.” Selected quotations, however, fail to do justice to the Orwellian vision of American political life on almost every page of this heavy-handed, fact-filled, citation-laden jeremiad.
It is fairly easy to identify what is amiss with Chomsky's views. Much less easy is the intricate task of sorting out what may be of value in Chomsky's hyperbolic saga of American totalitarianism at home and abroad. To paraphrase Delmore Schwartz: “Just because I am paranoid doesn't mean there aren't people who are really out to get me.”
What is wrong with Chomsky's account is that it is too seamless, too monolithic. State Department strategists would, I'm sure, be extremely gratified if American “total world domination” functioned in reality as smoothly as Chomsky claims. For Chomsky's unilateralist model proceeds according to the assumption that U.S. policymakers themselves are free of competing factions or interests; that, likewise, U.S. allies always stand in agreement with American goals and intentions; that foreign policy is wholly insulated from popular domestic pressures and influences; and that the wishes and actions of the third world nations we are trying to rule present no obstacle to the realization of our aims.
At times, however, Chomsky tries to have it both ways. Thus, in a previous book, Manufacturing Consent, written with Edward Herman, he admits that tensions and divisions among ruling elites indeed exist. In the end, though, he concludes that such differences of opinion do not really matter—they are merely pseudo-differences. According to his “propaganda model” of opinion formation, dissent always takes place within well-defined limits. Any views that threaten to overstep these boundaries automatically fail to register. Upon closer inspection, these superficial differences of opinion are actually more insidious, argues Chomsky, inasmuch as they perpetuate the delusory image of a free society.
Chomsky is far from wrong in emphasizing the structural limits to opinion formation in an era in which corporate-owned mass media play such a disproportionate role in shaping public perceptions. The problem with the “propaganda model,” however, is that it is only capable of providing a series of self-fulfilling prophecies. Since, according to this model, all differences of opinion are a priori “pseudo-differences,” “authentic differences” by definition fail to register. One might ask Chomsky if, when, circa 1968, Walter Cronkite wondered aloud on the CBS Evening News what the hell we were doing in Vietnam—this was merely another instance of “pseudo-difference”? If so, what would a genuinely dissident opinion look like? In the end one gets the feeling that it is Chomsky himself who needs this monolithic image of opinion formation for the sake of confirming his own status as a maligned and misunderstood radical intellectual.
Let me try to expose some of the shortfalls of Chomsky's reasoning by way of an anecdote. I'll call it the “Andy fallacy.” In the early 1980s I had a radical-activist friend from Berkeley named Andy. Andy loved to tell stories of how close we had come in the waning days of the Nixon administration to either a coup d' état, nuclear war, or (preferably) both. In the months preceding Reagan's reelection in 1984, Andy chose a different hobby horse to ride. He was convinced that as soon as Reagan was reelected, American troops would pour into Nicaragua to overthrow the Sandinistas.
Now I'll concede the point that if Reagan had been allowed to act in accordance with his preferences U.S. troops would have intervened. But the interesting thing is that this did not happen. And the reason for this is simple. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War a cultural consensus had developed about acceptable thresholds of American military intervention abroad—a consensus that considerably raised the domestic political stakes of any such move. As we now know, Reagan and his accomplices were instead forced to resort to a series of embarrassing illegalities—Iran-contra—which, when unmasked in 1986, paralyzed his ability to govern and permanently tarnished the image of his administration. In earlier works Chomsky has acknowledged the importance of an oppositional political consensus in deterring heightened levels of U.S. intervention in Central America (see, for example, Turning the Tide). But in World Orders such balanced insights are virtually nonexistent.
Chomsky views any expression of U.S. foreign-policy altruism—that is, claims to the effect that we are interested in promoting democracy and human rights in addition to the creation of “markets”—as so much ideological pap. In his view, our international policies and interventions are purely interest-driven, and the interests are of the basest sort. But the realities of global politics are more complex than he will allow. On this complicated terrain motives and interests are far from one-dimensional. They are economic, strategic, and—though Chomsky would be loath to admit it—at times ethical. Contra Chomsky, McDonald's and General Motors do not control the State Department—or at least not yet. Our interest in seeing democracy prosper in Eastern Europe, South Africa, and in South America is neither purely economic nor purely strategic—though only a naif would deny that such motives play a large role. There is also a moral-ideal component that derives from our own democratic traditions, according to which the principles of national self-determination and freedom count.
In a world where economic, military, and geopolitical competition is rife, questions of principle, unfortunately, rarely come first. But that is not to say à la Chomsky that they are nonexistent. At one or more levels they inevitably underlie foreign policy considerations. In ways that are often imperceptible, they set implicit limits to what we as a nation consider acceptable. Even the case of the Gulf War—the new world order litmus test, which, in Chomsky's eyes, we flunked spectacularly—involved a tissue of motivations and goals that are far from easy to sort out. Undeniably, national self-interest was prominent. But also at stake were solidarity with traditional allies (Israel as well as moderate Arab regimes), as well as the need to stand up to a regional tyrant. In fact, one of the main problems of Chomsky's approach is that it seems incapable of even acknowledging the concept of justifiable or legitimate strategic interests. Only if he were to acknowledge this concept would his criticisms of U.S. foreign policy take on a less monolithic cast and begin to make sense. For only then could one begin to distinguish between naked self-interest and a more principled and fair-minded orientation toward world affairs. As it is, Chomsky's leftism implicitly sanctions a neo-isolationism that, at the moment (and far from coincidentally), is also quite popular with the far right. Despite the failures of U.S. foreign policy past and present, the concept of moral leadership in the sphere of world politics remains a valuable aspiration.
Admittedly, postwar American foreign policy in Latin and Central America, Southeast Asia, and Iran (where in 1953 the United States helped to overthrow the Mossadegh regime in favor of the shah) has been a series of disasters predicated upon an imperious conception of national self-interest. This politics of cynicism and exploitation reached new heights with the Reagan administration's immoral (and, as it turned out, erroneous) distinction between totalitarian regimes, said to be unreformable from within, and authoritarian dictatorships, with whom one could safely climb into bed without losing one's virtue. At issue are policies that wreaked untold misery on innocent third world peoples, policies that were motivated by an exaggerated fear of communism and a puritanical self-righteousness. In the words of the historian Louis Hartz, these actions were spurred by an ideology of “Americanism,” which hypocritically proceeded to negate at will the rights to national self-determination of peoples around the globe. The final bill for such policies and practices, moreover, has yet to be paid in full.
This is the story that Chomsky tries to tell, but it has been told before and better by others. His critical flaw is to present a portrait of U.S. power at home and abroad so monolithic and impregnable that despair or inaction become the only possible responses. He thereby abets the process of depoliticization and left-wing marginalization he seeks to contest.
The last chapter of World Orders consists of a lengthy indictment of the recent Palestinian-Israeli peace accords. The accords were far from perfect, and there remains a long and difficult path ahead. But they should be acknowledged for what they were: a precarious yet historic first step. For the first time, the two protagonists are officially on speaking terms, and a negotiated settlement to the dispute, rather than a new Arab-Israeli war, is a tenuous possibility.
Chomsky, however, relentlessly indicts the opportunism of Arafat and the PLO for having signed the accords. He views the entire peace process as little more than a plot to preserve U.S.-Israeli political hegemony in the region. To be sure, the agreement came at a time when the PLO's popularity among Palestinians had waned considerably. With Hamas, a new uncompromising militancy has emerged on the scene, causing Israel to finally treat the PLO as a desirable partner in peace. In an imperfect international political scene, the Middle East is one of the least perfect regions. But at a time when one would do well to fan the precarious embers of hope, Chomsky heaps nothing but bile on those who seek compromise.
To psychologize Chomsky's long-standing contempt for Israel as a stereotypical instance of Jewish self-hatred would be simplistic. But even before his ignominious involvement in the Faurisson affair (for the relevant details, see Anson Rabinbach's article, “Memories of Assassins, Assassins of Memory,” Dissent, Spring 1994), his views on Middle Eastern affairs had become suspect. In truth, Chomsky is grinding an all-too-familiar axe. The PLO, we are told, has displayed a willingness for peace for some time. There is nothing “mutual” about the conflict; instead, Israel alone, a proxy of U.S. imperialism, is at fault.
Almost lost amid Chomsky's rhetorical excesses in World Orders, Old and New is a timely (yet all too brief) discussion of economic “internationalization”—the 1980s buzz word for the growing world dominance of transnational corporations (TNCs), as supported by U.S.-dominated financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Along with the nations of G-7 and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, these corporations and organizations play an increasing role in determining the state of the world economy as well as the distribution of wealth among rich and poor nations. Yet, because they are multinational, they are less and less subject to controls. The conditions for debt repayment they have imposed on third world nations in South America and Africa have been notoriously draconian. Often, their harsh stipulations threaten to destabilize democratically elected regimes.
In Chomsky's words, the TNCs are “totalitarian in internal structure, quite unaccountable, absolutist in character, and immense in power.” They herald the birth of a new world economic situation in which capital has become ruthless and, unlike labor, highly mobile. Unlike the corporations of old, today's TNCs are devoid of regional loyalties or a sense of an ethical obligation to their employees. According to one report, at present they control as much as one-third of the world's private-sector productive assets. As a result, in recent years corporate profits have risen dramatically while wages measured in real terms continue to sink. The current world economic order has practically nothing to do with free enterprise. Instead, it may more accurately be described as the type of “corporate mercantilism” whereby
governance is increasingly in the hands of huge private institutions and their representatives. The institutions are totalitarian in character: in a corporation, power flows from top down, with the outside public excluded. … National governments, which in varying ways involve some measure of public participation, are constrained by such external factors to serve the interests of the rich and powerful even more than in the past.
But even such promising analyses risk becoming muddled. For one cannot claim at the same time that both U.S. interests (which are eminently national) and those of the TNCs (whose boundaries transcend the nation-state) predominate, when, in crucial respects, they operate at cross-purposes. Here, too, Chomsky's ideological obsessions stand in the way of the type of nuanced and responsible social analysis that is so desperately needed by the left today.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5164
SOURCE: “Conclusion,” in Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent, MIT Press, 1997, pp. 201-17.
[In the following essay, Barsky provides an overview of Chomsky's linguistic studies, political engagement, and critical reception since the 1980s.]
In the early 1980s, Chomsky made important progress in his linguistic work, which led him to embark upon what has been described as a “new program.” The products of this are recorded in Lectures on Government and Binding: The Pisa Lectures (1981), Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use (1986), Barriers (1986), and, finally, in a more accessible form, in Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures (1988), which also includes some political discussion arising out of questions posed by the Managua audience. The Minimalist Program, although not published until 1995, took shape around questions that came into focus in 1980 with the principles-and-parameters model.
These texts emerge from the postulate that languages have no language-particular rules or grammatical constructions of the traditional sort, but rather universal principles and a finite array of options for application. They represent significant advances in the field. In 1988, Chomsky stated that contemporary insights into “empty categories and the principles that govern them and that determine the nature of mental representations and computations in general,” “the principles of phrase structure, binding theory, and other subsystems of universal grammar,” are allowing us “to see into the hidden nature of the mind … really for the first time in history.” These discoveries were, he insisted, comparable “with the discovery of waves, particles, genes and so on and the principles that hold of them, in the physical sciences”; furthermore, “we are approaching a situation that is comparable with the physical sciences in the seventeenth-century, when the great scientific revolution took place …” (Language and Problems 91-92). And, in the introduction to The Minimalist Program, he continued along this trajectory, claiming that “it is, I think, of considerable importance that we can at least formulate such questions today, and even approach them in some areas with a degree of success. If recent thinking along these lines is anywhere near accurate, a rich and exciting future lies ahead for the study of language and related disciplines” (9).
Chomsky's political work continued to evolve. While he consistently maintained the principles he had adopted so many years before, he now broadened his scope to address a larger number of issues. He delved deeper into media research (Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media , with Edward S. Herman; Necessary Illusions ), and explored other areas, such as Cold War, post-Cold War, and terrorist-style politics (Towards a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got There ; Pirates and Emperors: International Terrorism and the Real World ; The Culture of Terrorism ; Terrorizing the Neighbourhood: American Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era ; World Orders, Old and New ; Powers and Prospects ), Israel (The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians ), Latin America (Turning the Tide: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace ), Vietnam (Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. Political Culture ), and imperialism (Deterring Democracy ; Year 501: The Conquest Continues ). Two of the best anthologies of his work were also published during this period, Language and Politics (1988) and The Chomsky Reader (1987); two excellent introductions to his work were written by Carlos Otero (Radical Priorities  and Language and Politics ); and collections of interviews such as Chronicles of Dissent (1992) and Keeping the Rabble in Line: Interviews with David Barsamian (1994) gave the reader access to interviews on wide-ranging subjects.
Scanning this incomplete list of publications—produced during an era dominated by a virtual president named Ronald Reagan, an absurd arms race, the decline and dismantling of the Soviet Union, and superpower engagements with such world-menacing despots as Noriega, Hussein, Khaddafi, and Castro, as well as threats to the stability of the free world from Grenada, Nicaragua, and East Timor—it becomes evident that a synopsis of Chomsky's output over even a relatively short period would only amount to a scratch on the surface of an enormous body of work.
A better way to determine where Chomsky is standing at the present juncture, to communicate a sense of his current milieu, is to look at three issues in which he has become implicated. First, Chomsky has in recent times observed a growing cynicism in the American people, a conviction that the political system is manifestly biased against them and that real political power has eluded their grasp. Out of this cynicism they have, for example, voted against their own best interests (Chomsky cites a poll in which people were asked if they voted for Reagan; the majority responded “Yes,” but when asked if they thought Reagan's policies would be beneficial to them they replied “No”). Second, Chomsky has noticed a related increase in the distance between the rulers and the ruled. This is the result of both the increased accumulation of power within a shrinking segment of the population, and the widely heralded “world market economy” (frequently described by Chomsky as a fraudulent label employed by the elite), which has been expanded thanks to the European Union, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and a new General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade treaty. Third, Chomsky has begun, in his political writings, to cite primary sources and media reports rather than the influential figures to whom he had once regularly turned. This phenomenon reflects the growth of popular movements and Chomsky's involvement in them. Also, Chomsky admits, “virtually no one shared my interest in anarchism (and Spanish anarchism) … and the deepening of my own understanding of the (left) libertarian tradition back to the Enlightenment and before was completely isolated from anyone I knew or know of” (31 Mar. 1995).
PUSHING THE LIMITS OF UNDERSTANDING
Despite the fact that he has been so often mired in controversy, Chomsky continues to receive respect and admiration from his peers. They have rewarded him for his many accomplishments with such honors as: the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, American Psychological Association (1984); the Kyoto Prize in Basic Science, Inamori Foundation (1988); and the Orwell Award, National Council of Teachers of English (1987 and 1989). He was also made an honorary member, Ges. Für Sprachwissenschaft, Germany in 1990, and, in the same year, became a William James fellow, American Psychological Association.
Incredible advancements, beginning in the early 1980s, have transformed the field of linguistics. Chomsky has been at the forefront of this activity, but credit is also due to scholars outside the United States and to those linguists who have conducted empirical studies of a vast range of typologically different languages. In a very general sense, Chomsky's linguistic work to date falls into three areas of research. These take the form of questions:
1. What do we know when we are able to speak and understand a language?
2. How is this language acquired?
3. How do we use this knowledge?
(Language and Problems 133)
To question one, the answer is descriptive, so to pursue it we must “attempt to construct a grammar, a theory of a particular language that describes how this language assigns specific mental representations to each linguistic expression, determine its form and meaning.” Next, we have to explain it by constructing “a theory of universal grammar, a theory of the fixed and invariant principles that constitute the human language faculty and the parameters of variation associated with them” (Language and Problems 133). If we are able to construct a universal grammar, we can then approach the second question, because “language learning … is the process of determining the values of the parameters left unspecified by universal grammar, of setting the switches that make the network function. …” The third question involves the study of “how people who have acquired a language put their knowledge to use in understanding what they hear and in expressing their thoughts” (Language and Problems 134). What remains for the future is a fourth question: “What are the physical mechanisms involved in the representation, acquisition, and the use of this knowledge?” (Language and Problems 133).
This question concerns the limits of human understanding. Even as he is making breakthroughs in his field, Chomsky is also becoming more and more concerned with the biological limits of the human being as they pertain to the fundamental questions of existence. Although the physical sciences have afforded us great insight into the workings of matter, studies of the mind have not yielded anywhere near as much useful and scientifically proven information about the basics of human nature. Questions posed by the Greeks, and repeated with variations by generation upon generation of thinkers ever since, remain unanswered. Humankind will perhaps never be able to unravel these mysteries, but this does not mean that they cannot motivate research or generate other questions that might bring researchers closer to their goals.
In pursuit of answers to the overarching fourth question, Chomsky has asked, in the lectures he has given at MIT since the late 1980s:
(1) What are the general conditions that the human language faculty should be expected to satisfy? (2) to what extent is the language faculty determined by these conditions, without special structure that lies beyond them? The first question in turn has two aspects: what conditions are imposed on the language faculty by virtue of (A) its place within the array of cognitive systems of the mind/brain, and (B) general considerations of conceptual naturalness that have some independent plausibility, namely: simplicity, economy, symmetry, non-redundancy, and the like? (The Minimalist Program 1).
He has proceeded along these lines with apparent success, but notes that “what looks reasonable today is likely to take a different form tomorrow” (The Minimalist Program 10). Though we have moved closer to uncovering some secrets that were previously thought to be impenetrable, there is, of course, no way of knowing where the limits to human knowledge lie.
Chomsky's own scientific work is dependent upon new empirical and theoretical ideas; the minimalist program, for example, owes its successes to the bold speculation that characterized the principles-and-parameters approach coupled with massive empirical data. This is not to say that Chomsky's most recent linguistic efforts represent a total break from his earlier work. Indeed, “the minimalist program shares several underlying factual assumptions with its predecessors back to the early 1950s, though these have taken somewhat different forms as inquiry has proceeded,” and it borrows “from earlier work the assumption that the cognitive system interacts with the performance systems by means of levels of linguistic representation, in the technical sense of this notion” (The Minimalist Program 2).
ART AND LITERATURE: AN UNDEFINABLE INFLUENCE
On occasion, Chomsky has suggested that the mysterious aspects of human existence and the limits of our knowledge are, in some ways, best explored in works of art. But he does not, like Adorno, Benjamin, Greenberg, or Hauser, seek within the domain of music, visual art, sculpture, or photography visions that offer, for example, alternatives to our present society:
I seem to have a tin ear for atonal music, I'm afraid: past some Berg I mostly listen out of a sense of duty (I have some friends who are well-known composers, and I go to their concerts, for example). As for abstract art, my tastes also tend to fade out after cubism, mainly. Do I find “motivation, inspiration or philosophical truths” in any of this? As for motivation and inspiration, who knows, maybe unconsciously. As for philosophical truths, not as I understand the term at least (in fact, I'm not convinced that the category exists—maybe my Wittgensteinian youth [is] showing). (8 Aug. 1994)
There are, however, frequent references to literature in Chomsky's writings, and several intersections exist between his work and literary texts. First, Chomsky-inspired linguistics has been employed by some critics in formulating their approaches to literary texts, particularly in areas such as semiotics, structuralism, and narratology. Second, Chomsky's philosophical work on creativity and performance has been used to enhance or critique theoretical treatments of literary texts. Third, the popularity of particular authors or literary texts, and the degree of ease or difficulty with which an author publishes a particular work in a particular place and time, are taken by Chomsky as gauges of the control exerted over public expression and the institutions that channel it. Chomsky's many remarks on Orwell bear upon this issue. For example:
If Orwell, instead of writing 1984—which was actually, in my opinion, his worst book, a kind of trivial caricature of the most totalitarian society in the world, which made him famous and everybody loved him, because it was the official enemy—if instead of doing that easy and relatively unimportant thing, he had done the hard and important thing, namely talk about Orwell's problem … [how is it that we know so little given the amount of evidence we have], he would not be famous and honored: he would be hated and reviled and marginalized. (“Creation”)
Finally, Chomsky has suggested that literature can offer a far deeper insight into the whole human person than any mode of scientific inquiry. This notion is an interesting anomaly, given his fundamental belief in the power and value of pure sciences over social sciences. He nevertheless remains reticent about drawing “tight connections” between literature and knowledge because he can't really say whether literature has ever “changed [his] attitudes and understanding in any striking or crucial way”:
[I]f I want to understand, let's say, the nature of China and its revolution, I ought to be cautious about literary renditions. Look, there's no question that as a child, when I read about China, this influenced my attitudes—Rickshaw Boy, for example. That had a powerful effect when I read it. It was so long ago I don't remember a thing about it, except the impact. … Literature can heighten your imagination and insight and understanding, but it surely doesn't provide the evidence that you need to draw conclusions and substantiate conclusions. (Chomsky Reader 4)
Literature from this standpoint is a means through which experiences can be reread and, potentially, reviewed. It would be difficult to determine whether certain attitudes precede someone's reading of literary texts (thus allowing certain ideas to resonate), or whether the literary texts themselves help form the attitudes (as Chomsky implies in his discussion of the role that these texts played for him as a child). But the actual relationship between literary knowledge and empirical fact is clearly problematic for Chomsky, to the point where he consciously blocks out any effects that literary texts might have for his analysis of particular situations. Nevertheless, Chomsky was, and continues to be, “powerfully influenced” by his broad readings of literary texts (8 Aug. 1994), although the nature of this influence is undefinable: “We learn from literature as we learn from life; no one knows how, but it surely happens. In fact, most of what we know about things that matter comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry (science), which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity, but has a rather narrow scope—a product, I assume, of special properties of human cognitive structure” (15 Dec. 1992). These “properties,” like the physical mechanisms involved in the representation, acquisition, and the use of knowledge, are some of the areas of human nature that have always been virtually impenetrable. But, as his research and his remarks about literature imply, Chomsky considers that human nature may someday be describable, and aspects of it may even be understood—a possibility that many of his contemporaries don't admit, because they refuse to recognize that a human nature exists. To Chomsky, this kind of thinking is absurd: “Yes, I speak of human nature, but not for complicated reasons. I do so because I am not an imbecile, and do not believe that others should fall into culturally imposed imbecility. Thus, I do not want to cater to imbecility. Is my granddaughter different from a rock? From a bird? From a gorilla? If so, then there is such a thing as human nature. That's the end of the discussion: we then turn to asking what human nature is” (15 Dec. 1992). He goes on to speculate about the source of the denials of human nature:
For intellectuals—that is, social, cultural, economic and political managers—it is very convenient to believe that people have “no nature,” that they are completely malleable. That eliminates any moral barrier to manipulation and control, an attractive idea for those who expect to conduct the manipulation, and to gain power, prestige and wealth thereby. The doctrine is so utterly foolish that one has to seek an explanation. This is the one that intellectual and social history seem to me to suggest. (15 Dec. 1992)
There is, in the attitude expressed here, some indication of Chomsky's linguistic theory (all people have a characteristic creative capacity and share particular innate abilities), his opinion of most intellectuals (he uses the term “managers” in the same sense that Bakunin and Pannekoek did), his thoughts concerning appropriate environments for human development (beyond control and manipulation), and his suspicions about a collusion between elite powers and those who promote certain doctrines. Also evident in his commentary is the characteristic goad—the quality that nudges his readers to evaluate and reevaluate their basic assumptions in the name of both common sense (the granddaughter-rock comparison) and social autonomy (preaching “no nature” paves the way for social control à la, for example, Skinner). Chomsky the worker never lets up—his long product list testifies to this—and Chomsky the thinker doesn't let things pass without scrutiny, because to do so would be to risk falling into some carefully designed trap, the type of pitfall that left libertarians have long been at pains to expose.
FIGHTING FOR CONTROL
So what remains to be done? Struggle. Struggle in the face of biases that dog research of all types, of accepted dogma, of manipulation and propaganda; struggle to promote human freedom. Although the obstacles seem great, there are enough success stories from which to draw strength:
We don't live under slavery because of popular struggles. We have freedom of speech because of popular struggles. It is never a gift from above. James Madison, one of the founding fathers, put it very clearly. He said a parchment barrier will never protect against tyranny. … nor are you ever going to get any gifts from above. Protection against tyranny comes from struggle, and it doesn't matter what kind of tyranny it is. And if that is carried out, it can achieve many gains. There has been a considerable expansion of the sphere of freedom over the centuries, and it has a long way to go. (“Creation”)
But while Chomsky has made progress in recent years on the linguistics front, he cannot rest on his political-activist laurels. He is compelled to point continuously to the ways in which oppressive structures such as fascism and totalitarianism (which we like to believe have been dismantled, at least within our own society), as well as concentration camps, torture chambers, and “ethnic-cleansing” campaigns, still exist. Certainly anyone willing to take the time to examine the nature of governments, corporations—even leisure activities—knows this to be true: “Take professional sports. … It is hard to imagine anything that contributes more fundamentally to authoritarian attitudes. In professional sports you are a spectator, and there is a bunch of gladiators beating each other up, or something. And you are supposed to cheer for your gladiators. That is something you are taught from childhood” (“Creation”).
Unfortunately, the task of publicly identifying such structures is arduous and time-consuming. Those who undertake it are also, in Chomsky's opinion, likely to be thwarted by a coerced and manipulative media, by government, and by corporate interests bent on obscuring pertinent information. While government may seem the most obvious culprit in such attempts at suppression, Chomsky stresses that the impression is purposefully constructed:
The problem isn't “governments,” at least in the West. They are not much involved in doctrinal management (though there are exceptions, like Woodrow Wilson and the Reaganites, both of whom ran huge state propaganda systems—illegal in the latter case; there were no relevant laws in the Wilson era). Doctrinal management is overwhelmingly the task of corporate propaganda, which is extraordinary in scale and very significant in impact; and [it is also] the task of the general intellectual community, including the acceptable dissidents (Irving Howe, founder of Dissent, etc.) who perform a very important service by setting the bounds of discussion and thus entrenching the unspoken presuppositions of the doctrinal system, a matter again that I've discussed at length. Anyway, governments are marginal, outside of totalitarian states, though attention is always focused on them, to direct it away from what matters. (31 Mar. 1995)
Extra-governmental organizations—the IMF, the World Bank, the GATT council, and the G-7 executive—are also implicated in the campaign to exclude what Chomsky refers to as the “rabble” from the process of making the decisions and creating the policies that directly concern them:
[A] technique of control which is actually being sort of pioneered in the contemporary period, both in the United States and Europe, is raising the level of decisions to be so remote from people's knowledge and understanding that they don't even know what is going on. They can't find out what is happening, and certainly can't influence it even if they do. That is part of the meaning of the “de facto world government” [a citation from the Financial Times that refers to a new set of emerging institutions outside of the national state] that is developing. (“Creation”)
This kind of argument has familiar echoes, at least in terms of the values that underwrite it. It is, in spirit, the argument that Chomsky has always put forward, and it exists, in embryonic form, in the work of those who populate the milieu from which he emerged.
There is a sense that Chomsky's political work is, in its stubborn reiteration of fact and its insistence upon the absolute relevance of particular events, somehow untheoretical. In light of his previous commentary on intellectual obfuscation, the trivial observations that pass for political science, and unnecessarily complex language, his reply to such a charge is perhaps predictable:
If someone can come up with a nontrivial theory that has some bearing on matters of human concern, with conclusions of any credibility that would alter the ways in which I or others view these matters without access to the “theory,” I'd be the first to immerse myself in it, with delight. What I find, however, is intellectuals posturing before one another. Maybe that's my inability to discern important things, but if so, it should be possible to explain this to me. Many people in the academic and intellectual left complain at length about my “non-theoretical” stance, as do those elsewhere. But so far, no one has even tried to respond to this very simple challenge that any sane person would make, as far as I can see. What am I to conclude from that? (31 Mar. 1995)
And so, Chomsky continues to publish political works that are as powerful and consistent as ever. In all of these, right up to the recent World Orders, Old and New (1994), may be found resonances of fundamentally left-libertarian values. As ever, though, there are those who object violently to Chomsky's offerings. Ken Jowitt, for example, who reviewed World Orders for the 10 February 1995 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, declared that the book is an expression of its author's “unrelenting anger”; it also communicates his belief in a transnational corporate conspiracy, his dismissal of ideology as anything more than a “disguise” to be “unmasked,” his prophetlike scorn for intellectual pharisees, his ahistorical view of history, and his “one-dimensional conception of power as violence.” But this work, like Chomsky's other recent political publications, is better understood as speaking to libertarian anarchist groups, popular organizations, inchoate movements, as well as concerned and even desperate people; indeed, writes Chomsky, “that's the milieu I want to be a part of.” These groups, unlike the narrower one composed mainly of intellectuals to which he spoke earlier in his career, are less thoroughly indoctrinated by systems of power, including corporations and institutions of higher learning, and more willing to think things through. To speak to these people is, for Chomsky, “an intellectual and emotional release, and I do, I'm sure, write and speak differently from 30 years ago, probably on all topics. But that's a step towards—not away from—the radical intellectual milieu that I've felt myself part of since adolescence” (31 Mar. 1995).
In electing to involve himself even more deeply in popular struggles, Chomsky has significantly accelerated his already hectic schedule. The range and pace of activities he records here (rather breathlessly) is typical:
I recently spent a week in Australia, at the invitation of East Timorese refugees who wanted to focus attention on Australia's (horrible) policies of support for the Indonesian invasion and rip-off of East Timor's petroleum resources (I also gave talks there at universities, and on every other imaginable topic, but the focus was this, including a nationally televised talk at the National Press Club critically analyzing Australia's foreign policy and the self-serving lies with which it is concealed—this is Australia, not the U.S., a far more ideological society, where nothing of this sort would ever be allowed). Before that I spent a week in California, at the invitation of the Berkeley philosophy department for several lectures and the Stanford University program on ethics and public policy, but with most of my time devoted to talks in Oakland organized by Catholic Worker (which works in the slums, mainly with illegal refugees), another organized by Timorese students, a third for the biggest and oldest peace and justice group around (Palo Alto), another for the Middle East Children's Alliance, etc. All of these were benefits— that's a major way for such groups to raise money and increase public outreach, since the audiences are usually huge, with people who are interested. (31 Mar. 1995)
This is where Chomsky chooses to be; in both word and action, he has embraced activism more closely than ever before, and has turned his back, for the most part, on discussions of social theory. But while his heart is with those who share in the struggle, he continues in his academic work. Yet another glimpse at his full-tilt itinerary serves to demonstrate the way Chomsky prioritizes the two worlds within which he operates and how he manages to strike an at times delicate balance between them:
The last time I was in Europe, a few months ago, was at the invitation of the U. of London for philosophy lectures, but that was combined with talks for popular audiences and activist groups at a town hall and downtown theatre, a visit to Portugal at the invitation of the Socialist Party, and a talk at Geneva organized by Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, mainly third world women and activist NGOS [non-governmental organizations]. (31 Mar. 1995)
Chomsky also gave the keynote address at a conference that he otherwise did not attend.
A LAST LOOK
So, as he works on the minimalist program—conducting linguistic research that could lead us to a better understanding of the mind/brain—Chomsky is also participating in activist initiatives around the world that call into question the tyrannical and oppressive structures that limit individual freedom and creativity. All this is bolstered by fifty years of commitment to ideas that in both the linguistic and political domains have stood the test of time by remaining topical and applicable. Generations of scholars have been trained by Chomsky. The Chomskys' lives today are simple, comfortable, and filled with the rewards of passionate teaching and research, and of dedication to a consistent set of values.
I would like to leave the reader with one last picture of Noam Chomsky. It is 1990, and he sits in a pub in Govan (a suburb of Glasgow), surrounded by the participants of a Self-Determination and Power Event. These include social workers; literati (“Bohemian writers,” Chomsky says, “mostly outcasts,” the most famous of whom is Jim Kelman [31 Mar. 1995]); educationists (“radical critics of the educational system, like Derek Rodgers”); anarchists and libertarian socialists; and people variously describing themselves as “feminist therapist,” “systems analyst,” “anti-poll-tax activist,” “mother/student,” “prison governor,” “retail manager,” and “boatbuilder/writer.” The event, accompanied by a wonderful pub photo, is covered by the Times Higher Education Supplement of 26 January 1990 under the headline: “Pubs, Power and the Scottish Psyche: Olga Wojtas Reports from Govan on a Conference on Self-Determination.” The 330 participants of the event (many of whom [are] “unemployed working class, activists of one or another sort, those considered to be ‘riff-raff’”—“the kind of people,” Chomsky says, that “I like and take seriously” [31 Mar. 1995]), which has been organized by the magazines Scottish Child and Edinburgh Review and the Free University of Glasgow (not a university in the accepted sense of the term), are interested in self-determination and a guru named Noam Chomsky, self-described “scourge of United States policies and champion of the ordinary person.” Chomsky gives keynote speeches on both days of the event. The fact that he has decided to attend at all mystifies both the press and the establishment.
Thus when an announcement came that I was going to be in Glasgow, I got a letter on very fancy letterhead from something called “the Scottish Foundation” inviting me to give a talk for them on Nicaragua. I of course agreed. Shortly after, I got another letter saying they'd just learned that I'd also be giving a talk organized by the free university, Kelman, and other scum, and they insisted that I cancel that invitation because they wouldn't tolerate the guilt by association. I don't recall whether I even bothered answering. (31 Mar. 1995)
In his talks, Chomsky disparages nationalism, the exercise of political power by leaders who do not answer to citizens, instruments of social control and isolationism such as television, and the collusion of media in the process of oppression and the spreading of lies. There remains, at the end of the event, the problem of “how to take on the bastards,” as well as “an imbalance in that people seemed to feel they had to stay on an intellectual plane.” Said one participant, “If I sound a bit frustrated, it's because I'm a bit frustrated” (Wojtas). But Chomsky is not there to lead.
He's sitting in the Govan pub, and, as always, he's insisting that the participants consider their own situation as clearheadedly as possible, and that they make their own decisions. The Times Higher Education Supplement has reported: “Professor Chomsky continued to duck the role of oracle, denying the need for oracles at all. There had been a sense, he recognized, that there was something deeply unsatisfying about general and abstract discussion which did not direct itself to concrete discussion of oppression and justice.” Somebody recalls Vaclav Havel's dictum that “truth and love will triumph over hatred and lies.” Chomsky's response? “It's a nice thought.” Yes, but is it true or false? “Neither. It could become true, to the extent that people struggle to make it come true.” Noam Chomsky, sixty-eight years old, Institute Professor, linguist, philosopher, grandfather, champion of ordinary people.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1201
SOURCE: “Neoliberals' Paleomarkets,” in The Nation, June 14, 1999, pp. 34, 36.
[In the following review, Gordon offers positive evaluation of Profit Over People, though notes contradictions concerning the incompatibility of social justice and free trade.]
In a book of interviews published a few years ago, Chronicles of Dissent, Noam Chomsky recounted a childhood incident that shaped his life. One day during first grade, a group began taunting a fat boy from his class. Chomsky wanted to defend him but fled instead. Following the event he was totally ashamed, and he determined never again to run away. “That's the feeling that stuck with me,” he says. “You should stick with the underdog.” Sixty-five years have passed, and Chomsky remains faithful to that commitment, as evidenced by Profit Over People, his new book.
Since the demise of the cold war, received wisdom suggests that we are witnessing a rapid growth in democratization. Yet, if democracy is not merely a term attributed to a set of political procedures but also involves concrete “opportunities for people to manage their own collective and individual affairs,” then democracy, according to Chomsky, is actually under attack.
Chomsky argues that there is an ongoing conversion of people from participants to spectators, maintaining that this trend is also found in Western industrialized countries. In the United States people have fewer opportunities to influence policies because of what Chomsky calls the “corporatization of America.” By reducing “big government,” decisions are transferred from the one form of power that happens to be somewhat accountable to the public into the hands of corporations, whose CEOs are, politically speaking, like tyrants, having little if any respect for the American public.
The ironic twist about this trend is that corporations have not acquired their power through fair play in the free market but rather as a result of government assistance. By making this claim Chomsky goes beyond Susan Strange's important book The Retreat of the State: The Diffusion of Power in the World Economy (1996). Strange depicts international political economy as a confrontation between big business, international bureaucrats and insurers on the one side, and state sovereignty on the other. She argues that economic actors have in many ways managed to usurp the power that had previously been in the hands of political actors. Chomsky's nuanced analysis of current political trends discloses a slightly different picture. He suggests that there is an alliance between the state and economic players. Although corporations support minimizing government, they want governments to maintain a degree of power since government intervention and not the rules of the free market insure a corporation's dominance.
Thus, contrary to the dominant neoliberal doctrine, which suggests that economic globalization points to the demise of the nation-state and to the free market's success, Chomsky shows that globalization is the result of ongoing government interference and precipitates poverty and ecological destruction. By disclosing the overarching patterns of neoliberalism, Profit Over People complements a number of studies—for instance, Thomas Klak's Globalization and Neoliberalism: The Caribbean Context (1997) and Gerardo Otero's Neoliberalism Revisited: Economic Restructuring and Mexico's Political Future (1996)—that have examined neoliberalism's effect on specific areas.
Chomsky's book comprises a series of articles that analyze some of the mechanisms that make the global economy tick, while underscoring the alarming consequences of globalization. The pages are packed with data and case studies—some not yet published in mainstream media—that are used to debunk prevailing myths.
While explicating the general trends underlying neoliberalism, Chomsky also pays special attention to the United States, analyzing its hegemonic role in world politics. As University of Illinois communications professor Robert McChesney points out in the book's introduction, the US government pushes “trade deals and other accords down the throats of the world's people to make it easier for corporations and the wealthy to dominate the economies of nations around the world without having obligations to the peoples of those nations.”
For example, USAID and the World Bank intervened in Haiti's economy, replacing subsistence farming with agro-exports. Chomsky points out that “before the ‘reforms’ were instituted, local rice production supplied virtually all domestic needs,” but “thanks to one-sided ‘liberalization,’ it now provides only 50 percent. … By such methods, the most impoverished country in the hemisphere has been turned into a leading purchaser of U.S.-produced rice, enriching publicly subsidized U.S. enterprises.” The consequences, Chomsky concludes, “were the usual ones: profits for U.S. manufacturers and the Haitian super-rich, and a decline of 56 percent in Haitian wages” due to massive unemployment.
The market serves those with money, neglecting those trapped in poverty; and increased poverty, Chomsky points out, has a direct impact on the quality of democratic life. People living under dire conditions—the UN estimates that the disparity between the richest and poorest 20 percent of the world population increased by more than 50 percent from 1960 to 1989—have fewer opportunities for communal and personal development. And freedom without opportunities is like “a devil's gift.”
While the connection Chomsky draws between the global economic order and the decline in democratic practices is insightful, I have one major reservation. If social justice is the objective, then trade will always need to be constrained, because the market does not have the capacity to make political distinctions, and it invariably treats everyone and everything as a commodity to be exchanged. In this age the state is the only force that can stand up to the market and check it. Chomsky intimates this on a few occasions, but downplays it, because, as a libertarian, he holds that only a minimal state—limited to extremely narrow functions—can be justified. His reticence about what the state's role should be within the context of a neoliberal world lays bare the tension, if not the contradiction, between his socialist and libertarian leanings.
In one of the rare passages in which he endorses government interference, Chomsky approvingly quotes Adam Smith's claim that the destructive force of the “invisible hand” must be constrained by the state. By endorsing Smith's rationale Chomsky also endorses liberalism's basic premise that the so-called invisible hand is not a product of government regulation—a claim that sits well with a libertarian worldview but appears antithetical to a socialist analysis. Perhaps this explains why Chomsky neglects to note—in this and other books—that on a metalevel laissez-faire is engendered by government intervention. Following Antonio Gramsci, I think it best to see free trade as a form of state regulation, introduced and maintained by legislative and coercive means.
In another sense, however, Chomsky parallels Gramsci, exemplifying the latter's motto “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Chomsky's analysis of current events does not shy away from the injustice he encounters, but he does not capitulate to a paralyzing despair. The tragedy, he notes, is that if we leave matters to the neoliberal global market, then every two hours “1,000 children will die from easily preventable disease, and almost twice that many women will die or suffer serious disabilities in pregnancy or childbirth for lack of simple remedies and care.” Yet, as Chomsky points out, the market's oppressive manifestations cannot erase the rich record of popular struggles led by people committed to principles of justice and freedom, achievements that provide hope for a better future.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5227
SOURCE: “Noam Chomsky,” in The Progressive, Vol. 63, No. 9, September, 1999, pp. 33-7.
[In the following interview, Chomsky discusses critical disapproval of his views, media manipulation, Gulf War propaganda, inconsistent and hypocritical condemnations of international human rights offenders, and American politics.]
Noam Chomsky, longtime political activist, writer, and professor of linguistics at MIT, is the author of numerous books and articles on U.S. foreign policy, international affairs, human rights, and the media. His works include Manufacturing Consent, with Ed Herman (Pantheon, 1988), Deterring Democracy (Verso, 1991), World Orders, Old and New (Columbia University, 1994), Profit Over People (Seven Stories, 1999), and Fateful Triangle (South End, revised edition, 1999). His latest book is The New Military Humanism (Common Courage, 1999).
I first wrote to Chomsky around 1980. Much to my surprise, he responded. We did our first interview four years later. We've done scores since then, resulting in a series of books as well as radio programs. The interview collections have sold in the hundreds of thousands, which is remarkable since they have had virtually no promotion and have not been reviewed even in left journals.
In working with Chomsky over the years, I've been struck with his consistency, patience, and equanimity. There are no power plays or superior airs. In terms of his intellectual chops, he is awesome in his ability to take a wide and disparate amount of information and cobble it into a coherent analysis.
Chomsky, now seventy, is indefatigable. In addition to producing a steady stream of articles and books on politics and linguistics, he maintains a heavy speaking schedule: He is in enormous demand and is often booked years in advance. He draws huge audiences wherever he goes, though not because of a flashy speaking style. As he once told me, “I'm not a charismatic speaker, and if I had the capacity to do so, I wouldn't do it. I'm really not interested in persuading people. What I like to do is help people persuade themselves.” And this he has done probably with more diligence over a longer period of time than any other intellectual.
The New Statesman calls him “the conscience of the American people.” To cite just one example of his solidarity, last year I asked him to come to Boulder to speak at KGNU community radio's twentieth anniversary. Notwithstanding being fatigued from recent surgery, he not only came but waived his fee.
Often Chomsky is introduced as someone who exemplifies the Quaker adage of speaking truth to power. He takes exception to that. He says the powerful already know what's going on. It is the people who need to hear the truth.
As a kid growing up in Philadelphia, when he wasn't writing articles in the school newspaper on the Spanish Civil War, he was a long-suffering Athletics baseball fan. In those days, he recalls, the A's were always getting creamed by the Yankees. “For children of first-generation Jewish immigrants, it was considered part of your Americanization to know more about baseball than anybody else,” he says. Today, after years of not paying attention to sports, Chomsky takes his grandchildren to games. Nevertheless, his trenchant critique remains. “Sports,” he says, “plays a societal role in engendering jingoist and chauvinist attitudes. They're designed to organize a community to be committed to their gladiators.” If you are playing on a team, according to Chomsky, it's not much better. “They build up irrational attitudes of submission to authority.”
I can see it now. Chomsky at the plate. Barsamian on the mound. The count is three and two, bottom of the ninth. His team is, of course, losing. Here's the pitch. And Chomsky swings, there's a long drive to deep left, and that ball is …
This interview is culled from four hours we did early in February in Lexington and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
[Barsamian]: Our interviews are a kind of roulette. You really don't know where the questions are coming from or what kind of detail you'll need. How do you feel about that?
[Chomsky]: You've got the upper hand. I'm just your servant. So I have the easy job. I just follow where you lead.
OK, you've said many times that you're not Amnesty International. What determines your involvement in an issue?
If you can't do anything about some problem, it doesn't help a lot to make big statements about it. We could all get together and say, “Condemn Genghis Khan,” but there's no moral value. So the first question is, to what extent can we influence things? To the extent that U.S. power is directly involved, we can influence it more than if it's not directly involved, for example.
If it's a very popular issue, I don't feel that there's much advantage in my talking about it. Take South Africa. I said very little about apartheid, although I think overcoming it was an extremely important thing. It didn't seem like a useful contribution of my time to say “I agree,” which I often did. I'd rather take issues that are being kept out of the public sphere and on which we can really do a lot and that are intrinsically important.
There are other things that are just personal. Ever since childhood, I happen to have been concerned with Israel, or what was Palestine. I grew up in that environment. I've lived there, read the Hebrew newspapers, have a lot of friends there—so naturally I'm involved in that.
The last time you were on National Public Radio's All Things Considered was during the Gulf War in February 1991. Your commentary had to do with countries violating Security Council resolutions. You were imagining a U.S. bombing attack on Tel Aviv, Ankara, and Jakarta.
If you look at the list of leading recipients of U.S. aid, virtually every one of them is a major human rights violator. In the Western Hemisphere, the leading recipient of military aid through the 1990s has been mostly Colombia, which also has the worst human rights record. That was the point of that comment. Of course, you don't have to bomb these countries. If you want to stop the terror and atrocities that they're carrying out, just stop supporting them.
Your two minute and thirty second commentary was surrounded by a virtual cacophony of Gulf War propaganda.
Recall the comment of Jeff Greenfield, who used to be on Nightline. He explained why they wouldn't have me on. He said there were two reasons. First of all, I'm from Neptune. Secondly, I lack concision. I agree with him.
On both counts? Neptune also?
In my two minutes and thirty seconds, I must have sounded to a reasonable listener as if I were from Neptune. There was no context, no background, no evidence, and it was completely different from everything they were hearing. The rational response is, “This guy must be from Neptune.” That's correct.
It leaves you with very simple choices: Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody else is spouting, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it's from Neptune. Concision requires that there be no evidence. The flood of unanimous doctrine ensures that it will sound as if it's off the wall.
I came across this quote from George Orwell. He says, “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip. But the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there's no whip.”
I suspect he was talking about intellectuals. The intellectual class is supposed to be so well trained and so well indoctrinated that they don't need a whip. They just react spontaneously in the ways that will serve external power interests, without awareness, thinking they're doing honest, dedicated work. That's a real trained dog.
What kind of suggestions would you make to people who are trying to decode the news?
The first thing is to be very skeptical. Begin by asking, “How is power distributed in society? Who decides what's going to be produced, consumed, and distributed?” You can figure that out in most places pretty easily. Then you should ask whether policies and the shaping of information reflect the distribution of power. You typically find you can explain quite a lot that way.
Take Iraq. One question is, “Why are the U.S. and Britain bombing Iraq and insisting on maintaining sanctions?” If you look, you find answers that are given with near 100 percent agreement. You hear it from Tony Blair, Madeleine Albright, newspaper editors, and commentators. That answer is, “Saddam Hussein is a complete monster. He even committed the ultimate horror—namely, he gassed his own people. We can't let a creature like that survive.”
As soon as anything's given with near unanimity, it should be a signal. Nothing is that clear. There happens to be an easy way to test it in this case: How did the U.S. and Britain react when Saddam Hussein committed the ultimate horror? It's on the record. This was in April 1988, the gassing of the Kurdish town of Halabja. The second major gassing occurs in August, five days after the cease-fire when Iran basically capitulated. The U.S. and Britain reacted by continuing—and, in fact, accelerating—their strong support for Saddam Hussein.
That tells you something right away: The gassing of his own people cannot possibly be the reason why the U.S. and Britain are now trying to destroy him. He's a monster, he committed one of the ultimate horrors, and the U.S. and Britain thought it was fine.
Elementary rationality just is not permitted. If anyone wants to test this, they can investigate how often that statement, “We have to bomb Saddam Hussein because he committed the ultimate horror,” is followed by the three crucial words: “with our support.”
When we look further, we find that a major and, indeed, conscious goal of those concerned with shaping thoughts and attitudes—the advertising and public relations industries and the responsible intellectuals who talk about how to run the world—is to regiment the minds of men as fully as the army regiments the body.
Secretary of Defense William Cohen kept his promise that he made in early 1998 after the public relations disaster at Ohio State: There will be no town meetings the next time we want to bomb Iraq.
They made a serious error that last time. In the buildup to the bombing of Iraq, they had arranged a very carefully planned town meeting, which looked very safe. It was in Columbus, Ohio. The questioners were selected in advance. They picked people they thought would be controlled. It looked like a nicely orchestrated propaganda exercise. But there was organizing in the background. Some of these polite people turned out to have some real questions. They asked them quietly and politely, but as soon as the first word of dissent broke through the uniformity, Cohen, Albright, and [National Security Adviser Sandy] Berger collapsed into gibberish. They couldn't respond. The audience reacted because the dissidence was right below the surface. It totally blew up. That was the context of Cohen's comment.
The bombing of Iraq last December was particularly striking. It was in flat violation of international law. The reason that the United States didn't go to the U.N. Security Council is perfectly obvious. It would not have permitted the bombing. So therefore the Security Council is another “hostile forum,” and it's irrelevant. If the U.S. and Britain want to use force, they will. Furthermore, they did it in as brazen a way as possible to demonstrate their contempt for the U.N. and international law. The timing was picked just when the Security Council was meeting in an emergency session dealing with this crisis. Other council members had not been informed. That's a way of saying as clearly as possible, “You're irrelevant. International law is irrelevant. We are rogue states. We will use force and violence as we choose.”
That's a big change from, say, 1947, when the contempt for international law was hidden in secret documents, which would be released forty years later. Now it is clear and out in the open. It receives … you can't even say the “approval” of intellectual opinion, because it's so deeply taken for granted it's not even noticed. It's just like the air you breathe.
We're a violent, terrorist state. We have a big flag saying: INTERNATIONAL LAW AND THE U.N. CHARTER ARE INAPPROPRIATE FOR US BECAUSE WE HAVE THE GUNS AND WE'RE GOING TO USE THEM. PERIOD.
Incidentally, it's not reported here, but the world does notice. In India, for example, the Indian Council of Jurists is actually bringing a case to the World Court charging the U.S. and Britain with war crimes. The Vatican called the bombing of Iraq “aggression.” That got a little mention at the bottom of a page here and there. In the Arab world, it was widely condemned as aggression. In England, it was not as uniform as here. The Observer had a lead editorial condemning it as aggression.
One of the advantages of leaving the United States is to be exposed to different media. I was in Thailand in early January. The Nation is one of their two English-language newspapers. There was a very critical article entitled, “Containing America in the Post-Cold War Era.” It was by Suravit Jayanama, who wrote, “While Washington talks about containing Saddam Hussein, what about the need to contain a superpower that zealously acts to protect its own interests?”
That's the attitude in much of the world, and with justice. When the world's only superpower, which has essentially a monopoly of force, announces openly, “We will use force and violence as we choose and if you don't like it, get out of the way,” there's a reason why that should frighten people.
What about the legacies of this violence?
Look at Laos. It was saturated with probably hundreds of millions of pieces of ordnance. The U.S. government conceded that most of this bombing had nothing to do with the war in Vietnam. At that time, it was the most intensive bombing in history, aimed at a completely defenseless peasant society. I know something about this. I was there and was able to interview some of the refugees—there were tens of thousands—who had just been driven off the Plain of Jars.
The most lethal bombardment was what they called Bombies, little colorful things. They were designed to maim and kill people—that was their only purpose. This region is just littered with maybe hundreds of millions—nobody knows how much—unexploded ordnance. The victims are mainly children and farmers. In fact, the one careful province survey that was done found that 55 percent of the victims were children. Kids are playing. They see these colorful things and pick them up, and they and anyone else around are dead. Farmers hit them if they're trying to clear the ground. That's going on right now. We're not talking about ancient history.
The first group to try to do something about it was the Mennonites. The central Mennonite Committee has had volunteers working there since 1977, and they've been trying to publicize it and get people interested in it. They're trying to give people shovels. No high-tech equipment. There is a British volunteer group, a mine-detection group, professionals, but not the British government. And as the British press puts it, the Americans are notable by their absence.
According to the rightwing British press, the Sunday Telegraph, the British mine clearance group claims that the Pentagon will not even give them technical information that would allow them to defuse the bombs. So the British mine clearers themselves are at risk because this is secret information. The U.S. is now, after a lot of pressure, training some Laotians. There was a very proud article in The Christian Science Monitor about how the U.S. is such a humane society because we're training Laotians to clear away mines which somehow got there.
Those mines didn't come from Neptune, where I came from. We know where they came from, and we know who's not there getting rid of them.
You, Edward Said, Howard Zinn, and Ed Herman recently issued a statement on Iraq, saying, “The time has come for a call to action to people of conscience. We must organize and make this issue a priority, just as Americans organized to stop the war in Vietnam. We need a national campaign to lift the sanctions.” I know you're not against sanctions in all instances, for example, you cite South Africa as quite a separate case.
For clarity, the four of us signed that statement. But it was written, organized, and publicized by Robert Jensen at the University of Texas. That illustrates something that we know is true all the time: The people who really do the work are rarely known. What is known is somebody who stood up and said something or signed a petition.
The burden of proof is always on any imposition of sanctions. Can that burden of proof be overcome? Sometimes. Take South Africa. Two comments about that. One is that sanctions were supported by the overwhelming majority of the population, as far as anybody could determine. If the population is in favor of them, that's an argument, not a proof, that maybe they're a good idea. Two, it would have been a good idea if the U.S. had observed the sanctions. The U.S. undermined them, U.S. trade and interactions with South Africa continued and I believe may have increased.
There was an A.P. report in mid-January 1999 about Israel. In response to criticism that Israeli security services use torture and excessive force when interrogating Palestinians, the government attorney, Yehuda Schaeffer, said, “In this, as in other matters, we are still a light unto the nations,” referring to the century-old utopian Zionist slogan.
This has been a scandal even inside Israel. In fact, Israel does use torture, according to international standards. They're constantly condemned for this by human rights groups. Furthermore, they use it consistently. Arab prisoners who are often kept in administrative detention without charge are routinely tortured under interrogation. About ten years ago, this issue broke through to the public. A Druze military officer had been convicted for some crime. It turned out that he was innocent of the crime, and he had confessed to it. Immediately someone asked, “How come he confessed?” It turned out he had been tortured, and that became public.
For years, Palestinian prisoners when they came to court claimed that their confessions had been obtained under torture. The courts uniformly rejected that, all the way up to the High Court. They just dismissed that as false. After this Druze case, they had to recognize that, at least in this one instance, the confession was obtained under torture. Then came an inquiry. It turned out that they had been using torture routinely to interrogate. That was considered a huge scandal, not so much because they had used torture, but because the intelligence services hadn't told the Court. It was kind of like Watergate. It was not bombing Cambodia that was a crime, but not telling Congress about it that's the real crime. Here, too, the High Court condemned the fact that the intelligence services were misleading them, which was a joke. Everybody outside, except for the justices of the High Court, knew that the confessions were being obtained under torture. Moshe Etzioni, one of the High Court justices, was in London in 1977 or so. He had an interview with Amnesty International, which asked why they were getting such a tremendously high rate of confessions. Everybody knows what that means. He said, Arabs tend to confess; it's part of their nature. Amnesty published it without comment.
There was no doubt that Israel was using torture, but the courts, including the High Court, decided to believe the intelligence services. So their claim that they had been misled is a little misleading. They chose to be misled. At that point, the Landau Commission was formed, which had secret meetings and came out with partially public but partially secret recommendations about the use of … they didn't call it “torture,” but force or pressure or some euphemism. The Landau Commission said no, you shouldn't use this except … and then came up with a secret protocol. Nobody knows what's in it. It describes the methods you're allowed to use. You can tell what those methods are by what has happened to prisoners.
There are good ways of studying this. You can take independent testimony from prisoners who don't know each other but have been in the same place, and see if they describe exactly the same thing. The human rights groups have been doing this for years. Probably Israeli torture has been more systematically and carefully investigated than any other. The reason is, you have to have higher standards in the investigation. If you discuss torture in Pakistan, you don't need very high standards. Some prisoner tells you he was tortured—OK, headline. You say the same thing about Israel, you've got to meet the standards of physics. So when the Swiss League of Human Rights or Amnesty International or the London Insight team for the Sunday Times or some major newspaper did studies of torture in Israel, they were extremely careful. Still they couldn't get them reported here.
What do you say to those who hear your critique of Israel and its use of torture and ask, “Well, what about Syria? Why aren't you talking about Libya or Iraq? Aren't things much worse there?”
Sure, I mentioned Pakistan. Those countries are much worse. I would agree. I'm not really making a critique. I'm just quoting Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. These are very conservative comments. I would take the same point of view they do, that we should keep to explicit U.S. law, which bars aid to countries which systematically use torture. So I don't think we should be sending aid to Iraq. In fact, I protested strongly when we were doing exactly that in the 1980s. Of course, it's academic in the case of Iraq and Syria. But if you look at the leading recipients of U.S. aid like Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, and Colombia, they use torture. All that aid's illegal.
What's your understanding of the ongoing crisis in global capitalism?
We should begin by recognizing that for a good part of the population of the world, and probably the vast majority, it's been a crisis for a long time. It's now called one because it's starting to affect the interests of rich and powerful people. Up until then it was just starving people.
What has happened, point number one is: Nobody really understands. The Bank for International Settlements—the central bank of central bankers, it's sometimes called, the most conservative, respectable institution in the universe—produces an annual report. The last one stated: We have to approach these questions with humility, because nobody has a clue as to what's going on. In fact, every international economist who is semi-honest tells you, “We don't really understand what's going on. But we have some ideas.” So anything that's said, certainly anything that I say, you want to add many grains of salt to, because nobody really understands.
However, some things are moderately clear and there's a fair consensus. Through the Bretton Woods era, that's roughly the Second World War up to the early 1970s, exchange rates were pretty close to fixed, and capital was more or less controlled. So there wasn't extreme capital flow. That was changed in the early 1970s by decision. Capital flow was liberalized.
The international economic system is patched together with scotch tape. There was a study by the IMF. It has about 180 members. From 1980 to 1995, it found that something like a quarter of the members had serious banking crises, sometimes several, and two-thirds had one or another financial crisis. That's a lot. There's debate about this, but it seems that since the liberalization of financial markets, they have been extremely volatile, unpredictable, irrational, lots of crises. Nobody knows when they're going to blow up.
You can say, “Well, we can handle it.” Maybe. One of the leading international economists. Paul Krugman, has an article in Foreign Affairs called something like “Depression-Era Economics,” in which he basically says, “We don't understand what's happening. It's like the Depression. Maybe it'll be somehow patched together, but nobody can say. And nobody knows what to do.”
There's one possibility that he rules out, and that is capital controls. He rules it out on theoretical grounds. He says capital controls lead to inefficient use of resources, and we can't have that. That's certainly true in a certain abstract model of the economy, the neoclassical model. Whether that model has anything to do with the real world is another question. The evidence doesn't seem to support it. Also one has to ask the question, “What is meant by ‘efficient use of resources’?” That sounds like a nice, technical notion, but it's not. When you unpack it, it's a highly ideological notion. So you can efficiently use resources if it increases gross national product. But increasing gross national product may harm everybody. That's efficient by some ideological measure, but not by other measures.
Let me just give you one example to illustrate. The Department of Transportation did a study one or two years ago. It tried to estimate the effect of the decline of spending on maintaining highways. There's been a considerable decline since the Reagan era, so a certain amount of money has been saved by not repairing highways. They tried to estimate the cost. I forget the exact number, but the cost was considerably higher than the savings. However, the cost is cost to individuals. If your car hits a pothole, it's a cost to you. To the economy, it's a gain. That improves the efficiency of the economy. Because if your car hits a pothole, you go to the garage and you pay a guy to fix it, or maybe you buy a new car—something more produced. It makes the economy more efficient in two ways. You've cut down the size of government, and everybody knows that government drags down the economy, so you've improved it that way. And you've increased profits and employment and production. Of course, for you as a person, there was a loss. But for the economy, there was a gain by the highly ideological way efficiency is measured. This is a tiny case. It extends across the board. So when one hears words like “efficiency” used, reach for your gray cells. Ask, “What exactly does that mean?”
Is Social Security broken? Does it need to be fixed?
Even before getting to that, how come people are talking about it? Just a few years ago, this was called the third rail of American politics. You couldn't touch it. Now the question is, “How do you save it?” That's quite an achievement for propaganda.
If indeed the economy is going to undergo a historically unprecedented slowdown as far into the future as we can see, then the stock market is going to undergo a sharp slowdown, too. You can't have it both ways. This is not a particularly radical criticism. You can read it in Business Week.
The Social Security Act said, “We care if some other elderly person starves. We don't want that to happen.” The idea of putting it in the stock market, though it's framed in all sorts of fraudulent gobbledygook, is to break down that sense of social solidarity and say, “You care only about yourself. If that guy down the street when he gets to be seventy starves to death, that's not your problem. It's his problem. He invested badly, or he had bad luck.” That's very good for rich people. But for everyone else, it depends on how you evaluate the risk. Social Security's been very effective in that respect. Starvation among the elderly has dropped considerably.
Has the same kind of propaganda campaign been conducted on public education?
Very much so. There's a campaign under way to essentially destroy the public education system along with every aspect of human life and attitudes and thought that involve social solidarity. It's being done in all sorts of ways. One is simply by underfunding. So if you can make the public schools really rotten, people will look for an alternative. Any service that's going to be privatized, the first thing you do is make it malfunction so people can say. “We want to get rid of it. It's not running. Let's give it to Lockheed.”
What about privatizing Medicare?
A private institution has one goal: maximize profit, minimize human conditions. That means you try to attract the patients who are least risky and are not going to cost you much, and you get rid of the rest.
Do you think that domestic issues like Social Security, public education, Medicare, and health care could be lightning rods to organize around and create popular movements?
If these issues are brought to the forefront and are discussed honestly, there could be a lot of problems. It's the reason NAFTA was grossly distorted in the media coverage. After the fast-track fiasco a little over a year ago, The Wall Street Journal had an interesting article. They said that although it's a “no-brainer” that trade deals should be made by the President without any Congressional input, nevertheless the opposition has what they called an “ultimate weapon”: The population is against it, and it's really hard to keep the population out.
For organizers, it should be a bonanza. I remember at the time of the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in one amusing poll, they gave people slogans of various sorts and asked them to say whether those statements were in the Constitution or not. One of the statements was, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” About half the population thought that was in the Constitution. Speak of an organizer's paradise! If those sentiments aren't developed and used, then organizers are failing.
With the constant and ever-increasing demands on your time, how do you keep up with everything?
Badly. There's no way to do it. There are physical limitations. The day is twenty-four hours long. If you do one thing, you're not doing something else. You cannot overcome the fact that time is finite. So you make your choices. Maybe badly, maybe well, but there's no algorithm, no procedure to give you the right answer.
Do you have a time that you particularly like to work?
Virtually all the time.
You've been disdainful of spectator sports, arguing that they distract people from paying attention to politics. But last January, you knew not only which teams were in the Super Bowl, but also the outcome. Are you losing your grip?
I always read the front page at least of The New York Times. It said who won and what the score was. But it's even worse than that. I have a jock grandson who's finally helping me fulfill a secret dream to have an excuse to go to a professional basketball game. I don't know if I should admit it, but I'm actually going to my first game in around fifty years.