The Electric Commentary

Monday, November 08, 2004

Sullivan v. Chomsky

On the final Real Time with Bill Maher of the season Andrew Sullivan got into it with famous leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky. Here is a summary of the show by Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine. While I had heard of Chomsky when I was in college I never really paid him much attention until a few years ago (when he released his 9/11 book). I now refer to Chomsky as a "Dr. Laura," that is, someone who uses credentials in one field to establish legitimacy in another, just as Dr. Laura uses her degree in physiology to confer legitimacy on all of her bad advice. I suppose that I could just as easily refer to people like this as "Noam Chomsky's"

Noam Chomsky is a linguist, but he carries himself as an expert in foreign policy and political science. While I am certainly not a Chomsky expert I am aware of some of his more controversial positions (the denial of the Cambodian genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, for instance) and find him to be a rather distasteful figure.

The excellent blog Protein Wisdom (by Jeff Goldstein) specializes in fake "interviews" and this "interview" with Chomsky is a classic (it helps if you've heard the man talk for more than 30 seconds):

protein wisdom: "-- Wait, time out, sorry. The 'it' refers to the role of language in shaping and forming people's understanding of events...?"

Chomsky: "Yes, now if you'll just let me --"

protein wisdom: "-- So then, 'it' -- the role of language in shaping and forming people's understanding of events -- has, and I'm quoting you now, 'nothing much to do with language'?"

Chomsky: "Did I say that--?"

protein wisdom: "-- Language has nothing much to do with language. I'm afraid you did, yes."

If you're familiar with Chomsky's uncanny ability to speak for minutes at a time and not convey any actual information, you should read the whole thing.


  • chomsky happens to be a professor at the university i attended, and while i've heard great things about his linguist classes, i find it mortally embarrassing to be even loosely associated with him in any way, even via that relatively non-existent institutional affiliation we happen to share.

    By Blogger ahren, at 4:50 PM  

  • I always thought it was strange that he was at MIT. You never think of MIT as having extraordinary humanities programs in general (although I assume that all of their programs are well above average), but in a way, I think it fits Chomky's whole persona. While he is by most accounts a fine linguist and well respected in the field, I think it's fair to say that he leverages MIT's fine reputation as an engineering/tech/math/etc., school to bolster his academic credentials as a linguist. Which in turn lends credibility to his politcal and social commentary.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 10:06 AM  

  • not being a linguist, i'm kinda talking out of my ass here, but the impression given to me by people who studied it at school was that it was really a much more disciplined and exacting science than i would have previously thought. kinda an extension of neuro-science more than a "humanities" kinda thing... well, i just looked it up, and it's grouped into course 24 (philosophy) which lives seperately from the humanities (course 21), for what it's worth.

    and no, the humanities classes at mit aren't good. i'm sure the 3 or 4 people that major in them are smart and take them seriously, but most everyone else is required to take a certain number of those classes, and being that they're easier and not important to the people taking them, not many take them seriously beyond fulfilling the humanities requirement.

    By Blogger ahren, at 1:44 PM  

  • I'm certainly no expert on linguistics either but it strikes me as difficult to categorize. Philosophy is probably a good place for it, but just for language learning purposes I'm sure that humanities classes have some crossover. And I'm sure it is disciplined. It seems like a sort of archealogy (or anthropolgy, or maybe evolutionary biology) of language.

    But I'm talking out of my ass too.

    And humanities classes differ widely in their level of discipline. My wife's field is as rigorous and I would say as technical as any (Classics, Ancient Greek and Latin).

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 2:33 PM  

  • hahahah,
    linguistics is the science of language. and yes, you are all talking out of your collective asses. it's a relatively new scientific field that studies various facets of language--from its aquisition, to the way in which it changes over the years (morphology). Chomsky in no way used his MIT credentials to bolster his career as a linguist. If anything, it worked the opposite way. Chomsky revolutionized the way we think about his langauge by refuting B.F. Skinner's brand of linguistics stemming from behaviorism, and propoising something called generative grammar.

    study up boys, or you may end up looking like "Dr. Lauras" yourselves one day in the courtroom.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:11 AM  

  • The difference between Chomsky and myself is that I admit when I'm talking out of my ass.

    And I don't think that MIT's reputation as a whole is enhanced very much because of Chomsky, although I'm sure that their linguistics program's reputation is enhanced greatly (as basically stated by Ahren in a previous comment). It's like having Victor Davis Hanson on your staff. Good for your classics program, but likely to drive away a few people who disagree with him politically.

    The whole point though is that he uses his creds as a linguist to enhance his standing as a political/social/foreign policy pundit. The fact that he is in fact talented as a linguist supports my larger point that he is a "Dr. Laura."

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 8:24 AM  

  • Highly doubtful.
    The guy has been publishing political texts just about as long as the linguistic stuff. In fact, his most influential book to date has been "Syntactic Structures", published after political texts. He's appeared on countless news programs at home and abroad. This guy really, really, knows his U.S. foreign policy, and I doubt that people listen to what he has to say just based on the fact that he revolutionized linguistics. As evident from the above comments, most people (even college-educated ones) have no idea what linguistics is about. Plus, there is no reason for one to be required "credentials" to influence a field, or publish a book. As long as what they are saying is valid, and factual--both of which Chomsky always is. I DARE any of you jokers to read "Manufacturing Consent" for instance. How about plowing through 20 pages of footnotes and references? Yeah, that really sounds like a guy that likes to talk out of his ass. Just because you've read a 100 page one-off political pamphlet made for political dummies, doesn't mean you've busted Chomsky on a Dr. Laura.

    Comparing Dr. Laura to Chomsky is rediculous.

    Works by Chomsky

    Chomsky, Noam. (1964). Current issues in linguistic theory.
    The Hague: Mouton.
    --- (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax.
    Cambridge: M.I.T. Press.
    --- (1966). Cartesian linguistics: a chapter in the history of rationalist thought. New York: Harper & Row.
    --- (1966). Topics in the theory of generative grammar.
    The Hague: Mouton.
    --- (1966). Perspectives on Vietnam : [microform] / speech / by Noam Chomsky as part of a program presented by the Faculty Peace Committee, November 10, 1966, at the University of California - Berkeley. Berkeley: Academic Publishing.
    --- (1968). Language and mind. New York:
    Harcourt, Brace & World.
    --- (1968). Syntactic structures. The Hague: Mouton.
    --- (1969). American Power and the New Mandarins.
    Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.
    --- (1969). I nuovi mandarini; gli intellettuali e il potere in America.
    Torino: G. Einaudi.
    --- (1969) L'Amerique et ses Nouveaux Mandarins.
    Paris, Editions du Seuil
    --- (1970). "Notes on Anarchism," New York Review of Books. v. 14,
    no 10, May 21, 1970, pp. 31-35.
    --- (1970). At war with Asia. New York: Pantheon Books.
    --- (1970). Two essays on Cambodia. Nottingham:
    Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation for The Spokesman.
    --- (1971). Chomsky: selected readings. edited by J. P. B. Allen and Paul
    Van Buren. London, New York: Oxford University Press.
    --- (1971). Problems of knowledge and freedom. New York:
    Pantheon Books.
    --- Jakobson, Roman, Halle, Morris. (1972). Hypothèses, trois entretiens et trois études sur la linguistique et la poétique. [Traduction,] présentations et contributions de Jean-Pierre Faye, Jean Paris, Jacques Roubaud, Mitsou Ronat.
    Paris: Seghers, Laffont.
    --- (1972). Language and mind. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
    --- (1972). Studies on semantics in generative grammar. The Hague:
    --- (1972). Syntactic structures. The Hague: Mouton.
    --- (1973). Conoscenza e libertá. Torino: Einaudi.
    --- (1973). For reasons of state. New York: Pantheon Books.
    --- (1974). Peace in the Middle East? Reflections on justice and nationhood.
    New York: Vintage Books.
    --- (1974). Proceso contra Skinner. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama.
    --- (1975). The logical structure of linguistic theory.
    New York: Plenum Press.
    --- (1975). Reflections on language. New York: Pantheon Books.
    --- (1977). Essays on form and interpretation. New York: North-Holland.
    --- (1978). Human Rights and American Foreign Policy.
    Nottingham: Spokesman Books.
    --- (1978). Intellectuals and the state. Baarn: Wereldvesten
    --- Vigier, Jean-Pierre (1978). Verso la terza guerra mondiale?
    Milano: Gabriele Mazzotta. Translation from French by Sergio Mancini. Reprint. Originally published: Paris: François Maspero, 1976.
    --- Herman, E. S. (1979). After the cataclysm: postwar Indochina and the reconstruction of imperial ideology. Boston: South End Press.
    --- (1979). Language and responsibility: based on conversations with Mitson Ronat. translated from the French by John Viertel. New York: Pantheon Books.
    --- (1979). Morphophonemics of modern Hebrew. New York:
    Garland Pubblishing Co. (136 Madison Ave. NYC 10016).
    --- Herman, Edward S. (1979). The political economy of human rights
    Montreal: Black Rose.
    --- (1979). Reflexiones sobre el lenguaje. traducción de
    Joan A. Argente y Josep M. Nadal. Barcelona: Editorial Ariel.
    --- (1979). The Washington connection and Third World fascism.
    Boston: South End Press.
    --- (1981). Lectures on government and binding. Dordrecht: Foris.
    --- (1981). Radical priorities. Montreal: Black Rose Books.
    --- (1982). Some concepts and consequences of the theory of government and binding. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
    --- (1982). Superpowers in collision: the cold war now.
    Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England; New York, N.Y.: Penguin.
    --- (1982).Towards a new cold war: essays on the current crisis and how we got there. New York: Pantheon Books.
    --- (1983). The fateful triangle: the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians. Boston, MA: South End Press.
    --- (1984). Modular approaches to the study of the mind.
    San Diego: San Diego State University Press.
    --- (1985). Turning the tide : U.S. intervention in Central America and the struggle for peace. Boston, Mass.: South End Press.
    --- (1986). Barriers. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    --- (1986). Knowledge of language: its nature, origins, and use.
    New York: Praeger.
    --- (1986). Pirates & emperors: international terrorism in the real world.
    New York: Claremont Research & Publications.
    --- (1986). The race to destruction: its rational basis.
    Nottingham: Published by Spokesman for the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation.
    --- (1987). The Chomsky reader. edited by James Peck. New York:
    Pantheon Books.
    --- (1987). La quinta libertad: la política internacional y de seguridad de Estados Unidos. San Salvador, El Salvador: UCA Editores.
    --- (1987). On Power and Ideology. Boston, MA:
    South End Press.
    --- (1987). Turning the tide: the U.S. and Latin America.
    Montreal: Black Rose Books; Cheektowaga, N.Y.: Univ. of Toronto Press.
    --- (1988). The Culture of Terrorism.
    Boston, MA: South End Press.
    --- (1988). Language and Politics. Montreal;
    New York: Black Rose Books.
    --- (1988). Language and Problems of Knowledge. Cambridge,
    MA: MIT Press.
    --- Herman, Edward S. (1988). Manufacturing consent: the political economy of the mass media. New York: Pantheon Books.
    --- (1988). Nuestra pequena region de por aqui: politica de seguridad de los Estados Unidos. Managua: Editorial Nueva Nicaragua.
    --- (1989). Necessary Illusions . Boston, MA:
    South End Press.
    --- (1991). Pirates & emperors: international terrorism in the real world.
    Rev. ed. Montreal; New York, NY: Black Rose Books.
    --- (1991). The Sound Pattern of English. Cambridge, MA:
    MIT Press.
    --- (1991). Terrorizing the Neighborhood. San Francisco:
    Pressure Drop Press.
    --- (1992). What Uncle Sam really wants. Berkeley: Odonian Press.
    --- (1992). Chronicles of dissent: interviews with David Barsamian.
    Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press; Stirling, Scotland: AK Press.
    --- (1992). Deterring democracy. New York:
    Hill and Wang.
    --- (1993). Language and Thought Wakefield, RI:
    Moyer Bell.
    --- (1993). Lectures on government and binding: the Pisa lectures. 7th ed.
    Berlin; New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
    --- (1993). Letters from Lexington: reflections on propoganda. Monroe, ME:
    Common Courage Press.
    --- (1993). The prosperous few and the restless many. Berkeley, CA:
    Odonian Press.
    --- (1993). Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and U.S. political culture. Boston, MA: South End Press.
    --- (1993) World order and its rules: variations on some themes.
    Belfast: West Belfast Economic Forum and Centre for Research and Documentation.
    --- (1993). Year 501: the conquest continues. Boston: South End Press.
    --- (1994) Critical assessments. London; New York: Routledge.
    --- (1994). Keeping the rabble in line: interviews with David Barsamian.
    Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.
    --- (1994). Manufacturing consent: Noam Chomsky and the media. The
    companion book to the award-winning film by Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar. Montreal; New York: Black Rose Books.
    --- (1994). Secrets, lies, and democracy. Tucson, AZ:
    Odonian Press.
    --- (1994). World orders, old and new. New York: Columbia
    University Press.
    --- (1995). The minimalist program. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
    --- (1995) Secrets, lies, and democracy. Interviewed:
    David Barsamian. Tucson, Ariz. : Odonian Press
    --- (1995). Chiapas Insurgente. Navarra: Txalaparta.
    --- (1996). Powers and prospects: reflections on human nature and the social order. Boston, MA: South End Press.
    --- (1996). Class warfare: interviews with David Barsamian.
    Monroe, Me: Common Courage Press.
    --- (1997). Media control: the spectacular achievements of propaganda. New York: Seven Stories Press.
    --- (1997). The Cold War and the University.
    New York: New Press.
    --- (?) Terrorizing the neighborhood: American foreign policy in the post-cold war era. Stirling, Scotland, UK:
    AK Press; San Francisco, CA: Pressure Drop Press.
    --- (1999). The new military humanism: lesssons from Kosovo. Monroe, ME:
    Common Courage Press.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:52 PM  

  • Ah, but unlike Prof. Chomsky I do in fact know a thing or two about foreign policy/politics. I have conceded his influence in linguistics so I will not deal with it further, however your evidence supporting his knowledge of American foreign policy is not convincing (have you actually read "Manufacturing Consent," by the way, or did you pick up the name on your third viewing of "Good Will Hunting?").

    Chomsky is famous for his output of political books, but he is also famous for recycling, that is, most of them are repeats of the previous books or collections of columns on a topic. His footnotes are notoriously self-referential (see, Noonan 27-45, 1998) and tend to lead back to non-related if not contradictory evidence:

    His latest book, Hegemony or Survival, famously quotes the New York Times on the inside of the dust jacket calling Chomsky "possibly the most important intellectual alive" while omitting the sentence which followed:

    “Since that’s the case, how can he write such terrible things about American foreign policy?”

    As for his sheer volume, all that it proves is that he writes as quickly as L. Ron Hubbard:

    (or Lyndon LaRouche for that matter)

    Just because people do not know what linguistics is about does not mean that the position can not help him. Noam Chomsky, Professor, MIT is a lot more credible than Noam Chomsky, activist. Which is, of course, the entire point.

    I also notice that you've not mentioned the whole "denial of the Cambodian Genocide" thing. Or his contributions to holocaust denial (and yes, I know he's Jewish):

    Inconvenient little facts to be sure.

    And again, while anyone can comment on and be critical of US foreign policy, it is another matter to charge $10,000 speaking fees to lecture on the subject when you're just a linguist.

    Finally, if you even bother to take issue with the sources I've cited above as being "partisan" or "biased," don't. Everyone is. Cite to counterarguments or better yet, counterexamples.

    And as for direct quotes from the man himself, this sums up his world view nicely:

    "Q. I ask you this question because I know that you have been plagued and hounded around the United States specifically on this issue of the Holocaust. It’s been said that Noam Chomsky is somehow agnostic on the issue of whether the Holocaust occurred or not.

    A. My “agnosticism” is in print. I described the Holocaust years ago as the most fantastic outburst of insanity in human history, so much so that if we even agree to discuss the matter we demean ourselves. Those statements and numerous others like them are in print, but they’re basically irrelevant because you have to understand that this is part of a Stalinist-style technique to silence critics of the holy state [i.e. Israel] and therefore the truth is entirely irrelevant, you just tell as many lies as you can and hope that some of the mud will stick. It’s a standard technique used by the Stalinist parties, by the Nazis and by these guys."

    It could be an admission of the holocaust, it could be a denial. In general it is nothing at all except the comparison of his critics with Nazis which, after all, may not be that bad from Chomsky's perspective, but who can really tell?

    Then again, if you read this passage carefully enough and with a different perspective it is also possible the he's referring to himself the entire time, which I think is the most likely interpratation.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 1:49 PM  

  • Yes, Chomsky has been repeatedly accused of being a halocaust-denier, and a denier of the Cambodian genocide. If you dig into the reasons behind this (which really isn't worth the time) it becomes apparent that these claims are merely mudslinging. The details of the above accusations are plain boring, and border on sillines. OK, Chomsy's a haolcaust denier, and G.W. is a Nazi. Big deal.

    Now, as far as the Dr. Laura's of the world go--how about digging into those who really deserve it, like that governer of yours. What kind of credentials does he have to be running the 8th largest economy of the world? Do you think he just may have used his celebrity to win the election?

    No, instead let's pick on some anarchist professor from MIT, a guy that's been studying and publishing politics for over 30 years. Let's debase him for publishing well-researched books that contradict our world views (because ours are the right ones). Comsky has a 100 times more enemies than friends so that ganging up with the enemies and dismissing this intellectual is both trendy and useless.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:44 PM  

  • Illinois is the 8th largest economy in the world? Who knew? From where I'm sitting, it looks like Chomsky has about 100 times more friends than enemies. Of course, here, so does Che. And I don't think the point is that Chomsky doesn't know anything about politics, It's that he shouldn't be regarded as some wise Methusala by people like Bill Maher. He's a pundit just like Andrew Sullivan and should be regarded as such. He does use his Linguisics credentials to add to his legitimacy. If you like what he writes and believe his research and his ideas are legit it shouldn't matter to you whether his book says "MIT proffesor" or "activist" and more power to you if that's the case. But to a lot of people it does matter.

    Also, posting anonymously is sorta nerdy.

    By Blogger DannyNoonan, at 12:20 AM  

  • I echo Dan's comments. Couldn't have said it better myself.

    Do we seem like Californians? Neat. We're not.

    Do we seem like Republicans? Nope, not Republicans either.

    And whether Chomsky is or is not a holocaust denier, the easiest thing for him to do would be to just say that he is not. As in, "I, Noam Chomsky, am not a holocaust denier." HE never does. He always makes some wishy-washy comment instead. He is, at the very least, guilty of an abuse of the language, which, as a linguist, is actually pretty serious.

    And arguing that the accusations are "silly" and "boring" doesn't really count as an argument, in the strict sense of the word. That would be a set of facts used to support a point, and not the general nay saying of the opponent’s position. Unless you're a big Monty Python fan of course.

    Finally, posting anonymously is kinda nerdy, as stated above, unless:

    1. You're Russ, in which case, how's it going?

    Otherwise, kinda nerdy.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 8:19 AM  

  • If you've seen the documentary Manufacturing Consent he states clearly that he has never denied the holocaust.

    By Anonymous EmilSvensson, at 6:32 AM  

  • Good lord! This is from last year!

    Fine, how about a quote? In context? Noam has a way of admitting things without really admitting things.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 4:54 PM  

  • What a bunch of utter garbage. Anyone who has read Chomsky, knows he has never denied the Holocaust or any genocide.

    These comments are equally inane and insulting. You people haven't read a goddamn word written by the man.

    This is just the most typical response to him by his detractors. They just outright lie or fabricate his beliefs.

    Tell us all what your evidence is that he denies the genocide in Cambodia or the Holocaust. Tell us how he is 'just another pundit.'

    I suppose Mark Twain was a gossip columnist. I suppose Orwell was just a hack writer.

    Yea, it's easy to trivialize Chomsky's work without any sort of substaniated counterargument.

    You trolls are a dime a dozen.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:35 AM  

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