CHOMSKY and HIS PRIVILEGED MEN
By Leen Karman at Sep 30, 2011
Chomsky has delivered two commentaries on the same argument: the responsibility of the intellectual. To me, the commentaries are characterized by lousy argumentation, uncommon to the writings of Chomsky.
The first USING PRIVILEGE TO CHALLENGE THE STATE is acceptable in a sense that I think I can "read" Chomsky. I first thought about a comment but in the end I decided not to deliver. The essence of the piece was okay: those who are enabled by their status have to challenge the establishment.
The problem remains of course: those who are enabled are almost by definition part of the establishment. Probably the reason why he finishes this commentary with the almost good-hearted Intellectuals are typically privileged—merely an observation about usage of the term. Privilege yields opportunity, and opportunity confers responsibilities.
Then followed the second commentary THE RESPONSIBILITY OF INTELLECTUALS - part I, a transcript of an interview with Michael Albert. It is more of the same and it made things worse.
It suggests some definition of the social class he is talking about. And, by bringing up his moral stance as the ultimate standard while
- suggesting good and wrong visions are recognizable and distinguishable
- connecting the wrong vision to the attitude of a misbehaving child
he is entering the dark realms of morals and ethics.
The commentary fails utterly in defining the basics of what it is talking about.
1. It offers nothing close to a definition of the kind of people it is referring to.
2. It fails to explain why the intellectual is privileged.
3. It fails to explain why the intellectual is more responsible, or why the subject urges to dwell at great length on these responsibilities.
4. It doesn't provide for a proper criterion how the intellectual should cope with these responsibilities.
Personally I do not believe in a special responsibility of any class of society. Neither the nobility, nor the wealthy, nor the intellectual. It is kind of elitism, elitist thinking.
Something like some animals are more equal than others.
No doubt Chomsky's view on the intellectual class resembles that epitaph "the white man's burden". I suppose the line of thought is
- they are better in overseeing and analyzing a situation
- they have the gift of the word
The reverse seems often to be the case.
I'm referring to an essay by Frits Staal, certainly a member of the class, NOAM CHOMSKY BETWEEN THE HUMAN AND NATURAL SCIENCES. It is about communication, the role of language in the acquisition of knowledge, and the work of Chomsky as a linguist. I do not know if Chomsky is familiar with this essay but Staal thanks Chomsky in his endnotes for his comments on an earlier draft of this essay and Staal considers Chomsky as one of his gurus and holds him in esteem.
Referring to the Schrödinger equation Staal writes: The adoption of an artificial language for the expression of a fundamental truth, as in the Schrödinger equation, is not an abbreviation of what may be expressed through a natural language; ... [...] The formal languages of mathematics have replaced natural language in all the so-called exact sciences. [...] And Staal concludes: Though syntax paved the way, natural language is unable to express such results adequately. And in a Dutch, modified version he is even more explicit under the heading ARTIFICIAL LANGUAGES [This equation] cannot even "in principal" - whatever that may mean in this context - be rendered into a natural language. (my translation).
I think this is sheer nonsense (you are in desperate need for natural language to transfer the knowledge of an artificial language!).
Now, if I'm right in thinking so, this does underscore the reverse of the first assumption: intellectuals are not by definition better in analyzing.
Wright or rong, it underscores the reverse of the other assumption: the intellectual is not always able to express the results of his thinking in natural language.
And I am referring to a column by Paul Krugman. I think he meets all the criteria of Chomsky to be a privileged intellectual who is engaged in good intentions and in good sense - pursuing elementary moral truisms. I do not know if Chomsky will agree with me. I am sure that Krugman is not privileged - he had to work hard to become what he is and he has to do hard working to remain in this position. But all the same: a good man.
His column THE YEARS OF SHAME (NYT) does exactly what Chomsky asks: challenge the state, challenge the accepted policies. He delivers a strong argument for the misbehavior of all the dignitaries and the pundits in the world as a consequence of 9/11 and the poisoning of the commemoration.
Then Krugman finishes with an odd and confusing statement, to say the least. I’m not going to allow comments on this post, for obvious reasons.
I do not think this is elitism. I assume that Krugman has had his share of nasty comments and abusive language.
But the last thing an intellectual should do is, first, addressing the masses in the street and, next, close the windows of his ivory tower. At least, in intending to do so, he should explain his obvious reasons, which are beyond my understanding - that obvious!
I would say Chomsky is prove himself of what he writes at the beginning of the first essay: Since we often cannot see what is happening before our eyes, it is perhaps not too surprising that what is at a slight distance removed is utterly invisible. Being himself an intellectual who is OK in every aspect of these ideas, these feelings he is harboring, the academic Chomsky seems not able to analyze and to express what is happening right under his very watch with the human being Chomsky.
In part II of THE RESPONSIBILITY OF INTELLECTUALS the word privileged is only used in a strong connection with the powers that be. The article focuses mainly on journalists although the notion of the good and bad intellectual is still present.