Defending Noam Chomsky?
By Matthew Green at Jun 04, 2008
Defending Noam Chomsky?
A short while ago, I saw an entry on "Albert's Alcove" and someone suggested a biography of Noam Chomsky. I thought that if anyone was going to write a biography of Chomsky, it should be Noam himself. What I would like to see is, if someone can manage the feat, a defense of Chomsky. Ever since Chomsky started writing political critiques, he has come under criticism. The criticism is not limited to political conservatives like David Horowitz. In fact, one of biggest critics of his first book, American Power and the New Mandarins was liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Schlesinger and Chomsky got into an argument over some quotes that Chomsky attributed to Harry Truman. Chomsky alleges that it was a misunderstanding due to an error on his part but he corrected it. Schlesinger argues that even as a paraphrase of Truman, Chomsky's "quotation" was bogus and alleged dishonesty on Chomsky's part.
This was not the first or the last criticism of Chomsky. I have seen some criticisms of Chomsky come from Samuel Huntington who accused Chomsky of outright dishonesty. I have seen others accuse Chomsky of defending horrible Communist regimes such as in
What I would like to know is whether or not anyone is interested in writing a defense of Dr. Chomsky? If these criticisms are groundless and even dishonest, it's best to rebut them and expose them for what they may be. I was wondering if Amy Goodman or David Barsamian would be interested in writing a book, composing detailed replies to critics of Chomsky. These are serious criticisms and they're not all from right-wing hacks like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. I would not even be too quick to dismiss, say, David Horowitz and criticism of Chomsky by him given that he's a former leftist and needs to be taken seriously. He may hold a certain sway among people and if he's not taken seriously and replied to, then some newer folks who might otherwise give Chomsky's materials serious consideration, might be turned off from doing so by folks like Horowitz. Horowitz has authored The Anti-Chomsky Reader and this is a serious critique of Chomsky and his work. I have been reading this book out of curiosity, wondering what Chomsky's critics had to say about him. What I have read is actually very disturbing.
Before anyone says to me "Matt, come on! Noam is a hero to all Americans who are against capitalism, against imperialism, against propaganda, you need not take these authors seriously!" I want to say something: these are serious critiques and some of the critiques are written by actual scholars! If there is something wrong with these critiques of Chomsky, can someone please take the time to show me what is wrong with them? I have read the exchange between Chomsky and Huntington over the allegation of dishonesty and, to be perfectly honest, I am not at all satisfied with Chomsky's response to it. I have been reading Oliver Kamm's blog and read about his complaint against Chomsky, a complaint of deliberate distortion regarding a quote from a former U.S. Embassador regarding East Timor.
I have nothing against Dr. Chomsky personally, mind anyone. He has always come across as being very cordial, friendly, kind, and always seems gentlemanly in taped interviews, talks, lectures, and even in a debate I saw with him and William Buckley Jr. back in the very late 60s, I think it was. I am going to "bite the bullet" here- I have been wrestling with second thoughts about Dr. Chomsky. Back as an undergraduate, I strongly admired Chomsky. He was the "Einstein" of linguistics, the "most important intellectual alive today". I took anarchist political philosophy seriously in part because of Chomsky (Interestingly enough, Albert Einstein himself was a socialist, especially in his later years). However after reading some criticisms of Chomsky, I became uncomfortable, beginning with the exchange with Schlesinger and Huntington. I was particularly shocked to read of a speech he gave in
Let me repeat with a qualification here: I have nothing against Dr. Chomsky personally but I do have something against past Marxist regimes and people who defend them. As far as I know, all of the past Marxist regimes seem to me to be horribly guilty of mass atrocities towards people. The regimes of Stalin, Pol Pot, and Ho Chi Minh strike me as being murderous Communist regimes. I am not surprised that this has happened. I recall reading the words of the Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin who warned about Marxist "socialists" coming to power and the brutal atrocities inflicted upon people by these regimes seems to me to be a chilling prophecy that has come true over the last half century since Bakunin's time. Let me ask a painful question: what is going on here?
After becoming aware of these criticisms I actually contacted Dr. Chomsky, hoping that there was some explanation and maybe I could interest him in writing a book defending himself from these criticisms. Chomsky replied by saying that he has responded to Schlesinger but he doesn't respond to Horowitz, saying that responding to "lies" would only result in "more lies". Nevertheless, he always responds individually. Okay, I thought, given his age, I wasn't going to try to arm-twist him into writing a defense or anything like that. But I did try to contact other people who are friendly with Chomsky, including Amy Goodman and Alternative Radio. I never got a response. I want to ask people who are fond of Chomsky, who are friends with him a very important question: if these criticisms are wrong, misplaced, or worse, dishonest- can anyone please patiently go through with me and show me how?
I want to be able to give Dr. Chomsky the benefit of the doubt considering that he is a fellow anarchist like me and a strong supporter of Parecon. We both seem to really like Parecon; the more I read about it, the more I like it. A short while ago, I recommended Parecon to a political conservative for study, got his e-mail address, and sent him two files that I have: one was by Robin Hahnel on exploitation and the other was a joint journal paper by Hahnel and Albert titled "Socialism as it was always meant to be". Hahnel's book, Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation is particularly fascinating and remains a favorite book of mine. Until I see some clear evidence that participatory planning is unworkable, that it's unjust to reward people according to effort and sacrifice, or that balanced job complexes will not work, I see no reason to abandon Parecon.
Perhaps my second thoughts will prove to be that- just second thoughts. I can handle being wrong. I can handle being rebuked. I can handle being proven wrong and needing to owe people serious apologies. This I have done before a number of times. People who know me very well, know that I am a very honest person, that I strive to be intellectually honest, and integrity is very important to me. If I am wrong to think that some of these criticisms of Chomsky might have some substance to them, if I am wrong to think that Chomsky's critics may be right about him, that's fine! I can handle being wrong. I can handle being rebuked. I can handle being corrected. I can even freely admit to being very wrong and even giving Chomsky a serious apology for thinking that his critics might be right about him.
I don't particularly desire to intrude on people's times, particularly if they lead very busy lives. I can understand that some people are hesitant to engage in a long, detailed discussion. But if I am confused, if I am misled, or anything of the sort, can someone please "straighten me out". Rebuke me if you feel you need to. Criticize me if you think I deserve it. But at least try to help me understand where I might be going wrong if I am. If I am so confused, so misled, so ignorant as to deserve scorn and ridicule-I beg to know why! I can handle a rebuke and as painful for me as any sizzling rebuke may prove, I am willing to endure it if it means that I survive it knowing better.
A couple of years back, I used to really admire John Maynard Keynes. I considered him prophetic about the Treaty of Versailles. I read, with interest, a book by Paul Krugman, called Peddling Prosperity which made Keynesian economics sound so convincing that I began to advocate it as far as I understood it well. I believe I was wrong to do so. After reading chapters from Steven Kates' book Say's Law and the Keynesian Revolution, I am convinced that Keynes probably did not refute Say's law of markets and that his writings misunderstand it. He committed several statements to print that I have seen shown wrong, leaving me to conclude that Keynes did not refute Say's law. I am convinced that Say's law of markets is probably true (which would not justify capitalism in my opinion or in any way prove it to be equitable nor would it invalidate Parecon as a more equitable and just political economy). I cringe at the thought that history may be repeating itself. I cringe at the thought of concluding that my admiration for Noam Chomsky was just as misplaced and misguided as my admiration for John Maynard Keynes once was.
I am asking anyone who is deeply acquainted with Chomsky's political writings to help me to understand where Chomsky's critics are wrong. I am asking anyone who is friends with Chomsky to set the record straight. If anyone found inspiration in this blog to want to start writing defenses of Chomsky, helping to educate people about his work, about his character, and about his activism, that would be great. I am a Leftist asking other Leftists for help. I am tired of being wrong and misled if I am.
Is anyone willing to dialogue about this?