The Other Chomsky
The Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2005
The British monthly journal Prospect recently presented its readers with a list of well-known intellectuals and asked them to pick No. 1. On there were Christopher Hitchens, Niall Ferguson, Daniel Dennet, Umberto Eco, Bernard Lewis and so on. But the voters chose the American linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky.
Little surprise here. In Europe these days, the most politicized part of the public is the "hard" left. And Mr. Chomsky is its hero. On the other side of the Atlantic, and on the other side of the ideological spectrum, his "victory" in the race to be the leading intellectual of our times is certain to be met with howls of derision.
The European left loves him for the same reason that the American right hates him: His views on foreign policy, which are virulently critical of the U.S. and Israel. In the eyes of the left, Mr. Chomsky is the champion of the downtrodden who suffer in the "neoliberal world order" championed by the U.S. government and the multinationals. In the eyes of the right, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist is an unashamed apologist for Castro, Pol Pot and generally any Third World tyrant or Middle Eastern terrorist who loves to hate the U.S.
It's a real shame that only Mr. Chomsky's tedious harangues against America get any attention. His body of work deserves more serious treatment. The interesting yet overlooked aspects of his political philosophy cannot easily fit into the left-right dichotomy.
What makes Mr. Chomsky unique is that his criticism of the capitalist economic order takes its point of departure from the classical liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment. His heroes are not Lenin and Marx but Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt. He argues that the free market envisaged by these thinkers has never materialized in the world and that what we have gotten instead is a collusion of the state with private interests. Moreover he has repeatedly stressed that the attacks on democracy and the market by the big multinationals go hand in hand. The rich, he claims, echoing Adam Smith, are too keen to preach the benefits of market discipline to the poor while they reserve for themselves the right to be bailed out by the state whenever the going gets rough. As he puts it: "The free market is socialism for the rich. Markets for the poor and state protection for the rich." He has spoken positively about the work of Peruvian liberal economist Hernando De Soto who sees the problem of poverty in the Third World as being related to the fact that the poor usually lack clearly defined property rights.
Another aspect of his political work that has been overlooked by foes and critics alike is Mr. Chomsky's fight against the forces of irrationality that tend to dominate the humanities in the universities. His dismissal of Marxism as a religious "pseudoscience" devoid of all scientific pretensions is one such case. Another is his insistence that the social "sciences" and economics do not meet the methodological criteria that would qualify them as sciences and should thus give up any pretense to being so.
But the brunt of his attacks has been reserved for Parisian "postmodernism," which he considers as the apotheosis of irrational nonsense. He has not hesitated to accuse some of the leading figures of French "postmodernism" (Lacan, Derrida and Foucault) as "charlatans" and "illiterates" while he has characterized their texts as "pretentious" and "gibberish."
Mr. Chomsky has been especially hard on those that try to denigrate the scientific endeavor by either relativizing it or by trying to show that science serves ideological interests of "gender" or "race." "The entire idea of 'white male science' reminds me of 'Jewish physics,'" he writes. "When I read a scientific paper I can't tell whether the author is white or male." Mr. Chomsky has repeatedly deplored the attitude of the academic left "to declare that the project of the Enlightenment is dead and that we should abandon the illusions of science and rationality."
One aspect of Mr. Chomsky's work I do find disagreeable: his tendency to adopt double standards, most glaringly on the issue of academic freedom. Consider his position on academic studies of the "truth" of the Holocaust and the links between race and IQ. In the first instance he argued that the historian has the right to explore, even change, the reality of the Holocaust. Moreover, while he has distanced himself quite categorically from the methods and findings of the revisionist historians, he has nevertheless argued that questioning whether the gas chambers and the genocide of the Jews in Hitler's Germany really happened doesn't by itself constitute an act of anti-Semitism.
On the other hand, however, he has failed to adopt a similarly liberal approach to work on race and IQ. Here he has explicitly questioned the reason for the existence of those studies, claiming that the social costs of finding correlations between racial characteristics and intelligence by far outweigh the questionable scientific merits of any such investigation.
Mr. Chomsky deserves more serious and closer reading from his critics and his supporters. Unfortunately his writings are used to score easy points in vitriolic debates whose aim isn't illumination or understanding. For this Mr. Chomsky, who nurtures his iconic status for the world's left, has also himself to blame.