Chomsky and I

Liberals do tend to make certain assumptions and to framework situations with some bias. Cognitive science teaches us that we all do this, but it’s a fallacy to ignore one’s blinders.

Liberal and left-wing bias is nothing like the true insanity at the right, but it does result in preaching to the choir and discouraging your allies. This true story about Noam Chomsky’s early use of the Internet may show this.

In 1992, Z Magazine, then and now a liberal site, operated a text-based BBS for interacting with its left-wing staff based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The admin was Mike Albert, a long time left-wing organizer and Noam Chomsky’s assistant. As you know, Chomsky a leading figure of the American left who uses reality-based critique to debunk a lot of myths about American virtue and exceptionalism.

When Mike Albert read my first posts, he immediately invited me to write for Z Magazine.

But then came my “Adorno” moment, which has often occured in my professional life. Albert rejected my first piece, a film review, as “verbose” where in my experience “verbose” can mean one of several things:

A large x/y where x=words and y=ideas

A large y/x where too many novel ideas are introduced, perhaps unrelated, or related in surprising ways

“It does not fit between the ads”

“I have a Master’s degree, ” (“I have a Master’s degree. In Science!” – Ask Mister Science, Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater) “…and I don’t understand this”

I think Albert fell into the Mister Science category.

Anyway, I next participated in an online, text-based discussion in which Albert would transmit the questions offline to Chomsky as a sort of Delphic Oracle. But when I asked Chomsky through Albert to speak about the relevance of, and absence of, Hegel in American political theory, the Chomsker lost it.. and said that Hegel was responsible for the Nazis. He then asked Mike Albert to refuse all further questions from me.

Mike Albert then blew his stack in a phone conversation when I said, all innocent like, that it seemed to me that the Internet plus socialism equaled control addiction and there has been no further truck between the Cambridge Set and yours truly.

A most instructive episode which may have exposed Chomsky’s shallowness as a “public intellectual”: he received a broad, intense but spotty education, being first a mathematical linguist and then became self-educated in politics during the Vietnam War.

The Chomsker seemed to have confused Hegel and Nietzsche. The latter developed the idea of the “superman” that was appropriated and misused by some of the Nazi zanies, but Nietzsche’s intellectual forefather was Schopenhauer, who hated Hegel’s philosophy.

Hegel believed that we’re all less abstract, standalone Individuals and more parts of history while still free to make our own choices; however, the sum of those choices is determined, in Hegel, dialectically, by the choices that have gone before.

For example, when we rebel against the ways of our fathers our choices are not “free” in the sense that they were caused, perhaps determined, by our fathers’ generation’s actions and beliefs. They might be the negation of our fathers’ beliefs but this to Hegel was a dialectic.

Unlike many forms of Positivist sociology, Hegel’s dialectical actors are no dot people who can be expected to act in deterministic or statistically semi-deterministic ways over time. They are fully aware of the Self and others and engage in a continuous dialogue, from whence we get the dialectic as the only explanation for History’s surprising twists and turns, known in Hegel as the cunning of reason.

Nothing in this implies the doctrine of the Nietzschean, Randian, or Fascist “superman” who can change the course of history; if the dialectic determines history, history is beyond our control. Chomsky was clearly uneducated in European philosophy, like most Americans, but as such doesn’t exactly deserve his reputation as a heavy-duty intellectual stud, in my opinion.

Missing in the interchange seemed to be any intellectual curiosity on Chomsky’s part, an intellectual curiosity that was manifested by two philosophers he regarded as demi-frauds, Derrida and Foucault: Derrida reread Plato every year of his professional life for new insights, and Foucault appears to have visited the Bibliotheque National each day of his professional life.

Instead there seemed to be a weary suspicion that I was pulling Chomsky’s leg or being “pretentious”, only a short time after the infamous Sokal hoax (when a physicist, enraged by what he considered to be the meaningless of pomo texts, wrote and submitted a parody pomo text to a journal, and it was published). But to be intellectually “pretentious” is a crime mostly in midrange American universities where a general schlamperei, a careerism, puts true effort under a cloud as perhaps too Enthusiastic at best, making it hard for the others as well, and fraud at worst.

I didn’t encounter this suspicion of intellectual curiosity from Bill Howarth, an English professor at Princeton for whom I installed Hypercard and rewarded my questions about the potential use of Hypercard to teach poetry with an interesting talk about Dylan Thomas, nor did I encounter it from Cornel West.

Chomsky also has the irritating Ivy League habit of regarding someone from the Midwest with the funny German name of Nilges as at best an irritating and flawed auto-didact.

East coast intellectuals have been given very good reasons for regarding those of us west of the State College exit on the Pennsylvania Turnpike as morons, because the fact is many of us are dumber than a box of rocks. Susan Jacoby, in her recent book The Age of American Unreason (a study of anti-intellectualism in American history) tells us that not only do many Americans believe that man and dinosaurs coexisted, many Americans *cannot name the four Gospels* even when they say they are religious.

But Chomsky was obviously on automatic pilot when he reasoned from Tinkers to Evers to Chance: from Hegel to “Nilges” to German to Nazi…as if all languages were his own Chomsky Type 3, consisting of streams of symbols with no structure. I was most offended.

This incident caused me to take a hard look at Chomsky as a political thinker.

Chomsky’s anarchism blames centralized power for the excesses of capitalism and Communism but Chomsky, unlike the Founding Fathers, has developed no theory for federalizing local power. For this reason, his anarchism plays into the hands of some of the worst tendencies in America including Nullification and “states’ rights”. “All power to the Soviets” in America can create People’s Republics in Palo Alto, Cambridge and Taos, but practically everywhere else it creates communities easily dominated by local merchants and the franchisers of McDonald’s and Walmart in which the teaching of Evolution is banned.

Chomsky does not seem to know it, being resistant to philosophical analysis, but he’s a very basic form of scientific Positivist, who believes that the facts of American Imperialism have only one interpretation.

For example, Truman’s cold war was of course a power grab. But it was confronted with expansionist power, and it was a direct and somewhat idealistic response to the thuggery of Communists in Eastern Europe. Non-Communist politicians were being defenestrated in Prague under mysterious circumstances and the Polish officer class was eliminated by the Soviets. To renarrate American foreign policy as Empire “the same as” the preceding empires is of course to ignore the way in which used idealism, and ideas, in a unique way relative to Spain, Holland, or Britain.

It also creates a proto-Stalinist control of language in which one’s language and frame of reference becomes so unlike that of one’s fellow citizens that dialogue, of the sort I am carrying on at a Nullification site, is impossible. As Cass Sunstein (with whom I served on an online panel sponsored by Princeton University Press in 2000) points out, we divide into communities that only speak to each other.

As such, Chomsky is a scientific anti-intellectual who professes to find most European philosophy incomprehensible “babble” while never considering that this might be an impression produced by his own limitations…and the limitations of American philosophy.

Of course, all of this may only be venting of a resentment. While I’ve read Chomsky’s older work, both political and linguistic, he may have changed. But no thanks to me.


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