The Chomsky Problem

Somehow I’ve ended up reading books on linguistics.

It started years ago with my reading books by such thinkers as E. R. Dodds and Julian Jaynes. Their main focus was on language usage of the ancient world. For entirely different reasons, I ended up interested in Daniel L. Everett who became famous for his study of the Piraha, an Amazonian tribe with a unique culture and language. A major figure I have had an interest in for a long time, Noam Chomsky, is also in the linguistics field, but I had never previously been interested in his linguistic writings.

It turns out that Everett and Chomsky are on two sides of the central debate within linguistics. That debate has overshadowed all other issues in the field since what is known as the cognitive revolution. I was peripherally aware of this, but some recent books have forced me to try to make sense of it. Two books I read, though, come at the debate from an entirely different angle.

The first book I read isn’t one I’d recommend. It is The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe. I’ve never looked at much of his writings, despite having seen his books around for decades. The only prior book I even opened was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a catchy title if there ever was one. Maybe he is getting old enough that he isn’t as great of a writer as he once was. I don’t know. This latest publication wasn’t that impressive, even as I think I understood and agreed with the central conclusion of his argument posed as a confused angry rant.

It’s possible that such a book might serve a purpose, if reading it led one to read better books on the topic. Tom Wolfe does have a journalistic flair about him that makes the debate seem entertaining to those who might otherwise find it boring — a melodramatic clashing of minds and ideas, sometimes a battle of wills with charisma winning the day. His portrayal of Chomsky definitely gets one thinking, but I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. Fortunately, another book by an entirely different kind of author, Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky, takes on a similar understanding to Chomsky’s linguistics career and does so with more scholarly care.

Both books helped me put my finger on something that has been bothering me about Chomsky. Like Knight, I highly respect Chomsky’s political activism and his being a voice for truth and justice. Yet there was a disconnect I sensed. I remember being disappointed by a video where he mentioned being asked what should be done and his response was that he couldn’t tell anyone what to do and that everyone had to figure it out for themselves (Ye slaves, find yer own ways). The problem is that no one has ever figured out any major problem by themselves in all of human existence. Chomsky knows full well the challenges we face and still, when push comes to shove, the best he has to offer is to tell people to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate once again. That is plain depressing.

Knight gives one possible explanation for why that disconnection exists and why it matters. It’s not just a disconnection. After reading Knight’s book, I came to the conclusion that there is a dissociation involved, a near complete divide within Chomsky’s psyche. Because of his career and his activism, he felt compelled to split himself in two. He admits that this is what he has done and states that he has a remarkable talent in being able to do so, but he doesn’t seem grasp the potentially severe consequences. Knight shows that Chomsky should understand this, as it relates to key social problems Chomsky has written about involving the disconnect of the knowing mind — between what we know, what we think we know, what don’t know, and what we don’t know we know. It relates to what Knight discussion of Orwell’s problem and Plato’s problem:

He shows no appetite for dwelling on contradictions: ‘Plato’s problem . . . is to explain how we know so much, given that the evidence available to us is so sparse. Orwell’s problem is to explain why we know and understand so little, even though the evidence available to us is so rich.’[36]

How do we know so little? That’s Orwell’s problem. How do we know so much? That’s Plato’s. Chomsky makes no attempt to reconcile these two problems, leaving the contradiction between their flatly opposed assumptions unresolved. Which problem is chosen depends on who is speaking, whether activist or scientist. Chomsky’s ‘two problems’ seem not only different but utterly unconnected with one another, as if to deliberately illustrate the gulf between the two compartments of his brain.

I’m not sure I fully understand what this division is and what the fundamental issue might be. I do sense how this goes far beyond Chomsky and linguistics. Knight points out that this kind of splitting is common in academia. I’d go further. It is common throughout our society.

Dissociation is not an unusual response, but when taken to extremes the results can be problematic. An even more extreme example than that of Chomsky, as used by Derrick Jensen, is the Nazi doctors who experimented on children and then went home to play with their own children. The two parts of their lives never crossed, neither in their experience nor in their minds. This is something most people learn to do, if never to such a demented degree. Our lives become splintered in endless ways, a near inevitability in such a large complex society as this. Our society maybe couldn’t operate without such dissociation, a possibility that concerns me.

This brings my mind back around to the more basic problem of linguistics itself. What is linguistics a study of and what is the purpose toward what end? That relates to a point Knight makes, arguing that Chomsky has split theory from meaning, science from humanity. Between the Pentagon-funded researcher and the anti-Pentagon anarchist, the twain shall never meet. Two people live in Chomsky’s mind and they are fundamentally opposed, according to Knight. Maybe there is something to this.

Considering the larger-than-life impact Chomsky has had on the linguistics field, what does this mean for our understanding of our own humanity? Why has the Pentagon backed Chomsky’s side and what do they get for their money?

30 thoughts on “The Chomsky Problem

  1. It is disappointing that so many figures that would otherwise be leaders have asked people to toe the official line.

    We can’t. Voting for Clinton would validate the use of cheating by the DNC and would allow them in the future to treat the left with contempt. They know that then that their “they have nowhere to go” would be true. They’d be able to abuse the left at will in the future.

    An even scarier conclusion that is that it is entirely possible that Trump is the lesser evil for the left. Scary, considering how bad he is.

    • Yeah, it is very disappointing. I find it even more disappointing for Chomsky because I otherwise respect him greatly. He is one of the harshest and most incisive critics of mainstream US politics. It’s beyond bizarre for him to regularly tell people to vote for mainstream presidential candidates in the US political system. By reading his books, one is forced to do the opposite of what he tells people to do.

      The disconnect isn’t just between Chomsky’s professional career as linguist and personal activism in politics. It’s also between his analytical political writings and his practical political advice. If such a brilliant and well-informed mind as his can fall into such a trap, it makes one appreciate the power of the system we exist in and how it messes with people’s minds. Chomsky should write a book about it, as I’m sure it would be insightful and well documented.

      I’ve grown emotionally numb to this presidential election. There is no way for me to care about either of the two most likely elected candidates. And there is no way to rationally think about choosing between them. Even the likes of Sanders and Stein are moderate compared to outside challengers earlier last century. As for Gary Johnson, many libertarians don’t see him as being all that libertarian, more of what used to be considered a Republican in the past. We simply don’t even hear from genuine radicals in this system. They are so excluded that it’s as if they don’t exist.

      I don’t know about Trump. He might be crazy or simply putting on a good show. Either way, I doubt he means anything he says or is likely to do anything he promises. He is a man of popularity, not a man of action. He is used to living the good life, not getting his hands dirty. The worry isn’t what he might do on his own accord but what his advisers might tell him to do or what others under him might do on his behalf. It’s sort of a George W. Bush situation where the president wouldn’t be the brains of the operation.

      Clinton scares me in a more direct way. We don’t have to imagine and speculate about the harm she will do. We know what harm will do.

    • The obvious fact is that lesser evil is a misnomer. We are facing two greater evils. And that isn’t an exaggeration.

      Under either presidency, the world would become a far worse place, more oppressive and dangerous, a further growth of the police state and military-industrial complex and corporatist fascism. Partly this is just a fact of the entire ruling elite, political establishment, and crony plutocracy — no matter who is president. But that is all the more reason we should fight against this greater evilism.

      Those who argue about voting out of fear are cynically declaring that they’ve given up all hope on positive change, even if they can’t yet admit it to themselves. If either of these two are elected, we are going down a road that can’t have a happy ending. We are either at the point of no return or already long past it.

  2. We are facing some problems with keeping the left unified.

    The challenge is that there is a large segment of even many Progressive voters who will go with Clinton. They may do so with their noses, but in the end, they will vote for Clinton. The Democratic Establishment has them so long as that is the case.

    In the long run the Democratic Establishment has the left where they want them unless the left drops them.

    • I’ve always had an oddly optimistic side of my personality. Despite my depression and skepticism, I’m a possibility thinker and I try to gain a larger perspective to see beyond whatever shittiness is going on in any given moment. It’s easy to be cynical, but that seems like a boring way to live if that is a knee-jerk reaction and thoughtless attitude.

      Yet the political left supporting someone so horrific as Clinton is snuffing out what hope I’ve held onto all these years. I’m shocked by how few people comprehend how far gone is our society. It’s long past the time of playing these kinds of games. I don’t want to give up on this country, but so many Americans have already given up by default of the choices they’re making. Fighting the good fight is seemingly ever more pointless as time goes on.

      I’m starting to think we’re just going to have to let the situation go beyond redemption and then rebuild out of the rubble. We will collectively take our problems seriously when there is no other choice left, after we’ve wasted all other opportunities and have backed ourselves into a corner. That is a sad conclusion to come to.

  3. Here is a piece by Chris Knight:

    It is a scathing critique of Noam Chomsky, although offered with respect and sympathy of the compromise that Chomsky apparently felt compelled to make. Knight uses strong evidence to show that Chomsky knew he was working for the Pentagon.

    According to Knight, maybe Chomsky resolved his inner conflict by sacrificing his science. He created a theory so abstract and detached from reality that it was utterly useless for the war machine. But in the process he set the linguistics field behind several generations.

    Elsewhere, Knight implies the sacrifice could be interpreted as having gone even further. In making such a severe compromise, the split in his mind and identity might have had psychological consequences. And one could argue, as I do in this post, that Chomsky was compromised in his ability to take a strong political stance.

    One thing is clear is that Chomsky downplayed and misled others about how involved he was with the US government’s military funding and research. If he didn’t think this compromised him, then why did he hide it?

  4. Chomsky did accept funding from the Defense Dept, but that was more than half a century ago. And his research had only indirect relevance to actual warfare. To my knowledge he has not received Defense funding since that time — in which case these accusations of hypocrisy strike me as strained. I could be wrong, though.

    • It was an extensive and formative period of his entire career. He might never have become well known if not for that period of time when he and his wife worked for the Pentagon, when the military funded the publishing of some of his books, and when he worked for a Pentagon-related defense corporation developing weapon systems.

      In reading the articles below, it is hard to not see how fully this compromised Chomsky in numerous areas of his life and work. This impact wasn’t limited to his early academic career. Compromise, when continued long enough, becomes a mindset and a habit. Consider Chomsky’s pushing for people to vote for neocon and neoliberal Democrats, something it would be hard to imagine the anarchist David Graeber doing.

      Furthermore, Chris Knight argues that this has led Chomsky into an intellectual dead end with his academic work. And he wonders if this wasn’t intentional for, if his theories ever proved true, they would be immensely important for military application. That is the whole reason the Pentagon funded his work.

      Yet that doesn’t explain why he never developed a more anarchist-leaning theory of linguistics that not only wouldn’t have contributed to the military-industrial complex but would have challenged it. It is strange that the linguists and anthropologists who criticize his work often do so from theoretical positions that are more friendly to anarchistic possibilities. But that is the point. Working at MIT, he never would have been allowed to develop a theory of anarchism in linguistics.

      Working at MIT came at immense cost. It’s not necessarily about him being hypocritical in a conscious sense. When we put ourselves into a compromised position, it creates the conditions for ever more compromise and this mostly happens on an unconscious level. We find reasons to justify what we’ve chosen and an entire system of thought can form to uphold those justifications.

    • This goes back to an old frustration of mine. Looking back at a post on the sense of urgency, I noticed that you were the only one to comment there. You shared my sense of urgency.

      Yet there is nothing about Chomsky’s life that indicates he has ever experienced any significant amount of urgency. His argument that ideas are separate from personal life and academia separate from the world, well that is something only a member of the comfortable class could argue. Take his stance on the Vietnam War. He only voiced his own protest against it in the late 1960s when even the elite had become divided over the issue and so it became a safer topic. Chomsky’s urgency about that war would have been greater if he or a close loved one had been in the military where his life was in danger. And at present, he might feel more urgency in not arguing lesser evil voting if the neoliberal and neocon policies directly harmed him and his family. But instead he has remained safe for decades within the protected walls of the Ivory tower, not to mention the wealthier area he has lived in.

      Now consider David Graeber, about whom I just wrote that post about anarchists and universities. He came from a working class background and didn’t fit in with the comfortable class found in the American academia. He felt too much urgency to separate parts of his life and politics in order to advance his career. On top of that, during the Yale fiasco, two of his family members got sick and he had to go back and forth between them as a caretaker. It was apparently too much for his wife who divorced him at the time. Then following that, he found that no US university would hire him. Refusing to toe the line as Chomsky was willing to do, Graeber’s career was destroyed within US academia.

      Neither Chomsky nor Graeber entirely made a choice. One either feels urgency or not. And then one acts accordingly. Chomsky would intellectually know what I mean by ‘urgency’, but I doubt on a gut level that it is fully and undeniably real to him. In that sense, it is almost irrelevant to speak of hypocrisy. The failure in our society goes to a much deeper moral and psychological level. Accusations of hypocrisy, even if true, simply don’t capture the profound existential crisis we face nor the dissociation some people escape into.

    • I appreciate your concerns, and have come to similar conclusions about the value versus dangers of pointing people towards Noam’s work. (I’ve indirectly commented on this issue here and in other posts -> )

      That said, while it strikes me as fair to blame Noam for not offering any solutions, and for not pointing people to Parenti, Marx, Lenin, Mao, Fanon, Nkrumah’s work, and for becoming even more liberal since 2008, it seems a bit over the top to fear ‘left’ opportunists more than ‘right’ ones. Because for reasons beyond the control of people inclined to solidarity, those who aren’t, and who are even more willing to throw others under the bus, control most of the world’s resources, make the hiring and firing decisions, and so on. Moreover, the right and especially the US state has been very successful in undermining the left — while pressure may have appeared to come “from within the left”, it often came from that direction because they received moneyz, see for yet another example of that.

      • “it seems a bit over the top to fear ‘left’ opportunists more than ‘right’ ones.”

        It might help to know where I’m coming from. As I see it, high inequality and other related factors (loss of culture of trust, community breakdown, hyper-individual atomization, social Darwinism, etc) has caused our society to become dominated by the reactionary.

        This has affected the ‘left’ as much as the ‘right’. In fact, the reactionary might make such distinctions less meaningful. The reactionary (pseudo-)’left’ has more in common with the reactionary ‘right’ than the reactionary has with the non-reactionary.

        I don’t side with the reactionary (pseudo-)’left’ any more than I side with the reactionary ‘right’. My allies, instead, are among those who are aware of this reactionary trap and don’t simply get drawn into it by an opposing reaction. Reactionary is reactionary is reactionary, and that reactionary is the problem.

        It’s not a matter of finding a better, less dangerous of the reactionary. The reactionary inevitably leads to the authoritarian. And I’m an anti-authoritarian. The trick is how do we promote a society where the conditions don’t create this state of reactionary authoritarianism.

        I don’t have the answers for this. But I know that is what I’m hoping for.

        • So, to clarify, I would call that part of the left that believes in “meritocracy” as a defensible or desirable organizing principle reactionary, because of how fungible “merit” (and “deserving”) is, and because of who gets to decide which traits and behaviors are “meritorious”.
          But then there’s the question of liberation struggles and use of force (or ‘violence’), as a means to undo or overthrow unjust structures, institutionalized racism, etc.. Would you also classify that reactionary? Or, differently put, when does use of force become defensible to you?

          • I’d agree with your conclusion on “meritocracy” and “merit”. It’s hard to imagine ideological rhetoric of “meritocracy” that wouldn’t be used to rationalize and worsen the reactionary (and all that goes with it). Violence is simply part of the repertoire of human behavior. If we are violently attacked and can’t escape or otherwise evade harm, we have a natural tendency to violently defend ourselves. But that isn’t to justify any and all acts of violence. We can also be on the other side of the equation in being the instigator of violence in attacking others. Sometimes differentiuation between the two isn’t so clear, in that we can pre-emptively attack others or perceive an attack that doesn’t exist such as identifying as a victim. That would bring us into the reactionary mind. As with anything else, it is context-dependent. And it requires us to be highly aware of our own motives. It also matters what is our intended result, what we are trying to achieve or how we want to affect others.

            There are some cases where violence is obviously justified. I’d put slave revolts in that category. Then there was the attack on Fort Sumter that began the American Civil War, which was not justified and so the US government arguably was justified in responding with like violence. But if the South had peacefully seceded, the US government would not have been so easily justified in sending an army to force the Southern states to remain (the original Articles of Confederation was freely joined by all states and violent coercion was explicitly against the founding), even with the slave issue since it’s not as if the Northern economy wasn’t also tied up in slavery. The Civil War was on oe fhose situations where hot heads escalated events and then there was no turning back. Some Southerners were itching for a fight and so they got one, but even those who weren’t wanting to start war got drawn into it and so everyone suffered as a consequence.

            The American Revolution is more of a gray area. The British Empire did initiate violence, although that first altercation was minor and hardly worthy of a revolution. Furthermore, it’s not clear that Americans were better off for having revolted, as compared to the Canadians and Australians who didn’t revolt. But an argument could be made that, without the American Revolution, the British Empire would not have been forced to concede democratic reforms and hence Canada and Australia would not have benefited from those democratic reforms. It’s not as if the American colonists were suffering horribly under British rule. The colonists had some of the greatest freedom in the world at the time, greater than what was seen in England itself at the heart of the empire. A stronger case can be made for the violence of the French Revolution prior to the Reign of Terror. That revolution partly was incited by the simple and stark reality of the bread riots. The poor in France were starving and the monarchy had responded with some combination of indifference and brutality. It’s doubtful that was going to end in any other way than violence.

            Most of the time large-scale violence is not something that is intentionally chosen by those involved. And so talk of the morality of such actions is, in some sense, moot. People riot and revolt typically because there has been some vast failure in the system, after all other attempts at change have failed. Think of some of the riots in black communities that followed generations of failure to reform the police and end racial profiling, police brutality, and militarization of the police. Those riots weren’t exactly chosen but simply erupted out of mass frustration that had been simmering for a long time. It’s surprising violence like that doesn’t happen more often. That has been on my mind lately. There is still plenty of violence in and from the United States, although these days most of it is state violence. That is the strange part, in knowing how violent the American public had been in the past. Think of the Mining Wars that lasted for decades. Or look to the late 1910s to early 1920s with the Race Wars, Indian Wars, etc when violent revolt against oppressive power was a regular occurrence. I’ve been thinking about why that has changed, since it’s not as if the US is becoming a more fair and equal place with plutocracy and corporatocracy coming to dominance and right-wing authoritarianism threatening all across the world. It’s not a time for half-measures, whatever kind of response would be optimal and moral.

  5. Below is a comment to a post elsewhere. Instead of littering someone else’s post with my commentary, I decided to leave it here. At the end of this comment are some links, many of them already included in comments above but brought together here for simplicity’s sake.

    Once again, despite our agreement on so much, we find ourselves on opposite sides of an issue. I wonder why that is. It could be partly a generational divide, as my peer cohort of GenX is infamous for being disproportionately cynical. But there is also a personality difference, surely along with varying life experiences and reading history.

    Admittedly, I do seem more naturally critical than you, some might say overly or maybe unfairly critical. I won’t defend myself against that charge, as I’m fully aware of how decades of depression have given me a bit of a negative edge. I know from long experience that I can be judgmental, as much toward myself as others, but plenty of it is directed toward others — besides, most people don’t seem to mind as much when I judge myself, as my own judgments tend to be harsh and nagging voices inside my head. If you think I’m irritating in my sometimes seemingly antagonistic disagreements, just imagine what it is like to be trapped in my skull.

    I must admit that, at present, I don’t feel like arguing with you or really with anyone else for that matter. Instead, I’m simply going to present why I’ve come to my conclusion, share what brought me to that conclusion, and leave it at that. You are free, of course, to have the last word. If you still take an entirely different view than my own, I’ll accept that and, assuming you don’t present some overwhelming argument that challenges my conclusion, I’ll simply agree to disagree.

    Let me explain one thing first. I began maybe in a similar position as your own. I respected and still respect much of Chomsky’s work. In the past, I would defend Chomsky against criticisms, as I agree with anarchosyndicalism, possibly to a far greater degree than does Chomsky. And indeed there are plenty of unfair criticisms out there. But I’ve come around to the view that Chomsky doesn’t need to be defended, since he is perfectly capable of defending himself. It’s not exactly that Chomsky is wrong in a simplistic sense. And the problem I’ve come to see in him is not unique to him for it is common throughout our society — a kind of splitting and dissociation, as argued by Chris Knight in Decoding Chomsky. This only stands out in Chomsky for the reason he has become the face of the radical left, but that isn’t to say he is any more hypocritical than the rest of us. Still, this is problematic when we on the radical left aspire to something greater beyond nice-sounding rhetoric and damning criticism.

    Yeah, I know Chomsky’s views in detail and have known for many years. I agree with much (most?) of his stated beliefs and values, ideals and principles, positions and policies. It’s not his words that I was speaking of but his actions. Some see him as having become compromised by having spent so much time at MIT that was back then 90% funded by the Pentagon. In fact, both his work and his wife’s work received Pentagon funding, and he directly participated in a Pentagon project — no matter how good were his intentions, and indeed he does argue that his role at MIT was a net benefit, as opposed to the alternative of refusing to participate in moral protest.

    In recent elections, he acts (I presume unintentionally but nonetheless effectively) in the role of a sheepdog herding left-leaning voters back into the Democratic fold to vote for mainstream anti-leftist and war-mongering corporatists like Hillary Clinton. He is brilliant in his analysis of what is wrong with our society, but in practice he is not a radical left-winger. Even to go back much earlier during a time when Chomsky’s work was being funded by the Pentagon, he didn’t come out against the Vietnam War until about the same time that many political elite had already turned against it.

    I understand his argument for why Americans almost always should vote Democratic, at least in presidential elections, no matter how bad are the Democratic candidates because of lesser evilism, that is to say Republicans are always worse. I understand and yet I think the moral and practical failure of this approach has brought us decades further into the reactionary dominance in both parties, turning the Democrats into the party of conservatives and the Republicans into the party of right-wingers, shifting the Overton window to the right of majority public opinion and so disconnecting, as research has shown, most Americans from any influence over federal policy and actions. Also, there is something irksome about his telling people to vote for the next DNC ruling elite, yet again; but when asked by activists what can be done, his only answer is to tell them to figure it out for themselves because he can’t tell them what to do, except apparently who to vote for:

    In light of this, I’d note that Tarzie said of Chomsky that, “Chomsky has been given a wide berth because he helpfully provides a Marxist analysis free of a Marxist solution.” Others take it even further, such as gbelljnr who comments on the post “The Mainstream and the Margins: Noam Chomsky vs. Michael Parenti” at the Propaganda blog: “If his is a Marxism at all, it is a Marxism with so much of its explanatory core scooped out and discarded that it is better spoken of as no Marxism at all.” Going further still, the same commenter states that, “Chomsky is not a gateway drug for would-be socialists. Chomsky is the opiate of radicals.” That is pretty harsh. I’m not a Marxist and so I’m not sure what is my opinion on such matters, but I have come to the conclusion that Chomsky in the end is a standard old school liberal who was shaped by the Cold War and formed his thinking within a Pentagon-funded institution. Whatever else he may be, he definitely is not a radical leftist and so, if we take him for what he actually is, it is unfair to judge him for not offering radical leftist solutions.

    This brings me to Chomsky saying that, “there is no such thing as social science,” and I can’t read that without hearing the echo of Margaret Thatcher declaring, There is no such thing as society. Chomsky’s ideal of linguistics as the theorizing of a genetically-determined language module to be submitted to the the distinterested research of hard science is quite telling, especially in how he conveniently separates science from politics, considering his own science was infiltrated by Pentagon interests.

    I don’t say any of this entirely or simply as a criticism for its first and foremost an observation. Such people who get heard in the mainstream, as Sanders and Chomsky regularly do, potentially (but not necessarily and inevitably) serve a purpose in possibly pushing public debate back left again or at least giving the space for others to do so — that is what I hoped for with Sanders’ campaign and it could be argued that this was a success. Even mere talk, even if not backed by radical leftist action, could still have a beneficial role to play in the long run, even if lesser evilism itself has done immense harm. I often agree with both of them in some of what they say, even when I look elsewhere further to the left for the leaders who will create the change we need.

    Still, there has long been something that has bothered me about Noam Chomsky. Watching his debate with Michael Foucault helped clarify my sense of this. I found myself much more in agreement with Foucalt’s probing questions and insights. And Chomsky never gave an adequate and convincing response to his freely choosing to work for an oppressive institution when he probably had the option of working at almost any university in the country or else some other country. There was nothing forcing him to be a military-sponsored academic. A successful career was almost guaranteed, even if he had chosen some other worthy institution not associated with violent militarism. It deligimized the moral authority of his voice and that is a shame.

    Decoding Chomsky: Science and revolutionary politics’
    by Chris Knight
    pp. 112-113:

    “Toward the end of a 1971 televised debate, the left-wing French philosopher Michel Foucault broached with Chomsky the sensitive topic of his relationship to the US military-industrial establishment. The transcript reads: ‘… how can you, with your very courageous attitude towards the war in Vietnam, survive in an institution like MIT, which is known here as one of the great war contractors and intellectual makers of this war?’

    “Chomsky responded by invoking Karl Marx:

    “There are people who argue, and I have never understood the logic of this, that a radical ought to dissociate himself from oppressive institutions. The logic of that argument is that Karl Marx shouldn’t have studied in the British Museum which, if anything, was the symbol of the most vicious imperialism in the world, the place where all the treasures an empire had gathered from the rape of the colonies, were brought together.

    “But I think Karl Marx was quite right in studying in the British Museum. He was right in using the resources and in fact the liberal values of the civilization that he was trying to overcome, against it. And I think the same applies in this case.

    “Chomsky here seems to be easing his political conscience by claiming that Karl Marx’s institutional environment was actually more ‘oppressive’ and indeed ‘vicious’ than the Pentagon-sponsored electronics lab in which he worked. Somehow, he manages to draw a favourable comparison between himself as a full-time salaried employee in one of the most advanced weapons research laboratories in the world and an impoverished Marx, taking notes for revolutionary purposes in a public library – the reading room of the British Museum.”

    • When Chomsky basically argued that Americans had to vote for Hillary Clinton or evil would win, I lost respect for him and lost hope for America.

      If that is what goes for radical left-wing, we are doomed and deserve to be doomed. It is that kind of thinking that got us into this problem. Doing more of the same isn’t going to save us. The political left isn’t defeated by the political right but defeats itself, again and again. I’ve been trying to figure out why the American left in recent history continually retreats even when they are winning battles.

      Chomsky is simply a useful, interesting, and famous example to explore this bizarre phenomenon. The splitting and dissociation seen in Chomsky is, as I said, common throughout our society. It’s the reason I’ve written so many posts about how people can simultaneously know and not know something. The first thinker that got me interested in this was Derrick Jensen.

    • Hope is the most radical thing in the world. When one makes a reasonable argument for lesser evilism and such, one is arguing against hope.

      Hope sometimes can be supported by reasonable explanations and sometimes may lead to reasonable results. But hope is never justified by reason, can never be reduced by reason to what our rational minds can handle.

      Voting for Hillary Clinton as opposed to Donald Trump, a case can be made that such is reasonable. It is also a complete betrayal of radical hope which is the only hope there is, specifically in dangerous times like these.

    • Here is the problem. We are in a highly unequal class-based society. This creates not only an economic divide but also a social and psychological disconnect for so many, even for those who mean well.

      The fact of the matter is Chomsky is part of the comfortable classes. He is in the top 10% of the US economic bracket and the US is the richest country in the world. On top of that, he is old and unlikely to ever experience the consequences of what is coming.

      Like so many others, he doesn’t feel the urgency. No one who did have a sense of the immediacy of the danger could ever in good conscience advocate lesser evilism. They simply couldn’t. It wouldn’t be possible.

      If we are to force the change that is needed, we will need to not only comfort the afflicted but afflict the comfortable. We’ll need to wake them up to the reality the rest of us are forced to live in on a daily basis, until they too feel the urgency of dire threat.

    • I can be an overly serious fellow. And I can be quite opinionated. But try not to take me too seriously. I’m fully capable of laughing at myself when I start feeling puffed up with moral righteousness. I maybe come across as more serious than I really am.

      I’m more amusing and laid back in person than online. My dry and quirky sense of humor doesn’t tend to translate well into text-based communication mostly with strangers who have never met me.

      It’s not like I hate Chomsky. Yeah, I’m disappointed in him. But all that means is that Chomsky is human like the rest of us. It turns out he shouldn’t be idolized as part of a personality cult. I don’t mean to be harsh in my criticisms, but I do think my criticisms are fair. Still, the same criticisms could be said of many others.

      I’m far from being morally perfect. But if I had to wait for personal perfection before I could speak my opinion, I’d forever remain in a state of utter silence. That would be hard for me to accomplish, in spite of my years of meditation practice.

  6. The word “wow!” was intended to convey astonishment and admiration—in this case for the enormousness, comprehensiveness and exhaustiveness of your indictment of Noam Chomsky. I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to respond to it point-by-point.
    I’ll add a historical footnote, which that Chomsky was closely associated with his friends Daniel Ellsberg and Howard Zinn in preparing The Pentagon Papers for publication. Chomsky and Zinn wrote explanatory prefaces to the different sections. He also took part on anti-Vietnam War protests.
    As a general comment, you seem to be much more concerned about the fine points of language and ideology than I am. Which is fine. You also seem to be overly concerned with my personal opinion of you. Which is not fine. If you write for publication, you need a thick skin.

    • I understand your historical footnote. I think Chomsky, in many ways, is a brilliant guy. Even many of his critics, such as Chris Knight, acknowledge the important role he has played. Like him or not, agree with him or not, no one can deny he has had immense influence. My own criticisms, though, go elsewhere. It’s not so much Chomsky himself but what he represents in our society. Ever since reading Derrick Jensen’s work, I’ve been haunted by this sense of disconnection that pervades the Western psyche, especially in the US.

      I don’t see it as language or ideology, at least probably not in the sense you man it. It’s more of a psychological and societal issue. It is about what dominates our entire sense of identity and reality, the stories we tell. It’s Philip K. Dick’s Black Iron Prison we are trapped in, what Robert Anton Wilson called a reality tunnel, what William S. Burroughs simply referred to as Control. It can get to the best of us. It’s why I’ve come around to the view that the reactionary isn’t only a mindset but an entire paradigm. We all find ourselves dealing with the same situation of a reactionary era, and this can’t be separated from all the rest, not liberalism, not leftism.

      To your last point, it’s not so much about you. I’m just a sensitive guy. Yes, I am thin-skinned, as I am what Ernest Hartmann labels a thin boundary type. It is what makes me so curious and questioning. And it goes along with an autistic-like affective empathy, meaning I feel strongly what others feel, while as with autistics my not having had a strong cognitive empathy as a child. I’m constantly trying to gauge people and there is always an emotional component. Everything is personal to me. In Myers-Briggs terminology, I’m an INFP, that is to say an NF idealist with dominant Introverted Feeling. On top of that, I was raised in touchy-feely new agey religion. So, fuck yeah, I’m sensitive. I wouldn’t be me otherwise. LOL

      Not that I don’t try to seek balance. But the fact of the matter is I’m not normal (by society’s norms) and I know it. I’ve come to some peace with who I am. Yet I also know I can irritate people and often for good reason, since I’m fully capable of being overly critical and confrontational, sometimes to the point of being an asshole. I try to own up to this. I do feel better lately, though. I’ve mentioned this to you a few times. Diet has made a big difference. People around me have noticed this. So, maybe there is hope for me yet. I suppose mid-life is not too late to begin growing a thicker skin.

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