Anyone who picks up Noam Chomsky’s latest book probably deserves to have their hands removed. But, since we’re still months away from instituting fundamentalist Blairia Law, those grabbing a copy of Hegemony or Survival will notice this throbbing praise for Noam on the cover, credited to The New York Times: “Arguably the most important intellectual alive.” Trouble is, the quote has been abbreviated. The full line, as uncovered by excellent left-wing British writer Oliver Kamm, is: “Arguably the most important intellectual alive, how can he write such nonsense about international affairs and foreign policy?”
Where was this “uncovered”? Oliver Kamm cites Terrorizing the Neighbourhood, that is, a book by Noam Chomsky. So while you can be appalled at the gall of Chomsky for continuing to pimp this quote context-free, still it remains that neither Blair nor Kamm nor myself would’ve come across it if Chomsky hadn’t been at least somewhat honest.
Indeed, Chomsky is not exactly shy about the full New York Times quote. I first came across it in Manufacturing Consent [the movie]:
…the line about the “arguably the most important intellectual” in the world and so on comes from a publisher’s blurb. And you always got to watch those things…because if you go back to the original you’ll find that that sentence is actually there — this is in The New York Times — but the next sentence is: “Since that’s the case, how can he write such terrible things about American foreign policy?” And they never quote that part. But in fact if it wasn’t for that second sentence I would begin to think that I’m doing something wrong. And I’m not joking about that. It’s true that the emperor doesn’t have any clothes, but the emperor doesn’t like to be told it, and the emperor’s lapdogs like The New York Times are not going to enjoy the experience if you do.
Putting to one side the talk of imperial canines, what is clear is that Chomsky is actually proud of the full quote. A badge of honour, if you will. Furthermore, careful readers will notice that the quote has changed. No longer is Chomsky writing “nonsense” about “international affairs”; he’s evolved to “terrible things” on the topic of “American foreign policy”. So which is the actual New York Times quote? Neither, as it turns out.
If we assume that the New York Times hasn’t twice described Chomsky in such a book-cover baiting way, then this is the quote that Chomsky is doing such a poor job of paraphrasing:
Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today. He is also a disturbingly divided intellectual. On the one hand there is a large body of revolutionary and highly technical linguistic scholarship, much of it too difficult for anyone but the professional linguist or philosopher; on the other, an equally substantial body of political writings, accessible to any literate person but often maddeningly simple-minded. The ‘Chomsky problem’ is to explain how these two fit together.
So the actual quote is rather more flattering than Chomsky’s paraphrase of it. This should surprise no one, given the lapdogs-of-empire talk and the fact that Chomsky hates the New York Times with only marginally less fervour than Ann Coulter.
What does surprise is the reaction of Andrew Sullivan, Tim Blair, Imre Salusinszky etc. They’ve been known to accuse Noam Chomsky of every form of intellectual dishonesty imaginable, yet when they came across Oliver Kamm’s uncovering, all of a sudden their critical faculties vanished. So there you have it: they’ll believe anything Noam Chomsky tells them, so long as it conforms to their worldview.
Wait, that’s not surprising at all.