This post began as a comment on James Farrell comment on a recent thread in which I linked to a bit of dirt on Chomsky. James pulled me up twice, in each case in ways that I appreciate. He (and Paul F) suggested in his first comment that a slip-up in a quote ainât no crime and I agree.
When I said I objected to Chomskyâs ârelentless negativityâ he pointed out that this was appropriate given the subject matter â the egregious abuses of human rights entailed in US foreign policy â as it would be if one were commenting on the Black Death or the Battle of the Somme.
He then commented that âhaving a kick at Chomsky seems to be ritual signaling device whereby members of the moderate left distance themselves from the extreme left, indicating that their views are reasonable rather than hysterical. Dismissals of Chomsky springing from this motive tend to be very general, formulaic and second hand.â
I think this is fair comment. But alhough I think I’m guilty of precisely what James accuses me of in some other cases – namely behaviour seeking to signal some position on an ideological spectrum with a view to demonstrating oneâs reasonableness â the explanation is a little different here.
So perhaps I should say a little more. I certainly donât pretend to any deep knowledge of Chomsky â only that my view of him is the opposite to Kath Day-Knightâs view of Kel. I donât like what I see.
From what I understand Chomskyâs explanation is a systematic one. He is arguing â like most social scientists â that the things he objects to are the product of systematic structural forces. Now this kind of approach is usually done with a view to making things better. Marxists (or some of them) might say that these things will improve once we have a revolution or whatever and they have something to say about what kind of revolution it should be. Neoclassical economists (or some of them) might say that weâd have less employment with lower minimum wages. Those things can then be argued on their merits.
Does Chomsky have any such recommendations? Thatâs a genuine question â I donât know. I can say â along with him â that the way the East Timorese were treated was a travesty of justice, and that this has been the case for many in the third world. I can lament that consent is âmanufacturedâ to the extent that lots of people vote for a president who does not govern in their interests. If Iâm hearing this from a Marxist, Iâll agree with the claim, but not with their proposed solution. Iâll also think that the proposed solution ignores the inevitability of compromise â and that it ignores the fact that humans tend to get up to no good no matter what system they’re in and that therefore attempts to bring about heaven on earth can end up making things worse – maybe much worse – viz the Soviet Union. Like some puritan said, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
I see in Chomsky the same kind of temperament â excoriating some of the worse things about the world as if no person of conscience could do anything other than recoil in horror and refuse to have anything to do with the system that produced it. I donât think thatâs helpful. I think itâs not just utopian, and so misguided, but also self righteous in a creepy kind of way. I often think itâs very telling that many of the most vociferous right wing commentators came from the left â very often from extreme positions. I remember as a kid of about 18 going to the non-members bar in Parliament House with my Dad while one of the journalists, now a right wing columnist lectured all those who would listen on the pusillanimity of the Whitlam Government – on its failure to be more radically left wing.
I really dislike that tone. Itâs a tone that doesn’t acknowledge that most people are mixtures of good and bad will and that in some âmuddlingâ kind of way are doing their best. And it doesn’t acknowledge that all systems are likewise deeply flawed, being products of us fallen creatures. I find that tone more odious from those who have swapped sides. As Heinz Arndt said âit might be thought that such an odyssey would induce a decent humility.â Before confessing âI can only shamefacedly report that this has not been my experience.â
Chomsky hasnât changed sides, but it seems to me that the fall of the wall â the collapse of the major competing system of politics of modern times â ought to induce a decent humility in us all.
I read on Wikipedia that âChomsky describes himself as a libertarian socialist and a sympathizer of anarcho-syndicalism (he is a member of the IWW).â So I guess he has some systematic recipe for making the world a better place â but Iâm blowed if I know how you make âlibertarian socialismâ come about. Me? Iâm in favour of trying to do what seems possible as far as improving the world is concerned (as well as living in gratitude for how far we have come and how lucky we are relative to others) but remaining indignant and self righteous doesn’t do it for me.
Anyway as I’ve already conceded above, what I donât know about Noam Chomsky could fill many volumes. I doubt that this post will convince anyone much – confused and simple expression of personal impressions that it is! But Iâd be interested in defenders of Chomsky setting me straight if they have the time or inclination.