Tag Archives: chomsky

On Feeling Good and Doing Good: Chomsky Turns 92

Here’s a suggestion for admirers of Noam Chomsky.

The best way to celebrate his 92nd birthday would be to pay attention to what he has to say.

A case in point came up a couple of days ago with Barack Obama’s criticism of the slogan “Defund the police.” Those promoting it are, according to Obama, often more concerned with “feel(ing) good among the people (they) already agree with.” What they should be concerned with is “get(ting) something done.”

The left was universal in its disdain, denunciations flowing from Jacobin, Current Affairs as well as AOC and all of the members of the squad.

Chomsky’s reaction? “He’s basically right.”

Racing to the Abyss Continue reading On Feeling Good and Doing Good: Chomsky Turns 92

Chomsky on the Left, Free Speech and the Authoritarian Mind

Those of us who have been politically engaged over the past few decades will find little new in what Michelle Goldberg refers to in her Times op-ed as the left’s “free speech problem.” My introduction to it was in 1978 when the ACLU supported the American Nazi Party’s application to march in Skokie, Illinois.

Much of the left, most conspicuously, the alphabet soup of self-defined Marxist organizations, inveighed against the liberals who aligned with the ACLU.  One of these “liberals” was Chomsky and while I don’t remember his being personally attacked for his stance, in a few years he would be. That occurred during the so-called Faurisson affair involving French academic Robert Faurisson accused of “falsification of history” by the French courts for having published a volume denying the existence of Nazi death camps.

Chomsky viewed this as a clear instance of suppression of speech, noting then, as he has routinely, that freedom of speech means nothing unless it applies to those whose views one finds abhorrent, as was clearly the case in this instance. This triggered considerable outrage from across the spectrum of the French left which mirrored the Marxist left here in denying that “Nazis had the right to speak.”

While there was no word for it at the time, this led to Chomsky being “cancelled” from French intellectual life. His formerly august reputation shattered, denunciations of Chomsky’s supposed Nazi sympathies (consistent, it was claimed with his harsh criticism of the policies of the Israeli state) deriving from the moderate to extreme left.


The similarities in the environments which led to Chomsky’s cancellation then during the Faurrison affair and now obscure certain differences relevant to the discussion. Among these was the role of the French Communist Party and other Marxist formations which were still viable, exerting considerable influence on elite discourse. They recognized that defense of free speech and other so called “bourgeois” rights constituted an implicit attack on those regimes they were ideologically and in some cases institutionally aligned with, namely, the Soviet Union and, to a lesser degree, China. Promotion of individual rights and liberties including free speech were a staple of cold war propaganda, massively financed, we now know, by Western intelligence services and even those far from being fellow travellers were taken aback by its cynicism and dishonesty.

That the protection of these regimes and the authoritarian ideology on which they were based was, for better or worse, a central concern of the French intellectuals attacking Chomsky during the Faurisson affair raises an obvious question: how should one explain the left’s rejection of Chomsky’s views now? There is, after all, no longer any Soviet Union to protect and the communist parties in their orbit have long ago collapsed. Furthermore, given that it has historically been directed against the left by the state, it is a bit baffling to observe leftists arguing for suppression and/or dilution of free speech rights. That this is a dominant left tendency has been apparent in the numerous challenges which Chomsky’s views and those supporting them have received in recent days including many on my own facebook wall.


The answer, in my opinion, has to do with certain subtly anti-democratic attitudes prevalent in sectors of the left. That the public should be marginalized from circles of real, objective power, is, of course, a foundational component of right wing political philosophy. That it has a left variant is less commonly understood, with Chomsky being one of the few to have registered its significance.

Specifically, this was the view associated with Lenin, as Chomsky observed in a 1986 essay where he noted “the great appeal of Leninist doctrine to the modern intelligentsia.” Chomsky continues, citing Bakunin’s critique of Marx, “This doctrine affords the ‘radical intellectuals’ the right to hold State power (becoming) the ‘State priests,’ . . . that rules it with an iron hand.” Chomsky also noted that nearly identical attitudes are congenial to statist liberals of the West, Robert McNamara’s managerial perspective overlapping closely with Lenin in its commitment to insulating a technocratic nomenklatura from popular demands and aspirations.

Coinciding with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the political formations beholden to it has been an erosion of organized labor and the working class base of the left coalition. As Dustin Guastella and others have pointed out, what remains of the left is largely dominated by what Barbara and John Ehrenreich identified as the Professional Managerial Class (PMC), often downwardly mobile segments of it to be sure but whose high level of education and relatively privileged backgrounds have conferred on them a distinctive set of attitudes.

Among these is a sense of entitlement of their “right” if not to hold and exercise state power, at least to be socially and organizationally deferred to by those who lack the capacity or expertise as these are defined within the dominant culture. When they are challenged, their tendency is not to attempt to convince but to denigrate the legitimacy of the challenge, particularly if this derives from those unacculturated within the linguistic and social norms of the PMC, aka the deplorables.

This tendency is most conspicuous in the frequent dismissal “I don’t need to educate you” invoked by those promulgating the toxic conventional wisdom of race relations associated with the influential best seller White Fragility. Its relevance here inheres on its being based on the assumption that those granted access to decision making circles already should know the answers to all of the relevant questions.  Those who don’t have tacitly admitted their guilt and are silenced through reprimands and humiliation.


The principle of free speech is directly antithetical to this deeply inculcated belief of the PMC and so it’s not surprising to find the negative reactions that we do in the current controversy. That said, it is rare for those challenging Chomsky to directly state their rejection of it. Free speech is, after all, a bedrock principle enshrined in the U.S. constitution and the legal system one which the PMC is ultimately invested in defending-at least nominally. What we therefore tend to see is a soft rejection generally prefaced by a pro forma endorsement of free speech inevitably followed by the qualification that certain groups (most notably Nazis but sometimes others) don’t deserve it.

Chomsky’s response to this is well known: those embracing it mirror exactly Stalin and Hitler who also agreed with free speech for those whose views they approve of. While the point is clear and obvious, it has had to be continuously reasserted for centuries: if you don’t believe in free speech for those holding views you find most detestable, you don’t believe in free speech at all.

The cancel culture mania of the last few years has revealed liberals’ and leftists’ supposed embrace of free speech to be highly elastic, if not altogether tenuous. The most minuscule expressions of non-conformity are met by left social media influencers unleashing their twitter followers with the goal of “ratioing” the unfortunate dissident into compliance. When this is not sufficient to silence them, it is often followed by tangible consequences, particularly when the campaign involves notification of the target’s employer, as has occurred to me on several occasions.

While it would be an exaggeration to compare the stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere we are now enduring with Mao’s China or the Soviet Union under Brezhnev or Stalin, it has been increasingly recognized that it is not one we should be comfortable with having created. Some, most notably Ben Burgis in this perceptive segment with Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara, have argued that it is a major reason for our failure to create a mass constituency for our politics, something which should be obvious to anyone with open eyes. I’m inclined to agree and hope others will at least begin to engage in a discussion about it.

Free Speech and the The Left: The Harper’s Letter in Context

1) Given that it has been a central concern of the left for three centuries, it should surprise no one that a letter supporting free speech rights was signed by leftists. It should also surprise no one that various neoliberal ghouls whose demonstrated contempt for free speech is exceeded only by their capacity for hypocrisy also signed it.

2) One might think that the overwhelming response by the left would be to expose the latter, citing their cynical and opportunistic brandishing of a right to free speech they routinely deny to others.

3) Alas, what has occupied many of us has been something entirely different albeit familiar, namely issuing a constant stream of denunciations of those on the left who signed. Most of these targeted Chomsky, probably the most high profile signatory but also the most predictable with a sixty year record of signing similar appeals.

Continue reading Free Speech and the The Left: The Harper’s Letter in Context

Chomsky Responds to House Anti-BDS Resolution

I wouldn’t have voted for the resolution.

There are things wrong with the “BDS movement,” but BDS – more accurately BD (there are no sanctions in the offing) – can be quite effective when done sensibly, with tactical choices guided by concern for the victims and careful thought about the consequences of particular actions – which should be second nature to activists.

BD was initiated in 1997 by Uri Avneri’s Gush Shalom, focused on the occupation, a sensible choice.  That’s where pressure matters and can be effective, not arousing side issues that divert attention from the fate of Palestinians.  It’s been pursued effectively since, notably by the Presbyterian Church, which also crucially brings in US corporations that participate in the occupation.

It has been quite effective, and could be more so if BD activities were focused this way and not sidetracked by questions that only divert attention from the issues at hand.  There is much more that can be done along these lines. A good argument can be made that US military aid to Israel is in violation of US law (the Leahy Lawthe Symington Amendment – which in fact would bar economic aid as well).

There are many possibilities that are not being pursued actively enough, that could make a major difference, gaining popular support and not leading to anti-BDS resolutions.

NC vs AOC: The Politics of (Cartesian) Common Sense

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC):  When I meet everyday people, they are eager to learn more, ask great questions, & embrace nuance.

I inherently reject the paternalistic idea that some subjects are too complex for everyday people to engage. If we present compelling, solid info+common sense arguments, we can win.


BILL MOYERS: Does a citizen have to have far-reaching, specialized knowledge to understand the realities of power, to understand what’s really going on?

NOAM CHOMSKY::  It’s not absolutely trivial, but I mean, as compared with intellectually complex tasks, it’s pretty slight. It’s not like the sciences. I mean, I think there’s a big effort made to make everything seem mysterious, but there are things that you have to study and know something about. But by and large, what happens in social and political life is relatively accessible. It does not take special training. It does not take unusual intelligence. What it really takes is honesty.


NOAM CHOMSKY: : Yes, if you’re honest you can see it.

BILL MOYERS: Do you believe in common sense?

NOAM CHOMSKY: : Absolutely. I believe in Cartesian common sense. I think people have the capacities to see through the deceit in which they are ensnared, but they’ve got to make the effort.

BILL MOYERS: Seems a little incongruous to hear a man from the ivory tower of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a scholar, a distinguished linguistics scholar, talk about common people with such appreciation, and common sense.

NOAM CHOMSKY: : I think that scholarship, at least the field that I work in, has the opposite consequences.

My own studies in language and human cognition demonstrate to me, at least, what remarkable creativity ordinary people have. The very fact that people talk to one another is a reflection- just in the normal way, I don’t mean particularly fancy- reflects deep-seated features of human creativity which, in fact, separate human beings from any other biological system we know. You get tremendous respect for human beings when you begin to study their normal capacities.

Who are the Abusers?

The main point of interest in the latest Title IX scandal at NYU  resides in the presence of the passel of superstar “philosophers” (Butler, Spivak, Zizek) implicated through having written letters of support for the faculty member who was ultimately found guilty in the proceeding.

My off the cuff response, posted in a Facebook comment thread, was that we shouldn’t be be surprised that “the sleep of reason”, which is what this current of intellectual life represents in my opinion, produces “monsters”, i.e. those abusing their power and feeling justified in doing so. Specifically, insofar as scholarship dispenses with facts and ridicules logic while fetishizing subjectivity it shouldn’t surprise us that we are creating conditions ripe for academic variants of Harvey Weinstein’s casting couch-which is what this episode revealed.

Maybe or maybe not. This was not ground I would invest that much in defending.

And so, when another commenter took issue with me, noting instances of sexual harassment and abuse in the hard sciences, I quickly backed down. The underlying nature of the subject matter and the standards within it are probably secondary: far more determinative are academic power dynamics which will be exercised regardless of the standards for fact and argumentation applicable (or not) to the field.

It was therefore a bit of a surprise when, immediately after my having waved the white flag, another commenter chimed in providing data relevant to the discussion

While noting that the the research is “very limited”, that which exists “suggests harassment rates are indeed significantly lower in STEM fields.” In particular, he linked to the attached study including the following graph which demonstrates the point pretty dramatically.

Of course, all this is confirmation of my pre-existing position (actually that of Chomsky, Sokal and Bricmont) arguing against the all too common view on the left which construes science as inherently authoritarian, repressive and reactionary. In this case, it comes across as exactly the opposite: the presence of rigorous objective standards seems to promote respectful collaborative relationships between students and faculty while discouraging the kinds of arbitrary exercise of power which is all too common in other fields.

Yes, limited evidence. But seems at least worth discussing.

Note: Thanks to Michael Kinnucan for hosting the discussion and to commenter Eric Stansifer for the reference to the study.

The World of my Father (part II)

A while back in trying to find a family movie, I decided on the sci-fi flick Arrival about a linguist saving the world. (Not bad, for those who don’t know it). In trying to figure out how to sell it to my kid I ended up sending him youtube promotional videos, about the only document I know of which has currency in his media landscape. Most were the usual PR hype, though there was one which, in addition to interviewing the stars, most notably Amy Adams, also has an interview with the linguist she played, an MIT PhD, now at McGill named Jessica Coon.

Now everyone knows that everyone aspires to hang out with movie stars. In fact, even my late father Morris did, and here’s a digression on that point. Some might be surprised to know that Morris was friends with Lacan. I was too when he came up in conversation. though I forgot how (maybe precipitated by Sokal and Bricmont’s book).

Continue reading The World of my Father (part II)

On Language, Evolution and Disability: Is the Smithsonian Ableist?

1) Based on what we now know about human language, the above panel displayed in the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit on human evolution is almost certainly incorrect.

2) Specifically, the claim that language was “enabled” by a reconfiguration of the vocal tract misconstrues the locus of evolution of language. This occurred not in the throat, mouth, lips and tongue, the articulatory organs through which spoken language is characteristically realized, but in the brain.

Continue reading On Language, Evolution and Disability: Is the Smithsonian Ableist?

Was the “Left” Steve Bannon’s Useful Idiot?

Carol Cadwalladr’s Guardian report along with several others deriving from Christopher Wylie’s disclosures form the tip of an iceberg whose dimensions are yet to be fully determined. My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that when the dirty laundry of 2016 is fully aired, the following will be taken for granted as historical fact.

1) The Mercer/Bannon/Cambridge Analytica connection will be found to have been significant and quite possibly decisive in Trump’s victory.

2) CA’s central objective was, of course, a) to actively encourage potential Trump supporters to participate in the campaign. However, just as significant, and consistent with Republican strategy since Nixon, was b) to discourage participation of core components of the DP base.

Continue reading Was the “Left” Steve Bannon’s Useful Idiot?

A (Dissenting) Left Top Ten

Ten pieces from the last year expressing left views much of the official left evidently doesn’t want to hear. Or, to use their words (albeit usually behind my back), these are the views of a “crank.”

Whether that’s so I’ll leave that for you to judge.

Thanks to all who have read this blog and for the occasional encouragement which I have received over the year.

1) The left is correct in comparing where we find ourselves to the Weimar Republic, but they apply the wrong analogy: The tragedy of a greater evil far right victory, here now and in Germany then, resulted from their and our failure to make use of the ballot box to head it off.

Continue reading A (Dissenting) Left Top Ten