Noam Chomsky—Infuriating and Necessary

You don’t have to buy Chomsky’s ideas wholesale to recognize that his often outrageous critiques of American democracy and capitalism usually hit their targets.

It is a testament to Noam Chomsky’s brilliance and bravery that despite his soft spoken manner and quiet personality, he manages to inspire fiery passion in millions of activists around the world, curiosity and conviction from students on nearly every college campus, and hatred from angry nationalists wearing red, white, and blue blindfolds.

The immensity of Chomsky’s mind is matched only by its dexterity. In his first triumph as a public intellectual, he reinvented the field of linguistics by developing the now widely accepted theory that the ability to learn language is an innate capacity common to all humans.

The academic world, where Chomsky is one of the most often cited living authors, knows him for his groundbreaking work in his own discipline. But the general public associates his name with a record of radical advocacy for human rights, nonviolence, and international justice. A ferocious critic of American foreign policy and a nimble political analyst and philosopher, Chomsky might well be the most recognizable and most read intellectual alive.

For anyone whose political sympathies lie left of center, discovering and reading Chomsky is a rite of passage. Like Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes for Catholics, or a learner’s permit for driver’s education students, Chomsky’s ever expanding body of work is essential for any useful political education. The clarity of his thought and prose not only appeals to anyone seeking to learn about the world, and America’s role in it, but reveals the pomposity and frivolity of many intellectuals who, intelligent or not, would rather obfuscate than illuminate. Chomsky’s writing style is surgical. Every sentence seems put together with a scalpel.

I discovered Chomsky’s work as a high school student shortly after the horrific atrocity of September 11, 2001. In the wake of that catastrophe, while politicians competed, American-Idol style, for most patriotic balladeer and journalists tossed away their pens and recorders in favor of megaphones and pom poms, Chomsky released a small book, 9-11.

An unlikely bestseller, the collection of interviews presented the best among precious few alternatives to the mainline narrative of an angelic America besieged by the devil. While there is no room for sympathy for the fanatical and evil terrorists who murdered thousands of civilians, there is also no sympathy for an American government responsible for the killing of civilians in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Chomsky had no patience for the sharpening of knives from the Bush White House, and warned against any rush to war or enhancement of an already militaristic federal budget and foreign policy.

Reading Chomsky’s perspective made my head spin, and my heart quicken. Could all the clichés of the national media lack substance? Could the American government have lied continuously for decades? Is there more to U.S. involvement overseas than the fairy tale of knights saving fair maidens from dragons?

Chomsky helped me see the world more clearly and realistically, and he undoubtedly performed the same service for many people, years prior, with American Power and the New Mandarins, his classic shredding of American foreign policy during the Vietnam War, and Manufacturing Consent, a look at the institutional biases of the American media, co-authored with Edward S. Herman.

Chomsky typically shrugs off compliments, and attempts to keep attention on the issues he examines, rather than his own minimalist personality. It is worth noting, however, that he was prophetic on several cultural and political developments. Chomsky’s maxim to “never trust the state” preceded the growing libertarianism of the Republican Party—a group with which Chomsky would have no traffic given their support of corporate power and their refusal to accept controls on big business. Chomsky would feel closer at home at an Occupy Wall Street gathering, and any Occupier, whether he knows it or not, is in debt to Chomsky who, far before it was fashionable, wrote about income inequality and questioned the moral foundation of capitalism.

Considering that Chomsky’s relevance has only grown with time, and that his positions prove less radical and more prescient as years pass, the timing of his new book release, The Masters of Mankind, a retrospective of lectures and essays stretching from 1969 to 2013, is perfect.

There is more than enough profound, powerful material in this collection to impress any readers unfamiliar with Chomsky’s intellectual agility. That said, there are also things about this collection that are just plain odd.

The first complaint concerns length. At under 200 pages, the book seems like chips and salsa on the table when you are expecting a four course meal. Combing through four decades of material should have inspired Chomsky and his editors to unearth more gems, rather than keep them under lock and key.

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The book begins with an aggressive essay, “Knowledge and Power: Intellectuals and the Welfare-Warfare State,” from 1970. The all stars of the intellectual establishment make easy target practice for Chomsky and his analytical sniper rifle. Through assiduous documentation and sharp criticism, he shows how leading American institutions, in government, media, and the academy, are always willing to promote sycophants to soaring heights. Those who lend their talents and acumen to the gallery of applause, while America goes to war, or subverts democracy overseas, will receive an invitation into the VIP lounge. Far from indicting the incestuous relationship between intellectuals and the State as a conspiracy, Chomsky makes it clear that it is merely a natural alignment of institutional interests. People who think alike have a tendency to sponsor and support one another.

The essay is compelling, but Chomsky makes the same point with even more brilliance and panache elsewhere in the book with the deliciously titled, “A Divine License to Kill.” In this 1987 essay, Chomsky demolishes the cult of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr so thoroughly that not only is Niebuhr among the body count, but so are those whose effusive praise Chomsky mockingly quotes—Arthur Schlesinger, Christopher Lasch, and Alan Brinkley.

It is a thing of beauty to watch Chomsky the artful arsonist burn down a temple of clichés while demonstrating that Niebuhr never truly argues anything of substance, but instead merely dresses up received wisdom in theological terms and lyrical prose.

Chomsky writes that when reading Niebuhr’s ideas, “no rational person could be convinced since evidence is sparse and often dubious, it is difficult to detect a thread of argument, and he keeps pretty much to the surface of the issues he addresses.” These otherwise fatal flaws do not damage Niebuhr’s reputation, Chomsky argues, because he “assumed the mantle of prophet of the establishment.” Niebuhr “played by the rules” by affirming American exceptionalism, and writing about American innocence. The country’s history is free from taint, and its morality often too good for its own sake.

The rest of the essays and lectures in The Masters of Mankind show how Chomsky insists on breaking all the rules. In “Consent Without Consent” he demonstrates that during the Clinton years—now treated as Edenic—American democracy was largely a farce, citing John Dewey’s observation that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.”

In “Simple Truths, Hard Problems,” Chomsky invokes the principle of universality to show how after 9/11, the American government was in no position to lecture anyone on the use of terrorism. Decades of bombings all around the world, the organization of deadly coups, the installation of dictators in client states, and the use of the globe as a basketball reveal that the U.S. has an “operative definition of crime”: “Crime is that which you carried out but we did not.”

In the 2010 lecture “Human Intelligence and the Environment,” we are treated to a breathtakingly broad account of how the American economy continually betrays ecology, as Chomsky leaps from astrophysics to the political neglect of public transit to suburban sprawl to President Obama’s invisibility in the effort against climate change.

Not every essay in this too-short book is top drawer. “Can Civilization Survive Really Existing Capitalism?” is as useless as Obama’s theatrical environmental policies. On its own merits, the piece is interesting and informative, but it repeats many points Chomsky has made in greater detail during earlier essays—climate changes threatens civilization, politics is unduly influenced by corporate power, etc.

The closing lecture also presents questions that Chomsky never answers—mainly one of alternatives. Capitalism creates painful inequities, but what is the better option? Is there any chance that his political vision of “libertarian socialism,” which he outlines in the pamphlet Government in the Future, will even enter mainstream discussion, much less become feasible?

If the demolition of capitalism is not practical, it might also be unwise. Joint research from the Economics Departments at Columbia University and MIT, where Chomsky was a professor of linguistics, demonstrates that the world’s worst poverty has declined 80 percent since 1970. Most historians, economists, and journalists attribute the nearly miraculous accomplishment to the growth of markets in the Third World, especially China, and the increase of commerce and trade.

Arundhati Roy, in her profound book, Capitalism: A Ghost Story, makes it clear that economic growth often concentrates at the top, and results in misery at the bottom, using her home country of India as a case study. With the right checks, balances, and regulations, along with a sizable social compact of compassion (health care, trade unions, public education, affordable higher education, etc.), capitalism can, however, lead to a rising standard of living.

The American brand of what Chomsky condemns as “State Capitalism” lacks a strong social safety net and has little regard for non-market values. It deserves vociferous criticism. But if the answer does not lie in the balance of the “third way” of Western Europe, where does it lie? Chomsky never provides an answer.

Chomsky’s way of looking at capitalism may be myopic, but he is still correct to condemn the U.S. government for its obsequiousness toward wealthy elites and for its international hostility, aggression, and violence.

The solution that Chomsky proposes to the poisoning of democracy and the madness of the militarism is as hopeless as the possibility of libertarian socialism. He is always calling on “we,” “the population,” or “the people” to rally in the streets and agitate for a better future. Democratic rebellion has transformed America in important ways. The civil rights movement, the labor movement, and the feminist movement are inspirational examples, but there is little evidence that America is on the verge of another mass movement, especially when it comes to addressing problems that are not as immediately visible as Jim Crow and gender apartheid.

As much as Chomsky loves citing public opinion polls, he never mentions the staggering documentation of American ignorance and indifference. Most of the population is either unaware of or apathetic to the basic facts of history and has even less interest in political mobilization. Of the two recent minority political movements—the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street—the former is a lost collection of saps directing their rage at invisible targets, and the latter was a disorganized, dysfunctional cacophony of utopian dreams and collectivist nightmares, now dead.

Regardless of how one wrestles with Noam Chomsky, one does always wrestle, leaving the bout much smarter and stronger. His flaws are eclipsed by the sizable shadow of his strengths.

It is difficult to judge how much any culture needs a particular intellectual, but given Chomsky’s commitment to exerting a factual check and balance on the erroneous and manipulative claims of power, his fearless presentation of an alternative to American clichés, his tireless advocacy for peace and justice, and his thunderous moral voice, it is fair to say that America needs Noam Chomsky.