Noam Chomsky, Standards of Criticism, and Race

I don’t want to interrupt Tyler and Whig’s flamewar in my comment thread, so I’ll respond to Emma’s questions about Chomsky here. I criticized Chomsky’s totalization of class a few months ago, in response to which Emma fielded a few questions worth answering.

1. “Radical anti-Americans like Chomsky have no trouble rationalizing violence whenever it’s committed by groups that aren’t allied with the United States.”

Can you back this up with anything? Also, how do you justify the use of “anti-American”?

2.) You mentioned Brad Delong’s criticism of Chomsky. Have you read Edward Herman’s response to Brad Delong? Any thoughts?

First, the second question: people who think the US does more harm than good are in fact anti-American. That doesn’t justify the bad rap anti-Americanism is getting – pro-Americans have their Ann Coulters just like anti-Americans have their Bin Ladens – but it’s descriptively accurate. People who consistently attack French culture, vilify French history, and support anti-French forces are radically anti-French. People who act the same toward the US are anti-American. Further, Chomsky is a radical anti-American, since he tends to defend people solely on account of their opposition to the US or Israel, even when they deserve defense less than flu viruses.

Second, the first question (plus the third). In the perennial debate over Chomsky’s pro-Khmer Rouge comments dating back to 1979, the traditional pro-Chomsky argument is that he was concerned over anti-communist propaganda, or over pro-American atrocities, or over inconclusive evidence. That may be so, but it’s legitimate to ask how come the same person who’s always been the first to point out American atrocities was the last to acknowledge atrocities committed by an anti-American regime.

It’s entirely possible for a consistent skeptic to have doubted that the Khmer Rouge had killed millions and even said it “elicited a positive response,” or to have assumed that just because someone is a Holocaust denier doesn’t make him anti-Semitic.

However, Chomsky is not such a consistent skeptic. Whenever the US or an ally of its is the culprit, Chomsky is at the forefront of the criticism. He blamed Israel for actively perpetrating the Sabra and Shatila massacre, which it didn’t. His writings about Vietnam posit dark motives instead of normal mission creep. Similarly, Edward Herman’s article invents pernicious US interests in the Balkans going far beyond standard realist politics. Worse, Herman claims that data from the Khmer Rouge government itself was credible at the time, a courtesy neither he nor Chomsky has ever extended the US.

3. You say: “Chomsky’s argument is typical for a class warrior. Class warriors, such as Chomsky and Howard Zinn, portray The People as essentially good creatures, corrupted and made fatalistic by predatory capitalism. In their conception, sexism is a historical accident that only a few misguided whiners rail specifically against, and racism is either that or a deliberate ploy by the rich to divide the underclass against itself.”

Can you back this up with more specific quotes?

In Understanding Power, Chomsky says without evidence Americans are obsessed with sports because of an elite conspiracy to a) distract them from politics and b) make them more chauvinistic. I don’t have the exact quote, but I know occasional commenter Bushbaptist does. Zinn isn’t so conspiratorial, but does say 99% of Americans have the exact same interests but are being duped by the top 1%.

In the interview I linked to on UTI, Chomsky explicitly says class is all that matters.

You say that class transcends race, essentially.

It certainly does. For example, the United States could become a color-free society. It’s possible. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but it’s perfectly possible that it would happen, and it would hardly change the political economy at all. Just as women could pass through the “glass ceiling” and that wouldn’t change the political economy at all.

That’s one of the reasons why you commonly find the business sector reasonably willing to support efforts to overcome racism and sexism. It doesn’t matter that much for them. You lose a little white-male privilege in the executive suite, but that’s not all that important as long as the basic institutions of power and domination survive intact.

And you can pay the women less.

Or you can pay them the same amount. Take England. They just went through ten pleasant years with the Iron Lady running things. Even worse than Reaganism.

The part Emma quotes is a sincere observation about the difference between radicals who totalize class, like Chomsky and Zinn, and radicals who totalize race or gender. People who write radical books about the Native American experience don’t say white Americans are good people who are duped by the establishment; they say whites are genocidal colonialists. Black and Hispanic nationalists don’t even extend white Anglos the courtesy Zinn extends to the upper middle class – they often say all whites are categorically racist.

The US could become color-blind without changing anything else. The Gini index would remain .47, and the intergenerational income regression coefficient would remain .47 as well or drop to the intra-white level that I think is about .4. Welfare would remain humiliating and poverty-entrenching.

Or it could become class-blind without changing anything else. The Democratic Party tried to do just that between Reconstruction and the New Deal – support more income equality and redistribution of wealth without doing anything about racial equality. The Dixiecrats would have been perfectly happy with universal white-only health care in the 1930s.

Obviously, racial tensions have been an obstacle to economic reforms. Roosevelt’s universal health care scheme failed precisely because it was color-blind. But that goes both ways: affirmative action schemes encounter opposition from business, and many black Americans are kept in poverty because of popular opposition to welfare. It’s possible to construe both kinds of problems in a way that puts class above race, but that’s just playing with the facts to fit the theory.

Since Marx, radicals pretending to be serious sociologists have tried constructing simple, monolithic theories of oppression, which almost invariably totalize the form they’re most familiar with and ignore the others. Exposing their intellectual bankruptcy is one of the goals I’m aiming for in my radical pathologies series.

I don’t think Chomsky is personally invested in downplaying gender and race. The next radical pathology I’m going to write about is extremism, which shows how on the contrary, radicals seek to be as extreme as they can. But to accept that the combination of class and imperialism isn’t everything would require people like Chomsky to complicate their worldviews too much, which might necessitate rethinking their radical anti-Americanism.

13 Responses to Noam Chomsky, Standards of Criticism, and Race

  1. Chomsky isn’t a consistent skeptic by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t think of too many people in the political scene who are. My biggest problem with Chomsky isn’t his anti-Americanism, because his anti-American stances seem to me to be a superimposed outgrowth of his horrendously simplistic ideas about “elites”. He seems to have this vague Rousseau-esque conception of the noble-savages that are corrupted by the capitalist pigs and their civic allies. This somewhat ties into his class-totalism too.

    Chomsky has influenced me a good deal on the scientific side of things with his linguistics, and I especially like the fact that he’s shot down JFK/RFK assassination and 9/11 conspiracism (as opposed to Zinn, whose blurbs have appeared on the jackets of 9/11 conspiracist tomes). I wish, however, he’d apply the same sort of analysis to politics, as he’s clearly a brilliant man in other areas.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    Chomsky isn’t a consistent skeptic by any stretch of the imagination, but I can’t think of too many people in the political scene who are.

    Yeah, me neither. Almost all politicos pick a side and systematically write distorted critiques of the other side while excusing their own side’s transgressions. It’s just that most of them aren’t tagged as luminaries who speak truth to power (but when they are, I always lash out at them, regardless of whether they’re pro- or anti-American).

  3. SLC says:

    The difficulty with Chomsky is that he pontificates on subjects on which he has considerable ignorance. This is much like the few physicists (like my thesis advisor) and mathematicians who rail against the theory of evolution, even though their knowledge of biology is negligable. Being totally ignorant of the subject matter, I am not in a position to make any comments on Chomskys’ contributions to linguistics, although it appears that many of his critics (like Norman Podhoretz) are as ignorant of linguistics as Chomsky is of economics. However, as Martin Gardner said of Wilhelm Reich, an individuals demonstration of incompetence in a field outside his own expertise may be indicative of incompetence within his field of expertise.

  4. SLC,

    From what I understand, Chomsky’s linguistic theories are pretty much orthodoxy in the field of linguistics as well cognitive science generally. And of course my own field of computer science is heavily dependent on the Chomsky hierarchy for languages and compiler construction.

    In the end I think that Martin Gardner’s maxim has it backwards. I think you can find plenty of examples of people who are brilliant in one field but complete ignoramuses in another. Einstein was a brilliant physicist, but let’s not forget he was also a communist.

    • Neil says:

      EVERYTHING here shows zero understanding of Chomsky’s critique of U.S. foreign policy, nor its foundational philosophies. Not ever does he maintain that crimes committed by “non-allied: states are justified. The hallmark of his criticism rests upon the notion that in a power system, the default supposition is that the “state” is acting through altruism. This is a historical universal for all powerful countries throughout history, and thus carries no relevant meaning. I would like to see ANYONE refute one of his claims on a factual basis. And by the way, he would be the first to tell you, these are not his facts, but merely the documentary record, one which if you take a look, does not support the official historical religion that even the intellectual class is rallied around. To say that someone is this or that through a wholly unsubstantiated, and vacuous assertion of anti-americanism is absurd, as is the entire construct of the initial article. Soviet dissidents were so denounced by komisars in their own country. Truth often takes time to progress to civility. Here’s one for ya….an uncontroversial fact…what is the only country on the planet ever to be condemned for international terrorism by the world court, the supreme legal body of international law? Answer–The United States…..ever even heard that mentioned EVER in any discussion of transgressions or terrorism. Seems like it would be example number one. Not so if it dismantles the official religion of benevolence. This is not an attack on the U.S. All powerful states operate in this way, and have universally behaved so throughout history.

  5. Bushbaptist says:

    I can’t remember the exact quote Alon. I haven’t got it nearby.
    In essence, the powers that be encourage the following of sports by the ‘masses’ to keep them occupied and focused on other things. This has been the case for 1000’s of years. The Greeks had their proto-olympics, the Romans had the gladiators, the Britz (and other countries) have their soccer, we have our rugby and the US has its football. These are all specifically set up to move attention away from the malfeasance that is going on behind the scenes.
    I read the words of Chomsky, Zinn et al not because I implicitly believe that what they are saying is correct, far from it, but because it gives me an insight into the way they think.
    Chomsky’s skill at linguistics is on a par with Berlitz and Claibourne. As a Philologist, I often refer to Chomsky and others for clarification of language structures.

  6. Alon Levy says:

    Tyler, Einstein was a socialist, not a communist. I don’t think he had much tolerance for the USSR or Marxist theory.

    Bushbaptist, the Greek Olympics proceeded in about the opposite way you’d expect if Chomsky was right. Wars stopped in preparation for the Olympics; if they were just a sham, there’d be no reason for the elites to set the games up in such a way that they’d supersede war.

    • Neil says:

      The USSR, or China for that matter, are about as communist as a meatball sub. A top-down totalitarian governemental system is the opposite of communism you niny:)

  7. SLC says:

    Re DiPietro

    1. In thinking over Mr. DiPietros’ comment, it occurs to me that I have done Martin Gardner something of an injustice. I don’t have access to my copy of, “Fads and Fallicies in the Name of Science,” but, as I recall in his chapter on Wilhelm Reich, he suggested that somebody showing incompetence in field other then one for which he made his name should cause one to examine his contributions in his chosen field closely. It think the current consensus is that Reichs’ contributions to psychiatry are grossly overrated.

    2. I think better examples of Mr. DiPietros’ claim are Linus Pauling and William Shockley. Both were Nobel Prize winners in their chosen fields, chemistry for Pauling and applied physics for Shockley. However, when they steped out of their areas of expertise, they demonstrated gross incompetence. Paulings’ claims for vitamine C were totally unsupported and remain so to this day (i.e. when Pauling switched from chemistry to medicine, he was in over his head). Shockleys’ claims of black American intellectual inferiority ware poorly supported, and his papers in the subject, as I can testify having read most of them, demonstrate gross incompetence (i.e. when Shockley switched from applied physics to population genetics,he too was in over his head).

  8. Bushbaptist says:

    Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I should have been. Sorry – too many cold beers!

    I am aware that Chomsky said that ‘sports stop wars’ or similar but that isn’t quite true.
    The point I was making is that certain leaders that are doing things that would not be so acceptable to the masses use ‘sports’ to distract the plebs. That way the plebs don’t get together and foment revolutions.

    On another tack: Yanks have a quaint idea about communism. You equate it with Stalin’s Russian Dictatorship etc. But in reality there are more anti-communist dictatorships than there ever has been communist ones. the Shah, Pinochet, Lee Kwan Yu, Mugabe, even that man who is dead but just won’t lie down – Hitler, were/are all dictators and they were/are far from communistic.
    Any democracy that has backdoor flaws can become a dictatorship very quickly.
    Einstein was a communist but didn’t support dictatorships.

    Marx and Engels both advocated the equality of communism, where supposedly everyone was equal.

  9. SLC says:

    Re Bushbaptist

    Actually the economic system practiced in the former Soviet Union was state capitalism, not communism. Karl Marx would turn over in his grave to have the Soviet system described as in any way Marxist.

  10. Bushbaptist says:

    Precisely SLC. Yet so many Yanks equate the Russian ‘Experiment’ as communism.
    Lenin was a Communist but Trotsky was not. Stalin was a trotsky-ite who grabbed the main chance.

  11. Please continue to write more good blog.i will keep reading. Thank you.

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