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Published in
The Wall Street Journal
November 4 ,2005

The British monthly journal Prospect recently presented its readers with a list of well-known intellectuals and asked them to pick Number One. The list included Christopher Hitchens, Niall Ferguson, Daniel Dennet, Umberto Eco, Bernard Lewis and so on. But the voters picked the American linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky.

Little surprise there. In Europe these days, the most politicized part of the public is the “hard” Left. And Mr. Chomsky is its hero. On the other side of the Atlantic and on the other side of the ideological spectrum, his “victory” in the race to be the leading intellectual of our times is certain to be met with howls of derision.

The European Left loves him for the same reason that the American Right hates him: His views on foreign policy, which are virulently critical of the U.S. and Israel. In the eyes of the Left, Mr. Chomsky is the champion of the downtrodden who suffer in the “neoliberal world order” championed by the U.S. government and the multinationals. In the eyes of the Right, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist is an unashamed apologist for Castro, Pol Pot and generally of any Third World tyrant or Middle Eastern terrorist who loves to hate the U.S.

It’s a real shame that only Mr. Chomsky’s tedious harangues against America get any attention. His body of work deserves more serious treatment. Other more interesting yet overlooked aspects of his political philosophy cannot easily fit into the Left-Right dichotomy.

What makes Mr. Chomsky unique is that his criticism of the capitalist economic order takes its point of departure from the classical liberal thinkers of the Enlightenment. His heroes are not Lenin and Marx but Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt. He argues that the free market envisaged by these thinkers has never materialized in the world and that what we have gotten instead is a collusion of the state with private interests. Moreover he has repeatedly stressed that the attacks on democracy and the market by the big multinationals go hand-in-hand. The rich, he claims, echoing Adam Smith, are too keen to preach the benefits of market discipline to the poor while they reserve for themselves the right to be bailed out by the state whenever the going gets rough. As he puts it : “The free market is socialism for the rich. Markets for the poor and state protection for the rich.” He has spoken positively about the work of Peruvian liberal economist Hernando De Soto who sees the problem of poverty in the Third World as being related to the fact that the poor usually lack clearly defined property rights.

Chomsky has repeatedly stressed that the attacks on democracy and the market by the big multinationals go hand-in-hand

Another aspect of his political work that has been overlooked by foes and critics alike is Mr. Chomsky’s fight against the forces of irrationality that tend to dominate the humanities in the universities. His dismissal of Marxism as a religious “pseudoscience” devoid of all scientific pretensions is one such case. Another is his insistence that the social “sciences” and economics do not meet the methodological criteria that would qualify them as sciences and should thus give up any pretence to being so.

But the brunt of his attacks has been reserved for Parisian “post-modernism” which he considers as the apotheosis of irrational nonsense. He has not hesitated to accuse some of the leading figures of French “postmodernism” (Lacan, Derrida and Foucault) as “charlatans” and “illiterates” while he has characterized their texts as “pretentious” and “gibberish”.

Mr. Chomsky has been especially hard on those that try to denigrate the scientific endeavor by either relativizing it or by trying to show that science serves ideological interests of “gender” or “race”. “The entire idea of ‘white male science’ reminds me of ‘Jewish physics’,” he writes. “When I read a scientific paper I can’t tell whether the author is white or male.” Mr. Chomsky has repeatedly deplored the attitude of the academic left “to declare that the project of the Enlightenment is dead and that we should abandon the illusions of science and rationality”.

One aspect to Mr. Chomsky’s work I do find disagreeable: his tendency to adopt double standards on issues, most glaringly academic freedom. Consider his position on academic studies of the “truth” of the Holocaust and the links between race and IQ.

In the first instance he argued that the historian has the right to explore, even change, the reality of the Holocaust. Moreover, while he has distanced himself quite categorically from the methods and findings of the revisionist historians, he has nevertheless argued that questioning whether the gas chambers and the genocide of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany really happened doesn’t by itself constitute an act of anti-Semitism.

On the other hand however he has failed to adopt a similar liberal approach to work on race and IQ. Here he has explicitly questioned the reason for the existence of those studies, claiming that the social costs of finding correlations between racial characteristics and intelligence by far outweigh the questionable scientific merits of any such investigation.

Mr. Chomsky’s work deserves more serious reading by his critics and his supporters. Unfortunately his writings are used to score easy points in vitriolic debates whose aim isn’t illumination or understanding. For this, Mr. Chomsky, who nurtures his iconic status for the world’s Left, has also himself to blame.

Mr. Michas, a Greek journalist based in Athens, is writing a book on Noam Chomsky and Liberalism

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  1. he has nevertheless argued that questioning whether the gas chambers and the genocide of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany really happened doesn’t by itself constitute an act of anti-Semitism

    Όχι. Πού; Έχει πει για την ακρίβεια ότι:

    «My views are quite explicitly stated: the Holocaust was the most extreme atrocity in human history, and we lose our humanity if we are even willing to enter the arena of debate with those who seek to deny or underplay Nazi crimes.»

    Κατά τα άλλα έχει δίκιο για τον von Humboldt, αλλά όχι για τον Adam Smith (απλώς θεωρεί ότι έχει παρερμηνευτεί από τους σύγχρονους θιασώτες του). O Τσόμσκυ είναι αναρχικός, ή ελευθεριακός σοσιαλιστής. Κάτι που δεν προκύπτει από την ανάλυση του Μίχα.

  2. Εντάξει, δε μου λέει και κάτι που δε γνώριζα.

  3. … σε αντίθεση με το σχόλιο σου που μας πληροφορεί για κάτι που ενδιαφερόμασταν πολύ.

  4. Κατά τα άλλα συμφωνώ με τον talo, μάλλον ο Μίχας περιγράφει μια εξαιρετικά στενή άποψη του Chomsky. Η αλήθεια είναι ότι η πολιτική φιλοσοφία του Chomsky ταιριάζει μια χαρά στην διχοτομία Αριστερών-Δεξιών, και φυσικά τοποθετείται στα Αριστερά. Αυτό είναι πασιφανές σε έναν Αμερικανό, αλλά πιθανώς ο Μίχας εντυπωσιάζεται από τις μικρο-διαφορές του Chomsky από την μοντέρνα ευρωπαϊκή αριστερά. Εξάλλου η πολιτική φιλοσοφία του Chomsky είναι τόσο ασαφής που εύκολα μπορείς να την δεις για αυτό που θέλεις.

  5. εγω παντως απτην μερια μου θα σημειωσω παλι οτι ο Τσομσκυ δεν ειναι οικονομολογος, ουτε εκπαιδευμενος, ουτε καν ιδιαιτερα διαβασμενος στα οικονομικα. Ως εκ τουτου δεν θεωρω την αποψη του πιο εγκυρη απο οποιουδηποτε αλλου αμυητου. Ειδικα σε θεματα που γνωριζω οτι το απλο ενστικτο μας οδηγει σε λαθος συμπερασματα θα μου επιτρεψετε να τον αγνοω επιδεικτικα.

    Σε αλλα θεματα, οπως εξωτερικης πολιτικης, οντως φερνει καμμια φορα μια χρησιμη διαφορετικη φωνη. Ας πουμε στον πολεμο στο Κοσσυφοπεδιο ηταν απο τους λιγους που μιλουσαν για την απαραδεκτη πληροφορηση απο τα δυτικα ΜΜΕ (που το ξερω? εχει προλογισει και ενα σχετικο βιβλιο της κοπελας μου με τεκμηριωση των ασυναρτησιων που γραφοντουσαν). δυστυχως απο αυτον τον ανθρωπο παιρνουμε στην Ευρωπη μονο αυτα στα οποια δεν εχει ιδεα και ψιλοαγνοουμε αυτα στα οποια εχει καποιο δικιο (τι γνωμη θα ειχε για τα φρικτα ελληνικα ΜΜΕ λετε?).

  6. Αν και συμφωνώ με τον Σωτήρη παραπάνω, μην ξεχνάμε πως για να μπαίνει σ’αυτή τη λίστα των «public intellectual» σημαίνει πως έχει συνεισφέρει αναγνωρισμένο έργο και ΠΕΡΑ απ’το στενό κύκλο του αντικειμένου του.

    Ήτοι, ακόμη κι οι οικονομικές ή πολιτικές του απόψεις έχουν κάποια αξία.

  7. Reply to talos:

    Chomsky’s statement on genocide and Anti-Semitism can be found in a published email he sent to Prof.Rubinstein.Aw for Adam Smith Chomsky has in inumerable of his writings and interviews stressed that he shares his critiscisms concerning the workings of the capitalist system.More datails and specifi references will be provided in my book «Noam Chomsky and Modern Liberalism» that will be published ,hopefully,next September.

    Takis Michas

  8. ΟΚ στα αγγλικά:

    Chomsky’s statement (that I linked to above and which first appeared in print probably 30 years ago) on discussing the holocaust, is far more general, and suggests that the quotation circulated from the letter to Rubisntein was possibly accurate but had different implications. Chomsky (as you probably know, I post this for the benefit of others who might not be aware of this) has explained the issue further in a letter to Lawrence K. Kolodney.

    As for the race & IQ debate. I suppose you are referring to Chomsky’s dismissal of Richard Herrnstein’s IQ. In fact questioning the propriety of some particular scientific investigation is *not* equivalent to a call for the *banning* much less of punishing such an investigation. I can see no double standard just common (left-libertarian) sense. There would have been equivalence had Chomsky suggestes banning Herrnstein’s article or firing him from his university position. This was not the case. The relevant quote regarding Chomsky’s criticism of Herrnstein’s IQ is this:

    «… the question of the validity and scientific status of a particular point of view is, of course, logically independent from the question of its social function; each is a legitimate topic of inquiry, and the latter becomes of particular interest when the point of view in question is revealed to be seriously deficient on empirical or logical grounds.

    … (The scientist) is responsible for the effects of what he does, insofar as they can be clearly foreseen. If the likely consequences of his «scientific work» (can be used as a justification for class and caste hierarchies), he has the responsibility to take this likelihood into account. This would be true even if the work had real scientific merit-more so, in fact, in this case.

    Similarly imagine a psychologist in Hitler’s Germany who thought he could show that Jews had a genetically determined tendency toward usury … or a drive toward antisocial conspiracy and domination, and so on. If he were criticized for even undertaking these studies, could he merely respond that «a neutral commentator … would have to say that the case is simply not settled» and that the «fundamental issue» is «whether inquiry shall (again) be shut off because someone thinks society is best left in ignorance?» I think not. Rather I think that such a response would have been met with justifiable contempt. At best he could claim that he is faced with a conflict of values. On the one hand, there is the alleged scientific importance of determining whether, in fact, Jews have a genetically determined tendency toward usury and domination (as might conceivably be the case). On the other, there is the likelihood that even opening this question and regarding it as a subject for scientific inquiry would provide ammunition for Goebbels and Rosenberg and their henchmen. Were this hypothetical psychologist to disregard the likely social consequences of his research (or even his undertaking of research) under existing social conditions, he would fully deserve the contempt of decent people. Of course, scientific curiosity should be encouraged (though fallacious argument and investigation of silly questions should not), but it is not an absolute value.»

    I’m well aware of Chomsky’s positions with regard to Adam Smith. However you do realize that Chomsky is suggesting that there was far more to AS’s thought than a blind admiration for the «invisible hand» of the market. Some idea of his position regarding Smith and liberalism can be glimpsed in this interview. I quote:

    «…The founders of classical liberalism, people like Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt, who is one of the great exponents of classical liberalism, and who inspired John Stuart Mill — they were what we would call libertarian socialists, at least that ïs the way I read them. For example, Humboldt, like Smith, says, Consider a craftsman who builds some beautiful thing. Humboldt says if he does it under external coercion, like pay, for wages, we may admire what he does but we despise what he is. On the other hand, if he does it out of his own free, creative expression of himself, under free will, not under external coercion of wage labor, then we also admire what he is because he’s a human being. He said any decent socioeconomic system will be based on the assumption that people have the freedom to inquire and create — since that’s the fundamental nature of humans — in free association with others, but certainly not under the kinds of external constraints that came to be called capitalism.

    It’s the same when you read Jefferson. He lived a half century later, so he saw state capitalism developing, and he despised it, of course. He said it’s going to lead to a form of absolutism worse than the one we defended ourselves against. In fact, if you run through this whole period you see a very clear, sharp critique of what we would later call capitalism and certainly of the twentieth century version of it, which is designed to destroy individual, even entrepreneurial capitalism…»

    and sorry about the length of my reply… got carried away.

  9. Some brief remarks to talos’ rejoinder:

    Chomsky sets up two criteria which according to him should determine whether a line of scientific investigation should take place
    a)scientific interest and b) social cost.

    He explicitly states that a study should not take place if the social costs outweigh the scientific benefits. This allows him to argue that studies linking race with IQ should not take place. On the one hand they have no-or very little-scientific merit and on the other hand they may have tremendous social cost in a “racist” society.

    In the case of Faurisson on the other hand Chomsky never proposed that the latter’s research should not take place. However one could argue that on the basis of Chomsky’s above mentioned criteria, Faurisson’s studies should never be allowed in the first place:They have,according to the vast majority of historians, very little scientific value.At the same time they can have huge social costs in societies where anti-Semitism is ripe.

    I may be mistaken but I do sense a discrepancy in Chomsky’s reasoning in the two cases. Let there however be no misunderstanding here: I do not accuse Chomsky of anti-Semitism -something which I also made very clear in my WSJ article-but rather of not adopting a position which is consistent with what he claims are his liberal or libertarian or anarchist principles.

    As for Adam Smith I agree totally with Talos.Chomsky together with Emma Rothchild, Allan Ryan and others belong to an expanding group of scholars that adopt a “Left-wing” interpretation of the writings of the father of the “invisible hand”.

  10. Chomsky does have a rather diplomatic approach about Herrnstein’s IQ studies.
    «A correlation between race and IQ (were this shown to exist) entails no social consequences except in a racist society in which each individual is assigned to a racial category and dealt with not as an individual in his own right, but as a representative of this category. Herrnstein mentions a possible correlation between height and IQ. Of what social importance is that? None of course, since our society does not suffer under discrimination by height. We do not insist on assigning each adult to the category «below six feet in height» or «above six feet in height» when we ask what sort of education he should receive or where he should live or what work he should do. Rather, he is what he is, quite independent of the mean IQ of people of his height category. In a nonracist society, the category of race would be of no great significance. The mean IQ of individulas of a certain racial background is irrelevant to the situation of a particular individual who is what he is…
    It is, incidentally, surprising to me that so many commentators should find disturbing that IQ might be heritable, perhaps largely so. Would it also be so disturbing to discover that relative height or musical talent or rank in running the one-hundred yard dash is in part genetically determined? Why should one have preconceptions one way or another about these questions, and how do the answers to them, whatever they may be, relate either to serious scientifc issues (in the present state of our knowledge) or to social practise in a decent society?» (Chomsky Noam, «Psychology and Ideology», pp 362-363, 1973)
    He doesn’t deplore Herrnstein’s suggestions and scientific queries directly. He states quite clearly that in a non racist society any findings are of no social significance since these societies do not base themselves on such misconceptions. He directly states that even if IQ were determined by racial background or any other factor such as height, that would not have any social impact on a «decent society». Obviously this statement holds true in any liberal democracy and I have no objection to Chomsky’s remarks.
    But he also implies that studies of this nature are of no scientific significance and useless and therefore he discredits Herrnstein’s efforts and conclusions without stating any rational argument. If such findings were true (or are true) they would have no social impact but they would definitely have scientific merit. If IQ is determined by such bizzare things as height, weight, hair colour, shoe size, wouldn’t that be an invaluable insight to human biology and physiology? What if we could trace the exact mechanisms that cause this discrepancy and therefore bridge the gap?
    Even if such radical discoveries were not to take place, wouldn’t it be still a piece of knowledge worth investigating?
    My point is that there should be «science for the sake of science» since dicoveries made today that seem unimportant might have a deep impact in future scientific progress.
    Chomsky therefore maintains a politically correct attitude by stating 2 things: 1) that Herrnstein’s studies are only dangerous in a racist society and therefore he shouldn’t be condemned 2) but he also debunks his theories as either fallacious, unimportant or irrelevant. In this manner he achieves to maintain an «open-minded» scientific image on such controversial matters but in an insidious way he manages to maintain his image as a social activist.
    Ofcourse it is worth noting that some people attributed the same qualities to his initial studies in linguistics but half a century later his conclusions have transformed the study of language and the mind.

  11. Good blog