Noam Chomsky

24 Oct 1998 21:13

Notoriously, an American logician, linguist, cognitive scientist and anarchist political and historical writer.

Chomsky thinks American foreign policy is atrocious, and that the mainstream American media are complicit in it, mostly through omission and slanting. This I regard as almost self-evident. The United States is an imperial power, which since the end of the Second World War has maintained its armies across Europe and Asia, and its navies in every sea of consequence, including, to this day, a naval base in Cuba. It is no longer as predominant economically as it was at the end of that war, when its rivals lay in bombed ruins, but it's still the world's largest economy (and close to the top even per capita). At the end of WWII it faced another hegemonic power, namely the Soviet Union under Stalin, which also occupied half of Europe and large chunks of Asia. It would've been quite unnatural for two such powers to stay at peace, without a common enemy to unite them, and they did not; their interests and ideologies were alike completely opposed. The American regime was racist and grossly, disguistingly given to inequality; "private affluence and public squalor," as Galbraith put it not much latter, was just the beginning. In the course of the Cold War, the United States did grave damage to its own liberties and its genuine democratic tradition. It supported almost any thug, no matter how brutal and corrupt, who claimed to be anti-communist and had enough colonels with him to stage a coup. We gave our blessing to Suharto's overthrow of Sukarno in Indonesia on such grounds, in the course of which half a million people were massacred; on a lesser scale, we overthrew democratic regimes in Guatemala, Iran and Chile (among other places); we supported Franco, the last of the European fascists, until the very end; gave aid and support and even training to Latin American regimes which eagerly employed death squads to butcher their own citizens, and the occasional nun from the United States. We fought incredibly dirty proxy wars with any force which was to hand, and without even gratitude to our proxies. (Perhaps the most shameful instance of this is the case of Afghanistan, where Afghan casualties at Soviet hands are estimated at over a million dead, plus wounded, plus some five million refugees; where our aid was concentrated on the most lunatic of the fundamentalist organizations, as being the most thoroughly anti-communist; and where we have recently taken to bombing the country for its pains.) Empires commit horrible acts, and the US was and is an empire; but average reader of the New York Times, much less the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or watcher of the nightly news, would know very little of this. (This point is, not, of course, original with Chomsky, but was a common-place of American dissent from the 1920s on; Mencken laid out the case for it with more style than Chomsky could even dream of.)

Against this there must be set the facts that (1) Stalin and his heirs were incomparbly worse than the United States ever was --- oppressive, genocidal, totalitarian tyrants who would not find their equal for the sheer scale (if not intensity) of their villany until Mao, (2) they'd have taken over the rest of the world if they thought they could get away with it, and (3) this was obvious to everyone who had their eyes open by 1948 at the very latest. (None of this prevented the American media from churning out propaganda about "our gallant Russian allies" while WWII was on, of course, which says little for their accuracy and scruples, but much for their biddability.) Arguably, many of the policies the US pursued during the Cold War were not only evil and counter to our own best traditions, but ineffective as well. (I suspect that it would have been cheaper, more effective and more honorable to bribe countries like Vietnam, Cuba and Chile: let them call themselves what they liked, so long as they accepted our money and stayed on our side, or at the very least neutral. This worked with Scandanavia, Austria and Yugoslavia, after all.) The choice lay between a corrupt, semi-open empire which was sporadically vile towards the poor, especially at the edges, and a tyrannical, totalitarian empire which was vile everywhere, always and for all. How could one not want that expansion opposed?

I can't figure out from Chomsky's writings about what he thinks the United States and its allied states should, realistically, have done. It's absolutely untrue that he preferred the Soviet Union to the US; he's an anarchist, not a communist, and as such people like him were being liquidated in the USSR by 1922 at the latest. He readily admits that it was far, far better to live in the US and its immediate core of allies --- Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, western Europe --- than in the Soviet Union and its satrapies. (After all, none of our subject states ever even tried to revolt against our hegemony, whereas the Soviets had to put down three such risings within twelve years, and in the view of the entire world, to say nothing of such more hidden things as surpressing Baltic and Ukranian guerillas.) But what was to be done?

So much for his politics, unquestionably the least important thing about him. But I'm tired, and I'm not up to explaining his contributions to linguistics, to cognitive science in general, or to the theory of computation and automata, even though I think the last is immortal, and will preserve his name as long as there is mathematics.

Empirical evidence for his linguistic views (which, so far as I can judge, seem quite cogent). His reputation among non-specialists (the gross inflation of which, through no fault of his own, is the subject of the essay which gets me more mail than anything else I've written). --- It would be interesting to know what percentage of pieces about Chomsky (i) state or presume that deep structure and innate or universal grammar are the same thing, (ii) claim a deep connection between his linguistics and his politics and (iii) claim he single-handedly slew behaviorism.

  • Chris Knight, Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics [This seems wrong-headed, from the publisher's description, but those are rarely trustworthy...]

    (Thanks to Michael Meadon for a correction, 3 June 2008.)

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