Noam Chomsky24 Oct 1998 21:13
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.
- By Uncle Noam himself:
- Syntactic Structures
- Language and Mind
- What Uncle Sam Really Wants [This and other political works can be found at the Noam Chomsky Archive]
- J. Bradford DeLong
- My Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky [Problems with What Uncle Sam Really Wants]
- My Very, Very Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky: Khmer Rouge, Faurisson, Milosevic
- Daniel Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea [Chomsky's quarrels with Darwin, and why Uncle Noam is wrong and Uncle Charles is right.]
- Ernest Gellner, "Chomsky" in Spectacles and Predicaments ["His seeming repudiation of empiricism springs ironically from a commitment to it so complete that it is unaware of its own existence. ... [H]e, more than anyone else perhaps, has rammed home the fact that it is never true to say I speak; the correct formulation must be it speaks. ... The kind of Unconscious presupposed by the Chomskian approach is quite different from its Freudian namesake, but, appearances notwithstanding, it requires an even more drastic re-thinking of our picture of man. The Freudian Unconscious may have been unhousetrained and randy, but otherwise it was quite familiar, jolly and clubbable. We get used to it with ease, or even alacrity. I am much less at ease about those inner strings and pulleys which are the subject of the generative grammarians, and which are recorded in a truly hideous notation ..."]
- Randy Allen Harris, The Linguistics Wars [Chomsky vs. former disciples over how generative grammar should proceed in the 1960s and 1970s. Neither Chomsky, nor his principle opponent George Lakoff, likes the book, which is just one of many signs that it's on-target.]
- Scott Martens, My carefully considered and well-earned aversion to Noam Chomsky
- Aryeh Neier, "Inconvenient Facts" [Review of Chomsky's The New Military Humanism.]
- Steve Pinker, The Language Instinct [A wonderfully written explanation of Chomsky's linguistics for non-linguists, far superior to anything Chomsky himself has ever done, and worth it for that alone. But wait, there's more! You also get: the relevant neuropsychology and genetics quite painlessly; some historical linguistics; well-deserved ridicule of pedants; a refutation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and other language-myths which haunt social scientists and their victims, people with liberal arts degrees; and a confutation of Chomsky's own out-to-lunch notions about natural selection and the evolution of language, in the course of one of the best discussions of evolutionary psychology ever.]
- Bruce Sharp, Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy
- To read:
- Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought ["Irresponsible ancestor-grabbing" --- Gellner, but he goes out of his way to say kind things about La Mettrie.]
- Government in the Future [From 1970]
(Thanks to Michael Meadon for a correction, 3 June 2008.)