In this essay I analyze one of the recent critiques of Noam Chomsky’s political thought, by David Solway. I focus particularly on this critique since it repeats the most common arguments and views that can be heard from the anti-Chomskian front of intellectuals. Discussing particular topics and arguments I also address broader questions such as what does it mean to be an intellectual today and what kind of responsibility do we need today in the public as well as academic discourse?
An interesting essay “Deconstructing Chomsky” by David Solway appeared in a recent issue of Arts & Opinion (Vol. 10, No. 4, 2011). As I am generally in favor of all fruitful “deconstructions,” I started reading the essay with much enthusiasm, hoping that it might reveal some new facts, perspectives or arguments related to Noam Chomsky and his influential thought. I also strongly believe that nothing should be left without critical examination, as I consider critical thinking the most vital aspect of intellectual life, science and theory in general. Therefore, critical reading of Chomsky is, as any other critical reading, desirable and necessary, especially if we bear in mind the influence and reputation which Chomsky as an author has both inside and outside the academic community.
However, critical reading or “deconstruction” should be based on some arguments and evidence. Mr. Solway starts very promisingly in this respect saying, “I will, however, provide evidence for my dismissal of Chomsky.” Let us assume that Mr. Solway had an honest intention and that he is a person who wants to be taken seriously in his criticism. These are the premises of my critical reading of Mr. Solway’s text. I will not try to defend at any point Prof. Chomsky, as he is more than capable of doing it alone. Instead, I will only focus on the style of the argument expressed in “Deconstructing Chomsky.”
As I am not an expert in the field of linguistics, I will limit my comments on Mr. Solway’s critical reading of Chomsky’s political thought.
The first disappointment we come across in this essay is ad hominem arguments that the author employs throughout the text. Ad hominem arguments are simply unacceptable in any serious analysis of someone’s thought or particular positions. Therefore, they should also be invalid in the critical reading of Chomsky. For instance, one ad hominem argument (if we can consider it a serious argument at all) is Mr. Solway’s remark: “he (Chomsky) is an intellectual charlatan.” Let us suppose that Chomsky is an intellectual charlatan; what proves this statement? Why is he a charlatan? In practicing some sort of magic, words do have power on their own; it is enough to say something and it becomes true. In serious scholarship and critical thinking, this is not enough. The fact that someone calls Chomsky (or anybody else) a “charlatan,” does not make him a charlatan. Some evidence should/must be provided.
Here we come to the second difficulty with Mr. Solway’s essay. There is not any evidence for his statements. All that we have is Mr. Solway’s statements about Chomsky and quotes about what other people stated. But even if 99% of the population stated that water is composed of helium and radium, it would not make that statement true. In other words, it is necessary to hear some supporting arguments or analyses to take these statements seriously. Making the following statement (by quoting Peter Schweizer) does not dismiss Chomsky’s arguments and contributions as an intellectual either: “America is, for Chomsky, ‘the land of Pentagon contracts, lucrative real estate holdings, stock market wealth, and a tax-sheltered trust for his children.’ Yet, despite his fierce denunciations, he squats there like an orb spider, his web sagging with the weight of juicy flies. He makes disingenuous millionaire Michael Moore look like a small-time piker.” Even if Chomsky were a government official, his criticism of the government might be true. Not to mention that this ad hominem argument simply overlooks Chomsky’s awareness of the many privileges he enjoys, together with the rest of the academic community in the United States, which he constantly brings to attention in many interviews and talks (a glance at Youtube videos can easily demonstrate this).
The same is valid for another statement: “As for his political ravings, the sheer nonsense of most of his claims is outstripped only by the abyssal gullibility of his auditors and readers, who do not realize that Chomsky is a contaminated witness.” This is “proved” by another quote: “‘It would be easy to demonstrate,’ writes David Horowitz in an article titled ‘The Sick Mind of Noam Chomsky,’ (sic!) ‘how on every page of every book and in every statement that Chomsky has written, the facts are twisted, the political context is distorted (and often inverted) and the historical record is systematically traduced,’ expressing ‘a pathological hatred of his own country.’” The “argument” continues as following: “A recent book has accomplished precisely such a demonstration. Chomsky’s doctoring of sources, dubious or obscure references, misquotations, convenient abridgments, significant omissions and gross misinterpretations have been abundantly documented in The Anti-Chomsky Reader, a volume which should be consulted by those who are still impressed by Chomsky’s glowing nimbus and public prominence as a ‘libertarian socialist.’” And that is all. In other words, one statement is supported by a quotation where we find another statement and this one is supported by another quotation which is also a statement. No need for any further explication – it is claimed that the evidence is somewhere else.
Just to show that this kind of reasoning goes throughout the text I will cite the following passage which seems to be another satisfactory “evidence” for the author: “In his (Richard Posner’s) Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Posner writes that Chomsky’s tone and one-sidedness is ‘all too typical’ of his oeuvre. ‘Chomsky’s use of sources is uncritical, and his methodology unsatisfactory — it consists simply of changing the subject.’”
It is clear that the statements given above do not leave much room for any counter-argument or verification, because they are empty of any content, except pure accusations.
However, in the next paragraph we find something resembling an argument, which the author borrows from Thomas Sowell. The accusation is that “Chomsky is one of those public intellectuals who has ranged ‘beyond the confines of his specialty’ and made ‘inflammatory comments on things for which he had no qualifications.’” The only evidence provided is that, “the shabby scholarship alone, evident both in the pulpiteering style and the abject referencing, as well as the apodictic claptrap he purveys, should have set off alarm bells for responsible readers and prompted them to do a bit of supplementary research.”
And yet, there is an important claim in this statement, which deserves to be addressed. It is the statement that public intellectuals should not comment on things for which they have no qualification. It seems self-evident that someone should know something about things he or she discusses. However, it is not clear what it means to have “qualifications” to discuss or do something, especially something like being a public intellectual. It seems to me that one should have formal education to give comments on oral hygiene or the newest results in the physics of sub-atomic particles. But if we stick to the argument that formal education is the only way to credibly comment on things that touch particular fields, we would need to dismiss e.g. Friedrich Nietzsche as a philosopher, simply because he had no diploma in philosophy. Following the same logic, we would have to a priori dismiss Mr. Solway’s essay, because he does not have a PhD in Noam Chomsky’s political theory!
There is, however, a deeper aspect of this argument – what does it mean to have “qualifications” to be an intellectual? What kind of training should one take, what kind of school should one attend to become an intellectual or critical thinker? Putting questions this way makes us see that the above argument about Chomsky simply misses the point. In other words, there is no training which makes someone a critical thinker, as there is no training which makes you a good philosopher or a “genius” in a certain discipline. It is rather a process of permanent education, analysis and synthesis which allows you to think outside the box and go beyond the limits of formal education, which can be, and in fact always is, some sort of (positive or negative) “indoctrination.” This is, however, not an argument in favor of those who would like to abandon all schools as unnecessary. It is only a warning that formal education functions within a wider social context, so developing critical thinking or becoming an intellectual is not something that can be memorized in a college course.
Bearing this all in mind, the essay trying to “deconstruct” Chomsky exposes itself as just another construction. The final sentences of the essay seem to support such a conclusion: “Ultimately, there can be no rebutting that Chomsky, for all his weird, unanchored giftedness, is not only an intellectual tyrant; he is an intellectual charlatan, however compelling. He is, to go back to Hitchens, the Mother Teresa of the secular domain. And those who hang upon his words have sacrificed both their integrity and their understanding.”
Chomsky is certainly not infallible, but it is curious how each criticism of Chomsky and his political views (at least all those I am aware of) follow two dominant patterns: 1) accusations and ad hominem arguments (he is: “sick,” “traitor,” “self-hating Jew,” “charlatan,” “Russian spy,” etc.); and 2) elimination of the context in which particular claims and arguments by Chomsky appear, which becomes then the basis for accusations. Maybe Chomsky is wrong in many of his claims, but to correct him we need is a serious criticism, which would take into account arguments and the reality of the world we live in.
It would be, therefore, more appropriate if we could hear some analyses that would prove or disapprove particular facts and perspectives, unless the essay by Mr. Solway is considered a literary/poetic exercise, or just a pamphlet, which requires no evidence whatsoever.