Monday, December 14, 2015

How Not to Criticise Noam Chomsky

Here is a good example of it.

Now, first of all, I do think Chomsky makes errors – and even some very bad errors in his political or economic thinking.

This, however, is mostly laughable.

Let’s take the accusations:
(1) “There is no social vision” in Chomsky’s work or thought
Rubbish. Chomsky is a left libertarian. There is a clear social and economic vision in his thinking, but the problem is it is wrong, as I point out here. Chomsky’s anarcho-syndicalist libertarianism as a utopian fantasy, for the simple reason that a society without strong central government is unworkable – certainly in the modern world.

However, Chomsky has the great virtue of being pragmatic in his politics. In his various comments over the years, Chomsky has had the good sense to tacitly admit that his left libertarianism remains an unrealistic utopia.

The charge that Chomsky has never described or discussed solutions to the world’s problems is also absurd. When pressed about what economic policies he supports now, he invariably supports social democratic, Keynesian policies. That is correct.

(2) “America is sh*t and … the whole thing is a disaster and everything it does is a lie”
Again, rubbish. This is a caricature of Chomsky’s thought. Chomsky thinks America has done good in the world, such as fighting Nazism and helping to free East Timor from occupation. Furthermore, Chomsky praises America’s free speech and its constitutional protection of free speech, and even goes so far as to say that America’s protection of free speech is the “best in the world” (and that is his words as quoted in Mitchell and Schoeffel 2002: 268). That is sufficient in itself to damn the absurd and laughable caricature in this video.

A serious charge would be that Chomsky has often gone too far in his criticism of US foreign policy, where there would be a legitimate debate, but instead we have a silly straw man thrown up in this video.

(3) Nick Cohen refers to the “regressive left” as the “Chomskyan left”
The modern “regressive left” has very little to do with the thinking of Noam Chomsky. The “regressive left” is the outgrowth of French Poststructuralism, Postmodernism, Postcolonianism, moral relativism and cultural relativism.

Chomsky is a fierce critic of all these things. He is especially scathing about, and hostile to, Poststructuralism and Postmodernism, which he regards as rubbish. It is grossly unfair to blame Chomsky for the “regressive left.”
In short, this is a case of people seeing genuinely stupid and outrageous ideas on the left and needing a hate figure to blame for all this. Chomsky is not to blame, and the charges against him here are laughable ignorance.

However, there are some good points in the video, and I do not deny this. It is true that some people on the left have a shameful inability to see how dangerous and extreme is the ideology of Islamism and how regressive even the non-political religious fundamentalism related to this is, and how incompatible it is with the best values of the West. It may be that Chomsky is guilty of failing to see this or failing to speak out about it. That could have been a legitimate criticism of him, but instead they focus on unfair straw man charges.

Mitchell, Peter R. and John Schoeffel (eds.). 2002. Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. Scribe Publications, New York.


  1. No. Chomsky is right on some issues, but he's the Rothbard of the left. I will only address 2. Cohen is right and decades of Chomsky's deceits, apologias, and one-sided analyses prove it over and over. Hunt down his debate with Sam Harris for one small example. Citing one or two things where even Chomsky must hide his animus does not make the least difference. Hitchens acknowledged the church fed paupers. Is it a strawman parody of Hitchens to say he hated the church?

    1. I've already said there is a legitimate debate about whether his critiques of American foreign policy are fair or even handed.

      But you refer to his "deceits". Deceit means a conscious and deliberate attempt to misrepresent the truth. Give me one example of this.

      Like a lot of people I strongly suspect Chomsky is more a bogey man figure of hate to you and you haven't extensively read his writings.

      I have. I do find bad arguments or views that aren't balanced, but I can't think of a genuine "deceit" offhand. The worst charge against him was his severely wrong view of the Khmer Rouge.

      You also say he has an "animus". No doubt he has an animus against what he sees as grossly immoral foreign policy, but so what?

      Criticism of a nation's government or foreign policy is not the same thing as hating that country or its people. You need to cite and refute individual arguments, not just level blanket charges.

    2. He claimed in a lecture at MIT that the US had supported the Nazis against the Soviet Union towards the end of WW2, delaying the liberation of concentration camps. This false claim of his was mentioned in a 'New Yorker' article by Larissa Macfarquhar, forcing Chomsky to deny he had said it. Unfortunately for Noam, the MIT lecture had been videotaped...

    3. Yes, that's more like it.

      Real substantive criticism and not hysterical made-up stuff, such as the Postmodernism "regressive left" is all the fault of Chomsky.

    4. Oh come one. I cite his history of such shit. "Lies" you cry. You are implying it's made up. No. Here's just one example of the claimed phenomenon. His history of misrepresentations is long and well documented.

      Thanks to Anonymous for having details to hand.

      See 2:28 where he declares there is no economic argument against syndicalism. He's either brazenly assuming his listeners are ignorant, or he himself is. I have always felt he's a great critic. But he's a real asshole when you consider how much he speaks out against, compared with how many arguments he seems totally unaware of.

    6. ""Lies" you cry. "

      No, Ken B, I didn't. I asked for the evidence, because I couldn't think of an example that sounds like genuine and conscious deceit offhand. One example was given and (if it is true) I implied I think it does qualify. Nevertheless, charges of massive deceit require numerous examples backed up with evidence.

  2. Chomky has, from the 70s onward, criticized the US for enabling—financially and militarily—Indonesia's brutal slaughter of the East Timorese. He certainly does not laud the US for liberating East Timor, something the US did not do.

  3. As Ken B implies, Chomsky's main political passion is an obsessive, pathologist and deeply dishonest anti-Americanism. Former leftist Keith Windschuttle provides a pretty good summary here:

    1. Windschuttle has written some excellent things against Postmodernism and I respect him.

      But on this he is mostly wrong.

      Just take the charges

      (1) "defence of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia,"

      This charge comes from statements in the book After the Cataclysm (1979), where Chomsky and Edward Herman indeed showed ignorance of the extent of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, in passages like this:

      "These reports also emphasize both the extraordinary brutality on both sides during the civil war (provoked by the American attack) and repeated discoveries that massacre reports were false. They also testify to the extreme unreliability of refugee reports, and the need to treat them with great caution, a fact that we and others have discussed elsewhere (cf. Chomsky: At War with Asia, on the problems of interpreting reports of refugees from American bombing in Laos). We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments; rather, we again want to emphasize some crucial points. What filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered."

      Now you can no doubt condemn them for not accepting the evidence for the extent of the atrocities, genocide and crimes under Khmer Rouge. That is certainly a blot on Chomsky's record.

      But where exactly in the book do they engage in a "defense of ... [the] Pol Pot regime"? They clearly (1) acknowledge "extraordinary brutality on both sides" in the civil war, (2) reports of atrocities, (3) that Cambodia suffered a "torment" and (4) state that "We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments".

      Furthermore, in all subsequent statements from Chomsky on the Khmer Rouge, he makes it clear that the regime was guilty of mass murder and genocide. He has even said that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 that ended Pol Pot's genocide might be defended as a humanitarian intervention:

      "In that period, perhaps the most compelling example of [humanitarian intervention to try to mitigate catastrophe] ... is the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978, terminating Pol Pot's atrocities, which were then peaking. Vietnam pleaded the right of self-defense against armed attack, one of the few post-Charter examples when the plea is plausible: the Khmer Rouge regime (Democratic Kampuchea, DK) was carrying out murderous attacks against Vietnam in border areas. The US reaction is instructive. The press condemned the "Prussians" of Asia for their outrageous violation of international law. They were harshly punished for the crime of having terminated Pol Pot's slaughters, first by a (US-backed) Chinese invasion, then by US imposition of extremely harsh sanctions. The US recognized the expelled DK as the official government of Cambodia, because of its "continuity" with the Pol Pot regime, the State Department explained. Not too subtly, the US supported the Khmer Rouge in its continuing attacks in Cambodia."

      Does that sound like a "defense of the Pol Pot regime" to you

    2. (2) "Chomsky has produced no substantial body of political theory of his own. "

      For Christ's sake, what rubbish.

      Give me a god damn break. Chomsky is a left libertarian and has produced plenty of political and economic writings on his vision of society. As I said above, I think this is wrong, and enemies of Chomsky could have also showed carefully and calmly why it is wrong and utopian nonsense, but instead they resort to laughable straw man nonsense.

    3. (3) "anti-Americanism"

      As I said above, harsh criticism of a nation's government or foreign policy is not the same thing as hating that country or its people.

      This is the mentality of right-wing lunatics who would defend their country's government no matter what it does -- even if it committed war crimes on a massive scale.

      (4) support for communist China etc. "No matter how great the crimes of the regimes he has favoured, such as China, Vietnam and Cambodia under the communists, Chomsky has never demanded their leaders be captured and tried for war crimes."

      Yep. Actually this are real and good criticisms of Chomsky. As opposed to the lazy and straw man attacks on him. But I have already acknowledged this kind of criticism is right and legitimate.

    4. Chomsky and Hermann absolutley were apologists for the KR. There's a discussion here, too sympathetic to Chomsky IMO, which is worth reading This is ALL an example of what we are disputing under 2: an anti-Americanism so deep it causes him to distort everything. This is like the extreme hatred of communism of Pat Buchanan and his ilk leading them to conclude we fought the wrong enemy in WWII.

    5. (1) An accusation of being an "apologist for the KR" is a far more reasonable charge than the lazy charge of being a "supporter" of the regime, which implies he knew it was genocide and gave his wholehearted support. The latter goes too far, but the former charge is reasonable.

      In essence, Chomsky's was guilty of outrageous unwillingness to accept the evidence that there was a genocide going on in Cambodia for a few years and dismissing or minimising the testimony of eyewitnesses to this. As I have said before, this is indeed a massive blot on him and his reputation and probably the worst mistake of his life.

      (2) however, does he get any credit in you eyes for later arguing that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 that really did end Pol Pot's regime can be defended as a humanitarian intervention?

      Are you aware that the US opposed it? The US in 1979 condemned Vietnam's overthrow of this genocidal regime in a cynical and hypocritical act when they knew how bad the regime was. The US argued that not even Pol Pot's human rights abuses could justify overthrowing the regime given international law. If you accept that argument, then there is no way to possibly justify, e.g., the invasion of Iraq in 2003 which I recall you have said you did support.

      Are you willing to critique the hypocrisy of US policy here?

    6. (1) "an anti-Americanism so deep it causes him to distort everything."

      Actually, I do not dispute he has a deep hostility to US foreign policy that has caused **some** deep and disgraceful errors and one sidedness.

      But "anti-Americanism" implies much more: it implies total and irrational hatred of a country or its people. In that sense, the charge of "anti-Americanism" is B.S.

      He is as you say much like Rothbard: a libertarian whose ideological views have skewed his judgement, badly in some cases.

      (3) finally, if you think there is nothing right, correct and valid whatsoever in Chomsky's analysis of Western foreign policy, then I am afraid you haven't read him properly or properly looked at the evidence.

      Even Rothbard -- for all his very bad errors like Chomsky -- had some decent things to say on these issues, often similar to Chomsky.

    7. "The US argued that not even Pol Pot's human rights abuses could justify overthrowing the regime given international law. If you accept that argument, then there is no way to possibly justify, e.g., the invasion of Iraq in 2003 which I recall you have said you did support."

      I have also said in the comment you allude to that I think free people ALWAYS have the moral right to overthrow despots. So obviously I disagree with that alleged 1972 position. I am not sure why you think I would accept it, unless you are simply looking for a bone to pick.
      as for your point 3 I haven't said that. Talk about straw-manning!

  4. There is one work of Cohn Werner on internet about the connection between Noam Chomsky and holocaust denials ( Partners in Hate) . As you know much about him, is this a good criticism that Chomsky supports Faurisson and Neo Nazis ,is antisemite who only sides with Arabs ?

    1. I am well aware of this charge. It reduces to this: Chomsky once signed a petition in support of the free speech of a Holocaust denier called Robert Faurisson. He did not support or agree with actual Holocaust denial or by that action.

      This is another hysterical vicious smear on the man.

      Free speech is sacred. It is the foundation of any truly free society. Either you agree with the principle or not. Chomsky supports it. There are few people these days with the balls to act on their principles and defend the free speech of a person whose views they despise. Chomsky did, and he gets slandered for it. Christopher Hitchens suffered in the same way for arguing that the vile idiot Irving had a right to free speech too.

    2. I agree with LK. It's unfair to accuse Chomsky of supporting a *position* when he is actually only supporting a *right*. His support for free speech is one of his good things.

    3. Freedom of speech is a important issue no doubt, but we cannot have absolute free speech , his opponents argue, another point is that Chomsky is like self hating jew because one act of writing out of many is that he endorsed to a book by Israel Shahak ,( Jewish History, Jewish Religion).
      I don't agree with second charge but the first charge is quite serious. By freedom of speech a company cannot fool their stockholder nor a person use lies to defame others.
      Freedom of Speech is a controversial issues, one cannot draw definite boundaries.

    4. Another case about freedom of speech is the recent rhetoric against Muslims and immigrants in US. Look that Loretta Lynch voes to persecute anti Muslim speech. If the rhetoric doesn't had strong words would she have persecuted them ?. Difficult to draw boundaries.

    5. Jeez, this blog has become flypaper for incoherent, intolerant ignoramuses. There is actually an immense body of case law establishing clear boundaries. They are just not where the cry-bullies want them to be.

    6. Exactly. People seem totally unfamiliar with the standard position on free speech and what it does and does not include. "Total" free speech is not being endorsed, because hardly anyone has ever supported it.

      E.g. the standard conception of free speech has never included the right to directly incite violence or things that are illegal.

      Free speech is still compatible with people being able to sue for libel if a person thinks they have been slandered.

      Whether shouting fire in a crowded theatre is protected speech is borderline and controversial, but is not even relevant to what we are discussing here.

  5. LK, the charge against Chomsky was not that he defended Faurisson's right to free speech, but that he implied the man was a respectable scholar rather than the lying antisemite that he was.

    Oliver Kamm wrote a long blog post about this if you have a patience to read it all.

    1. (1) "LK, the charge against Chomsky was not that he defended Faurisson's right to free speech, but that he implied the man was a respectable scholar rather than the lying antisemite that he was"

      No, the original charge above is that Chomsky "supports Faurisson and Neo Nazis" -- implying that he actually supports holocaust denial as a viewpoint or neo-Nazism. This is vile slander.

      (2) You raise an utterly different charge. Furthermore, you post a link that shows:

      (1) Faurisson was convicted of
      "falsifying history" in a civil law suit and of "incitement to racial hatred", neither of which -- although they are disgraceful -- ought to be a criminal or civil crime in a truly free society with free speech. Despite what the author says these are infringements of freedom of speech because the state is prosecuting people.

      (2) your link shows Chomsky was irresonponsle indeed in not learning more about Faurisson's background.

      The new charge that, through irresponsibility, Chomsky "implied the man was a respectable scholar rather than the lying antisemite that he was" is, however, far more reasonable on the evidence than the stupid one Raghu made above.