Among Jewish contributors to modern intellectual life, few carry as much name-recognition as Noam Chomsky. Visiting London last week, he drew enthusiastic crowds to a lecture given in honour of Edward Said, the Palestinian literary critic, and an interview at the British Library with Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian columnist and my fellow JC contributor.
There is, though, a paradox about Chomsky’s reputation. He is a seminal figure in linguistics, celebrated for his insight that language is the realisation of an innate faculty. His fame lies less in this technical and specialised field, however, than in voluminous works denouncing Western foreign policy, which to Chomsky is guided by a “godfather principle, straight out of the mafia”. And while his political writings are revered by left-wing activists, they attract minimal attention among academics.
The scholarly indifference is apt. Chomsky’s political writings are a curiosity, not an intellectual revolution. Many of these books are merely collections of softball interviews with obsequious admirers. Those that purport to be original studies of Western society and diplomacy bear the paraphernalia of scholarship, being freighted with footnotes; yet I have experience where his sources weren’t quite as he depicted them and didn’t exactly say what he claimed.
In an exchange I had with Chomsky in Prospect magazine a few years ago, he claimed that I had misquoted a statement by him in an early work, American Power and the New Mandarins, that the US required “denazification”. In fact, I’d quoted him demonstrably accurately, and I’ve never worked out how he thought he would get away with a falsehood so easily refuted.
My scepticism about Chomsky’s work isn’t only that there are living Jewish thinkers (such as Michael Walzer, Avishai Margalit and Shlomo Avineri) of far greater significance in the study of political philosophy. It concerns his methods.
Even on controversies where Chomsky has been right (Vietnam in the 1960s, or Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor in the 1970s), these issues, in his writings, appear to be mainly ciphers for his principal concern: the wickedness of Western policy. Where the US and its allies respond to aggression, Chomsky still insists on that theme, which leads him into grave error. His writings about the Balkans reliably depict Slobodan Milosevic, the author of the genocidal wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, as more sinned against (by Nato) than sinning. This is evidence of what can reasonably be termed Chomsky’s anti-Americanism: a reflexive hostility to the US, regardless of motive, act or evidence.
Notoriously, Chomsky came to the defence in the late 1970s of a Holocaust denier called Robert Faurisson. Chomsky was not defending the poisonous propaganda of this man, nor is he (in that irresponsible and illegitimate term popularised by Theodor Lessing) a “self-hating Jew”. Yet Chomsky’s defence of Faurisson was not the principled defence of free speech that Chomsky’s supporters claim (a myth credulously repeated last week by Aida Edemariam, a Guardian writer).
Chomsky will level hyperbolic abuse at his critics on the Left: Nick Cohen is a “maniac”; Christopher Hitchens expressed “racist contempt”; I am among “the more extreme apologists for Western crimes”. Yet in defending Faurisson (a Holocaust denier, recall; hence a real racist and apologist for state crimes), Chomsky termed him “a relatively apolitical sort of liberal”.
This is rare, dumbfounding sophistry. And that is the most benign description of Chomsky’s political oeuvre that I can come up with.