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Avram Noam Chomsky (born 1928) is a Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at M.I.T., public intellectual, wobbly, a libertarian socialist and political dissident. He is usually identified with the rationalist or nativist tradition in psychology.
It should be noted that not all who dislike, detest or simply disagree with Chomsky are wingnuts.
- 1 Linguistics and psychology
- 2 Politics
- 3 See also
- 4 Further Reading
- 5 External links
- 6 References
Linguistics and psychology
Chomsky has made important contributions to the field of linguistics, most prominently his ideas of generative grammar (in which the grammar of a language is described by sets of rules transforming one grammatical construct into another) and the Chomsky hierarchy, classifying languages based on restrictions imposed upon the form of these rules. Several of the classes of grammars in the Chomsky hierarchy have proven useful in computer science, so next time you write a regular expression, you'll know whom to thank. His work in the philosophy of linguistics and the philosophy of mind made him one of the leading figures of the cognitive revolution. This contributed so greatly to the field of psychology that he was listed the 38th most influential figure in the 20th century in the field in the Review of General Psychology despite his specialization in linguistics.
Chomsky argued against the behaviorism of B.F. Skinner on the topic of language acquisition. One of his most famous arguments is the "poverty of the stimulus," i.e. that children acquire language with insufficient input from the environment for language to be learned entirely by a behaviorist stimulus-response mechanism. This argument remains a topic of some controversy, especially among psychologists and linguists that take a more empiricist approach. Chomsky posited an innate "language acquisition device," a "mental organ" that allowed for the derivation of syntactical structure and grammatical rules of language. These phenomena were thought to play a central role in a "Universal Grammar." However, Chomsky has subsequently modified some of his arguments, reformulating generative grammar in terms of what became known as the "minimalist program."
That Chomsky has significantly dominated his field is reflected in his prominence in the most widely used book in introductory linguistics by Fromkin et al., now in its 10th edition. Additionally, Chomsky heavily influenced linguist and fellow public intellectual, Steven Pinker. Some empiricist critics of Chomsky, such as Michael Tomasello, maintain that language does have a biological basis, but that this basis is in the ability to imitate rather than in any mechanisms specifically designed for verbal language.
The Chomsky Rule
“”We Americans are to blame.
|—headline of Guardian Chomsky article.|
The "Chomsky Rule" is an informal name for the ethical position of prioritizing political criticism of that country (usually where one is a citizen) where one has political influence, as opposed to criticizing other nations where one has little or none. The concept became especially controversial around 2015. The Chomsky quote that generated the rule is:
“”My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgement. That is, the ethical value of one's actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century
|—Noam Chomsky, “On Power and Ideology” (1990)|
Activist journalist Glenn Greenwald often invokes the Chomsky rule and has popularized it, which has garnered attacks on both men who are frequently targeted together. In the context of the American and British press's frenzied orgy of condemnations of Ecuador's poor record on press freedoms — prompted by that nation's offer of asylum to Julian Assange — Greenwald writes:
Fixating on the rights abuses of distant governments while largely ignoring those committed by one's own does not only demonstrate the glaring insincerity of the purported beliefs. Far worse, it is an abdication of one's primary duty as a journalist and as a citizen: to oppose, first and foremost, the bad acts of one's own government.
An eagerness to condemn abuses by foreign governments while largely ignoring one's own is not merely cowardly, though it is that. And it's not merely an abdication of the prime journalistic duty, though it is that, too. Worst of all, it's the media behavior that most effectively bolsters state propaganda, as it signals to the citizenry: human rights violations and civil liberties assaults are something those Bad Foreign Governments over there do, but not your own.
Detractors sometimes accuse those invoking the Chomsky Rule as secretly supportive of everyone from Putin to Al Qaeda to Daesh. This is fallacious. Criticism in one area does not necessarily imply support for some other position. Focusing on the wrongdoing of the world's only superpower and its allies might be a critically missing addition to the public discussion in the country where the wrongdoing can be stopped or reined in by an informed citizenry. Relatedly, whataboutery is commonly deployed against those who follow the Chomsky Rule.
However, it is not always true that greater positive impact can be achieved by criticizing one's own government. Activists, writers and journalists can help improve situations, and increase pressure on foreign governments, either directly through increasingly international media, or by influencing their own government to speak out against human rights violations in other countries. It depends on the circumstances. There is however a tendency to ignore human rights violations coming from the U.S. and its allies, and their alleged good intentions are all too often readily accepted and regurgitated by the American media.
Perhaps Chomsky's most famous political book (co-authored with Edward Herman) is, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, published in 1988 and which many on the left consider "canonical" on the proposition that "what goes viral in the U.S. media...[is] what is politically convenient for the U.S. government." Somewhat surprisingly, the New York Times gave the book a generally positive review. While finding that Chomsky and Herman's thesis contains "overstatements," it nevertheless declares:
With highly detailed research, they move through a series of case studies: the press's trumpeting of the murder of the Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko by Communist state police in 1984, while paying little attention to priests murdered in our client states in Latin America; the press's praise of elections in El Salvador and its criticism of the 1984 voting in Nicaragua; the disinformation campaign that surrounded the supposed K.G.B.-Bulgarian plot to kill the Pope in 1981; and what the authors see as the press's voluntary self-censorship in covering events in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
...many of the book's raw-data comparisons are compelling indictments of the news media's role in covering up errors and deceptions in American foreign policy of the past quarter-century. And Mr. Herman and Mr. Chomsky deliver a dark prognosis for America's ability to conduct a successful and moral foreign policy.
The book shares its title with a documentary film that has become a popular introductory text to Chomsky's work, even though Chomsky finds aspects of it irksome. He has also written dozens of books critical of United States foreign policy.
Chomsky is not a fan of postmodernism, to put it mildly, going as far as to compare postmodernist critiques of "white male science" to the Deutsche Physik of Nazi Germany and its attack on "Jewish physics". He is, additionally, not a fan of Slavoj Žižek. In an interview in 2013 he expands:
“”It's all very inflated, you know a lot of prestige and so on– it has a terrible effect in the Third World. In the First World, rich countries, it doesn't really matter that much. So if a lot of nonsense goes on in the Paris cafés or Yale comparative literature department – well, okay. On the other hand in the Third World, popular movements really need serious intellectuals to participate. And if they're all ranting postmodernist absurdities… well, they're gone. I've seen real examples – could give them to you.
But –so there is that category. And it’s considered very left wing, very advanced. Well, some of what appears in it, actually makes sense. But when you reproduce it in monosyllables, it turns out to be truisms. So yes, it is perfectly true that when you look at scientists in the West, they’re mostly men. And it’s perfectly true that women have had a hard time breaking into the scientific fields. And it’s perfectly true that there are institutional factors determining how science proceeds that reflect power structures. I mean ALL of this can be described literally in monosyllables, and it turns out to be truisms when you look at it. On the other hand, you don’t get to be a respected intellectual by presenting truisms in monosyllables.Now a lot of the left criticism-so when the left criticism (so called), I don't consider it left-the left criticism, so called, happens to be accurate. Well okay, that's fine. So if you point it out, a lot of things, like I mentioned, well that's fine. Point it out. Everybody understands it. Take a look to see if it's true, and so on. On the other hand, a lot of so-called left criticism seems to be pure nonsense. In fact, that's been demonstrated. Conclusively. […refers to Sokal and Bricmont's “Intellectual Impostures” (Fashionable Nonsense)…] where they simply go through the — they happen to concentrate on Paris which is the center of the rot, but it's all over [gestures an explosion]… [He then mentions an example in which a French postmodernist who actually did have a background in science claimed that it would be nonsense to say that an Egyptian pharaoh had died of tuberculosis, since the disease had not been categorized in Pharaonic times. As this postmodernist considered everything to be a social construct, such a diagnosis had to be wrong by definition.]
Chomsky does not accept Illuminati conspiracy theories or the conspiracy theory surrounding the September 11 attacks, and regards the Federal Reserve, Trilateral Commission and Bilderberg Group as being organisations of no real significance or threat. This has led to many wingnut conspiracy theorists arguing that Chomsky is in fact a tool of the New World Order, being used to brainwash the masses into accepting leftist ideas. Or something like that. A few members of conspiracy idiot squad We Are Change even once went to the extent of protesting a Chomsky speaking engagement, expressing these sentiments.
Chomsky was reluctant to apply the word "genocide" to the atrocities of Srebrenica and Kosovo. He once stated: "The mass slaughter in Srebrenica, for example, is certainly a horror story and major crime, but to call it “genocide” so cheapens the word as to constitute virtual Holocaust denial, in my opinion. It amazes me that intelligent people cannot see that." The Srebrenica case, in fact, was the first case in which an individual, Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic, was found guilty of the crime of genocide. Chomsky argues that there has been a 'vulgar politicization of the word "genocide"', which is now 'so extreme' that he rarely uses the word at all.
Also, it has been claimed that he attempted to downplay Vietnamese refugee escapees' stories of the events, on the grounds that no independent verification could be done, despite the fact the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous records of the atrocities, as well as records and photographs of their victims (many of which are openly on display at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum). It should be noted that he also relied on the testimony of another witness who claimed not to have seen bodies as alleged. Though he denies that his research was wrong, Chomsky has said in his documentary film listed above "I mean the great act of genocide in the modern period is Pol Pot, 1975 through 1978 - that atrocity - I think it would be hard to find any example of a comparable outrage and outpouring of fury".
In a 2009 interview Chomsky was ambivalent about international trials for perpetrators of the Cambodian Genocide by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, saying "after all, an international trial that doesn’t take into account Henry Kissinger or the other authors of the American bombing and the support of the KR after they were kicked out of the country – that’s just a farce". Chomsky frequently objects to the West — and the United States in particular — not being held accountable for war crimes or crimes against humanity, while less powerful nations are.
On the other hand, Chomsky did write shortly after the Vietnam War ended "the record of atrocities in Cambodia is substantial and often gruesome", as well as that "When the facts are in, it may turn out that the more extreme condemnations were in fact correct." Whatever responsibility he laid at the feet of the United States, he did not deny that a large atrocity had taken place in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge.
Freedom of expression and the press
Chomsky's essay, 'Some Elementary Comments on the Rights of Freedom of Expression', appeared as an introduction to a Holocaust denial book by French writer Robert Faurisson, without Chomsky's knowledge or approval. Responding to a request for comment in a climate of attacks on Faurisson, Chomsky defended Faurisson's right to express and publish his opinions on the grounds that freedom of speech must be extended to all viewpoints, no matter how unpopular or fallacious.
In the wake of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre, Chomsky controversially compared the media and public reactions to those shootings on the one hand, and on the other, the 1999 NATO bombing of Radio Serbia's headquarters during the Kosovo War. Chomsky accused the Western media of hypocrisy for denouncing only the former. But his analysis of media double standards in rallying to the cause of press freedom went well beyond Kosovo:
Anyone with eyes open will quickly notice other rather striking omissions. Thus, prominent among those who face an "enormous challenge" from brutal violence are Palestinians, once again during Israel's vicious assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014, in which many journalists were murdered, sometimes in well-marked press cars, along with thousands of others, while the Israeli-run outdoor prison was again reduced to rubble on pretexts that collapse instantly on examination.
Also ignored was the assassination of three more journalists in Latin America in December, bringing the number for the year to 31. There have been more than a dozen journalists killed in Honduras alone since the military coup of 2009 that was effectively recognized by the U.S. (but few others), probably according post-coup Honduras the per capita championship for murder of journalists.
Despite his stance as an anarchist, Chomsky has been known to advocate things that makes him polarizing within anarchist circles. He for instance opposes the classical left-libertarian position of anti-electoralism in favor of active political involvement with state political systems, believing the best way to an anarchist society is through working with systems of power. This militant adherence to pragmatism has resulted in him supporting some very horrible people which has fueled the polarizing effect he has with other anarchists.
The best illustration of this is Chomsky being a very vocal supporter of the regime of Hugo Chávez. His praise didn't go unnoticed as when, during the 2006 UN session, Hugo Chávez recommended Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival as an important text on the subject of American imperialism. The mention helped give the author some renewed publicity. The two later hit it off, with Chomsky traveling to visit Venezuela in 2009 as an honored guest. Even after the death of Chávez, Chomsky still continues to speak highly of him and his government.
While some anarchists disapprove of Chomsky's affinity for people like Chavez — who wasn't an anarchist — Chomsky holds that many political terms are imprecise. Of anarchism he declares: "It resists any characterization." Moreover, he accepts the need for some pragmatism:
Chomsky also addressed some of the issues confronting anarchist activism, noting that while anarchists stand against the state, they often advocate for state coercion in order to protect people from “the savage beasts” of the capitalists, as he put it. Yet he saw this as not a contradiction, but a streak of pragmatism. “People live and suffer in this world, not one we imagine,” Chomsky explained. “It’s worth remembering that anarchists condemn really existing states instead of idealistic visions of governments ‘of, by and for the people.’”
Another famous example of his pragmatism came when he endorsed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump after Bernie Sanders lost the primary. He believed in stopping the spread of neo-fascism in America first and foremost, because he found fascism to be so dangerous to society that working with the establishment is preferable. Put simply, the Democrats are opportunists who follow the way the wind blows; Republicans are demagogues who work with reactionaries and monsters, so Chomsky, by default, prefers Democrats.
Most other anarchists though reject this kind of approach holding that consistently working with the establishment actually helps to perpetuate state societies and elitism via complicity rather than demolishing them.
But the most outspoken, needless to say, are much more radical. These include, unsurprisingly, hard green anarchists like John Zerzan who not only dislike Chomsky for working with the establishment but hate him even more for his embrace of technology as a means to improve things, including the environment. The fact Chomsky is himself a green anarchist who is well-known for being a staunch advocate of protecting and fixing Earth's ecology is utterly lost on them, or they don't feel he's radical enough. That's because Zerzan is an anarcoprimitivist, which Chomsky is not.
Chomsky and feminism
One issue that at times has been raised about Chomsky by those who support him (or would otherwise) is his comparably lukewarm attitude towards feminism. Indeed, he's only ever tangentially discussed it in any real sense, much to the chagrin of anarcha-feminists. While it's very safe to say that he is in no way anti-feminist or against feminism, he doesn't seem interested in exploring it to the same degree he has with other movements, whatever connotations that might carry.
Responding to an accusation from a former student of his that he was an "old fashioned patriarch" and "has never really understood what the feminist movement is about", Chomsky chose to contest the semantics of the latter statement, while not really denying the former.
“”I don’t think there’s such a thing as the aspirations and goals of the feminist movement, and I don’t think there’s such a thing as the feminist movement. There are many aspirations and goals of the feminist movement—or the feminist movements, I should say—which I think are timely and proper and important and have had an enormous effect in liberating consciousness and thought and making people aware of forms of oppression that they had internalized and not noticed. [...] As to the student’s comment, that could very well be correct, but I’m not the person to judge.
Wingnuts who hate Chomsky
Noam Chomsky has been the bete noir of rightwingers for going on five decades. Batshit crazy David Horowitz detests Chomsky, largely because the latter deeply opposes Horowitz's neoconservative and mindlessly pro-Israel positions. Horowitz runs a site called Discover the Network wherein he lists all the evil libruls plotting to destroy All that is Good and True. Chomsky, of course, enjoys an entry. Additonally, Horowitz and his long-timer partner in lunacy, Peter Collier, edited and published a collection of attacks on Chomsky, a set of tracts titled The Anti-Chomsky Reader, published by Collier's own obscure company.
At his Frontpage magazine site, Horowitz hosts his own anti-Chomsky screeds, as well as those of others. To Horowitz, Chomsky is a man of "psychotic hatred," and a paramount danger to America:
Chomsky’s message to his disciples in this country, the young on our college campuses, the radicals in our streets, the moles in our government offices, is a message of action and therefore needs to be attended to, even by those who will never read his rancid works.
Writing with Jacob Laksin, Horowitz feverishly shrieks about "a second Holocaust of the Jews" in which Hezbollah "can count on Muslim support and apparently the support of American radicals as well," which he claims Chomsky is promoting.
Beyond Horowitz's various swamps, there's former professional virgin, Ben Shapiro, who informs the world that: "A secular humanist, born a Jew, is still a secular humanist. Noam Chomsky is a Jew, but he is also a twisted and evil thinker..." But on a later occasion, Benny denied Chomsky is a Jew, declaring that Chomsky “is not really Jewish,” and is “Jewish in name only.” (A JINO?) Chomsky is also covered in "vainglorious huckster" Dinesh D'Souza's cheesy, jingoistic
Propaganda Film "documentary," America.
Radical-minded professors like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky have, through the techniques Saul Alinsky learned from Al Capone, succeeded in making millions of black Americans, Native Americans, poor Americans, and liberal Americans ashamed of the darkest parts of American history.
Bloviating blowhard Bill O'Reilly would have us know that the kids are not all right! For, because of Chomsky, "many of our children grow up steeped in a toxic brew of negativity, ridicule, and downright anti-Americanism."
It should be noted that not all who dislike, detest or disagree with Chomsky are wingnuts. Mere neoliberal, pro-Israel fanatics also loathe him and his politics, although some give him credit when they believe it due. New Atheists often also detest Chomsky, as one of their leading voices does.
And if that were not enough, some sane people hold
St. Noam Chomsky in contempt or at least disagree with him.
Wingnut who liked Chomsky
Bin Laden was a rather big fan of Chomsky, in spite of the former's rabid antisemitism. Upon bin Laden's death, Chomsky strongly felt it set a very bad precedent that the murderer had not been given a trial and was instead assassinated. Chomsky stated that while Bin Laden committed a crime, his assassination "violat[ed] elementary norms of international law."
- William Blum, critic who, like Chomsky, sees US foreign policy in terms of imperialism.
- Bernard Comrie (1989). Language Universals & Linguistic Typology. The University of Chicago Press.
- Victoria Fromkin, Robert Rodman, Nina Hyams (2014). An Introduction to Language. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
- Pieter A. M. Seuren (2004). Western Linguistics: An Historical Introduction. Blackwell Publishing.
- Depending on the definition
- The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century
- Stephen Laurence and Eric Margolis. The Poverty of the Stimulus Argument. British Journal of the Philosophy of Science, vol. 52, 2001, pp. 217-276
- Language Acquisition Device, J-Rank
- The language organ is trivially known: the brain. Everything else is hotly debated.
- Linguistic Universals and Universal Grammar in the MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science
- The Minimalist Program: A Bridge Principle in Biolinguistics, Garrett Neske. Dead link.
- The hunt for language universals has been going on since before Chomsky. The results for absolute universals have been of the variety: All known languages possess pronouns. That is a true universal, but not exactly revolutionary. Everything more specific has to date been an implicational universal that is if a language has feature X then it also features Y. There are also tendencies, such as the overwhelming majority of languages possesses the vowel [a].
- Michael Tomasello. Language Is Not an Instinct. Cognitive Development, 10, 131-156 (1995)
- Nobody denies that humans have an inherited capacity to learn languages. That is trivially true, as can be seen by the tautology: We speak, hence we can speak. Nor does anyone deny that the brain takes care of language processing.
- Chomsky, Noam. We Americans are to blame, '
- “Limits of Discourse” by Sam Harris, May 1, 2015
- “Noam Chomsky undresses Sam Harris”, Salon, May 5, 2015
- “Chomsky Rule or minding one's business”, interview with Sam Harris, Oct 17, 2015
- Noam Chomsky “On Power and Ideology” (1990), p. 51
- Chomsky abides by his rule, mercilessly and mostly denouncing the atrocities and human right violations committed by the USA.
- Greenwald was researching a book on Chomsky's role as a public intellectual vis-a-vis his treatment in establishment media, when he was interrupted by something else. He and Chomsky are friendly and have appeared together for public discussions.
- World Affairs, Academia (kind of) Goes to War: Chomsky and His Children, by Alan Wolfe Winter 2008.
- http://www.chomsky.info/books/power02.htm The film effectively makes his anarcho-syndicalism seem like a political parliamentarian stance, which he opposes.
- Chomsky on Postmodernism
- The Slavoj Žižek v Noam Chomsky spat is worth a ringside seat
- Noam Chomsky Calls Postmodern Critiques of Science Over-Inflated “Polysyllabic Truisms”, Open Culture, July 13, 2013
- ICTY press release
- The Albanians in Kosovo and the staff of Charlie Hebdo must have felt relieved after this clarification.
- Strangely enough, the late Chávez and George W. Bush would have become fast friends under other circumstances, as evidenced by their reading, shown above.
- [https://chomsky.info/1991____/ "Language, Politics, and Composition Noam Chomsky interviewed by Gary A. Olson and Lester Faigley". Journal of Advanced Composition. 11 (1).]}}
- Peter Collier, David Horowitz (eds.) (2005). The Anti Chomsky Reader. Encounter Books.