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Noam Chomsky’s Useful Fantasy

[digg-reddit-me]I’ve long been a bit puzzled by the respect given to Noam Chomsky’s politics. Yesterday, I listened to a lecture given by Chomsky this past Friday which seemed to consit of his meandering thoughts on the state of the world and the economy. I have to credit it for being interesting – and persuasive in a manner which all lasting worldviews as well as conspiracy theories are.

But there are several reasons I still find it difficult to take Chomsky’s politics seriously. His worldview has an all-or-nothing quality to it – as it is based on a number of presumptions which he does not attempt to prove and which inform every aspect of his view. These Chomskyian assumptions include:

  • Everything of significance is controlled by a small number of wealthy individuals.
  • These individuals deliberately and consciously inflict great evil on the world for their personal gain.
  • These individuals control American foreign policy and government and thus America has become a malignant empire which violently imposes the will of this oligarchy on the world.
  • The American people are opposed to this, though they have been propagandized to accept it.
  • The American people are also being exploited by having their jobs shipped overseas.

Chomsky preaches only to the converted – those who accept these premises. He has a certain understanding of the world which is quite different from that understood by at least most Americans who are his primary audience – but he does not attempt to speak to these masses. His presentation is directed squarely at those who agree. Chomsky makes little secret of this. As he wrote regarding American torture under George W. Bush:

For one thing, even without inquiry, it was reasonable to suppose that Guantánamo was a torture chamber.

For Chomsky, who starts out assuming the evil intent of those he opposes, this is a reasonable supposition. None of this makes his views necessarily wrong. But it makes his presentation unpersuasive to me. I do sense the attraction of his views though – similar to that of the fantay world of vampires or Harry Potter or Star Trek – except no one confuses these interesting and at times revealing fantasies with the world we live in.

His insistence that the many evils of the world are the result of secret and evil planning strikes me as improbable, as in my own experience, I have found that most awful things are not the result of deliberate and evil planning but stupidity and accident and coincidence and incompetence.

The other thing I noticed in his work is his easy lies, his distortions and omission of facts to fit his propagandistic purposes. Some of these are easily figured out by anyone paying critical attention. Others are harder to smoke out. For example, in the lecture referenced above he speaks of the current poverty in Bangladesh and then observes:

We might, incidentally, remember that when the British landed in what’s now Bangladesh, they were stunned by its wealth and splendor. And it didn’t take very long for it to be on its way to become the very symbol of misery, not by an act of God.

In this accusation, he is unusually indirect – as he generally specifically blames the Western elite for the evils of the world. But perhaps in this case, he realized how nakedly dishonest this observation was. After all, any slight knowledge of the history of the world in the 17th century begins with the fact that the “standard of living” – to use a modern term – was extremely poor for all but the most wealthy. The wealth the British were impressed by was that of the royalty – who were busy exploiting the people before the British arrived. At the same time, Bangladesh became “the very symbol of misery” not because the fate of it’s citizens deteriorated from the moment the British arrived – but because they did not progress at the same rate as the Western world. The greatest strides in reducing poverty in Bangladesh have in fact come in the past two decades (as poverty decreased by nearly 20%)  under the precise economic liberalization that Chomsky opposes with all his intellectual skills. (This also coincides with the introduction of microfinance.)

Similary, in his article on America and torture – in which he tries to make the case that torture has always been one of the tools America uses to force its will onto the world – he mentions that in the war in the Phillipines, there was “widespread use of torture”  by the Americans. He fails to mention that President Theodore Roosevelt and his War Secretary Elihu Root prosecuted and punished those soldiers and commanding officers who were found guilty of torture.

I find Chomsky’s views to be quite interesting as well as fantastic. In the same way that a well-thought out fantasy can reveal important truths about reality, so can Chomsky’s work. But it is difficult to accept as a serious worldview.

[Image by MatthewBradley licensed under Creative Commons.]

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