What’s Noam Chomsky On About These Days?

I got my first blogger tchotchke in the mail  — a review copy of Noam Chomsky: Imperial Ambitions, a collection of transcripts of interviews with Chomsky conducted by David Barsamian.

I first remember being exposed to Chomsky as a computer science student, when we studied his work on formalized generative grammars when learning about how computers parse their languages. Chomsky’s many more widely-known writings on U.S. foreign policy and propaganda were and are very big among the campus left set, but never did much for me.

Chomsky is an encyclopedia of the rotten things the U.S. government has done and is doing, and of how the ruling class uses propaganda to enforce cooperation. He preaches mostly to the choir, but with such a relentless litany of detailed stories of ruthless evil that he tends to raise the level of fury and radicalism wherever he speaks. Bully for that.

But I don’t find him particularly credible, in spite of his encyclopedic knowledge. It’s hard to distinguish facts from allegations in what he says, and he is prone to exaggeration, such as when in one interview in this book he says: “What’s going on in Guantánamo, for example, is one of the worst violations of elementary principles of international humanitarian law since the Second World War, that is, since these crimes were formally criminalized in reaction to the Nazis.”

I never thought I’d ever feel like defending Guantánamo, but I never thought I’d ever hear someone saying it was “one of the worst violations of elementary principles of international law since the Second World War.” Please. Dubya could preside over the drawing and quartering of every prisoner there and it still wouldn’t crack the top ten.

Also, Chomsky seems to consider himself an anarchist, but at the same time he criticizes the Bush administration for things like not implementing universal health care, undermining support for social security, or failing the nation’s schools — basically for not fulfilling the more-or-less mainstream liberal statist dream of what a big government is all about. So I end up with the feeling that Chomsky is not only not credible but not even politically coherent.

But he’s undeniably influential in academia and among the left-wing. Part of my inability to connect with him is that I’m already convinced that the government and ruling class are vicious, and so I am not as interested in hearing more stories that confirm this.

I was more interested in learning whether Chomsky has any recommendations for how, once we’ve absorbed these lessons, we do something about it. Unfortunately, Chomsky doesn’t have much patience for the “What should we do?” question:

I’m never asked this in the third world. When you go to Turkey or Colombia or Brazil, they don’t ask you, “What should I do?” They tell you what they’re doing.… It’s only in highly privileged cultures like ours that people ask this question. We have every option open to us, and have none of the problems that are faced by intellectuals in Turkey or campesinos in Brazil. We can do anything. But people here are trained to believe that there are easy answers, and it doesn’t work that way. If you want to do something, you have to be dedicated and committed to it day after day. Educational programs, organizing, activism. That’s the way things change. You want a magic key, so you can go back to watching television tomorrow? It doesn’t exist.

Chomsky became a tax resister during the Vietnam War, and resisted taxes for about ten years, with the IRS seizing part of his university salary to pay for the tax and penalties (these days he still has sympathy for the tax resistance position but does not appear to be resisting). In , he wrote:

I’ve tried various things — harassing congressmen, “lobbying” in Washington, lecturing at town forums, working with student groups in preparation of public protests, demonstrations, teach-ins, etc., in all of the ways that many others have adopted as well. The only respect in which I have personally gone any further is in refusal to pay half of my income tax . My own feeling is that one should refuse to participate in any activity that implements American aggression — thus tax refusal, draft refusal, avoidance of work that can be used by the agencies of militarism and repression, all seem to me essential. I can’t suggest a general formula. Detailed decisions have to be matters of personal judgment and conscience. I feel uncomfortable about suggesting draft refusal publicly, since it is a rather cheap proposal from someone of my age. But I think that tax refusal is an important gesture, both because it symbolizes a refusal to make a voluntary contribution to the war machine and also because it indicates a willingness, which should, I think, be indicated, to take illegal measures to oppose an indecent government.