"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, September 10, 2012

Noam Chomsky–Disillusioned Hero of the Left

Noam Chomsky is a well-known linguist and political commentator. The famous “Chomsky problem” is shorthand for the seeming contradiction between his radical political views and his reactionary scientific ones.  

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He has long been the darling of the Far Left, a political movement characterized for among other things in a belief in environmental determinism – human beings are not so much products of their genetic destiny or human nature but of an environment which can be changed and ordered to produce a more progressive and better world.  At the same time, he believes that language ability is hardwired into the human brain – that environmental influences may change the course of one’s language acquisition, but all human beings are born with the innate ability to speak languages.  Since language itself is a function of many important cognitive abilities – logic, perception, and judgment to name but a few – then these important human attributes must also be hardwired.  We many not be so amenable to progressive change as Chomsky the radical seems to think.

No one has yet disproved Chomsky’s linguistic theory, for even a casual observer is stunned by the abilities of a two-year old to master most the complexities of language at a far greater rate than any other skill.  The same casual observer will note how difficult it is for most adults to learn a second language.  When faced with the daunting task of learning Russian, German, or Japanese, languages notorious for their perverse complexity, one requiring rigorous analysis of tense, declension, number, and gender before speaking well, the same observer is amazed that a Russian child of two can outperform him a thousand-fold.

Chomsky’s politics, however, are much more suspect, and as the subject of two books reviewed (8.29.12)  by the Times Literary Supplement (How the World Works and The Science of Language), he comes off as more unhinged radical than rational radical.  Perhaps it is because of the frustration of age, having lived so many years without seeing the social progress he envisaged; or because of the continuing conflict in his mind.  Either biological imperatives rule Man or not – it is as simple as that, but Chomsky could never really decide.
Occasionally, Chomsky implies that the pursuit of self-interest is, like language, simply in our genes. But he [never] satisfied with such a Hobbesian speculation. Nor does the problem lie with the ethical failings of any nation, bloc of nations, social class or malignant cabal. The problem lies with the power that motivates the malignity. The problem is capital itself.  If we want to understand the [world’s] atrocities, we must not look to human nature, but to the nature of capital.
How did he come to such a conclusion? His increasing pessimism about world history came about because the same, self-serving, acquisitive, aggressive, and violent actions kept recurring.  Not only did we continue to violate a more congenial and cooperative social order, we kept finding ways to improve on our depredations.  He only needed to turn to the Histories of Shakespeare to see the great playwright saw human events.  

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As the critic Jan Kott has observed, if you laid the Histories down end to end you would see the same story played out over and over.  Shakespeare understood that human nature was immutable in its persistent and consistent drive for self-preservation, expansion of perimeters, annihilation of enemies, and increase in wealth.
He cites the fact that “about 75% of the US population has a literal belief in the devil” as the clearest possible example of American ignorance and stupidity. But is it really so different from his own beliefs? Throughout his career, Chomsky has depicted a world ruled by demonic forces of quite incredible malice and guile. Whatever is running the world Chomsky describes is undoubtedly a very greedy, violent and selfish entity – it would be hard not to call it “evil”, or even Evil, were such tropes not sternly prohibited by the monochrome literalism of our age.
This seems like the rantings of a very disillusioned man.  Shakespeare, a much more savvy critic of human history and a far more dispassionate an insightful one than Chomsky, never considered the concept of evil.  He was a pre-Nietzschean believer in the concept of ‘Beyond Good and Evil’, and if anything he celebrated the Marlovian singleness of amoral purpose in characters such as Iago, Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Aaron the Moor, and Richard III.

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Chomsky spews his bile most hysterically against the United States: “As Chomsky puts it, ‘no degree of cruelty is too great for Washington sadists. The America described here is a crazed, bloodthirsty monster, hell-bent on the destruction of humanity.

He does not reserve his venomous tirades only for the United States, but “traces the roots of American turpitude back to medieval Europe, which ‘had been fighting vicious, murderous wars internally. So it had developed an unsurpassed culture of violence’. As a result, European colonialism unleashed a wave of unprecedented horror on a hapless world: ‘European wars were wars of extermination. If we were to be honest about that history, we would describe it simply as a barbarian invasion.’

He ignores the more common zero-sum conclusions of Shakespeare and subsequent political philosophers – expansionism, while taking its toll of those who happen to get caught in the blades of the tiller, also disseminates ideas, science, culture, religion, and art. 
The important question, surely, is what made these polities so fearsomely aggressive? Chomsky usually locates the source of modern evil in economics rather than politics, assigning ultimate blame to the pursuit of self-interest, which he sometimes presents as a manifestation of human nature, and sometimes as a historical aberration. He refers to “class war” but does not identify the classes he believes to be engaged in warfare.
The man is confused.  He ‘sometimes’ blames human nature; but then quickly turns to corrupting capitalism and class warfare.  Again, which is it?
The logical conclusion of his political commentary is that capital acts as an independent agent, insinuating itself into the human mind and systematically perverting it. But this is incompatible with his scientific assumption that the mind is merely an “emergent property” of the physical brain.
Human nature again.  Whatever the brain-mind, neuro-psychological features of it, there is no escaping it.  Few are convinced of Chomsky’s political conclusions, nor his squaring of science and political philosophy, but at least he tried.

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