Sunday, March 24, 2013

Mark Kleiman grapples with the Chomsky Problem

Back in 2006 I posted an item on The Chomsky problem that consisted mostly of reproducing, quoting from, or offering links to some critiques of Chomsky as a political analyst and polemicist, and of the characteristic modes of argument and analysis that Chomsky uses in those contexts, by Peter Beaumont, Brad DeLong, Michael Bérubé, and others. Those critiques differed in tone, ranging from troubled and ambivalent to disappointed and angry and exasperated, but in my view all of them were penetrating, illuminating, and ultimately devastating.

I began by noting the evolution of my own views on Chomsky in his role as an engaged public intellectual:
In my younger days, back in the early 1970s, Noam Chomsky was someone whose social and political arguments I often admired, and I was favorably impressed by books like American Power and the New Mandarins (1967). Over the years, I became increasingly disillusioned with Chomsky--I think it was his apologetics for the Khmer Rouge that first gave me serious qualms--and often appalled and disgusted. I'm not the only one.
=> Now I notice that Mark Kleiman is making his own attempt at wrestling with the Chomsky problem, which also requires dealing with the cult surrounding Chomsky. Kleiman's intervention was provoked by reading what he correctly describes as "a hagiographic study of Noam Chomsky and a denunciation of his critics as character assassins" by Glenn Greenwald.  So how did Greenwald deal with embarrassments like Chomsky's record on Cambodia?
If you wanted to write a hagiographic study of Noam Chomsky and a denunciation of his critics as character assassins committed to destroying a great man’s reputation to silence his dissent from “orthodoxies,” you’d have four options for dealing with Chomsky’s holocaust-denial about Cambodia (and denunciation of those who complained about it while it was happening):

1. You could deny that Chomsky said what he said.

2. You could claim that Chomsky was right on the facts.

[Chomsky's own strategy seems to be a combination of these two.]

3. You could admit that Chomsky was wrong on the facts but argue that he was justified in supporting the Khmers Rouges, and in doing some violence to the truth in the process, so as not to give aid and comfort to Kissinger.

4. You could admit that Chomsky was wrong on the facts and figure out some way to make that an excusable mistake.

Or, if you were really, totally, completely shameless, you could just pretend the whole thing never happened, passing it over entirely in silence.

Guess which strategy Glenn Greenwald chose? Twenty-six paragraphs, in which the word “Cambodia” does not appear.
Anyone familiar with Greenwald's own characteristic modes of political argument will not be surprised.

Then Kleiman reflects on some of his own history with Chomsky the public intellectual.
The first time I heard Chomsky speak was at the Philadelphia Moratorium rally October 15, 1968, which I’d done a tiny bit to organize. Chomsky gave one of the four most effective political orations I’ve ever heard live (the others were by Gene McCarthy, Cesar Chavez, and Andreas Panandreou). He had perfected the great rhetorical trick of seeming utterly unrhetorical; he simply recited a catalogue of facts, with citations, to show that the [Vietnam] war was a terrible idea.

Of course, the key “fact” was that the NLF was an entirely indigenous movement of the South Vietnamese, that the Southerners hated the Northerners, and that, therefore, the certain result of American withdrawal would be the establishment of an independent South Vietnam.

It was a great speech, though. No wonder Greenwald admires Chomsky!
=> The basic claim that Greenwald makes in his piece (on "How Noam Chomsky is discussed") is that critics of Chomsky never engage the substance of Chomsky's arguments, but instead focus on "more personalized, style-focused and substance-free" attacks. (Greenwald means personal style, not intellectual style or style of argument and analysis.) "That's because once someone becomes sufficiently critical of establishment pieties, the goal is not merely to dispute their claims but to silence them. [....] It's a sorry and anti-intellectual tactic, to be sure, but a brutally effective one."

"Substance-free"?  The kindest thing to say about that claim, and the sweepingly undifferentiated dismissal of Chomsky's critics that goes with it, is that it's simply bullshit. But that kind of bullshit is neither unusual nor surprising coming from Greenwald, so how and why does he largely get away with it? That question would lead us from the Chomsky Problem to the Glenn Greenwald Problem ... which we can leave for another occasion.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub