The leftist who can’t laugh

The leftist who can’t laugh
: The utter humorlessness of Noam Chomsky never ceases to amuse me.

The Observer interviews him on the release of his latest book (in which he says, ‘No president in that time, judged on the principles of Nuremberg, would have escaped hanging’ — with, of course, a straight face) and it begins with this exchange:

I start tentatively enough with a question about a remark he made recently in the New York Times about the fact that he continued to live in America, because it was ‘the greatest country in the world’. In what sense did he believe this?

He starts, too, as he means to go on. ‘I have to first of all give a background,’ he says, already a bit exasperated. ‘That interview never took place. It is rather interesting, interviews like that never take place.’

The New York Times made it up?

‘It was a senseless contraction of an hour-and-a-half telephone conversation in which I explained question by question why I am not going to answer this question or that question, because it is not a sensible question.’ Right.

‘And the published interview was contracted from the original questions and sentences extracted from my often lengthy explanations of why I was not going to answer. There is no country in the world where interviews like these would happen. Where these kind of trivial questions would be asked.’

What a blowhard.

  • Mike G

    Usually it takes the Chomsky Culties to show up and claim the great man has been quoted out of context. I see that he’s finally cutting out the middleman and doing it himself in advance.
    (For more on this process, see Brad DeLong’s excellent, all-purpose Chomsky dismissal: http://www.j-bradford-delong.net/movable_type/archives/000155.html)

  • http://cointelprotool.blogspot.com Bill Herbert

    Hmm. Funny that he would deny saying that to NYT, because I remember him saying the exact same thing in an exchange with Bill Bennett on CNN in May 2003:
    BENNETT: I didn’t interrupt you — that we were continuing the Nazi effort against Russia. Go through the Chomsky work, line by line, argument by argument, and you will see this is a man who has made a career out of hating America and out of trashing the record of this country. Of course, there is a mixed record in this country, why do you choose to live in this terrorist nation, Mr. Chomsky?
    CHOMSKY: I don’t. I choose to live in what I think is the greatest country in the world, which is committing horrendous terrorist acts and should stop.

    I guess that was a made up interview, too.

  • mario

    Bennett also accused Chomsky of saying Pol Pot’s casualty list was “inflated,” or something to that
    effect,if I remember correctly. I THINK it may have been from this interview. Chomsky, as far as I know, looked startled and shook his head vigorously. Is that true?
    One more thing—–
    It is ironically fitting that Bennett should accuse Chomsky ofinterrupting him, since a standard Chomsky debate tactic is to interrupt whoever he is up againt in debates. Him and his minions are legendary for this.

  • http://www.rickmcginnis.com rick mcginnis

    Notice how the comments section on the Brad De Long piece was hijacked at the end by Chomskyites doing multiple postings of the same comment, and ad hominem attacks on the order of “you can’t hope to understand the brilliance of Chomsky”. Classic non-debating techniques.

  • http://www.rogerlsimon.com Roger L. Simon

    The thing abou Chomsky is he’s really boring. Just a dullard. He never says anything you can’t predict.

  • Mike G

    Mario, see the DeLong piece, he shows how Chomsky tried to back up his absurd assertion (well after the killing fields were known to the world) that the Khmer Rouge killings were much smaller than others claimed with references to printed sources which, simply, did not exist as he claimed.
    A search for “Chomsky Herrman” will get you articles explaining Chomsky’s whole 70s-80s project to get the Khmer Rouge off the hook and fix the blame elsewhere, using superficially impressive, highly dubious sources. Here’s an interesting one:
    http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/media3.htm
    Defending real mass murderers while pinning that label on America every time it does so much as sneeze in the world– that’s the odious Chomsky agenda, demonstrated inescapably and repeatedly over three decades.

  • Mike G

    Apropos of Roger Simon’s comment, even some of my Chomsky-lovin’ friends in academia do tend to acknowledge that of late he’s running on autopilot– but of course he was a great man once.
    I acknowledge that he played a significant role in building the anti-Vietnam war case, back in the day. The problem is, like an old general he’s still fighting the last war, taking fixed conclusions and drawing the current situation to fit them– look at his instabook on 9-11, which is absolutely confident that if it turns out to be Osama Bin Laden who did it (the one thing he’s not sure about), the reasons will be precisely the things that Chomsky is unhappy about (like US intervention in El Salvador). He simply no longer has the imagination and intellectual curiosity, if he ever did, to imagine the real weirdo-sexual-repressed religio-fascist world in which Wahhabi ascetic murderers operate, all he can see is Weathermen in flowing robes, still fighting Kissinger for the right reasons with, perhaps, excessive methods. The irony, of course, is that one of the things that pissed them off is precisely the cause that Chomsky is most associated with bringing to world attention, East Timor. In fact, I see 9-11 purely as blowback for Chomsky’s activism in that regard.

  • mario

    Mike G:
    Thank you for the links.
    And let’s not forget Chomsky’s now infamous
    defense of a Holocaust denier in the early 80′s.

  • John, Tokyo

    I’m not sure if you are familiar with British blogger Oliver Kamm but you should check out his reviewer page at Amazon.com. Incredibly, he seems to have forced himself to read most of Chomsky’s books. His reviews of each one are great – great as in well-written debunkings. Go read a few of them here: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/cm/member-reviews/-/AT547I3XYU4LS/ref%3Dcm%5Ftr%5Ftrl%5Fmr%5F649/103-8193649-7531802

  • http://radio.weblogs.com/0107946 ed cone

    say what you will, chomsky’s careful analysis of the politics of middle earth deserves attention:
    http://www.mcsweeneys.net/2003/04/22fellowship.html
    “the “master ring,” the so-called “one ring to rule them all,” is actually a rather elaborate justification for preemptive war on Mordor.”

  • http://paulf@panix.com Frankenstein

    Despite the fact that he’s a political loon, and has been as long as I can remember, Chomsky is, or at last was, a brilliant linguist.
    Too bad he thought he was as good at politics as he was at language…

  • Mike G

    Yeah, but Frank, if success in one field meant you were qualified to comment about world politics, people would be paying attention to the thoughts of movie stars and recording artists on the subject. Then what kind of a world would we be living in?

  • http://paulf@panix.com Frankenstein

    One where Charlton Heston is the president of the NRA?
    But seriously, there’s a huge difference between celebrities using their fame as a platform for exercising their first amendment rights and the kind of nutjobbery that Chomsky thinks passes for political analysis.

  • http://tommangan.net/printsthechaff tom mangan

    I group Chomsky w/Ayn Rand as somebody whose ideology seems appealing when you’re young; part of maturing is developing the ability to see why they are so patently full of crap. There’s an appealing element of truth to both, but not enough to build a worldview around.

  • Ken J

    As I’ve gotten older I tend to see “intellectuals” as I see people who believe in creation science. They are people who already believe something is a certain way and then go about trying to pound square pegs into round holes to make the pieces fit into their view of things. I’m pretty certain there is very little intellectualism involved. Besides, I’ll take common sense over intellectualism any time.

  • capt joe

    Whenever I get into one of those plato’s republic and the pig args, I ask the person what he/she thinks of Chomsky. If they speak in hushed tones, I call them an idiot and move on. It is really the simplest way to proceed.

  • Daniel Calto

    Re Oliver Kamm’s relentless pursuit of the turgid Chomsky oeuvre–talk about a stiff upper lip! Only a rlentless Brit would have the intestinal fortitude to make it all the way through those books only to rebut them point for point. I would have fallen asleep or gone to the movies midway through the first book. Three cheers for the Brits!

  • PJF

    Interesting that Oliver Kamm should be mentioned in this thread.
    Kamm was one of my favourite bloggers until a few days after he posted this:
    http://oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog/2003/11/chomsky_on_fore.html
    (which sentiment was followed up and spread by Andrew Sullivan)
    One of the inevitable Chomsky fans posted a useful fisking of Kamm’s piece in the comments section for that article, showing that Kamm was mistaken and that the book cover quotation wasn’t unfair use at all. Anyone can search for the full NYT quote and see for themselves – Kamm got it badly wrong.
    Shortly after that fisking comment, the comments (and comments facility) for that and subsequent posts disappeared. Not long after that, comments for many posts previous to it disappeared too. I cannot say for sure that Kamm saw the comment and chose to delete it (and opportunities for repetition) rather than post a retraction, but I strongly suspect that to be the case.
    From what I’ve seen of Chomsky I can’t say I’m favourably impressed. He seems like a more intellectual Michael Moore, similarly allowing his faith to blind him from the obvious. But I can’t say I feel inclined to trust what Oliver Kamm says to any greater degree.

  • scott h.

    “Anyone can search for the full NYT quote and see for themselves – Kamm got it badly wrong.” Huh? Apparently, Chomsky himself has mentioned that complete quote in a self-deprecating way. The author of “Chomsky and Globalisation” mentions that quote, and he certainly isn’t trying to smear him. And I fail to see how its use could be considered fair. It’s obviously used to give an impression that is the exact opposite of its intent.

  • PJF

    I guess you didn’t bother to search for the complete NYT quote, scott h.
    This is what the New York Times said:
    “Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today. He is also a disturbingly divided intellectual. On the one hand there is a large body of revolutionary and highly technical linguistic scholarship, much of it too difficult for anyone but the professional linguist or philosopher; on the other, an equally substantial body of political writings, accessible to any literate person but often maddeningly simple-minded. The ‘Chomsky problem’ is to explain how these two fit together.”
    The quote Kamm is wrongly associating with the NYT is apparently Chomsky’s own “humorous” paraphrasing of the NYT assessment. The actual New York Times quote makes the snippet used on the cover of Chomsky’s book a fair use, since it is in appropriate context (though not necessarily accurate). And it does say “arguably”, implying there are alternative viewpoints.
    I’ve no problem with anyone making a mistake. But to respond by sweeping the evidence of the mistake under the carpet instead of correcting it makes a person as disingenuous as, say, Michael Moore.

  • Dave F

    While I agree Kamm’s dismantling of the comments is a blot on his escutcheon, I would argue that the book cover use is not fair use because it applies the money quote to exactly the type of Chomsky material the NYT is arguing is “simpleminded”. That does distort the context of the quote and is misleading for that reason.