1000 Ways To Misrepresent Noam Chomsky

As two new books show, Chomsky’s actual writings and arguments are almost always ignored…

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Nearly everybody who ever writes about Noam Chomsky badly misstates his beliefs. That’s somewhat predictable, since the moment you discuss him to begin with, you’ve already rejected one of his most important principles, which is that when it comes to politics and science, the ideas advanced are far more relevant than the (murky, largely unfathomable) motivations of the people advancing them. Thus, when writers write about Chomsky, it’s almost certain that they don’t understand him, because if they understood him they probably wouldn’t be writing about him to begin with. Rather, they would be writing about his claims and the arguments and evidence he marshals in support of these claims. Oddly, this rarely happens.

In fact, an almost universal characteristic of those who write about Chomsky is that they seem never to have carefully read anything he has written. It’s easy to be cynical about the media, and assume that bias and misrepresentation are commonplace. But popular Chomsky-writing is often downright bizarre, not because it simply exhibits a distaste for him, but because it frequently accuses him of making arguments and holding beliefs that he has never once held, or that he has spent a lifetime vocally rejecting. No matter how many times Chomsky makes an assertion in print, academics and journalists will vigorously insist that he believes the exact opposite of that assertion. When Chomsky speaks, writers seem to hear what they think Chomsky would or should say, regardless of what he actually does say.

This has been going on for as long as Chomsky has been in public life. If he defends the right of free speech for Holocaust deniers, he is accused of denying the Holocaust. If he says he supports the tactic of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against Israel, he is accused of opposing the tactic of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against Israel. If he says he does not support Hillary Clinton’s policies, but would vote for her if he lived in a swing state, he is accused of supporting Hillary Clinton’s policies.

Ordinarily, when someone has stated something emphatically, repeatedly, and in plain language, it is not worth responding to those who insist one has said something else. But lately, such a vast new flurry of misrepresentation has erupted that it is worth taking the time to examine some cases in detail. Once we understand the extreme degree to which Chomsky’s positions have been misstated, we cannot help but reach a deeply troubling conclusion about the fate of truth in mainstream institutions. The facts are so simple, and the falsehoods so plain, that they should trouble anybody who wishes to maintain the slightest confidence that what they read in books and newspapers has some relationship to the facts.

When Chomsky speaks, writers seem to hear what they think Chomsky would or should say, regardless of what he actually does say.

In the last few months, two new major books about Noam Chomsky have been released by major publishers. The first, Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech, is published by Little, Brown, and has been praised in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The second, Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky, was published by the Yale University Press in September and has received a sympathetic nod in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Both of these books attempt the same task: they wish to demolish Noam Chomsky’s reputation as an intellectual. They are perfectly open about this goal. Chomsky is one of the most highly-cited scholars of all time, and both Wolfe and Knight feel his reputation is undeserved. Each takes a different approach. Wolfe argues that Chomsky’s linguistic theories are disproven, and portrays Chomsky as a haughty exemplar of radical chic, whose political attitudes were “pre-fixed in a shtetl in Russia half a century before he was born,” and whose armchair theorizing about language has been discredited. Knight says that Chomsky’s linguistic output is “not really science but scientism,” incomprehensible nonsense produced to serve the “Pentagon-funded war science community.”

These authors approach Chomsky from different political perspectives. Wolfe is a conservative, who believes Chomsky represents the kind of elite radicalism he has spent his career lampooning. Knight is a Marxist, who dislikes Chomsky’s skepticism of revolutionary politics and poststructuralist theory. Despite that, each book is ostensibly concerned with Chomsky’s linguistics. Neither Wolfe nor Knight is a linguist, but each rests his demolition of Chomsky primarily on an attempt to discredit his scholarly rather than political work.

But one cannot separate these books neatly from the political agendas of the authors. Both believe that Chomsky’s reputation in linguistics has illicitly enhanced his reputation as a political analyst and critic. Both refrain from attacking Chomsky’s political views head on. Both aim to discredit his politics by attacking his scientific/linguistic claims. The strategy is simple: poison the well and all that comes forth is discredited. Expose the scientific work as wrong, even fraudulent, and the political views are discredited.

Intellectually speaking, this strategy should not succeed. After all, one can be right about one thing and wrong about another. Yet this sort of approach is frequently rhetorically effective. It is a tribute to the power of Chomsky’s political views and the evidence he presents in their support that so many critics of his politics feel that the best strategy for undermining them is to attack his linguistics. However, even this course of criticism is only effective to the degree that it gets the linguistics right. Wolfe and Knight are so far from understanding even the basic issues about which they write that it is astonishing that their works have made it to print.

Tom Wolfe’s attack on Chomsky’s linguistics centers on what might seem like a rather obscure question: is Pirahã, a language spoken by a small Amazonian tribe, “recursive”? Despite its seeming obscurity, this technical linguistic issue has attracted an unusual amount of attention from the mainstream press, starting with a 2007 New Yorker article by John Calapinto. It has also attracted an unusual amount of misunderstanding.

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The story here, as told by Calapinto and Wolfe, is roughly as follows: at the core of Noam Chomsky’s linguistics is the idea that all human languages have a property called “recursion.” However, a rugged field linguist named Daniel Everett once ventured deep into the Amazon, discovering a tribe called the Pirahã, whose language had no recursion at all. When Everett came back from the jungle, and tried to show that he had destroyed the foundations of Chomsky’s linguistic theories, legions of Chomsky acolytes attempted to smear and discredit him, in order to preserve the reputation of their master. By publicizing Everett’s findings, Wolfe hopes to slay Chomsky once and for all.

It’s a good story, except for a single small wrinkle: the “idea” supposedly held by Noam Chomsky isn’t one he has ever actually held. Chomsky never believed that all languages had recursion. He believed that all people had the capacity to acquire languages with recursion. Thus, even without understanding recursion itself, we can understand why Chomsky was totally unfazed by Everett’s fieldwork. It simply had no bearing whatsoever on Chomsky’s underlying thesis.

Picturing Chomsky’s likely reaction to the discovery of Pirahã, E.J. Spode imagines the following dialogue:

Chomsky is working at his computer when a student rushes in.

Student: Professor Chomsky! They’ve discovered an Amazonian tribe that has a language without recursion!

Chomsky [slowly turning from his computer]: Can they learn Portuguese?

Student: Well… yes.

Chomsky slowly turns back to his computer.

In the 1970’s, Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live used to feature a character named Emily Litella, played by Gilda Radner. Emily was an elderly lady with a hearing problem, who used to humorously misinterpret various issues of topical concern. She would wonder why people were concerned by all the “sax and violins on television.” Or she would wonder: “What is all this fuss I hear about the Supreme Court decision on a “deaf” penalty? It’s terrible! Deaf people have enough problems as it is!” Dan Everett, and Tom Wolfe as his chronicler, misinterprets Chomsky so badly that he appears to be reenacting an Emily Litella sketch. “All human languages have recursion, you say?” “No, I said that while all human languages don’t necessarily have recursion, the internal faculty of language clearly must.” “Well, that can’t be right, since I found a language without recursion!”

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So Everett’s claims concerning recursion in Pirahã are logically irrelevant to Chomsky’s claims that recursion is a central universal property of the faculty of language. The press and Wolfe have presented a thing called the “Everett/Chomsky debate,” even though debate is impossible, as Everett’s claims have no bearing on the truth of Chomsky’s. Tom Wolfe’s book treats Everett as having slain Chomsky, even though neither Everett or Wolfe have the faintest understanding of what Chomsky is arguing.

Worse, Wolfe treats every linguist who attempted to point out the mistake as a hyper-protective cult member. To Wolfe, a paper rebutting Everett’s claims was nothing but “a swollen corpus of objections—cosmic, small-minded, and everything in between.” As E.J. Spode writes, for Wolfe “all the dreary loathsome facts in that paper just made the case for recursion in Pirahã even better. [What could be] a more reliable sign that you are right than that people start arguing against you with things like ‘facts’? Screw facts!”

Wolfe is committed to telling a good yarn (naturally, with a lot of ellipses and sound effects). So Everett is “a rugged outdoorsman, a hard rider with a thatchy reddish beard and a head of thick thatchy reddish hair” who “could have passed for a ranch hand or a West Virginia gas driller.” And Chomsky is an air-conditioned office-bound nerd, with a blinkered shtetl mentality (yes, the there is a thick undercurrent of anti-Semitism to the characterization of Everett as hardy, muscular Christian and Chomsky as feeble, nerdy Jew). Chomsky’s peeved reaction to the Everett controversy is treated as a haughty disdain for those who disagree with him. Nowhere is it considered, by Wolfe or his reviewers, that Chomsky might simply be exasperated because Everett claims to have disproven a theory whose content he doesn’t actually comprehend. And because Wolfe himself depends entirely on Everett’s work, adding nothing but flashy rhetoric and invective (e.g. derogatory nicknames), every word of The Kingdom of Speech is irrelevant to assessing Noam Chomsky’s actual contentions.

Like Wolfe, Chris Knight believes that Noam Chomsky’s work in linguistics is “nonsense.” However, as a fellow leftwing radical, Knight shares many of Chomsky’s political beliefs, and considers Chomsky an insightful political thinker. Knight therefore feels he must wrestle with the “two Chomskys” puzzle. How, he wonders, can someone whose linguistic work is so self-evidently atrocious be such a capable political analyst? (Note, this is the opposite of the usual “two Chomskys” question asked by Chomsky’s opponents, which is “How can such a capable linguist produce such political childishness?” The New York Times described it in 1979 as “the problem of an opinionated historian inhabiting the same skin as the brilliant and subtle linguist.”)

Knight believes that Chomsky’s entire corpus of linguistic work is a web of fallacy and deception, though he acknowledges having “no training in theoretical linguistics” (Knight and Wolfe thus share a similar confidence in their ability to demolish fundamental parts of a field they have seemingly never taken so much as a introductory-level class in.) Knight begins from the premise that Chomsky’s approach to linguistics cannot make sense. This, he says, is because Chomsky believes in a kind of “value-free” science, divorced from political content. Chomsky believes that the “social and cultural” dimensions of language are irrelevant to studying it. Knight says that Chomsky’s linguistics work contains a “foundational error,” namely that it views the human brain as a “biological object with a certain weight and size.” This is a mistake, “since the mind, being intersubjective, cannot be pinned down this way.” After all, “minds reflect back on each other, interpenetrate one another and so transcend the confines of the skull.” (Interpenetration goes undefined. Intersubjectivity apparently has something to do with the fact that people communicate. And what “transcending the confines of the skull” involves, God only knows.)

In writing all of this, Knight simply misunderstands Chomsky. Chomsky has never stated that one can understand everything about language by studying the brain, and or that there are not cultural dimensions to language use. Rather, the aspect of language that Chomsky himself is interested is that which is common to all human beings. Put another way, Chomsky is interested in understanding what makes languages the same rather than what makes them different, even though they obviously differ.

Knight says that Chomsky “acknowledges no socially constructed persons, no communities, no traditions” and believes there is “no environment or context in which speaking takes place.” For Knight, these “strange doctrines” are so transparently false that they would be “unlikely to have prevailed” on their own merit, hence the need to invoke the Pentagon in order to explain their success. Indeed, Chomsky would certainly agree that these are “strange doctrines.” Fortunately, he has never espoused anything resembling them.

Again, the mistake is straightforward. Chomsky believes that one does not need to understand “context” in order to examine the particular properties of language into which he is inquiring. That is because he is interested in the facts about language that do not vary by context. The statement “variations in tradition do not affect this question” is different from “there are no variations in tradition.” Of course Chomsky believes that speaking takes place in “communities” and that societies and cultures vary widely. But if you want to understand the properties that are common to all human beings, it’s precisely the “social and cultural dimensions” that you don’t want to look at.

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But the most important thing about these two books is not that they are wrong, although they are. It is that neither of them actually understand the ideas they intend to attack. When Chris Knight emailed Noam Chomsky, and asked what Chomsky thought of Knight’s criticism of his theories, Chomsky replied that he could not detect any criticism of his theories. (Knight reprints the remark in his book, inexplicably proud of it rather than embarrassed by it.)

We therefore have two books which do not actually have a basic factual command of their subject matter. Yet at no point in the publication process did the editors at Yale or Little, Brown actually step in to check whether the book’s central contentions were truthful. Their edits, presumably, were entirely stylistic. Thus there is evidently no mechanism at major publishing houses to check whether anything a book is saying is actually true.

Here we have to ask an important question: how can so many respectable institutions print such scurrilous attacks on a man whose ideas they don’t even bother to understand? Why wouldn’t they try to get the facts right? This is where politics must necessarily come in. Those that jump to dismiss Chomsky’s linguistic work often quickly move on to their dismissals of his political arguments. Consider Caitlin Flanagan’s warm New York Times review of Wolfe’s book. Flanagan buys Wolfe’s arguments about the linguistics, and says that in 100 years it is Wolfe’s ideas rather than Chomsky’s that will endure. But she also detests Chomsky’s politics. As she writes:

Much that is distasteful — and, at worst, fraudulent — about the American university system can be traced, ultimately, to [Chomsky’s 1967 essay] “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” It allowed every plodding English department adjunct and uninspired life sciences prof to imagine themselves not as instructors but as “intellectuals,” people whose opinions on American foreign policy were inherently more valuable than those of the common men and women whom, ironically, they claimed to champion…

Flanagan’s discussion of “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” is yet another example of a passage expressing the exact opposite of the truth. As Current Affairs has noted before, Chomsky’s essay was concerned with condemning intellectuals. Chomsky mocked the popular conception that the academics who advise governments (the “best and the brightest” who plotted U.S.’s bloody invasion of South Vietnam) are “responsible intellectuals.” Arguing against the view that intellectuals have some unique role in managing society, Chomsky suggested that they should perhaps limit themselves to the more modest (and less glamorous) task of simply telling the truth. As Chomsky explains:

It’s a very attractive conception that, ‘We are the rational, intelligent people, and management and decision-making should be in our hands.’ Actually, as I’ve pointed out in some of the things I’ve written, it’s very close to Bolshevism… And it underlies the fear and dislike of democracy that runs through elite culture always, and very dramatically right now… The claims to expertise are very striking. So, economists tell you, ‘We know how to run the economy’; the political scientists tell you, ‘We know how to run the world, and you keep out of it because you don’t have special knowledge and training.’

Far from having contempt for “the common men and women,” as Flanagan says, Chomsky is centrally concerned with rejecting the claims that intellectuals “know best” and can decide what people ought to do. Instead, he believes in a decentralized democracy, in which ordinary people have control over their own lives, and which the authority of academic expertise is constantly interrogated. (See the Current Affairs interview with Flanagan here.)

It’s unwise to speculate on the motivations of particular writers (after all, this is precisely what Knight tries to do). But we could make an observation, which is that for the people who make these misrepresentations, Chomsky’s beliefs (if accepted) are profoundly threatening. Chris Knight, for example, is a Marxist, an anthropologist, and a radical relativist (insofar as he sees scientific thought as little more than a product of political interests). He has defined himself by these things. Noam Chomsky is highly skeptical of revolutionary Marxism and sees Knight’s kind of relativism as unwarranted and irrational. Tom Wolfe is a conservative. He built part of his reputation on the idea of “radical chic.” The idea that someone could hold radical political convictions for intelligent and rational (rather than status-seeking) reasons threatens Wolfe’s worldview and thesis.

If what Chomsky says is true, then the ideas these men have invested their lives in are worthless. Knight, for example, notes in frustration that Chomsky rejects the “fundamental Marxist insight” that “it is not consciousness which determines conditions, but the other way around.” Chomsky, faced with this “insight,” would point out that it is either vacuous or a truism. To accept Chomsky would therefore necessitate abandoning orthodox Marxist theory.

Thus both men have a powerful incentive to destroy Chomsky, and to convince themselves and others that he is a fraud with nothing to say. So Knight dismisses Chomsky as suffering from a kind of psychological schizophrenia stemming from his guilt at working for MIT. And Wolfe treats Chomsky as a poseur who has relied on dirty tricks to keep his scholarly reputation alive.

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There is a larger question, however, that goes beyond the psychology of individual writers and that bears consideration: what reason would major highbrow publications have to continually misrepresent Chomsky’s scientific and political views? Why so they uncritically publish the shoddy work of people like Wolfe and Knight? Well, Chomsky and Edward S. Herman have a theory about this, that of “manufacturing consent,” which happens to fit the phenomena fairly well. Chomsky’s actual views challenge the moral authority of these mainstream institutions. He denies that they have expert knowledge that gives them special unquestionable authority on social and political matters. There may be other reasons for their mischaracterizing Chomsky’s views, but it is unsurprising that they would be reluctant to present those views fairly. Noam Chomsky is unimpressed by the New Yorker and the Yale University press. He has dedicated his life to pointing out the nudity of various cultural emperors. In turn, they do not like him much, either.

The two new books about Chomsky are very poor efforts. In mounting their attacks, neither Wolfe nor Knight produces substantive evidence against Chomsky’s actual positions. Knight relies on speculative psychoanalysis, Wolfe deploys his usual mix of exclamation points and onomatopoeia. In a rational world, Chomsky’s reputation would easily escape such attacks unscathed.

But we do not live in a particularly rational world. We live in the world Chomsky depicts in his writings, in which propaganda passes for fact, oligarchy passes for democracy, and atrocities pass for humanitarianism. We live in a world in which authors can tell any number of lies they like, if it helps us to avoid having to confront dissenting arguments on their merits. Truth, however, is independent of any individual’s opinion, and we would all be better off if instead of focusing on who Noam Chomsky is and what we imagine he might say, we focused on what Noam Chomsky actually says and the reasons he gives for saying it.