Sunday, June 10, 2007

I Respond to My Arabic Instructor

My article “What I Learned in Arabic Class” caused my professor to write to me, rather unhappy with what I wrote and the fact that I wrote it. I have chosen a few of her comments to respond to:

Ustaazi: Thanks once again for responding to my article. I would like to respond to a few of the comments you made.

From your letter: “I had the courage and the adventurous spirit to explore places beyond my map, which is so uncommon in your country.”

Ustaazi: First, let me say that I and all the other students very much appreciate the fact that you made the trip from your country to ours in order to teach a class in Arabic. You are an exceptionally gifted professor, with a great ability to create interest in a difficult subject. I’m sure that you will be a very successful professor, no matter what the subject.

As for your comment regarding a lack of “courage and the adventurous spirit” among Americans, there are currently 175,000 American men and women serving in Iraq and in Afghanistan, trying to establish democracy in those countries. Many Americans are serving in Korea, in other parts of Asia, and in Europe, also for the purpose of maintaining the peace in unstable parts of the world.

Many hundreds of thousands of Americans are buried all around the world, or lost at sea, having died in the defense of the freedom of others.

As I said, I and the other students are happy that you chose to come to Richmond and teach at the University of Richmond for a year, but I don’t think that your “adventure” required quite as much courage as that which is required for American men (and women) to ride the streets of Baghdad trying to keep the peace while being attacked by gunfire and explosive devices. It’s not quite the same thing.

Your comment: “Even when woman are veiled, sometimes they wear the most fashionable clothes ever.”

Ustaazi: I am glad to know that Syrian women are allowed to purchase and wear fashionable clothes under their veils. However, the fact that they have to wear veils at all is an indication of the extent to which they do not have the freedom to live the way they want. Obviously, all parts of the Muslim world are not the same, but being forced to cover up completely is the way that Muslim women protect themselves from the fact that they are quite often powerless. Muslim women are often viewed as no more than “property”, with no or few rights of their own. And since they have few rights, then they must cover up so that they cannot be accused of tempting a man just by walking past him on the street or by speaking to him in public.
This is the result of religious fundamentalism. We have that in the United States as well, but to a far lesser degree, because our constitutional form of government forces the religious extremists to the margins of society, where they belong.
Obviously things are very different in much of the Muslim world, where the power of the religious institutions over the state means that the rights of women are diminished to the point where they have the same political status as children for most of their lives or, in some places, they have the same political status as livestock, such as cattle.

Your comment: “I am a teacher and to know that one of brightest students wasn't in my class to actually learn but to critique people from other cultures and judge their political, religious, and emotional behaviour as such.”

Ustaazi: I came to the class to learn Arabic. The idea for the article occurred to me several days after the class ended, as I was reflecting on the various political comments I heard, particularly with regard to the war in Iraq.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

My Arabic Instructor Takes Exception

I recently heard from my Arabic instructor who taught a course at the University of Richmond which was open to the general public. The course was sponsored by the U.S. department of state and our instructor came to us from Syria. I published an article on regarding this experience. (See "My Articles on": What I Learned in Arabic Class)
At any rate, one of the students in the class came upon the article and alerted everybody else. Apparently this student took offense that I described the instructor as "beautiful". The instructor also read the article and was incensed by other things, as you can see from her letter below. At any rate, I told her that I would post her letter and then in the near future I would write a response. I should have the reponse posted to this site by February 10 or thereabouts.
Dear John,

It's been a long time since I sent my last e-mail. But i am trying today to catch up with all the stuff that i missed

Were you taking any arabic classes recently and HOW MUCH did you learn this time?? Well, I did read the article the time you sent, about a year and a half. But I never got a chance to answer because I was going through hard times; my wedding was called off then. Later, I got very busy with the school that took all my time; teaching for 6 hours every morning and 2 hours in the afternoon in two different places and to two different ages. The short time that I had left was to spend with my boyfriend.

Recently, I got a job where I have 24 internet access so I thought to check on everyone, how you'll doing how much you LEARNT so far taking into consideration the fact that I was banned from logging into the website because of my expired e-mail. Anyhow, I managed to read all the sms and I would like to tell you my personal opinion. (You can post this on the website)

I was extremely disappointed and annoyed the moment I read the article. Annoyed as I read the end when you summarized YOUR analysis of the three characters you've been observing and disappointed when I read the very last line.

I am a teacher and to know that one of brightest students wasn't in my class to actually learn but to critique people from other cultures and judge their political, religious, and emotional behaviour as such.

The fast that your little Arabic was beside the point made me think of all the questions you ever asked and then ask my self: so what was the POINT?

Yes, I was personally living under repressive regimes but I had the courage and the adventurous spirit to explore places beyond my map, which is so uncommon in your country. I did still do like some of how your country functions but hate other aspects as well. There's no perfect place. At this stage I have to clarify 2 important points:

1. After the overseas trip which was a gift from my friend I realized how friendly Americans are and how rough the Germans are (I believe you agree with that) and I still believe this. As for calling America "Home": what I meant by that I wanted to go to the place where I had people who loved me, cared so much about me and I loved them back, that's what I called at the moments home or can't I unless I am a citizen. Well, I guess because of those people I did feel belonging. (take into your consideration that I was not an active person regarding going out and such stuff, 9:00 was normally the time that I arrive home from the only place called UR.

2. As for the point when you said " she was comfortable wearing western clothes", you mean we wear what?? I can't think of any thing, let me tell you, people in Syria care about the elegance and being formal at all times, something that I didn't see in the states.

Even when woman are veiled, sometimes they wear the most fashionable clothes ever. And to give a proof of my sentences, I am attaching some pics of my wedding which was very average, and I am an average muslim. See and judge for yourself.

I also attached an article written by an American who is living in Amman now, ..

That was a feed back about all the stuff i missed,


Seems the pics taking for ever , I will put them on the group thing

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Ripley At The Bridge

This article, written by Jeremias Wells, tells of one of the most harrowing and heroic stories of the war in Vietnam.

By the Spring of 1972, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had completed its buildup and was ready to mount a largescale attack on South Vietnam. As part of the assault, two infantry divisions, 30,000 soldiers with tanks and artillery support, began to cross the boundary between the two countries and attack south along Highway 1, the main north-south artery. They would first have to seize a highway bridge over the major water obstacle, the Cua Viet River just north of the town Dong Ha. Only the Third South Vietnamese Marine Battalion was in a position to block the critical avenue of attack and buy some valuable time. To the 700-man battalion was entrusted the awesome task of stopping, or at least hindering, 30,000 North Vietnamese.
The small number of remaining Americans now in ground combat were assigned to South Vietnamese units as advisers. Few men were better qualified to provide assistance in this nearly impossible assignment than Captain John Ripley of Radford, Virginia. A graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, he led a rifle company through a year of intense combat in 1967. Ripley then served an exchange tour with the British Royal Marines. After returning to U.S. forces, he graduated from both the Army's Airborne and Ranger schools and trained with the Navy's frog men in underwater demolition teams.
Having trained in four elite units, Ripley now joined one of the finest units in the Vietnamese Marine Corps, itself an elite division. Major Le Ba Binh commanded the Third Battalion and had a record every bit as impressive as his American adviser. Wounded on a dozen occasions and decorated many times, he was noted for leading his men from the front as would be expected from a member of the aristocratic warrior class.
The Third Battalion was composed of four rifle companies. Two of them and Captain Ripley spent the night before Easter Sunday at an abandoned combat base just west of Dong Ha. The NVA knew they were there, for they pounded the compound all night long with heavy artillery fire. The rounds came screaming in four or five a minute. The Vietnamese got little sleep; Ripley none.
As the day dawned with an overcast sky, Ripley went out and examined the shell craters. The artillery fire was being directed away from the camp toward Dong Ha. He called his radio man to give a report to his own headquarters. Nha, the young baby-faced Vietnamese, approached with long-range whip antenna waving back and forth. In the months they had fought together, the two had become inseparable. Neither knew the other' s language well, but facial expressions and a common danger made words unnecessary. By that time Nha could read Ripley's mind.
Ripley grabbed the handset. Headquarters relayed the orders, "Fall back on Dong Ha and defend the bridge. I'll give you more information when I can." Binh's bodyguard, a powerfully built, rough individual who was known as "Three-fingered Jack," appeared and told Ripley that Binh wanted him at his command post. Jack was one of those quiet, alert veterans that command respect, a fearful enemy and a welcome ally.
Binh had decided to deploy the two immediately available companies along the south bank of the Cua Viet River. One company would cover the main bridge used by the north-south traffic along Highway 1. It had been built by the Sea Bees five years earlier to carry the heaviest American weapons and equipment, including tanks. The other company would cover a much older bridge just upstream that could only carry light equipment. Binh told his Marines to dig their holes deep. There would be no fall back positions. They had to hold the riverbank.
The two companies formed a column with Binh and Ripley leading the way and headed for the bridge. Another radio message warned, "No time for questions, expect enemy tanks. Out." When they reached Highway 9, which ran along the south riverbank and intersected with Highway 1 at Dong Ha, it was clogged with thousands of refugees and, what was worse, deserters by the hundreds. All of them had only one thought in mind: to get as far away as quickly as possible.
Binh's radio contact informed him that the rest of his battalion plus a regular Army of The Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) tank battalion of about 40 tanks would rendezvous with them one mile west of the town. The medium tanks would be somewhat outgunned by the heavier Soviet T-54s, but they were certainly better than no tank support at all. The tank battalion commander, an ARVN lieutenant colonel, was waiting at the rendezvous point with his American adviser, Major James Smock. The former was less than enthusiastic about staying around and required constant urging to cooperate.
Nha approached Ripley. It was headquarters again: "Our outposts can hear the tanks coming. They are traveling in the scrub terrain just off the roadway, but sooner or later they are going to have to get back on Highway 1 to cross the bridge."
"Don't we have any air up, to tell how many?" Ripley asked.
"None yet. Low ceiling."
"Come on. We must have a thousand feet here."
"Believe me, pal, we are doing all we can. Every fire base up there is catching it and some have gone under. You have to hold the bridge and you have to do it alone. There is nothing here to back you up with."
Ripley's American adviser contact continued to give him bad news. Practically all resistance north of the bridge had been wiped out, which was probably the source of the ARVN deserters clogging the road along with the refugees. Then came the final blow: "We finally got a spotter plane in the air. They have tanks and armored personnel carriers stretched along Highway 1 for miles. Must be at least two hundred."
Ripley shouted back, "We can't stop that many. We have to blow the bridge at Dong Ha." At first his superior on the radio hesitated. The top brass back in Saigon wanted to save the bridge. In the end, Ripley's logic prevailed. A weary voice responded: "You are right. We can't authorize it, but you have to blow that bridge. Get moving that way and we will send some demo up to you."
As they approached Dong Ha, they saw the results of the destructive firepower of the enemy's heavy artillery. Corpses lay dismembered and forgotten along the roadside. Dead livestock and overturned carts were strewn in all directions. Then the artillery started again, countless guns firing together and shells exploding all over the town but only the town. It was being blasted off the map. Everything came to a halt along the highway.
The tank column could not go forward and it could not stay where it was. They backed off to the west and swung around to the southeast and entered what was left of the town from the south. The shelling alternately intensified and then thinned out. At the outskirts, the tank commander refused to go any further but after more arguments agreed to let two tanks accompany the dynamiters. As a parting remark, Binh told Ripley to send a message to his superiors: "There are Vietnamese Marines in Dong Ha. We will fight in Dong Ha. We will die in Dong Ha. As long as one Marine draws a breath of life, Dong Ha will belong to us." A hundred yards from the south end of the bridge, Ripley, Smock and Nha prepared to go on alone.
Captain Ripley studied the bridge through his binoculars. It was built simply but massively. The bridge's basic strength lay in its steel I-beam girders that held up the superstructure. They ran longitudinally, that is, in the direction that the traffic would flow. Each girder stood three feet high, and the flanges extended three to four inches on either side of the vertical member. There were six of them across with about three feet between them. With all that steel, Ripley thought to himself, the Sea Bees could have built a battleship.
These hundred-foot long girders sat on top of massive, steel-reinforced concrete piers (intermediate supports) that rose 20 or 30 feet out of the river. At both sides of the river, the hundred-foot spans connected with the abutments (end supports). In thickness, the piers ran between five and six feet. They would easily have withstood any explosive power then available. The trick was to set the explosives in such a way as to knock one set of girders off the piers, thus dropping a hundred-foot span into the river - no small task but possible by a soldier with the proper training. Fortunately, Captain Ripley had received the necessary training at Ranger School.
Ripley surveyed the scene directly in front of him. Along the near river bank, two companies of Binh's Marines were dug in. Across the river on the north side, there had to be thousands of NVA troops infesting the area. Halfway down his slope, sat a bunker built up with sand bags left over from some previous battle.
The three stood up and made a dash for the bunker. As they ran, the fire from the north side increased in intensity and accuracy. They dove for the bunker just in time. Several shots thudded into the sand bags right in front of them. Ripley decided to leave Nha here, where he could make reports to headquarters just as easily, and not expose him to any more danger than necessary.
He then attracted the attention of a squad leader at the river bank. Through sign language, he asked him to provide cover for the last leg of the journey to the bridge abutment. In a short period of time, Binh's Marines had a steady base of fire hitting NVA positions on the north bank.
The two officers broke from cover and ran straight for the bridge. Again the fire increased as they neared their objective. A heavy, tank machine gun kicked a spray of dirt in front of them. Ripley drove himself harder and harder. When he safely reached the bridge abutment, he almost collapsed from the exertion. He wondered how much longer he would have to keep going. The explosives were waiting for them, about a dozen pine boxes and an equal number of canvas haversacks. Ripley read the stencil on the three-foot boxes: DEMOLITION-TNT. Each box contained 150 blocks that looked like gray industrial soap. The haversacks contained plastic explosives to be used in conjunction with the TNT.
Ripley decided to cut the girders loose at the first pier, a hundred feet from the abutment. His problems began immediately. The Sea Bees, to prevent sabotage to the under section of the bridge had constructed a chain-link fence on the river side of the abutment topped with three coils of razor wire. Ripley had to crawl over the razor wire.
He chose to work on the downstream side of the bridge. Most of the infantrymen on both banks had dug in upstream, where they had more open space. The Marine captain climbed the fence and grabbed the bottom flanges of the I-beam. He then swung his feet up and hooked his feet on the flange.
He began to inch himself along the beam. His legs took a beating. The razor wire sliced numerous cuts into his legs which bled profusely. Through the wire he went. He was sweating heavily. The sweat rolled into his cuts and they began to burn. At last, he was through the wire.
With 90 feet to go, Ripley let his feet drop free and proceeded by hand-walking down the girder, swinging forward hand to hand. Arriving at the pier, he made an attempt to catapult himself up into the space between the outboard girder and the next one upstream. His legs would not cooperate. His energy was gone. Hanging only from his hands, they began to ache. Either he flipped up between the two beams soon or he would fall into the river. Once again; he almost made it that time. On the third try the heels caught the flanges. Then he twisted around until his body was spread-eagled between the two beams. He set the two haversacks of satchel charges and crawled on his elbows and knees back to Major Smock and the fence.
The major passed the first two boxes of TNT and two more haversacks through the razor wire, which cut the major's hands and arms. Spread-eagled between the two girders, Ripley placed the boxes on the flanges and dragged the load, which weighed more than 180 pounds, back to the pier, where he set the charges to the first boxes of explosives.
Once more he dropped down, holding onto the bottom flanges with only his hands. Swing back and forth, build momentum, leap, grab, catch the heels and then muscle into the channel opening between the next two girders. When his legs and lower body fell below the beams, the communist riflemen fired up into the steel girders, with rounds ricocheting all over. Nothing hit him. Once up into the channel he was safe.
For the next two hours, Ripley worked his way back and forth setting the charges. When he finished, he crawled back through the razor wire, dropped to the ground and lay there for a while gasping for breath. Yet he had only accomplished the first part of the heroic undertaking. The exhausted Marine had to go out there again and set the detonators.
Ripley would have preferred to use electrical blasting caps and wire, but none were to be found, only the old-fashioned percussion caps and primer cord. To make things more difficult, they could not find any crimpers. Ripley had to crimp the caps onto the cord with his teeth. Since the shiny cylinders would explode if gripped too hard in the wrong place, a slight miscalculation would blow his skull apart. He remembered that back in Ranger School an instructor had placed a detonator inside a softball and set it off. The explosion blew the cover, stuffing and string all over the place.
Carefully he placed the cap into his mouth, open end out and put the primer cord in the open end. He slowly bit down. It worked. The second time would be easier, but he had to fight off overconfidence, so he remembered the softball. Now the Marine captain was ready to go back out again.
This time the enemy was waiting for him. He crawled through the razor wire and dropped below the girder. The communists immediately opened fire, far heavier than before with hundreds of rounds bouncing off the girders. Over and over, he prayed to Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Blessed Mother, "Jesus and Mary, get me there! Jesus and Mary, get me there..."
Just as he reached the upstream box of TNT, a tank shell hit the girder about two feet away. The angle was too flat and it bounced off and exploded on the south bank with a violent crash. The vibrations almost knocked him into the river. He set the detonator into the plastic explosive and lit the other end of the cord with a match. He had measured enough cord to allow about thirty minutes.
The girders of the Dong Ha bridge were three feet high and about three feet apart.
Ripley worked his way over to the downstream side and repeated the process and then hand-walked back to the fence. He realized that he had exceeded all normal human endurance, so again turned to God and His Mother: "Jesus and Mary, get me there! Jesus and Mary, get me there..." He climbed back through the razor wire once more and fell to the ground near the abutment in a bloody heap. He was so tired that he could hardly lift his arm.
The major tapped him on the back. "Look what I found. But you won't need them now." He pointed to a box of electrical detonators. Ripley looked at the caps and realized that he had to go through the ordeal under the bridge once again. He had always been taught to rig up a backup charge if one was available, At this point, the substance of a man takes over. His moral integrity triumphs. In fact, throughout the entire ordeal, it was the guiding principle. So he returned again simply because to do the job right demanded it.
While Ripley was again risking his life crawling around underneath the Dong Ha Bridge setting up the backup charges, Smock ran a couple of boxes of TNT down to the smaller bridge and ran back again. Ripley had completed the wiring and lay on the ground next to the abutment, too tired to move. Painfully, he pulled himself up and, with a roll of detonating wire hung over his shoulder, staggered along with Smock back to the bunker where Nha was waiting. The South Vietnamese Marines unleashed a barrage of fire to cover them, yelling encouragement as they went, "Dau-uy Dien! Dau- uy Dien!" (Captain Crazy! Captain Crazy!)
At the bunker Ripley was glad to be reunited with Nha. He looked around for a way to trigger the explosion since they had no blasting box. Nearby was a burned-out truck, but the battery appeared to be in good condition. Ripley tried several combinations to set off the explosives. Nothing worked. The terrible thought of failure came over him.
The captain would have to warn headquarters to give time to others to regroup farther south. He would stay with the Third Marine Battalion. Binh would never pull back. He had already made that clear. The battle-scarred warrior would die at his post with no forethought of death. From across the river, Ripley heard the tanks starting up. The massive assault was ready to begin.
Then the bridge blew. The shock waves came before the noise. The noise arrived, growing louder and louder in a series of explosions that became one huge roar. The entire hundred- foot span dropped into the river, leaving a huge gap in the bridge. The time fuses had done their job after all.
The battle continued to rage around Dong Ha for days after, but the overwhelming forces of the NVA soon began to wear out the defenders. Most areas in the north and south had crumbled. A large group of communists were pressing down on Dong Ha from the west. Binh's Marines were still dug in and holding, with some of Smock's tanks and armored personnel carriers lending support. Ripley was making desperate calls for artillery support when a barrage of mortar fire raked the area, signaling an all-out attack.
At that moment, a vehicle carrying seven journalists and cameramen raced up. Completely oblivious to what was going on, they jumped out and surrounded Captain Ripley with microphones, asking one silly question after another. Ripley yelled at them, "Get out of here; the NVA are attacking." A mortar round exploded, throwing all of them into a pile on the ground. Ripley crawled out from underneath the bodies. Some were dead; others lay groaning and bleeding.
He looked around; then his heart fell. Nha lay dead with a mortar fragment in his head. Major Smock was severely wounded. All the South Vietnamese vehicles were pulling out. Ripley was able to pile the wounded on them only with difficulty. Nobody was staying around now.
When he went to load Nha's body on the last tank, it moved away and disappeared. The beleaguered captain looked up and saw the point men of several NVA rifle squads approaching. He was going to die, but he was taking his dead radio man with him. He put Nha's body over his shoulders and started walking, fully expecting to catch a bullet any minute.
He heard rifle fire and looked up. Three-fingered Jack and another Marine were firing away at his assailants. More South Vietnamese Marines came over the embankment directly in front of him and kept the enemy pinned down until he climbed up behind them. Captain Ripley was safe.
A few days later the Third Marine Battalion received orders to break through the encircling enemy and a few weeks after that it was pulled out of action. Of the original 700 men, only 52 survived. By then Smock, Nha and Jack were dead. However, they had succeeded magnificently in their task.
The ARVN regrouped and held a defensive line ten miles south of Dong Ha. Thus the Easter Offensive was stopped because the NVA failed to cross the bridge at Dong Ha. One cannot but wonder that, if a few more men like Captain Ripley, Major Binh, Major Smock, Three-fingered Jack and Nha, the radio man, had dedicated themselves like the Crusaders of old, the communists could have been stopped entirely. As it was, they were stopped for three years.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Why Chomsky’s Linguistic Theory Has To Be Wrong

One of the problems in criticizing Chomskyan theory in linguistics is that it can be a bit . . . well, arcane. The terminology is not very accessible to any but specialists. Few outside the Chomskyan priesthood actually do understand the buzzwords, and there is no effort whatsoever to make these ideas accessible to the general reader. The public often hears some snippet reporting the latest startling conclusion, with little idea as to how it was arrived at.
Another problem is that Chomskyan theory is constantly being revised, much like the old Soviet five-year plans. I doubt that when the Sixties-era Chomskyans were exploring the old and discredited theory of transformations, they had any idea that turn-of-the-millennium Chomskyans would be examining probes and goals.
Finally, the biggest problem is that key problems in linguistics can be quite complicated, requiring not merely an expert-level knowledge of grammar, but a willingness to follow proofs which can run to great lengths.
And so what might be desired is to come up with a very simple example which might show the world that the fundamental ideas underlying Chomskyan theory are flawed. There are probably many such ideas, if one scoured enough of any given language, but one will do for a start.
Let’s start with these examples:
The bible is one of the only books that survived the fire.
George was one of the only lieutenants who were promoted to captain.
We hear or read sentences like this all the time – in news reports or in magazines and journals. Writers use this structure, editors approve it, and readers or listeners think they understand it.
The only problem is this: such sentences are meaningless. The problem is in the word only. It does not mean few.
What does it mean, then? Note that we could say:
Cars are owned by only one million Chinese.
One million is a lot of people, but compared to the total population of China, one million is a small number.
So the meaning of only is not few, but relatively few. Now if you are a true-blue Chomskyan, you believe that grammar is innate. The brain automatically and correctly employs the various grammatical structures of your language, because these structures are built in and ready to go. But clearly people are misusing this structure, even those who are educated and possess the ability to speak and write well.
What is lacking in examples such as the above is some way of showing ‘how few.’ One grammatical way of doing this is as follows:
The bible is one of (the) only three books that survived the fire. (out of a possible one thousand in the house)
George was one of (the) only five hundred lieutenants who were promoted to captain. (out of a possible eight hundred being considered for promotion.)
Guang was one of (the) only one million Chinese who owned a car. (out of 1,200,000,000 living Chinese.)
We have to show only three out of one thousand, only five hundred out of eight hundred, etc., because the purpose of the only structure is to show how relatively few an occurrence was in comparison to the maximum possible occurrences (one thousand books saved, eight hundred lieutenants promoted, 1.2 billion Chinese car owners).
Another way of showing relatively few does not require placing a number after only. I could hold up three books in my hand and say:
These are the only books saved from the fire.
You could count the three books in my hand or otherwise perceive that the number was very small, and you could then deduce that the number of surviving books was relatively small. Let’s call this the deictic structure.
But the facts are pretty clear: a great many people do not automatically know how to use this structure properly, and many more hear or read the structure and think they understand what it means when in fact it is only meaningful if one mistakenly assumes that only means few.
If Chomskyan theory were correct, this could not be the case. Everyone would know innately the difference between few and relatively few. Everyone would know that, except in the demonstrative structure, a number must follow only, and each speaker or writer would include it in one’s speech or writing; if it were inadvertently left out – as people often do make mistakes when they speak or write – everyone hearing or reading such speech or writing would pick up the error instantly, as they do when they hear or read common errors.
The facts I have described illustrate a clear violation of Chomsky’s main premise. And so when we say that people learn a language, including one’s own, this doesn’t mean that one merely turns a switch and all the structures light up in the brain. It means that we learn the structures by imitation, by analogy, and by a logical building process which goes on for many years. Some people master all the various structures relatively quickly, some get most of it but miss a few things, and some never gain much mastery over language. One can see this phenomenon in daily life, and it’s perfectly obvious and irrefutable, even though, as in the example above, it invalidates Chomsky’s theory.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Colonel Dabney's Navy Cross

This is such a great story that I decided to post it here for those who may not have seen it. It ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sunday, April 24, 2005 and was written by Bolling Williamson (no relation), a VMI graduate and guest columnist.
This article has nothing to do with Chomsky. I guess you can say that after reading Chomsky's defense of Hez-eb-allah, I thought we needed to clear the putrefaction from the air.
This should do it.
Lexington, Virginia. On April 15, Colonel William H. Dabney, USMC (Ret) was awarded the Navy Cross in a ceremony at Virginia Military Institute for actions 37 years earlier in Vietnam.
Second only to the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross is reserved for those who demonstrate extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force. An alumnus of VMI's Class of 1961, Dabney was cited for leadership as a captain of an infantry company occupying a key position on a hill overlooking the Khe Sanh combat base during the siege from mid-January until mid-April, 1968.
Located in a valley just below the Demilitarized Zone, Khe Sanh was reinforced in response to increased enemy activity. (During Khe Sanh, U.S. aircraft flew 24,400 sorties and dropped 100,000 tons of bombs. The battlefield would become the most heavily bombed in history.)
Dabney's India Company was ordered to occupy Hill 881 South - a key position because it overlooked the base. On January 20, one of his patrols ran into a large North Vietnamese unit preparing to assault the base. Extracting his troops from the heavy action, Dabney drew his company back to their positions on top of the hill under withering artillery and mortar fire. They were surrounded in an area approximately 50 by 150 yards.
For the next 77 days, the Marines withstood daily artillery shelling as the North Vietnamese tried to blast them off of the hill. In turn, they grew adept at spotting the enemy gun positions and calling in counter-fire from their own artillery down at the base. They also directed numerous air strikes against the enemy, preventing them from massing for an attack on the base. Their nightly patrols and outposts frequently interrupted attempts to penetrate their positions on the hill. They learned to listen for the distinctive "pop" made by an enemy mortar round when it was dropped down the tube, knowing they had about 20 seconds to take cover before it landed. The artillery rounds didn't give much warning.
Re-supply had to be by helicopter. Because the landing zones were visible to North Vietnamese gunners, an elaborate fire suppression operation -- involving napalm, bombs, and rockets preceded every re-supply mission. Low clouds and weather conditions limited these missions to about once every three days.
Writing later of the engagement, Dabney said: "Heroism was routine. The landing zones were always hot, and most dangerous were the medical evacuation missions. It took time to carry badly wounded men from cover to the helicopter and then return to cover, and the mortar rounds were often announced as being 'on the way.' Yet there was no occasion when men had to be ordered to carry stretchers. To the contrary, it was often necessary to restrain too many from lending a hand and exposing themselves unnecessarily."
The daily flag raising ceremony became an act of defiance against the enemy. "Each morning three Marines would race from the bunker to a 15-foot radio antenna," Dabney said. "Two would raise our nation's colors, then stand at attention while the third sounded a rusty rendition of, 'To the Colors' with a battered bugle." They had about 20 seconds to raise the colors and dive into their holes -- just ahead of the incoming mortar rounds that inevitably followed. "We were never without volunteers for this ceremony."
"You would think you would have people go off the edge under those circumstances, especially when their friends are dying around them. You'd think there'd be some fatalism. None of the above. That amazed me, that these troops, 50 to 60 days into it, were just as alert on watch. We always had more volunteers than we had a need for. It said a lot about the attitude of these young men. They were every bit as good on the 70th day as they were on the first, if not better."
On April 18, the enemy gave up and abandoned the area. Dabney's men had played a critical role in deflecting attacks on Khe Sanh, along with defending their own position. Legends grow from such courage and tenacity, and the new Marine Museum, opening in November, 2006, will have a special exhibit commemorating the heroism of men who held Hill 881 South.

Following Khe Sanh, Dabney was nominated for the Navy Cross for his actions on Hill 881 South. But his battalion executive officer's helicopter carrying the nomination papers crashed -- and the papers were lost. Until recently, the nomination languished.
A native of Gloucester, Dabney entered VMI after an enlistment in the Marines. In a career totaling 36 years, he attained the rank of colonel and commanded two battalions and a regiment before being assigned to VMI as the senior naval science instructor and then Commandant of Cadets. He and his wife, the former Virginia Puller, live near Lexington.
Following a parade by the Corps of Cadets, the award was made in Jackson Memorial Hall by Lt. Gen. H.P. Osman, Deputy Commandant of the Marine Corps. In addition to family and classmates, approximately 70 former Marines who had served with Dabney on the hill watched their former commander receive the appropriate recognition after so many years. During his remarks after receiving the medal, Dabney asked his former comrades to rise. "I wear this honor today only symbolically," he told the audience. "It is they who earned it."
Dabney concluded his remarks at the award ceremony by addressing the Cadets. Standing before the painting depicting the charge of the Cadets at the Battle of New Market in 1864, he told them that the torch had been passed: "Many of you will soon shoulder the responsibility of leading our citizen-soldiers. If you should be called upon to lead America's patriots into harm's way, you will find their resolution awesome."
Richmonder Bolling Williamson, a VMI graduate, served with the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam, 1966-1967.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Noam Chomsky: America’s Village Idiot

In this article I discuss the nature of scientific inquiry. I want to show that the standards of achievement for serious scientists such as the physicist Albert Einstein are far higher than those for MIT’s professor of linguistics, Noam Chomsky. In fact, I hope to take it a step further and show that Chomsky’s most important claims cannot reasonably be considered scientific achievements at all.
In fact, what some of Chomsky’s admirers claim to be legitimate achievements are in fact instances of intellectual "con artistry"; what is claimed as profound insight is nothing more than academic fraud.
I would like to start with an article called The Trouble with Chomsky by George Jochnowitz, Professor Emeritus of Linguistics, College of Staten Island, CUNY, which appeared recently on the pages of the website Open Republic. In this article, Jochnowicz attacks Chomsky’s politics as hard to come to grips with, but he assumes – as do many – that Chomsky’s contribution to theoretical linguistics is above reproach:
"Chomsky changed the nature of linguistics. A very familiar example of his thinking is illustrated by a pair of sentences that differ by a single word: John is easy to please, and John is eager to please. The words easy and eager are both adjectives. Yet the grammatical structures of these sentences are quite different. We can rewrite the first as It is easy to please John, but any English-speaking child knows that it is ungrammatical to say It is eager to please John. In other words, children know more grammar than grammarians do.
Chomsky came to the conclusion "that there is a universal grammar which is part of the genetic birthright of human beings, that we are born with a basic template that any specific language fits into" (Cogswell:3).
So let’s see what going on here. Chomsky is saying, in effect, that he cannot explain why
(1) It is easy to please John
is grammatical and readily spoken by speakers of English; nor can he explain why
(2) *It is eager to please John
is ungrammatical and excluded from usage. Since Chomsky cannot explain this discrepancy in the grammatical underpinnings of these two sentences, the automatic assumption he makes is that nobody else can explain it either, since nobody else – and this is a given – could possibly have as much insight into language as he does. And since he thinks that it can’t be explained logically, the only alternative explanation is that there is an innate grammar – wired into the brain – which requires Sentence (1) to be OK and Sentence (2) to be bad. Since this wired–in grammar is innate – in other words, genetically endowed in humans – it must therefore be universal. This conclusion is the reason that Chomsky is considered – by Jochnowicz, at least – to be "the father of modern linguistics".
A lot of people over the years have been taken in by this line of "reasoning" and so in a situation like this I prefer to ask the question: WWED?
What would Einstein do?
It is impossible for me to believe that Einstein would have engaged in this sort of sophistry, this sort of muddled and sloppy thinking which doesn’t even make a stab at any kind of serious logical analysis of the problem.
Einstein worked much differently than this. He made a number of observations about the movement of light and from these he constructed a set of theories which explained the phenomena which he had observed.
Had he engaged in Chomsky’s methods, he would have said something along the lines of:
There are many interesting phenomena about the universe which make no sense to me, and therefore I must conclude that the nature of the universe is somewhat different from the Newtonian concept of the universe, although I’m not sure precisely how it differs.
Not exactly Nobel-prize material there.
To the contrary, Einstein took the observations he found and he shaped them into the General and Special Theories of Relativity – which did, in fact, lead to his winning the Nobel.
What I aim to show in the rest of this article is that there is a clear, logical and perfectly understandable reason that Sentence (1) is grammatical and Sentence (2) is not. The proof is below, if you are interested.
You should be able to follow the argument if you made it through high school English without too much trouble, or if you have ever taken a foreign language class. A specialized knowledge of linguistics is completely unnecessary. If you want to skip the proof I will just go ahead and tell you what conclusions you might be able to draw from it:
Conclusion A. Since Sentence (1) is logically constructed there is no reason to think that it is innate, any more than a logically-constructed mathematical theorem is innate. Sentence (1) is a structure which is used because it makes logical sense. Therefore Sentence (1) supports neither of Chomsky’s ideas, the innateness of grammar or its universality;
Conclusion B. Since Sentence (2) is logically prohibited there is no reason to think that it is innate either. It is a structure which is not used because it does not make logical sense. Therefore Sentence (2) supports neither of Chomsky’s ideas, the innateness of grammar or its universality;
Conclusion C. Chomsky simply never thought through the problem in a logical and systematic manner. If he had, he could not have come to the logical conclusion that the contrast in Sentences (1) and (2) points to either the innateness of grammar or its universality;
Conclusion D. Therefore Chomsky’s claims of innateness and universality are based not upon his ability to solve a problem, but his inability. To make a claim of truth based upon intellectual failure is intellectual fraud;
Conclusion E. A scientific theorem which is based on a failure to understand the underlying facts cannot be considered a bona fide scientific achievement;
Conclusion F. As far as this claim: "any English-speaking child knows that it is ungrammatical to say It is eager to please John," that isn’t even entirely true. The sentence is perfectly grammatical in one context (see below), and ungrammatical in another. But Chomsky's argument misses the point: since adults already know that the sentence is ungrammatical in a certain context, they don’t use it in that context and therefore children don’t hear it in that context. Obviously children have to build their language skills through the processes of both imitation and analogy, and so the notion that they learn It is easy to please Bill by imitation has nothing to do with the fact that they might at some other point exclude as illogical It is eager to please John, were they ever to hear it in the ungrammatical context;
Conclusion G. The intellectual con-artistry here consists of Chomsky’s taking a sentence which adults never use (in the ungrammatical context) and making the assumption that children don’t use it because they somehow automatically know that it’s wrong. A child would only use this Sentence (2) through imitation, as opposed to invention – since the possibility is extremely remote that a child would invent such a complex structure which is so profoundly illogical – and since adults don’t use Sentence (2) in the ungrammatical context, there is nothing for the child to imitate. Finally, a child would only "know that it’s wrong" if he or she had had enough experience with language to know that the sentence doesn’t make sense logically, and the child would have to be much older than a mere infant in order to have that level of experience.

And now, the proof. Let’s start with this sentence:
(3) John is eager to please.
Sentence (3) has an active implication: John is eager to please (someone else).
And now this: (4) Bill is easy to please.
Sentence (4) has an passive implication: Bill is the one who will be pleased (by someone else).
In fact, (4) means exactly what (5) means, and (5) is a standard passive structure:
(5) Bill is easily pleased.
Therefore it stands to reason that Sentence (6) would be OK, since Bill is the (passive) object of someone’s (active) attempt to please him:
(6) It is easy to please Bill.
In Sentence (6), just as in (5) and (4), Bill is the one being pleased. Now, let’s develop these ideas a little further:
Point 1: In the structure {Someone} is J to please
where J is an adjective,
the meaning of the sentence could be either active or passive, depending on the adjective:
(3) John is eager to please. (active)
(4) Bill is easy to please. (passive)

Point 2: In the structure {Someone} is V pleased
where V is an adverb,
the meaning of the sentence can be passive only, regardless of the adverb chosen:
(5) Bill is easily pleased. (passive)
(7) John is eagerly pleased. (passive)

Point 3: We can see that the determination of voice (activeness or passiveness) in a given sentence can be rendered in two ways:
a) by the meaning of a word within a structure which allows both:
{Someone} is J to please (active or passive)
b) restricted to one choice by the nature of the structure
{Someone} is V pleased (passive only)
What is driving these two possibilities, you may ask?
If you will recall from high school, an adverb can modify a verb, not a noun, and since pleased is a past participle associated with the passive structure, the noun must become the object of please, and so any sentence of this sentence-type
{Someone} is V pleased
must be passive:
(5) Bill is easily pleased. (passive)
(7) John is eagerly pleased. (passive)
As for this structure type
{Someone} is J to please
we recall from high school that an adjective can modify a noun, and therefore in both
(3) John is eager to please. (active)
(4) Bill is easy to please. (passive)
the adjective modifies the noun without regard for whether John is acting to please or Bill is the object of someone else’s attempt to please him. In fact, we can show the differences between the sentences a little more clearly this way:
(3) John is eager to please (someone). (active)
(4) Bill is easy (for someone) to please. (passive)
Don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten about explaining why it is that
(8) *It is eager to please John.
is ungrammatical. But first, I want to talk about these two sentences:
(9) The sandwich is ready to eat. (passive!)
(10) The troops are ready to eat. (active!)
Note that this is a case which differs from
{Someone} is J to please (active or passive)
in which the difference in adjectives determines the active or passive voice of the sentence:
(3) John is eager to please. (active)
(4) Bill is easy to please. (passive)
In (9) and (10) the adjective is the same (ready)! Thus, in (9) and (10), the active or passive voice is determined not by the adjective, but by the subject noun: sandwich versus the troops. In (9), the sandwich is what will be eaten, which means that (9) really means:
(11) The sandwich is ready to be eaten. (passive)
In (10), the troops will be doing the eating
(12) The troops are ready to eat (whatever is put in front of them). (active)
You may well ask, is it ungrammatical to make (10) into a passive?
(13) The troops are ready to be eaten.
Not at all. A cannibal would consider (13) to be a very fine sentence. It is context which tells us, however, that the correct interpretation of (10) is (12) and not (13). Now let’s take a closer look at these sentences:
(11) The sandwich is ready to be eaten. (passive)
(12) The troops are ready to eat (whatever is put in front of them). (active)
Note that we can easily substitute a pronoun for the subject nouns:
(14) It is ready to be eaten. (passive)
(15) They are ready to eat (whatever is put in front of them). (active)
We cannot say that these pronouns are "empty", since they stand for something:
In (14) "It" stands for "the sandwich"
In (15) "They" stands for "the troops"
Now let’s go back and look at this sentence:
(6) It is easy to please Bill.
Does "it" stand for something concrete? No, it does not. Remember that (6) really means:
(6) It is easy (for someone) to please Bill.
Therefore the person who is trying to please Bill is not represented by "It", but by the implied "someone". Therefore in (6), subject-"It" is empty in the sense that it does not stand for one of the actors on the stage. We employ "It" so that the verb "is" will have a subject. Now we return to this sentence:
(8) *It is eager to please John.
Sentence (8) can be considered grammatical if "It" is not empty; that is, if subject-"it" stands for some subject:
(16) The dog is eager to please John.
(17) It is eager to please John (It = the dog)
In (16), John is the object of the dog’s attempt to please. John is not the subject. And so (16) does not mean the same thing as (8) *It is eager to please John.
because (8) was an attempt to rearrange
(3) John is eager to please. (active)
in the same way we were able to rearrange
(4) Bill is easy to please. (passive)
to get
(6) It is easy to please Bill.
Why didn’t the rearrangement with (8) work? In other words, why is (6) OK but (8) is not? Is it just because the brain doesn’t work that way, as Chomsky claims? Well, let’s see. Notice that we said that
(6) It is easy to please Bill.
really means
(6) It is easy (for someone) to please Bill.
and this allows subject-"it" to remain empty. Now let’s look very closely at (8)
(8) *It is eager to please John.
Caution A: We want subject-"It" to remain empty; in other words, we don’t want subject-"it" to stand for "the dog".
Caution B: Subject-"it" cannot stand for "John", because that would give us:
(8) *John is eager to please John.
Caution C: We don’t want this implied structure to obtain:
(8) *It is eager to (for someone) to please John.
because John, not "someone else", is the one who is eager to please.
Thus we cannot construe the sentence in any way that would allow John to be represented as the noun modified by the adjective eager, nor can we construe it to represent John as the actor who is eager to please. Therefore the sentence cannot logically be shown to be the grammatical equivalent of
(3) John is eager to please. (active)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Failure, Thy Name is Chomsky

It takes a special kind of hubris for Noam Chomsky – with his dismal record of achievement – to paint the United States – with its astonishing record of success – as a ‘failed state’. This is particularly true in that Chomsky, professor of pseudolinguistics and anti-Americanism at MIT, has made millions in the capitalist system he so self-righteously denounces; had he actually lived in the repressive state he claims to inhabit, the secret police would have come a-calling a long time ago.
His new ‘book’, Failed States, is the usual anti-American vitriol to which his admirers are compulsively addicted. It would take a book-length rebuttal to answer everything in this latest compendium of distortions and factual misstatements; nevertheless, given that the book will not be taken seriously by mainstream media, expert scholars or review journals, it might be more productive to examine the verbal techniques – the linguistic sleights-of-hand – by which Chomsky hooks and reels in those who lack the education or the discernment to see through the demagoguery.
The first artful technique is the provocative assertion: ‘America is a failed state!’ That’s a startling claim, no doubt one that you had never considered before. Your reaction may be, Then why are so many people quite literally dying to get here? Why do people the world over want to be American citizens?
Chomsky is ready for you. His next technique is to get his readers to discount their own experience or observations. No, no, no, Chomsky says. You don’t understand how a failed state is actually defined. You have to look beyond the superficialities. A failed state is one in which democracy doesn’t exist.
That’s a fair statement, and I buy into it: you wouldn’t expect democracy to exist in a failed state.
But wait…is he saying that America is not really a democracy? This seems to be another provocative assertion. And once again, my experience tells me otherwise. I say, What about the local elections I voted in, and the state and national elections? What about the political organizations I freely join, the books and newspapers I read, the letters to the editor I write? What about the fact that I can attend a campaign rally, call the mayor, or attend Christopher Hitchens’ free speech rally at the Danish embassy in Washington? (The only policeman I spoke to there was happy to help me find a place to park.)
Doesn’t my personal experience contradict Chomsky’s provocative assertion?
Again, I fail to understand. For Chomsky tells me that there isn’t an ounce of difference between the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans. They’re interchangeable; in that sense, then, there can be no true democracy.
On one level, what Chomsky is saying is somewhat true: if you grouped all federal and state officials by party affiliation, you would find – in general terms – that both populations are made up of people from the educated and professional classes, as well as from the upper middle class. Many are lawyers and a good number have served in the military. Insofar as certain personal attributes might prove helpful in getting one elected to public office, there is a degree of homogeneity of inclination, experience and background in our public officials, taken as a whole.
Of course, as a Chomsky reader, I naturally fail to appreciate that, within those large groupings, there is a huge variety of ideas, approaches and points of view. I forget that under the Republican umbrella can be found a Lincoln as well as a Harding, and that under the shade of the Democratic tree I can find a Franklin Roosevelt as well as a Jimmy Carter.
And as a Chomsky loyalist, do I really want to examine too closely what I am being told? Let’s say that I am a typical Chomskyan, with my undergraduate degree in gender studies and my masters degree in social justice. As a video store clerk, things may not be working out for me the way I had hoped. My classmates are all interested in getting rich; nobody wants to join the revolution I had planned to lead.
But Chomsky flatters my intellectual pretensions – and that is another of his celebrated techniques. He peels back the veneer covering over the society which I hate and he shows me its corruption. He uses his techniques skillfully: the provocative assertions, the denial of experience, the redefinitions and the half-truths; by following his peculiar chain of logic, he makes me feel as though I am one of a small, intellectual minority who truly understand ‘Amerika’ in the way that ordinary Americans never will.
He shows me that the system is designed to keep me down. He proves that everything is stacked against me. I do not want to think about the immigrants who come here every day – many of them penniless, or stateless – who nevertheless end up with great fortunes, or who at least manage to provide college educations for their kids. I do not wish to remind myself that Chomsky’s very own father was one of the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" – who sought refuge in the United States in order to escape compulsory service in Czar Nicholas’ army. (Talk about a failed state…)
I do not want to think about any of that. I do not want to deal with reality, or to analyze my situation rationally. I want to justify my failure. And Chomsky helps me to do that.
Although a loyal Chomskyan, what I may not fully appreciate is that my guru developed a high degree of expertise with the above-described techniques, utilizing them in a previous career, as a professor of theoretical linguistics. As any student of the modern era of theoretical linguistics nows, Chomsky is the past master of the provocative assertion:
Sentences transform!
Languages have a deep structure! All languages can be reduced to a few fundamental parametric settings!
There is a universal grammar! All languages are fundamentally the same!
In every case, Chomsky arrived at the conclusion first and then his followers set about to confirm his claim. It has taken several decades for them to work through these ideas, forced in the process by the exigencies of logic to discard a great deal of the half-truths and the muddled thinking. Some are still at it, although the field of theoretical linguistics seems to be moving on.
A recent bulletin from the Linguistic Society of America, in planning its 2007 summer institute, sent out a call for course ideas with this note: "…we especially seek courses aimed at opening up new lines of inquiry, rather than surveying the generally-accepted state of the art in the field."
"Generally-accepted state of the art"? They can only have been talking about Chomsky.
Steven Pinker, Chomsky’s protégé now at Harvard, recently commented on the fact that "precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified."
Was he referring to the numerous articles in recent years which have bombarded Chomsky’s theories?
At any rate, no one – not even Chomsky himself – has stepped forth to defend this half-century of wandering from one inconclusive idea to the next. The Unified Theory of Language is nowhere in sight.
Leaf through the pages of Linguistic Inquiry, the scholarly journal devoted to Chomskyan linguistic theory, and you will find an awful lot of directionless, muddled and mediocre thinking.
No one with this much time on his hands and this little to show for it should be judging the United States and calling it a "failed state". Chomsky’s own colossal failure is the elephant in the room that few people seem to want to talk about.
And so the only question I have is this: when are the trustees of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology going to ask for their money back?

Sources: Failed States, Noam Chomsky, Henry Holt and Co., 2006, 311 pp.
Robert Levine and Paul Postal in The Anti-Chomsky Reader, Collier and Horowitz, Eds., Encounter Books, 2004, 260 pp.
Chomsky's Empty Suit, Charles de Wolf,, September 29, 2004

Monday, June 12, 2006

Noam Chomsky and the Little Green Men

Some of those who follow the career of Noam Chomsky see him as an outsize figure, larger in scale than any of his contemporaries, a megastar in the American university galaxy.
To what academic figures of the past half-century might they compare him? To Linus Pauling of the California Institute of Technology, who won a Nobel Prize in both chemistry and peace, and who was a great scientist as well as a great humanitarian? Or perhaps to Albert Einstein, ensconced in Princeton University for a number of years, who won the Nobel for physics and who was also actively engaged in the great issues of the day?
Perhaps. One difference is that the works of Pauling and Einstein are considered to be vital, foundational and fully accepted by the scientific community.
With Chomsky…not so much. The hallmark of his work is transience and endless revision, with nothing in the field of theoretical linguistics that anyone can point to as a really lasting achievement. He certainly led a lot of people down the primrose path, fully expecting to one day arrive at some high moment of clarification. After fifty years, this moment has not yet arrived.
But I don’t think we have to look too far from home to find the most apt person to whom we might compare Chomsky. Exactly one century ago, in the summer of 1906, one of the most famous scientific figures in the world was working at the Massachusettes Institute of Technology, Chomsky’s long-time stomping grounds.
His name was Percival Lowell, and he was a professor of astronomy and the director of the Lowell Observatory at MIT. Professor Lowell was, according to the the July 8, 1906 edition of The World Magazine, a "member of many scientific societies, and…recognized throughout the world as an expert on the solar system and especially Mars."
And what exactly was Professor Lowell famous for? Dr. Lowell was the man who discovered that there were little people living on Mars who sustained themselves with the water which ran through the canals which they had constructed.
Dr. Lowell’s discovery confirmed the theories of the noted British science fiction writer H.G. Wells, who was thus quoted: "Professor Lowell told me many things that are simply amazing…Among these things, he states as a fact that the geometrical lines which are seen on the planet are canals constructed by persons of superhuman intellegence for the purpose of distributing water over the surface of the planet."
According to the article in The World, "Professor Lowell, together with many other astronomers of world-wide reputation, believes that Mars is a very living world subject to an annual cycle of growth, activity and decay."
Must have been a really exciting time to be alive.
Lowell, much like Chomsky, was most meticulous with his observations. Here’s an example of the detail of life on Mars which Lowell recorded: "…the landmarks of {a region of Mars} lay obliterated by a deluge; not directly, but indirectly. Probably the region was in various stages of vegetal fertility in consequence of a comparatively small body of water thus inundating it. The color of the dark areas was then and is now, to my eyes, a bluish green; quite unmistakably so."
Amazing how much detail Lowell could see, and how many important conclusions he could draw from scant evidence. What a seer! And when you consider how much Chomsky can see in language which nobody else can seem to find – the universal grammar, the transformations, the parameters, the deep structure – then you must realize the degree to which Chomsky truly is the intellectual heir to the genius of Lowell.
And what of the Martians themselves? "With the disappearance of the water from the surface of the planet the Martians will die."
Or was it as simple as that? Perhaps the real reason for the disappearance of the Martians was that the United States government had launched some sort of pre-NASA expedition to that planet for the purpose of expanding its empire and that, when the Martians resisted, they were starved and massacred by out-of-control U.S. troops. I see ‘book potential’, Noam.
At any rate, the idea that there was water on Mars and that it sustained some form of life was a very real idea which was kept alive throughout most of the Twentieth Century. Although such Hollywood productions as "The Three Stooges in Orbit" spoofed the idea, the fact that it was spoofed at all meant that the general public had been taught to believe that life on Mars was likely. In fact, it was only in the 1970s that NASA’s Mars Orbiter missions succeeded in obtaining enough data to prove definitively that Lowell’s theories were unfounded.
And so for three quarters of a century the fanciful ideas of Professor Lowell held considerable sway over both the popular and the professional understanding of astronomy. None of it was true, but that didn't stop just about everybody from believing it.
Lowell is now pretty well forgotten, his theories discarded. And whatever became of Chomsky?
Research source: The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper (1898 - 1911) Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano, Bulfinch Press, 2005.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Late in my cadetship at the Virginia Military Institute, Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet, was invited to speak at Washington and Lee University, the campus of which adjoins VMI. This was well after the cultural eruptions of the Sixties and sometime after the war in Vietnam had burned itself out. Ginsberg had somehow managed the transition from enfant terrible to eminence grise.

In order to attend the event at W&L’s Lee Chapel, cadets were required to leave the Spartan setting of the famous military school wearing a semi-dress uniform of grey tunic, white trousers and spit-shined shoes. We stepped onto the adjoining grounds of the graceful, colonnaded Athens of a Southern school where we proceeded, along with several hundred W&L students, professors, and Lexington, Virginia townies, to pack the chapel in anticipation of the event.

And so it would probably be difficult to guess who would have been more struck by the surreal nature of the event – Ginsberg, chanting the passages of his famous poem "Howl" while sitting not ten feet from the catafalque where the body of Confederate general Robert E. Lee lay in repose, while hundreds of uniformly-dressed military school students sat listening with respectful curiosity; or the cadets themselves, to whom the words

Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed

may have been somewhat puzzling, or to whom the words

who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kaballa because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas

may have seemed a bit arch; although to whom the words

who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall

may have engendered a certain sympathetic resonance. Whether an inspection of the previously-mentioned catafalque would have revealed a General Lee rotating at a high number of revolutions per minute is a question which will have to remain unanswered for now, but as to the question of who might have felt more out of place – the cadets or Ginsberg – my vote would have to be cast in the direction of the bard of Haight-Ashbury.

I doubt that any of us cadets felt particularly overawed by the event, despite its massively countercultural tincture. For, perhaps more so than anywhere else, cadets at military schools are inculcated with the attitude that there are few points of view not worth considering. This is in keeping with the soldierly notion that a practiced curiosity about the world around one is a valuable tool for the assurance of survival.

Whether Ginsberg may have been flattered to see so many military novitiates giving attention to his inflamed and pulsating lyrics is a hard question to answer, but what he could not have known is that there is always a certain percentage of cadets at any military school who would be happy to spit-polish their shoes and sit through damn near anything in order to escape the confines of barracks life. Indeed, those who chafed under the special strictures of disciplinary room confinement would have been well-versed in the sub-sub-clause of the regulation book which spelled out that attendance at any gathering termed a "cultural event" would serve as an authorized avenue of temporary respite from their in-house detention.

Which brings us to MIT professor of linguistics and anti-Americanism Noam Chomsky and the recent invitation extended to him to speak at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
One wonders whether, when Chomsky was limousined onto the grounds of the great citadel-upon-the-Hudson, he recalled his statement that the Pentagon is "the most hideous institution on this earth" and, if so, whether he made the connection that the Pentagon has always been run by those whose values were shaped at West Point and its fellow service academies. Did he view, then, West Point as the sanctum sanctorum of those "absolutely American" values - I quote Theodore Roosevelt here - for which he has spewed out so much venomous contempt over the decades?

From the news stories I read, Chomsky was treated with respectful courtesy by the four hundred or so cadets, faculty and local civilians who turned out to listen to his talk. Of course, I did not need to read the reports to know that he was not subjected to demonstrations, catcalls, jeers, interruptions, physical assault or any other rude behavior. This is the sort of treatment reserved for conservative speakers invited to speak at rich kids' schools such as Yale or Duke, if they are allowed onto campus at all.

Chomsky’s talk was along the usual lines: the American intervention in Iraq constitutes an unjust war, an act of aggression by the United States that most people in the world didn't support. It was as though the fact that Iraq had invaded Kuwait, the fact that Iraq had been thrown out of Kuwait by the United States, the fact that Iraq had been required to abide by terms of an armistice, and the fact that Iraq had violated the terms of that armistice on a wholesale basis were utterly irrelevant to the case.

It was as though the actions of American and British forces on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944 ought to be labeled as naked aggression, as though nothing that had happened in Europe between 1935 and 1944 were relevant.

There was one point that Chomsky made which was a change from his past statements. He claimed, as he often has, that before the events of December 7, 1941, American journals were publicizing American efforts to produce planes that could burn Japan's wooden cities to the ground. Chomsky has in the past stated, to the outrage of many, that these articles actually justified the attack on Pearl Harbor, in that it was essentially preventive in nature and thus equivalent to American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, at West Point he radically changed his "moral equivalence" tune: "Does that justify Pearl Harbor? Not in ten million years."

It’s not too difficult to imagine why Chomsky reversed course. A great deal of it may have to do with the fact that, in the last couple of years, all of the public statements he has made in trying to draw parallels between the events of the Second World War and current events have been subjected to thorough scrutiny and public attack by those who know more about military history than he does. An article published on, written by NYU linguistics professor Paul Postal, goes to great length to show that Chomsky’s claim with regard to Pearl Harbor is absurd and bears no relation to the facts.

On the other hand, maybe the Great Dissenter was advised by his booking agent to play to his audience so as not to endanger his speaker’s fee. After all, those thousands of dollars he was paid for a few hours of his time, invested in American corporations, as Chomsky is wont to do, could be put to profitable use.

Or maybe there’s one other possibility. Chomsky and his ilk talk a lot about standing up for their principles and speaking truth to power. Perhaps they do, but neither he nor his followers have ever put their lives on the line to do it. Their 'champs de bataille' are the classroom, the boulevard, and the public park.

At West Point, one can never escape the presence of those who have put their lives on the line, or are willing to do so. Such people study there, or teach there, or are buried there. It would be awfully difficult to stand before an audience of such people and tell them that America deserved to be subjected to craven and wanton attack.
And so it may just be that, on the hallowed plains of West Point, in the presence of true valor and unstinting heroism, Noam Chomsky finally lost his nerve.

Friday, April 14, 2006


We were present recently at a press conference called by MIT’s Department of Linguistics so that Professor Noam Chomsky could present findings in furtherance of his claim regarding the existence of the so-called ‘universal grammar’ – the idea that there is a structure common to all languages. The press conference was opened by a graduate student who made preliminary remarks before introducing the professor.

Student: Death to Amerika! We are pleased to present our illustrious professor, our sensei, our guru, our rinpoche, who will present further findings – unmistakeable proof, in fact – of the existence of universal grammar. And so, without further ado, Professor Chomsky…
(Applause noted as Chomsky approaches microphone.)
Chomsky: Thank you. Yes. Death to Amerika. Thank you. Please be seated. Due to certain criticisms, hardly justified, in my view, that the precepts of universal grammar cannot be categorically established based on a study of only one language – English – I have decided to make further research results known. Therefore I have selected three other languages, randomly chosen, and subjected them to careful review in order to reinforce that which is I think hardly necessary to have to state explicitly – indisputable proof of universal grammar. These languages exhibit – at least to the trained linguist, highly skilled in comparisons of this nature – what can only be described as a remarkable similarity across a broad number of fronts: not just vocabulary, but grammatical structures even down to a fairly narrow level. The conclusions are unmistakeable, although hardly surprising. We will leave copies of this study for your review.

Reporter 1: What were the three languages studied?

Chomsky: Quite frankly, it’s not that relevant. Any three languages would do as well.

Reporter 1: Yes, but just for the record…

Chomsky: Well, one of them was Danish.

Reporter 2: And the others…?

Chomsky: Uh…I think one of the other ones was possibly Norwegian.

Reporter 2: Norwegian? And the third?

Chomsky: (mumbles)

Reporter 1: What was that?

Chomsky: Swshish.

Reporter 2: Swshish?

Chomsky: Swedish.

Reporter 2: The three languages you studied in order to prove your notions of universal grammar were Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish? Aren’t those languages from the very same Northern sub-group of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family of languages?
Chomsky: I would hardly call them "the same" in any sense. Each of these countries has its own government, its own capital, its own currency, its own system of laws, its own tourist bureau. Clearly these are independent and autonomous nations, each with, in fact, its own official language: Danish, in the case of Denmark, Norwegian in the case of Norway, and, of course, Swedish in the case of Sweden.
Reporter 1: Well, what about Finnish? That language is spoken in Scandinavia as well. Why didn’t you include Finnish in your study? Was it because Finnish is very different in its grammatical structure from Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish?
Chomsky: A common misconception, which explains why we are reluctant to put this information into the public domain, as it is easily misunderstood. Finnish scarcely differs at all from the others except on the most superficial level. To give a simple example, it is possible to say, just as easily in Finnish as in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish, "The reindeer cross the fjords on the ice floes."
Reporter 2: So you are saying that, because each of these languages can express the same ideas, the languages are on some deep level, fundamentally the same?

Chomsky: It’s so obvious, one could hardly dispute it.

Reporter 1: So what is it that are you saying that "universality" in language actually is? Is it similarity of structure or is it the ability of languages to express the same ideas?

Chomsky: Yes.

Reporter 1: Yes, what?

Chomsky: Exactly.

Reporter 2: But wait a second. You couldn’t say, "The reindeer cross the fjords on the ice floes." in a sub-Saharan language such as, say, Zulu, because the concepts of "reindeer" , "ice floes" and "fjords" are unknown in that part of the world. Thus, Zulu can't be in the same 'language universe' as Finnish, now, can it?
Chomsky: Any speaker of the Zulu language worth his salt will look into his inner language faculty and call forth these words as needed.
Reporter 1: Wait a minute, Professor Chomsky. Wouldn’t it have been a fairer and more exacting study to show results among three languages such as…I don’t know, say, Zulu, Cantonese, and the Guatemalan language called Jacaltec?
Chomsky: I have no idea why you would suggest those choices, but perhaps you do.
Reporter 1: Well, because these languages are completely unrelated.

Chomsky: That’s still three languages, the same as in my study.

Reporter 1: Three very different languages, in my case.

Chomsky: At least my choices were random.

Reporter 1: Professor Chomsky, you could not have randomly chosen from all the thousands of languages in the world and come up with Danish, Swedish and Norwegian.
Chomsky: I find it amazing that you somehow know what my methods were. Your choices, on the other hand, seem to be based on some sort of pre-calculated geographical distribution scheme, motivated by who knows what. Hardly objective in any sense.
Reporter 2: But Professor Chomsky, obviously any study of universal grammar based on three wholly unrelated languages would be far more instructive than a study based on three languages which are closely related, no matter what method was used to choose them.
Chomsky: It is obvious, but hardly surprising, that the statements you make are characteristic of a so-called ‘liar liar’ and that your pants are, more or less relevant to the point, ‘on fire’.

Reporter 2: I am not a liar.

Chomsky: Are so.

Reporter 2: Am not.

Chomsky: Are so.

Reporter 2: Am not.

Chomsky: Are so.

(Student steps in front of microphone.)

Student: Don’t worry, Noam. I’ll take care of this. Gentlemen, now you see why we rarely make statements for public consumption. The general public, Amerikans in particular, are simply incapable of understanding concepts of theoretical linguistics at this level. This concludes our press conference. Death to Amerika!
An Anti-Chomsky article published by John Williamson on The Anti-Chomskyan Redoubt.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Comes the Revolution (Part Two)

A century ago there were many hundreds, perhaps a thousand or more professors of physics in the universities of the West. Many of these professors were famous, publicly expounding their theories of phlogiston and aether – substances which were believed to be in existence throughout the universe but which had not been confirmed.
At the same time that those professors were receiving great adulation and acclaim, a clerk working in a German patent office – a man in his twenties with no connection to academia – was quietly working out the theory of relativity. I don’t need to tell you his name – you and everyone you know already know it.
As for the professors who received so much acclaim in their time, they are now nearly all forgotten. This raises the obvious question: if they are not worthy of adulation now, why were they ever? The product which they had to offer – which is to say, their ideas as to how the universe worked – would in time, except in a very few cases, prove to offer nothing of lasting value. And yet they were given the salaries, the freedom from drudgery, and the prestige which eminent professors have always enjoyed. They insisted on these privileges because they assured their benefactors – the universities – that there would be a payoff which would benefit both the university and mankind.
Thus, the universities underwrote the bill for failure, which is the price which must be paid in the furtherance of fundamental knowledge. Even so, no one would say that this approach is unfruitful: Einstein was able to draw from the work of Ernst Mach and a few other scientist-professors in order to create order out of the chaos.
But how is this story of the development of physics fundamentally different from what we see now in the various departments of Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, Queer Studies, Peace and Justice Studies, and so forth, which David Horowitz catalogues in his book The Professors?
I would like to answer that question in this essay; but first, you’ll note that I used the term "product" in referring to the theories which the various physicists espoused.
That’s not an unreasonable use of that term. What Horowitz has done is to say, in effect, that education is a product, the same as any other. Information and facts constitute the raw materials of education and the job of the scholar-professor is to take this raw information and distill it and refine it in such a way that students can learn from it. The accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, then, are – or ought to be – distillations of information as opposed to distillations of personal opinion.
Assuming, then, that education is a product, let’s consider the cost of buying that product.
Take a class of thirty Ivy League students seated in a classroom awaiting an hour-long lecture. With a price tag of $40,000 per year per student, the total cost to educate those thirty students over four years will run to $4,800,000, or nearly $5,000,000. That’s somewhere between $3,000 and $4,000 per three-credit-hour class per student per semester.
Who is shelling out those millions? In some cases, the parents. In other cases, students take out loans. In many cases, scholarship money reduces the burden – scholarship money which comes, ultimately, out of the profits earned by donors which universities work so hard to lure.
All Horowitz is doing is asking this question: Why should a department of, say, "Social Justice" or "Queer Studies" be exempt from the same serious evaluation that any other producer of a product destined for the marketplace must undergo?
Who would spend $4,000 on legal fees without having a clear sense that the lawyer is qualified in his field of practice, that he is not simply spouting his personal opinion, but that he is using a thoroughly ingrained understanding of the law when he advises his client?
Who would want to use any professional service – that of a financial adviser, a doctor – even a car repairman – which operates under the premise that personal opinion is just as good a basis as any other from which to form an evaluation or develop a solution to a problem?
The benefit to be derived from spending fifty or sixty hours listening to a professor lecture on any given topic during the course of a typical semester – hours which are worth, again at the Ivy League level, $70 per student per class period – ought to be a benefit of measurable quality.
That’s not a controversial idea throughout most of the American economy, but it is an incendiary idea in some sectors of the university. Why, then, should Horowitz – or anyone, for that matter – be surprised that these professors would create a defense founded almost entirely on obfuscation, distortion and denial of the obvious? Corrupt institutions attract corruption. Intellectually corrupt institutions foster intellectual corruption. It wouldn’t be different from going back to a car repair place which ripped you off only to be met with a flurry of denials, a twisting of facts, and the refusal to look honestly at the record.
We all understand that there are dishonest car repairmen – always have been. But what Horowitz is trying to show is something which, though not entirely new, has not yet been fully realized by the buying public: that there are numerous universities which have outstanding reputations but which have added onto their rosters new departments and staffs which are, in effect, corrupt.
These are academic departments which exist not to produce towering works of genuine scholarship; rather, they exist to indoctrinate students into a self-perpetuating political system. Those who wish to study sociology and who advocate a "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" approach to social betterment would probably not find a warm welcome at many sociology departments around the country. On the other hand, if you are eager to see the expansion of government bureaucracies and hand-out programs, you may be just the kind of candidate they’re looking for.
What Horowitz is asking is this: if only one point of view is desirable, and the others are suppressed, where’s the scholarship? Where’s the battle of ideas which characterizes healthy academic departments? And if so many departments have ceased debating the fundamentals, have excluded opposing points of view, and have in effect excluded many professors capable of teaching alternate points of view, or the students to learn from them, then where’s the value for the parents who want their children to get the best possible education? Where’s the value for the donors who expect their money to be used for the furtherance of fundamental knowledge?
What Horowitz is saying to these constituencies of the university is ‘caveat emptor’. And ‘caveat donor’, for that matter.
Horowitz’ book, as it is discussed and reviewed, and as the ideas behind the Students for Academic Freedom campaign are discussed in more statehouses and on more editorial pages, will tap into one very powerful truth which no Ward Churchill, Angela Davis or bell hooks can wish away: that parents are, by and large, very competitive when it comes to furthering the interests of their children, and the fulfilling of their needs. Parents want to send their children to the most competitive and most prestigious schools they can. And no parent wants to be seen as a fool. Spending $160,000 and having one’s kid educated in "social justice" or "gender studies" is one thing. Having one’s friends, neighbors and relatives find out that these departments are staffed by individuals with dubious backgrounds, that they produce no scholarship of value, and that their kids learn almost nothing which has any value in the marketplace – well, that’s a whole ’nother kettle of fish.
Look at how important the U.S. News and World Report college rankings are: the rankings of private, public, undergraduate and graduate schools has become an industry. Why is that?
Because parents are competitive; but schools are competitive too, as are cities and states. If Horowitz’ book serves as an instigation for taking a systematic look at these programs – looking at where the graduates of these departments end up, the difficulties they have finding jobs, the little that they are in time able to give back to society and the university – such data will be far more effective in reining in or even eliminating these programs than will be the endless task of arguing with the professors currently ensconced in these departments.
And so I return to my original question: How is the story of the development of physics different from what we see now in the various departments of Women’s Studies, Gay and Lesbian Studies, and so forth?
The answer is that, since there is no real scholarship taking place in the latter, there can be no building towards an ‘ultimate theory’. The precepts of today are going to be the precepts of a generation from now: that minorities are sometimes discriminated against, that men create ‘patriarchal structures’, that gays and lesbians are not always recognized as people of worth, and that people with power sometimes misuse it.
If these truths are the great cornerstone precepts of academic departments such as Horowitz catalogues, then what is there to add to this? If there is no other point of view, and if there are no new precepts which can be discovered and pitted against the existing view, then by definition there is no scholarship going on.
To make an analogy, consider the subject called arithmetic. Everybody needs to know arithmetic, and its workings are logical and incredibly useful. And yet arithmetic is not a field of study, nor is it a college major, nor is it the subject of graduate research. This is because arithmetic is not merely well-understood, it is completely understood. There are no controversies about its basic workings, or the results it provides. Since there is nothing to add to its truths, nothing to debate about its workings, it is not a proper subject for research, and thus not a proper subject for university teaching. So it is with the basic precepts of these politicized courses and departments or, to be more precise, courses and departments which were created for the purpose of politicization.
The benefactors of great universities understand that they must underwrite a great deal of bad scholarship and research with the expectation that a few rare researchers will come up with some true breakthroughs which will move entire fields ahead. This is true in the hard sciences, the cognitive sciences, in engineering, and in the liberal arts as well. But in the sorts of fields that Horowitz writes about, the problem is not that there is a great deal of poor scholarship and a small amount of good. That would at least offer some justification for their continued existence. The problem is that, in fields where the fundamental precepts never change and cannot be challenged, there can be no scholarship at all going on. And if there’s no scholarship, there’s nothing there worth teaching.
The political truths which these departments espouse, if they are to change, will change through the political process. As Horowitz says, a course in ‘social justice’ ought to be taught by the organizers of the Democratic Party, not by a university academic department. To endlessly teach the same stagnant political precepts, as though this were scholarship, constitutes fraud.
And so when you tell the parents of the $160,000 students that their kids have been partying a bit too much for their own good, the parents will say, "I was a college student once. I know what it’s like to have a good time." If you tell the parents that their kids are doing C work when they are capable of A work, the parents will say, "I want a well-rounded kid."
But if the lady across the street, whose daughter is studying nuclear engineering at Cal Poly, shows her neighbor that her own daughter’s degree in Women’s Studies from Barnard College is being taught by ex-piano tuners and that the degree is worth minimum wage at graduation…well, like I said, nobody likes to be seen as a damn fool.
There is a joke going around: What can you do with a degree in ‘gender studies’? Answer: Teach ‘gender studies.’ Even that cannot hold true for long, as there can never be enough university teaching positions to accommodate all of the graduates in a given field. Some of them are going to have to sell their skills in the marketplace. And those who want to ‘change the world’ are going to find that the time they spent studying ‘Peace and Justice’ would have been far better spent earning a law degree.
The publication of The Professors has raised quite a stir. If you stand back and watch the furious battle between David Horowitz and supporters and those who attack him – many of them "the professors" named in the eponymous book – it will soon become obvious that the very professors who attack him are determined to ignore, thoroughly distort, or utterly reconfigure the words he writes, the claims he makes and the goals he espouses.
This has to be enormously frustrating, but contained in that frustration are the seeds of eventual victory; for the inability or unwillingness of the subjects of the book to discuss the issues honestly will not in the long run save them from themselves.
I liken the publication of The Professors to that of Unsafe at Any Speed, Ralph Nader’s historic indictment of the safety standards of the auto industry. The exposure of that industry’s willingness to put profits ahead of basic auto safety transformed the automobile industry, saved many lives, and made Nader into a bona fide hero.
Will any lives be saved if Horowitz’ ideas take hold? I think it would be more accurate to say that the thinking of a great many people will be affected, a number of careers will be altered, and a number of lives which might have been wasted in unprofitable pursuits will be channeled more productively. And that’s not a bad legacy for one book.
An Anti-Chomsky article published by John Williamson on The Anti-Chomskyan Redoubt.