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, FrontPageMagazine.com, September 29, 2004