A 'personal essay' on dichotomies like decadence vs. health, particularity vs. universality, subjectivity vs. objectivity, and misanthropy vs. 'philanthropy,' which uses Noam Chomsky as a symbol of the 'positive' side of these dichotomies and a device to help us avoid the negative. It's important to reject misanthropy and (generally speaking) decadence. Along the way are thoughts on intellectuals, postmodernism, empiricism, left-wing intolerance, etc.
Ninety years old and still going strong. Almost twenty years after the age when that other great left-wing public intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre was already utterly frail, uncommunicative, pliable in the hands of his handlers, and prone to haplessly spilling egg and mayonnaise on his face while eating, Noam Chomsky is still constantly giving interviews, traveling to distant countries to give talks on the political issues of the day, and in general is just as lucid as he always has been. It’s an unusual constitution that guy has.
A few years ago I wrote a long article about why I find Chomsky important, but I’m now embarrassed by that piece and unable to read it. Nor did it succeed in communicating what he has meant to me. So I thought that on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday I’d take another stab at it. A lot has been written about him, but little from the “personal” perspective I’ll adopt.
I’m well aware of Chomsky’s aversion to personalizing things, and to an extent I share his taste. There’s something inegalitarian about singling people out and praising them to the sky, something anti-democratic and anti-anarchistic about treating them as authorities (particularly if they’re perceived as nearly infallible). Even aesthetically one might object to doing so, if one prefers the coolly rational and objective aesthetic of classicism, of Bach and Mozart, the purity of a vision elevated above the spots and blemishes of the concretely existing. I’ve always much preferred the realm of ideas and perfection to that of personality and politics. It’s just so much cleaner, so much nobler and more sublime, timeless, transporting, this realm of philosophy, science, intellectual and art history, music from the Baroque and Classical eras, all things not merely time-bound or particular. The universal is what’s healthy; the particular slides into decadence.
But this is exactly why I can’t help but be fascinated by Chomsky. For he seems, at least from afar, to be a unique fusion of the particular and the universal, of personality and reason, a person who exists above the personal. I’ve never seen anyone so reluctant to say a word about himself or his private life, his personal grievances or feelings or experiences, so completely self-effacing that it’s hard even to believe he has a family or a life at all. He seems to be the disembodied voice of reason, compassion, and morality. I remember years ago jotting down some thoughts in my journal comparing him to certain other intellectuals, his antipodes:
For the last couple of hours I watched videos on YouTube of Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and such characters. It was almost an unreal experience. These people and evidently their circles were/are not ordinary, in the worst possible way. I was watching degenerates, narcissists, poseurs, boors, and bores. No doubt brilliant in their own diseased way. But I couldn’t help thinking I was in the electronic presence of personified decadence. Hitchens of course was the embodiment of sleaze, his whole being icky, greasy, slimy. Those are the adjectives that come immediately to mind when I look at him. The perfect emblem of this group of people, this whole literary cocktail-party subculture, would be a picture of Hitchens’ face in the midst of an attempted smile. A grotesque, false image. Pop culture meets pretentious intellectualism meets Roman homosexual orgies.
The essence is simple: with those people, as with most pop culture, I can feel myself being lowered—to the particular. With Chomsky, as with much classical music, I can feel myself being elevated—to the universal. It’s pollution versus cleanliness. Shiny pollution versus radiant cleanliness.
I can think of no one else as intellectually, morally, and humanly clean as Chomsky (or as his persona, at least). And we should all, I think, strive for such “cleanliness,” a concept, incidentally, that moral theorists might expound on for its pithiness and evocativeness.
In any case, while there are dangers in personalizing or in hero-worship, there can also be gains. And insofar as humans are oriented towards humans and not only abstract principles, personalizing can never be wholly escaped. From childhood onwards, we enjoy putting certain people on a pedestal and perhaps emulating them; and this can be a quite important means of self-development, of the youth’s sculpting of his own identity—in the likeness of his hero. Chomsky is wrong to dismiss—if he does—the importance of role-models, and of his own status as a role-model, in his conviction that each person should follow his own inner light, realize his creativity in his own peculiar way unencumbered by subordination to an authority. On this point, at least, Nietzsche was nearer the mark, for Nietzsche saw that sometimes to revere an “authority” can serve precisely to liberate, not to enslave:
Your true nature lies [he wrote], not concealed deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you usually take yourself to be. Your true educators and formative teachers reveal to you what the true basic material of your being is, something in itself ineducable and in any case difficult of access, bound and paralyzed: your educators can be only your liberators.
By fixing your gaze on a star and struggling to raise yourself to its height, you unwittingly find your way to your true self and perhaps, in the end, even become your own star, shining confidently apart from the distant celestial body you once worshiped. For it’s true you should never simply copy another; you should only use others to liberate yourself from the dreck and slime of your surroundings and finally, using what you have learned, “become who you are.”
Even Chomsky shouldn’t be followed everywhere. He may be the least decadent person in history, the least culturally polluted—“he’s a pencil-and-paper theoretician who wouldn’t know Jabba the Hutt from the Cookie Monster,” Steven Pinker has said—but sometimes a little decadence can be a good thing, can add depth and richness to life. To be as perfectly masculine, as rock-like, as Chomsky, nothing but the Enlightenment, can be limiting; there is also a place for the feminine, for, say, existentialism, phenomenology, popular music, dancing, receptiveness. And even Chomsky is just plain wrong from time to time. (For instance, he’s wrong to rarely mention particular left-wing organizations that could use donations or members.)
In the following, though, since it’s his birthday, I’ll focus on the positives.
In fact, to be blunt, with this article I’m in the myth-making business. Again as Nietzsche understood, human life has need of illusions and is even grounded in them. The necessary illusion of our own importance, of the great value of our own little contributions, of the very existence of oneself as a substantival self, some coherent and enduring entity called “Chris Wright” or whatever (an illusion Buddhists, and not only they, have recognized as such—but can nonetheless not fully escape)—these and other lies are in some sense ineluctable. Easier to escape is the lie of traditional religion, but we still need values despite the death of God. The death of the human species itself is now a glimmer on the horizon, and yet we still, somehow, have to ward off nihilism. In a time of monsters and “morbid symptoms” (to quote Gramsci), of triumphant relativism and mass degeneracy, we need an anchor. My thesis is that Chomsky can serve as that anchor.
“Some people say, ‘What would Jesus do?’” remarks Lawrence Krauss. “I say, ‘What would Noam do?’” Myths, by inspiring and vivifying, can help ward off the rot and decay that creeps underground and far above ground in the White House, to seize on the living and sap their will to resist.
Living in this society, many years ago I woke up to find myself hemmed in and threatened on all sides by mediocrity. And in myself too I was more than disconcerted to see layer upon layer of mediocrity. But it was mostly the external mediocrity that troubled me, because it seemed so over the top. Everywhere I looked I saw stupidity, irrationality, meanness, proud ignorance, thoughtless conformity, an impossible lack of empathy, self-deception, hypocrisy, status-worship, an unbelievable amount of flakiness—just try internet dating for a few years if you want to become a misanthrope or a misogynist—in general a world governed by assholishness and idiocy. And cowardice. So I retreated into my music, my reading, and my writing. I was comforted by thinking of Karl Marx, or reading Schopenhauer, Byron, Leopardi, Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Nietzsche, and many other writers who gave lyrical expression to existential dissatisfaction.
Let’s just reflect for a minute on how objectionable the human species is. Actually, one has only to think of two words to decide that insects are morally superior to humans: Nazism happened. But let’s leave that aside. The mundane indignities of life are more than enough to justify ambivalence toward the species. I’ve always been disturbed, for example, by what the phenomenon of “charisma” says about humans. What a primitive quality it is, or can be! Just look at Donald Trump, or any number of oafish alpha males: big body, big head, tall stature, loud voice, overflowing self-confidence (with or without deep insecurities), and…that’s it. That’s all you need to be an “alpha male,” and thus to dominate, have influence, be taken seriously, be popular with women, have power. Or think of the frat-boy type, hideously common in the spheres of business, finance, politics, law, sports, and entertainment. I’m reminded of Tucker Max, the superhumanly sleazy self-proclaimed asshole who’s made a career of being an asshole and advertising how popular his assholishness is with the ladies. What does it say about men that everyone recognizes this personality type? And what does it say about women that such an immense proportion of them are attracted to these jackasses?
Dumb brutes—even the intelligent ones, like (presumably) Brett Kavanaugh, are still just dumb brutes—and they’re popular and powerful. Humans are but apes, after all, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. In fact, when I’m feeling down about the species that’s how I cheer myself up: how astonishing it is that great apes have achieved what humanity has! We should be amazed by our talents, not by our amoral mediocrity, since what would you expect from a hairless ape except mediocrity?
But I’m not finished with the mediocrity yet. A few days ago I was in a car that grazed the door-handle of another car as it pulled out of a parking spot. We stopped to make sure there was no damage to either, and were about to leave when out of the other vehicle, originally hidden by tinted windows, stepped a gorilla of a man livid with murder in his eyes. “You bumped my car!” We apologized profusely and pointed out there wasn’t a scratch anywhere. No matter. He was inconsolable. So we left, lamenting that such creatures as this gorilla existed—by the millions.
“It’s mine! You can’t touch it!”
“Get away, this is private property!” “But I’m just eating a sandwich on the edge of this courtyard—the sidewalk is two feet away.” “It’s private property, you’re not allowed here.” The hostility and paranoia that suffuse the capitalist mind are pathetic to behold. Chomsky mentioned once that all his neighbors’ houses and cars were outfitted with alarms, in a neighborhood where the worst thing that had ever happened was that a pet cat ran away. (In Chomsky’s house, apparently, they didn’t even lock the door. My god, what recklessness!)
Wherever there is atomization, there is sickness. It might be the sickness of “Don’t step on my lawn!” or it might be the sickness of “Don’t blame me, I’m just following the rules.” Or the sickness of hating the Other—the Jew, the Muslim, the immigrant, the liberal—or of pursuing profit at the expense of workers, communities, the natural environment, and life itself. The manifestations of alienated atomization are infinitely varied, from the pointless, stupid honking of car horns in cities to the bureaucratic mass murder of “the unpeople” by the U.S. and its client states. I ought to be numb to it by now, but somehow whenever I encounter the sickness again, every day, I still shake my head at the cruelty and predictability of humans.
In general, I’ve lived much of my life in a state of resentment at the smallness of our species, the moral and intellectual smallness. There’s a cognitive and affective dissonance that arises when you spend a large amount of time immersed solitarily in “high culture,” overawed by the mysteries of life and the universe, by the grandeur and inconceivable beauty of the human brain, of existence itself, and then look up from your writing to see a world in which, say, the most embarrassing fools can become intellectual celebrities—Ayn Rand, Thomas Friedman, William F. Buckley, Ann Coulter, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson—or in which luck and subservience determine destiny, and rationality and courage are almost always punished. Not to mention the stupefying small-mindedness that, for example, sentences a teenager (black, of course) to 65 years in prison for having participated in a robbery when he was 15 that resulted in a police officer shooting his friend to death. Life comes to seem utterly picayune and pointless, the very opposite of majestic and beautiful, when it’s lived in such a world as this. A world in which the fate of millions can be determined by the merest accident, like a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that installs the reactionary Bush rather than the centrist Gore in the presidency. How can anything really matter in such a farcical, accidental world?
(Indeed, it’s an accident we still exist at all, considering how close we’ve come many times to terminal nuclear disaster.)
And then one starts to sympathize with, e.g., George Carlin’s nihilism and misanthropy. Late in his life, Carlin said the following in an interview:
We’re on a nice downward glide. I call it circling the drain. And the circles get smaller and smaller, faster and faster… And we’ll be gone. And that’s fine, I welcome it. I wish I could live a thousand years to watch it happen. From a distance, so I could see it all.
Interviewer: Does it depress you?
No, it lifts me up. It lifts me up because I gave up on this stuff. I gave up on my species and I gave up on my fellow Americans. Because I think we squandered great gifts… And that’s why I’m divorced from it now. I see it from a distance… I said, “George, emotionally you have no stake in this, you don’t care one way or another. So watch it! Have fun!”
It’s all a farce, so just enjoy the spectacle!
That’s the temptation, the “sinful” temptation. And it seems that many, many people have succumbed to it, have become wholly cynical and apathetic.
I might have succumbed to it too, feeling alone, disdainful, if it weren’t for my discovery of…yes, Chomsky. He helped prevent my “downward glide” into the depths of Carlinian cynicism. In finding someone who validated nearly all my instincts and intuitions, but who sharpened them and elevated them to a level of virtually complete objectivity, I felt both vindicated and somewhat forgiving of others’ faults. For it was clear that Chomsky was far above me in most respects, and yet was well-disposed toward humanity and hadn’t “lost faith”—so who was I to lose faith or wallow in disgust? I didn’t have the right to. And since then, Chomsky has served as a moral and intellectual guide—not an infallible one, but a pretty reliable one.
I suppose part of the explanation of my “hero-worship” is that I have a somewhat religious temperament, a mind oriented towards transcendence and desirous of objectivity, and I’ve never fully made my peace with the nonexistence of God. I’ve wanted objective confirmation of my worth—as we all do, only I was especially preoccupied with the ideal of objectivity or truth. Simply living in the world wasn’t enough; I wanted to transcend it, to penetrate mere appearances and understand, or even coincide with, something timeless and absolute. Something like “God.”
To say it in more mundane language, perhaps the only thing I find fundamentally interesting is objectivity or rationality. Or truth. Error and mere subjectivity are everywhere, predictable and boring. People are so certain of themselves, and they’re so wrong, it becomes difficult to take them seriously. But a genuine commitment to rationality, and an ability to follow through, to be consistently logical, open-minded, reasonable, concerned only to know truth even at the expense of “fitting in”—this quality is rare and precious.
For these reasons, I found it more than refreshing to come across Chomsky. He was, as Lawrence Krauss said or implied, the closest approximation to something transcendent or to pure reason that humans could hope for. In a world of rampant and rampaging self-indulgence, here was someone totally disciplined, fanatical about evidence, virtually masochistic in his devotion to principle, embodying moral and intellectual integrity in apparently every act and every utterance, a warm and kind person, and on top of it all, a genius with few peers in history who was right about seemingly everything. I felt that, well, if homo sapiens is capable of Nazism, at least it’s also capable of Chomsky.
He was the anti-capitalist, the anti-Milton Friedman, opposite of all things pop-cultural and postmodern, completely unpretentious and democratic, willing to answer even the most idiotic emails I sent him. I was impressed by the capacious humanity evidently possessed by someone who had spent thousands of hours writing letters and emails to people all over the world, who in his long life had seen everything humans have to offer but remained cheerful and, on some level, idealistic. In fact, he was so idealistic, so committed to upholding human dignity, that he seemed reluctant even to entertain negative thoughts about humanity. I was struck, for instance, by reading (somewhere) that he rejected the common interpretation of the infamous Milgram experiment, as showing that people tend to be slavishly obedient to authority. An equally plausible interpretation, he said, is just that the experimental subjects were acting rationally, on the best information available to them at that moment. Why not trust the guy in charge?
And so the more I familiarized myself with Chomsky’s perspectives, the more I was able to “problematize” (to use a fashionable postmodern word) my jaundiced notions. I had always been torn between Marxian optimism about people and Nietzschean or Schopenhauerian pessimism, being attracted both to the critique of capitalism and to the ancient critique of humans themselves, going back not only to Plato but even the Pre-Socratics (Heraclitus, for example) and beyond. It was, and is, kind of fun to be contemptuous, and intellectuals throughout history have found the pleasures of contempt irresistible. (No doubt in part because they think they lack the recognition or power they deserve.) But here, in Chomsky, was someone who, even more than Marx, rejected cynicism and misanthropy with scientific consistency—despite being reviled, calumniated, the target of every conceivable lie, and constantly bombarded by sheer stupidity, repetitive questions, audience hostility, heckling, willful misunderstanding, etc. So the “philanthropic” side of my nature was strengthened in its war against the misanthropic.
I know all this praise sounds effusive and embarrassing, but I did warn you that this article is in the Nietzschean business of myth-making. (Cf. the Übermensch.) And yet how false or exaggerated is the picture I’m painting? Somewhat, certainly, but not wildly so. You can test it by reading Chomsky’s books and watching his interviews.
The sparkling objectivity and impersonality of Chomsky’s analyses leads to one of his greatest contributions, his making a science, so to speak, of leftist philosophy. Marx, in a sense, had already accomplished this, but Marx made mistakes in his predictions and was a bit analytically sloppy on key questions (as I explain here—though you should disregard the oversimplified summary at the top of the page). Chomsky, in essence an anarchist Marxist, dropped the ideological baggage of Marxism but implicitly kept most of the theoretical framework—which, after all, is just common sense, insofar as class struggle, conflictual relations of production, the capitalist state, imperialism, and other basic concepts can hardly be denied except by vulgar ideologists. The factually rigorous interpretations of politics that Chomsky gave, backed up by overwhelming detail and an apparent command of almost the entire scholarly and journalistic literature, were and are of immense utility in substantiating the claim that to be on the far left is not just to be ideological or biased; it is to be scientific and rational, if the values you hold include democracy, human freedom, and human welfare. I had sometimes wondered if I was too left-wing; Chomsky convinced me I wasn’t nearly left-wing enough, nor consistent enough.
As I suggested earlier, there was something else I appreciated about Chomsky’s Olympian objectivity, or his focus on institutions rather than individuals: I loved the aesthetics of it. For one thing, I liked the withering contempt it expressed for functionaries of power, media figures, and intellectuals. Occasionally Chomsky would directly state what he thought of most intellectuals, as when calling them “specialists in defamation,” or the American intellectual community a “gang of frauds,” or the liberals at The American Prospect “pathetic, frightened, cowardly little people”; but ordinarily it was just the tone of savage irony, and the refusal to treat most intellectuals as anything more than expressions of institutional interests—not people to be taken seriously in their own right—that made clear his attitude (which also happened to be mine, based on what I had seen of academia).
And he was exactly right, both morally and scientifically. It’s an obvious point that goes back to Marx: social behavior is overwhelmingly constrained by institutional context. Nearly everyone internalizes the norms appropriate to his institutional location—intellectuals maybe even more so than most, since they’re more educated and therefore more indoctrinated. So their self-expressions tend just to be sublimated expressions of power-structures and hierarchies, institutional jealousies and conflicts, often mere class interests or rationalizations of class interests. When interacting in academic contexts, I’ve frequently had the uncanny feeling that I’m not talking to a person so much as to a node in the network of institutional norms. An institutional automaton, so to speak. There were limits to what I could say: for instance, if I mentioned Chomsky or Norman Finkelstein, or if I said some critical words about Foucault or some other postmodernist hero, the atmosphere grew a little tense and uncomfortable. “Chomsky lacks academic bona fides,” I would be told. Or (after asking why Chomsky is rarely mentioned among scholars of Latin America) “Chomsky just borrows from scholars without producing original research,” or something along those lines. It was clear that these remarks were mere rationalizations of the desire to ignore him—since, after all, he draws on every conceivable source and puts forward compelling interpretations—and that what was really being said was “He’s not one of us, so we don’t mention him. But I’ll forgive you this time because you’re new.” It was interesting, in any case, to realize that at that moment I was talking to an institution, not a person.
As for the morality of it, well, to the extent that one lets one’s humanity be submerged underneath institutional norms, one is abdicating responsibility and ceasing to be a moral agent. It becomes perfectly legitimate, then, to treat such a person as “beneath contempt,” to use a term Chomsky is fond of.
But there was another aspect of the aesthetics of objectivity that I liked: as I said above, I appreciated the absence of any hint of cultural decadence. This was not a minor consideration. For whatever reason, for a long time my antennae have been hyper-attuned to indications of decadence. I’ve always thought, for example, that the greatest and healthiest music ever written was during the era of Bach to Schubert: after Beethoven and Schubert, decline set in—enervation, emotionalism, romanticism, self-indulgence, excess, stupefaction, a lack of discipline, etc. This isn’t to say I don’t love an enormous amount of Romantic music, from Chopin to Rachmaninoff; but I know it isn’t as spiritually healthy or creatively disciplined as Mozart and Beethoven. And with the twentieth century—impressionism, atonalism, Mahler, Stravinsky, and then eventually the indeterminacy of John Cage, and minimalism, and all the academic noise-crap that gets written today by classical composers—things got truly, repulsively decadent. There was still some great music, but it was on a lower order of greatness than the Holy Trinity Bach-Mozart-Beethoven.
I could discuss whole swathes of culture, from philosophy to poetry, explaining how and why there was a decline from the vigor of the eighteenth century (and Marx, its disciple) to the lassitude and fragmentation of the twenty-first, but that would take me rather far afield. The point is that Chomsky, the last great Enlightenment thinker, was the most significant exception to this trend of ever-increasing decadence. He struck me in fact as the most purely autonomous person ever, impervious to unhealthy influences or impulses.
Philosophically, for instance, I was pleased to see my contempt for behaviorism validated by two brilliant essays, the famous 1959 review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior and a lesser-known critique of Skinner that appeared in Chomsky’s For Reasons of State. From the first moment I had come across behaviorism, the notion of interpreting humans and all animals in terms of stimulus and response, conditioning, reinforcement, and so on struck me as ludicrously impoverished. Empiricism in general, the tradition emanating from John Locke and David Hume, who deprecated the rich innate endowment of the human mind in favor of interpreting it as virtually a passive absorber of sense-impressions and the like, I was never able to take seriously. It was just too contrary to common sense, and too scientifically primitive.
More clearly “decadent,” though, was the whole “paradigm” of postmodernism that Chomsky has consistently rejected, and that actually has some connections to the empiricism he has fought against his whole life. This isn’t the place for a systematic discussion of postmodernism, so hopefully I’ll be forgiven if I just refer passingly to its general thrust of interpreting the world, in the vein of empiricism and idealism, as formed and structured by “discourses,” “vocabularies,” “epistemes,” “imaginaries,” social constructions, mutually incommensurable and incommunicable paradigms, and other such idealistic notions. I’ve never been able to understand why intellectuals and activists who operate in this tradition can consider themselves to be exemplary leftists, since the leftist tradition has for a long time been associated with materialism. Its goal has been to change the objective world that constrains us, the institutions that govern our behavior, and thus the class structures that allocate resources. What’s so radical or transformative about withdrawing into the spheres of literary and cultural theory? What’s so radical about relativism, the denial of objective truth, a focus on subjectivity, denial that natural science can give us access to the nature of the mind-independent world, denial that there even is a mind-independent world? Doesn’t that tend to imply that power and oppression are only in the mind, that they aren’t objectively real, and so that people can free themselves from oppression if they only change how they think and talk?
But that, of course, is the point. The idealism serves two purposes: it allows intellectuals to pretend they’re important, since they’re the ones who produce the ideas and discourses that supposedly constitute reality; and it takes attention away from things that matter in the real world, like wages, working conditions, the natural environment, and living conditions, thus serving the interests of business. So the whole postmodern paradigm is allowed and encouraged to become culturally dominant, and colossal sums of money are directed to fund “research” in these academic fields. It certainly is no coincidence that the era of the triumph of postmodernism was the era of the triumph of conservatism.
It’s also worth noting that, as György Lukács describes in his masterpiece The Destruction of Reason, an idealism and relativism quite similar to the spirit of postmodernism pervaded German culture, and European culture generally, in the early twentieth century, and did much to prepare the ground for fascism—which itself was an idealistic and relativistic ideology and movement. So the postmodernists aren’t in great company.
Wherein consists the decadence of postmodernism? In brief: (1) its frequently obscurantist and impenetrable prose, which serves to give the impression of incredible profundity and also protects writers from criticism (since “you’re misunderstanding them!”); (2) its navel-gazing subjectivism and focus on language or terminology (or subjective identities, one’s relationship with one’s body, etc.), which discourages active, confident, productive engagement in/with the real world; (3) its agenda to deconstruct, tear down, “problematize,” refute, fragment, rather than confidently create and synthesize; (4) its relativism, pessimism about the possibility of mutual understanding—or even the existence of meaning itself—and ultimately its nihilism; (5) its supposed hyper-sophistication, its cynicism, its weariness with all the great philosophies and achievements of the past, which is the opposite of a healthy, youthful, strong naïveté; (6) its fetish of the particular over the general; (7) its extreme pretentiousness, which dresses up simple ideas in over-inflated, turgid prose and presents truisms as if they’re important discoveries; (8) its rejection of commonsense realism and the very notion of objectivity or truth; (9) its intellectual sloppiness and many self-contradictions (e.g., “[it’s objectively true that] there is no objective truth”); (10) its cloistered, elitist, hyper-academic nature; (11) its political cowardice, as in its refusal to confront class-structures; (12) its lack of seriousness and urge to just fecklessly play (with words, concepts, images, collages—bricolage); (13) its goal to provoke for the sake of provoking, to be outrageous for the sake of being outrageous, and in the end to just garner attention for oneself because nothing else matters in a world in which nothing matters. Etc. ad nauseam. Postmodernism is the very apotheosis of decadence, the kind of thing that happens just before the world ends.
So Chomsky has generally ignored it. And even this reaction is the healthiest and least decadent possible, because postmodernism is so obviously rotten, so clearly masturbatory, so vitiating, so polluted with intellectual, aesthetic, and moral vice, and in the end so unimportant compared to the crimes constantly being committed by the state and the business community, that one might as well focus on something else, something that truly matters. Just ignore these intellectuals as the self-promoting parasites and poseurs they are.
I’ve also appreciated Chomsky’s tendency to ignore another symptom of decadence: postmodern feminism, queer theory, gender theory, all the discussion of sexuality and bodies and so on that proliferates among liberal and leftist academics and activists. Practically the only time he ever acknowledges feminism is when describing progress that has been made since the 1960s. And he’s right, of course: the progress that has been made in women’s rights and sexual equality, as in gay rights, in the last two generations is of immense importance, and has had a civilizing effect on the culture. Moreover, this sort of activism remains urgent, as states roll back abortion rights, a conservative majority exists on the Supreme Court, the Trump administration tries to make it more difficult for sexual assault survivors to speak out, etc. Feminism will always be of great moral significance, because there will always be room for improvement in relations between the sexes.
But the specifically postmodernist aspects of contemporary feminism are of far less moral importance than the general goal to empower women. In fact, there’s an enormous amount of intellectual confusion, shallow thinking, self-deception, and hypocrisy among feminists. I’ve discussed the matter here, and won’t delve into it now. Suffice it to say that, for most feminists, the idealistic mantra “Social constructions!” substitutes for thought, and for open-minded perusal of the relevant scientific and psychological literature—not all of which (to say the least) supports favored politically correct dogmas. The radical empiricism of postmodern feminism, according to which the minds of males and females are a blank slate at birth onto which social expectations are written—such that genes, hormones, brain structures and such make no contribution to the differences in behavior and psychology between men and women—is extremely primitive and scientifically illiterate.
But it’s an example of a very common and unfortunate human tendency: the tendency to believe something not on the basis of evidence but simply because one wants to believe it. Most people evidently are prone to thinking on the level of “I like” and “I don’t like,” not “The evidence suggests…” They think according to value-judgments, not disinterested investigation of evidence. This explains how religious belief can be so widespread despite being irrational and absurd: people want to believe in God, so they do. This phenomenon is such a “fundamental dishonesty and fundamental treachery to intellectual integrity,” to quote Bertrand Russell, that I find it hard to understand. But it’s present everywhere, among feminists, conservatives, liberals (“Obama was a great and moral president!”—despite his drone terrorism campaign, aggressive deportation of immigrants, refusal to prosecute bankers, slavish support of Israel, refusal to bail out homeowners after the 2008 crash, support for the 2009 military coup in Honduras, relatively meager actions on climate change, catastrophic intervention in Libya, support for dictators all over the world, and generally his abject subservience to the oligarchy that runs the U.S.), free-market fundamentalists, Leninists, and so forth.
Regarding Leninism, for instance, Chomsky is right to criticize both the theory and the practice (before, during, and after the Russian Revolution). Recent scholarship, such as that of Christopher Read and Orlando Figes, validates the old criticisms of Lenin by anarchists, left-Marxists like Rosa Luxemburg, and Chomsky himself, in showing how Lenin ended the experiments with workers’ control of factories in 1917 and established dictatorial control over the state and society. One can argue that he had to, given the conditions that prevailed; but it’s striking that his undemocratic, semi-Blanquist practice was wholly consistent with his earlier ideas, his vanguardism and elitism. But even apart from this, there is something at least prima facie odd in still worshiping and looking for profound lessons from a figure, or figures, who dealt with conditions that could hardly be more different from the U.S. in the twenty-first century. What does Russia in 1917 (and earlier, when Lenin was formulating his ideas) have in common with the U.S. in 2018? Why not stop obsessing over how Lenin seized power in a shattered late-feudal, early-capitalist country, or what his strategies were to seize power in such a country, and instead focus on conditions and problems that confront us now?
One other point about feminists, and many other young leftists today: conservatives’ criticisms of their totalitarian tendencies are not wholly off the mark. Free speech is, after all, an important value, however much feminists and others might not want to hear things that hurt their feelings. To give a trivial personal example: I was once invited to give a talk on worker cooperatives at a university, but the invitation was rescinded after some students came across the page on feminism I linked to above. They were offended, you see, by what they had read. I found the incident more amusing than anything, but it was a little disconcerting to have it vividly confirmed to me that even the sorts of obvious truths and mild provocations they had read are considered beyond the pale, so much so that it’s necessary to cancel a talk on a completely unrelated subject. Nothing less than absolute uniformity of thought is permitted.
Such censorship, incidentally, has an ironic similarity to the functioning of hierarchical institutions. In institutions, at least, one can argue there’s some necessity to conform fairly rigidly; otherwise the institution might break down. But leftists should be more careful about persecuting people, or refusing to listen to them, just because they don’t subscribe wholeheartedly to the party line.
Again, though, Chomsky’s attitude is right: however stupid and immoral the totalitarian intolerance of young leftists might be—and also self-defeating, because it risks alienating people who basically share their values and want to fight for a better society—the threat to free speech posed by such people is so minuscule compared to the colossal suppression of truth and free speech by government and the corporate media that it makes no sense to focus on the silly young leftists. Unless, of course, you’re as unprincipled as, say, Nicholas Kristof.
Moreover, Chomsky’s general reluctance to criticize the left, especially as compared with the fierce criticisms he levels against dominant groups, is precisely right. “The most important word in the language of the working class is ‘solidarity,’” Harry Bridges said. Privately, yes, one should criticize the actions or beliefs of fellow leftists if that might have a constructive effect. But one should be wary of making severe public criticisms, since that might serve only to foment resentment and thereby fragment and undermine the left. No living leftist better exemplifies solidarity than Chomsky. (On this point, he is far superior to the sectarian Marx.)
To sum up, Chomsky has been able to avoid all the decadence that has afflicted intellectual and cultural life for well over a hundred years. I have yet to come across instances in his writings and talks of sloppy thinking, intellectual dishonesty, a lack of commitment to principle, or the groupthink and status-consciousness that determine how virtually all “intellectuals” (and, in fact, nearly all people) think, write, and act. How common it is for people to take something seriously just because it’s taken seriously by others! Or to act in a certain way only because others do, and condemn those who act or think differently. Instead, one should step outside one’s own little subjectivity, one’s personal feelings and impulses, and evaluate every thought and act in the light of cold reason and warm compassion.
Another unusual quality of this Übermensch I’m over-praising is that he doesn’t waste words. His manner of speaking and writing is notably pithy and economical—which sounds odd, since he’s famously long-winded. He talks and talks, and could probably talk for days, until he collapsed from inanition, just following a train of thought where it led him. In general, though, every word seems necessary, every sentence furthers the argument or usefully illustrates it with examples. This economy of expression is, to put it mildly, unusual among intellectuals. As among everyone else. People love to hear themselves talk, and they’ll frequently talk for the sake of talking. It’s a phenomenon readily observable during most kinds of “meetings” (of activists, for example), academic seminars, and question-and-answer sessions during talks (in which audience members asking their questions frequently expatiate unnecessarily, and often incoherently, on all manner of topics, until the moderator has to interrupt them).
Again, I’m led back to the theme of decadence, and of particularity vs. generality. People are immersed in themselves: when talking at great length unnecessarily, they’re being self-indulgent, unempathetic, undisciplined, and just plain stupid. (Stupidity is utterly immersed in itself, whereas intelligence incorporates others. Particularity vs. generality.) In communicating, one should try to stick to the point. Even more importantly, one should have a point.
Chomsky’s practice in this respect holds some lessons for academics. He doesn’t describe for the sake of describing, recounting things that happened just because it’s interesting to tell stories or to probe the experiences of people from certain analytical perspectives (the perspectives of gender, race, sexuality, or whatnot). While there is value in doing so, in the manner of social historians for example, he prefers to take a more scientific approach to the study of society. As he says in this interview (near the end), if your goal is to explain, rather than just to describe, you have to apply general principles to particular phenomena and try to explain the latter in terms of the former. You don’t simply wade around in the particularity and remain on that level; and you certainly don’t celebrate the particular for its own sake, as postmodern scholarship—which rejects general principles like class conflict as either oversimplifications or of no special priority—often does. The whole point of science is to simplify, to explain the chaotic mess of reality in terms of simple principles like Boyle’s Law or Newton’s laws of motion. You abstract from complicating factors and isolate dominant forces; then you try to account for unexplained factors by using secondary principles, and so on. Throughout, the point is to test the general idea, not to say, in effect, “Reality is incredibly complex, but here are various ways of describing it and interpreting it (using gender, race, sexuality, class, individual psychology, etc.).”
Chomsky isn’t wrong when he says—while admitting that the picture he’s presenting is overdrawn—“Humanistic scholarship…says every fact is precious; you put it alongside every other fact. That’s a sure way to guarantee you’ll never understand anything. If you tried to do that in the sciences, you wouldn’t even reach the level of Babylonian astronomy.”
As I’ve explained in this essay, in the case of society, the dominant principle has to be class conflict. Or historical materialism more generally. Of course, society is different from nature: it’s not deterministic. So the “science” is of a different character than physics, and the explanatory principles are of a different character than Newton’s laws of motion. Still, the people who criticize Chomsky or Howard Zinn or Marx for being reductivist, oversimplifying, partisan, etc. are wide of the mark. The truth is that it’s the establishment intellectuals who are being far less scientific than the “partisan” leftists, because the latter recognize how science, or understanding, works. It isn’t “neutral.” It is grounded in “reductivist” principles.
A new book by the respected liberal historian Jill Lepore serves to illustrate the point. These Truths: A History of the United States has received the usual acclaim that establishment writers get, and in many ways it is an impressive achievement. But not as providing a framework of explanation for U.S. history. Insofar as the narrative is guided by general ideas at all, they’re the wrong ideas. “The United States rests on a dedication to equality, which is chiefly a moral idea, rooted in Christianity, but it rests, too, on a dedication to inquiry, fearless and unflinching.” “The American experiment rests on three political ideas…political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people.” It’s the tiresomely conventional liberal idealism, which, incidentally, is grounded in value-judgments just as much as Zinn’s People’s History of the United States is. Lepore has given the usual criticisms of Zinn, that he simply reverses old value-judgments about the gloriousness of America, a reversal that, analytically, “isn’t an advance; it’s more of the same, only upside-down.” She fails to see that her own history is just a more subtle return to the narrative about how great and unique “the American experiment” is. She acknowledges that lots of bad things have happened in U.S. history, but then immediately qualifies this admission by saying it’s true of every other country too (which it is). And then the next sentence: “But there is also, in the American past, an extraordinary amount of decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition, and much, especially, of invention and beauty.” This sentence isn’t followed by acknowledgement that the same value-judgment is true of other countries, because Lepore, as a good patriotic liberal American, still implicitly subscribes to the old notion of American exceptionalism (which Zinn, being a deeper thinker, rejected—and this was an “analytical advance”). Her agenda is to celebrate the U.S.—to defend it against “critics” like Zinn—as a French historian might celebrate France, a British historian might celebrate Britain, etc. There isn’t much explanatory value in this sort of patriotic narrative history.
I’d also note, in defense of Zinn, that it isn’t true he does “nothing but” criticize the United States, as Lepore says. As a serious thinker, unlike Lepore, he knows that the very idea of criticizing the United States is meaningless, since the United States isn’t a single coherent entity. Being a nation, it’s an artificial construction that has innumerable dimensions. Zinn criticizes the U.S. government; he celebrates the American people, especially those who have resisted oppression. He has a far more sophisticated analytical method than a Lepore.
One of the reasons for his sophistication is that he doesn’t adopt a naïve idealism that tries to “explain” history using principles that aren’t robust enough to really explain anything. He uses truly explanatory principles, which, like a scientist would, he tests by deeply exploring the past. These “principles” amount to the single, commonsense statement that Chomsky makes in the film Requiem for the American Dream: “The history of the United States is a constant struggle between these two tendencies: pressure for more freedom and democracy coming from below, and efforts at elite control and domination coming from above.” It’s a history of power struggles, which amounts to a history of class conflict (including racial and other forms of conflict, conditioned in myriad ways by class). This is a realistic and substantive hypothesis that provides a framework of understanding, and that is backed up by a colossal body of world historiography.*
Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs has devastatingly criticized Lepore’s book, pointing out that it mostly ignores the history of working-class struggle, among other things that are central to the American story. But this is what happens when you don’t have much of an overall point except to tell particular stories that you rather arbitrarily judge to be important. If you lack a weighty analytical anchor, you lose your way.
I’ve always found it ironic that the idealists, whether liberal, conservative, or postmodernist, are bad at ideas, far worse than the materialists.
The fact is that you don’t need the endless verbiage of academics, the (usually hyper-specialized) books and articles ad infinitum, in order to understand the world. Essential truths can be expressed in a few words, as Chomsky shows. You state the hypotheses, and then you provide the factual documentation. Of course, we intellectuals have to get our paychecks, so it’s necessary for us to constantly come up with new research proposals and new stories to tell for their own sake, and to discuss and discuss unendingly in conferences and so forth, repeating and slightly reformulating old insights or “problematizing” them for the sake of problematizing them, pompously “theorizing” and pontificating, but little of our activity has much of a ‘scientific’—and certainly not a moral—payoff. It’s just how the institutions work, and how the political economy keeps educated people occupied who might otherwise spend their time on dangerous pursuits like challenging power-structures.
This article has gotten longer than I anticipated, but there are a couple more points I want to make before putting an end to the “endless verbiage” to which I’m subjecting the reader.
When reading Chomsky’s works or watching his interviews, I sometimes come across a startling statement that first elicits the reaction “What the…?”, which is momentarily followed by “Hm, that makes sense.” And then I envy the mind that was independent enough to have come up with the idea on its own.
I remember reading in Understanding Power that when some Vietnamese refugees in Canada had burned Chomsky’s books he wasn’t bothered by it. It’s a reasonable form of protest, he said (as long as it isn’t done by governments or corporations). Having been indoctrinated by writers of books into thinking that books are sacred, that book-burning is always a barbaric act, for a moment I was surprised. But then I thought, “Sure, why not? What’s so terrible about burning a few copies of books if you think they’re bad books? It’s not like you’re burning every copy. It’s just a symbolic statement. It’s free expression!” Most other authors would have been outraged at a bonfire of their books, but Chomsky doesn’t take things personally. Abstract principles are what matter.
More recently, I was struck by his statement in this video (at 31:44) that “the concept of debate is one of the most irrational inventions that human beings have come up with.” Huh? “Just think about what a debate is. The ground rules for a debate are you’re not allowed to change your mind. You’re not allowed to say to the person you’re talking to, ‘oh, that was an interesting idea, why don’t we pursue it?’ It’s just the height of irrationality…” As he elaborates, you realize he’s basically right. Personally, I’m too much a product of my society, too groupthinking and conformist, to have had the thought on my own. I’ve always wished I were a better debater. But yes, surely the main reason debates happen at all is that ego and questions of power are involved. (Or the debate can be a game, a competition.) If it were only a question of reason, we would have open-minded conversations, not debates.
I now try never to automatically accept seemingly reasonable cultural ‘constructs,’ but instead to critically examine every value and idea I’m pressured to accept. It’s a hard thing to do consistently. But even ideas I’ve come to on my own I try to periodically challenge yet again, to see if they still make sense in the light of new experiences.
In the end, it’s this (relative) absence of ego that sets Chomsky (relatively) apart. He obsesses over politics not because he enjoys it—he surely finds it as dreary as I do—but because, given his abilities, he has a duty to. I think we all could be a little more conscious of our duties to each other, insofar as we subscribe to the Golden Rule (as we should). Duties to be kind, to answer emails, to not be too quick to judge harshly, to imagine ourselves in the other person’s shoes, to give people the benefit of the doubt while yet taking a clear stand when certain moral lines have been crossed, and in general to strive for relative selflessness (because that is intellectually, aesthetically, and morally elevated).
It’s easy to be misanthropic and nihilistic, but there’s something a little self-indulgent, even decadent, about that. A more “clean” and virile response is to recognize the horrendous evils and absurdities of the world, indeed to take them for granted, but to imagine oneself as an objectively detached being who is committed, no matter what, to realizing certain universal values. Nothing can make you stray from your path. However stupidly and disgustingly people act, you continue to act kindly and respectfully because it’s a principle you’re committed to, your own categorical imperative. You keep working to improve the world in whatever small ways you can, because that’s the law you’ve given yourself. You try not to emotionally dwell on the negative, since there’s so much of the negative in the world that you’ll end up in suicidal despair. You remember there is also plenty of the positive, and the only healthy thing is to increase the aggregate amount of the positive.
In a sense, don’t take the world seriously. Don’t take the farce, or the “freak show,” as George Carlin called it, seriously. We’re here for a few decades, can observe and try to mitigate the freak show for a few decades, and then vanish into the oblivion from whence we came. Nothing really makes sense, not our existence and, especially, not what we’ve collectively done with our existence. The brutal Chomskian irony/sarcasm is appropriate. But you still make of life what you can, do what you can to live in a healthy way, not being surprised or overly depressed by all the cruelty and absurdity but impressed by the many positive qualities you encounter.
Nietzsche’s amor fati is perhaps unattainable, but Chomsky’s stoicism and good humor are the next best thing.
In short: happy birthday, Noam, and may you have many more.
* But you really only need to read one book in order to get the rudiments of an education: Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that, together with its extraordinary footnotes, this may be the greatest book ever published in the fields of political philosophy and political science. I think it also suggests one of the reasons that intellectuals loathe Chomsky: he knows and understands so much more than they, despite lacking all professional credentials in these fields, that his existence is something of an embarrassment. Even worse, it’s hopeless to argue against him. All you can do is smear him.