A common complaint from lay observers of controversies in science and politics is “I just don’t know who to believe!” This has been my consistent position on the moral and academic credibility of Noam Chomsky for a long time. He’s a very divisive character, with opposing sides suggesting (depending on your politics) that he’s either a moral prophet and truthsayer or a crypto-communist anti-semite. For this reason, one of the number one unspoken rules of the internet is not to start a debate about Chomsky.
Just as everyday we’re bombarded with contradictory perspectives on an array of topics, the formula for sorting truth from opinion is actually fairly simple once you commit to it: hard research and reflection.
No one should take Alan Dershowitz at his word, nor for that matter Noam Chomsky. Where there are credentials at stake and no reliable independent source the only way to evaluate an individual, theory or assertion is to check the sources, read the relevant data in context, appeal to sound rules of thumb when necessary, and open your provisional conclusions to feirce scrutiny.
This process is dialetical, meaning it’s not simply enough to take a thesis and antithesis and discover a synthesis. The synthesis itself becomes a new thesis equally open to criticism. The case of the credibily of Chomsky is especially annoying, as many of the criticism of him have dozens of back and forth rebuttals with references to whole books.
Yet it can be done. A dialetical approach to epistemology is never “complete” per se, yet one does reach a point where the provisonality of truth becomes but a technical footnote. I consider this to be one of the most balanced deconstructions of the Chomsky-Cambodia controversy I’ve ever read, and it coheres with my own reading.
My conclusions are the following: Chomsky is an ideologue who often bends interpretations to his favour, and has been very dishonest on issues like Cambodia. Far from offering guidance on “elementary morals” his work is underguilded by a fairly “alternative”/”revisionist”/”fringe” view of American history that should be met with skepticism, and which leads to the systematic indictment of America in many things where right and wrong is actually more ambiguous. Yet being an ideologue doesn’t make you necessarily wrong about anything or everything. Where Chomsky has been very wrong, it’s been for misrepresenting information or simply making things up. Everything else that I disagree with him on stems from divergent values or philosophies that don’t necessarily imply deceit, but rather benign academic disagreement.
In my conclusion, Chomsky’s political writing should not be taken at face value and yet they also do not deserve causal dismissal; and Chomsky the man ought to be neither beatified nor villified but treated a passionate but fallible activist. The best use for Chomsky’s politics is as a ideological litmus test. Extreme statements for or against Chomsky’s character are signs of unreliability in the speaker, and evidence against one’s impartiality or thoroughness.
In other words, I believe there’s space for a skeptical-moderate opinion and use of Chomsky and his work. Stephen Pinker, his colleague, manages to authoritatively quote and cite Chomsky quite often in his writing. If you don’t trust my conclusions I refer you to the above link as a great place to start your own process.
- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf held that Bin Laden had long been dead.
- Former President George W. Bush ‘spent much of his presidency looking for Bin Laden.’
- The intelligence that allowed the identification of Bin Laden’s courier, which led the CIA to the safe house in Abbottabad, was gained through waterboarding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
- Bin Laden died with a gun in his hands.
- Bin Laden grabbed a wife as a human shield.
- The Pakistani press speculated that Bin Laden’s bodyguards shot him to keep him from falling into American hands.
- Bin Laden was executed by US forces.
- Bin Laden was assassinated.
- Muslims have been silent about the killing of Bin Laden.
- That Bin Laden was found in Abbottabad proves that the Pakistani military was harboring him.
Click for explanations why these are myths.
What’s bigger news? Osama’s death or Canadian federal elections? On economics? Well if you watch CNBC you’ll think Osama’s lack of brain activity has a lot to do with the oil price, and not, say, an election that could determine whether one of the largest oil deposits in the world becomes under the control of an oil friendly environmental skeptic.
I agree with the recent Glenn Greenwald that argued “the killing of Osama bin Laden is one of those events which, especially in the immediate aftermath, is not susceptible to reasoned discussion.”
I think in this case the unreason is the idea that his death has any real significance. The best I can hope is that Osama’s death will be a watershed moment for Obama’s approval rating. The Canadian elections on the other hand are certain to have global implications.
Osama’s death is important only for producing the last newspaper clipping needed to complete a finished 9/11 scrapbook.
Iranians and Libyans are not fools, and they have increasing access to non-state media. They know that their boastful and pious leaders have been cringing and conceding. In a more than subliminal way, this presages the end of governments that are bankrupt in other ways as well. In the Middle East perhaps more than in any other region at present, people are acutely sensitive to which is the winning and which is the losing side. The mullahs have run Iran into the ground over two decades, and Qaddafi has been in power since I was an undergraduate. Their rule is condemned by actuarial calculations as well as by moral and political ones, and it’s now quite possible to envisage a future without them. The tipping point in all this is, and has been, and will be seen to have been, the liberation of Iraq.
—Christopher Hitchens, December 2003
I’ll wager that months from now, we’ll learn that some 18,000 Japanese were killed merely because they lived too close to the coast, while eleven people were hospitalized because they worked to save a crippled nuke plant from the inside. This will cause American liberals to endlessly campaign that nuclear power must end. From their beach houses, of course.
The Singularity Is (not) Coming
I agree with every one of this mans positions.
An academic friend of mine who worked in the state department under Condoleezza Rice told me that he had once suggested writing a memo posing fundamental questions about US policy in Iraq. ‘Don’t even think of it,’ he was warned – because it would be sure to appear in the next day’s New York Times.
Fortunately for Wikileaks, it’s costs to democracy will be a diplomatic form Bastiat’s ‘that which is not seen’.