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Sunday, May 15, 2011

How Smart Is Noam Chomsky ? The Art of Special Pleading

Just how smart are Chomsky's pronouncements ? Just how smart is Noam Chomsky ?

Chomsky's name is rarely absent from the mass media, but he has lately drawn even more than usual attention to himself for his opinion on Bin Laden's death. In brief: 1) Chomsky condemns the US government action as "violating elementary norms of international law" ("elementary norms" is a favorite expression of his, especially in areas in which he has not background); and 2) he opines that, in any case, George W. Bush committed far greater crimes,"uncontroversially," than the ones Bin Laden is alleged to have committed. Christopher Hitchens judges Chomsky's statements to be "stupid and ignorant," a judgement that's hard to fault. Alan Dershowitz chides those who continue to give any credence whatsoever to this alleged sage of MIT.

Here is an excerpt from Chomsky's piece on the Bin Laden affair:
... Obama was simply lying when he said, in his White House statement, that “we quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda.”

Nothing serious has been provided since. There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that is rather like my confession that I won the Boston Marathon. He boasted of what he regarded as a great achievement.
Chomsky's argument here is one of analogy. Bin Laden's believable, actual boast that he directed the 9/11 attack is like ... what ? According to Chomsky, it is like a hypothetical, unbelievable boast by Chomsky, one he never made, that he won the Boston Marathon. So, Chomsky argues, since he himself could not have won the Boston Marathon, Bin Laden could not have carried out 9/11. Q.E.D. Is this a valid analogy ? Is it a smart argument ? Is it likely to influence an intelligent person ?

Chomsky oeuvre is replete with what we must consider, using Chomskyan terminology, violations of elementary logic. A very egregious example is his use of special pleading in claiming that the movement for Holocaust denial is free of anti-Semitism. His pronouncements here go back thirty years, but, despite numerous criticisms from others, he has never seen fit to modify his arguments.

The world's major Holocaust-denying organizations, both of which, by the way, sell Chomsky's books and routinely use his various endorsements of their work, are also blatantly anti-Semitic; they blame world Jewry for the "lie" of the Holocaust and for genocide of the Palestinian people. They are the Institute for Historical Review in California, and AAARGH in Paris. Robert Faurisson (associated with Chomsky for the last forty years) is a featured speaker at the events of both of these groups. Both organizations routinely praise Hitler and promote the most extreme anti-Semitic literature of the last 150 years, including the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But Chomsky denies any "anti-Semitic implications" in this propaganda.

Here is Chomsky's original statement on the topic:
I see no anti-Semitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers, or even denial of the holocaust. Nor would there be anti-Semitic implications, per se, in the claim that the holocaust (whether one believes it took place or not) is being exploited, viciously so, by apologists for Israeli repression and violence. I see no hint of anti-Semitic implications in Faurisson's work ... (letter to W.D. Rubinstein, reported by the latter in Quadrant, October 1981, pp. 8-14. Discussed by me in my pamphlet on Chomsky)
Some time after writing to Rubenstein, Chomsky elucidated in a statement to Lawrence L. Kolodney that is now posted on the "official" Chomsky website:
In that context, I made a further point: even denial of the Holocaust would not prove that a person is an anti-Semite. I presume that that point too is not subject to contention. Thus if a person ignorant of modern history were told of the Holocaust and refused to believe that humans are capable of such monstrous acts, we would not conclude that he is an anti-Semite. That suffices to establish the point at issue.
"That," for Chomsky, "suffices to establish the point at issue."
Need I say that Chomsky here employs the fallacy "special pleading" ? This is the fallacy in which non-relevant, or, as in this case, non-existent special circumstances are posited to argue against the generality of a proposition. The general proposition -- viz. that Holocaust-deniers are motivated by anti-Semitism -- is here countered, in Chomsky's logic, by an assertion that a "person ignorant of modern history" could deny the Holocaust without being an anti-Semite. Of course Robert Faurisson, the person at issue, was a university professor at the time, and could surely not have been so "ignorant of modern history." Chomsky's argument here is so puerile and ignorant that it is embarrassing to have to react to it. Is this an intelligent person speaking here ? Would an intelligent person be persuaded by this primitive special pleading ?

Like Chomsky, I too have had contact with M. Faurisson. Some time after my pamphlet on Chomsky appeared, Faurisson was visiting Canada and contacted me by telephone. I owed some money to his organization, he insisted, for the pamphlets that they had sent to me. I had never ordered this material, and I therefore felt under no obligation to pay for it. But since I had him on the phone, I did tell him that I had lost uncles and aunts and cousins and a grandmother in the Holocaust, which, I said, surely happened. At this M. Faurisson turned sour and sarcastic. He wanted to know why I hadn't reported the loss of my relatives to the International Red Cross. Furthermore, he promised that he would pay for the postage stamps. Not an anti-Semite, Professor Chomsky, this friend of yours ?
I should also mention that in his letter to Kolodney (see the link above) Chomsky accuses me of "total fabrication and absurdity" because I described his various acts of collaboration with the Holocaust deniers. He claims that I "never dared to respond to him" on these matters. He may have originally written that before he saw my reply, but these foolish accusations remain on his site as of today. In any case, my reply, with all the documents, has been on the web for ten years now.
Now, to come back to the question of Chomsky's smarts. As these examples show, he often argues like an ignorant, petulant child. Who can listen to him without laughing out loud ? Nevertheless, we do know that there is a Chomsky claque of considerable noise, and I would assume that it will no doubt continue to be with us. The judgement that Chomsky is "arguably the most important living intellectual," while of uncertain provenance, is repeated often enough, even in places where sense should prevail. One could speculate on why this should be so. But given the extraordinary power of hateful nonsense in the history of mankind, including its universities, can we be surprised ?


1. Paul Bogdanor,  The Top 200 Chomsky Lies
2. My later take on the subject of Chomsky's genius.

3. Nicholas Evans and Stephen Levinson: The Myth of Language Universals
(a thorough debunking of Chomskyan linguistics)

4. Alan Dershowitz on Chomsky's wisdom


Anonymous said...

I just want to thank you for this post and providing the links. The reverence for Chomsky has one use: the easy identification of charlatans, fakes, pseuds, etc.

Unknown said...

I learned of Chomsky many years ago as a language student (not linguistics student, linguistics being just one of the fields in which Chomsky fancies himself to be an authority). As a language student more interested in the practical than the theoretical, my contact with his theories (back in my university and early career days) was mercifully limited. However, I well recall that a few of my fellow instructors at a for-profit language school (in Tokyo in the early 1980s at the beginning of the "Bubble Era", when Japanese spent money like water world-wide) were RABID Chomskyites (yes, they even foamed at the mouth when referring to He Who is The One). And these same instructors were the ones who soon enough started agitating for unionization of instructors at all our branches, making contact with and bringing in Japanese union representatives (with accompanying picketing in our lobby, scaring students and prospective students -- and if you know anything about Japan and its leftist movements, you'll know that, even today, most are unreconstructed leftists who have more in common with Trotskyites of the early 20th century than with anything that exists nowadays). I remember being confused back then: here were losers (perhaps a capital L would be better - Losers) from various English-speaking countries, who were in Japan specifically and wholly because they could get paid around $60 or $70,000 a year as "English instructors" when, back in whatever their home country was, they were basically unemployable except perhaps at minimum wage (and even that probably wasn't likely, for more than a few of them). Thanks to what I saw in front of my nose, I learned first-hand the relation existing between over-intellectualization, fanciful and unprovable Grand Theories, radical Leftism, Liars, and -- Losers. Apparently nothing changes even after 3 or 4 decades.

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