Urbanities

Stefan Kanfer
America’s Dumbest Intellectual
Summer 2002

Walk onto the popular-music floor of Virgin Records in midtown Manhattan, and you encounter, as you’d expect, kids with shoulder tattoos and pierced body parts, wandering through rows of the latest hip-hop, altrock, and heavy-metal CDs as heavily amplified beats thunder. At the checkout counter, though, is a surprise. A single book is on display: perennial radical Noam Chomsky’s latest anti-American screed, 9/11—an impulse item for the in-your-face slackers of the Third Millennium. Strictly speaking, 9/11 is a non-book, a hastily assembled collection of fawning interviews with Chomsky conducted after the terrorist attack on New York City and the country, in which the author pins the blame for the atrocities on—you guessed it—the U.S. But you’d be wrong to dismiss 9/11 as an inconsequential paperback quickie. More than 115,000 copies of the book are now in print. It has shown up on the Boston Globe and the Washington Post best-seller lists, and in Canada, it has rocketed to seventh on the best-seller list. And as its prominent display at Virgin Records attests, 9/11 is particularly popular with younger readers; the book is a hot item at campus bookstores nationwide. The striking success of 9/11 makes Chomsky’s America-bashing notable, or at least notably deplorable—especially here in New York, which lost so many of its bravest on that horrible day.

Chomsky’s title for his new book may have a little to do with its best-seller status: some people may have picked it up assuming it to be a newsworthy account of September 11. But undoubtedly, the main reason 9/11 is selling so briskly is because of its author’s fame. According to the Chicago Tribune, Noam Chomsky is cited more than any other living author—and he shows up eighth on the all-time most-cited list, the paper says, right after Sigmund Freud. Do a search for “Noam Chomsky” on Amazon.com and up pops an astonishing 224 books. The New York Times calls him “arguably the most important intellectual alive.” He’s even been the subject of an adoring 1993 movie-length documentary film. Chomsky has achieved rock-star status among the young and hip. Rock groups like Bad Religion and Pearl Jam proudly quote his writings in interviews and in their music. To the self-styled bohemian coffee-house crowd, observes Wired magazine, “Chomsky is somewhere between Kerouac and Nietzsche—carrying around one of his books is automatic countercultural cachet.”

Chomsky, now a 73-year-old grandfather living in suburban Massachusetts, has worked for decades to win that cachet. Avram Noam was born in Philadelphia in 1928. His parents, William and Elsie Chomsky, had fled from czarist oppression in Russia to the City of Brotherly Love, where William established himself as a Hebrew scholar and grammarian. Radical politics aroused the young Noam—at ten, he wrote a school newspaper editorial on the Spanish Civil War, lamenting the rise of fascism, and two years later he embraced the anarchism that he still adheres to today. By the age of 16, the bright, ambitious youth had enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where he eventually earned a Ph.D. in linguistics. Passed over for a teaching position at Harvard, he landed in 1955 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has remained ever since.

Most linguistics professors would have toiled in obscurity in a science-and-industry school like MIT. Not Chomsky. In the 1950s, he brashly challenged psychologist B. F. Skinner’s theory of language as a learned skill, acquired by children in a process of reward and punishment. Chomsky claimed instead that when we learn a language as children, we can articulate and understand all sorts of sentences that we’ve never actually come across before. “What we ‘know,’ therefore,” Chomsky held, “must be something deeper—a grammar—that makes an infinite variety of sentences possible.” In Chomsky’s view, the capacity to master the structures of grammar is genetically determined, a product of our evolutionary development. This idea—that grammar is hardwired in the labyrinth of DNA—shook the walls of linguistics departments across the globe. Chomsky promoted his theory tirelessly, defending it in countless symposia and scholarly reviews. By the mid-sixties, he was an academic superstar; in the seventies, researchers at Columbia University even named a chimpanzee trained to learn 125 words “Nim Chimpsky” in his honor.

With this fame as a base, the professor proceeded to wander far from his area of expertise. Such uses of fame, ironically, are common in the country Chomsky attacks so relentlessly. In America, you come across two kinds of fame: vertical and horizontal. The vertical celebrity owes his renown to one thing—Luciano Pavarotti, for example, is famous for his singing, period. The horizontal celebrity, conversely, merchandises his fame by convincing the public that his mastery of one field is transferable to another. Thus singers Barbra Streisand and Bono give speeches on public policy; thus linguistics professor Chomsky poses as an expert on geopolitics.

Chomsky first employed his horizontal celebrity during the 1960s, when he spoke out forcefully against the Vietnam War. His 1969 collection of agitated writings, American Power and the New Mandarins, indicted the nation’s brainwashed “elites”—read: government bureaucrats and intellectuals who disagreed with him on the morality of the war. But Vietnam was only the beginning: over the next three decades, Chomsky published a steady stream of political books and pamphlets boasting titles like What Uncle Sam Really Wants and Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies—all of them filled with heated attacks on American policies, domestic and foreign.

Those attacks would be laughable if some people didn’t take them seriously. Here’s a small but representative sample. The goal of America, Chomsky charges, “is a society in which the basic unit is you and your television set. If the kid next door is hungry, it’s not your problem. If the retired couple next door invested their assets badly and are now starving, that’s not your problem either.” Prisons and inner-city schools, Chomsky maintains, “target a kind of superfluous population that there’s no point in educating because there’s nothing for them to do. Because we’re a civilized people, we put them in prison, rather than sending death squads out to murder them.” Another example: “When you come back from the Third World to the West—the U.S. in particular—you are struck by the narrowing of thought and understanding, the limited nature of legitimate discussion, the separation of people from each other.”

Goodness. But if America is all about ignoring hungry children, why does the country spend billions in public and private funds every year on the poor? Does America deliberately seek to mis-educate and send to prison a “superfluous” population? Wouldn’t today’s knowledge-based economy benefit from as many decently educated people as it could find? What Third World countries does Chomsky have in mind where the discussion is more freewheeling and open than in the U.S.? Algeria? Cuba? Such puerile leftism is scarcely worthy of a college sophomore.

If possible, however, Chomsky’s assessment of U.S. foreign policy is even more absurd. The nightmare of American evil began in 1812, he thinks, when the U.S. instigated a process that “annihilated the indigenous [American] population (millions of people), conquered half of Mexico, intervened violently in the surrounding region, conquered Hawaii and the Philippines (killing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos), and in the past half century particularly, extended its resort to force throughout much of the world.” That the U.S. saved the Philippines during World War II, that Hawaiians voted to become the fiftieth state, that every day Mexicans pour across the border to take part in the economy of the hated United States—all of that is irrelevant to Chomsky. He believes in the Beaumarchais mode of political debate: “Vilify, vilify, some of it will always stick.”

For Chomsky, turn over any monster anywhere and look at the underside. Each is clearly marked: MADE IN AMERICA. The cold war? All America’s fault: “The United States was picking up where the Nazis had left off.” Castro’s executions and prisons filled with dissenters? Irrelevant, for “Cuba has probably been the target of more international terrorism [from the U.S., of course] than any other country.” The Khmer Rouge? Back in 1977, Chomsky dismissed accounts of the Cambodian genocide as “tales of Communist atrocities” based on “unreliable” accounts. At most, the executions “numbered in the thousands” and were “aggravated by the threat of starvation resulting from American distraction and killing.” In fact, some 2 million perished on the killing fields of Cambodia because of genocidal war against the urban bourgeoisie and the educated, in which wearing a pair of glasses could mean a death sentence.

The Chomskian rage hasn’t confined itself to his native land. He has long nourished a special contempt for Israel, lone outpost of Western ideals in the Middle East. The hatred has been so intense that Zionists have called him a self-hating Jew. This is an unfair label. Clearly, Chomsky has no deficit in the self-love department, and his ability to stir up antagonism makes him even more pleased with himself. No doubt that was why he wrote the introduction to a book by French Holocaust-denier Robert Faurisson. Memoire en Defense maintains that Hitler’s death camps and gas chambers, even Anne Frank’s diary, are fictions, created to serve the cause of American Zionists. That was too much for Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who challenged fellow leftist Chomsky to a debate. In the debate, Dershowitz keyed in on the fact that Chomsky had described Faurisson’s conclusions as “findings,” and claimed that they grew out of “extensive historical research.” But as numerous scholars had shown, Faurisson was not a serious scholar at all, but rather a sophist who simply ignored the mountain of documents, speeches, testimony, and other historical evidence that conflicted with his “argument.” Dershowitz noted that Chomsky also wrote the following: “I see no anti-Semitic implication in the denial of the existence of gas chambers or even in the denial of the Holocaust.”

Just recently, Chomsky spearheaded a group pressuring universities to divest themselves of any stock connected with the Jewish state: Israel equals South Africa in the Chomskian universe of moral equivalence. Here, happily, Chomsky got nowhere. He obtained 400 signatures for his movement; opposing him, Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard, gathered 4,000 signatures in support of Israel. The controversy set Dershowitz off again. This time, he said, he wanted the MIT prof to debate him “on the morality of this selective attack against an American ally that is defending itself—and the world—against terrorism that targets civilians.” He pointed out that universities have always invested in companies head-quartered in foreign nations with unsavory reputations—countries whose citizens don’t have the freedom the Israelis enjoy or suffer the terror they endure. “Yet this petition focused only on the Jewish State, to the exclusion of all others, including those which, by any reasonable standard, are among the worst violators of human rights. This is bigotry pure and simple.” Chomsky declined the challenge.

That brings us to 9/11, an egregious insult to decency in general and to the citizens of New York in particular. True to form, in one of the interviews, Chomsky calls the United States “a leading terrorist state” and equates President Clinton’s 1998 bombing of the Al-Shifa plant in Sudan with the horrors of September 11. In every way, Chomsky’s comparison is obscene. The bombing was in response to attacks on two U.S. embassies that had resulted in the deaths and injuries of thousands. The U.S. made sure it took place at night, when the target was empty of civilians. U.S. intelligence, mistaken though it may have been, indicated that the pharmaceutical factory was producing weapons of mass destruction. The unprovoked attack on the World Trade Center, needless to say to anyone except Chomsky and his disciples, occurred in broad daylight, with the intention of inflicting maximum damage and death on innocents.

Chomsky concedes that the WTC attack was unfortunate—not so much because of the deaths of Americans, but because “the atrocities of September 11 were a devastating blow to the Palestinians, as they instantly recognized.” (Some other group, disguised as Palestinians, must have been dancing in the streets that day.) Israel, he adds, “is openly exulting in the ‘window of opportunity’ it now has to crush Palestinians with impunity.”

On the rare occasions in 9/11 when Chomsky expresses condolences for the victims of the terrorist attack, he immediately goes on to excoriate the U.S. “The atrocities were passionately deplored, even in places where people have been ground underfoot by Washington’s boots for a long, long time,” he typically says. Chomsky rolls on in this manner. The West is the Great Satan, the Third World its eternal victim. The World Trade Towers were a symbol of America’s gluttony and power. In effect, we were asking for it and are now unjustly using it as a casus belli. More U.S. oppression is about to take place all over the globe. If you didn’t know better, you could be reading one of bin Ladin’s diatribes. Chomsky’s response to September 11 outraged even leftist Christopher Hitchens, a former admirer of the MIT professor who now attacked him for abandoning “every standard that makes moral and intellectual discrimination possible.”

Does anyone believe these inanities? It would be tempting to say that the author only preaches to the choir. But there’s more to Chomsky’s success than that. True, Chomsky is like the Bog Man of Grauballe, Denmark, preserved unchanged for centuries. Since the early 1960s, no new ideas have made it into his oeuvre. He is as he was, and his rage against democracy as practiced in the U.S. is of a piece with the raised fists of the Chicago Seven and the ancient bumper stickers condemning “Amerika.” But his message still seems to resonate with a sizable faction of the Boomers, trained to respond to emotion rather than reason. These are the people who sympathized with Susan Sontag’s notorious post–September 11 observation: “Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly’ attack on ‘civilization’ or ‘liberty’ or ‘humanity’ or ‘the free world’ but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?” These are the folks who applauded Bill Clinton’s fatuous mea culpa appraisal of the WTC attack: “This country once looked the other way when a significant number of native Americans were dispossessed and killed to get their land or their mineral rights or because they were thought of as less than fully human. . . . [W]e are still paying a price today.”

And now a younger crowd is following the Pied Piper of anti-Americanism. 9/11 makes it easy for them. They needn’t read it; they just have to make sure the thing is sticking out of their backpacks or sitting on their milk-crate coffee tables, a symbol of mass-market rebellion pushed at the record stores for $10.95—less than the new Eminem CD! Call it Anti-Americanism for Dummies. It would be more than a pity if the lies of 9/11 seduced more innocents; it would be a clear and present danger. We are at war now, and two generations of Chimpskies are enough.

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