Monday, May 17, 2004

Arresting Voltaire

I sympathize with the journalists and politicians who avoid Noam Chomsky. A George Will or Charles Krauthammer arguing with Chomsky could only provide a Nicholas Berg moment if not something far worse like the sadistic fantasy of President Bush suddenly required to substitute for Tony Blair at Question Time. Chomsky made his chops shooting down the likes of B.F. Skinner in a famous series of intellectual duals. There’s an entire book, Challenging Chomsky, dedicated to documenting his spectacular polemical ability on his home turf of theoretical linguistics. Being smart, obviously, is not the same as being right, at least for us empiricists; but in its superlative degree it does make you the scariest gladiator in the arena, especially to mental midgets brandishing tin swords. Respecting or even fearing Chomsky, however, is not the same thing as agreeing with him.

For all of its undeniable strengths, Chomsky’s way of thinking has at least one fatal defect as an instrument for understanding the current situation, a failing it shares with much of the non-Marxist left. It is drastically unhistorical. Chomsky has been elaborating the same indictment of the ruling world system for most of my lifetime as if nothing had changed in the underlying economic, military, and political structure of the world except the names of the members of the board of directors. But things have changed. Bush the Second is not the same as LBJ or even Bush the First. America as the leader of the Cold War coalition is a very different proposition than America as an erratic and lawless hegemon. The nature of the world economy has likewise undergone a huge mutation. A dogmatic analysis that cannot detect these earthquakes does not inspire a great deal of confidence. It also promotes a sort of cosmic Naderism that discourages the compromises and alliances the times require.

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