If You Can Think of Anything Not Nice to Say, Don’t Say Anything At All (Apparently)

One thing that’s never made much sense to me is the difficulty commentators have of taking a balanced view of Noam Chomsky. People tend to either come down hard in favor or hard against him – which in and of itself is not a problem, but it seems like where Chomsky is concerned, neither side is capable of conceding any points. As a result, nearly anything one reads about Chomsky has a way of seeming hopelessly detached from reality.

The latest offender, a bit surprisingly, is Glenn Greenwald, who’s worked up that an article on a recent Chomksy appearance included some criticisms of his character. Greenwald sees this as part of a nefarious pattern of suppressing dissent:

The book on which I’m currently working explores how establishment media systems restrict the range of acceptable debate in US political discourse, and I’m using Chomsky’s treatment by (and ultimate exclusion from) establishment US media outlets as a window for understanding how that works. As a result, I’ve read a huge quantity of media discussions about Chomsky over the past year. And what is so striking is that virtually every mainstream discussion of him at some point inevitably recites the same set of personality and stylistic attacks designed to malign his advocacy without having to do the work of engaging the substance of his claims.

It couldn’t be, of course, that they’re "reciting the same set of personality and stylistic ‘attacks’" because those personality and stylistic attacks are relevant to how Chomsky conducts his arguments? Because my own impression of Chomsky – from having read a lot of Chomksy – is that he deserves a good part of what he gets on that front.

Of course, Greenwald’s not wrong that character assassinations are never a substittute for argument. Whether or not Chomsky’s motivated by "alpha male brutality" doesn’t matter so long as his insights are valuable and his arguments hold up. But that’s just it: half the time his arguments are cherry-picked, deceptively-sourced and replete with shifting goalposts and double standards.

It’s interesting that the article that’s got Greenwald so worked up is neither (a) all that critical of Chomsky nor (b) concerned with engaging his ideas. It’s a portrait of the man and his effect on his audience, and nothing in it seemed unfair or inaccurate.

Let’s go through some of the "attacks" that are supposedly "maligning his advocacy" that Greenwald cites specifically.

  1. That his speaking style is boring:

When he starts speaking, it is in a monotone that makes no particular rhetorical claim on the audience’s attention; in fact, it’s almost soporific

Well, yeah, anyone who’s seen Chomsky speak has that impression. Not to mention, it closely matches Chomsky’s own description of his speaking style:

I’m a boring speaker and I like it that way. … I doubt that people are attracted to whatever the persona is. … People are interested in the issues, and they’re interested in the issues because they are important.


  1. That his tone distracts from his argument:

You could argue that the [Chomsky’s use of ‘harsh, vivid phrases’] is necessary, simply a description of atrocities that must be reported, but it is also a method that has diminishing returns. The facts speak for themselves; the adjectives and the sarcasm have the counterintuitive effect of cheapening them, of imposing on the world a disappointingly crude and simplistic argument.

Again, it’s hard to see what’s unduly critical about this. I have the same reaction to Chomsky: it takes only a couple of paragraphs before I start to feel that I’m being manipulated. "Vivid phrases" can sometimes be helpful in conveying a situation, but it’s equally true that they’re a commonly-abused way for people to avoid putting things in context, a fact that forms the central theme of a lot of Chomsky’s critique of the American media, actually. Whether and to what extent Chomsky is guilty of using such phrases as a way of suppressing relevant context himself is of course a detailed discussion outside the scope of a blog post (my personal impression is that he does this quite a lot), the point here is surely that using a reliance on emotive phrasing as a heuristic for detecting deception is neither misguided not unfair. If Chomsky, as a speaker, uses a lot of "vivid phrases," that’s relevant to a characterization of his argument style.

  1. That he can’t stick to a central point:

He answers questions warmly, and seriously, if not always directly

Again, that’s something that’s neither irrelevant nor inaccurate. Chomsky’s writing and speaking is indeed rambling – and that’s a real problem for someone who isn’t already convinced of his position (or, indeed, just trying to figure out what, specifically, his position even is). Again, while you can’t condemn someone out of hand for being indirect, it’s a useful heuristic for determining when you’re being mislead. We’re rightly suspicious of people who won’t stick to a point, and Chomsky frequently won’t stick to a point. It’s the kind of thing that anyone who’s read him notices, and so it would seem to belong in an article-length treatment of him as a political commentator.

  1. That he’s a bully:

‘There really is an alpha-male dominance psychology at work there,’ a colleague once said of him. ‘He has some of the primate dominance moves. The staring down. The withering tone of voice."

Yet another thing that, to be fair, one shouldn’t let interfere with an honest reading of Chomsky’s arguments – and yet, speaking as a Linguist, it’s striking how many people in the field who have fallen afoul of Chomsky one way or another describe him more or less this way. No smoke without fire, and it just sort of beggars belief that every single one of these numerous and highly-similar first-hand accounts of Chomksy’s argument style are imagined. More to the point, there are some rather prominent examples of Chomsky refusing to admit fault or issue an apolgoy about things he’s said in writing. His characterisation of the coverage of Khmer Rouge Cambodia was strikingly wrong, for example, and we’ve yet to see any soul-searching about that. Chomsky defends that episode in his history by saying that he was just poiting out how selective the coverage of the situation in the New York Times was, and yet Distortions at Fourth Hand was every bit as selective and inaccurate. It’s not that Chomsky had no points to make, but he made them deceptively, and there’s a lot to apologize about, and we’re still waiting. Again, knowing that Chomsky behaves this way doesn’t invalidate his arguments, no, but it’s relevant to how we read them speaking, as it does, to how accurately he presents the context of what he’s talking about.

  1. That he’s a "self-hating Jew:"

This is the one point in Greenwald’s arsenal that seems entirely fair. A lot of prominent Zionists don’t like Chomksy because he’s Jewish and highly critical of Israel at the same time. The one instances where I felt like criticism of Chomsky was entirely unfair had to do with the so-called "Faurisson Affair," where Chomsky simply defended a holocaust denier’s free speech without defending his position and was excoriated for it. But even here, one feels that Greenwald is playing on technicalities. Greenwald picks this quote:

Chomsky, the son of Hebrew teachers who emigrated from Ukraine and Russia at the turn of the last century, began as a Zionist – but the sort of Zionist who wanted a socialist state in which Jews and Arabs worked together as equals. Since then he has been accused of antisemitism (due to defending the right to free speech of a French professor who espoused such views, some 35 years ago), and been called, by the Nation, ‘America’s most prominent self-hating Jew’. These days he argues tirelessly for the rights of Palestinians.

And notes that The Nation is quoted out of context here – it wasn’t calling Chomksy a "self-hating Jew" itself – rather, it was reporting that someone else had said that. OK, well, GOTCHA! I guess … but it hardly undermines the main point that a lot of prominent Jews do characterize Chomsky that way without basis, whehter or not it was actually anyone writing in The Nation. In short, this one reporter’s unfortunate laziness in fact-checking doesn’t make it untrue in any way that Chomsky has "been accused of antisemitism," or that more than one person has called him (someting like) "America’s most prominent self-hating Jew." Indeed, isn’t that precisely Greenwald’s point? That people who fall outside orthodoxy are frequently dismissed in terms like those? So it’s hard to see what the point of nitpicking here is.

In any case, this is the one point where Greenwald is entirely correct in his characerization – the trouble is that being pro-Israel isn’t solidly "orthodox." Israel receives a LOT of criticism for its policies, and not all or even most of that is outside the mainstream. So, true enough that a lot (by no means all or most) of pro-Israel activists really, really like to slander people who disagree with them as a means of silencing opposition to their agenda – it’s not as though this is punishment for going outside the mainstream. Quite the contrary – one has the impression that they do that out of a seige mentality, out of fear born of the knowledge that Israel’s position is precarious, and that the tide could turn against them rather quickly.

I don’t want to completely dismiss Greenwald’s column. After all, Greenwald is one of those increasingly rare journalists who really doesn’t mind speaking truth to power; as such he has a lot of experience with being on the receiving end of these kinds of tactics. But just because character critiques are an effective shortcut around actual arguments, it hardly follows that anyone who is on the receiving end of them is automatically being unfairly silenced. Chomsky, it seems to me, is a case in point. People bring up these characteristics of his less because he presents a challenge to authority and more because they’re relevant to how he argues, and how to read his arguments.

An important point that Greenwald is perhaps glossing over here is that societies need innoculation against radicals, and especially when those radicals, as in Chomsky’s case, have very little in the way of specifics to offer for how society should be run instead. The only thing worse that sticking with the status quo is throwing it away before you have a replacement in mind, and Chomsky is notoriously light on policy suggestions. In any field of endeavor pointing out what’s wrong is the easy part – saying how to fix it is what’s hard. To some extent, the mainstream needs a way to turn its critics off, or at least contain them, so that it can continue the business of keeping people housed and clohed and fed and working. That isn’t to say that we have to approve of carpet bombing or mass surveillance or indefinite detention or proxy wars or any of the rest of it, and Chomsky is quite useful in pointing out to people who need to hear it that things like these are going on and the United States is causing it. What it is, saying, though, is that as much as we need to stop these things, we can’t very well simply throw away national defense, or pretend that there’s no threat from radical Islam, or whatever else. Which is another way of saying that as much as Greenwald complains about Chomsky’s arguments being ignored, it can be rather difficult to say what exactly Chomsky’s arguing in favor of. It’s not as though it’s incumbent on society’s critics to draft actual bills for Congress, but if all you ever do is criticise it really does end up making you sound like one of those people who thinks we can just click the ruby slippers and undo all our problems. It would be easier – for me, anyway – to stop talking about Chomksy’s character flaws all the time if I had some idea what his actual proposals are. But I don’t.

So, this was a little disappointing. Greenwald says that Chomsky should be criticised like anyone else, but it’s difficult to see Greenwald being willing to criticise Chomsky "like anyone else" if he’s this worked up about a non-polemic article accurately pointing out some of Chomsky’s better-known personality flaws. If things like this are covert "silencing tactics," what counts as "balanced?"

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