The attempted silencing of Noam Chomsky


Noam Chomsky is one of the world’s great public intellectuals.

Growing up in Sri Lanka, I would find his articles and essays in the mainstream media quite regularly. But when I first came to the US in 1975, I found him completely absent from the major print and TV media and discovered that his writings were confined to niche publications. This is of course because the Vietnam war galvanized Chomsky from being a towering figure in the field of linguistics into also being a severe critic of injustices everywhere, especially of his own government. In addition, he has shown how the mainstream media in the US has been complicit in the crimes committed by the US government and those of its client states.

This criticism of itself as being the ally and enabler of harmful US global policies is of course something the media never likes to hear since they view themselves as noble crusaders of the truth and the scourge of governmental misconduct, a myth perpetuated by the Watergate saga.

The US media cannot dismiss Chomsky as a marginal figure who does not say anything worth noting. In a study done over the period 1980 to 1992, the top ten academic sources cited were: Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, Freud, Chomsky, Hegel and Cicero. I can personally vouch for the fact that my views on politics (and linguistics for that matter) have been hugely influenced by Chomsky’s work.

So how can the US media ignore a global figure like Chomsky? It turns out to be quite easy to do so. As Glenn Greenwald points out, the way you do it is by ignoring the substance of what he says and instead focus on discrediting him as a person.

The more one dissents from political orthodoxies, the more the attacks focus on personality, style and character

One very common tactic for enforcing political orthodoxies is to malign the character, “style” and even mental health of those who challenge them.

Nobody has been subjected to these vapid discrediting techniques more than Noam Chomsky. 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. Notably, these attacks come most frequently and viciously from establishment liberal venues, such as when the American Prospect’s 2005 foreign policy issue compared him to Dick Cheney on its cover (a cover he had framed and now proudly hangs on his office wall).

Greenwald says that if you read only the coverage of Chomsky in the mainstream US media, this is the impression you get.

So to recap: Chomsky is a sarcastic, angry, soporific, scowling, sneering self-hating Jew, devoid of hope and speaking from hell, whose alpha-male brutality drives him to win at all costs, and who imposes on the world disappointingly crude and simplistic arguments to the point where he is so inconsequential that one wonders whether he has ever changed even a single thing in his 60 years of political work.

If you have ever had the privilege of attending a lecture by Chomsky and talking with him or corresponding with him (as I have) you will immediately see that the above description is so far from the truth as to be laughable. While he is a severe critic of government policies, he is invariably soft-spoken and polite even with his adversaries and avoids making personal and ad hominem attacks. He always takes questions after his talks and I have seen him treat the most idiotic questions with respect. And his faith in the ability of ordinary people to right injustices is why he has inspired people and movements all over the world.

One of my favorite old video clips is that of Chomsky appearing in 1969 (at the height of the Vietnam war) on the public television show Firing Line hosted by the late conservative icon William F. Buckley.

Buckley is a skilled debater in the traditional mode, quick witted and erudite, with a vocabulary of impressive-sounding words. With guests with whom he disagrees, he tries to get under their skin by interjecting quips, snide comments, and red herrings in the form of esoteric bits of information, delivered with a sneering smile and condescending voice, the veneer of politeness towards us plebeians that arrogant upper class people sometimes adopt. It often works to rattle his guests and put them off their stride.

But watch how Chomsky handles him. He remains totally calm and focused and refuses to be distracted, pinning Buckley down and showing up his pretensions. Chomsky gives a master class on how to debate people who pride themselves on their ability to use debating tricks.to hide the weakness of their position.

The best parts of the program are parts 4 and 5 where they really get into it and Buckley gets increasingly frustrated and realizes that despite all his tricks, he is being trounced.

Here is the full 52-minute debate split in seven parts.

One thing that you have to give Buckley credit for that he at least had on guests that challenged him. Buckley is like William Lane Craig, comfortable in the traditional debate mode and always trying to control the flow to favor himself. Anyone who debates people like Craig could learn from how Chomsky handles Buckley. Note that the format is not a formal long-speech debate but a conversational series of exchanges, which allows for cross-examination type of questioning

But getting back to the way that the media can silence dissenting figures, Greenwald continues:

But what is at play here is this destructive dynamic that the more one dissents from political orthodoxies, the more personalized, style-focused and substance-free the attacks become. That’s because once someone becomes sufficiently critical of establishment pieties, the goal is not merely to dispute their claims but to silence them. That’s accomplished by demonizing the person on personality and style grounds to the point where huge numbers of people decide that nothing they say should even be considered, let alone accepted. It’s a sorry and anti-intellectual tactic, to be sure, but a brutally effective one.

You can see this also in the way that ‘new atheists’ are described these days. We are ‘shrill’, ‘arrogant’, ‘militant’, ‘angry’, and so on. This allows people to suggest that we do not belong in polite company (i.e., in the mainstream media) and to avoid the substance of what we say.

This is why the internet is so valuable, because people now have easy access to marginalized voices. But that puts the responsibility on us to broaden our sources of news and not depend on the main ones. Oddly enough, the increasing tendency by the major news outlets to put their content behind paywalls may have the beneficial spin-off that fewer people will read them and more will seek other news providers that provide greater diversity, an actual example of the trite phrase ‘less is more’.

Comments

  1. says

    I notice your defense of Chomsky doesn’t refer to the substance of what he said any more than did his critics. Yeah, they made fun of Newton and Galileo, but they also made fun of Lyndon LaRouche and LRon Hubbard. “He’s gotta be a threat ’cause look how the establishment is persecuting him!” doesn’t work all that well after it’s used by creationists.

  2. slc1 says

    Although I have no use for Prof. Chomsky who is the slime off the bottom of the cesspool, I will say that, unlike yellow coward Stephen Walt, Chomsky has debated Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz on the subject of US foreign policy and Israel. That, at least, makes Chomsky a mensch, unlike the childish Walt who has refused such a debate over his antisemitic book he co-wrote with Prof. John Mearsheimer.

  3. Mano Singham says

    The point of the post was not to make the argument you are inferring, that just because Chomsky is criticized, therefore he must be good. It was to point out how critics of prevailing establishment-friendly orthodoxies are marginalized, as well as to demonstrate his skills as a debater.

    A search for ‘Chomsky’ on my blog alone will return many hits where I address the substance of the things he says.

  4. alieneustache says

    Because slc is probably jewish and can not accept any criticism of the israeli occupation of palestine. They will defend israel no matter what international crime they break and they have broken many.

  5. sailor1031 says

    “Note that the format is not a formal long-speech debate but a conversational series of exchanges,”

    Really? I could only stand it until 2:21 and Chomsky had barely said a word by that point. Buckley, the faux-intellectual with the faux accent, always did piss me off.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Interestingly, Chomsky wasn’t impressed by the article which preceded Walt & Mearsheimer’s book;

    As ME scholar Stephen Zunes has rightly pointed out, “there are far more powerful interests that have a stake in what happens in the Persian Gulf region than does AIPAC [or the Lobby generally], such as the oil companies, the arms industry and other special interests whose lobbying influence and campaign contributions far surpass that of the much-vaunted Zionist lobby and its allied donors to congressional races.”

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    “They”? That’s rather offensive, alieneustache, especially considering that many Israelis and Jews are opposed to the occupation. And many fundamentalist Christians are Zionists.

  8. slc1 says

    I have to admit to not following Chomsky for the last couple of decades. Prior to that, it seemed to me that his position was that the US and Israel are always wrong and their opponents are always right. In addition, there was his prevarications about the Dershowitz/Finkelstein brouhaha over the issue of tenure for the latter at DePaul. He concurred in Finkelstein’s allegations of plagiarism by Dershowitz in a book about Israel, this after an investigation by Harvard showed that the allegations were without merit. This is in addition to palling around with Holocaust Deniers, namely Robert Faurisson.

  9. slc1 says

    Being as how I am one of Bibi Netanyahu’s most ferocious critics, I find this allegation to be laughable. Just for the record, I consider that former French President Sarkozy’s comment, “I can’t stand him (Bibi), he’s such a liar”, to be right on the money. Unfortunately, we are stuck with him for at least a couple of years before the contradictions in his cabinet cause the collapse of his government.

  10. slc1 says

    I guess that I’m guilty of the same crime as I have criticized the foreign policy of Bibi’s government. Of course, I believe it was Tom Friedman who opined that Israel doesn’t have a foreign policy, only a domestic policy.

  11. alieneustache says

    Wow! you really read into it like that. Obviously not all jews, I’m talking about the nationalist. I am well aware of who is opposed to the occupation. “They”, meaning jews and israelis who defend israel no matter what it does. You should ask me to clarify before pulling the “sensitive american” card and calling me offensive. Geez, this country has turned into a giant roll of charmin.

  12. slc1 says

    I agree, Schmuckly was a phony intellectual who was ignorant about many issues he pontificated on. In particular, he held a debate on the Theory of Evolution on his firing line program, which included Brown Un. Prof. Ken Miller. After the debate, he complimented Miller, a fellow Roman Catholic, on his performance and they had a fairly brief discussion of evolution. Miller’s take was that Schmuckly was very bright, quite polite in private conversation, and totally ignorant of evolution, which he rejected. It reminded me of an assessment of a physics professor whom I RA’ed for as a graduate student. He got his PhD from Princeton and happened to be a member of the same Synagogue as the infamous Immanuel Velikovsky. Like Miller on Buckley, he found Velikovsky to be very polite, quite intelligent and totally ignorant of physics.

  13. thomasmorris says

    Absolutely right – he really didn’t get the subtleties of your position down. After all, he didn’t even bring up the part where you openly endorse the terribly subtle idea of nuking an entire nation (Iran) of millions of people into oblivion.

    Well, actually, let’s put this another way: Your stated positions have made you ineligible for the privilege of accusing others of being “the slime at the bottom of the cesspool.”

  14. Rob Grigjanis says

    Maybe you should think before you write. “slc is probably jewish…They will defend…” is unambiguously referring to Jews as “they”. Don’t presume that your readers can also read minds. But thanks for the clarification. And I’m not American.

  15. Rob Grigjanis says

    Chomsky didn’t “pal around” with Faurisson. He defended Faurisson’s right to free expression. Do you only want the right of free expression for your pals?

  16. slc1 says

    Re thomasmorris

    I am in favor of stopping Iran’s inexorable march towards nuclear weapons by any means necessary. The best and cheapest way to accomplish that in a manner that will last a couple of decades or more is to target their nuclear sites with 15 megaton bombs. A half dozen should do the trick. If we had had such weapons available in WW 2, I have not the slightest doubt they would have been used against Germany and Japan and would have removed the necessity of the invasion of Europe. The two crude devices with a yield of 1000 times less was enough to persuade the Government of Japan of the error of their ways.

  17. slc1 says

    When one gets into the pen with the pigs, one may expect to emerge with a coating of mud.

  18. Rob Grigjanis says

    Actually, alieneustache, I take that back. Your comment can be read as “Jews who cannot accept criticism…” as meaning “they”. I apologize.

  19. sijd says

    @slc1 “The two crude devices with a yield of 1000 times less was enough to persuade the Government of Japan of the error of their ways”

    1000 times less killed 200000 people: feel free to do the math

  20. One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login says

    One very common tactic for enforcing political orthodoxies is to malign the character, “style” and even mental health of those who challenge them…

    You relate this point later to recent criticism of Gnu atheists. But what popped into my mind was storm of criticisms of female bloggers at FTB and Skepchick. Patriarchalism is one of the oldest orthodoxies. Only the vocabulary is cruder.

  21. slc1 says

    Re sijd

    All the mad mullahs who run Iran have to do is to cease and desist from their march toward nuclear weapons in order to avoid what would be a devastating blow. Doesn’t seem like too much to ask, but what do I know?

  22. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Free expression meaning if memory serves Chomsky writing an approving forward to a book denying the Holocaust.

    That seems to be going well outside the bounds of mere free speech advocacy and into active anti-semitism and conspiracy theory advocacy if you ask me. Chomsky’s stated views Israel and his very partisan one sided siding with Hamas and other terrorists against the Jewish state seem utterly repugnant and to be rejected in my view.

  23. Rob Grigjanis says

    StevoR: Your memory doesn’t serve. Chomsky wrote an essay defending Faurisson’s right to free speech, regardless of his beliefs. It wasn’t “approving” of anything but freedom of expression. Link.

    Chomsky granted permission for the essay to be used for any purpose. Serge Thion then used it as a preface when publishing a book by Faurisson, without Chomsky’s knowledge.

    Chomsky doesn’t “side with” Hamas. He has pointed out the hypocrisy of the West’s attitudes. Link.

  24. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ftr: I too have spoken with Prof. Chomsky, in Q&As and face-to-face, and can confirm that he speaks softly, listens to everyone with both courteous consideration and full attention, and answers without pretense or evasion.

  25. says

    I can’t say whether Chomsky is right or wrong, for the simple reason that he’s simply never been relevant to me, and he’s simply never figured in any public policy debate I’ve ever listened to. I’ve been a communist, an atheist, a socialist, a “social-democrat,” a Reagan Democrat, a Catholic, a born-again (very briefly), and a Pagan, and I’ve never heard anyone using anything Chomsky said to support a leftist or progressive argument, or to refute a reactionary or US-interventionist argument. AFAIK the progressive arguments seem to stand on their own, based on plain old common sense and easily available information. Seriously, who ever needed Chomsky to tell us what a bad idea the Iraq war was? Who needed him to decide that we should never have gone to Vietnam? What did Chomsky contribute to that debate that didn’t also come from someone else? It’s not like he’s getting secret information from a Bradley-Manning-style infiltrator.

    At times it seemed to me like the “ideological left” proclaimed Chomsky their “public intellectual,” because he was all they had; and he was happy to fulfill that role from the safety of his Princeton profesorship (of linguistics, not politics or foreign affairs). And all this blather about “marginalization” was simply an excuse for Chomsky’s own failure to offer anything useful to the public.

  26. sijd says

    @slc1

    According to Iran there is no nuclear weapons programme. Since you can’t stop something that doesn’t exist: what would you want them to do to convince you of their sincerity ? And please keep in mind that Iraq was invaded after Saddam Hussein allowed UN weapons inspectors to the country

  27. smrnda says

    Chomsky has some good points, but he’s made so many that I can’t possibly categorize his good points and his failings.

    On his debating and speaking, he’s in the business of stating facts, evidence and opinions. (At least if he’s wrong, I can find out where he made what error. ) Most of the time he seems fairly deadpan, and I notice that he asks questions of his opponents or discussion facilitators. If anything, he’s worth learning from for that. The standard ‘debate’ is to try to impress people with the volume (not quality) of one’ arguments, to go through them so fast that bad arguments don’t get explored or refuted, and to drop witticisms and deepities.

  28. slc1 says

    The standard ‘debate’ is to try to impress people with the volume (not quality) of one’ arguments, to go through them so fast that bad arguments don’t get explored or refuted, and to drop witticisms and deepities.

    Known as the Gish Gallop.

  29. slc1 says

    I think that, much as one criticizes Prof. Chomsky, the devil must be given his due. Unlike Stephen Walt, Chomsky is not afraid to confront his critics in debate.

    Chomsky is also noted as a world renown linguist and student of languages. I have seen criticisms of his work which claim that he is greatly overrated. Not being anything approaching an expert on the subject, I will refrain from commenting on the criticism, except to say that the critics appear to be much in the minority.

    Prof. Chomsky would not be the first individual who made great contributions in one field of endeavor to but who is a whackjob in unrelated fields. Currently, there is a mini-groundswell of speculation in the Rethuglican Party in Maryland about running renown Johns Hopkins physician Ben Carson for governor next year. Dr. Carson is a brilliant surgeon with a lengthy list of accomplishments. Unfortunately, he is also a creationist who rejects the theory of evolution on religious grounds. As Dr. David Gorski has opined on his ORAC blog, surgeons are really technicians who don’t need to know much science to perform their tasks.

  30. Rob Grigjanis says

    Backhanded compliments and absurd comparisons. You’re really working a bit too hard at the ‘soul of moderation’ shtick, slc1. It would be a refreshing change of pace if you addressed something Chomsky actually said, in context, rather than reheated, shallow, out-of-context characterizations. For someone who hasn’t followed Chomsky for the last couple of decades, you certainly have a lot to say.

  31. slc1 says

    Unlike a lot of commentors here and elsewhere, I believe in being fair. If there is something positive to say about Chomsky, it is incumbent on his critics to mention it. Hell, I even defended Suha Arafat’s comments in the presence of Hillary Clinton relative to the situation with the water table under the West Bank.

  32. Corvus illustris says

    The US media cannot dismiss Chomsky as a marginal figure who does not say anything worth noting. In a study done over the period 1980 to 1992, the top ten academic sources cited were: Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, Freud, Chomsky, Hegel and Cicero.

    But the link refers to academic citations (and the list almost tells you this)! It is not news that academics (and I am a retired one) have a completely different notion of “importance” from that of the mass media. The latter, with very few exceptions, could care less about the rank of authors cited by academics.

    The media are well paid to dismiss and marginalize Chomsky, and for the most part they do so. The situation has been analyzed–with mind-numbingly detailed examples–in Herman and Chomsky’s own Manufacturing Consent, published 25 years or so ago.

  33. slc1 says

    The US media cannot dismiss Chomsky as a marginal figure in the science of linguistics, where the consensus amongst his peers is that he is anything but marginal. However, they can certainly dismiss him as a marginal figure in the political sphere where many of his pontifications are childish to say the least.

    Just as an example, the US media cannot dismiss Linus Pauling as a marginal figure in the history of 20th century chemistry, where his contributions earned him a Nobel Prize. However, they can certainly dismiss him as a marginal figure in the medical sphere, based on his totally unsupported views of vitamin C.

  34. Rob Grigjanis says

    Again with the lazy, content-free comparisons. Pauling’s vitamin C versus Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent? In all your posts, you have yet to address anything substantial. Just regurgitated nonsense about Chomsky “palling around” with Holocaust deniers and the old antisemitic chestnut. So, tell us what’s wrong with Manufacturing Consent, slc1.

  35. Corvus illustris says

    The mass media do not basically care about Chomsky as linguist or Pauling as chemist, except perhaps when their genuine accomplishments serve as background material. At the risk of my derailing the Chomsky discussion, though, consider the case of Paul Krugman as public intellectual. Look: MIT connection, PU professorship, and Nobel Memorial Prize (aka Bankers’ Bonus) in economics, a line of work exceptionally relevant to the world’s current problems. Lively style. So Krugman presents comparable scholarship (with significant differences, of course) and uncontested expertise in a widely relevant field. Yet when his head is heard talking about economics on a Sunday TV show, it will be placed opposite those of the likes of Mary Matalin, George Will, and others of their ilk. With the active collusion of the master of ceremonies, the opposition will be given every opportunity to break in on and talk over professor Krugman. Now if a public intellectual with Krugman’s properties can be marginalized as some hippie academic with a beard, then so a fortiori the calm and scholarly professor Chomsky discussing policy, and the method is one that he and Herman exposed.

  36. says

    Chomsky has made so many points that you can’t even come up with one example? You’re starting to sound like a libertarian talking about Ayn Rand.

  37. Mano Singham says

    Chomsky and Edward Herman published a book called Manufacturing Consent that has been highly influential in explaining why the media behave the way they do, as largely propaganda organs. They argue that it arises quite naturally out of the filters that exist in the systems as a result of the ownership structure in a capitalist system so that the people working within it are not even aware that they are acting as propagandists but think they are being good journalists.

    You can read my summary of their arguments here, here, and here or, better still, read their book or watch a documentary based on it that can be seen online. The video is long but highly entertaining and I did not feel the time going by.

  38. says

    That’s it?! The media behave as propaganda organs? Does any literate person who follows the news really need a tenured professor in Princeton to tell us that? What else you got?

  39. Mano Singham says

    There is a big difference between making a simple assertion about something and a reasoned argument backed up by evidence. It is true that there is nothing new under the Sun and if you want to you can dismiss anything on those grounds. Copernicus’s heliocentric model was not ‘new’ in that sense either, having been anticipated by Aristarchus two thousand years earlier. What made Copernicus be taken seriously was the evidence he brought to bear in support of his position.

    What Chomsky and Herman did was to build a theoretical model of how the media system works based on five underlying factors, and amass the kinds of evidence based on historical and transnational data that is needed to show that it was a plausible model. It has been very influential in that respect.

    Incidentally, Chomsky is at MIT not Princeton.

  40. says

    The funny thing about Buckley’s accent is that he didn’t make it up out of thin air. It’s an affected upper-class accent known as Mid-Atlantic English, which was prevalent among the upper classes in the Northeastern U.S., often picked up by attendees of East Coast boarding schools, but has very rapidly died out. Wikipedia has a very good article about it.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mid-Atlantic accent is dying out in large part because of how thoroughly it has become associated in the minds of most people with Thurston Howell III of TV’s Gilligan’s Island. My mom works as an accountant for an upper-class married couple (with complicated rich-people finances), whom I’ve only met once or twice. The wife comes from a moneyed family, attended an exclusive boarding school, and sounds exactly like Mrs. Thurston Howell.

    Let’s just say that it was really unnerving to hear someone speak with the exact same accent as the over-the-top billionaire character from Gilligan’s Island, when hardly anyone else talks like that these days. I can only imagine how much more difficult it would be when the person with the accent is saying assholish stuff like William Buckley (I’m watching the long Chomsky documentary that Mano linked to and I had to pause it to write this comment when Buckley came on for the second time).

  41. Mano Singham says

    I remember Jonathan Miller saying something similar about upper class British who attended Oxford and Cambridge. They did not adopt an accent as such but a pattern of speech, a way of grouping words and pauses, that included a slight stutter (he actually had a real stutter) that made them feel distinct from the rest.

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