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 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’.