There's a famous definition in the Gospels of the hypocrite, and the hypocrite is the person who refuses to apply to himself the standards he applies to others. By that standard, the entire commentary and discussion of the so-called War on Terror is pure hypocrisy, virtually without exception. Can anybody understand that? No, they can't understand it.
--Noam Chomsky, Power and Terror, 2003
Noam Chomsky was the most conspicuous American intellectual to rationalize the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. The death toll, he argued, was minor compared to the list of Third World victims of the "far more extreme terrorism" of United States foreign policy. Despite its calculated affront to mainstream opinion, this sentiment went down very well with Chomsky's own constituency. He has never been more popular among the academic and intellectual left than he is today.
Two books of interviews with him published since September 11, 2001 both went straight onto the bestseller lists. (1) One of them has since been turned into a film entitled Power and Terror, now doing brisk business in the art-house movie market. In March 2002 the film's director, John Junkerman, accompanied his subject to the University of California, Berkeley, where in a five-day visit Chomsky gave five political talks to a total audience of no fewer than five thousand people.
Meanwhile, the liberal news media around the world has sought him out for countless interviews as the most prominent intellectual opposed to the American response to the terrorist attacks. Newspaper articles routinely open by reminding readers of his awesome intellectual status. A profile headlined "Conscience of a Nation" in the English daily The Guardian declared: "Chomsky ranks with Marx, Shakespeare, and the Bible as one of the ten most quoted sources in the humanities--and is the only writer among them still alive." The New York Times has called him "arguably the most important intellectual alive"
Chomsky has used his status, originally gained in the field of linguistics, to turn himself into the leading voice of the American left. He is not merely a spokesman. His own stance has done much to structure left-wing politics over the past forty years. Today, when actors, rock stars, and protesting students mouth anti-American slogans for the cameras, they are very often expressing sentiments they have gleaned from Chomsky's voluminous output.
Hence, to examine Chomsky's views is to analyze the core mindset of contemporary radicalism, especially the variety that now holds so much sway in the academic and arts communities.
Chomsky has been a celebrity radical since the mid-1960s when he made his name as an anti-Vietnam War activist. Although he lost some of his appeal in the late-1970s and 1980s by his defense of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, he has used September 11 to restore his reputation, indeed to surpass his former influence and stature. At seventy-four years of age, he is today the doyen of the American and much of the world's intellectual left.
He is, however, an unconventional academic radical. Over the past thirty years, the left in the humanities has been smitten by high theory, especially neo-Marxist, feminist, and postmodernist philosophy out of Germany and France. Much of this material was arcane enough in its own language but in translation it elevated obscurantism to a badge of prestige. It inundated the humanities with relativism both in epistemology and moral philosophy.
In contrast, Chomsky has produced no substantial body of political theory of his own. Nor is he a relativist. He advocates the pursuit of truth and knowledge about human affairs and promotes a simple, universal set of moral principles. Moreover, his political writings are very clear, pitched to a general rather than specialist audience. He supports his claims not by appeals to some esoteric conceptual …