A FEW WEEKS AFTER THE ATTACKS ON THE WORLD TRADE CENTER, I was in a slightly funky bookstore in Vancouver. It was just at the moment when it was becoming obvious that, despite the fears of our leaders and the hopes of our enemies, no suicide hijackings were going to interfere with North American shopping habits. The bookstore itself confirmed the resilience of consumption: except for the somewhat greater prominence of books on anthrax and Afghanistan, the scene would have been completely indistinguishable from the same store on September 10. As a foot soldier in the battle to maintain aggregate demand, I picked up a book about the Taliban and Central Asian politics, and took my place in the purchase lineup.
A thin young man in a baggy jacket had started a conversation with the hipper-looking clerk about his purchase, a collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky, containing the great linguist's thoughts about the attacks of the month before. (1) Both were of the view that the United States had brought the attacks upon itself and was planning reprisals against Afghan civilians. I started to turn a little red. As a Canadian, I am opposed to intervening in conversations in shopping lines or on public transit, particularly if to do so would risk provoking controversy. But September 11 was recent enough that I felt a little ashamed of my Canadian scruples. Still, I likely would have remained silent had the customer not announced, "It must be true if it's in Chomsky," with neither irony in his voice nor opposition from the clerk. I replied in what I like to remember as a sweetly reasonable voice, "Chomsky's an apologist for genocide." (2)
They looked nonplussed. I told them that Chomsky, in a book still in print, had favourably compared the Khmer Rouge to the French Resistance. (3) The clerk gave me the kind of glassy-eyed look typically reserved for insistent adherents of Esperanto or veganism and said, "You certainly seem to know a lot about it, sir." The customer and clerk shared a smile; I paid for my purchase and walked away grumbling, feeling like a complete crank. I was surprised and a little embarrassed at my own vehemence, but reactions to Chomsky do tend toward the passionate.
Even Chomsky's greatest defenders do not claim he has a way with words. One of the century's greatest students of human language, he is nonetheless incomprehensible. As a political writer, he has two rhetorical styles: laboured irony and numbing detail. Many years ago, his publishers realized that transcribed interviews would sell better than the books he actually writes.
Chomsky refuses to talk about himself; he claims he will not watch Manufacturing Consent, a 1995 National Film Board of Canada movie about his political ideas, because he does not want to encourage a cult of personality. (4) More than almost any other political figure, he claims objectivity and factualness. Still, Chomsky inspires intense feelings of aversion or devotion, quite unlike the bored indifference most radical academics can expect.
There is no denying Chomsky's influence. More than six months after the September 11 attacks, his book on the subject ranks 191st on amazon.com, and he has two other books in the top 2,000--a result few writers of any kind, and no political writer, can match. Manufacturing Consent ranks as among the most viewed documentaries of all time. (5) Despite his claim that he is censored by the American media, Chomsky is among its 100 most-cited intellectuals, and some 90 per cent of those citations concern his political rather than linguistic writing. (6) An entire network of "alternative" media--Z Magazine, Pacifica Radio, South End Press--repeat his every word, while, as federal judge and legal scholar Richard Posner has shown, more mainstream sources give him considerable attention. Despite his complaints of total marginalization, Chomsky is a major part of the American political scene.
Chomsky has played mentor to three generations of leftists: to the 1968 generation, he was the cool, rational prosecutor of the Cold War: in the 70s, he fiercely denounced anyone with misgivings about the new Communist regimes of Indochina; in the 80s, those of us politicized by the movements against apartheid and American intervention in Central America relied on Chomsky for the kind of argumentation we could not get from Jello Biafra or The Clash. …