Chomsky in Context: A Response to Gareth Morley

By Murphy, Rae | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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Chomsky in Context: A Response to Gareth Morley

Murphy, Rae, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion

THE TRIGGER FOR GARETH MORLEY'S ARTICLE 15, IT APPEARS, THE reception given to 9-11, a slight pamphlet made up of interviews Noam Chomsky gave to various media outlets on the terrorist attacks on September 11 and the response of the American government. However, Morley goes after Chomsky on the basis not so much of this war as of the last one and the one before that. The purpose appears to be twofold: to warn the unwary of the pernicious influence Chomsky holds over the Left in general and to blame Chomsky for the problems of the nascent anti-globalization movement, which seems to Morley interchangeable with the Left. Chomsky's political writing is far from being above criticism, but Morley's elaborate Bill of Particulars leaves out important elements of historical context that cast his work in a very different light.

Morley's main issue is with Chomsky's loyalty to "anti-imperialist orthodoxy":

   Since his appearance as a political activist
   during the Vietnam war, Chomsky
   has argued that the "liberal" media and
   the "liberal intelligentsia" are really just
   apologists for American corporate/state
   power They "manufacture consent" by
   limiting the domain of acceptable criticism
   to instrumental issues of how best
   to accomplish the objectives of the American
   ruling class.

Chomsky would probably mildly quibble and qualify that characterization by saying some liberals and some members of the liberal intelligentsia, some of the time. But instead of trying to refute what Chomsky actually says and writes, Morley instead decides to refute the man himself. The method is to cherry-pick through his work and some writings of contemporaries and critics and to delve into the epistemological, social and class roots of Chomsky's philosophical underpinnings. Morley makes this remarkable statement and reveals a Marxist/reductivist sensibility of his own: "Chomsky grew up in Philadelphia and was heavily influenced by the Jewish working class culture of New York in the depression. For a bright secular Jewish kid in Chomsky's circumstances, the question was not whether to be a socialist, but which kind." I bet a few of those kids in those circumstances grew up to be Democrats, even Republicans.

Vietnam, Cambodia and genocide

In the course of building his case, Morley gallops through the history of the Left, situating Chomsky in the middle of everything, somewhat like the Woody Allen character Zelig. It begins in earnest with Vietnam when, as Christopher Hitchens suggests in parting company with Chomsky over 9-11, he was at his best:

   I have begun to think that Noam
   Chomsky has lost or is losing the qualities
   that made him a great moral and
   political tutor in the years of the
   Indochina war, and that enabled him to
   write such monumental essays as his critique
   of the Kahan Commission on Sabra
   and Shatila or his analysis of the situation
   in East Timor. I don't say this out of
   any "more in sorrow than anger" affectation:
   I have written several defenses of
   him and he knows it. But the last time
   we corresponded, some months ago, I was
   appalled by the robotic element both of
   his prose and of his opinions.

In a sense, Hitchens is too kind to Chomsky. There has always been a robotic--I would say dogmatic--element in his writings, and never more so than when he is answering critics. Like many members of the professoriat Chomsky does not take criticism well, and he takes being contradicted not at all. His polemical style sometimes gets him into trouble, and never more so than in the debate on Pol Pot and "genocide" more than 20 years ago. Calling him an apologist for genocide, however, is an oversimplification. His extended exchange with Jean Lacouture focused on numbers and sources and who said what when. The articles are all on the public record--as Casey Stengel would say, "You could look it up"--and I believe Chomsky wins on points.

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