Noam Chomsky: Theorist

Article excerpt

When, in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, Christopher Hitchens began filing for divorce from the left (or from a section of it, at any rate), he would frequently use "Noam Chomsky" as a shorthand for all that he wanted to leave behind. In Hitchens's view, Chomsky was typical of a certain kind of leftist who saw, in the carnage, not a "hinge event" in world history, but rather the sorry confirmation of a "pre-existing world-view" - one in which American perfidy (and worse) is the salient geopolitical reality.

In a piece written the day after Mohamed Atta and his colleagues did their worst, Chomsky acknowledged that the attacks in New York and Washington, DC were "major atrocities" but insisted that, in scale, they did not "reach the level" of the toll exacted by the US attack on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998, authorised by President Bill Clinton while he was mired in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Leaving aside the question of how one might compute the "collateral" casualties of such an attack, Hitchens asked whether one must not also take "intention and motive" into account. However wicked and sordidly political, Clinton's aim, he said, had not been "directly homicidal" in the way al-Qaeda's was. Chomsky ignored the question in his response to Hitchens: fine-grained casuistical analysis has never interested him. After all, his intellectual and academic reputation was made not in moral or political philosophy, but in the field of theoretical linguistics. …