Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Chomsky Effect

Vanderbilt professor Robert Barsky.s The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower, an examination of the views and impact of octogenarian linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky, is now out in a more affordable paperback edition.a proletarian development that would no doubt please the outspoken libertarian socialist. Chomsky has been the darling of the left and scourge of the right for decades, but Barsky seeks to avoid easy generalizations and heated rhetoric in this scholarly study. By looking at specific Chomsky statements and separating fact from legend, Barsky hopes to provide both an informative and accurate look at a figure beloved by his supporters, hated by his detractors and often targeted for investigation by nervous federal agencies. This is Barsky.s second tome on the topic.he authored Noam Chomksy: A Life of Dissent in 1997.
Sat., Jan. 9, 2 p.m., 2010

The Chomsky Effect
A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower
Robert F. Barsky

"People are dangerous. If they're able to involve themselves in issues that matter, they may change the distribution of power, to the detriment of those who are rich and privileged."
.Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky has been praised by the likes of Bono and Hugo Chávez and attacked by the likes of Tom Wolfe and Alan Dershowitz. Groundbreaking linguist and outspoken political dissenter.voted "most important public intellectual in the world today" in a 2005 magazine poll.Chomsky inspires fanatical devotion and fierce vituperation. In The Chomsky Effect, Chomsky biographer Robert Barsky examines his subject's positions on a number of highly charged issues.Chomsky's signature issues, including Vietnam, Israel, East Timor, and his work in linguistics.that illustrate not only "the Chomsky effect" but also "the Chomsky approach."

Chomsky, writes Barsky, is an inspiration and a catalyst. Not just an analyst or advocate, he encourages people to become be "dangerous" and challenge power and privilege. The actions and reactions of Chomsky supporters and detractors and the attending contentiousness can be thought of as "the Chomsky effect." Barsky discusses Chomsky's work in such areas as language studies, media, education, law, and politics, and identifies Chomsky's intellectual and political precursors. He charts anti-Chomsky sentiments as expressed from various standpoints, including contemporary Zionism, mainstream politics, and scholarly communities. He discusses Chomsky's popular appeal.his unlikely status as a punk and rock hero (Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam is one of many rock and roll Chomskyites).and offers in-depth analyses of the controversies surrounding Chomsky's roles in the "Faurisson Affair" and the "Pol Pot Affair." Finally, Barsky considers the role of the public intellectual in order to assess why Noam Chomsky has come to mean so much to so many.and what he may mean to generations to come.

About the Author

Robert F. Barsky is Professor of English, Comparative Literature, French, and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent (MIT Press, 1997).

"Barsky does a spectacular job of offering an essential introduction to Chomsky's works."
.Shih-Yu Chou, Political Studies Review

"This book should be read by anyone interested in the existing or potential role for public intellectuals in American societyand in politics, particularly."
.Richard C. Collins, Virginia Quarterly Review

"The insights into Chomsky as a person, notably in the many extracts from his correspondence and remarks by friends and colleagues, are fascinating."
.Raphael Salkie, Times Higher Education Supplement

"The Chomsky Effect by Robert Barsky is a magnificent book showing Chomsky as the leading linguist of our time; the philosopher whose analytic powers and prophetic vision are unparalleled, yet matched only by his moral and ironic outrage which draws intellectual blood from his adversaries. Barsky's significant accomplishment is to add his deep learning in the history of comparative ideas and popular culture with his own incisive and readable accounts of crucial intellectual and political battles that dictate the present and probable future. A wonderful read."
.Marcus Raskin, Co-founder, Institute for Policy Studies, and Professor, School of Public Policy and Administration, George Washington University

"Whether you revere or revile him, no one can doubt that Noam Chomsky has been roiling more waters than any other intellectual activist on the globe for well over four decades. In this imaginative and sympathetic account of Chomsky's interventions in a wide variety of political arenas, Robert Barsky provides ample ammunition for both sides of the debate over the effectiveness of the Chomsky effect."
.Martin Jay, Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor, Department of History, University of California, Berkeley

"Robert Barsky succeeds in uniting the various strands in Chomsky's career. teaching, political theory, philosophy, and public debate. Chomsky's success constitutes definitive proof that an intellectual can be an activist and that every society needs a Socrates to shame it. Barsky has produced a work of homage to learning and to personal courage."
.Julius H. Grey, Constitutional lawyer, former member of McGill Faculty of Law

Noam Chomsky is one of the most recognized names of our time, and
in 2005 he was voted the most important public intellectual in the world
today, the result of his winning 4,827 of 20,000 votes cast in a poll con-
ducted jointly by a British monthly called Prospect and the Washington-
based journal Foreign Policy.
This result is hardly surprising; his
contributions to linguistics and his theories regarding the workings of
the human mind have rocked the intellectual world for more than .fty
years, beginning with the critical reception of his early work on syntac-
tic structures and his appeal to what he called the Cartesian approach
to language. His crusade against the Vietnam War and his on-going cri-
tique of American foreign policy, his analyses of the Middle East and
Central America, his long-standing local and international activism, and
his assessment (sometimes with Edward Herman) of how media func-
tions in contemporary society have made him a darling of political dis-
senters around the world who take from Chomsky both useful analysis
and, moreover, a whole approach that is valuable in the struggle against
oppression. He is at once a beacon to the downtrodden, and, as much
of the world witnessed on September 20, 2006, from a televised speech
delivered at the United Nations General Assembly, he is also an inspira-
tion to the likes of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who recom-
mended to representatives of the governments of the world that they read
Chomsky.s recent book Hegemony or Survival.
Chomsky.s vicious and
persistent attacks against .Stalinist. politicians, .commissar. academ-
ics, greedy members of the managerial classes, poser liberals, .scienti.c.
Marxists, self-aggrandizing social scientists, authoritarian pedagogues,
lackey media types, and fanatical sports fans has also created a viciousset of adversaries who commit remarkable amounts of effort to discredit,
admonish, critique, or ignore Chomsky.s approach. In the face of it all,
Chomsky stands forth, now eighty years old and yet as energetic, fear-
less, and courageous as ever, perhaps even more so as the years bring
him new kinds of experience, optimism and disgust; he is indeed, as U2.s
Bono has called him, the .rebel without a pause.. As a consequence,
most everyone has strong feelings (positive and negative) about Noam
Chomsky, and the effect that he has upon people extending across
national, social, and institutional lines is a fascinating phenomenon, and
is a remarkable testament to what an intellectual can accomplish when
engaged beyond the ivory tower.
One realm in which he has found himself alienated from the majority,
particularly in his own country, is spectator sports, and this single
example is illustrative of the complexity of his effect. Noam Chomsky is
the Niles from the popular sitcom Frasier in regard to contact sports,
gloriously and also willfully disconnected. This has had a remarkably
negative effect upon many people from all walks of life, a testament to
the importance of sports not only in this society, but more generally, and
it may be an example where the application of a general principle .nds
itself counterproductive in the overall objectives. For him, the basic social
role of sports is diversion aimed at .Joe Six Pack,. rather than, say, relax-
ation, aimed at forming and sustaining families, communities, and
friends. In the .lm Manufacturing Consent, for example, he suggests that
there is a range of ways in which popular culture seeks to divert people,
to .get them away from things that matter,. to .reduce their capacity
to think.. From this standpoint, sports is for him .an example of the
indoctrination system,. .something to pay attention to that.s of no
importance,. which keeps people from worrying about things that
matter to their lives that they might have some chance to do something
about. A scene recorded in the .lm is as follows:
You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked
myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football
game? [laughter] I mean, I don.t know anybody on the team, you know? [audi-
ence roars] I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheer-
ing for my team? It doesn.t mean doesn.t make sense. But the point is,
it does make sense: it.s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission
to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership fact, it.s training
xPrefacein irrational jingoism. That.s also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you
look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that.s
why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and
advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.
I think that in terms of the negative .effect. that Chomsky can induce,
sports has been at or near the top of the list for the naysayer, just below
his views on Israel and his unpatriotic and ungrateful attitude toward
his country. But careful examination of what he says, even in this short
quote, reveals a basic attitude one can discern and probably admire
outside of the example that he provides: he hates arbitrary authority and
submission thereto, he has scorn for irrational beliefs and jingoistic
replies to complex issues, and he looks for ways in which corporate
America abusively incurs into our lives in search of new ways to make
pro.t. He doesn.t look to the ways in which such diversions help bridge
generation gaps between parents and kids, how attention to strange
rituals like NCAA tournaments teaches us about communities and indi-
viduals far from home, the virtues of kids who might not otherwise be
interested in reading suddenly gobbling up sports pages written by quite
creative and often humorous journalists. What he sees instead is sub-
mission and rituals that recall the horrors of what nationalism or patri-
otism have led to this century. That.s one side. Another side is the
unadulterated humor of the quote, as indicated by the audience reaction,
which is laughter and uproar (followed, perhaps, by much more divisive
discussions after the talk among people who took the comments per-
sonally). This humor both drives the point home and also allows him to
make the move from the example to the deeper message:
But the point is, this sense of irrational loyalty to some sort of meaningless com-
munity is training for subordination to power, and for chauvinism. And of
course, looking at gladiators, looking at guys who can do things
you couldn.t possibly, you couldn.t pole-vault seventeen feet, or do all
these crazy things these people do. But it.s a model that supposed to try
to emulate. And gladiators .ghting for your cause, so got to cheer
them on, and got to be happy when the opposing quarterback gets carted
off the .eld a total wreck and so on. All of this stuff builds up extremely anti-
social aspects of human psychology. I mean, there; there.s no doubt that there. But emphasized, and exaggerated, and brought out by spec-
tator sports: irrational competition, irrational loyalty to power systems, passive
acquiescence to quite awful values, really. In fact, it.s hard to imagine anything
that contributes more fundamentally to authoritarian attitudes than this does, in
Prefacexiaddition to the fact that it just engages a lot of intelligence and keeps people
away from other things.
Still another aspect is his noting from the example of professional
sports the real creativity, intelligence, and concentration that people
devote to their assessment of sports, which leads them to call into radio
stations and grill with carefully articulated approaches the erroneous
assessments made by coaches and .authorities,. a point he reiterates:
In fact, I have the habit when I.m driving of turning on these radio call-in pro-
grams, and it.s striking when you listen to the ones about sports. They have these
groups of sports reporters, or some kind of experts on a panel, and people call
in and have discussions with them. First of all, the audience obviously is devot-
ing an enormous amount of time to it all. But the more striking fact is, the callers
have a tremendous amount of expertise, they have detailed knowledge of all
kinds of things, they carry on these extremely complex discussions. And strik-
ingly, not at all in awe of the experts.which is a little unusual. See, in
most parts of the society, encouraged to defer to experts: we all do it more
than we should. But in this area, people don.t seem to do quite happy
to have an argument with the coach of the Boston Celtics, and tell him what he
should have done, and enter into big debates with him and so on. So the fact is
that in this domain, people somehow feel quite con.dent, and they know a lot.
there.s obviously a great deal of intelligence going into it.
If only, he thinks, people would do the same with their politicians, if only
they.d stand up to their .commander in chief. when he lies to them, or
if they.d call their .leaders. when the strategy they are using is leading
to obvious failure. Some people admire Chomsky for his consistency,
.nding in this assessment the basic values that guide all of his work,
while others .nd in him a haughty disregard for rituals held most dear
to the population. And never the twain shall meet.
I am concerned with such issues that display the range of reactions to
Chomsky.s arguments because, taken together, they contribute to what
I have come to think of as the .Noam Chomsky Approach.. This
approach, and the effect that it has, is important not only for those inter-
ested in understanding Noam Chomsky as a person, but also for those
who hope to change the current situation of systemic inequality in the
direction of the .good society. he describes. Positive change is not going
to come about thanks only to Noam Chomsky or others whose work
has led to ethical and responsible action beyond the ivory tower; indeed
any such suggestion would be worrisome since it implies either a quest
for a personality to revere, or a high level of adherence to some
xiiPrefacepreconceived dogma. If society is to change, then attitudes toward it must
change, hopefully in response to rational and informed decision making
effected for the good of the individual and the associations into which
she or he freely enters. Chomsky plays a role here not solely on account
of his speci.c analysis of particular events but, moreover, the attitude
that he brings to his work, the approach that he applies to issues he con-
siders important, and to the catalyzing effect that he has upon others
who are witness to his behavior and knowledgeable about his approach.
From this standpoint Noam Chomsky may seem to some people to be a
guru or an ideologue, but the fact is that he scorns such an image in
favor of the idea that he tries to help infuse energy or support to work
that is or could be done to improve society. If he could just serve this
purpose, the catalyst who encourages peoples. curiosity and willingness
to be the .dangerous. people they can be by fostering interest in matters
that should concern them, his self-assigned role would undoubtedly be
easier to ful.ll. But any dissident or dissenter comes up against power,
and interests, and, accordingly, considerable resources dedicated to the
maintenance of status quo power relations, so it is incumbent upon him
to offer up credible sources, .indisputable. facts, and convincing rheto-
ric to guide people along the path to understanding not only the world
but even their own self-interest. We ought to be concerned about how
the government is spending our money, that is, the rationale for spend-
ing a huge percentage of the federal budget on military and Pentagon
expenses rather than upon the kind of social projects and programs that
promote a higher standard of living for the majority of the population.
This is self-interest, and informed involvement in political discussions by
that measure is the exercise of our individual interest, in the same way
as .guring out how our monthly income is being spent is in our inter-
est. But given that such self-interest con.icts with a power elite interest,
because government of.cials like corporate managers would generally
prefer to act with impunity (the cloaks of secrecy that surround our own
government.s actions on a range of fronts is testament to this), it.s likely
that attempts to become engaged in our own affairs will be met with
resistance or scorn. As regards Chomsky, this produces a large contin-
gent of retractors, particularly among those who possess signi.cant
resources or power, and therefore who have a lot to lose. Many of them
Prefacexiiiare eager to jump on any miscue that could be used to undermine their
power, creating, shall we say, a .self-interest effect.. For this reason,
there is likely to be a range of reactions against Noam Chomsky, depend-
ing upon where one sits on the power spectrum, which are in fact in
evidence in reviews of his books (or books about him) or in the com-
mentaries that one hears about his importance, the accuracy of his work,
his ongoing legacy, or the value of his contributions to the range of .elds
his work impacts. These con.icting assessments are evident on a range
of fronts but come together around particular debates, which is why I
will discuss in some detail certain key moments that come up when
people talk about Chomsky.s work, which variously include his views
on why the United States was in North (and South) Vietnam, the false
pretensions of much of the research in the .social sciences,. Robert
Faurisson.s denying the Holocaust, why East Timor was downplayed in
the Western press in favor of Cambodia, the U.S.-supported militariza-
tion of Israel, and so forth.
In short, this book attempts to answer some of the questions most fre-
quently asked about Chomsky.s work by assessing how he approaches
the various subject areas to which he contributes, notably language
studies, media, education, law, and politics, and by noting the references
he makes, implicitly and explicitly, to the precursors from whom he
draws. The reception of this approach is discussed as well under the
rubric of the .Noam Chomsky Effect,. which speaks of his positive and
negative popularity, and the impact he has on both accounts. I begin,
therefore, with a discussion of Chomsky.s popular appeal, the use made
of his persona in popular culture such as rock music, .lm, and theater,
and the links that exist between him and other popular academics/social
thinkers. In the second chapter, I discuss the resistance to Noam
Chomsky from various standpoints, including contemporary Zionists,
mainstream political thinkers, and certain communities of scholars (espe-
cially in linguistics), and I also undertake an in-depth assessment of the
Faurisson Affair and the Pol Pot Affair. Chapter 3 is a systematic survey
of the individuals and movements that have in.uenced Chomsky.s work:
from the .Cartesian. thinkers (Descartes, von Humboldt, Montesquieu,
Rousseau, Voltaire) to the Scottish Enlightenment (notably Hume and
Smith); from American classical liberals (Dewey, Jefferson, Madison,
xivPrefaceThoreau) to anti-Bolshevik Marxists (Gramsci, Korsch, Luxemburg,
Mattick, Pannekoek); from anarchists (Bakunin, Goldman, Kropotkin,
Rocker) to anarcho-syndicalists (notably the Spanish example from
the 1930s); from Zellig Harris to Bertrand Russell. I focus somewhat
unevenly upon certain precursors who have been more subject to neglect
in our culture, (Zellig Harris, Rudolph Rocker, and Wilhelm von Hum-
boldt) because in my opinion Chomsky.s personal and intellectual traits
are best understood and contextualized with reference to these .gures.
The second half of the book assesses Chomsky.s approach to speci.c
domains and milieus that are crucial and often misconstrued in discus-
sions about the value of his work. Chapter 4 is a discussion of the legal
side and legal implications of his political work, and therein I undertake
a sustained assessment of his approach to ethics, classical liberalism,
international law, human rights, and the function of law in the .good
society.. Chapter 5 is an overview of his views of education, including
its role in contemporary society and the role it should or could play in
the good society. This chapter also contains a survey of the education
theories from which Chomsky draws inspiration, or about which he has
commented, including those of Michael Bakunin, John Dewey, Emma
Goldman, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Bertrand Russell, as well as contem-
porary efforts on the internet (ZNet, etc.). Chapter 6 assesses Chomsky.s
approach to the study of language and discourse and focuses upon the
basic questions he asks in his own linguistic work, followed by an assess-
ment of how his work on language has been appropriated outside of the
linguistic domain, media studies, and various approaches to language
research. Chapter 7 discusses creative discourse, with the speci.c
example of literature and its associated questioning and refusal of knowl-
edge claims. This rebelliousness on the part of the .ction writer, who
often seems the type who might show up drunk at a party and tell every-
one there that they really don.t know what talking about, leads
naturally into a meditation on the role of humor, in the broad sense and
in Chomsky.s work and in the many talks he gives. And in the end, I
offer a survey of approaches to the .public intellectual,. historically and
contemporaneously, with an eye to assessing how Chomsky came to
mean so much to so many and, therefore, what he may mean to the gen-
erations to come.
PrefacexvOne of the reviewers of the manuscript for this book suggested that I
re.ect upon the voice, or more accurately the voices, that narrate the dif-
ferent chapters in this book. I admit to being con.icted as regards this
issue, in part because it.s doubtlessly clear to those who have read my
work that I am extremely sympathetic to .Chomsky.s approach,. and
the ten years I have devoted to this book is as tangible a sign of this as
I could possibly produce. On the other hand, when I .nished the .nal
revisions it struck me that this book, which was originally entitled
.People are Dangerous,. is on the one hand a book about Noam
Chomsky, but on the other hand is not, or not solely: The Chomsky
Effect is a re.ection, sometimes critical, of what Noam Chomsky has
taught me and others, that is, it is a very tangible example of the
.Chomsky Effect. in a whole series of registers and realms. So what I
think has emerged as the compendium of ideas that Chomsky has
inspired or promoted is a re.ection upon how people relate to each other
when placed into relationships of all kinds.loving, fearing, hating,
admiring, loathing, desiring.via Noam Chomsky. For this reason the
reviewer was absolutely correct and very helpful in drawing attention to
the fact that there isn.t a single .voice. in this text but rather a collec-
tion of assertions, analyses, attacks, defenses, explanations, and, more-
over, an array of thoughts that are situated between two lives, Noam
Chomsky.s and my own, which meet and diverge in ways that I hope are
inspiring, not necessarily in themselves, but in other venues and spaces
between the voices, that is, in worlds not yet imagined. In short, this
is a dialogue, a .dialogic. text, to invoke the oft-mentioned work of
Mikhail Bakhtin, which tries through a range of speech genres to provide
more than just the background for a system of ideas by showing the tan-
gible imprints that these ideas have upon an array of people in all sorts
of .elds and worlds.
This work follows in the line of studies undertaken, primarily, by
Carlos Otero, and works within a similar framework as the one he artic-
ulates in his introductions and excellent footnotes for books like Criti-
cal Assessments: Noam Chomsky,Radical Priorities, and Language and
Politics. It also follows from the inspiring corpuses of work on anarchists
by Paul Avrich and George Woodcock, the wonderful writings and pub-
lishing work of those associated with AK Press and Black Rose Press,
xviPrefaceand the range of excellent works about Chomsky.s approach to society
by his friend David Barsamian, by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick
through the .lm and the book called Manufacturing Consent, Fred
d.Agostino.s Chomsky.s System of Ideas, Milan Rai.s Chomsky.s Poli-
tics, Raphael Salkie, The Chomsky Update: Language and Politics, and,
of course, the truly astonishing work that Michael Albert and his col-
lective have undertaken on Znet and in Z Magazine. I owe debts of grati-
tude to a range of persons who have generously commented on various
versions of this text or on ideas presented herein, indeed way more than
I can possibly even recall at this point. I would like to say, however,
that Sam Abramovitch, Saleem Ali, Stephen Anderson, Marc Angenot,
Marion Appel, Jill Brussel, Karl Brussel, Murray Eden, Alain Gold-
schlager, John Goldsmith, Elizabeth Harvey, David Heap, Denise Helly,
Henry Hiz, Henry Hoenigswald, Michael Holquist, Russell Jacoby,
Martin Jay, George Jochnowitz, Konrad Koerner, Julia Kristeva,
Seymour Melman, Bruce Nevin, Juvenal Ndijirigya, Christopher Norris,
Mark Pavlick, Michel Pierssens, Larry Portis, Marcus Raskin, Nicolas
Ruwet, Tiphaine Samoyault, Elise Snyder, George Szanto, Darko Suvin,
Jeff Tennant, Clive Thomson, Lisa Travis, and Michel Van Schendel
offered invaluable assistance for this project, sometimes unwittingly, and
Alham Usman brought me to the .nal corrections by patiently listening
to and commenting upon the entire text one last time. I have also learned
a tremendous amount from organizations such as the Chomsky Reading
Group at Vertigo Books in Washington, D.C., The Palo Alto Peace and
Justice Center in California, David Barsamian.s public radio show in
Boulder, Colorado, and Znet. I have also thoroughly enjoyed reading the
words of the many unsung Internet heroes who read Chomsky.s work
and react to it in their blogs, reading lists, and posted messages. Support
for this research has taken many forms, and I owe special debts of grati-
tude to a range of people af.liated with particular institutions in which
this work was written, notably Columbia University, the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, University of
Western Ontario, Vanderbilt University, and Yale University. I owe
special gratitude to current and past members of the MIT Press, notably
Carolyn Anderson, Amy Brand, Gita Manaktala, Sandra Minkkinen,
Marney Smyth, Ben Williams, and especially Tom Stone, and, for
Prefacexviifunding, the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
Jeffrey Weston.s comics depicting Chomsky and Predicate have been a
constant source of entertainment and wisdom, and I.m grateful for his
contributions to this book. None of this would have made any sense
without my remarkable boys, Tristan and Benjamin, who show the won-
derful and exciting sides to being .dangerous. with their creativity and
their force. And to Marsha, whose magic exceeds reason, whose dance gravity, and in whose presence I have found ecstatic, passionate,
sublime calm.

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