The Botereid

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Sullivan & Chomsky

I just watched Sullivan and Chomsky on Maher's show after talking with a friend about it and seeing Jeff Jarvis post on it. My friend sent me his thoughts on how Sullivan treated Chomsky, and I thought that I would quickly answer them. But I found myself writing at far greater length than I expected and felt that it would be good to post my response here.

To my friend: I apologize for posting this without your approval. If you want it off, just let me know and I'll pull it in a second. It just embodies so many positions I hold right now that I thought it would be good to post it here.

Overall, I think that Sullivan didn't come off that great. Then again, I think the fact that the crowd went mad almost every time one of the others spoke wasn't too conducive to him coming off well. Did I think he sounded dumb? No. But I think he sounded defensive (e.g. all the stuttering, the talking over people), and at times he was reaching.

Chomsky sounded reasoned and articulate, as he always does. It would have been entirely useless to have him on to debate because I'm sure a conversation between him and Sullivan wouldn't even get off the ground. What did I think of him as far as substance goes? Well, first I agree with Sullivan's statement that Maher was treating him "like a folk hero." Second, I strenuously disagree with some of his fundamental assumptions, so it's hard to take him seriously. I'll address those below, as I go through your points. I won't comment on everything, but just because there's always a lot I agree with you on and it's getting late anyway (I have to be up at 5 tomorrow).

... Chomsky, I feel, is not comparable to Jerry Falwell and others who are far right. I think Chomsky uses facts and then draws conclusions from those facts that are wrong. I don't think that anarchism would ever, in a million years, work, but I don't think Chomsky "sucks" for thinking what he thinks. Sullivan has no right to compare Chomsky to those on the far right such as Falwell. I would never, in a million years, listen to what someone like Falwell has to say. I would listen to Buckley, but not Falwell. Falwell doesn't use facts to conclude what he says, everything is just plain dumb. I don't like Michael Moore; in fact, I don't even respect him, but I do respect Chomsky, even if I don't agree with him.

I disagree. My assumptions: there is a "far left" and a "far right" in the US. Whether the center of these positions is correct is entirely moot. But it's nevertheless reasonable to say that the center of these positions is as reasonable a compromise as you can draw from them. Why are they "far" either way? I would say because neither of them draws too much support in the bigger picture.

I think Chomsky occupies the far left to Falwell's far right. Does Falwell's hate-mongering and irrationality immediately make Chomsky also wrong? No. So are they incomparable? Not necessarily. To think that two polar opposite moral and intellectual positions would be wrong in the same ways is unlikely though. I've already detailed how Falwell is wrong. How is Chomsky?

We agree that Michael Moore is an asshole. Why? One of the reasons I do is that he abuses the facts so vigorously. E.g. he takes one shot of someone speaking, cuts to another shot while they finish the sentence, then cut back to an entirely different speech, concatenating two sentences that have nothing to do with each other. If that's not abusing the factual information and actual representation of the world, I don't know what is.

Chomsky similarly doesn't just draw wrong conclusions from the facts, he abuses them. Worst of all, he never admits when he's been wrong. That's the sign of someone who's making a bad argument. I've seen Sullivan, for example, admit when he's been wrong on subjects as varied as why Bush won the election (originally he stood by the "gay marriage bans drove people to the polls idea," but he bowed in the face of the statistics) to the job the Bush administration has done conducting this war. Chomsky on the other hand has supported the Soviet Union, Pol Pot, Cuba, and others, while eviscerating the United States at every opportunity. And he never admits that he's wrong. Only in recent years when documents have shown the depravity of Stalin's Soviet Union has he admitted that they had problems. But they're still nowhere near what he accuses the US of. How can that be? We've never murdered between 7 - 25 million of our own people (estimates of the amount of Russians killed under Stalin's purges). How is that even a comparison? If you want to abstract "national morals" (i.e. is the US as a whole "good") from actions, I don't see how the US, with all its flaws, can be compared to that. And has he ever conceded how wrong he was about the Khmer Rouge? When the Cambodian genocide became clear, he clammed up.

In sum: Hold the US to high moral standards. But I will have little respect for someone who is not willing to hold the rest of the world to far lesser standards. I think Chomsky is indeed comparable to the far right. Do I think he "sucks"? Do I have respect for him? I'll answer these below.

You know as well as I that Chomsky isn't in this for the money. You know as well as I that he was a professor at MIT before any of his writings on policy; he had already made an indelible impact on his field when he wrote At War with Asia. It's not fair when Sullivan said he was lying and that he is making millions of this. I don't know how much Chomsky makes, but you know he answered our emails, and why? Because he wants to aid his image? Come on, you know that's bullshit. He believes in what he is doing and you and I have differing opinions from his but we can't degrade his position.

First, I agree with you about Chomsky's reasons for doing what he is doing, and I agree with you that he deserves a lot of respect for his effort. Remember what I said when we sent him those emails? "How many congressmen and senators would get back to us personally within a day?" I stand by that. I think Chomsky believes what he says, and I respect him for the sweat he puts into efforts that he believes will make the world a better place. When I was first introduced to politics, it was very much via Chomsky. I was distraught by what he was showing in his books, and I did feel so much solace when he personally responded, and in a heartfelt way, to what I wrote him. He didn't have to do that. He's a ridiculously busy man. He did it because he knew it mattered to some poor confused kid out there. That deserves respect no matter who you are.

Second, I believe Chomsky deserves, and gets, the world's respect in the field of linguistics. He virtually created the field. He is as important to it as Freud is to psychology. But should that respect transfer to his political views? No, definitely not. If it turned out that Andrew Sullivan was actually a linguistics aficionado and decided to publish book after book explaining his radical new theories, would I suggest that they should be rejected out of hand? No. I'd be wary of them, but I'd say that, since he's earned respect in one field, let's give him a chance to show why he's right in another. Nevertheless, I would judge him on the rigor of his arguments, and not accord him respect for linguistic theorizing if he didn't deserve it. Chomsky has gotten forty years of chances on his political arguments. He has rarely proved himself right about anything.

I did think that Sullivan disrespected his motives more than he deserved, but I can also understand his anger. I would be careful about saying that you can't "degrade his position." I disagree. I think you can't degrade his motives. I wouldn't degrade Marx's motives either. Not even Karl Popper did. But good motives don't lead to right action. Believe me, the far right is not evil. They really think they're working to save the world. I am ready to degrade their position because it's wrong. Likewise, I will degrade Marx and Chomsky's positions because they're wrong. Still, for all the proof I wrote two paragraphs ago, I will not degrade Chomsky's motives. I don't think Sullivan trusts him, but Sullivan was never a confused kid who Chomsky took some time out for. He probably wouldn't have quite as much animosity for him if he had been.

Did Maher treat him like a folk hero? Yes, he did. You could tell Maher loves the man. ... Is that the way to interview Chomsky? No. I would like very much to see Chomsky's reaction to a deeper questioning: I would like to see what he thinks the implications of actual, in practice, Communism is. I don't pretend to understand where he is coming from when he speaks on behalf of Castro or Soviet Russia. But Sullivan was out of line when he said he hoped that Chomsky was smart enough to know that he was lying. To be honest, it really pissed me off. I've seen Sullivan on the Chris Matthews show and I liked him very much, and reading Sullivan I like him less. I still like him, but those were some foolish statements that he made.

I partially answered this above, but I just wanted to say that I agreed with this. Sullivan was out of line when he was so quick to jump on Chomsky's "lies." I agree with you. I think Chomsky believes them. And I think one has to know that something is wrong to actually be lying. (Another reason why Michael Moore is an ass. He has very little regard for truth that doesn't fit his position.) Sullivan was wrong to say that and Maher was right to jump on him for it.

You can't say that America is a great country when you look at some of what has happened. The American ideals, though they may not have been applicable in the sense we would like to think of them as being today, are wonderful; but America's leaders have, at times, made some decisions that couldn't have possibly been thought good at the time they were made. This country, at times, has been run like a business, with making deals here and there. Those deals are to ensure greater prosperity for its citizens, and I understand that, but for Sullivan to say Chomsky should be condemned is bullshit. Chomsky has a right to his opinion. Sullivan can disagree as much as he wants. That's what this country is about. It's fucking bullshit for Sullivan to suggest that he is right. Should we end all debate and follow Sullivan? Of course it's a dumb question -- its meant to be. Ending debate on what should be done doesn't mean that it will be done.

I think Sullivan's choice of wording was poor. He broke midway through saying "Of course Chomsky has a right to speak...," to say, "He has no right to besmirch this nation etc." Poor choice. I think the idea of "a right to besmirch" is quite strange. Clearly, Sullivan didn't mean to say that Chomsky shouldn't be able to speak. He was in the middle of saying just that when he cut himself off to pursue another thought.

Further, I will defend Sullivan as far as your last point. I don't think Sullivan has ever even implied that we should end debate and listen to him. Does he think he's right? I hope so, just as I know Chomsky thinks he's right before he says something. I don't think it's bullshit for him to stand by his arguments. But I would challenge anybody out there to find someone more willing to entertain an opposing viewpoint than Sullivan. Was he defensive on this show? Yes, I would be too if I had three speakers, a host, and a studio audience all against me. The deck was stacked against him. Nevertheless, as far as blogs go, I've seen no one out there more willing to print cogent and completely opposing arguments on their site. That's one of the big reasons why I like Sullivan so much: when he hears a good argument for why he was wrong about something, he immediately posts it. And when he himself is fully convinced, he will admit that he was wrong. Want immediate proof? Just look at his page. The last three emails of the day, emails from his readers, are refuting points he made. If you read his other posts, you'll see that he slowly adjusts his opinions on what they are saying because they do make good points. Sullivan, more than anyone, makes the best opposing arguments he can find available to his readers, and, more importantly, he himself takes them into consideration.

As regards greatness, if America can't be called a great country, I propose that no country can be. Every nation has its closeted and revealed skeletons. But what American ideals, and actions on those ideals, have meant for the world is remarkable. Did we have a My Lai? Did we have an Abu Ghraib? Did we have a Pinochet? Did we have slavery and racism? Yes. I lament them all. But we have also liberated concentration camps, employed Marshall Plans, thwarted Communism, and defended liberty more often than not. You can attack the last for being an obsolete Enlightenment idea, but it's only by those same Enlightenment ideas that we condemn the US for those other atrocities. And while our scandals must be revealed, our just actions are borne up by our citizens. That we argue so forcefully, from you and me to Sullivan and Chomsky, about how to make this a better nation, should be a sign of how great a nation it is.

Flawed? Of course. But that is no reason to say something isn't great. Let me use what Sullivan said: "You don't have to believe this country is perfect to have it be a force for good in this world." Show me a great person, and I'll show you a flawed one. If we can apply greatness to nations, I wouldn't expect it to vary from that.

I know this is eight-tenths incoherence, but I'd love to hear comments from people in response.


  • OK I know this is asking a lot (since I never ever see it from Chomsky critics) but would it be possible for you to cite ACTUAL STATEMENTS of chomsky's on the maher show that you disagree with and why?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:01 AM  

  • I think the request is perfectly reasonable. The reason why I don't have any specific points already in the post? Well, I think it's obvious that my friend and I agree on Chomsky. We both were enamored of his work for awhile, and then gradually became disenchanted as we realized just how wrong most of it was. My whole post is really based more on the "greater Chomsky," if you will, rather than just this appearance.

    But in the interest of fairness, I'll address the point.

    1. Chomsky says that the Bush administration ignores much of the Gospel, that they're hypocrites.

    To the extent of poverty, I agree with Chomsky here. I think the current Republican Party's seeming disregard for the problem of poverty is disgusting. To say one is Christian, and then to ignore the poor, is completely hypocritical. With all that they've done for the least of people, Jesus must certainly be smarting by now.

    2. Maher: "Is Iraq something that's going to get more infected the more we pick at it?" i.e. Is it too late for us there?

    Chomsky: "The invasion of Iraq was simply a war crime. Straight out war crime." (Audience cheers.)

    Ignore the fact that he didn't answer the question, that like a good politician he immediately twists it to his own use. Did most people in the world support the invasion of Iraq? No, I believe that most did not. Nonetheless, did the UN condemn it? No. They in fact passed a resolution after the war to recognize what was going on there. If the world wants it to be a legal war crime, they're going to have to make the case. Chomsky tries to do it with the next question. That's where the real debate is and should be: was it right to go in?

    3. Question: Why did we invade Iraq?

    Chomsky says that we should take a look at the polls in Baghdad. Knowing Chomsky, I'll guarantee that he would have recommended -- indeed he probably did recommend -- that we disregard them completely in the months following the war when the Iraqi people showed support and great optimism for their new government. The loss of that goodwill through mismanagement has been the absolute worst folly by this administration. Honest supporters of the war recognize and bemoan that. Sullivan has been doing it for quite awhile now, and he did mention the fact on this show.

    Chomsky also said about the "obvious" reasons for the invasion -- oil, military bases, and "critical leverage": "It's been understood since the second World War" that the US should control the region, etc. I just wanted to point out the classic Chomsky rhetorical device: unjustified appeals to authority. "It's been understood"? By who? Read Chomsky's books. They're RIDDLED with this type of language: "Any intelligent person would agree...," "No one could possibly deny...," etc. As soon as you see someone using that language, you should be suspicious. Chomsky drops it like it's going out of style.

    I'm far from an expert on foreign policy, but I've been burned by Chomsky's claims in the past. That's why I so seriously doubt these now. Was Iraq the right war? To be honest, I didn't support it and I don't think we should have gone there. Did I think it was a war crime? No, I honestly think that the people in our government thought that the conversion of the Middle East to representative government would help to solve our terrorism problem. Was it the right way to do it? No, but the impulse to (1) force a proved menace to show his hand and (2) liberate an oppressed people should be celebrated not denounced. This is the use of force that liberals should dream of.

    4. Finally, Chomsky holds that our approval for supporting Saddam during the eighties was horrific, and that the Iraqis would have sent him packing were it not for sanctions (which I've seen him also call a war crime in his literature).

    On the first point: I agree. The US government's backing of Saddam was flat out wrong. It should have been something that the Bush administration bared for the world to see rather than let it fuel conspiracy theories. It's an ingnominious mark, so why can't people support our reversal of that policy -- the opposition of the madman Saddam?

    As for the point on sanctions: Ridiculous. First, totalitarian governments aren't easily overthrown. Chomsky himself makes the point by commenting on how Saddam crushed a Shiite uprising. Second, the sanctions effectively kept weapons out of Hussein's hands. They worked in that regard, better than all the world's intel agencies realized. Chomsky's problem with them is that they starved thousands of people. No. Saddam starved thousands of people when he manipulated the Oil-for-Food program for his benefit. We tried to save those lives, but he stopped us. Who's responsible for those deaths?

    I think Chomsky's claims were actually quite subdued on the show, which is one reason that Sullivan's defensive response stands out so much. If you want an examination of his actual works, check out I may not agree with that blogger's politics, but I think his critiques of Chomsky are worth reading.

    By Blogger X.A. Botero, at 4:04 AM  

  • A small point, but just to make clear Chomsky did by no means "practically invent" the field of linguistics. If anyone did that it would be Ferdinand de Saussure. His "Cours de linguistique générale" (Course on General Linguistics) was posthumously published from notes taken by his students and marks the definitive break from the traditional field of philology (the study of the etymology of language) to linguistics. Chomsky first gained fame through his book "Syntactic Structures" that argued for there being a genetic-structural capacity to learn language against B.F. Skinner's behaviorist theories of language acquisition. This certainly revolutionized the field in the late 1950's, but it is by no means universally accepted.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:57 AM  

  • Thanks for pointing that out. Actually, I always think of de Saussure when I tell people about Chomsky's impact in linguistics. I read his Course on General Linguistics a few years ago when I was a lit major obsessed with structuralist theory, and since my experience in linguistics is limited he always pops up when I think of the field.

    Your point is a good one, although I have heard knowledgeable people call it both ways (i.e. either for de Saussure or for Chomsky). While Chomsky's work hasn't been universally accepted, his impact has been remarkable and undeniable.

    To call someone the "inventor" of a large field of study is usually just asking for trouble. That's why I tried to qualify it with "practically." Again, I'm not an expert, so you're probably right about this. Nevertheless, just from what I've heard about Chomsky's influence, I'm sure a case could be made for him.

    By Blogger X.A. Botero, at 1:41 PM  

  • Actually, Chomsky's work in linguistics is widely regarded by linguists today as being utter nonsense, if not outright fraud. Marc Miyake can set you straight on this. There's a very good reason for this: Chomsky's Linguistic Theory is not actually a theory of any sort; it is not testable and has no predictive power. It cannot explain anything; rather it is designed to be infinitely malleable to fit whatever facts you might present.

    Chomsky's philosophy and politics are the same. It doesn't matter what facts you provide, the outcome is always the same. Effectively, Chomsky doesn't live in our Universe; cause and effect do not apply to his thinking. He has made up his mind what he believes and he will choose or make up "facts" that sound like they support this - no matter whether there is any logical connection or not.

    Chomsky is far worse than a Moore or a Falwell; he is not merely a propagandist, he actively seeks to destroy the foundations of communication. In this has done incalculable damage to education throughout the world. Better a thousand Moores and Falwells than one Chomsky.

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