May 27, 2006

Second Thoughts on Aaron Swartz and Chomsky [LINK]

I've been reconsidering my recent contentious exchange with Aaron Swartz on his blog regarding Noam Chomsky. No, I haven't changed my mind significantly on the substance of the matter, but there are problems in the quality of my argument, which I disclose here in the interest of the intellectual honesty that became the main subject of my comments.

I first pointed out Aaron's unusually strong reactions to Chomsky's work. It didn't just affect him deeply, but appeared to physically disorient him and affect the formation of his identity. (Clearly I baited him in asking whether he had to clutch the door while his "world spun around," since any response would have made him look silly.) This reaction, I said, showed signs that he might be responding to Chomsky on a level other than reason, presumably for all the wrong reasons.

It's worth recognizing that this is an assertion that I can't back up. I'm neither Aaron's therapist nor am I qualified to be, so I'm in no position to make conclusions about his emotional state in his reaction to Chomsky. While his post concentrates primarily on how Chomsky's work affected his inner life with little reference to the substance of Chomsky's points, there is no ruling out the likelihood that there's much there that can be considered reasonable to which a positive response is appropriate. Mind you, I still do believe it's legitimate to point out such signs suggesting an unreasonable response, but not to draw naive inferences from that.

The other problem is that I connected the observation that Aaron might have responsed unreasonably to the observation that Chomsky's rhetoric already showed signs of being unreasonable. As case in point, I supplied a link to an essay by Bruce Sharp detailing Chomsky's response to reports of Cambodian genocide. The essay clearly demonstrates Chomsky's extensive dissembling and dishonesty in the face of contrary evidence that might undermine his theory of state propaganda and reveal him as gullible. But while each may be unreasonable, it's important to note that they are not unreasonable in the same way. Even if Aaron responded to Chomsky out of some sort of latent emotional need (which, again, is an unsupportible assertion), it has little if anything to do with Chomsky's motivation in being dishonest regarding Cambodia, one that incidentally shows every sign of being a conscious response. So when Aaron asks which of his beliefs are unreasonable, and I can't answer, it might be reasonable for him to assume I'm arguing in bad faith.

Aside from that, however, I don't believe I have anything else to defend. In particular, I still conclude that Chomsky extinguished his credibility long ago. This is far more egregious than even the Paul de Man controversy, in which the deconstructionist luminary was found to have been a Nazi propagandist in his youth. We also need to consider Chomsky's lapses far more seriously that we would, say, our favorite musician who we're aware put out a couple of really bad albums. At the height of his influence, when faced with the crucial moral test of his intellectual career -- that of recognizing and denouncing genocide perpetuated by a regime he had previously endorsed -- Chomsky responded alternately by belittling the possibility of genocide, shifting responsibility away from the Khmer Rouge onto the United States, and in general ignoring the negative implications it might have for his theory of state propaganda. In distinguishing what is important from what is not, he failed utterly. His admirers must confront that failure head-on.

Indeed, one of the points I take away from this exchange is that Chomsky's intellectual dishonesty may be contagious. While it's true that I forced Aaron into an untenable defensive stance, he still:

  • offered no response to the substance of Sharp's essay other than to a minor attribution error.
  • professed utter agnosticism over the validity of Chomsky's statement that the Khmer Rouge may have benefitted sectors of the Cambodian peasantry.
  • failed to acknowledge, despite repeated prompts, that there may even be such a problem as bias, as opposed to mere factual error, quite aside from the question of whether Chomsky engaged in such bias. (One wonders how well Chomsky's propaganda model would hold up if the idea of systematic right-wing bias were removed from consideration. Just the facts, ma'm.)
  • implied that I had not provided evidence of Chomsky's dishonesty, which clearly was not the case.
  • simply ignored a significant number of points I made, as I alluded to in my final comment from 5/23.

My experience with Chomsky's admirers tells me they tend to emulate his unyieding critical stance and his contentious rhetorical style. Yet their critical faculties seem to disappear when questions are raised about Chomsky's own credibility and the validity of his propaganda model. In this, they could not be more slavish acolytes, defending him against all evidence, and indeed against all reason.

I honestly don't understand how anyone can continue to respect Chomsky's intellect after carefully considering his response to Cambodia. I suspect Chomsky's ideas fill some sort of emotional need in his followers, but I can't really prove it, and am thus limited to pointing out specific instances in which he or his followers are being unreasonable and see where that leads. One place it doesn't lead is to changing people's minds overnight. A cat will get stuck in a tree pretty quickly, and will only come down with great reluctance. To change someone's mind, it's not enough to undermine what he believes in, but rather provide something that's better.

1 Comment:

AaronSw said...

Thanks for retracting your ad hominem attacks. And I apologize for mine. Perhaps we can get to discussing actual issues.

I haven't read Sharp's essay since the last time someone pointed me to it; but it struck me as rather unconvincing again. It's rather long and I don't have time to read the whole thing now, so perhaps you can outline your criteria for extinguishing someone's credibility and providing the portions that meet this criteria in Chomsky's case.

For what it's worth, my general standard for "extinguishing credibility" is repeated lying or constant expression of falsehoods. I haven't seen either of these demonstrated in Chomsky's case, so it seems unlikely that I'll agree with your criteria.

As for your other points, my lack of knowledge about the Khmer Rouge is real, not simply professed. I wasn't following the news when it was a big story and I haven't ever looked into it since.

The propaganda model does not include bias and those organizations based on it (like FAIR) are careful not to talk about bias. I'm happy to acknowledge that bias exists, but it's a far more slippery subject than I care to get into and a far less important one than simple falsehood.

If you have evidence of Chomsky's dishonesty, please take the Chomsky challenge!

And if there are points I ignored that you'd like me to respond to, repeat them one by one and I'd be more than happy to respond to them here.

Please email me if you have a response, since I don't plan to check this comments thread for updates.