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January 07, 2005

Comments

I'll go ahead and ask the ignorant questions:
Who is Noam Chomsky?
What influence does he have in America?

He's a linguist who's written some political...books is probably a little on the generous side; pamphlets might be more fitting. He has a rather devoted group of adherents as well as an even more devoted group of detractors.

I've read a little of his stuff; enough to know that it's not worthwhile for me to read further. So, I'm not a critic because I haven't studied his material sufficiently, and I'm not an adherent for obvious reasons.

Noam Chomsky is: (a) a really great figure in linguistics. Whether you agree with him or not -- and i don't -- he is very, very smart, and has very interesting views which had a huge influence on the development of the subject. (b) a political polemicist on the left. I don't know his work all that well, but he has always struck me as being very smart and often very wrong. To the best of my knowledge he has virtually no influence in contemporary politics: the people who are knowledgeable enough to get to him usually read a lot of other stuff besides, and the left is not large enough to support a large number of people who read him and him alone.

Can we bash his silly linguistic theories here, or are we restricted to politics?

It's an open thread, kenB, so I suppose we could also bash Rush Limbaugh... ;-)

You can bash or praise his math skills for all I care. I'd prefer that you refrain from making personal comments about him (be the ball), but it's pretty much wide open for discussion.

Go for it, kenb. I don't really do enough phil. of language to participate intelligently, but I'm always willing to learn :)

I'd much rather talk about his linguistics than pretend he has any influence the political system.

Say what you like about Chomsky's linguistic theories, but he's the linguist who came up with a truly memorable phrase that is grammatically correct but linguistically meaningless:

"Sentences (1) and (2) are equally nonsensical, but any speaker of English will recognize that only the former is grammatical.

Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
Furiously sleep ideas green colorless."
- Noam Chomsky (1957), Syntactic Structures (The Hague: Mouton).

and a couple of poems inspired by this statement

massed troops attacking and/or defending cultural icon Noam Chomsky

For the record, I was defending not Chomsky as much as the notion that if one disagrees vehemently with someone's political views one should be able to point out precisely where that person's arguments are invalid - as hilzoy did with Mr. Limbaugh. Chomsky is quite capable of defending himself.

Noted, felixrayman. I didn't write that with you in mind, specifically.

Noam Chomsky really sucks at basketball.

Chomsky's one of those figures who means more to the opposition than to those he supposedly speaks for - quite unlike Rush.

If you are interested if figuring out a bit more about Chomsky on the linguistic side, I recommend Randy Harris' book _Linguistic Wars_. A bit deeper, but interesting is Huck and Goldsmith's _Ideology and Linguistic Theory_

There was also a biography of Chomsky entitled _A life of dissent_ by Robert Barsky, though some have taken issue with it.

I personally am sympathetic to the points he makes, but find him a person who is unable to admit he made a mistake. From the review above
In the end, this epitomizes much of what has been controversial about Chomsky’s views. On issues of importance, Chomsky’s utter certainty of the correctness of the position that he takes is captivating and attractive – up to a point, at least. For most of us humans, the critical points in our lives have been the moments when insight arrived and uncertainty evaporated. On Barsky’s account, Chomsky’s career has not been characterized by a series of scientific discoveries and personal triumphs, but has been just the general working out in an at times sympathetic environment of ideas that he started out with when he was about seven years old. Of course, that’s not very different from the Chomskian view of the language faculty. Maybe there’s a connection.

However, Chomsky vehemently denies any connection between his linguistic work and his political philosophy.

Not meaning to throw down the gauntlet (I'm actually about to go to bed) but I would like someone to explain to me why Chomsky's comparison between 9-11 and the Sudan cruise missile attack is so beyond the pale. I tend to think it is the same reflex as was pointed out by nadezhda in his essay on Sontag.

The Sudan cruise missile attack is still defended by the Clinton administration to this day.

"I would like someone to explain to me why Chomsky's comparison between 9-11 and the Sudan cruise missile attack is so beyond the pale."

From the other thread, I repeat myself: intent. The missile attack would have resulted in no deaths if that had been possible, while 9/11 was designed for maximum civilian slaughter. Someone else in that thread mentioned the manslaughter/murder distinction, also explanatory. Finally, see hilzoy's thread on consent for a similar attack on over-simplified analogies.

Noam Chomsky really sucks at basketball.

What, no cite? ;)

liberal japonicus: but I would like someone to explain to me why Chomsky's comparison between 9-11 and the Sudan cruise missile attack is so beyond the pale.

And if anyone wants to do so, here's the proper source material: On the Bombings, Noam Chomsky's Sept 15 response to 9/11: and http://www.zmag.org/chomskyhitchens.htm, a response to an essay in the Nation by Christopher Hitchens which attacked, among others, Noam Chomsky.

I have to admit, it's not normally considered a valid defense, when you set out to commit a crime*, that you shouldn't be held responsible for the consequences becasuse they were far greater than you expected - especially not when your low expectations of bad consequences were the direct result of easily-remedied ignorance.

*Of course, you can argue that deciding to attack a country which is no threat to your own is not a crime. The UN Charter, however, would disagree with you.

It's very fashionable these days to trash Chomsky's linguistics, but the fact is that his ideas on the Universal Grammar and particularly his work in The Sound Pattern of English totally and permanently transformed linguistic study. Many of his ideas have been eclipsed, of course. But that's how science works. . nobody uses it as an excuse to trash Newton or Einstein.

I should add that I will never forgive him for the asinine deep grammar syntactic function trees I had to draw in SYN301 and/or any contribution to X-bar theory.

The missile attack would have resulted in no deaths if that had been possible, while 9/11 was designed for maximum civilian slaughter. Someone else in that thread mentioned the manslaughter/murder distinction, also explanatory.

morning all,
Fair enough point, though as Praktike has noted, those responsible have never used that defense. I realize that this might simply be the legal concept of defending from the outermost defenses, but I'd also note that this defense is the same as defending the Iraq invasion because we thought there were WMD.

sidereal: his ideas on the Universal Grammar and particularly his work in The Sound Pattern of English totally and permanently transformed linguistic study.

Yes. I really did first encounter Noam Chomsky as a linguist - and happily, as an amateur, interested linguist, so I never had to draw deep grammar syntactic function trees. As a linguist, he's an effin' genius.

This isn't to say people have to agree with him politically - far otherwise. But I've noticed that his political ideas are not written in soundbite form - they're generally thoughtful essays presenting a point of view very different from the American mainstream, and most of his political opponents never, ever attempt to critique them directly. They go for paraphrases and soundbites, often repeated from one oppnent to the next. This I tend to think is unfair to anyone who is making a genuine attempt to explain what he thinks, politically.

So, I've posted the links. If anyone wants to pick up LJ's gauntlet... ;-)

Drawn from the spawning thread:

"We have no respect for Chomsky's politics and we can't be bothered to discuss them?"

If we can reach consensus that the same standard should be applied to Rush, that thread will have been a success.

So I'm not rambling entirely to myself in obscurity, here's a fine summary of X-bar and the Calder-inspired craziness that you have to draw for a simple 6-word declarative sentence.

Before Chomsky I would have instead spent most of my time in that class declining Slavic cases. Toss up.

Jes
I'd really recommend Linguistic Wars if you haven't read it. Yes, Chomsky's ideas were revolutionary, but in looking back at the way the old guard was treated, I can really see why he brings on such a reflexive reaction. I'd also suggest that the situation of the rise of generative linguistics (whose spread was more due to the massive expansion of higher ed in the states rather than the correctness of the ideas) is similar to the way people on the right argue that their precepts are proven because Republicans are now in power rather than looking at how the republicans rise to power was accomplished.

And pulling this from the Rush thread, I suggested that Chas award of a Karnak for Jadegold accusing a lack of knowledge was a bit off, Chas replied

Actually, no. When a commenter is telling the audience what I know and don't know, that is mindreading. When eight links on Chomsky are made in a post, such as the one at 2:47am, implicit is the assumption that they have been read by said commenter, and that those links do not represent the whole universe of what I've read about him.

Sorry, but I think that while the Instapundit approach _implies_ that the person has read them, it doesn't _prove_ any such thing. Give a reasonably fast intelligent reader a major subject and 30 mins on Google, they can construct a reasonable imitation of knowledge, (I know, I've done it)

I recall a conversation here a while ago where someone suggested that proof of the liberal academy was given by the fact that Chomsky could be given a platform for his ideas. This has never been true as what he has taught has been linguistics, never politics/philosophy. Failing to understand is a dead giveaway.

This is not rational, just prejudicial:

From the other thread, I repeat myself: intent. The missile attack would have resulted in no deaths if that had been possible, while 9/11 was designed for maximum civilian slaughter. Someone else in that thread mentioned the manslaughter/murder distinction, also explanatory.

How do we "know" the Sudan attack was supposed kill no one? Because the US is the good guys. And how do we "know" that the 9-11 attack intended to kill people? because they are the bad guys. And how do we know they are the bad guys? Why, because they intended to kill people on 9-11.

Rationally we could try to figure out the intent of the two attacks without assuming we know them because of prejudice. Rationally we could say that the choice of target on 9-11 were America's economic, military and political HQs regardless of damage to population (where a series of tube bombings or hitting a full sports stadium would do more damage). Rationally we could look at the prior histories of both parties - Al-Qaeda's attacks on "hard" tagets and the US's rich history of slaughter of millions of innocents all over the world.

Someone else already debunked the idea that Sudan was not murder (because killing without intent but with recklessness counts) but they failed to challenge the idea that the US government was not perfectly aware that destroying the factory would result in thousands of deaths, or that the killing may have been intended. And of course no one says the obvious here -- Sudan never attacked America. Not even Chomnsky goes there. Osama claims the right of self defence.

Chomsky's work is basically repeatatively pointing out the blindingly obvious examples of US evil that the US media and society (including so-called liberals) sees fit to cover up. It's as impossible to refute as lifting a stone and looking at the filthy crawly things. What can you say to refute it?

"You shouldn't have lifted the stone"
"The filthy crawly things are really vert nice things"
?

The very fact of trying to specifically refute Chomsky is a mistake for his opponents because it draws attention to his words. Only a real idiot would try, (no idiots among his detractors here I see!) yet he cannot be allowed to speak so he must be slammed with the usual rhetorical techniques.

I would've commented here earlier, but I decided that I couldn't chime in on this at work and still maintain the fiction that I was doing my job...

I was trained in a non-generative school, so I don't claim to have an exhaustive knowledge of Chomsky's theories and their history (and also bear in mind that I've been out of the biz for 10 years now), but IMO the central problem with Chomsky is that he takes a purely formal, descriptive approach to linguistics, as if language were not a tool with specific functions but simply a found object. This makes for a fairly barren philosophy and leaves him with few options when trying to explain things like commonalities among languages and the relative ease with which children learn language. He resorts to the black-box "innateness" hypothesis and tends to create labels and call them explanations. As much as he is supposed to have "revolutionized" linguistics, his theories bear many of the markings of the equally philosophically barren, taxonomic approach of "descriptive structuralism" that was dominant in America before his rise. The hagiographies of him one often encounters in American universities overlook the vibrant European structuralist schools that avoid these failings (in particular the Prague School, much of whose work was not available in English translation).

Regarding formalism, the analogy I use is to imagine what his theory of hammers would look like given the same constraints -- there would be the invariants (e.g. "All hammers consist of a long shaft attached perpendicularly to a shorter bar") and the variables (e.g. "the shorter bar may include two flat surfaces (type A) or a flat surface on one side and a sphere or claw on the other (type B)" ). But why are hammers made this way? I guess because all hammer-makers are predisposed from birth to make them following these rules.

His original syntactic theory was far too English-centric and didn't work well for languages such as Russian or Latin that have a relatively free word order and rely more on word endings to indicate the functions of words in a sentence. Later revisions have somewhat corrected for this, but to me they seem kludgy and resemble an attempt to force square morphological pegs into a round syntactic hole; and they still abandon the concept of autonomous phonological and morphological levels of language in favor of a purely mechanical "morphophonemic" level... but that's probably getting too specialized.

No doubt other linguists reading this will find much to quibble with -- I welcome their corrections.

I would like someone to explain to me why Chomsky's comparison between 9-11 and the Sudan cruise missile attack is so beyond the pale.


In one case Americans died, in the other Sudanese died, but since every one knows that Americans lives are so much more valuable than any other kind, how can we compare the events?


I see that none of Chomsky's opponents wants to counter what Chomsky actually said. (January 7, 2005 06:53 PM)

I'm still wondering if any of Chomsky's opponents is going to try contradicting one of his essays. Topically, here's The Crucifixion of EL SALVADOR.

I'm still wondering if any of Chomsky's opponents is going to try contradicting one of his essays.

Hey Jes
{waves}
funny, that...

I can't say anything about Chomsky's linguistics, but on political issues I think he's been wrong a few times and unable to admit it. So I wouldn't hold him up as a saint.

But he's right most of the time and you can generally find information to back up his claims if you look elsewhere. Given that his name is so radioactive, that's what I generally do if I'm making a Chomskyite point about American foreign policy. Never cite Noam himself, because the argument will quickly turn into a discussion about his real or imagined sins.

Here, by the way, is a short list of works that pretty much support what Chomsky says about various issues and you can cite them and make his points without ever mentioning his name. Of course, Chomsky's own work contains many footnotes and you can get some of the info that way.

On Indonesia's massacres of over 500,000 people in the mid-60's and the US support for it, read Kai Bird's biography of the Bundy brothers, "The Color of Truth".

On Sadat's offer of peace to Israel BEFORE the Yom Kippur War, read Seymour Hersh's book on Kissinger "The Price of Power".

On the Israeli/Arab conflicts, read Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall.

On El Salvador, read Ray Bonnor's book "Weakness and Deceit", if you can find it anywhere. Or read Mark Danner's "The Massacre at El Mozote", or go to the Consortium website run by Robert Parry. Or read a couple of the appropriate chapters from Aryeh Neier's book "Taking Liberties".

I don't have the website address handy, but I once found the Human Rights Watch report on Turkey and the Kurds from the mid-90's which said exactly what Chomsky reported it to say regarding US support for Turkey's brutal counterinsurgency campaign.

Chomsky isn't a primary source on anything in human rights. But I've found that most of what he claims about American human rights violations is on target and can be backed up if you look at his sources or do your own reading.

And incidentally, on the Afghan famine, the warnings didn't originate with Chomsky--they came from NGO's like Oxfam and Christian Aid and you could read them online if you wanted. David Rieff discusses this in his book "A Bed for the Night". It's simple common sense that if you bomb a country on the brink of famine, there's a danger you'll trigger a massive one. The exaggeration that Chomsky was guilty of was in overstating the likely number of deaths--millions were at risk, but the likely number of deaths was much less. There were famine deaths due to the bombing, but because the Taliban lines crumbled the death toll was much less than it could have been. But it was probably in the low tens of thousands according to an article by Jonathan Steele in the Guardian (May 23 or 20, 2002--I don't remember the exact date).

What bugs me about Chomsky-bashing is that I suspect there's a kind of moral laziness underlying it. The bashers find some cases where Chomsky was wrong and Chomsky is too arrogant to admit it. Therefore that means they don't have to confront the long sordid record of American crimes that Chomsky points out. He's a sort of scapegoat--discredit him and the issue goes away.

As is often the case, I found this thread when it was dying of old age.

Donald, of course you're right.

But it was fun to inquire politely of the Chomsky-bashers whether they'd like to take Chomsky apart for real, actually fact-checking what Chomsky wrote, not just using lazy soundbites... and watch them all run away.

i highly doubt detractors of chomsky would leap at the opportunity
for a real live public debate with him..
and there's a reason many do not challenge chomsky publicly..
he has a fairly impressive record of completely dismantling opponents
(at least the ones that are decent enough to let him finish his arguments
without constant interruption..which is incidentally a dead give away of
how comfortable his opponents are).

i highly doubt detractors of chomsky would leap at the opportunity
for a real live public debate with him..
and there's a reason many do not challenge chomsky publicly..
he has a fairly impressive record of completely dismantling opponents
(at least the ones that are decent enough to let him finish his arguments
without constant interruption..which is incidentally a dead give away of
how comfortable his opponents are).

"at least the ones that are decent enough to let him finish his arguments without constant interruption."

You have the situation amusingly reversed.

I know this thread has been dormant for a while but I am hoping that the participants still check it.

I was looking for anything or anyone that could actually refute or dispute Chomsky's points. After reading through the content on this page I realize, as One Off said, "he has a fairly impressive record of completely dismantling opponents at least the ones that are decent enough to let him finish his arguments without constant interruption, which is incidentally a dead give away of how comfortable his opponents are".

Any number of recorded dissertations or speechs or debates can be found on the internet that prove this point. One excellent documentary carries the same name as one of Chomsky's books "Manufacturing Consent" although he had no part in the making of this film. It is a documentary on his life and exposes his ideas regarding the manufacturing of the masses' consent but the political powers through the use of the media.

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