An interview with Noam Chomsky and why he signed the Harper’s letter

I’ve been remiss in following—or even learning about—Noam Chomsky. I’m not much into linguistics, and, truth be told, I couldn’t even recount his big contributions there beyond the concept of Universal Grammar, or how well they’ve stood up over time. I have read several of his political pieces, so I’m aware of his severe criticism of the American government and its actions overseas, and not just under Trump. But in the past few years I haven’t read a word he’s written.

Chomsky is now 91, and when I saw him at a meeting in Puebla, Mexico a few years back, he was frail and needed help walking. But that’s to be expected at his age, and, according to the interview with Anand Giridharadas in The Ink (click on screenshot below), Chomsky is as sharp as ever. According to Wikipedia, he’s now a part-time professor of linguistics at the University of Arizona at Tucson, though of course he spent most of his career at MIT.

Chomsky’s interview reveals that he favors Biden, but especially because, as he says, Biden has been pushed leftward by Bernie Sanders—the candidate Chomsky really likes (even though he sees Sanders as a faux socialist). When asked if he thought that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could ever become President of the U.S. (Ceiling Cat forbid), Chomsky didn’t answer but praised the leftward movement towards progressivism in some segments of the Democratic Party:

Well, if you’d asked me 10 years ago whether someone like Bernie Sanders could be the most popular political figure in the country, I would’ve said you’re out of your mind. But it in fact happened in 2016 and it’s continued to create a significant movement. There are real possibilities. I think if you take a look at the United States in the 1920s, and you asked, Could there ever be a labor movement?, you would’ve sounded crazy. How could there be? It had been crushed.

But it changed. Human life is not predictable. Depends on choices and will, which are unpredictable. So right now, for example, we’re in the process of formation of a Progressive International. It’s based on the Sanders movement in the United States and Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM25 movement in Europe, which is a transnational European movement seeking to preserve and strengthen what makes sense in the European Union and to overcome its very serious flaws.

. . .Well, actually, the Sanders movement was remarkably successful. And it’s something that has broken with over 100 years of American political history. To bring a candidate to near nomination without any support from the media, from big donors, from the corporate sector. Nothing like that’s happened before. Could it do more? I think so.

Not to make a big fuss about it, but I’ve been mildly critical of Sanders’ presenting himself as a socialist. He’s not a socialist in my opinion. He’s a New Deal Democrat. A mild social democrat. His policies would not have surprised Eisenhower very much. It’s a sign of the shift to the right, of both parties, during the neoliberal period, that his positions are considered revolutionary.

He says it’s also reflected in the Black Lives Matter movement:

Take the United States. Maybe the greatest social movement to develop in American history, the Black Lives Matter-inspired movement. It’s all over the place. Has the kind of public support that no activist movement ever had. Martin Luther King, at the peak of his popularity, had never reached two-thirds public support for what he was doing. That reflects something.

But I wanted to concentrate on Chomsky’s discussion of the Harper’s Letter decrying “cancel culture” (though it doesn’t use that term), a letter Chomsky signed. When asked about his sense of the letter in view of the controversy it generated, he has a remarkably sensible take, one that the Woke opponents of the letter might be well to ponder:

Well, there’s two different things. There’s the letter and there’s the discussion. The letter is anodyne. It’s a simple statement that it’s worth being careful to preserve freedom of speech. The main attack on freedom of speech was not discussed there. It’s the mainstream establishment, which for years has been engaged in massive cancel culture.

But now segments of the left are picking up part of the same pathology. It’s harmful; they shouldn’t be doing it; it’s wrong in principle. It’s suicidal. It’s a gift to the far right. So here’s a quiet statement saying, “Look, we should be careful about these things and not undertake this.” Should’ve been the end. Then comes the reaction, which is extremely interesting. It proves that the problem was much deeper than was assumed. The reaction is pretty hysterical, mostly totally irrational. Sensible people, personal friends of mine, are writing articles attacking the statement because of the people who signed it. Just think what that means for a second. I’m sure you, like any other person who’s well-known, are deluged with requests to sign statements on human rights issues, civil liberties issues, and so on.

Do you take account of who the signers are going to be? You can’t. You can’t know who the signers are going to be. If this position of the critics were adopted, there would never be a statement. Nobody in his right mind would sign a statement if the content of the statement is going to be judged by who might sign it tomorrow.

This criticism is much to the pleasure of the right wing, which hates these statements. So it’s another massive service to the right wing. Just as breaking up a meeting of somebody you don’t like is a service to the right wing. You want to play their game? Do it straight. Don’t pretend you’re on the left.

I think by “mainstream cancel culture” he’s referring to the slanting of the news about America by the government and mainstream media, but I can’t be sure. (Readers may want to weigh in.) Nevertheless, his take on Leftist cancel culture is on the money, as is his take on having to be ideologically compatible with everyone who signs a letter that you’ve signed as well.  And surely he’s right—as we know from right-wing sources like Fox News—that the Right makes hay of divisions in the left, particularly those, like the kerfuffle over the Harper’s letter, that look inconsequential and petty.

h/t: Ken

57 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Posted August 13, 2020 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    I’m happy that you give Chomsky some credit.

    Some in the woke corner have been surprised by his signing the letter, and called it inconsistent or hypocritical. But that just adds to the now overwhelming impression that the woke are mostly illiterate and know very little about politics, or Chomsky for that matter.

    In fact, one his main points throughout his career has been the championing of freedom of expression, in the wider sense. He developed the propaganda model with Herman to explain media bias and “soft” censorship, and stood up even for the right of holocaust deniers to say their thing. One such frenchman quoted Chomsky in an intro to a holocaust denial book and that made him contentious in France. Chomsky, also jewish, of course did not endorse such views in any way. You can’t say he isn’t committed to his principles.

    He’s correct also that censorship, up until recently has been largely a right wing demand, even considering “pc culture” in the 1990s, or one faction of feminists in the “porn wars” around 1980. The constant demand by right wing groups to censorship, against anything from rock music to comic books just became such a drone that it wasn’t taken seriously much anymore (however, political opinion terraforming to the right continued unabated, where now the Republicans would count as extreme-right in most civilized democracies).

    I obviously agree with his take, and in particular where he implies that woke isn’t left wing at all.

    • Posted August 13, 2020 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      So it would seem that media bias is what he was referring to in the massive cancel culture from the ‘mainstream establishment’.

    • eric
      Posted August 13, 2020 at 10:27 am | Permalink

      He’s correct also that censorship, up until recently has been largely a right wing demand, even considering “pc culture” in the 1990s, or one faction of feminists in the “porn wars” around 1980.

      As Diane Ravitch pointed out in The Language Police, the two factions censor different ideas but also go about censorship in different ways. Where the right tends to want to ban entire books, songs, etc., the left tends to take a more granular approach where they want to exclude pejorative terms – fat, ugly, sexist and racist epithets, etc. – from regular speech and writing, rather than ban whole books or music. Where the right may want to ban entire songs from the airwaves for their sexual content, the left instead makes sure that all upstanding radio stations skip a verse when they play “Money for Nothing.”

      But, removing pejoratives is a connecting concept between the woke and the left – the notion of making racist and sexist terms (and in the last decade, anti-gay slurs) unacceptable in writing and other media is something the woke inherited directly from the left. They just expanded it to include other forms of expression – dress and food, for example, are considered pejorative if worn or cooked by the ‘wrong’ sort of person.

      • Posted August 13, 2020 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        I don’t agree. The wok left doesn’t want to censor the song or the verse or the word, they want to censor the person who said whatever it is they disagree with.

        For example: JK Rowling wrote a Tweet in which she claimed “woman” is a good word to use instead of “people who menstruate”. For that, she will probably be subject to attempts to silence her public voice for years to come.

      • Posted August 13, 2020 at 11:48 am | Permalink

        I understand the argument for their granular approach. We certainly see plenty of that. But besides canceling the person, as mentioned, they do work to cancel authors sometimes. I’ve at least learned of two examples where a white Young Adult author had the temerity to have a person of color as their main, sympathetic character. One had their book deal cancelled (Jerry covered it, if I recall correctly). The other was about a year ago, where a book store had to cancel a public appearance of the author b/c of threats of violence. The author also had to ‘disappear’ themself from social media.

        • eric
          Posted August 13, 2020 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

          I don’t disagree with you or Jeremy that the woke movement goes farther in its censoriousness. But I take issue with Jeremy’s claim that the woke “isn’t left wing at all.” It clearly has it’s origins in left wing thought – in the notion that perjorative terms, negative descriptors based on race, sex, age, body type, etc. should be removed from conversation. This is obvious when you consider what types of speech they focus on censoring. Is JK Rowling in trouble because she’s depicting sex, violence, or cursing? No, those are the right’s bugaboos. She’s in trouble because of her perceived negative depictions of trans people as not ‘fully’ their identified gender. That’s a left bugaboo. It comes out of a desire to stifle and censor negative personal descriptions of individuals.

          The woke movement is here because we liberals let it grow out of our garden. I think this is important to accept and own because it provides an important lesson moving forward: it is in a weird way easier to defend speech like holocaust denial than defend derogatory personal speech such as calling someone fat. Yet we have to defend both with vigor, because it is from not defending the latter (in part) that we ended up with wokeness.

          • Posted August 13, 2020 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

            I agree that wokeness is left wing but I certainly didn’t let it grow in my garden. (Nice analogy, BTW.) It’s not as if we all dabbled in it and it just got out of hand. Perhaps we could have stopped it but it is hard to see how that case is made. It seems a bit like wishing we could have convinced Hitler’s parents to have avoided sex that fateful night. Who new that wokeness would grow to be the monster it is?

            • GBJames
              Posted August 13, 2020 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

              “Perhaps we could have stopped it but it is hard to see how that case is made.”

              Especially in a room full of determinists!

            • eric
              Posted August 13, 2020 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

              Perhaps we could have stopped it but it is hard to see how that case is made.

              It’s not hard, it’s just not something most liberals want to do, because just like conservatives, we like censorship that agrees with our notions of right and wrong, offensive vs. inoffensive. Take my example of “Money for Nothing.” Who wants to demand that life would be freer and better if stations played “that little f****t is a millionaire” on the radio? I certainly don’t. We liberals like such censorship. So we give our tacit and sometimes active support for such censorship. And guess what, our children learned from that. They just applied it to more terms. The woke came along and said “well, if you can’t say that, then by the same principle you can’t say ‘master bedroom’ or ‘walk-up'”.

              It’s a common internet meme to describe conservatives upset with conservative policies as “when I voted for the Leopards Eating Faces party, I didn’t expect they would eat my face!” It’s apt for them. Unfortunately, when it comes to policing the language of personal insult and offense, it’s apt for us too. “When I voted for the ‘you can’t say these words’ party, I never expected they would ban those words too!” Well of course they would. If you vote for a word-banning party, don’t be surprised when they go out and ban words.

    • Posted August 13, 2020 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      Agreeing with all that you say above, Aneris, as I so often do. One more thing: Chomsky is right about Bernie’s “socialism”. Republicans and Bernie might mistake that New Deal Liberalism for “socialism”, but it’s not a very historically faithful use of that word.

  3. Robert Bray
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    ‘I think by “mainstream cancel culture” he’s referring to the slanting of the news about America by the government and mainstream media’

    Isn’t this the thesis argued in ‘Manufacturing Consent’?

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Chomsky was certainly one of the earliest and most insightful critics of US involvement in Indochina. And there may be no better critique of the mass media of the time than Chomsky’s 1988 book Manufacturing Consent.

    I know he and Christopher Hitchens had a falling out over the 9/11 attacks and the Bush administration’s misbegotten 2003 Iraq invasion, but Hitchens was long an ardent admirer of Chomsky’s, considering him the US’s foremost public intellectual. Here’s Hitch on Chomsky in 1995:

    • jezgrove
      Posted August 13, 2020 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Ken – it’s always great to hear Hitch!

    • Posted August 13, 2020 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      And right he was with his assessment of Chomsky.

      It’s baffling how in New Atheism, Hitchens is often seen as close to a saint, and was disagreed with regards his stance on Iraq, and yet, his admiration for Chomsky did not exactly carry over as much.

      There was this unfriendly exchange with Sam Harris (Harris was wrong) and whenever I brought up Chomsky, someone showed up, citing this one trash right wing site that misrepresents him.

      • GBJames
        Posted August 13, 2020 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

        “Hitchens is often seen as close to a saint”

        Do you say this just to make him roll over in his grave?

  5. Posted August 13, 2020 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    Chomsky has been a zealous advocate of free speech for a long time. Remember the flack he caught for defending the right of a french historian, Robert Faurisson, who denied the existence of the gas ovens at Aufschwitz.

    I’ve been a fan of his for years.

    • Posted August 13, 2020 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      I wonder if this lesson would be a good way to sneak in powerful arguments for permitting free speech in the classroom.

  6. Posted August 13, 2020 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I think Chomsky makes excellent arguments generally (even when I don’t agree with him), and this is no exception. He’s right in this case, obviously, and he puts it well. The letter WAS anodyne, it was a simple statement, and obviously a great number of public people of different backgrounds were able to agree with it and sign it publicly. The ad hominem responses to such things are non-arguments that were refuted ages ago (centuries? millenia? I’m not sure), and it’s so disheartening to see people falling for them.

  7. Posted August 13, 2020 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    In his old age Chomsky seems better at politics and social commentary than linguistics. I suppose that’s similar to Bill Gates being more authoritative these days on healthcare and philanthropy than the software business, not that he’s anywhere near Chomsky’s age of course.

    • Filippo
      Posted August 13, 2020 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      “In his old age Chomsky seems better at politics and social commentary than linguistics.”

      I’ve read and and listened to him not much regarding linguistics (not my greatest interest), but the opposite obtains regarding socio-political-economic commentary. He appears to be extremely well-read and knowledgeable in these areas. I think he is, as they say, a “go-to” person. Quite the autodidact.

      But, there are some who will say that Chomsky does not have a Ph.D. in these areas and therefore he is not to be considered (anywhere near?) as credible as someone who does.

      E.g., how much weight ought one give Chomsky’s views on Brexit? He has stated to the effect that one result would be making the U.K. more beholden and subordinate to the U.S. He has also remarked on how basic EU decisions are not made by the national states, but rather by the “troika: the IMF, the unelected European Commission, and the Central Bank in Brussels . . . decision-making has been further removed from the people themselves.” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=9t5jmgnQBss)

      Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling are adamantly opposed to Brexit, frequently stating to the effect that the situation is economically complicated and should be left to the “experts.” (Do all the experts agree? Grayling and Dawkins surely have had some objective, factual basis – independent of the experts – and at least nominally value their own counsel,to warrant their uttering the first word of opinion about the matter.)

      Would they have Chomsky restrict himself to linguistics (and not sign a letter about or otherwise hold forth on free speech since he does not hold a PhD in, say, political science, constitutional law, or philosophy with a concentration in ethics and/or law)? Do they restrict themselves respectively to philosophy and biology, and not presume to hold forth on other areas (say, religion)?

      • Posted August 13, 2020 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

        I would take Chomsky’s opinion on Brexit with a grain of salt as economics is a well-developed, fact-based field with lots of experts. Economists have a spotty record predicting the future but, hey, we all do. AFAIK, most economists think Brexit was a bad idea and have numbers and arguments to back it up. I doubt they even think it is a controversial issue or, more to the point, the controversy is a political one. The economics are clear.

        Politics, philosophy, and the like are fields in which opinions matter more than facts. Argument should be supported by facts, of course, but we can call on the economists, geographers, and such for those. In such areas, any clear thinker with good writing skills can render their opinion and Chomsky’s is welcome.

  8. Curtis
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 11:54 am | Permalink

    Chomsky defended the Khmer Rouge while they committed genocide. He defended Mao during the Great Leap Forward. He defended Hugo Chavez. As far as I know he has never acknowledged his mistakes or apologized.

    He may be a great linguist and supporter of free speech but he has been on the evil side of history too many times to be taken seriously.

    • Posted August 13, 2020 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      My counter to that is: When a person is found to be wrong, then disagree with them. When a person is found to be right, then by all means agree with them. Each position can be weighed on its merit or lack of it. Although there is nothing wrong with reminding us of a negative when there is also a positive.

      I am surprised, though, to learn of his views on those things.

      I’ve even agreed with Trump on a few things, much as it burns my marshmallows to admit it.

      • jezgrove
        Posted August 13, 2020 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        Must be the desire to have “perfect” hair!

    • hazur
      Posted August 13, 2020 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      “Chomsky defended the Khmer Rouge while they committed genocide. …” How ironic:

      https://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-07-01/brull—the-boring-truth-about-chomsky/2779086

      https://chomsky.info/20090327/

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 13, 2020 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Chomsky defended the Khmer Rouge while they committed genocide. He defended Mao during the Great Leap Forward.

      Are you basing your claim that Chomsky defended the Khmer Rouge and the Great Leap Forward during their existence on your own reading of Chomsky, or on what others have attributed to him? (If it’s on your own reading, can you cite your source(s) from his writing that support this claim?)

      I am aware of Chomsky’s having used these as case studies of how the US government and mass media have exaggerated atrocities committed by US enemies while minimizing atrocities of similar magnitude committed by US allies. See, e.g., here and here. But that is not at all the same as either denying that those atrocities occurred (which Chomsky clearly has not done) or defending the use of such atrocities (which I have yet to see evidence he has done).

      I’ve certainly disagreed with Chomsky’s positions on numerous matters over the years, but the man ought not be accused of that which he has not done.

      • Curtis
        Posted August 13, 2020 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        John Barron and Anthony Paul published a book accurately saying over 1 million Cambodians because of Khmer Rouge rule. Instead of looking at the data and listening to the refuges, Chomsky denied the truth.

        Accounts by refugees should be ignored because “refugees are frightened and defenseless, at the mercy of alien forces. They naturally tend to report what they believe their interlocuters wish to hear.”

        “When they speak of ‘the murder of a gentle land,’ they are not referring to B-52 attacks on villages or the systematic bombing and murderous ground sweeps by American troops or forces organized and supplied by the United States, in a land that had been largely removed from the conflict prior to the American attack”.

        “We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments; rather, we again want to emphasize some crucial points. What filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered.”

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambodian_genocide_denial

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 13, 2020 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

          Your quotations from Wikipedia support my contention that Chomsky questioned whether the extent of the Khmer Rouge atrocities had been exaggerated.

          They do not at all support your original assertion that “Chomsky defended the Khmer Rouge while they committed genocide.”

          • Curtis
            Posted August 13, 2020 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

            To be pedantic, he did not defend their actions, he pretended that they did not occur because it did not fit his world view. He “knew” better and mocked the people telling the truth.

            When the scale of their atrocities became undeniable, he kept his mouth shut instead of admitting his horrific error. He has absolutely no credibility outside of linguistics. Mao, Pol Pot and Chavez.

          • Curtis
            Posted August 13, 2020 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

            Actually, he did not keep his mouth shut. He doubled down in 2009:
            “Q. You were heavily criticised for some of your views of the KR, and some accused you of being favourable to the KR. Were you unfairly criticised?

            A. It’s ridiculous — in fact, there has been a massive critique of some of things that Edward Herman and I wrote — and my view is that they were some of the most accurate things that were written in history.

            Nobody has been able to find a missed comma, which is not surprising. Before we published the chapter — we had it reviewed by most of the leading specialists on the topic, who made some suggestions, but basically nothing.”
            https://chomsky.info/20090327/

            • Ken Kukec
              Posted August 13, 2020 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

              From the very next paragraph of the same interview of Chomsky:

              Our main conclusion was: You have to tell the truth — don’t lie about our crimes denying them, and don’t lie about their crimes exaggerating them. In fact, what we actually did … the main thesis is a comparison between Cambodia and East Timor. And it’s a natural comparison — massive atrocities going on in the same part of the world — the same years — East Timor went on for another 25 years afterwards, and relative to population, they were about at the same scale.

              (emphasis added) Again, Chomsky is not denying that Cambodian atrocities occurred; he is using them as a case study of how some atrocities are exaggerated, others minimized.

              It is, of course, entirely legitimate to disagree with Chomsky on this point. But your error here is not pedantic; it is the difference between criticism and calumny.

  9. Steve Cameron
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Bill Maher getting his ABC show Politically Incorrect cancelled in 2002 after making some true though difficult to hear comments about the 9/11 hijackers is an example of the mainstream cancel culture that Chomsky is talking about. (To say nothing of the marginalization of Chomsky himself by the mainstream media for the last 5 decades, natch.)

  10. Jon Gallant
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    The wokies I am acquainted with typically drop Noam Chomsky’s name into conversation without having read anything of his. On matters of immediate political tactics, Prof. Chomsky is often (though not always) quite practical. In 2004, he counseled voting for John Kerry. Speaking of which, the Green Party has apparently already geared up for its brilliant 2020 campaign, with nominees for Pres and Vice-Pres. Inexplicably, Jill Stein is not running again this time.

    • Posted August 13, 2020 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

      My impression is that Chomsky went through a more radical period earlier in life but now he’s just a reasonable voice on the Left. Perhaps, like many, he’s grown more conservative with age. I’m guessing those that don’t like him base their opinion on the earlier, more revolutionary Chomsky.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 13, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      … the Green Party has apparently already geared up for its brilliant 2020 campaign …

      Were I a betting man — and I am — I would wager that third parties will not match the combined 5.7% of the popular vote they got in 2016.

      In the words of Dubya (inadvertently sampling The Who), fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice … I won’t get fooled again. 🙂

      • Posted August 13, 2020 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, and back then we laughed at W’s apparent inability to say the words “shame on me”. If we had only known what was to come, that would have seemed like a minor foible.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 14, 2020 at 10:15 am | Permalink

          Compared to Trump, Dubya is as articulate as Cicero rising before the Roman senate to remonstrate against Catiline. 🙂

  11. Fred White
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    The mainstream cancel culture Chomsky is referring to is explained well in this article:

    https://theintercept.com/2020/07/18/political-correctness-destroying-america/

  12. Posted August 13, 2020 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    There’s an interesting account in “Defenders of the Truth” by Segerstrale of what happened when Chomsky was invited to a meeting of the Sociobiology Study Group back in 1976 in hopes that he would attack Wilson. The opposite happened, and the meeting turned into a confrontation between Lewontin and Chomsky. Segerstrale was there, and wrote,

    “It became obvious and rather embarrassing, that while Chomsky and Lewontin both invoked Marx as the authority on human nature, each had in mind a different Marx – which meant that they had diametrically opposite views of the nature of human nature.”

    She also cites Chomsky as follows on human nature:

    “Surprisingly, however, he said that he doubted that science would be able to say much about it – he suggested that we might rather try to find the answer to human nature in literature.”

    That’s a striking comment, and probably not entirely inaccurate given the state of the “science” of human nature at the time he made it.

    • Jon Gallant
      Posted August 13, 2020 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      If only we had a video or a transcript of that discussion! Given the brilliance of both Chomsky and Lewontin, the fireworks must have been terrific. They are both 91 now, so we won’t have this chance again. I wonder if
      Sam Harris could somehow contact both of them by Skype or Zoom for his podcast.

      • Posted August 14, 2020 at 8:41 am | Permalink

        You might be interested in the Chomsky-Foucault debate. In that debate he defended the concept of human nature.

    • GBJames
      Posted August 14, 2020 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      “we might rather try to find the answer to human nature in literature”

      It is a peculiar comment from someone who’s professional contribution amounted to “humans have built-in basic linguistic capability”. Is universal grammar not part of human nature?

  13. revelator60
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Old-school Marxists and Socialists like Chomsky (and outliers like Hitchens, who was a Trotskyite in his youth) tend to be very critical of wokeness and identity politics because they (rightly) believe that it’s a distraction from the politics of class relations and economics. As the socialist Adolph Reed noted, a woke person or a neoliberal focused on diversity would be happy with “a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources… provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people.”

    • Posted August 13, 2020 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

      I wonder if the racial mix in the ranks of the Woke reflect that of the general population? If not, the Woke aren’t really Woke.

      • revelator60
        Posted August 13, 2020 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

        In Portland it was definitely a majority of whites who were protesting and/or rioting and making mischief…

        • Jon Gallant
          Posted August 13, 2020 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

          Revelator, you are taking too literally the oft repeated phrase that this or that should “look like the community” etc.. Underneath
          this cliché, there is an emotional current to reject altogether a minority’s simply being a minority. This is obvious from the frequent woke embrace of re-segregation in “affinity groups” or race-based “caucus” discussion groups. So, their real heart’s desire is for the economic 1% to consist of 51% Black, 51% Brown, 51% Latinx, 51% native American, 51% Inuit, 51% south Asian, 51% east Asian, 51% LGBT (of which 51% trans), etc. etc. That this utopia contradicts arithmetic only shows that arithmetic is colonialist and hegemonic.

    • savage
      Posted August 13, 2020 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

      It’s funny how few wokes belong to the NAM groups they champion. Few non-whites seem to be fully woke, and I suspect they have their own agendas (e.g. refusal to support LGBT people). As demographics change, wokeism may be usurped by something else.

  14. James Walker
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    It’s too bad that you’re not that interested in linguistics. I’m curious what evolutionary biologists think about Chomsky’s views on the evolution of language, which seem to me (who is not a biologist of any kind) to run counter to the way that we understand evolution to work.

    • Posted August 13, 2020 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

      IMHO, Chomsky’s linguistic theories seem to be somewhat disconnected from cognitive science and what we know of how the brain works. Most recently he seems to be in love with recursion, noting that human languages allow sentence structures with unlimited levels of recursion. In practice, people have trouble parsing sentences that employ more than a couple of levels of recursion. This tells me that the brain is not good at recursion and, in fact, does not employ recursive algorithms. AFAIK, Chomsky does not seem to recognize that.

      • James Walker
        Posted August 13, 2020 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        Chomsky’s response to your objection would be that the algorithm of recursion exists (and, presumably, evolved) independently of the processing limitations of the human brain.

        It strikes me that Chomsky came of intellectual age during the birth of computers in the 1950s and he seems to maintain a view of the brain as a computer.

        • Posted August 13, 2020 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

          “Chomsky’s response to your objection would be that the algorithm of recursion exists (and, presumably, evolved) independently of the processing limitations of the human brain.”

          Where else would recursion evolve but in the human brain? Surely he’s not suggesting that it evolved more fully in our predecessors but then we lost some of our ability to do it.

          I’m ok with thinking the brain is a computer but I doubt it does recursion when processing language. As I’m a programmer, I know it is hard to think about recursion. I also know that recursion to a small number of levels can be done without recursion by just repeating the steps multiple times. For example, factorial in the abstract is defined recursively but we can compute the factorial for small numbers iteratively or even just by table lookup (rote memorization). My guess is that our brains are good at iterating but don’t actually do recursion directly.

          • James Walker
            Posted August 13, 2020 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

            I haven’t read his latest book on the subject (https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/why-only-us) but my understanding is that he proposes that recursion is not the outcome of an evolutionary process but a ‘happy accident’ in an individual that somehow spread through the population.

            The problem I have with using the computer as an analogue of the brain is that computers are designed, whereas brains are not, and I think this makes a big difference in how they are organized and function.

            Chomsky’s views on recursion are a bit unclear anyway, as they are not well defined from either mathematical or linguistic perspectives.

            • Posted August 13, 2020 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

              Isn’t “happy accident” that spreads through a population how evolution works? Or is he talking about it spreading culturally?

              When I say that our brains are computers, I am talking about Turing machine equivalence and information processing in a more general sense. Our brains are certainly not organized like any computer humans have ever actually built.

              • James Walker
                Posted August 13, 2020 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

                I’m not clear on the details, I’m mainly going from what reviewers – both pro and con – have said.

                Dammit now I’ll actually have to read the book 🙂

  15. rjdownard
    Posted August 13, 2020 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Chomsky does have his baggage. It’s not so much that he was some unqualified supporter of Pol Pot, but that on repeated occasions at the time he really didn’t like the idea that a leftist regime like that could be full out genocidal bad. The section on Cambodia in “Manufacturing Consent” (1988) is illustrative: a big Whataboutist turn comparing the matter to the contemporary Timor violence, and contextualizing like all get out the Khmer Rouge deaths by focusing on the disruption done by the CIA and American bombing.

    This was not an unusual reaction by leftists at the time. I recall seeing a documentary on our local PBS channel by a left-leaning group who undertook a guided tour to Cambodia and thanks to their handlers couldn’t see any sign of dead people at all. Lillian Hellman had a similar blind spot for Stalinism, quite capable of rightly perceiving Hitler’s tyranny (and right wingers had comparable rationalization spots for the Nazis, of course), while oblivious to Stalin’s slower but in terms of numbers just as deadly regime, even down to her 60 Minutes interview late in life.

    It’s no coincidence that Chomsky earned a chapter in Susan Jacoby’s “Age of American Unreason” for this Cambodian matter, and while Chomsky is a most calm and measured ideologue at all times, too much of his method reminds me of the apologetic gyrations clever and dedicated creationists do in detail fiddling away problems they don’t want to think about.


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