I've re-done the format for this essay. Unfortunately, reformatting has to be done every time I put up a blog, because MS Word formatting is not accepted by Blogger's software (a serious shortcoming)... Biff...
Chomsky and the Barbarians
I first came across Noam Chomsky on television in the US. He was giving one of his lectures and I was immediately unimpressed with the dry professorial tone. I was bored.
Boredom is not a sign of immaturity or a pathologically deficient attention span. It's the product of a body of sophisticated filtering and feed-back processes, and as a reader/writer I've come to trust boredom over conscious decision-making. If my subconscious tells me I'm bored, whatever I'm trying to stuff into my brain is reliably inappropriate. The next step is figuring out why.
And this brings us to the first problem with Chomsky. He's truly, devastatingly, perennially boring. He may or may not be persuasive, but he's seldom interesting.
In part it's because he throws volumes of scattered information at you and, unless you're already versed in the material, it sounds and feels like a lecture for freshman students. You want to cut class, but feel guilt-ridden and embarrassed if you don't know the material when tested in a social situation: "So, like, what do you think of, you know, Chomsky, man?"
In my experience formal education is generally administered incompetently by professional incompetents according to an imbecile instruction format. And most of us are taught to blame ourselves for the shortcomings of our bad educations. For years one engages in useless self-recrimination when the problem, for once, is not oneself, but the incompetence of others. Chomsky takes advantage of this delusion, of the false belief that learning is and should be painful and boring, that serious knowledge must be imparted with seriousness. It's no laughing matter. Infotainment is baaaad.
And with Chomsky's lectures, once the immensity of verbal chaff is removed, one finds surprisingly little grain. I suspect he suspects this too. He realizes that it makes for smoother sailing to overwhelm people's senses with shotgun patterns of information. His Nobel winning professorial imprimatur carries the vote for him.
Fortunately, when a speaker's arguments are flawed, it's usually because the person's fundamental departure points are flawed. And thus, if you're patient, you'll find that you usually don't need a detailed background on any given subject to pick apart the arguments.
For example, in Chomsky's book Secrets, Lies, and Democracy (1994), a series of interviews with the Great Critic, he smothers his arguments in a snowstorm of references, but the problems wink through just the same. In the second page of the first interview he says:
Over long periods, the involvement of the public in planning or implementation of public policy has been quite marginal. This is a business-run society. The political parties have reflected business interests for a long time.
But surely the public's marginalization is a willing, even eager, one. If not for successful businessmen or their trophy wives: who would run things? The public wants entertainment television and sports, not politics, whether domestic or foreign.
One version of this view which I think has a lot of power behind it is what political scientist Thomas Ferguson calls "the investment theory of politics." He believes that the state is controlled by coalitions of investors who join together around some common interest. To participate in the political arena, you must have enough resources and private power to become part of such a coalition.
If business participates in the political arena, then Chomsky imputes investment motives. If it was religious folks, then Chomsky would impute evangelical means and millenarian motives. When he turns the torch on the educated, he ascribes elitist motives. If the public really did participate in planning or influencing public policy, then Chomsky would impute them with low and improvident motives. Chomsky's instincts are those of the best reporters that money can buy.
Since the early nineteenth century, Ferguson argues, there's been a struggle for power among such groups of investors. The long periods when nothing very major seemed to be going on are simply times when the major groups of investors have seen more or less eye to eye on what public policy should look like. Moments of conflict come along when groups of investors have differing points of view.
Was WWII, ethnic cleansing, and Fascism a disagreement between groups of investors? Perhaps, for example, WWII was designed to facilitate concentration camps of slave laborers all around the world. Perhaps the camps were facilitated by elitist think-tanks who came up with the thought-constructs and by investors who contracted the real-world design and execution stages. Really? And is any other variant on this theme any more plausible?
And the current bogus war against terror? A disagreement between the Bush and bin Laden investment teams? And how about the various Balkan interventions that were going on around the time (1994) this book was being put together? And the Rwanda intervention?
Take the Cold War for example: after Stalin died, there was not a chance that Khrushchev or Brezhnev would attack the United States. The 1950's Red Scare and the 1919 Red Scare were invented by ladder-climbing politically ambitious types and foisted upon an ever-credulous and ever-timorous public. Things were so friendly during the 1960s and 1970s, that KGB and CIA agents overseas commonly had each other over to their homes for dinner and to meet the wife and kids. No joke. It was ambitious pioneers (almost all of whom came from working-class parents) who invented the Drug War, the Yellow Peril, McCarthyism, Communism, the Cold War, and the heterosexual AIDS scare.
Noam Chomsky was ambitious. And a pioneer of sorts.
Surely many investors have made a lot of money from conflict, as insiders always do when the public believes what it reads in newspapers. (Every time Taiwan's stock market plunges due to political concerns, US brokerages jump in, buying low and selling high a week or two later)
But Nancy Reagan took orders from astrologers. George Bush and his fellow prayer-meeting brethren take theirs straight from the top. Bill Clinton was so incompetent that he continued getting embroiled in sex scandals for twenty years. Is one really supposed to believe that these clowns are part of an investor's cabal that controls the United States and the world? Couldn't the investors find a brighter set of reps and shills? On the other hand, if one strives earnestly to apply the professor's theory, then these nefarious feebs are indeed representative of the sinister herds of investors that conspire daily for world domination. If the latter is so, then I, for one, ain't worried.
Perhaps Professor Chomsky, like the prophet Marx, has spent little time with business folk. Most investors lost a pile, whether in Taiwan, or in the United States, during the last stock crash. And how about chief investor and international cabbalist Kenny-boy and the exploding ENRON house of cards? How could this multinational imperialist borderless stateless mercantile champion evildoer to the Champagne Socialist and compassion fascist gang allow his corporation to collapse at the first pinprick of the recession, its air-lane stocks disintegrating into blizzards of confetti? For that matter, if investors control the state, why do they allow such massive state intervention in the marketplace (which is, after all, the primary cause of stock market crashes, inflation, pollution, unemployment, job discrimination, etc.)? Given that the United States federal government is the biggest monopoly in America and the greatest hindrance to business people, (and a poor investment for the rest of us too, I might add) how is it that the United States federal government has steadily increased in scope since the Civil War?
In other words, the professor, like the prophet, is a mighty conspiracy theorist.
But before I go into that any further, let's take a quick look at his views on business and economics. Economic sounds so difficult. It's called the dismal science by some, and isn't it just really boring? Again, incompetent professors are boring; incompetent books are boring; incompetent reporters are boring. Nothing is intrinsically boring. Boredom is manmade, a sort of artificial additive.
Economics, like every other field of human endeavor, is simple in terms of its ideas. A given field may encompass a lot of ideas, or a few. But there is no such thing as a difficult idea. I've never come across one in 30+ years. What I have come across are people who are incompetent at explaining their ideas. With that, I have 30+ years of experience.
Here's Dr. Chomsky from the same book:
Under Reagan, the US managed to drive labor costs way below the level of our competitors (except for Britain). That's produced consequences not only in Mexico and the US but all across the industrial world.
But of course, this is because the US economy was moving from labor to services (ex: to aerospace, computer, and biotech R&D. You don't need a CS degree to work in computer science. Most people in the field don't have one.) It's somehow hard to imagine Dr. Chomsky in a rush to get a job on an assembly-line. Why labor for a living if you can be an arm-chair professor and earn two or three times more cash.
For example, one of the effects of the so-called free trade agreement with Canada was to stimulate a big flow of jobs from Canada to the southeast US, because that's an essentially nonunion area. Wages are lower; you don't have to worry about benefits; workers can barely organize. So that's an attack against Canadian workers.
Bringing jobs to a poor section of the southeast US is bad. That's an attack. Sounds violent. It's better that unemployment in the southeast US and world peace reign supreme. And who did professor Chomsky steal his job from? From a European University no doubt. Is he willing to give it back?
Daimler-Benz, which is Germany's biggest conglomerate, was seeking essentially Third World conditions. They managed to get our southeastern states to compete against one another to see who could force the public to pay the largest bribe to bring them there. Alabama won. It offered hundreds of millions of dollars in tax benefits, practically gave Daimler-Benz the land on which to construct their plant, and agreed to build all sorts of infrastructure for them.
It is somehow hard for me to conceive that the southeast US has essentially Third World conditions. Methinks the keyword there is essentially, which is the Great Linguist's code for sort of, but not really, but maybe, with a stretch, it could be. And of course the rhetoric continues with force the public to pay the largest bribe. I'm curious as to how that force was applied: with truncheons and pepper spray? And the bribe word. I never realized that a down payment on a home was actually a bribe. According to the Chomsky code, Taipei is essentially suffering from Third World conditions and going to the 7-11 to buy my favorite chocolate bar entails being forced to hand over a NT $23 bribe to the conglomerate.
I'll end this critique with a quick discussion of conspiracy theories. Dr. Chomsky is a big fan of sinister forces, clouds of unseen investors' hands, friendly and hostile mergers among world elites. What distinguishes Dr. Chomsky from amateur conspiracy theorists is the vast amount of footnoted ivory-tower blather that he wraps around what is essentially a medieval mindset.
To me, conspiracy theories are a sort of halfway house between the blithely ignorant mainstream perspective and an informed point of view.
For example, one reads the newspapers and starts out with the notion that China has a huge population and can invade Taiwan when it wishes. If the Taiwan government pushes China too far, it's going to launch an invasion. But at least we're safe from a missile attack here in Taipei because of the patriot missile batteries.
When you realize the newspapers are full of it, the first stop on your trip to enlightenment is usually the lunatic fringe. It's colorful and exciting with its info-maniacs, oddball activists, evangelists, and fanatics of all kinds, some of whom are even respectable and prominent. It also offers a rapid learning curve with astounding facts and figures that stick to your ribs. It changes your world, dude. You depart the respectable urban legends and the high-school feel-good glossing of politics and history. You leave behind the patronizing media campaigns of hysteria. You move onward and upward from these weather-beaten, intelligence-insulting frauds and launch into a psychedelic cartoon. After all, being weaned for decades on sensationalism and emotionalism in the free press, the phlegmatic detachment and industrious cross-referencing required to develop an informed view are not yet appealing.
The conspiracy theorists will tell you that there are spies everywhere, that every second fire that breaks out in Taiwan is an arson started by a mainland provocateur, that US military technology sold to Taiwan is second rate whereas the Chinese have the best of the Russian military arsenal at their disposal, and that George Bush, who went into Iraq to steal the oil and avenge Poppy, will never protect Taiwan because he's too scared of China and because the United States has too much money invested in China. Hurry, hurry, there's no time to waste (or think).
An informed point of view might be that if China could invade Taiwan, it would do so immediately. If it could have done so 10 years ago, it would have done so then. China got its ass kicked by Vietnam in 1978. And a military, i.e. China's, that has not fought against a significant enemy in 25 years is a military that cannot fight period. Source after source agrees that China has not even constructed the landing craft necessary to launch an army at Taiwan. The Washington Post and Jane's Defense Weekly will tell you that the patriot missile is useless. My informants tell me that the last public demonstration in Taiwan was rigged with a remote control. History shows that Russian Air Force technology is near-garbage and Russia wouldn't sell anything worth the name to China even if it had it. History also indicates that George Bush will protect Taiwan because it's in the US national interest to do so. G.W. is in Iraq because of two 1970's oil embargoes, three decades of Middle Eastern wars, coups, revolutions, and most recently 9/11. His cabinet fears another oil embargo.
With an informed point of view, one learns to see things in terms of history and patterns. You look at economics, political economy, martial history, social history, and so forth and come across all sorts of patterns, and particularly all sorts of checks and balances. Individuals oppose each other, systems oppose each other. You see the same thing in the animal world, the plant world, the microbial world. You see the same thing today, 500 years ago, 2000 years ago. You become detached particularly because much of what you're reading is historical, so it's impersonal. When you return to the present, it's hard not to remain detached because, in part you've become alienated from the present, and comfortably so. It's hard not to look at present day struggles from a much longer perspective and see them as being so many tempests in teapots. You see a story developing today and you already know the ending. There's no suspense. Therefore, there's no climax. Neither is there a denouement. The result is that there is a marked absence of emotionalism in one's own perspectives. But there is also a marked sense of confidence, security, and ease.
With Professor Chomsky, the opposite is the case. Beneath the statistics, the historical examples, and the drawing in and weaving of connections, lies a hot-headed fidgeting conspiracy theorist: One who believes that his selection of individual events is key, pivotal, and crucial; who believes that doom lurks just over the horizon or is in the mail, special delivery; who believes in good and evil; who believes in the moral and the just; who believes that he or she is fundamentally in the know and at the center of events. Clearly this is sophomoric. It may be comforting emotionally to preserve such delusions, and we all have our delusions certainly, but they should be discarded when we wish to achieve something in the real world.
One last perspective on conspiracy theories: religion (I'll be very brief)
Animism is the belief that spirits inhabit mountains, trees, houses, graves, animals, people, storms etc. This is an early stage of human thinking whereby cause and effect are understood to work at a larger than life level. What's important here is that all events are now presumed to happen deliberately; cause and effect has been anthropomorphized. In other words, not only is their cause and effect, but also good and bad, with the accompanying praise and blame. Spirits do things on purpose to help or hinder you. To use words that have gone long out of fashion, this was/is a barbarous or savage worldview.
Organized religion: in the Christian faith, for example, there are a myriad of seraphs, cherubim, and archangels, the Trinity, and so forth controlling events. There is the notion that God has his eyes on all people at all times as well as upon the animal and plant kingdom. Again, you have cause and effect mingled with good and bad, praise and blame. But here you also have organizations and interlinking systems that can be penetrated and analyzed, assisted or preempted. You have the whole-hog invention of conspiracies that foment good or evil. I call this a medieval worldview.
I heard this worldview bandied about endlessly in Belfast as a child and was immediately struck by it on reading the conspiracy theories that constitute the bread and butter of Karl Marx. It is this same point of view that Professor Chomsky has at heart. He is a lover and a hater, a pious despiser of the iniquitous, a righteous champion of the noble and the downtrodden. In other words, he's a simple-minded lunatic on par with King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table.
2500 years ago, the more enlightened of the Greek Athenians had already put this sort of folly behind them. They realized that events happened for reasons that were often beyond the human capacity for understanding; that events often, if not always, took place due to an internal logic not amenable to such nomenclature as noble or evil. They understood that shit happens. This is a concept too advanced for Mr. Chomsky.
At the beginning of the 21st-century, tin-pot messiahs like Noam Chomsky promote sophisticated medieval worldviews like those popular in Galileo's time. 100 years ago, at the turn of the 20th century, William Jennings Bryan, the leading messiah of his age and nominated thrice for presidential candidate, promoted a barbarous worldview; one which would've been in sync with the metaphysical nonsense doing the rounds 5,000 years ago in Egypt, Assyria, or ancient China. Bryan went out fighting the good fight in a last gallant bout in Tennessee. There, at the Scopes Trial, he led the successful charge opposing the teaching of evolution in the nation's high schools. I suppose there is solace in the fact that the modern shyster encourages the reading of more than just one book per lifetime.
News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.
- ► 2005 (94)