Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Peter Schweizer's interesting article about the 'real' Noam Chomsky (referenced by Yazad and quoted by Gaurav) prompted me to make some comments. I am not a Chomsky expert and also not a Chomsky apologist. I don't also think that he is perfect (is any one?). But in general, I love the man and his ideas, and think that many of the things which he says are logical and conform to 'elementary common sense and morality' in his own words. I cannot really comment on Chomsky's stock fund investment and related details because this is the first time I am hearing about them. But let me pen some of my comments regarding some other statements that Schweizer makes. However, before that, I want to make a few general statements.

An implicit assumption in the above kind of analysis seems to be that a man who criticizes a system should completely renounce everything to do with the system. This is simply not possible in most circumstances. In fact, today if you want to criticize any system of reasonable size, you have to be in a position to do so yourself, both in terms of status and money. For example, if you want to help the poor, you yourself have to first become rich enough to help them. This is not hypocrisy. It’s simply the means that are necessary these days to achieve that objective. These days, people listen to you in the first place only if you have prestige or money, or both. I don’t think Chomsky is seeking monetary gains for himself that are in any way out of line or extravagant. To ask him to give up being part of the capitalist system before criticizing it is a little childish; one may as well ask him not to wear Levi’s jeans and Calvin Klein shirts before he writes a critique of textile corporations. Going to an even bigger extreme, one may as well demand that he not consume life saving medicines, if he wants to criticize the pharmaceutical industry. Gone are the days when one could live in a forest and preach about iniquity and goodness, expecting social and political revolutions. In fact it can be argued that those among Chomsky’s critics who demand that he completely forgo capitalism want him to do exactly that: to leave the US and be in a place where he will be unable to criticize and expose them, so that they can now enjoy a nice, Chomsky-free, blissfully ignorant life themselves.

Now, for some specific comments (following paragraphs from the article in italics):

"Indeed, Chomsky is rich precisely because he has been such an enormously successful capitalist. Despite the anti-profit rhetoric, like any other corporate capitalist he has turned himself into a brand name. As John Lloyd puts it, writing critically in the lefty New Statesman, Chomsky is among those "open to being 'commodified' -- that is, to being simply one of the many wares of a capitalist media market place, in a way that the badly paid and overworked writers and journalists for the revolutionary parties could rarely be."

This is an important point. Chomsky has used phrases in his works which have become classics, phrases like 'commodification of desire' and of course, 'manufacture of consent'. However, if commodification refers to his drive to make his ideas known through constant reiteration and by providing massive amounts of references about them, then any writer who assertively makes a point is guilty of trying to 'commodify himself'. The more important question concerns the image which people have of him. It can be argued that it's the people who are commodifying Chomsky through idolatry. He is merely presenting his ideas in a forceful manner, in a way that he deems fit. If people are taking his word as dogma and attaching a brand value to them, it's really their problem, not his. In fact, this would be a part of the general hero-worship of him that people indulge in. In his works that I have read, I have not come across Chomsky saying something to the effect of 'This is important because I say it'. In fact, that is precisely what drew me to his writings. A lot of the things which he says are 'elementary' (although the kind of elusive elementary concepts that we find elementary only in retrospect). Much of what he says can be gleaned through common sense, and by keeping your eyes open and your mind alert. Much of what he says can be understood if we read the everyday news intelligently and critically. You can hate Chomsky and still check up on his references objectively and agree with many things that he says. You certainly don't have to believe in something because Chomsky says it. A lot of his references are accessible, especially in today's Internet age, and so can be verified quite independently of him. So I believe that Chomsky does not try to 'commodify' himself. If any one, it's the people who worship him that do so. Hero-worship is largely the people's fault, not the hero's. In fact, given the critical and objective thinking that Chomsky encourages his readers to do, he would never approve of any hero-worship. In a Berkeley talk a few years ago, he said (in rough paraphrase), "People come to hear me talk and would believe me because I am a Professor from MIT. That is nonsense. They should hear me speak and then think about what I have said, making up their own mind quite independently of who I am". In fact, Chomsky's attitudes are exactly those that are supposed to prevail in scientific and unbiased thinking.

Now I can see people raising eyebrows and saying that by this token, Chomsky's own models of how corporations bring about the manufacture of consent through propaganda should be treated the same way. I can hear them saying that by the logic I applied above, Chomsky's claim that corporations control people's thinking is unjustified. From what I said above, then, it is the people's fault that they allow themselves to be manipulated, not the corporations.
But there are a couple of things to remember here. First of all, yes, we do allow ourselves to get manipulated by corporations, and in fact, people like Chomsky actually make us aware of this fact. So irrespective of what they say, they are doing us a service by alerting us to the problem in the first place. Secondly, the kind of control exercised by corporations and by Chomsky (if any) differs substantially in quantity and character. Corporations have been shown to have overtly insidious motives for biasing the opinions of people and tempting them. They do so many times by forming dishonest political connections, and act in a very obvious way to profit themselves, irrespective of the costs that people would have to pay. They control political parties and try to consolidate power as much as possible, many times at the expense of the people. In sheer quantity, they completely try to overwhelm our minds and decisions, and try to tempt our consumer psyche to an extent bordering on brainwashing. They are among the subtlest Orwellian agents of our age. They try to turn us into zombies by the systematic and studied use of advertising and propaganda. Whether and to what degree all of them act this way, and whether this is 'good' or 'bad' in the first place is a different question. The point is that none of these attributes apply to Chomsky's works and writings. He is quite open about his ideas, and tries to reference every one of them. As noted above, Chomsky has never tried to claim that something is right or that we should believe him because HE says so. He never seems to have any hidden personal agendas aimed at selling us his thoughts. At most, we can accuse him of taking one-sided views of situations sometimes. But again, we can check up on the other side of the view and decide the veracity of the opinion ourselves (Not to mention that the we are constantly exposed to the 'other' side through the mainstream media anyway) Most of his references can be objectively studied, and then we can make up our mind for ourselves. So the kind of self-marketing and propaganda that corporations indulge in cannot be compared to anything that Chomsky does.

"Chomsky's business works something like this. He gives speeches on college campuses around the country at $12,000 a pop, often dozens of times a year.

Can't go and hear him in person? No problem: you can go online and download clips from earlier speeches-for a fee. You can hear Chomsky talk for one minute about "Property Rights"; it will cost you seventy-nine cents. You can also by a CD with clips from previous speeches for $12.99.

But books are Chomsky's mainstay, and on the international market he has become a publishing phenomenon. The Chomsky brand means instant sales.

As publicist Dana O'Hare of Pluto Press explains: "All we have to do is put Chomsky's name on a book and it sells out immediately!"

Well, first of all, the statements about getting his articles and speeches for a fee look one-sided. Do a Google search and see how many of his important articles and audio interviews you can get for free. There are also many video clips which you can see for free. So there is actually more of a case that you can make here for the number of articles and clips of his that are freely available. Again, as far as his name is concerned, it would only be a servile and easily swayed reader who will assume that a book is great only because it has Chomsky’s name on it. So again, I think the burden of answerability is more on the readers. Also, I can see that this is a good example of how the publishers are manufacturing the consent of readers by using Chomsky’s name, something that Chomsky has constantly written about. Regarding the high fee for his public speeches, first of all, there are many professional speakers who charge that kind of fee for speeches. I don’t know the exact nature of the fee structure for professional speakers, but one can think of reasons why he charges a high fee. The simple goal may be to filter the number of requests for speeches that he gets. I am sure that someone like Chomsky must be getting hundreds of requests for speeches and interviews almost every day. If the usual systems of filtering based on priority don’t work and if he is still getting deluged with requests, I would not be surprised if monetary filters are the only ones that can be used to restrict the number of talks that he gives. And again, all this argument is only assuming that there is something inherently wrong or 'capitalist' in charging a high fee for giving a public speech. Also as before, the analysis seems to be neglecting the number of free talks he has given.

"Chomsky's marketing efforts shortly after September 11 give new meaning to the term "war profiteer." In the days after the tragedy, he raised his speaking fee from $9,000 to $12,000 because he was suddenly in greater demand. He also cashed in by producing another instant book. Seven Stories Press, a small publisher, pulled together interviews conducted via email that Chomsky gave in the three weeks following the attack on the Twin Towers and rushed the book to press. His controversial views were hot, particularly overseas. By early December 2001, they had sold the foreign rights in nineteen different languages."

If Chomsky did all this, at most, it would be all right to call him an opportunist. Firstly, how does that make him an ardent capitalist by default? Secondly, by that token, all of us are opportunists. Wouldn’t all of us like to do something at the right place and the right time to maximize the impact of our opinions and thoughts? Chomsky seems to have simply done that. Again, as for the fee, he could have done that precisely because he was in greater demand and wanted to limit the number of speeches that he would need to give.

In the end, I would again like to question the implicit assumption that someone is a hypocrite simply because he enjoys some of the fruits of the system he criticizes. By that token, many of us are hypocrites. I don’t think Chomsky is benefiting from the capitalist system in a much more extravagant way than a normal capitalist citizen would. Let me emphasize that I am not saying that the opinions or statements of Peter Schweizer are false. I only think that they cannot provide a conclusive picture of Chomsky being a closet capitalist, and they lay too much emphasis on the man himself rather than his deeds. Men live and die, but it's their ideas which endure. If Chomsky's models endure, after a hundred years, his personal life's activities as such would be a footnote to a footnote, compared to the discussion of his ideas. Even if he does do the things noted above, the motivations could be very different from what have been assumed. Quibbling over the above-mentioned traits of Noam Chomsky, would be, I think, doing a great disservice to his work and the body of knowledge he has erected, on which we should really be spending our time. Irrespective of what Chomsky does, it would be a good idea to consult his references and read his words. The proof of the pudding is in its eating, not in the private life of the cook.

P.S: Just an observation- Tech Central Station, the website which has excerpted Schweizer's article, has not provided a single reference for any statement about Chomsky. The only general reference is Schweizer's own book, and as can be seen from the Amazon description, the book has received a critical review from Publisher's Weekly that ends with the statement, "For all its revelations, in the end, this volume reads less like a critique of liberal philosophy than a catalogue of ammunition for ad hominem bloggers."


Blogger Hirak said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Hirak said...

Well said Ashutosh!

I wish these chaps spent more time reading and understanding his work than digging up stuff. People casted aspersions on the blameless Sita! So who's Chomsky?

11:02 AM  

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