Originally published at the World Affairs Journal.
By Michael J. Totten
My friend and colleague Benjamin Kerstein has published a number of books, and this summer he released what is perhaps the most blistering critique of the radical leftist ideologue Noam Chomsky ever to appear in book form. It’s called Diary of an Anti-Chomskyite and is a collection of essays, reviews, and take-downs that originally appeared on his blog of the same name during a three-year period from 2004 through 2007.
I read most of the material in this book when it first appeared, and now I have it all in one place in trade paperback on my bookshelf. Kerstein and I discussed Chomsky and his new book last week.
MJT: What possessed you to spend three years writing about Noam Chomsky?
Benjamin Kerstein: That’s a huge question, and lest people start thinking I’m completely obsessive, I should note that I was doing a lot of other things at the same time. The short answer is 9/11. I grew up in an extremely liberal community where Chomsky was very popular, and as soon as 9/11 happened I knew that all those people I used to know would go straight to him in order to find out what they should think about it, and what they would come back with would be very nasty indeed. I regret that I was proven absolutely correct in that. It was really a disgraceful display by some very disgraceful people. Chomsky had become quite marginal in the years before that, but after 9/11 the left disinterred him and put him back on a pedestal. The New York Times, for example, ran a ridiculously fawning profile of him. He was being mainstreamed again and I felt strongly that someone had to say something.
I like to think that I and the others who were speaking out against him managed to make a small difference. For years he was spewing this stuff out with basically no opposition at all. I hope we managed to give people some material that helped them apply some critical thinking to his claims.
MJT: Can you boil down your case against him into a couple of sentences or paragraphs?
Benjamin Kerstein: There are a couple of main points that should be made. First, Chomsky is an absolutely shameless liar. A master of the argument in bad faith. He will say anything in order to get people to believe him. Even worse, he will say anything in order to shut people up who disagree with him. And I’m not necessarily talking about his public critics. If you’ve ever seen how he acts with ordinary students who question what he says, it’s quite horrifying. He simply abuses them in a manner I can only describe as sadistic. That is, he clearly enjoys doing it. I don’t think anyone ought to be allowed to get away with that kind of behavior.
Second, Chomsky is immensely important to the radical left. When it comes to American foreign policy he isn’t just influential, he’s basically all they have. Almost any argument made about foreign affairs by the radical left can be traced back to him. That wasn’t the case when he started out back in the late ’60s, but it is now.
Third, he is essentially the last totalitarian. Despite his claims otherwise, he’s more or less the last survivor of a group of intellectuals who thought systemic political violence and totalitarian control were essentially good things. He babbles about human rights all the time, but when you look at the regimes and groups he’s supported, it’s a very bloody list indeed.
Communism and fascism are obviously dead as the proverbial doornail, but I doubt the totalitarian temptation will ever go away. The desire for unity and a kind of beautiful tyranny seems to spring from somewhere deep in the human psyche.
Fourth—and this may be most important—he makes people stupid. In this sense, he’s more like a cult leader or a New Age guru than an intellectual. He allows people to be comfortable with their prejudices and their hatreds, and he undercuts their ability to think in a critical manner. To an extent, this has to do with his use of emotional and moral blackmail. Since he portrays everyone who disagrees with him as evil, if you do agree with him you must be on the side of good and right. This is essentially a kind of secular puritanism, and it’s very appealing to many people, for obvious reasons, I think. We all want to think well of ourselves, whether we deserve it or not.
There is an intellectual side to this, as well. You see it clearly in his famous debate with Michel Foucault. Chomsky says at one point that there is a moral and ethical order that is hardwired into human beings. And Foucault basically asks him, why? How do you know this hardwired morality exists? And even if it exists, how can we know that it is, in fact, moral in the first place? We may feel it to be moral, but that doesn’t make it true.
Chomsky’s answer is essentially: Because I believe it to be so. Now, whatever that is, it isn’t thinking. In fact, it’s an excuse for not thinking. Ironically, Chomsky later said that Foucault was the most amoral man he ever met, whereas I would argue that Foucault was simply pointing out that Chomsky’s “morality” is in fact a form of nihilism.
I think people come to Chomsky and essentially worship him for precisely that reason. He allows them to feel justified in their refusal to think. They never have to ask themselves any difficult questions or provide any difficult answers. It’s a form of intellectual cowardice essentially, but I’m sure you can see its appeal.
This may be one of the reasons for Chomsky’s hostility to psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis may be many things, but it is certainly a method of gaining self-knowledge, of asking difficult questions about one’s self and others. And that is precisely what he, and his followers, want to avoid.
My apologies for the length of this answer, but I think you’ll agree that, of all the bad things people are capable of, their refusal to think is one of the worst, mainly because it leads to most of the other bad things of which they are capable.
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