June 18, 2002

Andrew Northrup Offers Insight Into Chomsky (Which Insight He Then Repudiates)

Andrew Northrup ("The Poor Man") offers some--I think accurate--insight into Noam Chomsky, particularly his bizarre apparent habit of attributing moral agency and moral responsibility (always exercised badly) to the governments of the U.S. and of Israel alone.


The Poor Man

[Chomsky writes:]

"For intellectuals in Russia in the Communist days, condemnation of US crimes had little if any moral value; in fact, it might have had negative value, in serving to buttress the oppressive and brutal Soviet system. In contrast, when Eastern European dissidents condemned the crimes of their own states and society, it had great moral value. That much everyone takes for granted: everyone, that is, outside the Soviet commissar class. Much the same holds in the West, point by point, except with much more force, because the costs of honest dissidence are so immeasurably less. And exactly as we would expect, these utterly trivial points are almost incomprehensible to Western intellectuals, when applied to them, though readily understood when applied to official enemies."

Well, yeah, that's about right, actually. And I think that offers a bit of insight into his style of criticism. And it is his strength, and it is his weakness.

The concern with the "moral value" of criticism, and saying that there can only be value when criticizing one's self (well, one's country - the proxy self). Yes, certainly, the voice of Andrei Sakharov had much more moral weight than the voice of Ronald Reagan when attacking the Soviet Union. One could argue it may have had more to do with the eventual collapse of the Worker's Paradise as well.

Earlier in the interview, Chomsky claims "there is no moral value in condemning the crimes of Genghis Khan." The implication being that criticism of another country (Chomsky is being interviewed in Pakistan, and refuses to make any comment about the country, claiming ignorance) is the moral equivalent of criticizing some long-dead, now impotent figure in a bad fur hat. No, I don't think so. I think that there is value in criticizing Genghis Khan, perhaps not moral, but as a counter-point to the person who might say "hey, you know that Genghis Khan guy really had his stuff together in terms of foreign relations." Likewise, were one to live in the US in 1940, perhaps there would be no moral value in opposing Adolf Hitler. But I'd say that if you spent your valuable criticizing time harping on the social problems of the US to the exclusion of the events of Europe (as lacking in profound insight as you may be), you would not have appreciated the true heirarchy of global injustice. Segregation was bad, but it wasn't concentration camp bad. You would not be as morally correct as a German who stood up to Hitler, but for missing that opportunity for moral excellence we should all count ourselves quite fortunate...

Posted by DeLong at June 18, 2002 12:54 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Oh dear. I wrote this a long time ago, and while I guess I still stand by it generally (meaning it's how I justify why someone who, to all outward appearances is quite smart and educated, can sound like such a mental patient all the time), would probably contain less non-judgemental language and more phrases like "invertebrate liar" and "Khmer Rouge-loving ass clown". I think at the time I was determined to give him credit for being well-intentioned, if somewhat misguided, and borderline nuts. I'd also like to offer that I don't think I have any special ability to determine what's in this guy's head, I lack of insight for which I am grateful.

Posted by: Andrew Northrup on June 18, 2002 01:41 PM

A quick, probably ill-informed rant: One thing I've noticed in my (limited) experience with reading Noam Chomsky is that he usually fails to mention the full consequences of any given event: instead, he takes the consequences, or possible consequences, or percieved consequences, that he thinks bolster his argument, and presents it as the whole story. One story I've encountered *repeatedly* in Chomsky's myriad essays is that the U.S. superrich and Latin American superrich are conspiring against the U.S. poor and Latin American poor for their own benefit.

For example, he often mentions how foreign investment from the U.S. to Central American countries helps American investors by making central Americans work at starvation wages at productivity comparable to American workers, exploiting them (never mind that productivity isn't the same...). In the same paragraph, he often mentions the rich of Central America parking their capital in the U.S., stunting central American development and giving the U.S. the benefit of capital inflows, at the expense of the Central American poor, who are, once again, exploited.

Huh?

Then, there are the times, when he claims to be a neutral observer in the cold war, claiming that the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. are both morally equivalent and terrible. Then, he condemns the crimes of the U.S., but not only does he not mention U.S.S.R. crimes, but he usually mentions them as supporting the good guys from his perspective. He'll say something along the lines of "The Sadinista government carried out extensive reforms of the health care system, education, blah blah. Though the government initially turned to the U.S. for assistance, the U.S. policymakers could not countenance a government that had the Nicaraguan people's interests in mind, and hoped to install another puppet dictatorship. The Sadinistas ultimately turned to the Soviet Union, which sold armaments to them when the became necessary due to U.S. terrorism and genocide." (Not an actual quote, but the general idea...)

The writings clearly *suggest* the moral superiority of the USSR over the USA, even if neither are portrayed a paragons of virtue and human rights, but Chomsky won't say, from the outset, that he preferred the USSR over the USA. He feigns neutrality, he feigns telling the whole story, but he really only uses arguments that support him. After all, perhaps there *are* some aspects of U.S. foreign investment in central America that harm the poor (though I can't think of any off the top of my head, as I don't know much about it), and there are *certainly* some aspects of capital flight from central America that harm the poor. If Noam Chomsky were consistent, of course, he would recognize the symmetry of capital movement out of a country and capital movement into it, and realize that, as a net, one ought to help the poor and one ought to harm them, but that isn't his objective. He doesn't look at the evidence and try to find a model that best fits it. He first comes up with a conclusion, then looks for evidence to support it. If that means contradicting himself, so be it.

Posted by: Julian Elson on June 18, 2002 01:52 PM

Re:

>> would probably contain less non-judgemental language and more phrases like "invertebrate liar" and "Khmer Rouge-loving ass clown"<<

This is, IMHO, one of the dangers of Kantianism.

A Kantian seeks to gain moral virtue. There is no moral virtue to be gained by criticizing other people. Therefore one criticizes oneself. So Chomsky's inability to criticize anyone other than the United States or Israel for more than five minutes is--in a twisted, perverted, bizarre, and destructive way--a pledge of allegiance ot the United States and to Israel.

However, I think Comrade Northrup put it very well when he noted that failing to criticize the really bad guys because it is not an exercise of true moral virtue is--from the perspective of real world politics--stupid, counterproductive, asinine, and puts one "objectively" on the side of the enemies of Humanity's Freedom.

Karl Marx

Posted by: Karl Marx on June 18, 2002 03:44 PM

Karl Marx says that failing to criticize the really

bad guys is counterproductive. Before I agree or disagree, maybe we should clarify what type of criticism we are talking about.

On the one hand, there is "advice-like" criticism: "You are being a totalitarian asshole. You should change your ways." This kind of criticism speaks to the target of the criticism in an attempt to get him to change.

The second kind of criticism is "war-drum" criticism: "That guy is being a totalitarian asshole. Let's get him!" The point here is not to get the target to change his ways, but to rally the support of third parties to doing something to force him (or encourage him) to change his ways.

The third kind of criticism is "values declaration" criticism: "Meat is murder". The point here is not to change anybody's behavior, but just to clarify the sort of morally upright person the critic is.

Maybe I'm missing some variants here, but let that be a start. When Karl Marx says that failing to criticize the really bad guys is counterproductive, I assume that he means (in a contrapositive way) that criticizing the really bad guys is productive. In what sense? Because criticism will get them to change? Because criticism will rally the troops into fighting against the bad guys? Because it is important to remind people that you are a good guy?

I consider the first two reasons to sometimes be legitimate, but I feel that the third reason is generally a waste of time (unless you are running for public office).

Posted by: Daryl McCullough on June 19, 2002 11:59 AM

Your general writing style is fantastical and nonsensical.
You quote no documents , unlike for example David Irving who is packed with documents,
You ask us to accept your mere assertions with
words like "obviously..." or "clearly...".

Stop kissing jew ass and start thinking for yourself.
There is no moral value in ganging up on a heretic.
BTW Richard Evans said what was expected of him and received his 200,000 pounds fee.

Posted by: John Lumumba on September 19, 2003 03:35 AM

Your general writing style is fantastical and nonsensical.
You quote no documents , unlike for example David Irving who is packed with documents,
You ask us to accept your mere assertions with
words like "obviously..." or "clearly...".

Stop kissing jew ass and start thinking for yourself.
There is no moral value in ganging up on a heretic.
BTW Richard Evans said what was expected of him and received his 200,000 pounds fee.

Posted by: John Lumumba on September 19, 2003 03:37 AM
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