Noam Chomsky is an extraordinary and nowadays almost unique individual, but I think it’s worth remembering that people who made great intellectual contributions to humanity and were also called by their conscience to speak up for justice, were far more prominent and important in the 20th century.
“I’ve walked around the Globe in a daze…” (top photo)
Bertrand Russell is one of my greatest heroes of this type. By the age of thirty three, he and Alfred North Whitehead had made fundamental changes to our understanding of the entire field of mathematics – by thirty eight he was a lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, where one of his PHD students was Ludwig Wittgenstein, who Russell knew was a genius, but was also an emotional mess. Russell made huge investments in Wittgenstein as a young person, as well as a scholar of logic (his own natural inheritor, he believed) – which to me says much about his empathy, patience and character.
When we look back at the first world war – when the youth of the ‘civilized’ countries of Europe were ordered by stupid old men to march toward machine guns, artillery and worse, we can’t help but recoil from the sustained madness and horrific cost. But at the outset, the enthusiasm for the project on all sides was uncontainable. Flag-waving, national pride, bands and parades.
Russell was one of a shamefully small number of intellectuals who stood up against that war – on principle – right from the start. Cost him dearly (used his six months in jail to write one book and plan another). Even right in the middle of that war he wrote an especially brilliant book which not only predicted the Soviet revolution to come, but also saw clearly how it would fail and betray itself. “Principles of Social Reconstruction” – 1916 – quite astonishing reading, to this day.
Always for social justice – he nevertheless saw Lenin’s pleasure in cruelty at once, way back in 1920, when many western leftists were still deeply charmed by the Soviet project.
He remained controversial and outspoken his whole life – decades after his trouble at Cambridge over his anti-war views, he experienced new troubles over his appointment to City College New York, in 1940 (after teaching without such bother at both the University of Chicago and UCLA) – he was found in court to be morally unfit to hold the post (his 1929 book about marriage, cited as evidence) – after the case was launched by a morals-obsessed mother, whose imperilled daughter didn’t even attend the college!
This case is what prompted Einstein (in a letter in Russell’s defence) to pen his famous and enduringly powerful quote, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”
And yes – Russell was still objecting to the unspeakable cost and peril of war when the French gave up in Vietnam, and the American military marched in, trapped by their own misunderstanding, to repeat inevitable tragedy.
Einstein himself is another great example – not only did he change the world of physics (and blow all of our minds, with the whole idea of useful ‘thought experiments’ – practical daydreaming – hooray!) he also put enormous effort into trying to advance the politics of the world away from war. I still remember one of the most thrilling suggestions he made in “Ideas and opinions” (1954) that the United Nations should have it’s own satellites and nuclear weapons – making all sneak attacks impossible, and all first-strikes unwinnable – and thus act as the universal backstop against all further nuclear escalation.
Unrealistic, considering the UN’s present shape, I’ll admit – but at the time, freshly founded by people who still remembered the insane cost of war, though yet a reach, it might just have prevented uncounted billions wasted on a policy of nuclear overkill, and a permanent state of threat to all humanity which we have still not found our way out of, nor even significantly lessened.
Chomsky is just a kid, compared to these two – but he stands especially lonely now, compared to when he first began to crusade against the powers that be.
There are several funny things about his presence in the world that loop back on themselves. He is a leftist hero – and leftists constantly laugh about celebrities who are ‘famous for being famous’. But I’ve asked around a lot, and a whole lot more people nod when you say his name (to show they ‘get it’) than ever actually bother to sit down and read any of the guy’s work.
Chomsky’s original notoriety came in the fields of linguistics and cognitive science – and his contributions there are still valued very highly. Not only did he add many ideas of enduring usefulness, he also helped bring down the profoundly dehumanizing models of B.F. Skinner, before they could dominate the field.
Like Russell, Chomsky took a principled stance against war, as a professor (at MIT) – speaking against American involvement in Vietnam as early as 1962 (when US troops were still just ‘advising’ the south Vietnamese army).
From that time to this, Chomsky has kept up a truly incredible pace of travel, speaking engagements, written output (innumerable books, interviews and articles), activism, sharp insight, and always principled criticism.
In a way, the guy is exhausting just to watch – and sadly, he’s not a whole lot less so, to read – which is not in any way a reason to avoid it, mind you. Thing is, as an academic who is keenly aware of language and it’s powerful implications, he finds it impossible to put things imprecisely. This is really great if you are trying to win an argument in the faculty lounge (or a rowdy socialist packed beer-hall, actually) but it can be hard going, since it’s also depressing subject matter – the combo is a turn-off to many casual readers.
Which is why the same folks who think they are celebrity averse, actually use him in exactly this way – call themselves fans not because they’ve read him and agree with his key theses, but because they saw him say something once on television that they really enjoyed. Something most wouldn’t dare say at all.
His wise courage really is exciting stuff, and his calm delivery is often mistaken by foolish opponents for lack of resolve – usually a few seconds before he makes them look utterly ridiculous without even taking any satisfaction from it, instead showing resignation and a lovely sigh of disappointment – only present where the spark of hope of understanding does yet burn. This courage wisdom and hope combination is so rare nowadays (I think immediately of the also brilliant, inspiring and correctly fierce Cornell West). Stimulating to the whole culture, in ways beyond our ability to measure.
Endlessly kicking boot-chitecture
Many years ago, when I was part of a self-styled “socialist comic collective” (which of course, true to type, achieved nothing quite so well as self-destruction), I used to tease lazy friends who called themselves Marxists. “Have you actually read any of it?”
No, of course they hadn’t – I’d tried myself and though it was interestingly dense language, and plenty of fun to unpack, gave up – too much was missing from his reasoning. Nor did I ever once get a satisfying answer to my very first objection, “Wait a minute – dictatorship of the proletariat? But the proletariat are idiots!” ;o)
Anyhow, unlike Marx, I really do like to read Chomsky’s books – I find their rigour and courage reward all delving with that “At least I’m not alone” consolation which is sometimes all we can ask, in especially harrowing times.
And before I move on – I highly recommend “Understanding Power – the indispensable Chomsky” which is a transcription of many interesting talks he’s had with students over the years, rather than a collection of his written essays – and so, a far more approachable version of his thinking – the friendly conversational, rather than the one-way lecturing Chomsky.
In case you’re wondering, Chomsky is a socialist libertarian (yes, despite cooption of that word by snarling numbskulls, there is old pedigree and deep principle on the far side of that coin). Emma Goldman, disillusioned Orwell, Bookchin – all would be family.
Syndicalists (Intellectual anarchists) have a hard position to defend – so many of the social victories ultimately credited to socialism (public schools, labour laws, forty hour week and more) were won with their sacrifice and ideas also – dedicated anarchist energy. But after these wins they behaved differently. Not wanting to form huge institutions that seek corrupting levels of power is, oddly, a real character weakness in the modern world! ;o)
When asked to describe models of success, some point to the way the workers seized control in many areas during the Spanish Civil war, and established very successful spontaneous and consensus based governance – bringing not just city services but factories and shops back to function, on far fairer terms. (Malraux, who witnessed much of that turbulent history first hand, writes especially beautifully about this).
Chomsky himself has remarked more than once that he saw many of the best features of his vision demonstrated in an optimistic and energetic early Kibbutz – but that visiting again, many years later, he realized the potential for unchecked bias in such an intensely insular idealistic society was truly dangerous.
Balance of forces
I actually grew up in a similar optimistic commune that ultimately went crazy – and this puts me in a strange position in a lot of discussions. I’ve seen some forms of social organization that many don’t even believe are possible, accomplish great work. I’ve seen widespread community kindness, creative flowerings, and also distilled collectivized madness.
Which compels me to include an idea from another great and much missed thinker from the 20th century – Idries Shah. His insight about ‘special communities’ (not uncommon for many monastic orders, for training and advancement purposes) always struck me as spot-on. I’m not quoting here – he gets credit only for what’s sound. ;o)
If the community is too closed – they become arrogant, hostile and paranoid – and the locals outside the community become suspicious also, and respond with plenty of hostile cues which help to keep those who are stoking the crazy-flames in power.
If the community is too open, no special activities can be organized and no advanced training can take place, because you’ll be interrupted by dumb questions from outsiders every ten minutes.
The correct relationship is for the community to provide a great useful good to the locals in the surrounding area – earn their respect and a place in their life.
Some of the locals will aspire to join them, and some of their number will decide to leave and join the locals – when the respect is mutual, this flow is free and open and beneficial for all.
The locals benefit from higher education and fine craft product – but the special community also gets irreplaceable treasure – modesty, active and purposeful service, learned patience and warmth. Which alone can save it from thinking itself quite fantastic, for no other reason than past victories.
Okay – close parenthesis! And I’ll close another set of them,while I’m at it – the thing about Marx which keeps him around is his analysis of capital and it’s effects, not his recipe for cure! (Crude Darwinistic understanding of human character, to be charitable)
Chomsky also brings us very useful (fully footnoted and researched) analysis which is excellent in it’s own right – and goes well beyond any remaining weakness in his suggestions for what to do. (Not his field, really, nor would he claim it to be).
But – just for a moment – let me apply the big question that I can’t stop asking. “What year exactly do we think this is, people?”
When Chomsky says “The Republican Party is the most dangerous institution in human history” I, like many, am frankly thrilled. Indeed, their irresponsibility on environmental matters is nothing short of insane – suicidal in the mid-term – can’t even use the decades-from-now excuse anymore. Next year, year after.
But let’s be clear here. The Paris Accords were not a way forward, they were yet another delaying tactic from the same gang of nice-seeming technocrats who first weakened the Kyoto accords (which might actually have been helpful), and then walked away from them anyhow.
It is an entire generation later than that now, folks. Two decades full of war. Six trillion invested (on credit) for corporate subcontracted destruction – no end to the normalized tragedy in sight. Record oil production. And you know what? We still just want our loot – no matter what. We still act like it’s fifty years ago – or more.
To say the Republican party is the most dangerous institution on earth is a ridiculously optimistic position – especially for such a clear thinker. He is beginning from the consumerist idea that we citizens should be able to simply select our virtue – when he knows full-well that nothing even close has been offered at the ballot box in decades. Such soft-hearted folks are filtered-out at a lower level.
He does speak bravely about community organizing and labour groups – which is lovely stuff and extremely appealing and romantic for old-time lefties – but again, what year does he think this is? The only powerful unions left are public service unions, and their relationship with the public has been rocky for many years now. Not the trusted vanguard, my friend – not even close.
I’ve been surprised at how often people get angry at me for suggesting that we should be making spontaneous individual sacrifices on behalf of the environment and the foreign poor. The rebuke boils down to, “The oil corporations are evil planet-killers, but as long as anyone is going to benefit from the slaughter, I want my personal share!”
This really is a deplorably widespread position, even for self-described ‘environmentalists’, I’m afraid. “Everyone else should be forced into doing things that I personally refuse to do voluntarily.”
Logically self-nullifying – all passion past there multiplies only against zero. This is also, not at all incidentally, an outright anti-democratic stance. Not until you make me – and you’ll need a bayonet.
If we all insist on waiting until we are offered easy convenient consumerist options before we begin to exercise our own morality, we really are claiming right to a share of the very same kill that we are objecting to. Still defiantly red of claw (our right to their oil), just way less honest about the deal.
John-Stuart had them
There has to be another word for this dreamy position. Some clear term for these fantasists who still cling to the hope that we can return to the easy prosperity of our old global economic dominance, and go back to considering ourselves the ‘heroic side’ – simply for objecting to noisy scary psychos next door, even while continuing to exploit the whole world to death with our completely unhinged appetites and lust for growth.
I’m afraid it’s not just the Republican party, Noam-dude – the delusional state of the western consumer is the most dangerous force ever unleashed in all of human history. To carve any further subset from there is largely arbitrary, unless you mistake stated intention (letters to Santa) for demonstrated principled behaviour. (So many orders of magnitude inadequate, as to be noise and not signal).
The one virtue of the Republicans truly grotesque environmental position is it’s shock value, especially playing against clear evidence in the evening news and right outside our doors. May yet awaken a critical mass of active youth, and charge them up for real change that will outright scare us (that is, at actually useful speed). Fingers-crossed.
The Paris deal was the sleep of the doomed. Designed to give ‘caring’ people just enough of a feeling that we were doing something useful, for all of us to avoid doing anything even close to adequate in timing or magnitude. Strictly ‘dog ate my homework’ stuff. More comforting neolib BS – super-dangerous (also).
Reminds me of the vast and fuzzy perception divide between the historically similar Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Jobs is seen by so many as an underdog counterculture hero, and Gates a vicious bullying corporate player of games. Good guy and evil grasper, in standard (puppet-show morality) terms.
But an astute critic noticed many years ago. “We’ve all got it completely backwards. Everything Gates makes is clunky, full of obvious bugs and pisses us off constantly. Nobody was ever in any danger of mistaking a microsoft product for their friend.”
Right about the window. Wrong about the mirror. Very old trap.
And entirely forgivable in such a stalwart and generous hero. Necessary motivating illusion.