About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Chomsky the anarcho-libertarian
But I had never seen Chomsky in action, a lacuna that was remedied at least partially during the last couple of days, when I watched the documentary “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.” I'm not easily given to hero-worship, and in fact I'm pretty sure that Chomsky himself would be horrified at the prospect, but I must admit that I quickly adopted a new role model for my own modest forays into public intellectualism.
It isn't that I agree with everything Chomsky says. I find his political positions admirable, but it seems to me that he simply doesn't take into sufficient account the nature of being human (ironic, from someone whose main academic mark is an innate theory of language). I don't even necessarily agree with all his political positions (although I would defend freedom of speech regardless of whose speech is to be defended, his entanglement with the Faurisson affair and Holocaust denial was, I think, a bit naïve).
Nonetheless, Chomsky indubitably has the conviction of his ideas (he was arrested several times during the Vietnam era protests), does the hard work of researching what he says, is capable of brilliantly articulating his visions, and maintains an incredibly calm demeanor whenever challenged in public. If that's not the exact picture of what a public intellectual should be, I don't know what is.
Chomsky has almost single-handedly made the American public (or at least, the portion who cares to listen) aware of the genocide perpetrated in East Timor beginning in the mid-1970s, at the direct hands of the Indonesian government and with full support (including the shipment of weapons) of the US government. Moreover, Chomsky sharply exposed the hypocrisy of both the American government and media in decrying the genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, while being respectively complicit in and utterly silent about the parallel events that were unfolding in East Timor. It isn't that Chomsky was condoning Pol Pot, it is that he was pointing out what every thinking person ought to know by now: the US government talks the talk of democracy at home and abroad, but walks a path perilously close to fascism and colonialism whenever it can get away with it.
Indeed, in the documentary, Chomsky makes the very apt parallel between the US and that ancient world paragon of democracy: Athens. Yes, Athenian society was by far the most open society in the world at the time, but it was plagued by both internal injustice (slavery, lack of women rights) and external aggressiveness (culminating in the disastrous Peloponnesian war against Sparta). Similarly, the United States is, relatively speaking, a great place to live today (though several European nations actually do better by a variety of civil libertarian standards), but it is still plagued by injustice (poverty, limited gay rights) and perennially involved in warfare (the history of the United States is characterized by a remarkable sequence of external aggressions, which rarely – if ever – resulted in “spreading democracy” abroad).
In the documentary, Chomsky says that what needs to be done is to provide people with “a course in intellectual self-defense.” In our society people are isolated from each other, getting their news from a small number of media outlets increasingly controlled by an even smaller number of international corporations, an ideal ground for apathy and social stagnation. Which, of course, is exactly the way the powers that be want it (Chomsky has been accused of being a conspiracy theorist, but it seems to me that one doesn't need to imagine actual meetings in dark smoky rooms to realize what the concentration of economic and informational power is doing to our society). What is required is for people to get out, join organizations, read alternative media, and most importantly discuss things – all part of building intellectual self-defense tools. Enlightenment comes from confronting ideas with others, engaging in a continuous feedback (as David Hume put it, “truth springs from argument amongst friends”). As Chomsky says, “sure, the other stuff [meaning information not filtered by the major media] is there, but you have to find it,” and it is unreasonable to ask everyone to go home after a long day at work and suddenly turn into investigative reporters attempting to figure out how things really are.
As I said, I'm not sure I'm prepared to go all the way with Chomsky as far as his view of what a good society would be like. I guess I'm a bit too timid to embrace his idea of “social libertarianism,” or “anarcho-syndicalism,” but the documentary I saw was the first time the word “libertarian” didn't prompt me to reach for the gun that I don't own. And that's saying a lot.
I'll give Chomsky the last word: “In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued - they may be essential to survival.”