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Naom Chomsky
March 30, 2003 7:01 PM   Subscribe

MIT Liguist Naom Chomsky The New Yorker has a good collection of links to his articles and speeches online
posted by nish01 (35 comments total)

 
What's a liguist?
posted by blindcarboncopy at 7:09 PM on March 30, 2003


A liguist is a person who has taken left-wing conspiracy theories out of the realm of healthy suspicion and straight into the land of paranoid delusion, from what I can tell (yes, I've long been familiar with Chomsky's work).

I'm being unfair, of course - Chomsky makes a lot of good points regarding America and the West on a very frequent basis. But much like reading Slashdot for Microsoft information - while you'll learn a lot of nastiness you'd otherwise be kept in the dark about, one should keep several very large grains of salt handy.
posted by Ryvar at 7:17 PM on March 30, 2003


Who's Naom Chomsky?
posted by crazy finger at 7:21 PM on March 30, 2003


This Chomsky, it vibr.....oh, forget it.
posted by MrBaliHai at 7:21 PM on March 30, 2003


Well spoken Ryvar. Chomsky's biggest problem is being an obsessive conspiracy theorist. If he kept his core ideas sensible and reasonable, right-wingers wouldn't have such frequent excuses to write him off completely. Just watch this post explode in accordance.
posted by Jimbob at 7:23 PM on March 30, 2003


Been a long time since we had a good bash on Unca Noam. I wonder if it'll be as fun and instructive as the last one.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:29 PM on March 30, 2003


Excellent set of links, nish01 - thanks!

Although Im glad that "Many of Chomsky's polemics are available for streaming listening, using Real Audio software. Among other things, visitors can listen to a hard-hitting, two-hour address that took place at the Technology and Culture Forum at M.I.T. just weeks after the September 11th attacks", I think I'll just bookmark them and await the necessary fortitude. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 7:30 PM on March 30, 2003


Chomsky makes a lot of good points regarding America and the West on a very frequent basis. But much like reading Slashdot for Microsoft information - while you'll learn a lot of nastiness you'd otherwise be kept in the dark about, one should keep several very large grains of salt handy.

Best. Comment. On. Chomsky. Ever.
posted by namespan at 7:33 PM on March 30, 2003


[insert long and spirited tirade here]

I think this sums up my current sentiment about the linguist who inexplicably neglects linguistics in favor of David Icke style conjurings.
posted by hama7 at 7:39 PM on March 30, 2003


Chomsky is a sandwich, do not deny.
posted by angry modem at 8:00 PM on March 30, 2003


50 lb salt block enough? or would you rather have bags?

Or perhas with a bit of sulfur for those fire-breathing rants?

Salt. It's great stuff.

JB
posted by JB71 at 8:03 PM on March 30, 2003


I think this sums up my current sentiment about the linguist who inexplicably neglects linguistics in favor of David Icke style conjurings.

Ryvar's comment is much closer to the mark. Chomsky seems reasonably active in linguistics... last year I was introduced to the minimalist grammar program, which seems to be a good refinement over the transformational stuff I was taught in my intro linguistics class in 1994. Chomsky also seems to overstate his case, but so far, he hasn't implied anything as fundamentally unrealistic as shape-shifting reptilians. His basic premise is that american foreign policy serves american business/money interests. This is not beyond the realm of reality.

My only regret about Ryvar's comment is that it can't be used to explain Chomsky's political theories to people who have no idea what slashdot is.
posted by namespan at 8:11 PM on March 30, 2003


The profile itself, which doesn’t seem to have been transcribed to the Internet as of yet, shows why the magazine has always been the most consistently able publisher of the form. It is honest and accurate: he is a brutal, egotistical and “serpintine” rhetorician; the motivations for his political critique are pinned on consquences, not motivations. Most relvantly, though, it does not fall into the comfortable, but ultimately embarrassing, gaucheness pathological denunciation.
posted by raaka at 8:52 PM on March 30, 2003


the motivations for his political critique are pinned on consquences, not motivations

What on earth does this mean?
posted by adamgreenfield at 9:26 PM on March 30, 2003


the comfortable, but ultimately embarrassing, gaucheness pathological denunciation.

And while you're at it, this?

I think I could understand it without the word "gaucheness." But I get an idea that's somehow necessary to what you're saying. Which is... ?
posted by soyjoy at 9:31 PM on March 30, 2003


I was hoping to hear something about linguistics. I hear this Chomsky fellow is pretty good at linguistics - shame his speeches are never on that subject.

Definitely Chomsky makes some points, but as a moderate, his points should be viewed the same as Buchanan's. Sure, there are things that Pat Buchanan says that I agree with, but mostly he's a ranting lunatic who makes up facts when they get in the way of the lie.

Did Chomsky ever apologize for the whole "There's no genocide in Cambodia" debacle? His reputation for half a decade was staked on the fact that the US was claiming genocide in Cambodia in order to subvert the leftists there. Turns out he was wrong, of course.
posted by Kevs at 9:37 PM on March 30, 2003


right-wingers wouldn't have such frequent excuses to write him off completely

How terrifically horrifying it must be to be written off by the right-wingers completely. You should send Chomsky a note. He's probably completely unware how alienated he's made himself from Republicans.
posted by Zoyd Wheeler at 9:53 PM on March 30, 2003


...a hard-hitting, two-hour address...
Now that we have MFDistilled, any chance for ChomskyDistilled?

...one should keep several very large grains of salt handy.
And how about a Low Sodium MetaFilter?
posted by wendell at 10:27 PM on March 30, 2003


Thanks for pointing that out you two. I was rather sloppy.

That line should be “the foundation of his political critique is pinned on consquences, not motivations.” He doesn't care why somebody did something, he cares about what happened after they did, and whether they could concievably predict the outcome.

He was one of the Balkan air war critics, saying that the bombing actually sped up the genocide instead of slowing it and that outcome was predictable. This criticism was not leveled solely by Chomsky, whose political insights are, the older he gets, less often original. The NATO commission on Kosovo, in response to this criticism wrote "The NATO air campaign did not provoke the attacks on the civilian Kosovar population, but the bombing created an enironment that made such an operation feasible." Whether that vindicated him is up to you.

The Balkan conflict is one of those things where Chomsky is a rather incisive critic, but simply offers no alternatives. He rarely does. I think this is a conscience decision -- he does not want to be a guru for people, even though he effectively has become one. This phenomenon is also mentioned in the profile.

And my line "the comfortable, but ultimately embarrassing, gaucheness pathological denunciation" should be just "gauche." "comfortable ... gauche pathological denunciation." Guacheness isn't a word, I don't think. Anyway, I'm just saying the profile did a hell of a better job of criticizing him than people who resort to calling him crazy.
posted by raaka at 10:45 PM on March 30, 2003


In the words of the immortal William Goldman, in the immortal "The Princess Bride"--

"You keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means."

This is not a spelling flame, just some feedback on your posts. They're quite difficult to follow.

I realize that English might not be your first language, and Baal knows that I'm no Demosthenes in French or Spanish myself, but sometimes less is more.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:56 PM on March 30, 2003


Thanks for the link. I happen to know very little about the man or his works, but have heard the talk and was looking to seek out some of his material.

Now I've got the resources, and a salt shaker for good measure.
posted by brittney at 12:21 AM on March 31, 2003


I'm suspect of anyone with a primary support base that is less then half their age.

Part of growing up is relizing that the young have no wisdom and their opinions reflect that. Using rhetoric on them is like shooting fish in a barrel, espeically if your rhetoric blaims everything on the man.
posted by Leonard at 12:26 AM on March 31, 2003


From "Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent":

He is the most cited living person ­ four thousand citations of his work are listed in the Arts and Humanities Citation Index for the years 1980 through 1992 ­ and eighth on a shortlist, which includes the likes of Marx and Freud, of the most cited figures of all time.

And he expects us to take him seriously?
posted by iamck at 12:42 AM on March 31, 2003


Oh come on you people. Chomsky was the one who threw B.F. Skinner's behaviorism out on its ass. At least show a little deference to his contributions to psychology. He's a little like Marx in that respect--his political views may be questionable at times, but his contributions to psychology and linguistics (or economics and conflict theory, for Marx) are indisputable.

The Short Version

The Long Version
posted by LimePi at 1:44 AM on March 31, 2003


What's a liguist?

Before Chomsky it was someone who smoke a pipe and added the litte bits about etymology to dictionaries ("this word comes from the Old Norman for bad breath" etc etc). After Chomsky it was a scientist.

There's a good (technical, but readable) description of his work in this free book. Don't let the title scare you - ignore the computing bits and skip directly to Chapter 2. It's fascinating stuff (well, I thought it was interesting, but I'm a nerd).

(Incidentally, if you're interested in computing, that book is also the best book about parsing on this earth).
posted by andrew cooke at 3:22 AM on March 31, 2003


One of my main problems with criticism of Chomsky is that it has never, as far as I know, been able to quote the man directly, instead of erecting a "straw Chomsky" that is supposed to have said all sorts of weird things.
So let's see:
Chomsky's biggest problem is being an obsessive conspiracy theorist.
The NC archive site is now down [metafiltered?], so I'll link to the google cache of an anti-conspiratorial article Chomsky has written on, i.e. the JFK assassination conspiracy. Indeed the "Comskyites" in Zmag have written an article against conspiratorial thinking.
Can you provide an example of Chomsky's conspiratorial (as distinct from dissenting) views?
Did Chomsky ever apologize for the whole "There's no genocide in Cambodia" debacle?
He never made such claim (unless of course you mean on the appropriateness of the word genocide in that particular case- mass slaughter is a better description), although he was initially skeptical of the reports coming out of Cambodia (with good reason: he had seen through a lot of the war propaganda of the US and was inclined to disbelieve reports from western sources).
In fact he had simply claimed that the Cambodian massacres were given more weight in the US and western media than the absolutely analogous East Timor Massacres, which were committed by a US ally (Suharto). Michael Albert has a review of the whole controversy [google cache]. He was guilty possibly, of understating the number of dead in Cambodia (he was suggesting a figure closer to 700,000 murdered- which we know now is wrong: the Vietnamese probably had it right at the time)- which is quite different than denying it.
Furthermore, Chomsky as an anarchist has no sympathy at all for the so-called "leftists" in Cambodia and his critique of Stalinism in all its forms is devastating:
If the left is understood to include 'Bolshevism,' then I would flatly dissociate myself from the left. Lenin was one of the greatest enemies of socialism, in my opinion, for reasons I've discussed.I'm suspect of anyone with a primary support base that is less then half their age.
How do you assess that most of his support base is half his age? In Europe, this is certainly not the case. Indeed many young European anarchists consider him "establishment" and "reformist". Which he is. His main fault as far as I can see is that he considers himself an anarchist when he seems (to me at least) more of a libertarian socialist, or even a social democrat (lately).
He doesn't care why somebody did something, he cares about what happened after they did, and whether they could conceivably predict the outcome.
Again I'm not sure of an instance where he hasn't examined the reasons for political etc. actions. Can you give me an example?
posted by talos at 3:33 AM on March 31, 2003


ps my link above only covers part of it - all work from his original thesis, iirc.

on the He doesn't care why somebody did something, he cares about what happened after they did - you can see that kind of argument is going to be built around i**q. in ten years, chomsky will be saying that intelligence sources were ignored, incorrect assessments made about how the troops would be accepted, etc; apologists will be saying "we hoped it would be for the good of the iraqi people". both, in their own way, are right, but only the chomsky version lets you avoid mistakes next time.
posted by andrew cooke at 4:16 AM on March 31, 2003


Talos: Actually, I´ve read interviews where Chomsky refers to himself as a libertarian socialist, he does however point to that brief period during the Spanish Civil War where the anarchists put many of their beliefs to the test and actually ran things for a while (under the duress of war, I might add) as a possible alternative to capitalism.

Other than that, excellent post. I think the problem with Chomsky is that he hits all of the raw nerves in the hypocritcal posturing of the right. He loves to unmask governmental rhetoric that cries "liberty", "democracy" and "freedom" while the reality of the situation is enthusiastic US support of numerous "repressive", "autocratic" and "repressive" regimes that help the US protect its interests while slaughtering innocents. Noriega, Saddam Hussein, the Contras, Suharto, Marcos, the list of US allies reads like a who's who of sadistic psychopathic murderers. Of course these allies also ran tight ships and made sure that the all important "US interests" were never jeapordized by pesky things like democracy, freedom of expression, unions and so on.

Look no further than "Coalition of the Willing" member Uzbekistan, who's tyrannical "president" is now receiving millions in US aid while repressing all vestiges of democracy in his country because that country is another "oil bonanza".


Chomsky is treated as intellectual royalty in Europe and therefore that statement that his support base is half is age is absurd. In the US he has been marginalized because he criticizes the US government. Not so in most of the rest of the world where he is respected as one of the most serious thinkers of his age.

As usual, when the right is faced with an argument they do not like but cannot defeat, they immediately turn to smear campaigns and outright lying to coverup their lack of integrity. But hey, lying has become the American ideal hasn't it.
posted by sic at 7:01 AM on March 31, 2003


I hear this Chomsky fellow is pretty good at linguistics

Before Chomsky it was someone who smoke a pipe and added the litte bits about etymology to dictionaries ("this word comes from the Old Norman for bad breath" etc etc). After Chomsky it was a scientist.

his contributions to psychology and linguistics... are indisputable.


Aaargh. In order: You heard wrong; bullshit; no they're not. This thread is (thankfully) not about his linguistics, so I won't go into detail; let me just say that as someone with a master's degree in linguistics I'm in a pretty good position to say that Chomsky nearly ruined the field. Being popular is not being right. And linguistics is not, and can never be, a science in the way Chomsky and his acolytes want it to be.
posted by languagehat at 8:49 AM on March 31, 2003 [1 favorite]


master's degree in linguistics I'm in a pretty good position to say that Chomsky nearly ruined the field. Being popular is not being right. And linguistics is not, and can never be, a science in the way Chomsky and his acolytes want it to be.

languagehat, from what I've read, Chomsky's contributions are real, even if his theories are disputable. It looks to me like there's a split in the field, similar to one you might have found between David Hilbert's formalists and others in mathematics, or might find between Roger Penrose and Strong AI proponents.

Personally, I don't think that language can be reduced to a consistent formal grammar anymore than intelligence can or even arithmetic ... so that would put me in with Godel and Penrose and probably outside Chomskian camp. I also think Skinner had some good ideas. But it seems to me that many of Chomsky's ideas are still useful
posted by namespan at 9:56 AM on March 31, 2003


namespan, there is much in what you say, and I would be more willing to be generous to Noam (especially in light of his lonely, if occasionally loony, stand against what the government is up to) if it weren't for the drastic effect his English-is-all-you-need (because all languages are the same underneath) policy has had on the study of languages. Students who forty or fifty years ago would have been going to New Guinea or Africa to record hitherto unknown and soon-to-be-extinct languages stayed home and studied their navels instead, erasing the one indisputable real-world benefit of linguistics (after all, what difference does it make how many VPs can fit in a CP?). For that, his name shall be anathema. Also mud.
posted by languagehat at 1:04 PM on March 31, 2003


I think someone (languagehat) needs a hug.

Any volunteer huggers?

Languagehat, I read your critique of "Tense Present," but did not find it very convincing. Yes, you do find some places where he screwed up (apparently, at least. He could simply excuse himself and say that Harper's articles need not always follow SWE), but you fail to attack any of his main points (as demonstrated in Stavrosthewonderchicken's previous response But still, inquiring minds want to know--if Chomsky (descriptivist) is fulla crap, and Wallace (mild prescriptivist) is fulla doody, then who shall we turn to?
posted by LimePi at 4:09 PM on March 31, 2003


First off, LimePi, thanks for taking the trouble to read and respond to my intemperate rant. Before I go on to deal with the DFW list you and the wonderchicken are concerned with, let me answer your final question. Turn to linguists. On this issue (prescriptivist nonsense), Chomsky and I are as one, as is anyone who has studied the science of language. The only chapter of Pinker's Language Instinct I can read without gnashing of teeth is the one attacking the "language mavens." No linguist will accept the basic prescriptivist ideas about "wrong" words and usages; it would be like a biologist accepting the "humors" theory or an astronomer accepting an Earth-centered universe. With that out of the way...

OK, this is going to be long, but you asked for it. Here's the citation stavros quotes as the heart of the essay (with footnote numbers deleted):
Gore's now classic introduction to Webster's Third outlines this type of Descriptivism's five basic edicts: "1--Language changes constantly; 2--Change is normal; 3--Spoken language is the language; 4--Correctness rests upon usage; 5--All usage is relative."

These principles look prima facie OK--commonsensical and couched in the bland simple s.-v.-o, prose of dispassionate Science--but in fact they're vague and muddled and it takes about three seconds to think of reasonable replies to each one of them, viz.:

1--OK, but how much and how fast?

2--Same thing. Is Heraclitean flux as normal or desirable as gradual change ? Do some changes actually serve the language's overall pizzazz better than others? And how many people have to deviate from how many conventions before we say the language has actually changed? Fifty percent? Ten percent?

3--This is an old claim, at least as old as Plato's Phaedrus. And it's specious. If Derrida and the infamous Deconstructionists have done nothing else, they've debunked the idea that speech is language's primary instantiation. Plus consider the weird arrogance of Gove's (3) w/r/t correctness. Only the most mullahlike Prescriptivists care very much about spoken English; most Prescriptive usage guides concern Standard Written English.

4--Fine, but whose usage? Gove's (4) begs the whole question. What he wants to imply here, I think, is a reversal of the traditional entailment-relation between abstract rules and concrete usage: Instead of usage ideally corresponding to a rigid set of regulations, the regulations ought to correspond to the way real people are actually using the language. Again, fine, but which people? Urban Latinos? Boston Brahmins? Rural Midwesterners? Appalachian Neogaelics?

5--Huh? If this means what it seems to mean, then it ends up biting Gove's whole argument in the ass. (5) appears to imply that the correct answer to the above "which people?" is: "All of them!" And it's easy to show why this will not stand up as a lexicographical principle. The most obvious problem with it is that not everything can go in The Dictionary. Why not? Because you can't observe every last bit of every last native speaker's "language behavior," and even if you could, the resultant dictionary would weigh 4 million pounds and have to be updated hourly. The fact is that any lexicographer is going to have to make choices about what gets in and what doesn't. And these choices are based on ... what? And now we're right back where we started.
First off, I have a copy of Webster's Third International, and there's no such list; in fact, there's no Introduction, just a short Preface that doesn't discuss theoretical matters. But I don't want to be unfair; rather than assume DFW is making the whole thing up, I'll assume my printing is lacking the Introduction. So. Taking it from the top...

1: It doesn't matter how much and how fast. There's a range within which change generally occurs (hence the attempts at glottochronology, a controversial method of determining how long ago two languages diverged based on how many words are different), but external events (wars, migrations, etc.) can modify that. The only important point is what Gove said: languages change constantly. Let me repeat that: constantly. They never stand still. Hence, the prescriptivist ideal of freezing usage is moonshine.

2: Same answer, because Gove (if he is being quoted correctly) is basically restating the same thing to drive it into your head (as I did above). Change happens all the time, it is normal, end of story. DFW's "response" is just silly. Imagine it applied to planetary motion: "Is Heraclitean flux as normal or desirable as gradual change ? Do some changes actually serve the solar system's overall pizzazz better than others? And how far does a planet have to move before we say its position has actually changed?"

3: Here I have particular doubts about the correctness of the quote. But if that's what Gove said, he meant "Spoken language is the primary language"—the first one we learn and the one without which written language would not exist. Obviously the point is not that written language is unimportant or disposable, but rather that it must in some sense reflect the spoken language—it can't reproduce it exactly, but if it gets too far away from it, it becomes sterile and moribund (as happened to Modern Greek when it was still trying to pretend it was Ancient).

4: Whose usage? The usage of any native speaker. Sure, there are different groups of speakers, and all those DFW names (urban Latinos, Boston Brahmins, etc.) have their own standards, each of which is internally consistent and "correct." The question of what's "correct" in social terms is entirely different, and this is perhaps the most important point I can stress here. Linguistically, "ain't" is just as correct as "isn't." Socially, you will be looked down on for using the first, and this is something any decent teacher will stress. But that no more reflects scientific facts than the comparable fact that brown skin is looked down on reflects any inherent worthiness. People do not run their social lives on scientific principles, and probably never will.

5: Again, I wonder about the accuracy of the quote, and if it's accurate what exactly Gove meant by it. But the general idea is clear enough: what's correct in Bed-Stuy or Appalachia isn't correct in the "best" social circles. DFW's response is childish. Obviously "not everything can go in The Dictionary"; choices have to be made, and they're made on the basis of what words and usages are widespread enough to be taken into account. A word used by a few inhabitants of a remote area can be left to the dialect dictionaries; one that turns up in novels, newspapers, or reasonably nontechnical science writing should be included. There will always be borderline cases. So what? None of this has anything to do with the theory, which is perfectly simple: usage means the way native speakers use their language, not what William Safire or DFW or any other maven decides is right.

Let me emphasize a couple of things. I'm not saying you should believe me because, as Doctor Science says, "I have a master's degree... in science!" I'm hoping that my explanations will at least make a dent in people's prejudices, and I urge them to read more (Robert A. Hall's Linguistics and Your Language, Jim Quinn's American Tongue and Cheek (which I describe on my blog here), even that damn Pinker book if you promise to take the "innate" stuff with a grain of salt). And I don't want you to think I don't understand the prejudices. I do; I'm human, and I have my own irrational likes and dislikes. Try as I might to tell myself that "disinterested" = "uninterested" is normal semantic change, it irritates me, and the use of "may" for "might" in past unreal constructions ("If he'd worn his sunglasses, he may have caught that ball") drives me right up the wall. The difference is that I realize that my personal reactions are just that; they have nothing to do with any objective "truth" about the language, still less with what is Right and Good. I hope you will try and see things that way, but I have long since resigned myself to the fact that most people always have and always will equate their own prejudices with immutable truth.

Well, I hope this is the longest comment I ever post. Stavros, are you there? Because this is for you too. I'll be interested in anyone's response, and will be delighted to answer anyone's questions (my e-mail is on my user page). Over and out.
posted by languagehat at 6:12 PM on March 31, 2003 [4 favorites]


I was hoping to hear something about linguistics. I hear this Chomsky fellow is pretty good at linguistics - shame his speeches are never on that subject.

I'll cheerfully admit that I know nothing whatsoever about linguistics, but the New Yorker profile gives what I think is a pretty good rundown of Chomsky's work in this field too. It's worth picking up the dead-tree version. (it's the one with the cool old-style painting of soldiers on the cover...I think the cover date is 3/31.)
posted by Vidiot at 6:21 PM on March 31, 2003


I hear and understand, but don't have the time right this second to respond. Thanks for the belated reply, languagehat.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:43 PM on April 1, 2003


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