17 July 2012 ****14 June 2017 **** Also published on my ZBlog **** Front Page

Radio Open Source recently broadcast an hour long program talking with Noam Chomsky. For background they interviewed Robert Barsky and asked him to lay out the foundational principles of Chomsky's thought first about language acquisition, and then about power. Listen. I am republishing here my review of Barsky's book about Chomsky's work. I also reviewed Barsky's biography of Zellig Haris who was Chomsky's teacher. Here is a link to Barsky's comment on my review.


Chomsky's solid center of values

By Tapani Lausti

Robert F. Barsky, The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower. The MIT Press 2007. (Kindle Edition 2009; the location numbers refer to this edition)

This interesting book was published five years ago but it still offers a useful background to the continuing debate about Noam Chomsky's role in analyzing language, media, political culture and indoctrination.

This is especially true because more and more mainstream journalists (and academics) have recently shown incomprehension if not contempt towards Chomsky's writings about US foreign policy. Two worlds collide here: one of a rational, history-based narrative and another of received truths which a journalist can stray away from at his or her own peril. Many journalists willingly float in a valueless space which is linked only to elite opinions. Chomsky's calm but sharp criticism can infuriate them, possibly because deep inside their minds they might suspect that he has a point.

Barsky emphasizes Chomsky's "even-handed consistency that stems from a solid center, which I have called his values." (loc. 4261) The idea of a solid center of values may seem far-fetched as a code for journalism. However, the values of democracy and freedom and an ethos of equality are essential defences against being sucked into the world of elite opinion. A young journalist dreaming of a distinguished career can so easily be seduced to a world of compromised "professionalism".

Young journalists are warned not to allow their journalism to become advocate writing for one cause or another. In this way the question of truthfulness disappears into a fog of pretended objectivity. This is why it is important to have that solid center which can inform the way one works with controversial issues. Chomsky's writings can give journalists ideas for what it means to be consistent in evaluating the meaning of various international developments, for instance.

These ideas have a long history. Barsky takes the reader to a world of thought which tends to be neglected in our time. This ignorance is one reason why many journalists react with incomprehesion to Chomsky's work which is largely based on forgotten ideas. For instance Chomsky explains how classical liberals like Adam Smith saw equality as an obvious and desired goal. He emphasises that these ideas should be "brought back into our mode of thinking, our cultural tradition." (loc. 2119)

The culture of journalism has occasionally showed signs of being influenced by more democratic values but, especially in the United States, the level of indoctrination goes beyond Orwell's "Newspeak". Barsky writes: "The ruling elites have conspired to manipulate teaching curricula, media, and political discourse to reinforce their own power and reassert their own interests." (loc. 4386)

In such culture journalists are easily sucked into a world of distorted language where reporting and commentary fail to inform the public of the real state of affairs. Perhaps a journalist would gain from Chomsky's thoughts about novel writing: ". Chomsky gives the impression that the measure of greatness of a novelist is the degree to which he or she is able to step outside of the prevailing system of thought control and describe to the readers the actual workings of society." (loc. 5135)

And again, replace the word "intellectuals" by "journalists" when Chomsky suggests, that "intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions." (loc. 5586)

I have concentrated here on problems of journalism. But Barsky's book is an excellent guide on Chomsky's effect on various aspects of public life. It also explains the roots of Chomsky's political thinking. Barsky takes the reader to the fascinating world of anarchists and other libertarian thinkers of the past.

Meet the German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835): "The sense that reason, rationality and diversity (of opportunity and action) are "natural," and that limitations upon this growth and nourishment tend to be imposed by illegitimate authority, are components of Humboldt's work that are found not only in Chomsky's approach but also in that of his teacher, Zellig Harris, and one of his personal inspirations, Bertrand Russell." (loc. 2433)

Meet the German anarchist Rudolf Rocker (1873-1958): Chomsky agrees with Rocker that "classical liberal ideas were wrecked on the shoals of industrial capitalism, never to recover (.) The ideas have been reinvented continually; in my opinion, because they reflect real human needs and perceptions." (loc. 2103)

Let me quote Barsky at length as a sort of summary of the Chomsky effect: ". we come to recognize the degree to which Chomsky's work can be called upon to serve as a gateway into the whole domain of still-valuable knowledge, too seldom recalled in this era of historical amnesia (particularly in popular culture) or in this postmodern moment which favors (in certain academic realms) references to fashionable contemporary intellectual trends over historical research. Chomsky constantly reminds us, implicitly and explicitly, that the works by a range of thinkers from different eras are put aside at our peril." (loc. 2150)

And finally, this is how Barsky defines Chomsky's role in public life: ". Chomsky has the effect of a facilitator, a catalyst, an inspiration, rather than the leader of some form of anarchist vanguard; so I would suggest that support for Chomsky's approach would not be equated with blind allegiance to specific comments he makes or to the battles he has chosen to wage, but to the values he upholds." (loc. 337)


Noam Chomsky's student and friend Robert Barsky teaches law and literature at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Twenty years ago he wrote Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent and after that: The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower

Robert Barsky's webpage - Vanderbilt University

Noam Chomsky - Official Site

Read also:

Visit the archive: Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Jeremy Seabrook, Social thinking. Media, Languages, United States


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