[Paleopsych] Prospect: Chomsky as the world's top public intellectual

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    A glance at the November issue of Prospect: Chomsky as the world's top
    public intellectual

    Noam Chomsky, the controversial author and professor of linguistics at
    the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been voted the world's
    leading public intellectual from a list of 100 prominent thinkers
    compiled by the British magazine.

    Mr. Chomsky first won acclaim for his transformational-grammar theory,
    which holds that the ability to form language is an innate human
    trait. But he is better-known for his outspokenness on political
    issues. He was a major voice against the Vietnam War and continues to
    argue against American policies that he finds immoral. He falls into a
    line of "oppositional intellectuals," writes David Herman, a
    contributing editor for the magazine, in an explanation of the poll.
    Mr. Chomsky's selection, he adds, proves that "we still yearn for such

    More than 20,000 people participated in the magazine's poll. The vote
    for Mr. Chomsky came as no surprise to Robin Blackburn, a visiting
    professor of historical studies at the New School, in New York. Mr.
    Chomsky, he writes, is a "brilliant thinker" who has stepped outside
    his own field of study in order to lambaste corrupt government

    Oliver Kamm, a columnist for The Times of London, does not share in
    the adoration. For starters, he writes, Mr. Chomsky combines elaborate
    rhetoric with thin evidence to support "dubious arguments." Mr. Kamm
    particularly criticizes Mr. Chomsky's opposition to American military
    interventions and arguments that equate American foreign policy with
    the actions of Nazi Germany.

    "If this is your judgment of the U.S.," writes Mr. Kamm, "then it will
    be difficult to credit that its intervention might ever serve
    humanitarian ends."

    That's not necessarily so, says Mr. Blackburn, who notes that neither
    apartheid in South Africa nor Stalinism in Russia was eradicated by
    "bombardment and invasion." Mr. Chomsky simply opposes putting
    American soldiers in harm's way, he writes, where they can "do harm
    and acquire a taste for it."

    Mr. Blackburn's and Mr. Kamm's essays are contained in the article
    "For and Against Chomsky," which is available at

    Mr. Herman's analysis, Global public intellectuals poll, is available

    A tally of the votes for all 100 candidates is available at

    --Jason M. Breslow

    [No. 116 / Nov 2005]

    The Prospect/Foreign Policy list of 100 global public intellectuals
    suggested that the age of the great oppositional thinker was over, but
    Noam Chomsky's emphatic victory shows many remain nostalgic for it

David Herman

    The two most striking things about this [40]poll are the number of
    people who took part and the age of the winners. Over 20,000 people
    voted for their top five names from our longlist of 100, and they
    tended to reinforce the trends of the original list. More than half of
    the top 30 are based in North America. Europe, by contrast, is
    surprisingly under-represented--a cluster of well-known names in the
    top 20 (Eco, Havel, Habermas) but then it is a long way down to
    Kristeva (48) and Negri (50). The most striking absence is France--one
    name in the top 40, fewer than Iran or Peru.

    There is not one woman in the top ten, and only three in the top 20.
    The big names of the left did well (Chomsky, Habermas, Hobsbawm) but
    there weren't many of them. Scientists, literary critics, philosophers
    and psychologists all fared badly. And voters did not use the "bonus
    ball" to champion new faces. The top two names, Milton Friedman and
    Stephen Hawking, do not represent new strands of thought. (In fact,
    Friedman was specifically named in last month's "criteria for
    inclusion"--along with other ancient greats like Solzhenitsyn--as an
    example of someone who had been deliberately left off the longlist on
    the grounds that they were no longer actively contributing to their

    The poll was in one sense a victim of its own success. Word spread
    around the internet very quickly, and at least three of our top 20
    (Chomsky, Hitchens and Soroush), or their acolytes, decided to draw
    attention to their presence on the list by using their personal
    websites to link to Prospect's voting page. In Hitchens's and
    Soroush's case, the votes then started to flood in. Although it is
    hard to tell exactly where voters came from, it is likely that a clear
    majority were from Britain and America, with a fair sprinkling from
    other parts of Europe and the English-speaking world. There was also a
    huge burst from Iran, although very little voting from the far east,
    which may explain why four of the bottom five on the list were
    thinkers from Japan and China.

    What is most interesting about the votes, though, is the age of the
    top names. Chomsky won by a mile, with over 4,800 votes. Then Eco,
    with just under 2,500, Dawkins and Havel. Only two in the top
    nine--Hitchens and Rushdie--were born after the second world war. And
    of the top 20, only Klein and Lomborg are under 50. This may reflect
    the age of the voters, choosing familiar names. However, surely it
    also tells us something about the radically shifting nature of the
    public intellectual in the west. Who are the younger equivalents to
    Habermas, Chomsky and Havel? Great names are formed by great events.
    But there has been no shortage of terrible events in the last ten
    years and some names on the list (Ignatieff, Fukuyama, Hitchens) are
    so prominent precisely because of what they have said about them. Only
    one of these, though, is European, and he lives in Washington DC.

    You can read more elsewhere in this issue about Chomsky. Even if you
    disagree with his attacks on US foreign policy, there are two reasons
    why few would be surprised to see him at the top of the poll. First,
    his intellectual range. Like a number of other figures in the top ten,
    he is prominent in a number of areas. Havel was a playwright and
    statesman; Eco a literary critic and bestselling author; Diamond was a
    professor of physiology and now has a chair in geography at UCLA, and
    writes on huge issues ranging over a great time span. Second, and more
    important, Chomsky belongs to a tradition which goes back to Zola,
    Russell and Sartre: a major thinker or writer who speaks out on the
    great public issues of his time, opposing his government on questions
    of conscience rather than the fine print of policy.

    I said last month in my commentary on the original Prospect/Foreign
    Policy list of 100 names that it seemed to represent the death of that
    grand tradition of oppositional intellectuals. The overwhelming
    victory for Noam Chomsky suggests that we still yearn for such
    figures--we just don't seem to be able to find any under the age of

The Prospect/FP Global public intellectuals poll--results

        Over 20,000 people voted for their top names from our original
    longlist of 100. The final results are below; click [10]here for David
    Herman's analysis, and [11]here for brief biographies of the top names

    Position Name                  Total votes
    1        Noam Chomsky          4827
    2        Umberto Eco           2464
    3        Richard Dawkins       2188
    4        Václav Havel          1990
    5        Christopher Hitchens  1844
    6        Paul Krugman          1746
    7        Jürgen Habermas       1639
    8        Amartya Sen           1590
    9        Jared Diamond         1499
    10       Salman Rushdie        1468
    11       Naomi Klein           1378
    12       Shirin Ebadi          1309
    13       Hernando De Soto      1202
    14       Bjørn Lomborg         1141
    15       Abdolkarim Soroush    1114
    16       Thomas Friedman       1049
    17       Pope Benedict XVI     1046
    18       Eric Hobsbawm         1037
    19       Paul Wolfowitz        1028
    20       Camille Paglia        1013
    21       Francis Fukuyama      883
    22       Jean Baudrillard      858
    23       Slavoj Zizek          840
    24       Daniel Dennett        832
    25       Freeman Dyson         823
    26       Steven Pinker         812
    27       Jeffrey Sachs         810
    28       Samuel Huntington     805
    29       Mario Vargas Llosa    771
    30       Ali al-Sistani        768
    31       EO Wilson             742
    32       Richard Posner        740
    33       Peter Singer          703
    34       Bernard Lewis         660
    35       Fareed Zakaria        634
    36       Gary Becker           630
    37       Michael Ignatieff     610
    38       Chinua Achebe         585
    39       Anthony Giddens       582
    40       Lawrence Lessig       565
    41       Richard Rorty         562
    42       Jagdish Bhagwati      561
    43       Fernando Cardoso      556
    44=      JM Coetzee            548
    44=      Niall Ferguson        548
    46       Ayaan Hirsi Ali       546
    47       Steven Weinberg       507
    48       Julia Kristeva        487
    49       Germaine Greer        471
    50       Antonio Negri         452
    51       Rem Koolhaas          429
    52       Timothy Garton Ash    428
    53       Martha Nussbaum       422
    54       Orhan Pamuk           393
    55       Clifford Geertz       388
    56       Yusuf al-Qaradawi     382
    57       Henry Louis Gates Jr. 379
    58       Tariq Ramadan         372
    59       Amos Oz               358
    60       Larry Summers         351
    61       Hans Küng             344
    62       Robert Kagan          339
    63       Paul Kennedy          334
    64       Daniel Kahnemann      312
    65       Sari Nusseibeh        297
    66       Wole Soyinka          296
    67       Kemal Dervis          295
    68       Michael Walzer        279
    69       Gao Xingjian          277
    70       Howard Gardner        273
    71       James Lovelock        268
    72       Robert Hughes         259
    73       Ali Mazrui            251
    74       Craig Venter          244
    75       Martin Rees           242
    76       James Q Wilson        229
    77       Robert Putnam         221
    78       Peter Sloterdijk      217
    79       Sergei Karaganov      194
    80       Sunita Narain         186
    81       Alain Finkielkraut    185
    82       Fan Gang              180
    83       Florence Wambugu      159
    84       Gilles Kepel          156
    85       Enrique Krauze        144
    86       Ha Jin                129
    87       Neil Gershenfeld      120
    88       Paul Ekman            118
    89       Jaron Lanier          117
    90       Gordon Conway         90
    91       Pavol Demes           88
    92       Elaine Scarry         87
    93       Robert Cooper         86
    94       Harold Varmus         85
    95       Pramoedya Ananta Toer 84
    96       Zheng Bijian          76
    97       Kenichi Ohmae         68
    98=      Wang Jisi             59
    98=      Kishore Mahbubani     59
    100      Shintaro Ishihara     57

       We asked voters to select a "bonus ball" nomination--a name they
    believe we should have included on our original longlist. Hundreds of
    people were chosen--from Bob Dylan to Kofi Annan. Here are the top 20

    Position Name                   Total votes
    1        Milton Friedman        98
    2        Stephen Hawking        81
    3        Arundhati Roy          78
    4        Howard Zinn            72
    5        Bill Clinton           67
    6        Joseph Stiglitz        57
    7        Johan Norberg          48
    8=       Dalai Lama             45
    8=       Thomas Sowell          45
    10=      Cornell West           39
    10=      Nelson Mandela         39
    12       Gore Vidal             37
    13       Mohammad Khatami       35
    14       John Ralston Saul      33
    15=      George Monbiot         26
    15=      Judith Butler          26
    17       Victor Davis Hanson    25
    18       Gabriel García Márquez 24
    19=      Bono                   23
    19=      Harold Bloom           23

    [No. 116 / Nov 2005]

For and against Chomsky
    Is the world's top public intellectual a brilliant expositor of
    linguistics and the US's duplicitous foreign policy? Or a reflexive
    anti-American, cavalier with his sources?

Robin Blackburn

Oliver Kamm

    Robin Blackburn teaches at the New School for Social Research, New
    Oliver Kamm is a "Times" columnist

    For Chomsky

    Robin Blackburn celebrates a courageous truth-teller to power
    The huge [40]vote for Noam Chomsky as the world's leading "public
    intellectual" should be no surprise at all. Who could match him for
    sheer intellectual achievement and political courage?
    Very few transform an entire field of enquiry, as Chomsky has done in
    linguistics. Chomsky's scientific work is still controversial, but his
    immense achievement is not in question, as may be easily confirmed by
    consulting the recent Cambridge Companion to Chomsky. He didn't only
    transform linguistics in the 1950s and 1960s; he has remained in the
    forefront of controversy and research.
    The huge admiration for Chomsky evident in Prospect's poll is
    obviously not only, or even mainly, a response to intellectual
    achievement. Rather it goes to a brilliant thinker who is willing to
    step outside his study and devote himself to exposing the high crimes
    and misdemeanours of the most powerful country in the world and its
    complicity with venal and brutal rulers across four continents over
    half a century or more.
    Some believe--as Paul Robinson, writing in the New York Times Book
    Review, once put it--that there is a "Chomsky problem." On the one
    hand, he is the author of profound, though forbiddingly technical,
    contributions to linguistics. On the other, his political
    pronouncements are often "maddeningly simple-minded."
    In fact, it is not difficult to spot connections between the
    intellectual strategies Chomsky has adopted in science and in
    politics. Chomsky's approach to syntax stressed the economy of
    explanation that could be achieved if similarities in the structure of
    human languages were seen as stemming from biologically rooted, innate
    capacities of the human mind, above all the recursive ability to
    generate an infinite number of statements from a finite set of words
    and symbols. Many modern critics of the radical academy are apt to
    bemoan its disregard for scientific method and evidence. This is not a
    reproach that can be aimed at Chomsky, who has pursued a naturalistic
    and reductionist standpoint in what he calls, in the title of his 1995
    volume, The Minimalist Programme.
    Chomsky's political analyses also strive to keep it simple, but not at
    the expense of the evidence, which he can abundantly cite if
    challenged. But it is "maddening" none the less, just as the
    minimalist programme may be to some of his scientific colleagues. The
    apparent straightforwardness of Chomsky's political judgements--his
    "predictable" or even "kneejerk" opposition to western, especially US,
    military intervention--could seem simplistic. Yet they are based on a
    mountain of evidence and an economical account of how power and
    information are shared, distributed and denied. Characteristically,
    Chomsky begins with a claim of stark simplicity which he elaborates
    into an intricate account of the different roles of government,
    military, media and business in the running of the world.
    Chomsky's apparently simple political stance is rooted in an anarchism
    and collectivism which generates its own sense of individuality and
    complexity. He was drawn to the study of language and syntax by a
    mentor, Zellig Harris, who also combined libertarianism with
    linguistics. Chomsky's key idea of an innate, shared linguistic
    capacity for co-operation and innovation is a positive, rather than
    purely normative, rebuttal of the Straussian argument that natural
    human inequality vitiates democracy.
    Andersen's tale of the little boy who, to the fury of the courtiers,
    pointed out that the emperor was naked, has a Chomskian flavour, not
    simply because it told of speaking truth to power but also because the
    simple childish eye proved keener than the sophisticated adult eye. I
    was present when Chomsky addressed Karl Popper's LSE seminar in the
    spring of 1969 and paid tribute to children's intellectual powers
    (Chomsky secured my admittance to the seminar at a time when my
    employment at the LSE was suspended).
    As I recall, Chomsky explained how the vowel shift that had occurred
    in late medieval English was part of a transformation that resulted
    from a generational dynamic. The parent generation spoke using small
    innovations of their own, arrived at in a spontaneous and ad hoc
    fashion. Growing youngsters, because of their innate syntactical
    capacity, ordered the language they heard their parents using by means
    of a more inclusive grammatical structure, which itself made possible
    more systematic change.
    In politics, the child's eye might see right through the humanitarian
    and democratic claptrap to the dismal results of western military
    interventions--shattered states, gangsterism, narco-traffic, elite
    competition for the occupiers' favour, vicious communal and religious
    Chomsky openly admits he prefers "pacifist platitudes" to belligerent
    mendacity. This makes some wrongly charge that he is "passive in the
    face of evil." But neither apartheid in South Africa, nor Stalinism in
    Russia, nor military rule in much of Latin America were defeated or
    dismantled by bombardment and invasion. Chomsky had no difficulty
    supporting the ultimately successful campaign against apartheid, or
    for the Indonesian withdrawal from East Timor. He simply opposes
    putting US soldiers in harm's way--also meaning where they will do
    harm and acquire a taste for it.
    Chomsky's victory in a parlour game should not be overpitched. But,
    like Marx's win earlier this year in the BBC Radio 4 competition for
    "greatest philosopher," it shows that thinking people are still
    attracted by the critical impulse, above all when it is directed with
    consistency at the trend towards a global pensée unique. The
    Prospect/FP list was sparing in its inclusion of critics of US foreign
    policy, which may have increased Chomsky's lead a little. But no
    change in the list would have made a difference to the outcome. The
    editors had misjudged the mood and discernment of their own readers.

    Against Chomsky

    Oliver Kamm deplores his crude and dishonest arguments

    In his book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Richard Posner
    noted that "a successful academic may be able to use his success to
    reach the general public on matters about which he is an idiot."
    Judging by caustic remarks elsewhere in the book, he was thinking of
    Noam Chomsky. He was not wrong.
    [Intellectuals_Kamm.gif]-SubmitChomsky remains the most influential
    figure in theoretical linguistics, known to the public for his ideas
    that language is a cognitive system and the realisation of an innate
    faculty. While those ideas enjoy a wide currency, many linguists
    reject them. His theories have come under criticism from those, such
    as the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, who were once close to him.
    Paul Postal, one of Chomsky's earliest colleagues, stresses the
    tendency for the grandiloquence of Chomsky's claims to increase as he
    addresses non-specialist audiences. Frederick Newmeyer, a supporter of
    Chomsky's ideas until the mid-1990s, notes: "One is left with the
    feeling that Chomsky's ever-increasingly triumphalistic rhetoric is
    inversely proportional to the actual empirical results that he can
    point to."
    Prospect readers who voted for Chomsky will know his prominence in
    linguistics, but are more likely to have read his numerous popular
    critiques of western foreign policy. The connection, if any, between
    Chomsky's linguistics and his politics is a matter of debate, but one
    obvious link is that in both fields he deploys dubious arguments
    leavened with extravagant rhetoric--which is what makes the notion of
    Chomsky as pre-eminent public intellectual untimely as well as
    Chomsky's first book on politics, American Power and the New Mandarins
    (1969) grew from protest against the Vietnam war. But Chomsky went
    beyond the standard left critique of US imperialism to the belief that
    "what is needed [in the US] is a kind of denazification." This
    diagnosis is central to Chomsky's political output. While he does not
    depict the US as an overtly repressive society--instead, it is a place
    where "money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print
    and marginalise dissent"--he does liken America's conduct to that of
    Nazi Germany. In his newly published Imperial Ambitions, he maintains
    that "the pretences for the invasion [of Iraq] are no more convincing
    than Hitler's."
    If this is your judgement of the US then it will be difficult to
    credit that its interventionism might ever serve humanitarian ends.
    Even so, Chomsky's political judgements have only become more
    startling over the past decade.
    In The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many (1994), Chomsky considered
    whether the west should bomb Serb encampments to stop the
    dismemberment of Bosnia, and by an absurdly tortuous route concluded
    "it's not so simple." By the time of the Kosovo war, this prophet of
    the amoral quietism of the Major government had progressed to
    depicting Milosevic's regime as a wronged party: "Nato had no
    intention of living up to the scraps of paper it had signed, and moved
    at once to violate them."
    After 9/11, Chomsky deployed fanciful arithmetic to draw an
    equivalence between the destruction of the twin towers and the Clinton
    administration's bombing of Sudan--in which a pharmaceutical factory,
    wrongly identified as a bomb factory, was destroyed and a
    nightwatchman killed. When the US-led coalition bombed Afghanistan,
    Chomsky depicted mass starvation as a conscious choice of US policy,
    declaring that "plans are being made and programmes implemented on the
    assumption that they may lead to the death of several million people
    in the next couple of weeks... very casually, with no particular
    thought about it." His judgement was offered without evidence.
    In A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the
    Standards of the West (2000), Chomsky wryly challenged advocates of
    Nato intervention in Kosovo to urge also the bombing of Jakarta,
    Washington and London in protest at Indonesia's subjugation of East
    Timor. If necessary, citizens should be encouraged to do the bombing
    themselves, "perhaps joining the Bin Laden network." Shortly after
    9/11, the political theorist Jeffrey Isaac wrote of this thought
    experiment that, while it was intended metaphorically, "One wonders if
    Chomsky ever considered the possibility that someone lacking in his
    own logical rigour might read his book and carelessly draw the
    conclusion that the bombing of Washington is required."
    This episode gives an indication of the destructiveness of Chomsky's
    advocacy even on issues where he has been right. Chomsky was an early
    critic of Indonesia's brutal annexation of East Timor in 1975 in the
    face of the indolence, at best, of the Ford administration. The
    problem is not these criticisms, but Chomsky's later use of them to
    rationalise his opposition to western efforts to halt genocide
    elsewhere. (Chomsky buttresses his argument, incidentally, with a
    peculiarly dishonest handling of source material. He manipulates a
    self-mocking reference in the memoirs of the then US ambassador to the
    UN, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, by running separate passages together as
    if they are sequential and attributing to Moynihan comments he did not
    make, to yield the conclusion that Moynihan took pride in Nazi-like
    policies. The victims of cold war realpolitik are real enough without
    such rhetorical expedients.)
    If Chomsky's political writings expressed merely an idée fixe, they
    would be a footnote in his career as a public intellectual. But
    Chomsky has a dedicated following among those of university education,
    and especially of university age, for judgements that have the veneer
    of scholarship and reason yet verge on the pathological. He once
    described the task of the media as "to select the facts, or to invent
    them, in such a way as to render the required conclusions not too
    transparently absurd--at least for properly disciplined minds." There
    could scarcely be a nicer encapsulation of his own practice.
    The author is grateful for the advice of Bob Borsley and Paul Postal.

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