Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Intellectual Dishonesty - It's The Currency Of The Realm!

I learned yesterday that An Important Liberal Internet Writer has serious issues with Noam Chomsky. Calling him, in one post, the "Stupidest and Most Dishonest Man Alive", is indeed a tad harsh, considering the candidates for that title are legion. All the same, what began as an interesting spate of reading a blogger I have not read before (Brad DeLong is an economist, a neo-liberal, and Larry Summers fan, the last of which would make me take the things he says with certain grains of salt), has become an exercise in pointing to a species of much larger concerns.

It should be clear to anyone who spends more than five minutes reading blogs, websites, even an on-line newspaper, that intellectual dishonesty is just part of what happens out here. Person "A" writes a post. Person "B", for a variety of reasons usually occluded takes issue what Person "A" says, or thinks "A" has said, and writes a post "rebutting" it. Person "A" takes issue with the interpretation, making clear that Person "B" has misunderstood what was written, offering (sometimes politely, sometimes not) a reiteration of the point at issue for the sake of clarity. What ensues usually ends up in the equivalent of a slap-fight, amusing to be sure, but amounting to little more than adults behaving like children.

I have learned through hard experience that misinterpretations, willful misunderstandings, and general dishonesty is just part of what it means to take a step out in public and say stuff. Other people are going to misunderstand you. Still others are going to claim you are the most dangerous human being writing anything anywhere. Best to just let such things stand there as testimony to one's interlocutor's issues, rather than pursue such disagreements to their inevitable conclusion.

Still, I think it is important that random charges of intellectual dishonesty, regardless of their roots (and the comment thread at Crooked Timber is full of speculation - it would be irresponsible not to! - about the reasons DeLong has a serious hard-on for Chomsky), not be initially unchallenged. In this case, I think it not unreasonable to assert that, as I am one of the few people who I know who, having read Chomsky, am neither a fan nor a detractor, but rather consider myself a sympathetic critic who is not blind to Chomsky's deficiencies. Since I just wrote about Chomsky the other day, it is fitting, I think, to take up a cudgel or two in his defense.

First, the Matt Yglesias post that sparked the above post is virtually indistinguishable from one DeLong posted. That does not mean that Yglesias is being dishonest; he is merely defending Eric Alterman from what he considers slander, as DeLong is. However, Yglesias is wrong in his reading of Chomsky's statement, as DeLong is (since they make the same error). Using such an opportunity to call Chomsky the stupidest and most dishonest man alive begs all sorts of questions, I believe, but for now I will let my conclusions regarding what Yglesias wrote stand in for any further thoughts on DeLong's post.

A couple random examples, I think, should suffice to show that DeLong, seeking to dismiss Chomsky from a circle of credible and serious critics, quite simply does not understand Chomsky. First, here's a post that delves in to what most would consider ancient history, an exchange of letters in The New York Review of Books from 1970 between Chomsky and Samuel Huntington. In his letter, Huntington takes issue with what he feels is Chomsky's characterization of a point Huntington made concerning the relationship between the depth of support for the Viet Cong and what steps would be necessary to end that support. Earlier in the writing under review, Huntington had stated that the only possible way to end that support would be, and here Chomsky quotes him directly:
Writing in Foreign Affairs, he [Huntington] explains that the Viet Cong is "a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist." The conclusion is obvious, and he does not shrink from it. We can ensure that the constituency ceases to exist by "direct application of mechanical and conventional power...on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city...."
The two quotes in question, juxtaposed as they are, appear in different places in the article under review, the latter prior to the former. Chomsky links them to make the not-unreasonable point that this seems to have been Nixon Administration policy - kill or otherwise remove as much of the rural population of South Vietnam as possible so as to deprive the Viet Cong of their natural constituency. Indeed, this had been US policy since the Kennedy Administration first devised and implemented its "strategic hamlet" policy - removing the rural population to what were little more than concentration camps so the Viet Cong would no longer be able to recruit villagers for their cadres.

Huntington seems to believe that, by creating the above sentences, Chomsky implies that Huntington favors such a policy. In his reply to Huntington's charge, Chomsky makes clear he was not saying anything of the sort, but rather making clear that Huntington seemed to understand the difficulties in separating the Viet Cong from their natural constituency and stated what the only possible policy response would be; furthermore, Chomsky was making it clear that, while Huntington may not favor such a policy, that indeed seemed to be what the Nixon Administration was doing. That, to me at least, is clear enough; Huntington misunderstood what Chomsky was about here, even though it seemed clear enough to this reader.

Further down, DeLong makes clear why he takes sides in this forty-year-old spat.
Let's try out an English sentence:

Peter Beamont and Josef Goebbels are both human beings.

The grammar is as Steven Poole asserts it is: my sentence asserts one point of comparison--human-ness--between Peter Beamont and Josef Goebbels, but is grammatically silent on other points, and on "overarching 'equivalence'."

But there is another channel of meaning here besides the grammar of the sentences, a rhetorical channel, one having to do not so much with what the sentences themselves say but with why they say them, and thus with what the sentences say about our beliefs about the world and about right action in the world.

Why would a speaker choose to bring Josef Goebbels to mind, if all the speaker wanted to do was to assert that Peter Beamont is a human being? No speaker would do so--unless he or she had some other point to make besides the point that Peter Beamont is a human being. Rhetorically, one thing that the bringing of Josef Goebbels to the minds of the audience does is to assert that there are additional valid points of comparison between Beamont and Goebbels--points of comparison that the speaker expects the audience to seek out, and reflect upon.

Peter Beamont would be right to be pissed off at anyone who wrote "Peter Beamont and Josef Goebbels are both human beings.

Chomsky is playing the same game in the paragraph quoted up high that I am playing in my sentence: a grammatical denial accompanied by a rhetorical assertion. And Steven Poole is playing a different game--that of pretending that the grammatical level of meaning is the only one, that the rhetorical level of meaning simply does not exist. Peter Beamont, by contrast, is a straightforward guy, reading Chomsky's words and receiving the messages transmitted through both channels. For which Steven Poole trashes him. Unfairly. As Poole knows well--hence the "grammatically" weasal-word in the Poole passage I quoted.
Quite apart from any relationship to the foregoing contretemps, this is as silly and stupid an argument as I have read in quite a long time. Is it not true that two human beings are, well, two human beings? Furthermore, does not such an invocation make most readers consider the substantive content, what DeLong considers the rhetorical rather than simply grammatical uses of such a comparison? Is that not what Chomsky is doing when, as he does in a quote cited by DeLong above the section here, notes that we must set aside invocations of principle and humanitarianism when leaders make them, considering the villains who have done so? Is DeLong making an implicit claim here than US leaders are less mendacious than others? If so, based on what evidence?

All sorts of questions are begged here, questions for which DeLong simply has no answer beyond his main point - and here, trying to find a thread through this post is difficult at best - that Chomsky is being mean comparing US leaders to historical and contemporary despots. He doesn't like that; I don't like it much either. If there is evidence, however, that the comparison is apt, it is far better to swallow the uncomfortable truth than rest easy in a lie.

Jetting ahead a couple decades, DeLong takes Chomsky to task for what he, DeLong, believes is the misrepresentation of the views of a member of the Clinton Administration for the bombing campaign over Serbia, done in the name, so the public was led to believe, of protecting Kosovar Albanians from ethnic cleanings at the hands of the Serbs. The result, of course, was the Serbs managed to ethnically cleanse Kosovo, then Serbia cried out for peace. In any event, here's the "offending" quote from Chomsky:
On the NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia, Noam Chomsky interviewed by Danilo Mandic: Director of Communications [for Clinton Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott], John Norris.... [T]ake a look on John Norris's book and what he says is that the real purpose of the war had nothing to do with concern for Kosovar Albanians. It was because Serbia was not carrying out the required social and economic reforms, meaning it was the last corner of Europe which had not subordinated itself to the US-run neoliberal programs, so therefore it had to be eliminated. That's from the highest level...
DeLong attempts to correct what he feels is Chomsky's mendacity on this point by including a long quote from John Norris. Embedded in this long quote is the following interesting tidbit:
It was Yugoslavia's resistance ot the broader trends of political and economic reform--not the plight of the Kosovar Albanians--that best explains NATO's war.
Which is Chomsky's point. Indeed, nothing in the long quote from Norris refutes Chomsky's basic point that it was Serbian refusal to play by the evolving rules of western European economic, political, and military hegemony that brought about the military action. By saying quite succinctly and clearly that it was not the plight of the Kosovar Albanians, Norris says exactly what Chomsky says he said, and the whole long passage is, in essence, a defense of the position Chomsky attributes to Norris. I'm not even sure how DeLong could misunderstand this, unless he is predisposed to assume that Chomsky is a liar.

In which case, who is being intellectually dishonest?

Virtual Tin Cup

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