April 20, 2005

Deconstructing What?

Over at Reason Online: "Deconstructing Chomsky." Grrr. I guess it's fruitless to ask people to use the term "deconstruction" correctly, since by now it's more or less widely taken to mean "exploring and dismantling," but still, it's awfully obnoxious. (And the author's an English professor to boot. Hmph!) Likewise, I hear the word "topology" misused quite a bit, to mean either "landscape" or "topography." I guess I wouldn't mind so much if these weren't, basically, the only two things I ever learned in college, so now it's just harder to show off at cocktail parties. Not that I get invited to many cocktail parties. But if I did...

UPDATE: Oh, what the hell, a word about Chomsky too. The Chomsky-bashing, especially among those who write for the internet-world, has really gotten out of control over the past four years. Yes, the man paints a very one-sided view of history. Very. Nevertheless, it's a side that just doesn't get painted very often, and a side that ought to be painted more often. Granted, American history isn't simply, as Chomsky has it, "one bloody aggression after another, each whitewashed by compliant news media and fed to a gullible public." But it would take a very strong dullard indeed to think that American history hasn't had lots of bloody aggression, or often been harmed by a compliant news media, or gullible publics. Chomsky sometimes puts an intolerable slant on his facts, but his books still have facts, carefully researched, lots of them truly unsettling, and they can't all be wished away just because the arrangement or backdrop is misleading.

Now it would be a dangerous shame if all one ever read were Chomsky, but if a person's not reading Chomsky, what other popular political writers are going to bring, say, U.S. misdeeds in Latin America (and the business interests connecting them) into such sharp focus? I'm only a little ways through Thomas Friedman's soon-to-be-bestselling book on globalization, The World Is Flat, but already I can see it's vintage Tom: a willful obtuseness towards any part of the seamy underbelly of globalization, as if power doesn't exist, and corruption is just an inconvenience soon to be scorched away by the white light of global connectivity. A dose of Chomsky-ism could do Friedman some good.

Last point. People often try to separate Chomsky's linguistic work from his politics, praising the former and abhorring the latter. That's misguided; the two are very much inter-connected. His linguistic worldview, to a large extent, depends on several assumptions: that all thought essentially is language, that all reason is formal, that human beings share a universal rationality, and that we can come to understand the mind by introspection alone. Now it's not a huge leap from here to Chomsky's brand of anarcho-syndicalism (though this part isn't very well-developed) and his anti-materialism (who needs i-Pods when rationality is the real essence of humanity?), not to mention his views that power structures and greed always and intolerably pervert human nature. What's remarkable is that he's taken his well-developed theories on the human mind and stretched them to their utmost political conclusions. What other writer even tries to do that? (Yes, as always, I mean "apart from David Brooks"...)

By the by, Chomsky once had a very clever retort to the argument that "the masses" are too stupid and unfit to govern, when he pointed out that even the most boorish of beer-guzzling American slobs have a preternatural ability to, for example, rattle off baseball statistics. Name the Cy Young winner in 1963, bam, Sandy Koufax, that sort of thing. Surely these boors could put their encyclopedic minds to good use in the political sphere, if only they weren't so distracted by baseball and other opiates of the masses. Well, that doesn't seem quite right to me, but if you're Chomsky, it's at least internally consistent.
-- Brad Plumer 2:41 AM || ||