Terra Incognita: Chomsky and the myth of instant expertise

The cult of Chomsky is dire need of redress.

Noam Chomsky (photo credit: REUTERS)
Noam Chomsky
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Anyone who attended university in the past few decades in the US and the West in general has been subjected to the cult of Noam Chomsky, “the world’s top public intellectual.” Generations have been misled and encouraged to take the word of one man on a variety of the world’s conflicts and problems without even an iota of critique.
Chomsky has fed a myth that he, and some other public intellectuals, can possess instant expertise on almost any topic from Kosovo to Latin America, class struggle, the “Arab Spring” and lately, the Syrian civil war. In his constant pushing of faux expertise he has done tremendous damage to the world of intellectuals, perpetuating a kind of Orientalism that posits that Western intellectuals like himself should be the go-to experts on everything that happens in the world, and that local experts who might have spent a lifetime living and studying their own societies can be ignored. Ironically this feeds the very Western edifice Chomsky sought to critique, and manufactures the consent he ostensibly opposed.
The ivory tower of Chomskyism has been cracked a bit by his interest in the Syrian civil war. In a piece in The Guardian on November 15 George Monbiot criticized Chomsky and others for adding fuel to “far-right conspiracy theories.” How did this happen?
It begins with the Khan Shaykhun chemical weapons attack on April 4. Then it continues with a professor named Theodore Postol, who “has produced a wide range of claims casting doubt on the Syrian government’s complicity in chemical weapons attacks,” Monbiot writes. Monbiot points out that these doubts are false; the Syrian government did carry out the attack. However, Chomsky sought to highlight Postol’s work in an interview on Democracy Now! on April 27, 2017.
Chomsky claimed that the chemical weapons investigation “was analyzed closely by a very serious and credible analyst, Theodore Postol, professor at MIT, who has a long record of highly successful, credible analyses.” Chomsky read off some other bona fides and concluded that now there are “some questions” about the “White House report.”
This is classic Chomsky. He poses as an expert on a chemical weapons attack in Syria by laundering his own views through experts he has selected. He wonders in the same interview whether we will ever find out what happened.
“I mean, let’s have an inquiry,” he says, “take a look and see what in fact actually happened.”
Then he claims that “reporting from Syria is extremely difficult. If reporters go into the rebel-held areas and don’t do what they’re told, you know, [you] get your head cut off.”
So we can’t trust reports from that side.
“There are obvious questions when you’re reporting from the government side,” too, he acknowledges.
This is how an audience that has read every Chomsky book or listened to all his interviews is quietly fooled into believing “we just don’t know a lot.”
So since “we” can’t know, only Chomsky can provide answers. And this is the act he has been putting on since 1970 when he positioned himself as an expert on US policy in Southeast Asia and Cambodia.
In a piece titled “A Special Supplement: Cambodia,” in June 1970 for The New York Review of Books he provides the keen analysis that “there has always been a possibility of peaceful cooperation among the peoples of Indochina – the Viet, the Lao, the Khmer, the Chinese, and the mountain tribesmen – if the Western imperialists, whose presence has exacerbated all potential conflicts, were to depart.”
Was this based on Chomsky’s extensive travels among the Viet, Lao, Khmer, Chinese and “mountain tribesmen”? No. It was based on what he had read. Who had he been reading? His reports cites American journalist Michael Leifer, Roger Smith, American biologist Arthur Westing, another person he identifies as a “European resident of Phnom Penh,” and T.D. Allman whom he describes as “one of the most knowledgeable and enterprising of the American correspondents now in Cambodia.”
In short, Chomsky’s expertise on Cambodia came almost entirely through the eyes of white men, and mostly American white men. For someone critiquing “imperialism,” he didn’t spend much time interrogating his own reliance on purely Western, and in that sense “imperialist,” sources.
Chomsky’s long-time bias toward Western sources and the stable of experts he relies on can be traced to the 1970s. In an article in The Nation in 1977 dealing with Cambodia he writes that reports by local refugees suffer from “extreme unreliability” and need to be treated “with great caution.” Why? “Refugees are frightened and defenseless, at the mercy of alien forces. They naturally tend to report what they believe their interlocutors wish to hear.” They have a “vested interest in reporting atrocities.”
Chomsky didn’t take his own caution seriously when relying on refugee reports from East Timor in 1979 or Kosovo in 1999. But the real issue with relying on Chomsky is that readers are relying on him to filter information from his sources who not only tend to be biased but are often Westerners.
The problem in the West of holding up one man as a “public intellectual” is that it has poisoned generations of minds who should have been exposed to a more diverse group of writers on Latin America, Kosovo, East Timor, the Middle East, Syria and many other countries. One American man simply cannot be an expert on all these places. Students and other intellectuals should be doing their own homework and be exposed to local voices from the societies they want to learn about.
That means a real familiarity with the culture and language of a place, not just reading what one Western intellectual says based on the reporting of another Westerner. Chomsky has displaced a generation of non-Westerners by trying to assume the mantle of “instant expert” on so many places and complex conflicts.
Chomsky’s tendency to make it seem difficult to access local information often masks his own ignorance of or unwillingness to investigate who the local intellectuals are. This might have made sense in 1970 when it was to be expected that Americans mostly relied on other Americans for information. It doesn’t make sense now. We live in a globalized world. There is instant access to translation services that can allow people who don’t know a local language access to local blogs. Twitter and Facebook enable us to network with local people. There is a surfeit of easily accessible local information. The conscientious reader should sort the wheat from the chaff, and acknowledge bias, but should be willing to escape the Western bubble.
The cult of Chomsky is dire need of redress. It and what it represents should be subjected to the same critique Chomsky has been foisting on the world. It isn’t enough to just attack his reputation based on his Syrian conflict comments. We need to learn from the failure of past generations to interrogate the concept of “public intellectual” and the willingness to rely on a handful of Western authors to “explain” the world through the words of a clique of Western writers without even setting foot in the countries they profess to be experts on, or learning the languages of those nations.
In short, if an American says that you can’t rely on local Syrians for information, or on reporters who went to Syria, but that you can only rely on two academics from Cambridge, Massachusetts who have never been to Syria, dismiss that American’s views. At the very least consider with suspicion those who tell you “we can’t get information from there.” The old-style Western imperialism has been quietly replaced by the intellectual imperialism of those like Chomsky. It’s time to overthrow it.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman.