It's hard enough, I know, just keeping up with poll results from battleground states in the American election, but please spare a moment of pity for Noam Chomsky's admirers. They are in agony. Their 75-year-old guru has betrayed them.
Chomsky, the MIT professor who turned his fame as a theorist of linguistics into a platform for preaching radical politics, has taught his devotees that Democrats don't substantially differ from Republicans. He believes every president since Franklin Roosevelt deserved impeachment for war crimes.
But this year Chomsky has joined many other celebrities (Phil Donahue, Susan Sarandon, etc.) in urging their fans to vote for John Kerry, not Ralph Nader, in states where the race is close. That will seem only reasonable to many, but to Chomskyites it looks like "unconditional capitulation to the corporatist duopoly," as one of his dismayed acolytes wrote in a Virginia newspaper on Sunday. A scan of the Web reveals more signs of unhappiness. For instance, Dissident Voice, an Internet newsletter from Santa Rosa, Calif., carries a piece by a Nova Scotia writer, Kim Petersen, whose title says it all and more: "An Unconscionable Outcome: Chomsky And The Hopelessness Of Lesser Evilism."
Lesser evilism! You can see the point. Given that Kerry vows to prosecute the war on terror, and even beat down the opposition in Iraq, he's clearly a war criminal in the making. How could Chomsky possibly support him? My guess is that Chomsky considers Kerry a blatant liar who doesn't mean it when he says he wants to kill terrorists. He dreams that Kerry in office will reverse American foreign policy.
That would neatly fit into the Chomsky world view. He sees modern history as a conspiracy of liars supported by fools, the fools being journalists, all of them dupes of American imperialism. Chomsky's lectures and books appeal especially to the dull young who are yearning to be bright. He flatters them by turning simple-minded arguments into imitations of scholarship. There are people who actually believe they are thinking when they read Chomsky.
He seems an even more dubious character than usual in the pages of The Anti-Chomsky Reader (Encounter Books), edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz. Ten contributors draw up a highly persuasive indictment, dealing with Chomsky's unthinking hostility to Israel, his perverse views of the Cold War, his friendly attitude to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, even the shortcomings of his linguistic theory.
Werner Cohn of the University of British Columbia contributes an essay on Chomsky's strangely intimate relations with Holocaust deniers in France. He wrote the introduction to a book by Robert Faurisson, who claimed that the Holocaust didn't happen and those who said it did were lying Jews. Chomsky has argued that his support for Faurisson amounts to no more than a defence of free speech. Cohn demonstrates, not for the first time, that it goes much deeper.
Of all the distortions associated with Chomsky the most preposterous is the notion (which he and his acolytes propagate) that he's neglected, even suppressed in America. Just last week, in the New Statesman in London, an American writer said he's a prophet without honour in his own land, "barely published in the U.S."
Barely published? The University of Toronto library catalogue currently shows 220 Chomsky titles, and though that includes reissues and translations it's still a formidable shelf. Last year alone brought us 11 new or revised Chomsky books, from Power and Terror: Post 9-11 Talks and Interviews to Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies, each with its colon-introduced subtitle, its familiar promise of Establishment-devastating content and no doubt its endlessly repetitious arguments.
But, Chomsky will ask, how often do the major media publicize him?
Too often, I say, but in any case the most favourable publicity doesn't satisfy him. Last year Larissa MacFarquhar went to great trouble to write a mainly admiring piece about him in the New Yorker, which Chomsky dismissed as "a ridiculous gossip column."
He's developed a huge international following, perhaps especially in Canada, the only place where a government agency has put out an adoring film about him (Manufacturing Consent, produced in 1992, largely the work of the National Film Board). Still, he insists on having it both ways, convincing the innocent that the media have marginalized him.
Chomsky's support of Kerry could bring more criticism from the cultists, particularly if Kerry becomes president and reinforces the troops in Iraq. But true-believing Chomskyites will get over it. They've already tolerated much worse.