Happy Noam Chomsky Day: Pundits, Public Intellectuals & Charlatans
Summary: Today, we celebrate the life of Noam Chomsky, who turns 93 this week, and discuss the nature of punditry, the role of true intellectuals in today’s society and the cult of pseudo intellectual charlatans.
WFB: I rejoice in your disposition to argue the Vietnam question, especially when I recognize what an act of self control this must involve.
NC: It does, it really does.
WFB: You’re doing very well.
NC: Sometimes I lose my temper. Maybe not tonight. (laughs)
WFB: Maybe not tonight (smiling broadly) because if you would I’d smash you in the goddamn face.
William F. Buckley, a leading figure of conservatism for decades and founder of the National Review, invited famed linguist Noam Chomsky to appear on his talk show, Firing Line, in 1969. That clip was part of a now infamous exchange where Buckley, during his introduction of Chomsky, attempted to assert the alpha role by half-jokingly suggesting he would smash Chomsky in the mouth if he got temperamental or angry during the interview. Having viewed countless hours of Chomsky, I’m not sure that he is even capable of expressing anger, but that’s beside the point.
Chomsky responds good-naturedly, then over the next hour proceeds to dismantle an increasingly uncomfortable and agitated Buckley by exposing flaws and mischaracterizations in Buckley’s arguments, routinely correcting his history and even cutting off the man famous for cutting off his guests. I’m sure many of you have watched this professional undressing before; but if you haven’t, it’s worth it.
This was Chomsky’s first major bid to enter the public arena beyond his celebrated accomplishments in the field of linguistics, which we’ll get to. He was known in academic circles as a formidable intellectual with unpopular antiwar views, particularly on the War in Vietnam, but Firing Line was his biggest audience until that point. It was utter destruction in the coldest and yet most savage way imaginable.
It’s rumored that the performance bothered Buckley until the bitter end, as evidenced by the fact that it was Chomsky’s first and last invitation to appear on Firing Line. When Buckley died and joined Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman in Lucifer’s basement barbecue, Chomsky was asked to reflect on Buckley’s legacy. Here’s what he had to say:
NC: He was maybe the leading figure in the so-called conservative movement. I don’t think the term “conservative” is appropriate, but what’s called the conservative movement. He was maybe its leading figure, he was maybe its leading intellectual. His journal [The National Review] was the house journal. He was considered, not by me, but he was considered to be witty, articulate, knowledgeable, and so on, and much respected. Again, not by me. But I’m giving a general impression.
“We created a paradise out of Plato’s Republic. Our children shall be philosopher kings.”
Have you ever seen the movie Captain Fantastic from 2016, starring Viggo Mortensen? It’s pretty, well, fantastic. There’s a scene where Mortensen’s character—who is raising his children in the mountains and teaching them to think critically, hunt and gather and live without technology—surprises them with a chocolate cake and whipped cream. It’s an early celebration of what he calls “Noam Chomsky Day.” When one of his children balks at the notion of celebrating Chomsky instead of Christmas “like the rest of the entire world,” Mortensen’s character responds by saying, “You would prefer to celebrate a magical, fictitious elf instead of a living humanitarian who has done so much to promote human rights and understanding?”
Not everyone holds dear uncle Noam in the same high regard. And I want to be clear that it’s taken me decades to reach a point where I no longer engage in hero worship. But I have also reached a point where I can appreciate the work separate from the master. Like how Glenn Greenwald’s descent into utter assholedom doesn’t erase his groundbreaking work on the security and surveillance state. Or how Christopher Hitchen’s defense of the Iraq War due to his increasingly intense dislike of Islam doesn’t diminish, in my mind at least, his takedowns of Kissinger, the Clintons or the Catholic Church.
There are no perfect people. Except for Alan Alda. But in my book, Noam Chomsky comes pretty fucking close.
I should note that this essay will ride the edge of hero worship, but that’s not my intent. And it’s a departure from our regular examinations of social and economic policies, though it’s certainly adjacent. Furthermore, I want to again acknowledge both personal and ethno-bias, as later we’ll examine the role and void of public intellectuals through a predominantly western lens. And this exercise will also be uncharacteristically brief, out of respect for Chomsky’s plain spoken and economical approach to language.
“What it really takes is honesty.”
Since the early 1960s, Noam Chomsky has been a prolific and consistent presence in the national consciousness. So, this episode is equal parts unf*cking, exploration and lamentation over the current state of intellectualism in the United States primarily.
NC: “There are things you have to study and know things about but, by and large, what happens in social-political and political life is relatively accessible. It does not take special training, it doesn’t take any unusual intelligence. What it really takes is honesty.”
There are a couple of profound ideas contained within this brief statement, given to Bill Moyers in a 1988 interview. Moyers had asked whether it takes special access, training or education to positively impact political and social discourse, and Chomsky responds by indicating that it’s different from the sciences; it’s completely accessible if one can think critically and behave honestly. And that it doesn’t require what he calls unusual intelligence.
What’s interesting about the latter part is that Chomsky possesses exactly that: unusual intelligence. And yet he has made a career out of speaking in plain, direct and wholly accessible language. If anything, I believe that is his true superpower. As one of the most notable and highly regarded linguists in the world, vocabulary is as available to him as oxygen, and yet he never uses sesquipedalian language to impress.
Adjective FORMAL. polysyllabic; long. characterized by long words; long-winded. “the sesquipedalian prose of scientific journals.”
And while he can speak for hours on end on a multitude of subjects, he is remarkably economical in his use of language. Always direct. Always to the point. And always backed by facts.
Today, we live in a political and media culture seemingly devoid of facts. The most brazen of lies gets the most visibility and airtime, while historical context and reality are brushed aside in favor of the sensational.
The New York Times recently reported that nearly 15% of all Americans believe it is responsible and patriotic to overthrow the government based on the falsely propagated narrative that the presidential election was stolen. The so-called Big Lie. Nearly every statement uttered by the last President of the United States was in some form a lie or, at a minimum, an exaggeration. MSNBC dedicated an overwhelming amount of coverage to theories about Russia that were disproven early and often. The defense attorneys for Alex Jones in the Sandy Hook defamation case even argued that he is playing a character and shouldn’t be taken seriously. And Fucker Carlson admitted on Dave Rubin’s show that he lies if he’s backed into a corner.
The media has always been culpable when it comes to furthering false government narratives; propaganda masquerading as journalism. This has roots in our founding. Several of the Founding Fathers themselves owned publications established to promote their agendas. Major media outlets have always been owned by wealthy individuals with their own grand designs on social hierarchies and structures.
We’ve covered it before. How the competition between Pulitzer and Hearst drove us into the Spanish American War. How the cozy relationship between the Kennedy administration and the liberal media elite in the ‘60s paved the way for our involvement in Vietnam. The absolute abrogation of responsibility of all major media in the run up to the Iraq War. But many journalists still live in the fantasy created during the Watergate era that they are part of a swashbuckling counterculture speaking truth to power.
What’s new and weird now is the growing band of independent outlets, the point we were making in our independent platform man episode.
Fucker Carlson is a monster now, but he’s Frankenstein’s monster. He still belongs to Dr. Murdoch. But it wasn’t long ago that Bill O’Reilly occupied that spot. O’Reilly, still around in the podasphere. Steve Bannon has a huge following and is laying the groundwork to disrupt the next election at the precinct level. We went through the list and did the math on that same episode about the incredible reach of independent pundits, and it’s fucking terrifying. It also doesn’t begin to touch on the abundance of terrestrial radio hosts who are as responsible for COVID misinformation as anyone, each one trying to grab the mantle from Limbaugh’s departure from earth.
It’s one of the reasons we’re such sticklers about sourcing and why it takes us so much time to put our episodes together. It’s really, really difficult to be bulletproof. But sourcing matters. And as consumers of information, whether it’s podcasts or broadcast news, you should all demand this respect for sourcing.
Noam Chomsky was born Noam Chomsky in the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and twenty eight, in the city of brotherly love. He began his teaching career at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955, and shortly into his tenure, developed a theory of transformational-generative grammar, which revolutionized the field of linguistics. I’m probably going to massacre the theory and its impact on our understanding of language, as this is very far afield from my wheelhouse, but as I understand it, what Chomsky proposed was that language was a distinctly human trait. Something encoded in our DNA rather than something acquired. Structure and nuance could be acquired through mimicry and study, but the innate possession of the fundamentals of language was imprinted, not gained.
Prior to his breakthrough, which is not a belief held by everyone mind you—though it is still considered foundational in the study of linguistics—language development theories were in the purview of the behavioral sciences. An article in the Atlantic that discussed the principles of artificial intelligence and the importance of Chomsky’s theory in its development describes the difference in this way:
“Behaviorist principles of associations could not explain the richness of linguistic knowledge, our endlessly creative use of it, or how quickly children acquire it with only minimal and imperfect exposure to language presented by their environment. The ‘language faculty,’ as Chomsky referred to it, was part of the organism's genetic endowment, much like the visual system, the immune system and the circulatory system, and we ought to approach it just as we approach these other more down-to-earth biological systems.”
It’s interesting that in the advanced study and search for machine learning of language, Chomsky’s theories are even more relevant today. Now, I’ve read enough now about how groundbreaking this line of thinking was and remains in the study of language to have a cursory understanding of the debate between those in Chomsky’s camp and the behavioral sciences, but not enough to explore it further. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to understand his seismic contribution to his chosen discipline, as it laid the groundwork of credibility for everything he accomplished subsequently.
Here’s a passage from a New Yorker article in 2003 that places his influence in its proper context:
“Chomsky’s intellectual influence is still extraordinary. On an academic list of the ten most frequently cited sources of all time (a list that includes the Bible), he ranks eighth—above Hegel and Cicero, just below Plato and Freud. The revolution he started in linguistics in the late nineteen-fifties captured the public imagination the way Einstein’s revolution in physics did. Leonard Bernstein used Chomsky’s theories to analyze music; literary critics used them in the interpretation of poetry. Psychologists studied children’s acquisition of language almost for the first time. A new school of thought, cognitive science, arose, based on Chomsky’s theory of language, along with notions about artificial intelligence. Philosophers started talking about ideas that hadn’t been taken seriously since the time of Descartes.”
To date, Chomsky has more than 120 books to his name. Think about that. Some of these are compendiums of essays and lectures, others purely original texts. It’s a stunning output that boggles the imagination and seemingly defies the principles of time. But Chomsky possesses a rare intellect, an incomparable work ethic and the natural gift of a photographic memory. A memory that has yet to fail him even at 93.
I’ve personally had email exchanges with him in the past, as he is known to respond almost instantly to inquiries and requests from the public. He frequently appears on random YouTube interviews with obscure hosts and students, or programs like Democracy Now! or outlets like Al Jazeera. But he rarely appears in any mainstream format these days, despite being one of the most quoted people in history.
Perhaps, it’s because he doesn’t suffer fools. Or refuses to offer hollow and pithy talking points to the largest questions of the day. Ask a silly question, and you’re likely to be embarrassed. Ask a probing question, and buckle up, because you’re going to get a lecture and life lesson. Either way, this oft-quoted oracle doesn’t fit neatly into the 24/7 media landscape because he’s incapable of being reductive and refuses to be dragged into the gutter of hysterical punditry.
And it’s this punditry that really got me thinking about Chomsky and the role of the public intellectual in today’s society. Here’s where I’m looking to the Unf*cking community to crowdsource some names. I’ve had this episode on the board for several months, waiting for Uncle Noam’s birthday to celebrate the position he occupies today and has occupied for more than six decades. This idea of a public intellectual. I feel as though we’re awash in cheap imitations these days, and there are several would-be successors who fall short for various reasons, not the least of which is that Chomsky objectively operates on another intellectual plane because of his perfect recall.
For example, there are those—mostly on the right—who look to Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson as the leading modern day thinker. Apart from my disdain for his theories on gender roles in society, I find Peterson to be shallow, confusing and unappealing. So it came as a relief when I came across an interview with Chomsky in 2019 on a YouTube show called Theories of Everything where he says he has little regard for Peterson and refers the hosts to a 2018 article in Current Affairs by Nathan Robinson called “The Intellectual we Deserve.”
First off, he answered this question off the cuff by naming the author and correctly identifying the title of a piece that ran a year prior to this interview. I can’t remember the title of my own episodes half the time, and this dude is pulling year-old articles and authors out of his ass at 91 years old. As for the article itself, it really is a masterpiece and puts into words everything I feel when I listen to Jordan Peterson speak. I think it’s worth sharing. Here’s the lede:
“If you want to appear very profound and convince people to take you seriously, but have nothing of value to say, there is a tried and tested method. First, take some extremely obvious platitude or truism. Make sure it actually does contain some insight, though it can be rather vague. Something like “if you’re too conciliatory, you will sometimes get taken advantage of” or “many moral values are similar across human societies.” Then, try to restate your platitude using as many words as possible, as unintelligibly as possible, while never repeating yourself exactly. Use highly technical language drawn from many different academic disciplines, so that no one person will ever have adequate training to fully evaluate your work. Construct elaborate theories with many parts. Draw diagrams. Use italics liberally to indicate that you are using words in a highly specific and idiosyncratic sense. Never say anything too specific, and if you do, qualify it heavily so that you can always insist you meant the opposite. Then evangelize: speak as confidently as possible, as if you are sharing God’s own truth. Accept no criticisms: insist that any skeptic has either misinterpreted you or has actually already admitted that you are correct. Talk as much as possible and listen as little as possible. Follow these steps, and your success will be assured. It does help if you are male and Caucasian.”
Chomsky’s casual disdain carries through to many in this weird modern self help, pseudo intellectual Caucasian male arena. Like Sam Harris.
I’m having fun cherry picking clips where Chomsky is being dismissive but, like most of his criticism, it’s brutally honest, devoid of emotion and gets right to the fucking point. Over the course of my own journey, first as a writer and now with this show, I have often relied on Chomsky’s writings and ideas because they truly are accessible and direct. And in preparing for this show, I conservatively watched 10 hours of lectures and interviews just getting lost in the fullness, yet simplicity, of his expressions.
I allowed myself to get lost in Chomsky through the years, from Buckley on forward, and want to encourage you to do the same. Rather than regurgitate his ideas and rely too much on excerpts of his work, I wanted to talk about his role in academia, in media and in society as a whole. Because his is a rare gift, and one that he has selflessly shared with the world.
For someone so accomplished in academia, who spent basically his entire life as an educator, Chomsky has always been critical of the higher education system. Here’s an excerpt from an old lecture where he responds to a question on the state of education in America:
NC: “The educational system is supposed to train people to be obedient, to be conformist, not to think too much, do what you’re told, stay passive, don’t raise any crises of democracy, don’t raise any questions, and so on… Even the fact that the system has a lot of stupidity in it, I think, has a function. It means that people are filtered out for obedience if you can guarantee lots of stupidity in the educational system. You know, like stupid assignments and things like that. You know that the only people who will make it through are people like me and like most of you, I guess, who are willing to do it no matter how stupid it is because we want to go to the next step. So you may know this is idiotic and the guy up there couldn’t think his way out of a paper bag, but you’ll do it anyway because that’s the way you get to the next class.”
It’s a lighthearted response with serious meaning behind it, as Chomsky was in a perfect position to evaluate our education system. He was criticizing it from the inside out. And while he was surrounded by the brightest young minds in the country at MIT, he was simultaneously recognizing that their intellect was couched in obedience. As such, he saw his job as to help break students and the world, in fact, free of the shackles of subservience. To encourage free expression and free thinking. Acknowledging the possibility that the most liberated minds belonged to the “behavioral problem” children in America.
I have a bachelors and a masters, but my education only began at the conclusion of them when I began to understand the power of self-guided learning and observation. The pursuit of knowledge and truth isn’t limited to the hallowed halls of institutions dripping with pomp and ivy. It’s available to anyone with the curiosity and courage to challenge their own belief systems and push beyond the boundaries of what we’re served in school and in the media. It’s what we’re doing here together. Some of the smartest people I’ve met have been Unf*ckers who have corresponded with me and shared their ideas, topics and research over the past year.
Peerless, but heirless?
So what is the role of a public intellectual? Does it even matter? I would like to think that it does, but because of the virtual blackout of deep thought in the media landscape and saturation of podcasts and YouTube videos, which is theoretically the logical place to access critical thought in this day and age, it requires patience to navigate.
There are misdirects to be aware of along the way. Those on the right might think that Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson are the heirs apparent to William Buckley, for example. Looming figures like Kissinger and Larry Summers still exist as titular heads of conservative ideology in foreign affairs and economics, respectively, but it’s hard to imagine someone as well versed as Buckley. And for the record, I think Buckley was a capable raconteur and debater, but when pressed by the likes of Chomsky, or as evidenced by legendary exchange at Cambridge with James Baldwin, Buckley struggles to reach these heights.
Baldwin, Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens were certainly capable of matching not only wits with the greats, but doing so with disarming humor and viciousness. But they’ve all left us. There are softer intellectuals like Stephen Pinker in the middle, Naomi Klein on the left and Thomas Sowell on the right. Amartya Sen, Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Krugman, Esther Duflo, Thomas Piketty and Joseph Stiglitz, who have inherited the economic mantle. Radical and provocative thinkers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Norman Finklestein, who have been alternately shunned by both the left and right at various times.
Each of them should be considered and listened to. Charlatans like Shapiro and Peterson on the right or Thomas Friedman and David Brooks on the left, hardly, are unfortunately given more airtime and oxygen. But there are real thinkers out there who are doing the work and deserve consideration, even if they challenge your most basic assumptions and preconceptions.
But in order to evaluate them and challenge your own bias and education, you must first trust in your ability to sniff out the bullshit. Make your own connections. Pull the threads, as we do together in this show. Build on concepts to make connections, even if your ideas aren’t original. None of us, or precious few of us—myself especially—possess the capacity to retain and synthesize knowledge to the extreme extent of a Chomsky. But we do have the ability to tune out the punditry and think for ourselves. To demand proper sourcing and proof from those who claim moral or intellectual high ground on a topic of importance to you and the world.
Chomsky can speak fluently, effortlessly and completely on war, weapons, oppression, regimes, climate change, language, social structures, infrastructure, housing, poverty, religion, education, capitalism, anarchism, socialism, Marxism, literature, psychology, liberty, racism, justice. You name it. Because he has a gift. But what’s astounding is what he chose to do with that gift, and it’s that choice that makes him one of us, and is attainable. To pursue knowledge in the absence of an ideological prism. To see things clearly for what they are and to shrug off partisanism, fanaticism or egotism. For these reasons and more, I wanted to pause to celebrate his life and contribution to our understanding power in the modern world.
In 1967, Chomsky wrote The Responsibility of Intellectuals so, once again, we don’t have to guess what he thinks about a particular subject. In it he said:
“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”
It’s one thing to allow the intellectual class the time and freedom to think and express themselves. But it’s another entirely to act upon the results to achieve a positive outcome. To this end, Chomsky believes that the power is among groups of informed individuals to seize upon this information to work toward a better tomorrow.
“For ordinary people, it’s extremely hard. And that’s why you need organization. If a real democracy is going to thrive… If the real values that are deeply embedded in human nature are going to be able to flourish—and I think that’s necessary if nothing else—it’s an absolute necessity that groups form in which people can join together, can share their concerns, can articulate their ideas, can gain a response, can discover what they think, what they believe, what their values are. This can’t be imposed on you from above, you have to discover it by experiment, by effort, by trial, by application, and so on. Furthermore, surely central to human nature is a need to be engaged with others in cooperative efforts of solidarity and concern. That can only happen, by definition, in group structures.”
Happy Birthday, Uncle Noam.
Here endeth the celebration.