Monday, July 28, 2008

On Chomsky

I cannot say I’ve read much Chomsky. But, I recently read this interview.

He is a very interesting fellow. I find it a bit humorous that he is “America’s greatest intellectual”. From what I understand, I do not know if he is really academically qualified to be an expert on politics, (I thought his field of study was linguistics), but really in our society today, this shouldn’t be surprising. After all, it is far too common for somebody to speak with “authority” outside their sphere of expertise.

Chomsky’s article is interesting, humorous, and infuriating. He has a lot of insights, but draws a lot of wrong conclusions in my opinion. Chomsky certainly thinks himself a scholar of popular thought. He seems to pride himself in identifying with the vast majority over against the oppressing powers. This dichotomy already is difficult. I am not convinced that such a clear oppressive power system is in place in America. Certainly public opinion of the government is extremely poor (and Congress has been far less popular than Bush for a long time now).

I think part of the problem is two fold. First, everyone thinks that the world around us is not right. We think and recognize that policies are wrong, we realize that others are using power to take advantage of us, we see injustice, we experience powerlessness, and so on. I cannot help but think that this recognition of the wrongness of the world goes beyond politics and to something more profound. Chomsky would not like this (I imagine), but I think he is hitting on our innate, spiritual recognition of sin in the world and our need for God. We all recognize that the world is flawed, we see injustice and oppression, and even if we do not like the term, evil in a variety of forms. No political philosophy will solve this problem, only the Gospel. Though, I do think that conservative politics ultimately are built on a recognition of evil and are thus more effective at properly (and Biblically) restraining it.

Second, just because we recognize oppression and evil does not mean that there is an “establishment” that is doing this to us. It seems a common thing to try and explain this evil in the world by vilifying an organization and imbuing it with almost divine like qualities (which in itself could be significant of the real issue at stake). Of course there are not extraterrestrials controlling the world secretly, nor is there (likely) an evil government conspiracy to subdue the population. These are simple explanations, but are far from plausible. After all, if the government was capable of that level of organization and efficiency.... well, it obviously isn’t. I’m not saying Chomsky is Fox Mulder, but he definitely has his Mulder moments.

It is very easy to idealize the situation into “bad guys” oppressing the “masses”, but this is unfair. Part of this is because it will be very difficult to decide who is in these different classes. Further, humanity cannot function without leaders, and leaders will always have to make decisions. Chomsky rather seems to idealize a “pure” democracy, where popular opinion dictates everything. I am not a historian, but I do not think there is evidence that this actually works. Even at the smallest level, leadership is always needed in order to provide organization and direction. Further, leadership is about seeing the big picture in a way that might not be possible for those who are in specialized roles. Of course human nature corrupts leadership, and we have far more examples of bad leadership in history than good, but I sure hope Chomsky does not really believe that removing all leadership and making every person on the planet have equal say in decisions is really a good thing. But it definitely appears that is his opinion.

Chomsky also seems to assume a lot of the American public. He points out that if it were up to the public, we would have had a universal healthcare system 20 years ago. I think at the heart of this is he believes Americans are liberals, and although this sounds unfair, I get the impression he feels that businessmen and politicians are the ones who are pushing foreign ideas on the people. This certainly is not fair at all. Chomsky likes quoting statistics, but I do not believe this accurately reflect people’s opinions. People will respond to attractive promises like “free healthcare”, but they might not be informed to understand the drawbacks.

Chomksy sees an uninformed society that makes decisions based on attractive images that convey no substantial content. He is insightful in realizing that people are attracted to superficial images, and I think he really hits the nail on the head with Obama. Obama is a “blank slate” of sorts that people can easily project their ideals on. He is charismatic, and is full of short and simple platitudes that convey no content at all. “Change” is not always a good thing after all, the real question is not “change” for change’s sake, but “change to what?”.

This gets at one of Chomsky’s biggest weaknesses (at least in this interview). Its the whole chicken and egg question. Is the society uninformed because of the (oppressive?) business powers and their propaganda, or are businesses and politicians able to get away with such superficiality because people no longer know how to think and are saturated in an entertainment driven society?

I recently read in a WoW forum an application for one of the better guilds on my server. Because this guild is very good, the applicant recognized that he needed to make a strong case for his commitment to weekly raids. He pointed out that he plays the game 8-12 hours every day of the week. He was in college (now he’s 27), but he dropped out partly due to the game. He currently only works a basic retail job so that he can play the game the rest of his day. This is horrifying! This person has gave up any real productive future in order to play a video game seemingly for the rest of his life.

This is not what humans were meant for. This is not a meaningful life. But this is our society: we work 8 hours a day, and then try to cram as many forms of entertainment into the rest of our free time. We are not interested in thinking, studying, or engaging in philosophical discussions. We are cynical of “scholars” and possibly even afraid of them. Is this because of an oppressive propaganda machine, or is the propaganda a result of a fading society? I think it is the latter. This is partly due to the quick rise of technology and the resulting forms of entertainment. It is also due to our entitlement attitude towards a life of luxury. I think we can also put some blame on our educational system for loosing sight of the value of a real education in place of themes of “tolerance” and a post-modern epistemology.

A final critique of this interview is Chomsky’s liberalism. One of the scariest things about liberalism is its forceful equality. This is the heart of socialism. It is scary because it is so counter human nature. Our differences are what drive us to improve on ourselves. Chomsky uses terms like “free market” which I would think imply this principle. But, I’m pretty sure for Chomsky “free market” means a market where all players are made equal. This simply does not work. My definition of free market is where hard work are rewarded. Humanity is not productive when we are not allowed to work for our own greed and ambition. This is not a pretty picture, but we cannot “fix” humanity with a political system. At least this approach works, and under the right checks and balances can work very well.

Chomsky is a very insightful man. I should read more of him, because I know he is popular in many circles. He is challenging because his conclusions and perspective are so entirely foreign. He is humorous because at times he becomes overly sensational viz. Michael Moore. (Like in implying that Europeans are healthier than Americans because they are taller, or that America orchestrated our victory in WW2 in order to have global power). He is also frustrating because he does get at real issues and real problems. Guys like Chomsky will always be good to break misconceptions about leaders. Bush is not God’s gift to man, he is a flawed leader, and has made plenty of mistakes. I still think the man has done far more good than evil, but history will have to be the judge.

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