Sunday, March 12, 2006

Chomsky and Mistakes

Mark Alexander asked me in the last post about Chomsky whether he had ever admitted to a mistake, and raised the bar extremely high on what he considered a legitimate example: It had to be when he was grown, it had to be something he had advocated passionately, and a bunch of other qualifiers.

So I decided that given that I don't know Chomsky personally and most of what I have read by him are political books about states, not things about himself, I would have to go looking for something like this.

One of the first interviews I read on the Chomsky official site, which has tons of writings by him, mentioned in passing that Mark's question is, in fact, a common critique of him, which got me to wondering why. I mean, the guy just does not write a lot about himself, and gives extremely self-effacing answers whenever he is asked direct questions about his personal background, so when exactly would he have the platform to raise a mistake he had made and apologize for it? Also, the examples I did find did not meet the level set by Mark, but....

Mark contrasts him with Richard Mitchell. Yes, Richard Mitchell admits he is often wrong. Like in the "I am not OK" quote I gave. However: Did he give a concrete example? Not that I remember.

In fact, I don't see this level of "Oh God, How Wrong I Was!" much, generally, in writers from the pre-blog era. It mostly seems to be a recent phenomenon - bloggers write something too fast without checking up on it, and publish on the Internet and later discover they were factually wrong and have to do a mea culpa.

As for people completely changing their entire life view, Mark mentions Hitchens, who I do not think is a deep thinker and whose later work (post 9/11) seems to me to not be thought provoking at all, and I could also mention people like David Horowitz, who seemed to have discovered that their team was not the winning one and switched to what they thought was the more likely-to-win worldview. These people's writing does not make one feel uncomfortable because it challenges assumptions. On the contrary, the writing seems to me to be extremely shallow and have an undertone of mere meanness - in brief, they seem to be angry and lash out at other people who have deeply held convictions precisely because they have none.

(And, my husband knew Hitchens personally, but that's another long story!)

Anyhow, not that these will satisfy Mark, but I found a few instances of Chomsky remarking that he is fallible (and again they did not meet Mark's very high bar of what he considered acceptable):

Example 1: Not Feminist Enough

Q. A former student of yours was quoted in Mother Jones a couple of years ago as follows: "Chomsky thinks he is a feminist, but at heart he's an old-fashioned patriarch. Of course, he's a very good person. He has just never really understood what the feminist movement is about." What do you make of that? How do you evaluate the feminist critique? Has it affected you or your work personally?

A. Well, I'm in no position to evaluate it. That's for others to do. But yeah, I think the feminist movement is probably the most important development to come out of the Sixties, in terms of its actual impact on values and perceptions. How has it affected me? I don't know. Hard to say. It probably has, but probably not as much as it should have.

Q. Is that a criticism you hear fairly often?

A. Yeah, in fact it's a criticism I've been hearing for years, from friends and others. And I think there's probably some validity to it.

(source: http://adamjones.freeservers.com/chomsky.htm )

Example Two: Sports Fan

And here is one more, discussing something he changed his mind about in high school, which admittedly is not very earthshattering - hopefully we all changed our minds about what we thought that long ago.

CHOMSKY: Oh, I don't think competition is a good thing... Take sports, which doesn't lead to much in the way of hierarchy and domination -- some, but not much. But I think especially professional sports brings out just the worst instincts in people. I mean it brings out gladiatorial instincts. First of all, it enhances blind and foolish loyalty. Why should you be loyal to your home team? What do you know about those guys? Do I ever meet anybody out of the [New England] Patriots? I remember when I was in high school, and I was all excited, passionate, about the high school football team. And I remember asking myself, Why do I care? I couldn't say one word to any of these guys. And I don't want to sit at the same table with them, and they don't want to sit at the same table with me, and they're no different than the guys at the other school, and what do I care whether they win a game or they lose a game? All that this does is enhance blind and foolish loyalties, which is extremely dangerous, because that carries over into chauvinism for the state and others; it's extremely dangerous. And in things like, say, professional football and professional boxing, it's really horrifying. It's like gladiatorial contests. You know, you're watching people kill each other -- and cheering. So that kind of stuff is extrememly dangerous.

(Source : http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/198912--.htm )

Example Three: A Mistake in First Grade Causing Entire Life to be Different

Finally, there's the following paragraph from a short bio introducing an article by him:

Seventy-seven-year-old linguist and political writer Noam Chomsky has been a vocal opponent of injustice since the Vietnam War era, but his opposition to the abuse of power goes back even farther, to a schoolyard encounter in the first grade: Seeing a boy being taunted because of his weight, young Chomsky started to intervene. Then he got scared and ran away. The shame and regret he felt following the incident stayed with him and developed into a lifelong commitment to champion the underdog.

(Source: http://www.chomsky.info/interviews/200504--.pdf )

So Mark, I didn't answer this satisfactorily. But I have a challenge for you! (Post the answer to WitNit!) Find another person who writes as thoughtfully as the people in my series, (no ,Hitchens does not count) and find an example of him/her being devastatingly wrong as per your own criteria (and not just talking about being wrong, but providing an example). And you can start with Richard Mitchell.

Browse more Chomsky info here (including articles by other people both for and against him):

http://www.chomsky.info/

9 comments:

WitNit said...

Anne, what I was getting at is best illustrated by Mitchell.

When you read his last book, The Gift of Fire, and contrast that with his other writings, you find that he has moved quite a bit on his understanding of "education." He is an evolving thinker who like Epectitus and Socrates understood the value of self-doubt, and a constant re-evaluation of what one understands to be true.

I bring that up because I have not had that experience with Chomsky, and although I have not read the majority of his writings over time, it sounded like you had and I wondered if you had noticed a similar habit of mind.

I guess what I am trying to get at is the difference between a geniune inquiring mind that recoginizes the danger of absolute certainty and how that inhibits the mind's ability to perceive evidence contradiction one's absolute certainty, and an ideological mind that defends one stance at all costs whatever the countervailing evidence.

Whatever Hitchens depth as a thinker, I have seen him acknowledge this kind of shift (not on the whole Iraq/terror topic...on that he has maintained a steady consistency) but on other grounds.

Anyway, that's what I intended. I suppose I was really asking if YOU noticed such a shift and if you could think of an example. No need to research.

Anna in Portland (was Cairo) said...

Ahhhh, I understand. So it's not really that Richard Mitchell said "Oh how wrong I was" but that his outlook became wider/wiser than (but not really *opposed to*) what he did earlier. That makes more sense.

To see this kind of shift in Chomsky, i bet you would see it in his linguistics research more than you would in his political writings. After all his main career is that of linguist and he does not pretend to be an expert on politics, just a person with strong views who reads a lot. However I also bet that neither you nor I would spend the time necessary exploring his linguistics writings to find out - I understand they are awfully dense. (Have you seen the Perl script called the 'chomskybot' that mixes up his linguistics writings and somehow they still sound sort of like they might make sense? It's wild.)

I hope you'll like the Idries Shah installment I keep promising - I know you have read some Sufi stuff.

WitNit said...

Yes, and I've read some Indries Shah. (The Sufis.) I'm partial to Hazrat Inayat Khan, and of course Rumi and Shams.

I had enough of linguistics in college. I am more interested in changes in Chmosky's political stance.

I work with very smart engineers. I'm always amazed at the extent to which in their work they require evidence and root-cause analysis, yet in their politics they jump aboard bandwagons with neither.

belledame222 said...

Horowitz is, yes, very shallow indeed. And mean-spirited. There's been a lot of that about, unfortunately, wrt political-celebrity "talking heads," here.

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