The Devil’s Accountant [Excerpt]

Larissa MacFarquhar,
The New Yorker,
March 31, 2003

... Back in the classroom, Chomsky’s co-teacher asked whether one of the students wanted to try to make a case for the war in Iraq. A round-faced young man near the door raised his hand. “I think the most central claim for the pro-war movement is the liberation of the Iraqi people,” the student said. “That’s been the hardest one for the left to counter. I think that at the core the best of what Professor Chomsky has been able to say is that in the past the US hasn’t done it.”

“Not just hasn’t done it, has supported the opposite,” Chomsky broke in. “And not just the US but the people currently in office... Suppose the goal is to liberate Iraq. How come it’s not proposed at the United Nations?”

“There are a lot of answers to that, like I think - ” the student began.

“Really? I don’t know of any,” Chomsky interrupted. “But here’s a way to liberate Iraq, an easy way, and it will knock off all the most common arguments. No US casualties, no threat to Israel, good chance of bringing democracy, probably be welcomed by the population, they’ll allow plenty of oil to flow, Saddam will be torn to shreds, they’ll destroy every trace of weapons of mass destruction. Help Iran invade Iraq. They could do it very easily if we gave them any support at all.”

“But - ”

“Excuse me. They have a fair chance of introducing democracy. The US doesn’t. The reason is that the majority of Iraq’s population is Shiite. Shiites are likely to want an accommodation with Iran, but the US will never allow them to have a voice in the government because it doesn’t want the government to have an accommodation with Iran... What’s the downside?”

... Chomsky continued to berate the student for a long time, ignoring his attempts to break in. People cried out “Let him talk!” but to no avail. Another student stood up and called out a request that he be allowed to help, but Chomsky ignored him. People made loud, disgruntled noises in protest at this treatment, but Chomsky ignored those, too. Finally, the first student sat down.

... It is not just in his political work that Chomsky is vicious in argument. “The thing about Noam that people don’t understand is that about linguistics he doesn’t have much sense of humor,” Morris Halle, a colleague of Chomsky’s since the fifties and one of his closest friends, says. “He takes it deathly seriously. And that causes problems. A woman linguist whom I know went in to see Noam and asked him some technical questions and somehow set him off. And he hit her this way and he hit her that way and on and on and you couldn’t stop him. She cried and she was terribly upset about it. Well, I went in afterward and he said, ‘She didn’t come here to have pleasant conversation, she came here for technical reasons.’ He didn’t think he was being unkind to her. He just doesn’t make small talk about linguistics.”

People often accuse Chomsky of setting himself up as a guru, of encouraging the cult that has grown up around him, but if he wanted to be a guru he would not work so consistently to alienate his followers. “There really is an alpha-male dominance psychology at work there,” a colleague says. “He has some of the primate dominance moves. The staring down. The withering tone of voice.”

... In 1967, Chomsky came back from Berkeley and immediately went on the attack. The generative semanticists found the conflict very upsetting: Chomsky was their hero, and here he was, seemingly destroying their
theory for the sake of it. He seemed to them to be fighting dirty, purposely misunderstanding their arguments. Chomsky, of course, denied that he was doing any such thing - he felt he was just correcting error, as usual. The situation was too emotional to be an ordinary academic disagreement, and soon it grew nasty. The generative semanticists had been trained in the fight against Bloomfield to wage theoretical war with as much cruelty as possible, and, if Chomsky had once been an angel to them, he now became Satan. Paul Postal, these days a professor at NYU, still loathes Chomsky with an astonishing passion. “After many years, I came to the conclusion that everything he says is false,” Postal says. “He will lie just for the fun of it. Every one of his arguments was tinged and coded with falseness and pretense. It was like playing chess with extra pieces. It was all fake.”