From Chomsky to Bin Laden

The professor dons the militant’s cap: It fits.

Bret Stephens,
Wall Street Journal,
May 10, 2011

How fitting that Noam Chomsky would waste little time denouncing the killing of Osama bin Laden as the “political assassination” of an “unarmed victim” whose complicity in 9/11 remains, in the professor’s mind, very much in doubt. Osama was fond of quoting the MIT sage in his periodic video messages – Jimmy Carter is another American so honored – so maybe the eulogy was just a matter of one good turn deserving another.

Then again, philosophical fellow traveling is always interesting, not least for what it tells us about ourselves.

In 1946, Martin Heidegger, incomparably the most significant philosopher of the 20th century, was banned from teaching for five years at the insistence of occupying French forces. The crime? He had been a Mitläufer – a “fellow-walker” – of the Nazi Party during its time in power. He had extolled the “inner truth and greatness of this movement.” He had tormented Jewish professors. True, he had done so with caveats and reservations, and from a philosophical vantage that operated according to its own logic, distinct from simple National Socialism. But he had done it all the same.

Does anyone today doubt that the teaching ban was justified? Most of us would say that far worse was due the man who lent Adolf Hitler an aura of intellectual respectability.

Mr. Chomsky is no Martin Heidegger: His contributions to linguistics and cognitive psychology, considerable as they are, pale next to Heidegger’s contributions to political philosophy. Nor is he a Heidegger in the sense that he has brought no material harm to anyone, as Heidegger did to his mentor Edmund Husserl.

Yet when it comes to making excuses for monsters, the two thinkers are evenly matched. Among the subjects of Mr. Chomsky’s solicitude have been Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson (whom he described as a “relatively apolitical liberal”), the Khmer Rouge (at the height of the killing fields), and Hezbollah (whose military-style cap he cheerfully donned on a visit to Lebanon last year).

As for bin Laden, Mr. Chomsky asks, rhetorically, “how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s.”

Ho-hum: Can anyone be surprised anymore by what Mr. Chomsky thinks and says? Not really. In one of those little ironies of leftist politics, the author of Manufacturing Consent has become a victim of what my former colleague Tom Frank likes to call “the commodification of dissent,” in which even the most radical ideas come stamped with their own ISBN number. In the West at least, the marketplace of ideas is also the great equalizer of ideas, blunting edges that might once have had the power to wound and kill.

So it is that Mr. Chomsky can be the recipient of over 20 honorary degrees, including from Harvard, Cambridge and the University of Chicago. None of these degrees, as far as I know, was conferred for Mr. Chomsky’s political musings, but neither did those musings provoke any apparent misgivings about the fitness of granting the award. So Mr. Chomsky is the purveyor of some controversial ideas about this or that aspect of American power. So what?

Here’s what: Dulled (and dull) as Mr. Chomsky’s ideas might be in the West, they remain razors outside of it. “Among the most capable of those from your side who speak on this topic [the war in Iraq] and on the manufacturing of public opinion is Noam Chomsky, who spoke sober words of advice prior to the war,” said bin Laden in 2007. He was singing the professor’s praises again last year, saying “Noam Chomsky was correct when he compared the US policies to those of the mafia.”

These words seem to have been deeply felt. Every wannabe philosopher – and bin Laden was certainly that – seeks the imprimatur of someone he supposes to be a real philosopher. Mr. Chomsky could not furnish bin Laden with a theology, but he did provide an intellectual architecture for his hatred of the United States. That Mr. Chomsky speaks from the highest tower of American academe, that he is so widely feted as the great mind of his generation, that his every utterance finds a publisher and an audience, could only have sustained bin Laden in the conceit that his thinking was on a high plane. Maybe it would have been different if Mr. Chomsky had been dismissed decades ago for what he is: a two-nickel crank.

Now bin Laden is dead. Yet wherever one goes in the Arab world, one finds bookstores well-stocked with Chomsky, offering another generation the same paranoid notions of American policy that mesh so neatly with an already paranoid political culture.

In 1946 a self-confident West had no trouble demanding that Heidegger be banned. Ideas, it was understood, had consequences. Today nobody would dream of banning Mr. Chomsky from anything. Yet ideas have consequences even today.