Chomsky's been described as possibly the most important intellectual alive. Yes, I know that the second half of the original quote goes on to question why he writes such nonsense on international affairs, but that doesn't invalidate the description. Despite his complaints about being marginalised by the mainstream media (that phrase always to be said with a sneer), Chomsky has enormous influence on the left. In fact I'd bet that for quite a few people the only serious books on politics they've ever read are by Chomsky (I don't count Michael Moore as serious).
It seems to me for a start that there's some interesting parallels between Chomsky's work in linguistics and his political writings. Back in the late fifties the dominant paradigm within psychology was Skinnerian stimulus-response, which was in effect a sort of behaviourism-lite. Everyone could see that there were problems with behaviourism, but no one could really see how to develop a science of mind based on subjective experience. So psychologists were still looking at the behaviour of rats: you put in this stimulus and got out that response. Reward them and they do this, give them an electric shock and they don't do that. Humans, so it was hoped, would turn out to be somewhere further along that continuum. And language? The generally accepted explanation for language learning was that it was a more complicated version of operant conditioning. Well, the whole thing was waiting to be blown apart, and it's generally acknowleged that Chomsky was the man who did it with his review of Skinner's book "Verbal Behaviour" in 1959. It was one of those arguments that just changes everything. He made it seem so obvious. Quite clearly there is insufficient input - stimuli, in the old stimulus-response terminology - for an individual to learn such an incredibly complex skill as speaking a language in such a short time. So Chomsky, and linguists after him, started talking of an innate grammar. Humans must have some inbuilt propensity to learn to speak.
But it's interesting how this was developed. The Chomskian revolution was presented as a triumph for rationalists, that is, heirs of Descartes with his clear distinction between mind and body, over the empiricists, heirs to Locke and Hume, who were assumed to be the spiritual fathers to the whole behaviourist enterprise. Chomsky made this clear with the title of his book, Cartesian Linguistics. So here was an iconoclast, shattering the cosy consensus of the day. This was taken to be nothing short of a revolution, not just in linguistics but in psychology as well. Out went the old empiricist dogmas, in came the new rationalism. The talk was of competence versus performance, deep and surface structures, generative grammars.
My feeling is that the whole Cartesian revolution is dead and buried, having been overtaken by the development of Evolutionary Psychology, but beyond noting that we are dealing here with a man who sees himself as an iconoclast, that's not really my main point. What interests me more is the way that Chomsky developed his linguistics by making the methodological decision to take innate grammar as a given, on the perfectly reasonable grounds that origins were not what he was interested in and wouldn't help the business of untangling the actual inner workings of language, but then announced that this was the way things were. A methodological decision became a central tenet of his philosophy - a fact, if you like, about the world.
When Chomsky is asked why, in his political writings, he deals only with the US and its crimes, his response is along the lines of, well, that's what I do, I write about the US because I'm an American, it's what interests me. It's the most powerful country in the world. If you want to read criticism of other countries, you can read it anywhere: the mainstream press is full of it. Well yes, that seems fair enough. But what happens here, as with his Cartesian linguistics, is that a methodological decision, to confine himself to criticism of the US, has hardened into a vision of reality. "I'm only going to deal with US crimes" becomes "the only real crimes are US crimes".
It helped of course that in the early days of Chomsky's political writings, in the late sixties, the presentation of the US as a dominant and aggressive power was not a difficult argument to make. At the height of the cold war, the prevailing climate of opinion was that the US was fighting for freedom and democracy against the evil totalitarianism of Soviet Russia. What many of us thought, and what Chomsky perhaps articulated better than anyone, was that this seemed to have little to do with what the US was actually doing in Vietnam. For the left this wasn't about fighting against communism: this was a neo-colonialist war in which the US had replaced the earlier colonial power, the French, in trying to suppress a indigenous movement of national liberation. The central disagreement over Vietnam was between those who saw it as part of the cold war, and those who saw it as a brutal suppression of a country's right of self-determination. It was an argument that the left effectively won. And frankly the relevance of the cold war was equally hard to discern when looking at US policies in the rest of the world, and most notably in Latin America - Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador. It wasn't a pretty story, and Chomsky was compelling.
Given that the cold war was rejected by Chomsky as an explanation for US policies, the familiar panoply of Chomskian themes was developed. Since it wasn't reacting against anything, the US could only be an aggressor, with its goal a total world hegemony for the benefit of big business. This was achieved through one of Chomsky's central themes, military Keynesianism, whereby the US government pumped money into the military, which primed the economy via the high tech industries which were involved in developing more advanced ways of killing people. Meanwhile the corrupt dictators who controlled the US client states used their wealth, obtained if not through natural resources such as oil then through US aid of some form or another, to purchase these arms. This not only kept the US economy going but also served to keep the suffering masses under control. An evil empire indeed; the real terrorist state.
We're now some fourteen years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and it's become clear to some of us that the cold war story wasn't simply a myth peddled by ruthless power merchants in Washington. A significant factor in US foreign policy from the end of the Second World War right up to 1989 was indeed, just like they said, the battle against communism. And of course they were right in principle, if often not in practice. But Chomsky hasn't changed, and nor have much of the left. The US, they say, always needs an enemy to justify its brutality. Before it was communism, now it's Islam. Just as the communists were never really a threat, so with Islam. They'd happily leave us all alone if we we left them alone: Islamophobia as the new McCarthyism. But the arguments became ever more desperate. How on earth did the NATO action in Kosovo advance the business interests of the US power elite? And how could anyone casually dismiss 9/11, as Chomsky did, as equivalent to the bombing by Clinton of the aspirin factory in Sudan, which killed one person?
But it's when you look at the extraordinary moral force of Chomsky's writings that you start to get an understanding of why he's so influential. There is surely a whiff of the cult here. This may seem far-fetched - Chomsky doesn't appear to be after followers in the same way as, say, Marx was. He's no patriarch: more Woody Allen than Moses. He's the picture of modesty, just simply presenting the facts. And I don't want to push this too far: I'm not arguing that Chomsky actually runs a cult. But there's a continuum between on the one hand the normal exchange of information in a free society with people talking, arguing, writing articles and books, up through more charismatic individuals with a point to get across, through movements, religions, cults. And Chomsky is somewhere along that continuum. His attitude to who those who disagree with him, is, by and large, one of contempt. The only reason they can't see the simple truth of what he's saying is that they are, in one way or another, morally deficient. Normally this moral deficiency takes the form of selling out to the establishment. People want to get on in their career but they see which way the wind blows - if they write the truth they don't last long, don't get promotion, don't win those Pulitzer prizes - so they write what the establishment wants to hear. So there they are, hypocrites, tossing and turning in their beds raddled with guilt, while outside - can you hear it? - there's a still small voice, the voice they're trying to marginalise, the voice which sick, violent, mainstream America doesn't want you to hear, the voice of Noam Chomsky, telling the plain unadorned truth. Have you got the moral character to respond to that voice? Not many do (oh it's a cruel, shallow world) but for those chosen few they can look around them, in the street, on the tube, in the office, and think to themselves "The fools! The blind stupid fools! They think they're the good ones, threatened by terrorists, but it's the other way around! We're the real terrorists! And those pathetic cries of Democracy and Freedom - they're just advertising slogans to dupe you."
This, I think, is verging on cult territory. The Chomskian world is almost exactly a reverse of the way most of us view things, but only a few, those with special moral vision, can see it. For Chomsky, one of whose favourite terms is "Orwellian", we already live in the world of Big Brother. But to spell this out is immediately to see how fatuous it is, and what an insult it is to everything that Orwell stood for. To pretend that we in the West are living in an Orwellian state is simply grotesque while Kim Jong Il still rules in North Korea.
But you can't ignore it: that small insistent voice goes on and on. Just the plain and simple truth, which anyone, if they're not corrupted by the wicked world, can understand. In the past few years the US and its allies have bombed and invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. It's true. Go back a bit and they were blasting away at the Serbians. Can you deny it? And they've been doing it for decades. Go back sixty years and they were storming across the Pacific leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, bombing and killing, then virtually flattening Tokyo before dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and setting up a pro-western government to rule over a devastated country. At the same time in Western Europe they killed hundreds of thousands with targeted bombing on German cities before advancing across Germany, deposing the legitimate elected government and setting up a puppet government in Bonn. That's how it was, but that's not the story you'll read about in the mainstream press.