Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Who Is Noam Chomsky?

Someone who should have stuck to syntax.

BY ROGER SCRUTON

Noam Chomsky's popularity owes little or nothing to the eminent place that he occupies in the world of ideas. That place was won many years ago in the science of linguistics, and no expert in the subject would, I think, dispute Prof. Chomsky's title to it.

He swept away at a stroke the attempts of Ferdinand de Saussure and his followers to identify meaning through the surface structure of signs, as well as the belief, once prevalent among animal ethologists, that language could be acquired by making piecemeal connections between symbols and things. He argued that language is an all-or-nothing affair, that we are equipped by evolution with the categories needed to acquire it, and that these categories govern the "deep structure" of our discourse, no matter what language we learn. Sentences emerge by the repeated operations of a "transformational grammar" that translates deep structure into surface sequences: As a result, all of us are able to understand indefinitely many sentences, just as soon as we have acquired the basic linguistic competence. Language skills are essentially creative, and the infinite reach of our understanding also betokens an infinite reach in what we can mean.

Although some of those ideas had been foreseen by the pioneers of modern logic, Prof. Chomsky develops them with an imaginative flair that is entirely his own. He has the true scientist's ability to translate abstract theory into concrete observation, and to discover intellectual problems where others see only ordinary facts. "Has," I say, but perhaps "had" would be more accurate. For Prof. Chomsky long ago cast off his academic gown and donned the mantle of the prophet. For several decades now he has been devoting his energies to denouncing his native country, usually before packed halls of fans who couldn't care a fig about the theory of syntax. And many of his public appearances are in America: the only country in the whole world that rewards those who denounce it with the honors and opportunities that make denouncing it into a rewarding way of life. It is proof of Prof. Chomsky's success that his diatribes are distributed by his American publishers around the world, so as to end up in the hands of America's critics everywhere--Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez included.

To his supporters Noam Chomsky is a brave and outspoken champion of the oppressed against a corrupt and criminal political class. But to his opponents he is a self-important ranter whose one-sided vision of politics is chosen for its ability to shine a spotlight on himself. And it is surely undeniable that his habit of excusing or passing over the faults of America's enemies, in order to pin all crime on his native country, suggests that he has invested more in his posture of accusation than he has invested in the truth.

To describe this posture as "adolescent" is perhaps unfair: After all, there are plenty of quite grown-up people who believe that American foreign policy since World War II has been founded on a mistaken conception of America's role in the world. And it is true that we all make mistakes--so that Prof. Chomsky's erstwhile support for regimes that no one could endorse in retrospect, like that of Pol Pot, is no proof of wickedness. But then the mistakes of American foreign policy are no proof of wickedness either.

This is important. For it is his ability to excite not just contempt for American foreign policy but a lively sense that it is guided by some kind of criminal conspiracy that provides the motive for Prof. Chomsky's unceasing diatribes and the explanation of his influence. The world is full of people who wish to think ill of America. And most of them would like to be Americans. The Middle East seethes with such people, and Prof. Chomsky appeals directly to their envious emotions, as well as to the resentments of leaders like President Chavez who cannot abide the sight of a freedom that they haven't the faintest idea how to produce or the least real desire to emulate.

Success breeds resentment, and resentment that has no safety valve becomes a desire to destroy. The proof of that was offered on 9/11 and by just about every utterance that has emerged from the Islamists since. But Americans don't want to believe it. They trust others to take the kind of pleasure in American success that they, in turn, take in the success of others. But this pleasure in others' success, which is the great virtue of America, is not to be witnessed in those who denounce her. They hate America not for her faults, but for her virtues, which cast a humiliating light on those who cannot adapt to the modern world or take advantage of its achievements.

Prof. Chomsky is an intelligent man. Not everything he says by way of criticizing his country is wrong. However, he is not valued for his truths but for his rage, which stokes the rage of his admirers. He feeds the self-righteousness of America's enemies, who feed the self-righteousness of Prof. Chomsky. And in the ensuing blaze everything is sacrificed, including the constructive criticism that America so much needs, and that America--unlike its enemies, Prof. Chomsky included--is prepared to listen to.

Mr. Scruton, a British writer and philosopher, is the author of "Gentle Regrets" (Continuum).