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Top 20 US Progressives: Noam Chomsky


When, in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, Christopher Hitchens began filing for divorce from the left (or from a section of it, at any rate), he would frequently use "Noam Chomsky" as a shorthand for all that he wanted to leave behind. In Hitchens's view, Chomsky was typical of a certain kind of leftist who saw, in the carnage, not a "hinge event" in world history, but rather the sorry confirmation of a "pre-existing world-view" - one in which American perfidy (and worse) is the salient geopolitical reality.

In a piece written the day after Mohamed Atta and his colleagues did their worst, Chomsky acknowledged that the attacks in New York and Washington, DC were "major atrocities" but insisted that, in scale, they did not "reach the level" of the toll exacted by the US attack on the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan in 1998, authorised by President Bill Clinton while he was mired in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Leaving aside the question of how one might compute the "collateral" casualties of such an attack, Hitchens asked whether one must not also take "intention and motive" into account. However wicked and sordidly political, Clinton's aim, he said, had not been "directly homicidal" in the way al-Qaeda's was. Chomsky ignored the question in his response to Hitchens: fine-grained casuistical analysis has never interested him. After all, his intellectual and academic reputation was made not in moral or political philosophy, but in the field of theoretical linguistics. Some commentators have tried to draw a direct link between his scientific and his political work, but Chomsky denies that there is any connection. The obligations that fell on him as a professional academic, he believes, were just those that any responsible intellectual ought to meet. Principal among them was "unmasking ideology [and] exposing the injustice and repression that exists in every society".

This was an especially onerous responsibility in the United States, which - as Chomsky put it in an essay written at the height of the Vietnam war - was, in his view, "the most aggressive country in the world, the greatest threat to world peace, and without parallel as a source of violence". Though the shape and contours of American power have changed in the four decades since, Chomsky's outlook has remained the same. What's more - and like his late erstwhile comrade Hitchens, in fact - he has never shown much interest in the kinds of distributional questions that preoccupy many political philosophers in the United States. He has pronounced on the global financial and economic crisis, but more by reflex than anything else. And even though he endorsed the Occupy Wall Street movement, one was much more likely to hear the names Slavoj Žižek or David Harvey in Zuccotti Park than Noam Chomsky. l

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Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama