Book: Noam Chomsky - The Responsibility of Intellectuals

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Book: Noam Chomsky - The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Postby Lomax on February 13th, 2018, 9:26 am 

Although comparatively unfocused, Chomsky's essay is reminiscent of Bertrand Russell's Outline of Intellectual Rubbish, in that its key theme is the nonsense which "intellectuals" and "experts" regularly propound. However, Chomsky's piece pertains specifically to the spheres of policy-making and social and political science, and is more serious; and it goes a step further than Russell by offering an explanation, in terms of class interest, for what he perceives to be the vacuity and pseudo-intellectualism of those professions.

This work has been widely interpreted as a case that intellectuals should take responsibility, although (if we didn't know anything else of his career) it could as easily be read as a prescription for intellectuals to quiet down a bit. It might just as well have been titled The Irresponsibility of Intellectuals, and it's not clear to me whether Chomsky endorses Dwight Macdonald's ideas, for which this essay is named.

The early Chomsky was a polemical force with which to be reckoned, and some good early criticism of the Vietnam War is provided, as well as broader points about whether policy should be analysed in terms of its makers' intentions, and whether analysts resort sufficiently to empirical evidence. It constitutes the most damning critique of Realpolitik I know of (but see also Realpolitik in the Gulf by Christopher Hitchens). To give you a sample of the sharpness Chomsky's essay employs, I conclude with this excerpt:

Noam Chomsky wrote:...one of Kahn’s basic assumptions is that

Herman Kahn wrote:an all-out surprise attack in which all resources are devoted to counter-value targets would be so irrational that, barring an incredible lack of sophistication or actual insanity among Soviet decision makers, such an attack is highly unlikely.

A simple argument proves the opposite. Premise 1: American decision-makers think along the lines outlined by Herman Kahn. Premise 2: Kahn thinks it would be better for everyone to be red than for everyone to be dead. Premise 3: if the Americans were to respond to an all-out countervalue attack, then everyone would be dead. Conclusion: the Americans will not respond to an all-out countervalue attack, and therefore it should be launched without delay. Of course, one can carry the argument a step further. Fact: the Russians have not carried out an all-out countervalue attack. It follows that they are not rational. If they are not rational, there is no point in “strategic thinking.” Therefore,….

Of course this is all nonsense, but nonsense that differs from Kahn’s only in the respect that the argument is of slightly greater complexity than anything to be discovered in his work.

QED, right?
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Re: Book: Noam Chomsky - The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Postby Asparagus on February 13th, 2018, 12:16 pm 

This is reminding me of what's said about the early CIA: that they developed formulas for instigating revolts in other countries that included committing approximately 20 assassinations.

The background of it is that the US had always been a minor player dependent on the British to secure the infrastructure of global trade (which had been invented by the British). The British were the experts on dealing with Russia, but especially after Stalin executed all of his most experienced generals just prior to engagement with the Germans in WW2, the British were offering no explanation.

The Soviet Union had started off with a revolution, a famine, an economic disaster, and a civil war, all pretty much at the same time, and all instigated by Lenin and Trotsky in an attempt to force Russia to implode so that Communism could reform it into the next great thing in the history of the world. IOW, Russia had become a giant insane asylum prior to Stalin's coup. A good book that covers this is Russia and the Russians by Geoffrey Hosking. He does warn that most westerners have no frame of reference for understanding what happened to Russia in the 20th Century. I know I wasn't prepared to hear it.
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Re: Book: Noam Chomsky - The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Postby wolfhnd on February 13th, 2018, 1:53 pm 

Chomsky is more trouble than he is worth. He seems to enjoy a bit of confusion.
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Re: Book: Noam Chomsky - The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Postby Lomax on February 13th, 2018, 3:49 pm 

Asparagus » February 13th, 2018, 5:16 pm wrote:The Soviet Union had started off with a revolution, a famine, an economic disaster, and a civil war, all pretty much at the same time, and all instigated by Lenin and Trotsky in an attempt to force Russia to implode so that Communism could reform it into the next great thing in the history of the world. IOW, Russia had become a giant insane asylum prior to Stalin's coup. A good book that covers this is Russia and the Russians by Geoffrey Hosking. He does warn that most westerners have no frame of reference for understanding what happened to Russia in the 20th Century. I know I wasn't prepared to hear it.

I'll have to check out the book, because my reading of the situation had been a little different - for example, Lenin relaxed collectivisation a little after the Kulaks refused to comply with it. Stalin's approach was an increase in stubbornness, brute force and indifference to human life. But none of it strikes me as an attempt to make the country implode - just to bend to the autocrat's will.
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Re: Book: Noam Chomsky - The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Postby Lomax on February 13th, 2018, 4:01 pm 

wolfhnd » February 13th, 2018, 6:53 pm wrote:Chomsky is more trouble than he is worth. He seems to enjoy a bit of confusion.

There are a litany of problems with Chomsky - more so in his later years - but I tend to find him worth the read even when he's wrong, which to me is the mark of a good writer. He'll never stop blaming everything on the US and UK, no matter what happens, but in the process he tends to make connections and reminders which others don't. For example in Failed States he dismisses the (then-fashionable) panic over the dependency ratio, caused by the Baby Boomers entering retirement, by pointing out they were all dependent children once and society managed to pay for them then. Simple points like that are easy to miss.

The Responsibility Of Intellectuals was ahead of the game in at least two ways - being one of the first mainstream critiques of the Vietnam War, and using decision theory techniques to show that nobody actually has a clue what would happen in the event of a nuclear war, or whether nuclear weapons and defenses work as deterrents or provocations - least of all the leaders. This argument is starting to reappear (see, in particular, the work of Fred Kaplan).

The documentary version of Manufacturing Consent is challenging, whether you agree with it or not, and resurrected the Marxist notion of "false consciousness" in the sphere of public debate. Similarly his Notes On Anarchism makes him really the only mainstream anarchist since Emma Goldman died. Camelot Revisited and Fateful Triangle are interesting books on important subjects. And of course he advanced the study of linguistics. My opinion is that you and I are clever and sensible enough to read him and parse the good bits from the bad bits. We're perfectly capable of throwing out the baby and keeping the bathwater*.

* Not a typo. I'd much rather have a bath than a baby.
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Re: Book: Noam Chomsky - The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Postby Asparagus on February 13th, 2018, 4:44 pm 

Lomax » February 13th, 2018, 3:49 pm wrote:
Asparagus » February 13th, 2018, 5:16 pm wrote:The Soviet Union had started off with a revolution, a famine, an economic disaster, and a civil war, all pretty much at the same time, and all instigated by Lenin and Trotsky in an attempt to force Russia to implode so that Communism could reform it into the next great thing in the history of the world. IOW, Russia had become a giant insane asylum prior to Stalin's coup. A good book that covers this is Russia and the Russians by Geoffrey Hosking. He does warn that most westerners have no frame of reference for understanding what happened to Russia in the 20th Century. I know I wasn't prepared to hear it.

I'll have to check out the book, because my reading of the situation had been a little different - for example, Lenin relaxed collectivisation a little after the Kulaks refused to comply with it. Stalin's approach was an increase in stubbornness, brute force and indifference to human life. But none of it strikes me as an attempt to make the country implode - just to bend to the autocrat's will.

It's a good read. Russian history is just generally bizarre from a western perspective. Everything is backward and upside down. Hosking spent time in Russia looking at records from the Soviet era, so he's a good source.

Trotsky created the Red Army to forcibly take food from peasants in the country to feed St Petersburg (whose workers were ground zero for the revolution.) So picture peasants putting up barbed wire to try to keep starving people away from the food they were hiding under floor boards. Enter the Red Army.

I think it was Lenin and Trotsky both who had the banks print money hoping to force people to give up the idea of money. And Lenin's handling of the revolutionary transition appears to have been with the intention of causing a civil war. And of course he looked on as stupid Americans and Brits lead by Hoover came over to try to feed the starving Russians.

Stalin was a megalomaniac who, per Hosking, was shocked by the American victory in the Pacific. He realized that if the US could defeat a country by flying over and dropping a couple of bombs, then all his work to make central Europe into a buffer zone between Russia and western Europe was wasted effort. Hosking says Stalin didn't think Americans would actually attack Russia, but he just couldn't handle Americans having that kind of power at a negotiating table. Thus he resorted to an old Russian tactic: blowing smoke. He pretended Russia already had atomic weapons and made threatening remarks. Americans were busy dismantling their military at the time. They were approached by British and French parties who appealed to them to pay attention to the threat to Western Europe posed by the Soviets. So it's not that any portion of the American society was particularly interested in war mongering in the mid-20th Century. Events transpired so that Americans became fearful. Leebaert's book explains more about that.

Khrushchev helped create American hysteria by suggesting that the Russians would defeat the US without ever firing a shot. It would take a while to explain why that kind of talk was so disturbing.
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