Books and Chomsky

Cast your mind back, if you will, one month. The bestseller lists

at the time were dominated by right-wing screeds; Michael Kinsley

even wrote a column

about it, which is helpful, because we can use it to remember where

those books once stood.

The most successful, then as now, was Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes

How the Media Distort the News, Bernard Goldberg’s screed against

the liberal tilt of America’s TV networks. It was Top Book, back then;

now, it stands at #7 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

One month ago, Kinsley found five right-wing books in the Amazon top

15; now, Bias stands alone in that group. Its former position at #1

is now held by The Wisdom of Menopause: Creating Physical and Emotional

Health and Healing During the Change, by Christiane Northrup,


Goldberg’s fellow-travellers, it turns out, have done pretty poorly.

Pat Buchanan, bless his cotton socks, is still up there: his charmingly-titled

The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions

Imperil Our Country and Civilization has slipped merely to #25

from #11. Meanwhile, Barbara Olson’s The Final Days: The Last,

Desperate Abuses of Power by the Clinton White House has dropped

down to #154 from #7, Peggy Noonan’s When Character was King: A

Story of Ronald Reagan has fallen to #263 from #10, and Bill O’Reilly’s

The No-Spin Zone: Confrontations with the Powerful and Famous in

America now languishes at #3,046, down from #8 a month ago.

Meanwhile, who do we find at #8 on the list but Michael Moore, of

all people. His Stupid White Men …and Other Sorry Excuses for

the State of the Nation! has got the one of the main criteria

of success (a really long title) down pat, but nobody seems to have

told him that you need to be a right-winger to write a bestseller.

The ellipsis and exclamation mark, however, are obviously there to

make up for the lack of a colon: Moore’s book is one of only three

in the top 15 without one. But the point is that Moore is well up

there already, and his book hasn’t even been published yet. Could

it be that the right-wing books on the bestseller lists were only

a temporary blip?

After all, the next political book after Buchanan’s on the list is

9-11, the admirably short-titled pamphlet by, of all people,

Noam Chomsky. Could it be that the nation’s flag-waving fervor in

the wake of the terrorist attacks has been replaced by second thoughts?

Have Americans suddenly developed an interest in how the world sees

them and what their nation has been up to overseas in the past few


The weird thing is that Chomsky is definitely losing the intra-Left

war against the likes of Christopher Hitchens over whether or not

America was to blame for the events of September 11. Conventional

wisdom on the Upper West Side these days has it that Chomsky might

be a great linguistic theorist, but that he’s a little bit over the

edge when it comes to politics.

Which is why it’s unfortunate for Chomsky that the latest issue of

the New York Review of Books carries a fabulous article – the

first of two, no less – about Chomsky by his old sparring partner

John Searle. Searle purports to be reviewing Chomsky’s latest philosophical

book, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, but in

fact he aims squarely at the whole history of Chomsky’s theories,

past and present. He spends a good amount of time gloating, in the

politest possible fashion, over the failure of Chomsky’s early linguistic

project, and then jauntily skewers the bizarre animal into which it

has now morphed.

The whole thing makes me very happy. I never got very much into Chomsky

during my undergraduate days, but what little I understood of him

seemed ridiculous on its face. I was always given to feel rather sheepish

about my opinions, however: many much more learned and intelligent

philosophers than I seemed to take Chomsky’s theories about language

being hard-wired into the brain perfectly seriously. The fact that

Chomsky himself now seems to have abandoned them makes me very thankful

I didn’t waste many hours trying to understand them further.

My only regret is that Chomsky seems to be far too busy bashing his

political drums to spend much time rebutting Searle: we probably won’t

see his response in the pages of the New York Review. Indeed, although

Searle is too polite to say so, even the book under review is not

a genuine scholarly work so much as it is a collection of relatively

short essays and papers which repeat themselves as much as they gloss

over any really knotty problems. Chomsky’s obsession with conspiracy

theories centering on Henry Kissinger has distracted him from his

linguistics: maybe deep down, he always knew the latter was going


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One Response to Books and Chomsky

  1. Your backside says:

    You write that “The fact that Chomsky himself now seems to have abandoned them makes me very thankful I didn’t waste many hours trying to understand them further.”

    But, as you would well know if you has actually read the works in question, is that only the technical toolbox has changed, not the goals or assumptions, that is, the underlying philosophy.

    It is generally considered to be bad form to misquote and misrepresent, especially if you readily admit that you have not read the works in question, that is, if you attempt to critique something you don’t understand.

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