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In a Direct Line - Photo by Ulli Diemer

Chomsky's determination to change society
before it slides into irreversible barbarism

By Ulli Diemer


For Reasons of State
Noam Chomsky
Vintage $3.45


Reviewed by Ulli Diemer

If the American war against Vietnam had no other positive outcome, it has at least produced a minority of Americans who have the courage to stand against the policies of their government.

Outstanding among these is Noam Chomsky, leading scholar in the field of linguistics, who has contributed some brilliant works of politics and social criticism. His analysis is radical in the best sense of the word: It goes to the root of the barbarism that is engulfing the 'civilized’ world. I think it is fair to say that the US has produced no better social critic, although a few, including Paul Goodman, might claim equal stature.

Four of Chomsky's books are available in paperback: American Power and the New Mandarins; At War With Asia; Problems of Knowledge and Freedom: The Russell Lectures; and now his latest, For Reasons of State. In these days of newer, bigger, better and faster, superlatives lose their value but the fact remains that these are compelling efforts of the highest calibre.

His major pre-occupation has been the war in Vietnam, both the way in which it is being waged, and the repercussions it is having in the US. In prose that is powerful and bitterly ironic, he dissects the nature of the American war effort and the issues involved in the war. With a meticulous attention to fact and details, supported by amazingly extensive footnotes, he documents the fact of American aggression and the way it has taken place. If anyone still has any doubt about American guilt in this war, they would do well to put their convictions to the test of Chomsky's arguments. And, of course, all too many people do remain convinced that 'Communist aggression’ caused the war. As Chomsky points out, the vast majority of even those who opposed the war did so because of its costs to the US, not because they believed that it was wrong in itself. And few indeed are those who see in the war, not a 'tragic mistake', but a logical outcome of US interests in the world. Again, it is difficult to believe that such views could survive exposure to Chomsky's analysis of American policymaking in the essay "The Backroom Boys" (in For Reasons of State ) - but unfortunately books of this kind don’t become best-sellers.

His earlier essay "Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" is an analysis of the thinking of those, especially in the intellectual community, who did so much to make the war effort possible, whether by providing rationalizations of the need to defend the "Free World" against aggression (including "internal aggression", which is, as Chomsky puts it, "an interesting phrase which refers apparently to 'aggression’ by a revolutionary movement against a government maintained in power by foreign arms"), by their design of the "pacification programs" that verge on genocide, or by their proposals for "ghetto control" back home.

Turning his attention to the relationship of intellectuals to social change, he comments, in the course of a valuable discussion of the Spanish Civil War, that "If it is plausible that ideology will in general serve as a mask for self-interest, then it is a natural presumption that intellectuals, in interpreting history or formulating policy, will tend to adopt an elitist position, condemning popular movements and mass participation in decision-making, and emphasizing rather the necessity for supervision by those who possess the knowledge and understanding that is required (so they claim) to manage society and control social change."

Among his other contributions is his lengthy essay "Psychology and Ideology" in which he deals with B.F. Skinner and his behaviourism, and the theories of Richard Herrnstein, who has recently come under extensive attack. Skinner’s theories are simply demolished: one cannot help but conclude with Chomsky that Skinner is on all important points either wrong, or presenting trivial tautologies, and that in either case Skinner makes his extravagant claims dogmatically, without proof. And if this statement is offered here without proof, it is because the matter is too complicated to cover in a short review, a review which in any case is written to encourage you to read the book.

Herrnstein, he points out, rests his case on the assumption "that without material reward, people will vegetate. For this crucial assumption, no semblance of an argument is offered. Rather, Herrnstein merely asserts that if bakers and lumberjacks 'got the top salaries and the top social approval’, in the place of those now at the top of the social ladder, then 'the scale of I.Q.’s would also invert; and the most talented would strive to become bakers and lumberjacks... an extremely implausible claim. I doubt very much that Herrnstein would become a baker or a lumberjack if he could earn more money that way."

Chomsky points out that arguments that society tends to produce a 'meritocracy’ of wealth and intelligence fails to take into account, among other things, the fact that qualities such as greed are often rewarded more than intelligence or imagination (producing a strange kind of hierarchy of 'merit’) or that the present way of structuring society is not the only one.

There is great danger in the attempts of scholars such as Herrnstein to prove correlations between IQ and colour, Chomsky notes. It is possible to find correlations between any two factors, say height and intelligence, or eye colour and wealth, but only racists and others who want to discriminate against one group or another will be interested in general correlations that have no bearing on individual cases. For example, it is possible that people over six feet tall might on the average have somewhat higher IQ’s than people under six feet tall. This does not mean, however, that any given tall individual will have a higher IQ than some given shorter individual, and no one would propose a meritocracy of the tall. Yet some intellectuals are quite prepared to make racist proposals on the grounds that blacks allegedly have lower average IQs than whites. (The IQ does not measure intelligence, at any rate, although it comes close to measuring how much the education and culture of the person taking the test resembles the education and culture of the person setting the test - if factors such as nervousness or an aptitude for answering short-answer tests are ignored.)

The argument, often used by scholars involved in such studies, that they are not racists, but simply trying to answer ‘scientific questions’, would be similar, says Chomsky, to "a psychologist in Hitler’s Germany who thought he could show that Jews had a genetically determined tendency towards usury (like squirrels bred to collect too many nuts) or a drive towards anti-social conspiracy and domination, and so on. Were this hypothetical psychologist to disregard the likely social consequences of his research (or even of his undertaking such research) under existing social conditions, he would fully deserve the contempt of decent people."

At a time when so many of the academic community are degrading both themselves and scientific enquiry, it is heartening to see a man like Chomsky, who combines scientific rigour with libertarian convictions and a deep determination to change society before it slides into irreversible barbarism.


Published in the Varsity March 22, 1974


Ulli Diemer
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