The vivacious humanity of Chomsky's prose is reinforced by powerful articulation, provocative rhetorical techniques, and a tangible enthusiasm for intellectual engagement. He has employed these strategies to force his readers to consider their own humanity through reference to the creative aspects of human beings and to the environments most suited to their development.
Well, here is an example of the vivacious humanity of Chomsky's prose: a letter to his friend Alexander Cockburn, dated 1 March 1990:
As a good and loyal friend, I can't overlook this chance to suggest to you a marvelous way to discredit yourself completely and lose the last minimal shreds of respectability that still raise lingering questions about your integrity. I have in mind what I think is one of the most illuminating examples of the total and complete intellectual and moral corruption of Western culture, namely, the awed response to Vaclav Havel's embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant Sunday School sermon in Congress the other day.
As you see, not so much provacative rhetorical technique as sneering abuse and sarcasm. Chomsky can't let up on the idea that those he criticises are dullards; his letter continues:
We may put aside the intellectual level of the comments (and the response) -- for example, the profound and startlingly original idea that people should be moral agents. More interesting are the phrases that really captured the imagination and aroused the passions of Congress, editorial writers, and columnists -- and, doubtless, soon the commentators in the weeklies and monthlies: that we should assume responsibility not only for ourselves, our families, and our nations, but for others who are suffering and persecuted. This remarkable and novel insight was followed by the key phrase of the speech: the cold war, now thankfully put to rest, was a conflict between two superpowers: one, a nightmare, the other, the defender of freedom (great applause).
Lest we suppose Havel to be devious rather than stupid, Chomsky anticipates the objection:
So by every conceivable standard, the performance of Havel, Congress, the media, and (we may safely predict, without what will soon appear) the Western intellectual community at large are on a moral and intellectual level that is vastly below that of Third World peasants and Stalinist hacks -- not an unusual discovery.
Of course, it could be argued in Havel's defense that this shameful performance was all tongue in cheek, just a way to extort money from the American taxpayer for his (relatively rich) country. I doubt it, however; he doesn't look like that good an actor.
And finally Chomsky offers us his considered assessment of the nature of totalitarianism, of which Vaclav Havel is clearly in need:
The sign of a truly totalitarian culture is that important truths simply lack cognitive meaning and are interpretable only at the level of 'Fuck You', so they can then elicit a perfectly predictable torrent of abuse in response. We've long ago reached that level -- to take a personal example, consider the statement: 'We ought to tell the truth about Cambodia and Timor.' Or imagine a columnist writing: 'I think the Sandinistas ought to win.' I suspect that this case is even clearer. It's easy to predict the reaction to any truthful and honest comments about this episode, which is so revealing about the easy acceptance of (and even praise for) the most monstrous savagery, as long as it is perpetrated by Us against Them -- a stance adopted quite mindlessly by Havel, who plainly shares the utter contempt for the lower orders that is the hallmark of Western intellectuals, so at least he's 'one of us' in that respect.
So that's Havel dealt with: repugnant, silly, shameful, mindless and contemptuous of the lower orders. It's this passage, along with similar remarks in Deterring Democracy, that Christopher Hitchens alluded to in his controversy with Chomsky in The Nation after 9/11:
[T]he last time we corresponded, some months ago, I was appalled by the robotic element both of his prose and of his opinions. He sought earnestly to convince me that Vaclav Havel, by addressing a joint session of Congress in the fall of 1989, was complicit in the murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador that had occurred not very long before he landed in Washington. In vain did I point out that the timing of Havel's visit was determined by the November collapse of the Stalinist regime in Prague, and that on his first celebratory visit to the United States he need not necessarily take the opportunity to accuse his hosts of being war criminals. Nothing would do, for Chomsky, but a strict moral equivalence between Havel's conduct and the mentality of the most depraved Stalinist. (He's written this elsewhere, so I break no confidence.)
Robotic, rather than merely boorish and uncivilised, seems to me the right adjective. Chomsky is, after all, talking of one of the heroes of our time who - even supposing (as was far from the case) he had delivered a banal and trivial address to Congress - has earned the right, by his willingness to suffer imprisonment for his advocacy of human rights, to be listened to on matters of political liberty.
Chomsky's sophistry is instinctive, and undiscriminating. He applies it even to entire nationalities. Eighteen months ago, in the diplomatic fall-out from the Iraq War, The New Yorker's former correspondent from Paris was moved, with some justification, to denounce the "anti-French bigotry that has shamed a few American newspapers and television networks". Presumably he was not thinking - but ought to have been - of outlets such as Counterpunch or Z-Magazine, which regularly carry the political output of one of the worst offenders - a man who believes (quoted in Barsky, Chapter 5, emphasis added):
[A]lmost no one in France has ever had any idea of what my political or academic work is about. Of course they write about it all the time, but that is the standard infantilism of French intellectual life.
All things considered, according to Chomsky, the French have:
... a highly parochial and remarkably illiterate culture.
I cite these characteristics because there is a widespread assumption in public debate that Chomsky's political writings are in some sense the product of a reflective and scholarly approach. That premise, presumably, is what underlies the invitation to him to be a Gifford lecturer at Edinburgh University this month, speaking on a subject - which he has lectured on before - remote from his academic work, and in a discipline where his dishonest handling of source material is demonstrable and persistent. It is, of course, one of the great myths of our time.