There is a review in the New Statesman of a new book called What We Say Goes: Conversations on US Power in a Changing World by Noam Chomsky. The book - like so many others that have been published under Chomsky's name in the past decade and a half - comprises interviews with Chomsky by his Boswell, a radio producer called David Barsamian. (It has to be said that in previous volumes in this format - one of which I reviewed here, alongside an incomparably better volume by Paul Berman - Barsamian's questions have scarcely been searching. "Are you looking forward to the summer at Wellfleet, on the Cape?" asks Barsamian in Class Warfare, 1996. On receiving the answer "yes", Barsamian continues: "And you get a little sailing and swimming in on the side?" This supplementary question floors Chomsky, who expresses a fumbling agnosticism on the matter.)
Now, I haven't yet read this latest volume, and my comment concerns the ease with which Chomsky's admirers can be satisfied more than with Chomsky. The reviewer is one Matthew Taunton, who ventures grandiloquently: "Will there ever again be a public intellectual who commands the attention of so many across the planet? During the Vietnam War, Chomsky’s arguments helped define the responsibilities of the intellectual to society." I could modestly direct Taunton to my own judgement on this matter:
"If Chomsky's political writings expressed merely an idée fixe, they would be a footnote in his career as a public intellectual. But Chomsky has a dedicated following among those of university education, and especially of university age, for judgements that have the veneer of scholarship and reason yet verge on the pathological. He once described the task of the media as "to select the facts, or to invent them, in such a way as to render the required conclusions not too transparently absurd—at least for properly disciplined minds." There could scarcely be a nicer encapsulation of his own practice."
But in fact Taunton demonstrates my point better than I can articulate it. For here is his conclusion:
"The argument against Chomsky is that, in his eagerness to condemn actions of the US, he lets its enemies off too lightly. His explanation for the rise of Hezbollah in the Middle East suggests this objection can be discounted: Lebanon lacks a deterrent against invasion, and the behaviour of Israel and the US reinforces the notion that such a deterrent is necessary. Chomsky is essentially an anarchist, and his distrust of power is general."
That isn't strictly the argument against Chomsky, which is rather that (in the words of Christopher Hitchens, which I feel are generous) "his regard for the underdog has mutated into support for mad dogs", and that his methods are analytically unscrupulous. I have direct experience of that unscrupulousness. In countering my observation about (ironically enough) his dishonest handling of source material, Chomsky fibbed, presumably either not believing or not caring that anyone would check his remarks.
But the more novel part of Taunton's formulation is that "Lebanon lacks a deterrent against invasion". Now, for many reasons I opposed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, whose aims I considered illegitimate and whose conduct was a bloody disaster. But how can you talk of threats to the sovereignty of Lebanon (I leave aside for now the question of the security of Israel) and make no reference, nor even an allusion, to a neighbouring state that does not recognise Lebanon, that dominated Lebanon from the mid-1970s by means of a 30,000-soldier expeditionary force, that is currently engaged in a murder campaign against Lebanese politicians, that has an active chemical weapons programme, and that begins with the letter 'S'? Chomsky's "distrust of power" is patently not general but specific. It applies to the United States and its allies. And here is one reviewer so credulous that he will accept Hezbollah - the recipient of arms from Iran via Syria, and the destabiliser of Lebanese government - as some sort of Lebanese national liberation movement, if only Noam Chomsky, conscience of a generation, will tell him so.