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A 25-year-old's love affair

Noam Chomsky

[From an old journal entry.] Noam Chomsky is my intellectual conscience. I think about him every day, multiple times a day. He helps guide my thinking, at least on social and political questions. He has a genius for stating clear principles, premises or conclusions, which are nearly truistic but are surprisingly easy to ignore. Such as his insistence that the most elementary moral principle is that you apply to yourself the standards you apply to others. People have a very hard time doing this, which is why nearly everyone is a hypocrite in many ways. (They condemn snobbery but are snobs themselves,[1] condemn inconsiderate behavior but are inconsiderate themselves, and so on. I’m not immune to these lapses.) Especially in politics. When “they” (our enemies) do it, it’s a crime, whereas when “we” do it, it’s justifiable or even noble. This tendency to think and act hypocritically can perhaps be called a species of unintelligence, of “abstractly-interpersonal (or -empathic)” unintelligence. An inability to put oneself in the other’s shoes, or to think of oneself from the position of the other. The very foundation of morality is the ability to imaginatively adopt the viewpoint, or occupy the situation, of the other—which is why morality in its explicit form is limited to the human species. (Humans are the animal most capable of internalizing the perspective of the other, i.e., of being self-conscious.) But most “civilized” people—or maybe most people in all of history—seem not to be well-endowed with this capacity.

Chomsky’s great virtue, in other words, is simple clarity of thought. He can make explicit thoughts that are usually only implicit. For example, I’ve read a lot about capitalism and have always considered it unjust, but never have I explicitly drawn the obvious conclusion that corporations are systems of private totalitarianism. That thought has been implicit in my mind, but Chomsky makes it explicit, thus permitting clarity of thought. You can talk about contracts and unions and all that, but, in the end, a corporation remains a private tyranny because one side has vastly more power than the other and issues dictates to the relatively powerless, the employees. Orders are sent down through the ranks; democracy is not the operative principle, and one is expected to behave as a cog.[2] Since this is so, and if you accept that tyrannies are unjust, you’re rationally bound to oppose capitalism, or at least neoliberal American capitalism. You may like that it has created great wealth and even improved standards of living, but morally it is indefensible, since it tends to deprive people of their autonomy.[3] (What limited autonomy they do have inside and outside the workplace is largely a result of achievements that have been won by the working class fighting against capitalism.)

Aside from these intellectual points, I can’t help remarking that there’s something irresistible about Chomsky’s persona. He has an odd sort of anti-charismatic charisma, a self-deprecating grandfatherly sweetness. It’s a humility, or humanity, that glows from his shy smile and his rumpled clothing. There are no fireworks about him, no honed maneuvers of manipulation and not a trace of self-aggrandizement; he is the opposite of everything pop-cultural. He also reminds me that people are fundamentally good, because a world that loves him[4] is a world that has moral value, a world worth saving.

[1] Snobbery: not deigning to associate with certain people, considering oneself too good for them, because they’re “nobodies.” Usually it operates on an almost unconscious level.

[2] See Harry Braverman’s classic Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).

[3] Fascism, too, and Soviet “Communism,” eventually improved standards of living for most people. Does that mean they were good ways of organizing society?

[4] The elite’s hostility notwithstanding.

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