The Value of Noam Chomsky


May 22, 2015

At 86, Noam Chomsky is getting old. He remains indefatigable, keeping up a schedule that would exhaust a man half his age, but, unless he is indeed a demi-god, wecan assume that the end is nigh. The tragic day cannot be more than a few years away, if that.

This has set me to thinking: why, after all, does it strike me that his death will mark a day of global mourning, at least among the sane and the subaltern? What is it about him that entrances so? There are plenty of activists around the world more heroic than he, more selfless, many people who have devoted their lives more single-mindedly than he to rescuing humanity from its sinking ship, and who have, perhaps, done more concrete work to end suffering. These countless unknown people deserve at least as much reverence as Chomsky.

There are, of course, many reasons why Chomsky is such a cynosure, some of them not very interesting. The most obvious is the quality of his mind. All things considered, he has probably the greatest mind of the twentieth century, and one of the greatest in human history. Einstein didn’t have anything approaching Chomsky’s breadth of knowledge (about virtually everything, it seems) or razor-sharp logical vision or remarkable memory. It’s hard to imagine that anyone has ever been a better debater than Chomsky, as one can judge from various YouTube videos. And of course he largely founded modern linguistics, and has made important contributions to philosophy, and so on.

But I’ll let the eulogists celebrate his intellectual powers when the time comes. There are more interesting issues I’d like to consider here.

Another source of his mystique is his charisma, by now a sort of shy, grandfatherly, warm and self-effacing persona, combined with an absolute self-certainty. But charisma, as such, should not impress us: it is a sub-rational phenomenon, a form of “dominance” similar to that recognized in other mammalian species, which in itself has little or nothing to do with morality or reason. The most charismatic people can be the most irrational and immoral.

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