What Chomsky Got Right

It is well-trodden ground to expound upon the liberal dogmatism of academia and the media.  What is less commonly known, though, is that none other than Noam Chomsky identified this dogmatism before most conservatives began to describe it.

It was not so much that Chomsky felt dismissed when he expressed his dissident opinions on the Vietnam War and other subjects; he felt like the establishment literally could not hear what he was saying.  Could not the political right relate to the experience of being blackballed from the establishment?

Of the varied academic disciplines, Chomsky noted: "I think, that the more a discipline has intellectual substance, the less it has to protect itself from scrutiny" (38).  The well-documented higher-ed blog incident comes to mind here.  In case you missed it, Naomi Riley ridiculed the lack of academic rigor in African-American studies students' dissertations.  Outrage ensued, and Riley was fired from the blog. 

This response is typical of what occurs when a pseudo-academic field is criticized.  The sciences, on the other hand, are a lot less touchy.  Chalk that up to the fact that the hard sciences have real substance -- conclusions based on evidence and facts, something Chomsky noted to be lacking in the humanities.  As John Adams quipped, "facts are stubborn things."

This is not to say that the hard sciences are never politicized -- they are.  The implications of evolutionary psychology threaten the crowd which would have us believe that gender is a social construct, for example.  Steven Pinker outlines these controversies in his 1997 book, How the Mind Works.  In this work, Pinker identifies evolutionary adaptability as the explanation of gender differences.  Just as other fields of study have been hijacked by dogma, Pinker has noted the lack of objectivity in purportedly scientific fields such as anthropology.

The social sciences and the media have organizational structures similar to what Chomsky refers to as "guilds," where "people who raise unacceptable questions" are filtered out, "not by force, but by all sorts of subtle means" (30).  There are questions and topics, Chomsky notes, that professional academics are "very reluctant to investigate.  There will be striking taboos on what they will study."

Chomsky observed this group-think phenomenon in light of his own alienation.  He could not get his writing on international politics published here in the U.S., though he had less of a problem being published in Canada and Europe.  During the '60s and '70s, Mr. Chomsky was considered too radical, and perhaps a threat to the American establishment.  Nowadays, Chomskyites would be quite welcome on any campus or media outlet.  It's the conservatives' turn for alienation.

Teachers, for example, must endure a lot of pablum in order to become licensed.  Woe to the aspiring teacher who does not toe the line.  With practically every assignment in ed-school relating to some iteration of "diversity," an independent thinker simply will not survive, at least not intact.

In order to survive in this licensure process, or to attain any humanities degree,  non-PC types will have to either keep their mouths shut or actively parrot the establishment views.  The net effect of such an experience is a chilling of free speech.  But there is a more subtle effect: one becomes accustomed to sublimating his true voice.  This deadens whatever enthusiasm an individual might have once had for his work.  A bleak cynicism ensues.

Otherwise, if one is shrewd enough to camouflage himself within the group-think mentality, he will get along well enough.  But this approach represents a kind of hypocrisy which perpetuates itself throughout an entire career.  While the social sciences in academia are dogmatic, things do not get better in professions to which these majors lead.  If the research of a given field of study is based on liberal assumptions, you will not suddenly find employment in that field with an environment of academic freedom. 

At the university level, a professor who does not conform in matters of feminism, multiculturalism, etc. creates cognitive dissonance amongst his peers.  What the academic world wants, Chomsky notes, is "obedience, adoption of uncritical attitudes."  What happens to those who don't fit this mold?  "[P]eople who are independent minded and cannot be twisted to be obedient don't make it, by and large.  They're often filtered out along the way."

Chomsky authored these words in the late eighties.  The media landscape has changed since then in a variety of ways, most significantly with the rise of the internet.  In these times, it has become less interesting to posit oneself as a change agent in establishment institutions, given the futility of these efforts.  While it may seem like a heroic endeavor, no one really wants to be an army of one.  More interesting is the growing clout and exposure of online media sources, which represent more honest platforms of discourse.

Malcolm Unwell is that rare bird, a conservative educator.  You can contact him at malcolmunwell@yahoo.com.

Chomsky, Noam. The Chomsky Reader. NY: Pantheon Books, 1987.