In his podcast on the 27th of October 2013, online blogger and current affairs analyst James Corbett aims to show that Noam Chomsky, the influential linguistics professor and political dissident, is an “academic gatekeeper” that is stifling or diverting dissent or critical engagement in three specific areas of public discourse:
attitudes towards the Federal Reserve System,
attitudes towards the John F. Kennedy (JFK) assassination,
and attitudes towards the 9/11 truth movement.
Corbett identifies these three topics as currently lacking sufficiently widespread public examination and proposes that Chomsky’s views are a contributing factor in opposing, belittling, or marginalising such public examination of these issues.
In my opinion, Corbett’s approach suffers from the following problems that limit diligent exploration of his chosen topic:
unjustified over-reliance on Chomsky’s public speeches and interviews, rather than on (the more reliable) material available in print;
repeated disconnects between what those audiovisual sources actually say, and what Corbett infers them to mean;
intellectually vague and problematic notions of what a “gatekeeper” is;
unsatisfactory exploration of the reasons why Chomsky holds the views that he does, especially pertaining to selection of the activist issues he chooses to stress most;
failure to differentiate between Chomsky’s personal value judgements and his conveyance of the research and analysis of others;
no real exploration of how conscious Chomsky is of his supposed gatekeeper function, nor of how he generally perceives his role in the dissident community, nor of his expectation regarding what people should aim to get out of his work;
failure to differentiate clearly between Chomsky’s views and those of his audience;
and failure to acknowledge that those who listen to Chomsky and follow his work are not a homogeneous group.
I found this quite a relevant critique to undertake because I believe it relates to the personal choices activists generally have to make when it comes to objectivity, how to prioritise their efforts, and what we can reasonably expect from any individual activist or dissident as regards upholding their own personal views in the face of commonly held beliefs, especially among fellow dissidents.
Furthermore, I believe this critique can be used as a template when trying to rationally approach other accusations of “gatekeeper” roles that have been levelled at various intellectuals and public figures in recent years. All of this has particular relevance to the intellectual climate of late. If the ideas presented here appear relevant only to the Chomsky-Corbett case, then I will have partly failed in my purpose.
Corbett reassures his viewers that he is not trying to “push” any “grand conclusions” onto his audience, rather, he is merely presenting certain core issues, which I assume he feels are important for his case, and then leaves it up to the audience to do their “own research” and come to their own conclusions. I believe this to be a very important principle, and indeed one that others have also expressed. However, towards the end of his podcast, he does not shy away from explicitly declaring his position on Chomsky (obvious enough from the title of his podcast, which seems like a pretty grand statement in itself) and clearly separating this personal opinion from his advice to the audience. This is fair enough.
I do understand that, as Corbett himself points out, he only had “one hour” in his podcast, and any single podcast or article cannot encompass all of the issues to anything like a full degree. Having said this, I think Corbett could have been a lot more modest, precise, and forthcoming in his approach, considering what I see to be inherent and obvious weaknesses and inaccuracies in his case. I do not think adding a suffix of ‘by the way this is only an introductory critique, the rest is up to the audience’ absolves the points that Corbett does make in the podcast of the need to be serious and well-substantiated in and of themselves, time constraints notwithstanding. It is only reasonable to expect Corbett to provide a self-contained case that, prima facie, backs up the bold title “Meet Noam Chomsky, Academic Gatekeeper”. Incidentally, the podcast was not entitled “Could Noam Chomsky be an Academic Gatekeeper?”. That would have been more sensible in my opinion and set a more respectable tone from the outset.
I, for my part, will try to give the fullest possible credit to Corbett’s views in this article, because I believe his case does not stand up even when taken on its most sympathetic interpretation. I am aware that Corbett is also limited by the video medium (in fact I criticise him for relying on video sources in his podcast), but I do not think that my criticisms here capitalise on this fact; Corbett could have written an article expressing the same opinions and using the same sources, I feel my critique would still be valid.
Corbett references two detailed text sources, which will be addressed in this article only insofar as they contribute to Corbett’s main arguments.
All quotes attributed to Corbett are taken from this podcast, unless otherwise specified.
(return to contents)
2. EXPLORING THE TERM “GATEKEEPER”
Before considering any matter seriously, we must be rigorous about definitions. Corbett does not explicitly define the term “academic gatekeeper”, nor does he cite any sources that do so, despite this being the main contention of his podcast. Presumably, Corbett is referring to a person of academic background, carrying great clout prima facie, who helps to distort the public consciousness vis-a-vis political affairs.
Corbett does, however, refer to the “function of a gatekeeper” generally, in these terms:
“. . . to be exceptionally good . . . on enough topics that people will buy into what you are saying so that on those one or two topics that you have to skirt around and that you have to get your audience to stop paying attention to, you can do so with some credibility.” (emphasis in original)
This is an intuitively pleasing description, to a limited extent. Unfortunately, it does not fully reflect the metaphorical, as others, for example in Wikipedia, have done in their definition:
“. . . individuals [with a level of control] who decide whether a given message will be distributed by a mass medium.”
Specifically, Wikipedia (unlike Corbett in his podcast, I am sorry to say), gives some examples of gatekeeping:
Note that all of these examples involve explicit control over access to the desired thing (a job, a publishing opportunity, etc). Without the consent of the gatekeeper, we cannot proceed in the desired direction, according to this definition. The gatekeeper has a veto power of some description. Regrettably, this definition and the examples given do not seem to marry well with the case of independent political commentary, which is what Corbett avers is the problem here; both in the form of Chomsky’s commentary and, incidentally, that of “many other [unnamed] gatekeepers”. Evidently, such political commentators, even in totalitarian states, cannot gatekeep (in the vetoing sense) because they do not directly control what their fellow commentators can or cannot think, write, or research. The state and those affiliated with it (such as editors of a state newspaper, see below), may have this control, but unaffiliated commentators do not. In this straightforward sense, Chomsky cannot be an “academic gatekeeper” because he possesses no direct veto power.
Having said this, a slightly different development of the gatekeeper metaphor might lead us to a more favourable understanding of what Corbett means. Perhaps we should say that because Chomsky has control over the content of his speeches, his writings, and the answers he gives in interviews when challenged on the topics he is supposedly trying to belittle (e.g. truthful investigation of 9/11), he is therefore acting as a gatekeeper if and when he does belittle those topics. But can this really be called gatekeeping? Two immediate problems seem to arise that suggest not.
Firstly, for such behaviour to be called gatekeeping, the definition must be broadened: from the one in Wikipedia more towards the act of guiding, or offering counsel. This broadening (to include non-vetoing behaviour within the spectrum of gatekeeping) is not considered openly in Corbett’s self-described “nuanced” approach to this topic, it is simply taken as an implicit precondition. Were I in his place, I would have flagged up this area as one key point of consideration for any audience member following Corbett’s advice and doing their “own research” on Chomsky’s possible gatekeeper role. Corbett himself amply demonstrates how we could discuss this topic at considerable length without ever addressing the vagueness inherent in the terms used. It should not then be surprising if, in doing this, we arrive at a possibly premature and distorted conclusion.
Secondly, to what extent does such a broadly defined gatekeeping/guiding (gate-guiding?) label have a meaningful role in political discourse? Could it not just be applied to anyone with any opinion concerning the prioritisation of one issue over another issue?
For instance, if I was to say that the 9/11 truth movement is insignificant as compared to the work of JFK assassination researchers, would I then be guilty of gatekeeping the 9/11 movement? Understandably, such guilt may rest on what reasoned evidence I can present for such a prioritisation. However, at some level, while delving deeper and deeper into the comparative analysis between my evidence for prioritisation and the evidence of others with reversed priorities, there will be a point where I will be prepared to make some leap of faith to reach a conclusion that others will not, or vice versa. These are matters of human affairs after all, and are thus inherently subjective. Trusting one expert over another; trying to reach a ‘consensus'; inferring motive; predicting what might have happened had history gone another way; and so forth, all hardly involve precise scientific methods (see section 5.1 for further discussion). So, would such a (presumably inevitable) difference of interpretation then indicate my gatekeeping of the issue, despite my having provided reasoned evidence? Does my mere willingness to compare evidence in such a manner absolve me of the charge of gatekeeping? Or is there a significant extent to which I have to be willing to debate the matter before I can be certified a non-gatekeeper? Would that extent not be wholly subjective, thus rendering the definition of gatekeeper subjective? If we were feeling particularly rash, comparisons to the ‘prove you are not a communist’ crazes of decades past would be all too easy to draw. Considering this, is Corbett still prepared to defend his use of the term as having any value?
What if I refused to engage in such a debate altogether because I thought it was a waste of time, or because I lacked the patience—does that necessarily mean I am a gatekeeper?
What if I had no problem with defending my prioritisation of these issues, but I actively participated in the movement only on the condition that another, personally valued cause of my own (e.g. protecting the dolphins) was also addressed as part of the overall agreed-upon strategy? Is the use of the gatekeeper label warranted in such cases? And if it is warranted, does it tell us anything at all beyond the truism that I value certain things over other things? In other words, how, if at all possible, can anyone objectively avoid the accusation of being called a gatekeeper? Perhaps investigation of my motive, of any possible ‘final agenda’ that I may have, would reveal the merit of such a label. It is important to note that Corbett disavows “speculat[ion]” on Chomsky’s motives because he does not know of any “proof” pertaining to Chomsky’s possibly villainous motives. This inability to show a clear and relevant motive would seem to render the gatekeeper campaign quite useless. I leave the reader to decide.
This topic will be resumed below in section 6, with particular focus before that, in section 5.1, on apparently “fundamental” issues, i.e. those apparently demanding attention from anyone in Chomsky’s position.
(return to contents)
2.2 TYPES OF GATEKEEPING
Perhaps it would help to distinguish different types of gatekeeping (that is, still using the broadened definition used by Corbett, i.e. of gate-guiding, see section 2.1). The following is hopefully not too outlandish an attempt at (beginning to) doing so:
ideological gatekeeping: protecting a certain avenue of inquiry by remonstrating that it is wrong on principle to make such inquiries, i.e. not wanting to question certain sacred things as matter of faith. For example, we may gatekeep any challenges to the idea that humans yearn for free association as a matter of instinct, or we may reflexively deride challenges to the significance of investigating war crimes.
self-interested gatekeeping: ideologically in accord with an idea, but consciously working against it due to open coercion, or perceived threats to someone’s career or way of life. To illustrate, we may consider the cases of editors of a state-controlled newspaper discouraging dissent in a totalitarian society; or a teacher encouraging students to study for the test and get better grade stats for the school, even though the teacher knows that exam results will not improve the students’ understanding of the subject.
pragmatic gatekeeping: ideologically in accord with the proposed avenue of inquiry, but querying the tactics or the strategy being used to achieve the goal. The goal is undoubtedly worth achieving in an abstract sense, but on pragmatic grounds it may not be worth attempting, at least in some (unrealistic) ways that may be proposed. The gatekeeping that Corbett denounces in Chomsky’s positions seem to fall into this category.
Note that the first two types of gatekeeping prohibit achievement of the goal quite strictly. The same cannot be said for the third case. In the first case, allowing people to achieve the goal (e.g. questioning the Jewish Holocaust) would be antithetical to strongly held beliefs, and in the second case possibly endanger the gatekeeper’s way of life, family safety, and so on. If we accept these definitions, it would follow that these categorisations are mutually exclusive. I believe this goal-related distinction between types of gatekeeping crucially undermines the relevance of Corbett’s proposition.
(return to contents)
3. CHOMSKY AND HIS AUDIENCE
Corbett fails to make a clear distinction between Chomsky’s personal views, recommendations for activists, etc, and his audience’s perception of those views. Beginning with the former, Chomsky has openly encouraged people to “think for themselves, to question standard assumptions”; to take “a sceptical attitude towards anything that is conventional wisdom”; and to “see, think, judge and decide for [one]self”. Verily, we could argue that this is the only unshakeable and stubborn belief that he holds, i.e. the only one that he holds as a matter of faith. We could further propose that this is Chomsky’s “only message” because he reflexively identifies it with human nature—the most fundamental level at which this discussion could take place. It would seem that there is little more Chomsky could possibly do to stress this principle.
(return to contents)
3.1 CREATING THE MYTHICAL “GURU” PERSONA
Corbett does not refer to Chomsky’s repeatedly professed commitment to freedom of thought, nor his absolute prioritisation of that value, neither for full disclosure of Chomsky’s position, nor even to subsequently attack Chomsky for being hypocritical on the matter. We get a complete whitewash. Instead, Corbett mentions that Chomsky is “exceptionally good”, “exceptionally smart”, an “exceptionally keen analyst”. Corbett even mentions that Chomsky is a “towering figure in modern linguistics”—despite not revisiting that particular point again for the rest of his podcast. Looking at the direction in which Corbett takes the podcast as a whole, these initial descriptions seem to put Chomsky on a pedestal, indeed Corbett himself uses the term “guru” in such a context. Corbett constructs this unsubstantiated image of Chomsky and then castigates Chomsky for it. This could well be a self-fulfilling prophecy on Corbett’s part and requires further examination.
Corbett opens his case by stating that he will not “build . . . a straw man” in his critique of Chomsky. He warns against engaging in “name-calling and argument by labelling”. Corbett does not wish to be “intellectually lazy and intellectually dishonest” by failing to take on Chomsky’s positions “squarely, for what they are, and evaluating them on their merits”. Very well put—but one more development is in order. It is important to be precise about what a “straw man” is, something which Corbett would have been well advised to address.
I believe that a straw man is constructed by not using presently (i.e. easily) available material, relevant to the issue being debated, in a sensible way (i.e. “on [the] merits” of said material). Misrepresentations and unsubstantiated inferences (e.g. regarding the opponent’s motive, or reductio ad ridiculum) would seem to constitute a straw man.
I use the words “presently available” and “sensible” to indicate that a rebuttal does not necessitate a full prior examination of the opponent’s back catalogue, it may suffice to be thorough about the arguments presently on the table. Furthermore, note that a straw man can be made overly positive as well as overly negative, and that it is important to avoid either extreme when offering a critique. Both approaches can lead to skewed impressions of the opponent’s case. Raising someone up on a pedestal and then pointing out several faults in their position based on that false pedestal status would leave a quite different impression than if a more sensible, grounded premise had been used to start with.
Just because Corbett piously refrains from “dismissing Chomsky outright” as an “idiot or charlatan”, that does not mean he cannot still create a straw man impression—the overly positive straw man option is still available to him. This is exemplified in Corbett’s case through his false inflation of Chomsky to being some kind of “guru” for his “supporters”.
Corbett makes repeated attempts to put Chomsky on such a “guru” pedestal. In addition to the already mentioned comments about how “exceptional” Chomsky is, Corbett, referring to Chomsky’s “supporters”, holds that:
“I don’t question the authenticity of those who believe Chomsky is some sort of figure that we need to take seriously on all subjects . . . [those supporters who believe him] no matter what he is saying . . . whether it is rational and evidence based, or not.” (emphasis in original)
This statement seems to have quite an odd premise, it implicitly assumes the “guru” persona has veracity as a precondition. What indication does Corbett have that there is some hugely significant proportion of Chomsky’s audience that sees him as this infallible figure? Is it any more than one would expect from statistical error? Sure, any public figure will have some crazed following, whether they want it and encourage it, or not, but is this virtual truism at all relevant? Corbett does not offer any qualifications of this initial impression of Chomsky’s “supporters”—i.e. that some of those “supporters” might not simply believe him “no matter what he is saying”. This does not appear to reflect a diligent exploration of the issue on Corbett’s part.
I believe this mythical “guru” persona will lead Corbett to distorted conclusions about Chomsky’s gatekeeping (see section 3.3).
(return to contents)
3.2 IS CHOMSKY GATEKEEPING THE DISSIDENT TRADITION?
Corbett maintains that Chomsky glosses over some topics in a way not befitting such an “exceptionally keen analyst” and “towering figure” of academia. Let us assume this to be true for the moment. If what Chomsky chooses to leaves out or deprecate in his speeches is sub-par, then what he leaves in must be “exceptionally good” and well analysed, based on Corbett’s own assessment thus far. Would Corbett then agree that Chomsky is “exceptionally good” at convincing people to think for themselves? One would think so, because free thinking is certainly central to Chomsky’s activist philosophy, as we have seen above. Or perhaps Corbett asseverates that Chomsky is “exceptionally good” at paying lip-service to free thought, while hypnotising the audience at just the right moments so that he may quickly gloss over, or “talk around”, certain issues that he is gatekeeping. We will examine the allegation of glossing over issues further in section 4.1.
It would seem that we cannot have it both ways, either Chomsky is “exceptionally good” at making the points he feels are important sound important, or he is not. I have tried to introduce as much nuance as possible into that point for Corbett’s sake, but it only seems to make the contradictions in Corbett’s case more evident. How can Chomsky be an effective enough gatekeeper to warrant the use of that label (see section 2.1), while also being “exceptionally good” at encouraging people to think for themselves? Something has to give.
Maybe Corbett would retort that Chomsky is exceptionally good at the dry and detailed work, such as comparison of media reports, remembering dates, quotes, and so on, but not very good at convincing the audience that free thought and challenging perceived dissident wisdom is absolutely necessary. Or, maybe Corbett would hold that Chomsky gatekeeps by not repeating the importance of critical thinking enough times in his work, I would like to see how Corbett chooses to substantiate either of those two claims. Certainly, that would have made for a much more interesting analysis than the one we actually got from Corbett. If Corbett cannot rise to these basic challenges of substantiation, it seems to me he must accept that Chomsky emphasises critical thinking reasonably often, and does so convincingly. Of course, this then makes Corbett’s task, of showing how Chomsky manages to pull the wool over his audience’s eyes, a bit more difficult.
At the end of the day, this comes down to a value judgement. My own personal view is that such ‘hypnosis’ (I have no problem with assuming that it does exist to a limited extent) is not without significant, easily identifiable, and easily reversible, audience lethargy—a willingness to be fooled, an “intentional ignorance”. Perhaps those “supporters” that Corbett wants to chide for “clapp[ing]” “obediently” and enthusiastically “no matter what [Chomsky] says” are just doing it to make themselves feel better. It is not unknown for people to look for heroes and idols in confusing and depressing times. It is also not unknown for people to heap praise on such idols as a kind of catharsis, exorcising their own guilt from the lack of follow-up action after having attended a talk or activist meeting. Perhaps this could also relate to those who shout loudest in the 9/11 truth movement. Considering this, was Chomsky really the most sensible point of focus for Corbett in this podcast? I leave this to the reader to decide.
(return to contents)
3.3 DO WE BLAME THE “GURU” OR THE ‘DISCIPLES’?
Carrying forward Corbett’s own metaphor, what can we say about the responsibility of the ‘disciples’ of this “guru” to make up their own minds?
Could the failure of Chomsky’s audience to spot his supposed duplicity be just that—a failure of the audience, not of Chomsky? De omnibus dubitandum est leaves no obvious room for ambiguity, and failure to follow it fully, whether we are considering Chomsky’s views, Barack Obama’s views, or Karl Marx’s views, may be dangerous to various extents, depending on what intellectual soft spots we may have, so to speak. Chomsky merely seems to suggest that people be aware of these soft spots and try to compensate for them with increased scrutiny in those trains of thought in each of us that are uniquely vulnerable to lazy reasoning.
Corbett refers towards the end of the podcast to recent revelations that the CIA had been “spying on Chomsky” in previous decades. This, according to Corbett, helps “bolster Chomsky’s credibility”, his “reputation as this academic rebel”, “cement[ing] his status in the popular imagination as deeply troubling to the powers” that be. Supposedly, this helps to uphold Chomsky’s ‘allure’, swelling the ranks of his “obedien[t]” “supporters”. Putting aside the question of how confident Corbett is about his ability to read the “popular imagination” so intricately, there is no contemplation of the gapingly obvious. Namely, does the problem lie with Chomsky not grooming his image properly so as to continuously prove to the world that he is not a gatekeeper (it remains to be seen whether such grooming might also be perceived to be part of the ‘hypnosis’), or is it simply a case of the “popular imagination” run wild? The latter would support the argument that the ‘disciples’ have been misleading themselves.
For the record, here is Chomsky’s own response to the revelations, from an article written by John Hudson:
“When The Cable presented him with evidence of his CIA file, the famous linguist responded with his trademark cynicism.
‘Some day it will be realized that systems of power typically try to extend their power in any way they can think of,’ he said. When asked if he was more disturbed by intelligence overreach today (given the latest NSA leaks) or intelligence overreach in the 70s, he dismissed the question as an apples-to-oranges comparison.
‘What was frightening in the ’60s into early ’70s was not so much spying as the domestic terror operations, COINTELPRO,’ he said, referring to the FBI’s program to discredit and infiltrate domestic political organizations. ‘And also the lack of interest when they were exposed.'”
Would it be reasonable to assume that this trivialisation of state spying programmes is yet another ploy by Chomsky to win over more “supporters” to his cause (i.e. by feigning modesty through pre-emptively squashing the “academic rebel” status that Corbett mentions)? A false trivialisation, so to speak? If so, we must be careful to distinguish this kind of ‘false’ trivialisation from the kind of “honest” trivialisation (Corbett’s own adjective) that Chomsky employs when talking about issues that he is gatekeeping. Corbett surely harbours some method of distinguishing these two fiendish ploys by Chomsky, because the layman, unacquainted with such devilishness, may believe Chomsky is being false about his trivialisation of 9/11, JFK’s assassination, and so on, which may mean that he really does want us to look into those issues, gainsaying Corbett’s gatekeeper thesis. Or is that actually double bluff by Chomsky? Surely it cannot be a triple bluff? Good thing we decided beforehand that he is a gatekeeper, otherwise this might all get a bit too ridiculous.
Corbett observes “that Chomsky supporters obediently clap . . . every time they feel that their guru is winning” against a perceived “evil” question with a “hidden agenda” from an audience member. Corbett does not care to mention how he concluded that Chomsky’s audience at the talk had branded this question as “evil”; it appears to be his own reading of the matter. In any case, these “obediently” clapping “supporters” only adduce more evidence that the ‘disciples’ are getting ahead of the “guru”. This weakens still further Corbett’s attempt to pin this ‘charm offensive’ on the “guru”.
Corbett proposes that one of Chomsky’s “key” techniques for “talking around” an issue is to “mumble and mutter and stutter on for eight minutes in ways that completely fail to address the actual question”. Corbett does not consider the possibility that Chomsky may be well aware of his “boring” speaking style, and/or that there is nothing to suggest he is doing this on purpose just for the ‘gatekeeper’ issues that seem to strike Corbett as suspicious (see section 6).
Corbett’s response to my criticism thus far may well be found in a text source that Corbett recommends, which has, prominently displayed, this quote by Barrie Zwicker:
“[Chomsky’s] recommendation that people practice ‘intellectual self-defence’ is well taken. But how many could dream the person warning you is one of the most perilous against whom you’ll need to defend yourself? That he is the fire marshal who wires your house to burn down, the lifeguard who drowns you, the doctor with the disarming bedside manner who administers a fatal injection? If Noam Chomsky did not exist, the diaboligarchy [sic] would have to invent him.”
The contention is presumably that a significant proportion of the Chomsky’s audience will be fooled by Chomsky in this duplicitous way if people like Corbett and Zwicker were not there to alert them. Zwicker ascribes a conscious and nefarious motive to Chomsky (evident in his choice of metaphors) for which no evidence is provided (Corbett himself concedes there is no “proof” of such a motive). To assess how reasonable Zwicker’s proposal is, it may be relevant to consider the current (and not so current) public distrust of intellectuals, academic elites, religious authorities, and cultural managers in general. In addition, we may also consider that many prominent intellectuals affiliated with Chomsky, or with the topics he frequently addresses, have in recent years been strongly denounced for their duplicity. An argument could be made that such developments should assuage Zwicker’s concerns of activists’ inability to spot, or even “dream of”, duplicity on Chomsky’s part. But we could equally expect further allegations of deceit to spring up for every such reason given to those with Zwicker’s mindset. Perhaps for each intellectual around him that falls, Chomsky grows in stature, and he is raised higher and higher above the range of permissible criticism by his loyal “supporters”. Again, it is worth asking whether the gatekeeper-labelling game is rigged (see section 2.2).
In the preface to Chomsky’s recent book, Making the Future we find the following excerpt of a speech he gave at Occupy Boston:
“Karl Marx said, ‘The task is not just to understand the world but to change it.’ A variant to keep in mind is that if you want to change the world you’d better try to understand it. That does not mean listening to a talk or reading a book, though that’s helpful sometimes. You learn from participating. You learn from others. You learn from the people you’re trying to organize. We all have to gain the understanding and the experience to formulate and implement ideas.” (emphasis in original)
All in all, whether Chomsky really “isn’t being honest” (Corbett’s phrase, see section 4.4 and section 5.2) ultimately seems to be a value judgement for the reader to make. One possible avenue for approaching this value judgement is to compare Chomsky’s actions with his words, as well as to compare Chomsky’s and Corbett’s stated personal values, principles, and goals for activism to see if, despite Chomsky’s possible deceit, Chomsky and Corbett are nevertheless headed in a common direction (see section 6). Note that if true, if both of their goals are aligned, this would make Corbett’s claim about Chomsky not only false, but irrelevant.
(return to contents)
4. POOR SELECTION OF SOURCES AND MISREPRESENTATION OF CHOMSKY’S VIEWS
4.1 INSUFFICIENT USE OF PUBLISHED SOURCE MATERIAL
The sources Corbett uses to present Chomsky’s views are as follows:
1 radio interview with Steven Pinker about Chomsky
9 video clips of Chomsky giving speeches or interviews (Corbett agrees with Chomsky in 6 of the clips, only the remaining 3 clips are explicitly critiqued)
1 text source (labelled “Noam Chomsky and the JFK Assassination” in Corbett’s source list)
It is plain to see that Corbett did not prioritise material in print when making his case. Though video sources are of significant value, they are not without their obvious faults in terms of reliability, sourcing, use of colloquial language, time restraints on speaking at public events, and so on.
Chomsky very rarely does his own field research on sociopolitical issues, choosing more often that not to review and infer from others’ research. Given this, it becomes even more important to include as much material in print as possible when preparing a critique of him, because checking his sourcing is vital to appreciating his arguments “squarely, for what they are, and evaluating them on their merits”. Chomsky’s speeches, responses to questions at public gatherings, or online chat forum correspondences simply will not pass muster as sources to use in any serious critique.
I have pointed out several instances above, and will continue to do so below, where Corbett gives opinions without substantiating them. Would it thus be reasonable of me to propose that Corbett expects his audience “to take these [claims on board] without examination of any evidence?” Of course not, rather, I merely express my disappointment that Corbett failed to provide a source to substantiate those specific claims. If I was writing an article about how Corbett has been gatekeeping certain issues for decades, then I would be expected to show some sensibly deep consideration of his work. In fact, Corbett himself reminds his audience not to take his “conclusions” as anything “grand” and written in stone. Corbett just so happens to give this reminder in the same podcast as his aforementioned unsubstantiated claims. Chomsky’s online chat forum responses are read out by Corbett as evidence of Chomsky making “blanket statements” and glossing over “the details that would lead us in the direction of his conclusion[s].” This is literally true if we do not consider the other chat responses that are referenced; or if we ignore the obviously unscholarly context in which they were written; or if we ignore the copious amounts of well-publicised material from Chomsky in print on most topics that we might care to mention (including the “details” of Chomsky’s views on JFK that Corbett laments not having—see section 4.3). Chomsky does, frequently and with great emphasis, offer the same reminders to his audience about the subjective nature of his conclusions (see section 3).
If Corbett’s standard of honesty here is that every email, letter, speech, and verbal answer given by Chomsky (and presumably anyone else engaging in any kind of discourse at any time to any audience) must be prefaced by “this is only my opinion, please feel free to challenge it, I am no guru”, with sources cited religiously even during informal exchanges, then that is perfectly fine. I would only recommend that Corbett be more open about this high standard of his to his audience, and be clearer that he is criticising Chomsky on those specific grounds, i.e. of laziness and insufficient modesty. We could argue that Corbett should get his own proverbial house in order first before, for instance, admonishing Chomsky for “lying to [his] audience”, but I will leave such matters to the judgement of the reader.
In each of the following sub-sections, I will examine the extent to which Corbett seems to have diligently and honestly explored Chomsky’s views and represented them in his podcast. Following that, in section 5.2, I will look at the extent to which Corbett candidly clashes with and rebuts Chomsky’s views in the “nuanced” way he purports to have done.
(return to contents)
4.2 CHOMSKY, ANARCHO-SYNDICALISM, AND THE FEDERAL RESERVE
This quote is taken from Corbett’s own source:
“. . . it is not always safe to assume that Chomsky has been reported accurately . . . his views have often been misrepresented.”
One of the main reasons for this misrepresentation could be that he is seen to be such a “towering figure”, so firmly rooted in the “popular imagination”, that people presume to know what his views are, more or less, without checking Chomsky actual writings, or without paying proper attention to his talks, preferring instead to fill in the gaps themselves. Chomsky? Oh he is that “anarcho-syndicalist”—that is all you need to know, the rest is just footnotes. Corbett effectively behaves like this when he fails to make good-faith efforts to acknowledge the qualifications Chomsky has expressed regarding anarchic strategy in many key areas. Furthermore, Chomsky has also repeatedly stressed the “range of political ideas” within the spectrum of anarchist/anarcho-syndicalist thought such that we really have to be rigorous about getting a precise definition from each anarchist thinker before coming to any conclusion about their politics. Moreover, Chomsky has repeatedly emphasised the importance of confronting reality, of not idolising intellectuals, and of not ignoring inconvenient facts—such as the ways in which ordinary working people might suffer while others aim to pursue high revolutionary ideals. Corbett would do well to take heed of that last point, as we shall see in section 6.
In the first Chomsky video clip that Corbett critiques—relating to the Federal Reserve, an audience member asks Chomsky “about the debt ceiling”, saying: since it is “obvious to everyone that the Federal Reserve . . . is owned by a bunch of private bankers”, “would it remedy the situation at all to return the power of printing money and issuing currency to the people of the United States?”
Chomsky seems initially vague and askew in his reply. He says he “think[s] it’s misguided”. Following up with “I don’t think the problem is printing fiat currency.” Then he goes on to talk in general terms about “sensible” planning in a “state-capitalist economy”, that “eliminat[ing] capitalism . . . [is] not on the agenda.” He says that “other options” would be available if/when capitalism is “overthrown” or “worn away”—”maybe in the long term”, but basically, such revolutionary ideas are not the most effective immediate solutions to the “debt ceiling” and other acute problems that the system is throwing up. He then provides some more context about the deficit and the debt, before going on to say:
“. . . there’s about a trillion dollars of unused capacity. I mean, the real problem of the economy isn’t the debt and the deficit, it’s the fact that the economy is so kind of grotesque, that you have tens of millions of people wanting to work, you have huge financial resources—corporations that don’t know what to do with their money . . . there’s an enormous amount [of infrastructure development] that has to be done . . a huge number of idle hands, enormous resources, tremendous amount of work that has to be done, and the economy is so dysfunctional [that] it can’t put them together, that’s the problem.” (emphasis in original)
Corbett despairs at Chomsky’s reply regarding the dysfunctional economy, and offers a sarcastic comment that lacks nuance and verges on misrepresentation:
“. . . [Chomsky says] we very much need a ‘central bank’ in order to have government investment in order to stimulate demand in the economy.”
But Corbett does not proceed to explain exactly why that is a bad idea, or how he justifies attributing that position to Chomsky in the first place.
Regarding Chomsky’s actual reply to the questioner, it could have been a lot better focused, with reordering of material to mirror the order of points raised in the question. Corbett seems to make two criticisms of this reply from Chomsky: (a) that Chomsky “did not answer the [audience member’s] actual question” and (b) the content of his reply was in any case antithetical to Corbett’s views and apparently to the views expected of an “anarcho-syndicalist” such as Chomsky. As discussed above, Corbett’s failure to appreciate Chomsky’s qualifications on anarchism is problematic. This would all be much clearer, and more honest, if Corbett actually committed to a position of his own on the Federal Reserve (see section 5.2). That way, we could make his argument clash with Chomsky’s directly (seeing as Corbett fails to do this himself) and see what sticks, instead, we are frustrated by Corbett dancing around the issue and presenting insinuations rather than precise rebuttals (see section 5.2).
Regarding point (a), Corbett reproaches Chomsky for not “answering the question that was asked . . . [and that] the questioner was in fact asking about whether or not the people should take control of printing the money . . . it’s not the idea of a fiat currency itself that is anathema, it is the idea that it’s being controlled by these central bankers at interest owed to themselves—that is the problem.” It does not seem to occur to Corbett that what Chomsky said (“I don’t think the problem is printing fiat currency”) and what Corbett believes the underlying position of the questioner to be (“a fiat currency itself [is not] anathema”) are almost identical positions. This does not necessarily mean that the question was answered directly, but we can easily recognise that despite talking at cross-purposes, Chomsky and the questioner have this one underlying agreement (cf. the types of gatekeeping discussed in section 2.2). In any case, the major thrust of the question was, as Corbett indicates, popular “control of printing the money”. The most cursory look at Chomsky’s “back catalogue” will show that he has always agreed with that position in principle. Just to take one example at random:
“Personally I’m in favour of democracy, which means that the central institutions in society have to be under popular control . . . Just as I’m opposed to political fascism, I’m opposed to economic fascism [i.e. the corporate culture of tight control by a board of directors]. I think that until major institutions of society are under the popular control of participants and communities, it’s pointless to talk about [our country being a] democracy.”
It is a value judgement (again, belonging to the reader) whether it would have been sensible for Corbett to present a more complete picture of Chomsky’s position in this way, instead of only focusing on this extemporary response to a question at a public gathering. After all, Corbett is purportedly trying to avoid “intellectually lazy and intellectually dishonest” critiques by taking on Chomsky’s views “squarely”. Though in this case, it would seem that Corbett is approaching this at more of a biased angle rather than “squar[e]” on.
We might also demand to know why Corbett choose this, of all sources, as a suitable presentation of Chomsky’s views on the Federal Reserve. He himself admits that Chomsky fails to answer the question (although Chomsky does for example address the “debt ceiling”, which was the context of the question). But assuming that we do not let Chomsky off the hook, what then was Corbett trying to prove? Corbett introduces this segment as an attempt to “construct a more nuanced understanding specifically of those areas of disagreement that we may have”. By “we” I assume Corbett is referring to him and Chomsky. He refers to this “interesting” clip on the Federal Reserve, and the two clips, on 9/11 and JFK, that follow later as “the meat and potatoes of today’s podcast”. So these are central pillars of Corbett’s case. Does this stilted response from Chomsky during a live question and answer session reflect a more “nuanced” understanding of his position than a search on Chomsky’s own website was likely to provide? This strange selection of sources is perhaps biased in Corbett’s favour—(see section 4.1).
After having shown the clip, Corbett proceeds to misrepresent Chomsky. In fact, the title chosen by the uploader of the clip “Noam Chomsky LOVES the FEDERAL RESERVE” is itself distorted, Chomsky indicates no such position. At most, we could accuse him of thinking the Federal Reserve is a “sensible” thing to have within the confines of “really existing” state-capitalist systems. Corbett propounds this confusion by claiming that Chomsky “apparently has no real problem, no real dispute, with the Federal Reserve”, and that he is “defending the Federal Reserve”. Furthermore, Corbett makes an even more fundamental attack by observing that this is a “seemingly contradictory position for an anarcho-syndicalist to be taking”. Again, another randomly chosen article from a search for “Federal Reserve” on Chomsky’s website produces an immediate challenge to these allegations, one which apparently eluded Corbett’s research. That article is a transcript of an interview Chomsky gave on Democracy Now!, in which he says:
“. . . there’s been a wave of propaganda over the last couple of months, which is pretty impressive to watch, trying to deflect attention away from those who actually created the economic crisis, like Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, their associates in the government who—Federal Reserve and others—let all this go on and helped it.”
Furthermore, at another speaking event, 10 days later than the one shown in Corbett’s chosen clip, Chomsky repeated his understanding of “anarchism”:
“So [the questioner asked:] what’s the future of anarchism? First [we] have to answer the question: what’s anarchism? It means a lot of different things to different people. I’ve been thinking about it for seventy years I guess [laughs]. My feeling is [that there is a] core conception at the heart of all the various anarchist tendencies, and that is a belief that hierarchic systems, systems of domination, control and hierarchy, are not self-justifying—they have to be justified. They have a burden of proof. If you can’t justify them, which is most of the time, they ought to be dismantled—with an expansion of freedom and independence [resulting from that]. And that goes from the smallest to the largest units, from patriarchal families to international affairs. And I just think that’s a tendency in human affairs—[a] constant tendency—[to] challenge authority, domination . . . [therefore] the future of anarchism is simply the future of civilised society.”
Talking too much in general terms perhaps, but not really showcasing the devious “avoid[ance]” of these issues upon which Corbett sees fit to perorate. We can take Chomsky at his word and try to compare it honestly to his proposals and actions elsewhere, or we can just dismiss this all as lip-service in the pursuit of “building up capital” so that he may later “spend” that “capital” when, according to Corbett, he “has” to “defen[d]” the Federal Reserve without “anyone in the audience [seeming] to catch on to” his falling short of advocating popular control of major institutions. But as we have seen, given a sensible consideration of the facts and the context, there is no “seemingly contradictory position” with regards to Chomsky’s views in this case.
Corbett opines suspicion of Chomsky on the basis that we would not necessarily predict Chomsky’s “defence” of the Federal Reserve from “his political views that we saw earlier” (i.e. the introductory clips, which address neither the Federal Reserve nor anarcho-syndicalism). I think this is quite shaky reasoning. For one thing, those introductory clips do not provide anything like a “nuanced understanding” of Chomsky’s position for Corbett to try and make the (some might say “grand”) conclusion that Chomsky is “ripe [sic] with self-contradictions and inaccuracies” after having presented the Federal Reserve question and answer session clip.
Finally, Corbett rests his case by averring that this Federal Reserve clip, “at the very least”, “goes some way towards showing” how Chomsky’s “supporters” “obediently clap and cheer” his reply. This has already been addressed above, but since Corbett reaffirms this issue several times in his podcast, it is worth offering the following challenges: is it possible for us to clap in a non-obedient fashion? Does waiting less that 1.5 seconds after Chomsky finishes a sentence before clapping qualify as too eager or obedient? Is one cheer of agreement allowed per round of applause, but are, say, two or more hoots or whistles simply a disgraceful show of herd mentality? Is Corbett suggesting that all of Chomsky audiences at all of his talks worldwide behave in this manner? Has he even looked into these “nuance[s]” before throwing out such a non sequitur as “obediently clap and cheer”? If not, then what is the significance of bringing this up? After all, Corbett apparently was trying to avoid “push[ing]” any “intellectually lazy” conclusions onto his audience, and to avoid “argument by labelling”. Is it okay to label Chomsky’s audience then, just not Chomsky himself? Finally, even if we give Corbett the benefit of the doubt, is this herd mentality Chomsky’s fault or the audience’s (see section 3.3)? Once more, I leave it up to the reader to decide.
Corbett states that there are “a number of [other] things . . . to point out about this [Federal Reserve] video [clip] . . . later on in the podcast”, but does not proceed to raise any other points not already rebutted above.
(return to contents)
4.3 THE JFK ASSASSINATION: CONSPIRACIES HIGH AND LOW?
Moving on to the JFK assassination, Corbett summarises Chomsky’s main view on this topic as:
“long profess[ing] bafflement at the idea that JFK was assassinated as part of any sort of conspiracy.”
This can be more or less favourably compared with Chomsky’s own words on the matter:
“. . . the claim that [the JFK assassination] was a high-level conspiracy with policy significance is implausible to a quite extraordinary degree.”
“. . . I don’t know who assassinated [JFK] and I don’t care, but what difference does it make? It’s not an issue of any general political interest. And there’s a huge amount energy and effort going into that . . . [whereas the documentary record itself] shows very clearly what was going on. Kennedy just launched an attack against South Vietnam and hadn’t the slightest intent of ending it short of victory . . . The Tet Offensive in January of 1968, that made the war unpopular. American corporate elites decided at that point that it just wasn’t worth it, it was too costly [so] let’s pull out . . . [at which point the American memoirists] concocted this story that their hero, John F. Kennedy, was really planning to pull out of this unpopular war before he was killed and then Johnson changed it. If you look at the earlier memoirs, [there’s] not a hint [of such a belief on Kennedy’s part], I mean literally.”
Corbett cites a JFK assassination research website to the effect that Chomsky is “famously unconcerned about the JFK assassination”, and that he is “often accused of failing to recognise the importance of the event”. He contends that this “baffles and has long puzzled a lot of [Chomsky’s] fans, who still defend him as a thinker” (including Corbett, at least at the beginning of his podcast).
The most significant Chomsky source on this topic is his 1993 book Rethinking Camelot that examines the allegedly benign intentions of Kennedy:
“The basic principle, unquestioned [by the Kennedy administration] is that we must ‘focus on winning the war.’ On September 14, [W. Averell] Harriman wrote to [Henry Cabot] Lodge[, Jr.], making the point unmistakeable: ‘I can assure you that from the President on down everybody is determined to support you and the country team in winning the war against the Viet Cong. There may be some differences in opinion or in emphasis as to how it is to be done, but there are no quitters here.'”
“Two weeks before Kennedy’s assassination, there is not a phrase in the voluminous internal record that even hints at withdrawal without victory. JFK urges that everyone “focus on winning the war”; withdrawal is conditioned on victory, and motivated by domestic discontent with Kennedy’s war. The stakes are considered enormous. Nothing substantial changes as the mantle passes to LBJ [Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s successor as President].”
For the aforementioned “voluminous internal record” on which Chomsky is basing his conclusions, we can look at historical documents in the archives of the US Department of State.
Here again we encounter a slight misrepresentation. Corbett would have us believe that Chomsky can see “no evidence” at all of any conspiracy, high-level or otherwise, or of any hidden intention on Kennedy’s part to pull out of Vietnam, or “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds” etc. But this is not quite accurate. Such a “grand” absolutist statement (that Chomsky essentially denies the existence of any such evidence) deserves close examination. From the quotes already cited, Chomsky mentions that “there is not a phrase in the voluminous internal record” regarding “withdrawal [from Vietnam] without victory”; that he sees the evidence on his side as “overwhelming”; and that here was “literally” “not a hint” in the “early memoirs” about “pull[ing] out”. Here are some further quotes in the same vein from Rethinking Camelot:
“These two NSAMs [National Security Action Memorandums] (263 in October, 273 on November 26 with a November 20 draft written for Kennedy) are the centerpiece of the thesis that Kennedy planned to withdraw without victory, a decision at once reversed by LBJ [Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s successor] (and perhaps the cause of the assassination). They have been the subject of many claims and charges. Typical of the 1992 revival is Oliver Stone’s Address to the National Press Club alleging that John Newman’s study “makes it very clear President Kennedy signaled his intention to withdraw from Vietnam in a variety of ways and put that intention firmly on the record with National Security Action Memorandum 263 in October of 1963, while LBJ “reverse[d] the NSAM” with NSAM 273 . . .
Such claims, which are common, are groundless, [and] indeed are refuted by the internal record. Newman’s book adds nothing relevant to the available record, which gives no hint of any intention by JFK to withdraw without victory—quite the contrary—and reveals no ‘reversal’ in NSAM 273.”
Yet more quotes:
“[George] Ball [a consistent dove among Kennedy’s advisers] notes that had he lived, ‘Kennedy would almost certainly have received the same advice and pressures from the same group of advisers who persuaded Johnson to deepen America’s involvement.’ He has no clear opinion as to how JFK would have reacted. Noting further that ‘some historians have adduced bits of evidence to show that President Kennedy had reserved in his own mind the possibility of withdrawal,’ Ball writes that he can ‘venture no opinion.’ Note that the most he contemplates is that JFK might have had the possibility in mind . . . “
“In his attempt to show that JFK favored withdrawal, John Newman claims that Ball, who replaced the more dovish Chester Bowles as Under Secretary of State in November 1961, ‘was acceptable to Kennedy because he too opposed sending U.S. combat troops to Vietnam’—as doubtless he did, along with much of the top military. But Newman’s unsupported judgment about Kennedy’s reasons does not quite square with Ball’s own . . .
“[Chester] Bowles became Ambassador at Large, then Ambassador to India. Like John Kenneth Galbraith and others who favored political settlement over military victory, he was distanced from policy planning by Kennedy, and scarcely appears in the internal record. There was no place for such views in JFK’s Vietnam programs.”
It seems evident that Chomsky offered quite specific qualifications on his statements about lack of evidence for a conspiracy, i.e. that in this or that memo or memoir, or in the public or internal record within clearly specified time frames, there was “not a hint” of planning to withdraw—and this is the crucial part—without victory. This is not the same as Corbett’s paraphrase of Chomsky blandly asserting “no evidence” at all, of any conspiracy, high-level or otherwise. Perhaps this is a nitpick on my part—especially as Corbett proceeds to contradict his absolutist paraphrase by quoting the previously mentioned statement from Chomsky himself, that “a high-level conspiracy with policy significance is implausible to a quite extraordinary degree”. Again, not exactly professing “no evidence”. Maybe we should not take Corbett’s “no evidence” paraphrase seriously, perhaps it was just a figure of speech. However, it is worrying that Corbett then uses his own paraphrase as fodder to rebuke Chomsky (as if he actually holds the “no evidence” position) for offering such “blanket statement[s]”, and that no self-respecting audience member should be “expected to take” those pre-ordained “conclusions” (of “no evidence” for a conspiracy) “at face value”. This self-fulfilling prophecy of Corbett’s may be internally useful for his case, but appears nevertheless to be quite “intellectually dishonest”.
Indeed, Corbett sees fit to quote several “intriguing” paragraphs from people describing their second-hand impressions of Chomsky’s stance before he wrote Rethinking Camelot, but did not deign to quote from the book itself in his self-described attempt to “squarely” “explo[re]” “the background” of this issue, or while deploring Chomsky’s failure to offer any “premises” or “any examination of any evidence” that his audience can then “interrogate” for themselves. Corbett could easily have found such evidence in Chomsky’s book. Corbett even mentions Rethinking Camelot by name, but does not quote from it. Considering the time limitations on Corbett’s podcast that only allows him a “brief” “glimpse” at this topic, perhaps he should have prioritised presenting detailed quotes from Rethinking Camelot over what Chomsky wrote in unpublished online chat forum responses.
Corbett then jumps ahead to offer assurances that two other “must read” books on the topic will offer a “coherent” and “cogent” case to support Corbett’s views. Corbett’s own source tells him that Chomsky in fact “has read a few of the books [on JFK’s assassination] out of curiosity . . . [but they] simply do not begin to withstand rational inquiry [according to Chomsky]. That’s true even of work by personal friends [i.e. of Chomsky’s] who are serious scholars on other issues . . .” Corbett does not make the quite reasonable assumption that one of those “books . . . by personal friends” might be the book by P.D. Scott that Corbett lauds. Indeed, Corbett himself mentions that Scott and Chomsky “co-edited the Pentagon Papers”. Surely the next rational step would be to see if/how Chomsky responded to his ex-collaborator’s analysis and the “Operation Northwoods documents” made available by “the [JFK] Assassination Records Review Board process”. Corbett even wonders to himself why Chomsky did not change his views based on these documents (that were released after Rethinking Camelot was published) and yet does not take this obvious step towards possibly finding the answer. Perhaps Corbett could even have sent an email to Chomsky, explicitly asking whether he had read Scott’s book and presenting a summary of Scott’s analysis to Chomsky. I guess Corbett expects his audience to do this, while he continues to propose that Chomsky “gatekeeps” the JFK issue, all the while staying away from any “grand conclusions” of course.
(return to contents)
4.4 9/11: “THE BIGGIE OF THEM ALL”
The final of the three main ‘gatekeeping’ topics that Corbett chooses is, as Corbett puts it, the “biggie of them all in our modern political era”—the terror attacks of the 11th of September 2001 and particularly the “9/11 truth movement” associated with it.
Now once again, the evidence that Corbett adduces to make his case is restricted by the time available in his podcast and, as with the previous two cases, I am going to assume that his selection of evidence to showcase Chomsky’s views for subsequent critique was made in good faith. In other words, I assume that Corbett makes some sensible attempts to balance the sources that would help his critique, with sources that would most reasonably portray Chomsky’s full view on the matter.
To begin with, Corbett presents a clip of an interview Chomsky had with Michael Albert of Z Magazine in which Chomsky explains:
“The 9/11 [truth movement] is pretty interesting actually, it’s [swayed] a huge part of the country, I think it’s like maybe a third of the population or half [of] the population [believing that the Bush administration was complicit]. [As for] the activists in it, the people at the centre of it, as far as I can tell, very few of them are people with any record or involvement in political activism, you know [engaged in] doing anything. Maybe a couple here or there. Most of them are just drawn into it. And they have factoids too [about the suspicious circumstances on the day of the attack] . . .
. . . [but] there are some obvious questions [about motive]. Like suppose the Bush administration did it, why would they blame Saudis [for the attack]? Are they insane? I mean they wanted to invade Iraq, right? Everybody agrees with that, so why didn’t they blame Iraqis? OK [see] if they had blamed Iraqis, [it would be an] open and shut case. The whole country’s for you[r invasion proposal], you [easily] get a UN resolution, NATO supports you, you just go ahead and invade Iraq. Since they blamed Saudis, therefore harming themselves—[Saudi Arabia is] their closest ally—they had to go jump through hoops to try to invent stories about weapons of mass destruction and connections to Al Qaeda and all those other things [then] they finally invaded Iraq. So are they [i.e. the Bush Administration] lunatics? I mean that’s one possibility of course . . .
. . . [or are they] very devious [and would it have been] too obvious if they had blamed Iraqis so they had to do it some other way. Look you can find answers to anything if you try hard enough.
And huge efforts are going into this. Nothing is ever gonna happen, they tried it for 7 years, they never indicted Bush, of course they were never going to, [if] they go on for another 50 years it’s never going to have any effect. [Actually] it does have an effect, it diverts a lot of energy and effort from trying to do something like, say, stop the war in Iraq.
. . . then comes stories about the reasons why people like me don’t go along [with the 9/11 truth movement]—we’re secret CIA agents, I think the phrase is ‘left gatekeepers’, there’s a category of left gatekeepers. The government inserts into the popular movements people who pretend to be critical, but they’re really gatekeepers, you know they’re just trying to stop the real criticism, like [accusing the Bush administration of putting] the bombs in Building 7 [of the WTC] and so on.” (emphasis in original)
Corbett cuts away from that clip before it finishes. It is worth noting what more there was to that interview, which Corbett’s podcast fails to present (though the corresponding link in Corbett’s sources list is to a clip that contains the rest of Chomsky’s answer). Chomsky goes on to discuss possible reasons for the vigour behind 9/11 truth campaigns. He suggests that the truth activists and those swayed by them “don’t trust institutions, they think everybody’s lying to them.” Chomsky seems to have been lamenting such an extremely distrustful attitude among “frightened” dissidents for many years. Michael Albert then asks:
“Why is that 30-40% [of the population swayed by allegations of government complicity in 9/11] not doing anything, given that they think they live [under a brutal oligarchy]?”
To which Chomsky replies:
“I ask a lot of people [in the 9/11 movement about] that, so you know, you think you’re being run by a maniac who wants to kill all the Americans, why don’t you do anything about it? The answer’s always the same: it’s hopeless, there’s nothing we can do.”
These omissions by Corbett are quite significant because they detract from an unambiguous presentation of Chomsky’s position on 9/11, in addition they indicate the absurdity of Corbett’s retorts (see section 5.2).
Corbett’s second and final clip of Chomsky as regards 9/11, and indeed the final Chomsky clip in the podcast as a whole, includes this quote from Chomsky:
“Did the Bush administration gain from [9/11] though true [sic] does not seem to tell you anything, it just says that they’re just one of the power systems in the world [inaudible]. Did they plan it in any way or know anything about it? This seems to me extremely unlikely, I mean for one thing they would have had to been insane to try anything like that. If they had, it’s almost certain that it would have leaked, you know it’s a very porous system, secrets are very hard to keep. So something would have leaked out, very likely, and if it had they’d have all been before firing squads and that would have been the end of the Republican party forever, and to take a chance on that . . . what you can be almost certain of is any hint of a plan would have leaked . . . I should say that you know I’m pretty isolated on this in the West, a large part of the left completely disagrees on this and has all kind of elaborate conspiracy theories . . . and even if it were true, which is extremely unlikely, who cares? [It] does not have any significance.”
Directly responding to this clip, Corbett makes the following comments:
“Ah yes, the infamous ‘who cares’—who cares if 9/11 was an inside job? Who cares if people within the ranks of the US government helped to plan and perpetrate the 9/11 attacks? What difference would it make anyway? Why do these crazy conspiracy theorists waste their time and their political energies on these side issues of no importance whatsoever when there are really serious things to be concerned about, like for establishing a decent minimum wage for the US working class that has to be facilitated by a central bank like the Federal Reserve that has to stimulate the economy by pumping money into it, oh and [in doing so] add interest to the bankers—oh but let’s not talk about that . . . [this is one of those moments when you realise that] Chomsky is not being honest . . . with his audience . . . [he] is just lying to the audience . . . there does not need to be a great deal of elaboration on the fact that Chomsky is avoiding the issue, simply avoiding the issue. [9/11] even by his own standards cannot be denied as an exceptionally important thing in US politics . . . he contradicts himself . . . [when] he goes to say if it came out [that the government was guilty] it would mean the destruction of the Republican party . . . well that’s a pretty important thing that would result of it and not exactly worthy of the ‘who cares’ that Chomsky seems to give this.” (emphasis in original)
Taken together, these three sub-sections show that apart from one quite sensible criticism of Chomsky’s position (see section 5.2), Corbett restricts himself to satire-heavy rhetoric (“why do these crazy conspiracy theorists waste their time and political energies on these ‘side issues’ of no importance whatsoever”); vague statements (“exceptionally important thing in US politics”); and implicit misrepresentation of Chomsky’s positions (“a decent minimum wage . . . facilitated by a central bank like the Federal Reserve that has to stimulate the economy my pumping money into it”). I also feel that the charges of Chomsky “not being honest” and “lying” are slightly premature (see section 5.2).
(return to contents)
5. UNSUBSTANTIATED CLAIMS AND VAGUE REBUTTALS
5.1 THE CLAIM THAT 9/11 AND JFK ARE OF “FUNDAMENTAL” IMPORTANCE
Chomsky’s reluctance to accept the “fundamental” importance of the 9/11 attacks and the JFK assassination to “our modern political era” is perhaps the strongest justification for Corbett’s choice of the “gatekeeper” label. Corbett repeatedly makes this apparent. According to him, 9/11 was “the day that changed everything”, “the biggie of them all”, and so forth.
It appears that Corbett believes the 9/11 truth movement is mobilised towards justice for victims through criminal convictions and also by preserving historical accuracy of the event. If Chomsky seems to be gatekeeping these issues, then Corbett establishes no reasons why (a) this is not just pragmatic gate-guiding (see section 2.2)—which by definition is compatible with Corbett’s core beliefs (see section 6)—and (b) why this pragmatic gate-guiding/gatekeeping is wrong. Corbett exhibits plenty of frowns, gestures of surprise, and disbelief at Chomsky’s position on 9/11 and Kennedy’s assassination, but these hardly count as serious rebuttals (see section 5.2).
Towards the end of his podcast, Corbett presents an interview he had previously conducted with James F. Tracy in which Tracy asserts that “the first thing that one has to do, in order to address the War on Terror, is to address 9/11, because that’s where it all began”. This seems to support Corbett’s views on 9/11. However Tracy later seems to backtrack on this by saying:
“. . . one could argue that [the War on Terror] began in ’93 with the World Trade Centre bombing at that time, and [that] it was exacerbated in ’95 with the Oklahoma City bombing there’s no doubt about that with regard to anti-terror legislation and what have you, but really, overall it came to a head with 9/11.”
So was 9/11 “where it all began” or was it where “it came to a head”? Also, what is “it”? Tracy refers to “anti-terror legislation” and restrictive security measures (it is worth noting that Corbett does not refer to any detailed consequences of 9/11 at all in his podcast). Despite (vaguely) opining that such investigations form “the foundation that is necessary to concretely address it” (again, “it”?), Corbett does not care to probe Tracy on the subject of when the War on Terror began. We are left wondering exactly what happened because of 9/11 specifically (i.e. and not because of the 1993 bombing or the 1995 bombing) that was not just another step in the ratcheting up of state attempts “to combat their primary enemy—which is their own population” by using an excuse as old as the hills: the threat to survival, peace, security and so on.. If Corbett does have an answer to this question, could it really not be expressed succinctly in a sentence or two anywhere within this podcast, with sources provided for myself and others to then “interrogate”?
In an accompanying article to a recent video on the relevance of JFK’s assassination 50 years down the line, made available on the internet while I was drafting this article, Corbett explains:
“. . . the image that might once have been painted of Kennedy as just another toady of the establishment has since been obliterated. In every respect, the documentary record shows that behind the scenes, Kennedy’s experiences were transforming him into a significant roadblock to that establishment which had placed him into power . . . The struggle began with Kennedy’s dawning realization that his military advisors were not interested in avoiding armed conflict with the Soviets, but in provoking it. From the time of the Bay of Pigs fiasco onward, Kennedy’s relations with the Pentagon and the CIA became increasingly strained to the point where there was open hostility between many of the military’s top brass and the Agency’s vanguard and the President himself. The series of events culminated in NSAM 263, the National Security Action Memorandum that had long been thought of as the Vietnam pullout orders . . . The type of organized, interlocking, subterranean power that is required to perform such an operation and to cover it up is difficult to comprehend. As the author of one of the most important books on the JFK assassination in recent years, James Douglass, notes, the implications of this event are so profound as to be unspeakable.”
It is important to note that this new video is simply a preview of the full-length video hosted behind a paid subscription wall on another blog. I see no immediate reason, having looked at this sample video and the sources presented in the accompanying transcript, to go on and watch the full-length version, let alone pay to do so.
I will not be engaging in a critique of this more recent release of Corbett’s for two reasons.
Firstly, Corbett still does not show any sign of treating Chomsky as a serious opponent. Corbett does not seem to want to get his hands dirty by attacking Chomsky’s material in print. To me, such an approach would be the very definition of taking someone on “squarely”, as Corbett purports to want to do. If I was Corbett, I would go after Chomsky’s writings like Ahab after Moby Dick, because people can always back away from, or dismiss, nitpicks of responses they gave in question and answer sessions and more or less get away with it. However, it is much more difficult to worm out of contradictions and logical fallacies that people point out in published material. I think there’s something to be said about the YouTube generation being afraid of reading, and quoting from, books for fear of losing their viewers by coming off as too ‘academic’ and ‘boring’, but that is beside the point.
Related to this, I honestly think that Corbett should rethink his approach to argumentation. Chomsky has also alluded to a similar point—many people do not truly grasp what an “explanation” really is, most unfortunately so in activist circles. Corbett presents an ‘interview’, in this recent preview video, of Colonel L. Fletcher Prouty, a military insider during the Kennedy administration. Prouty is allowed to talk for just under an hour with no challenges or follow-up questions being put to him. Apparently his background necessitates taking him at his word. There may well be some limited value in doing so, but that does not mean Prouty cannot be ambiguous, or make mistakes, or offer confusing explanations (all of which he does seem to do). Prouty presents certain documents upon which his inferences are made. The relevance of those documents needs to be weighed up against other scholarship. Prouty, in an attempt to do so, is seemingly allowed to blow one specific ambiguity in the Pentagon Papers out of all proportion and then dismiss entirely current “history” teaching and scholarship. In addition, Prouty’s inferences from whatever documents he presents need to be challenged. They need to be pressed to see if the story makes sense (and also to allow for Prouty to point out where the interviewer may be misrepresenting him!). This applies to all sources, and failure to do so would be “intellectually dishonest” in my opinion.
Secondly, there are already several other websites that examine the claims raised by Corbett’s latest video fairly honestly and succinctly.
Having said this, I will always be willing to take up this issue again if a serious critique of Chomsky and others’ position is presented along the lines I have outlined, or, if a critique of my principles for an intellectually honest approach are themselves challenged. I always look forward to learning about my faults, because I want to start correcting them as soon as possible.
(return to contents)
5.2 VAGUE REBUTTALS TO A VAGUE TARGET AUDIENCE
I find that it is often useful to adopt the technique of trying to view our own arguments from the perspective of a Martian, or a literate twelve-year old. Chomsky often adopts this approach and I think it has quite a bit of merit, not only for checking our clarity and logical flow, but also especially for realistically-minded activists. Goals for any social movement need to be clearly defined, with open discussion of our principles, assumptions, and consequences of inaction (i.e. the significance of what the movement is trying to draw attention to). This template can be applied to animal conservation movements, civil rights movements, anti-war movements, and so on. Failure to adopt such an approach may result in loss of active public participation in, and promotion of, that issue, leading either to those movements being stuck in limbo or being sidelined into relative obscurity. The same standard must be applied to the 9/11 truth and JFK assassination movements. It is in the best interests of those movements to meet such common standards of reasonableness.
Adopting this approach, we can then inquire: who is Corbett appealing to in this podcast? He mentions slyly at one point that he might be irritating “any anarcho-syndicalists in the listening audience”, presumably Corbett is referring to people familiar with at least Chomsky’s most basic views (though again, it is quite common for Chomsky’s views to be ‘understood’ yet with crucial misreadings). So, for people familiar with Chomsky’s work (I include myself in this group) Corbett needs to present fairly specific criticisms of the most sensible, most often repeated, and most crucial qualifications Chomsky places on, for example, his hopes for an anarcho-syndicalist society. Corbett seems to fall short of doing this, if he even was attempting to do so at all.
Elsewhere in the podcast, there are references to more ‘naive’ Chomsky “supporters”, Corbett remarks that some of the “listening audience” may be “surprised at [some of] Chomsky’s views if [they] hadn’t already been aware of them”, referring to the “contradictions” that he identifies in the Federal Reserve clip (see secition 4.2). Regardless of whether his audience members are “surprised” or not, does Corbett think that this is sufficient to justify his bold branding of Chomsky as a “gatekeeper”? Corbett appears not to have considered the possibility that anyone who is “surprised” at Chomsky’s views about the Federal Reserve, or 9/11, may have been relying on mistaken impressions (i.e. “straw man” images) of Chomsky up till now (and as for where the blame lies for that mistaken impression—see section 3.3). On top of that, since Corbett seems to misrepresent Chomsky’s views through his problematic selection and use of source material (see previous sections), maybe the audience members should well be surprised—because Corbett could be misleading them.
It is not clear whether Corbett is being purposefully vague in his response to the clips that he presents, so as to not “push” any conclusions on his audience, or whether he thinks Chomsky’s views on these topics are so patently flawed (e.g. Chomsky’s use of “blanket statement[s]”) that predominantly rhetorical attacks will suffice to illustrate Chomsky’s hollowness. Corbett repeatedly makes reference to Chomsky’s views being “interesting”; “illuminating”; “exceptionally interesting”; “remarkable”; and so forth, and in the context of Corbett’s poorly selected clips and intonation, it appears as if any audience member who does not recognise the ‘heresy’ demonstrated therein is ‘missing the point’. To what extent does Corbett expect us to be familiar with his “back catalogue”? Otherwise, how are we to interpret these subtle allusions to a ‘hidden truth’ that Chomsky is apparently avoiding? Ironically, Corbett repeatedly criticises Chomsky’s statements for lacking in a sensible level of detail “that would lead us in the direction of his conclusions”, without seeming to take any reasonable step to confirm if Chomsky really is that shallow with certain of his beliefs.
Corbett claims that Chomsky’s views on JFK are “puzz[ling] to a lot of his [i.e. Chomsky’s] fans”, without saying exactly what reasons those “fans” give for being puzzled, and where exactly Chomsky seems to have deviated from previous honest lines of criticism (e.g. regarding the media and military-industrial complex, as shown in Corbett’s introduction) to now being a possible gatekeeper. Corbett does not address Chomsky on his own terms: when Chomsky demands to know of the significance of an anti-JFK conspiracy and to what extent it should be prioritised above other activist issues; or demands to know of any documentary evidence of JFK intending to “withdraw without victory” (my emphasis) and without satisfactorily intimidating the ‘anti-communist’ forces in Indochina through a show of military prowess; Corbett fails to rebut him “squarely” except through rhetoric and sarcasm. He merely paraphrases Chomsky’s belittling of these events as “side issues of no importance whatsoever”, as if trusting in his audience to sense exactly why the proposed “high-level conspirac[ies]” in 9/11 and JFK are, in fact, important, and in addition, to sense exactly how they may supersede other activist issues in importance. All of this can only be done using ESP because Corbett gives no reasoning to justify this ridicule of Chomsky. Corbett mentions that the “Federal Reserve” is “a topic that we cover frequently here on the [Corbett Report] podcast”, but provides no sources as to what his own position on the Federal Reserve is. Critiquing Chomsky’s proposals while not offering any alternatives, even in brief outline, could be seen as “intellectually lazy” on Corbett’s part.
According to Corbett, Chomsky expects his audience to accept that P.D. Scott’s work on JFK is of little worth “merely by stating” that it is of little worth. This is surely an unfair inference. At the very least, we must beg the question: does Chomsky’s blanket statement in this case prove that he has never provided rebuttals to Scott elsewhere? There seems to be a failure to directly engage Chomsky sensibly yet again. If Chomsky asserts that some issue is not interesting or worth investigating, it is up to Corbett, seeing as Chomsky was not actually present for the recording of the podcast, to demonstrate why Chomsky is mistaken. If the best that Corbett can do is to suggest that the “Operation Northwoods” revelations show that Kennedy was planning to “break the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter them to the winds”, then he should explicitly say that is his best reason, or second best reason, etc. Or, is Kennedy’s heroism a fait accompli solely because he allegedly had doubts about military involvement in Vietnam and the dangerous power of the CIA? Ultimately, it seems that Corbett cannot uphold the view that the assassination stopped any grand change of direction in US politics because it was never certain that those changes would have gone through. Chomsky has presented sources to this effect (see section 4.3), while Corbett’s sources fail to rebut them.
Regarding the first 9/11 clip that Corbett presented, the section of the interview that was retained in Corbett’s podcast does give a reasonable understanding of Chomsky’s position, but the omitted section spells it out unambiguously. Chomsky raises these main, and specific, objections to the 9/11 truth movement in that exchange with Albert:
What plausible reason could the government have for blaming Saudis (the “devious” bluff in the supposed strategy notwithstanding, i.e. why did they not just blame Jordanians, Egyptians, or any of the other Arab countries with whom the US relationship is not as sensitive as it is with Saudi Arabia)?
Even if we did accept the plausibility of this theory and thus the justified nature of attempts to bring Rumsfeld, Bush, et al to justice, it has no appreciable chance of succeeding in the foreseeable future. Therefore it diverts activist energy in a wasteful manner.
The ‘9/11 truthers’ with whom Chomsky has communicated seem to reflect a very nihilistic attitude and are not being mobilised to confront the reality of the system, e.g. by fighting even for the small victories that would improve living conditions for some people, instead they are withdrawing into a cocoon out of general distrust, dismissing Chomsky’s advice after seeking it.
In addition, Chomsky enjoined elsewhere that for any scientific analyses of the technical details and queries in the 9/11 truth movement’s body of research to be taken seriously, his (prima facie fairly uncontroversial) standard is submission to a “serious journal for peer review and publication”.
Whatever we may think of these objections, they are quite clearly evident even in the part of the interview that Corbett included in his podcast. However, Corbett never addresses these concerns of Chomsky, or any variant of them, in his entire podcast. He simply moves on to the next clip (to which we return), and after that to discussing the “responsibility of intellectuals” before winding up his podcast. Here again we are made to wonder what the purpose of this podcast is. Is it just to show clips of Chomsky accompanied by Corbett’s posturing at how “remarkabl[y]” surprising it is that Chomsky is taking these positions? I feel that Corbett is being hypocritical in accusing Chomsky of “specifically” “avoiding the issue” and “pushing on the audience” “certain fundamental conclusions” “that they are meant to take outright at face value [sic]”, because Corbett himself is patently guilty of those same things—even in his “brief” (but still apparently “nuanced”) case studies of Chomsky in this podcast. This allegation of mine depends of course on the extent to which we allow Corbett some room for manoeuvre based on his qualification at the end of this podcast that he merely intends for this to be a prompt for his audience to go on and do their “own research”. This judgement ultimately belongs to the reader.
Corbett seems to correctly identify a contradiction in the second Chomsky clip regarding 9/11. Chomsky adopts a “who cares” attitude with regards to the revelation of a high-level conspiracy, but then goes on to say that such a conspiracy is unlikely because if it “leaked”, “they’d have all been before firing squads and that would have been the end of the Republican party forever”, which seems to belie his suggestion that either way, the 9/11 truth movement will not amount to much. Again, we may choose to give at least some credit to Chomsky inasmuch as this may have been a throwaway remark made during a live question and answer session, and may not accurately represent his views, at least in comparison to the views expressed in his published book on the topic:
“The horrifying atrocities of September 11 are something quite new in world affairs, not in the their scale and character, but in the target . . . [for centuries, the US has] extended its resort to force throughout much of the world. The number of victims is colossal. For the first time, the guns have been directed the other way. That is a dramatic change . . .
This attack was surely an enormous shock and surprise to the intelligence services of the West, including those of the United States. The CIA did have a role, a major one in fact, but that was in the 1980s, when it joined Pakistani intelligence and others (Saudi Arabia, Britain, etc.) in recruiting, training, and arming the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists it could find . . .
I do not think it will lead to a long-term restriction of rights internally in any serious sense. The cultural and institutional barriers to that are too firmly rooted, I believe.“ (my emphasis)
I leave it up to the reader to decide the extent to which Corbett is at fault for not including such material in his “brief” yet “nuanced” presentation of Chomsky’s position on 9/11.
More than two-thirds of the way into the podcast, Corbett openly raises the issue of: “who is Chomsky, where is he coming from, [and] why does he avoid certain areas?” This may actually prove difficult, because Corbett admits to not being aware of any “proof” bearing on “where” Chomsky “is coming from”. Predictably, the results of this ‘exploration’ are quite vague. Tracy, Corbett’s guest from a previously recorded interview, mentions in general terms that some intellectuals may be “afraid to go there” (i.e. express solidarity with the 9/11 truth movement) for fear of being labelled in a derogatory manner. Like many points in Corbett’s case, this is left as mere insinuation directed at Chomsky.
Corbett ends his podcast with yet more vague, wandering statements, all quite “grand” generalisations—as if all bets are off here at the very end of his podcast and substantiation is just a nuisance. Chomsky apparently proposes “various solutions which are of course the very solutions that the powers [prefer]”. Apparently “whatever [Chomsky] is doing, he is functioning as if he is walking hand-in-hand with the very elites that he ‘proclaims’ to be fighting against.” Surely, this is quite a strange way of going about critically appraising “Chomsky’s ideas squarely, for what they are, and evaluating them on their merits”, as Corbett initially set out to do.
There are serious quarrels we could have with Chomsky, but Corbett seems not to have presented any of them in this podcast. I deign to consider whether those quarrels would equally be scoffed at by Corbett as yet another means of “building up capital”. Perhaps it shows the ‘deviousness’ of Chomsky to allow such ‘false’ disagreements among his circle of friends and collaborators in order to hide the ‘grotesque orthodoxy’ of the ‘cult-like’ following he has successfully cultivated. Carrying this hypothetical further, we again encounter the problem of differentiating ‘diversionary disputes’ (e.g. Chomsky disagreeing with his friend Tariq Ali on the 1 state/2 state issue); and the ‘real disputes’ (e.g. Chomsky disagreeing with P.D. Scott on the JFK assassination) that reveal Chomsky’s ‘true nature’ as a “gatekeeper”. Evidently, being a successful gatekeeper is a tricky business! Returning to the real world, allegations of ‘diversionary disputes’ and “gatekeeping” are all incredibly easy to make, we may even feel “brave” by doing so, as Chomsky himself advances, but verification and self-criticism are much harder games to play.
(return to contents)
6. A GATEKEEPER OR NOT, WHAT IS THE RELEVANCE TO ACTIVIST STRATEGY?
“Vilification’s a wonderful technique—there’s no way of responding to it. If somebody calls you an anti-semite, what can you say: I’m not an anti-semite? Somebody says you’re a racist, you’re a Nazi, or something, you always lose. The person who throws the mud always wins.” (emphasis in original)
In my opinion, the sources reviewed in this article have not demonstrated that Chomsky is anything other than a pragmatic gatekeeper/’gate-guider’, which, as discussed in section 2, may well reduce, in sensible people’s opinion, down to nothing more than a truism. Namely, the following truism: people who have strategic priorities, based on certain principles, will not change them without presentation of a serious critique of either their principles or their prioritisation. Furthermore, though this may not be true for everyone, when asked for their “personal opinion” those people will recommend that others also consider those same principles/strategies, any fears of remaining “isolated” among their peers notwithstanding.
It is interesting to note that Chomsky’s views on the 9/11 movement (see section 4.4) seem to marry fairly well at least with the general principles that Corbett sets out at the beginning of another of his podcasts–regarding the next step for the 9/11 movement. In it, Corbett says that despite “winning in the court of public opinion”, 9/11 truthers should be “talking tough” to each other, “using tough love on a wayward child [which is what] the 9/11 truth movement in many respects is becoming”. It is apparently becoming so by obsessing over “token facts and sound bites”. Corbett solemnly hopes that “at least in some alternative universe where it would even be considerable that this would be brought before a court of justice”, the guilty parties in the government and elsewhere may be punished. But returning to this universe, we need to be “realistic about the possibility of such a prosecution ever attaining justice through the court system”.
Note that this advice could also apply to the Kennedy assassination research movement. At least, nothing I know of regarding Chomsky’s views on the topic seems to preclude an equivalent awakening and “matur[ing]” of the assassination movement into a broader, more “realistic” “universe” to face some “tough love”.
Corbett concedes that Chomsky is a “deep thinker” “keen[ly] analys[ing] certain aspects of US imperial aggression and some of the related issues”, but does not seem to consider the possibility that despite any differences of opinion on certain aspects of the “imperial agenda”, they may still agree on the ultimate immorality and injustice of that agenda. It is hard to say anything definite on this because again, Corbett obscures his own principles and opinions on strategy. Corbett fails to show how, for example, Chomsky’s previous critiques of the “imperial agenda”, the military-industrial complex, and so forth perhaps did not go far enough, leaving a hitherto unnoticed gap in his logic that prevented the ‘ultimate’ criticism of that agenda. Corbett could have used this approach to show how, in his mind, Chomsky is exhibiting a weakness in exposing that same “fundamental” component of the “imperial agenda” when confronting the 9/11 truth/JFK conspiracy topics. By linking together such a thread of gatekeeping actions, Corbett could build a consistent, serious case here. But of course, none of this is done. Chomsky appears to be giving the same advice to audiences as he always has, holds the same position on anarcho-syndicalism/activism as he always has, expresses the same cautionary tales as he always has, and “mumble[s] and mutter[s] and stutter[s]” his way through speeches (from Corbett’s point of view) the same way he always has. There is no serious reason to consider that Chomsky may be pulling his analytical punches when it comes to 9/11, JFK, or the Federal Reserve.
I feel that Corbett does not substantively follow through the logic of showing us what the 9/11 truth or JFK assassination movements are aiming to do, in the short term and/or the long term. He does not explicitly point out how, for example, Chomsky’s “lying” ways may significantly distort the strategies that activists should, in Corbett’s opinion, be following in order to secure future progress and justice in US society. Even if we grant Corbett the assumption that 9/11 and JFK are of “fundamental” importance, that does not do much to help Corbett’s case regarding Chomsky’s gatekeeping, because Chomsky also agrees that, for example, 9/11 is important, but for different reasons (see section 5.2). Corbett needs to show exactly how these events are being misconstrued through Chomsky’s point of view, also adopted by his “obedien[t]” “adherents”, such that it brings about significant misreadings of the problems ahead on the part of his “adherents”. Having failed to do this, Corbett’s critique appears very superficial, while being blind to the possibility that his and Chomsky’s goals may well be similar despite their different valuations of the 9/11 attacks and Kennedy assassination. Indeed, we could almost contend that through his “puzzl[ing]” “reticence in approaching” the possibility that a common final goal for activism may be one of “numerous places of agreement and accord that Chomsky and Corbett share”, Corbett is gatekeeping the issue!
It is just hard to see what Corbett’s aim is here. Is he trying to forewarn people of the dangers of falling into Chomsky’s web? It is worth considering whether, underneath Corbett’s frustration with Chomsky for not striking strong enough ‘anti-institutionalist’ postures, there is a tacit acceptance that activists should keep looking to Chomsky for guidance. It may well give weight to the thinking that Chomsky’s approval will vindicate these movements in some urgently needed way. Or, that Chomsky and the “other gatekeepers” are the lone barriers holding back the tide of justice that will wash over the establishment. This is patently ridiculous, and furthermore antithetical to the professed disagreement that Corbett has with Chomsky’s supposed “guru” persona.
Following a quick search on Corbett’s website, I was unsurprised to find that there are many parallels between Chomsky’s general philosophy and Corbett’s recommendations for progressives wanting to bring about social change, at least from my perspective. A comparison of the dozen or so solutions on his website is beyond the scope of this article, so I invite the reader to pursue this further. It is worth stressing that the intention here is not to ascertain whether Corbett or Chomsky is actually ‘right’ overall (that is an optional, and personal, value judgement). Rather, it is about whether the term “gatekeeper” is of any relevance in distinguishing Chomsky and Corbett, especially considering what I see as being similarly orientated eventual goals. It may be that “gatekeeper” is a useful term of rhetorical discourse, such as the terms “elite”, “establishment”, or “Newspeak”. However, we cannot build a serious stepwise activist strategy based on such rhetoric, as it immediately falls apart under close scrutiny.
As I say in section 5.2, I do not pretend to have rebutted Corbett’s views on all of these issues comprehensively, there are other podcasts of his that do seem to pertain to many of the issues I raise here, which I do intend to address in future articles. I reaffirm what I said at the end of section 5.1, I am very eager to respond to constructive, specific criticisms of any aspect of the analysis laid out here.
(return to contents)
 Chomsky, N. The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo. [Paperback] London, Pluto Press; 1999. p. 5.
 Hill, C. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. [Paperback] London, Penguin Books; 1991.
 Posner, R.A. Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. [Online] Cambridge, Harvard University Press; 2009. passim.
 Chomsky, N. Making the Future: Occupations, Interventions, Empire and Resistance. [Kindle version] London, Penguin; 2012 (hereafter – Chomsky, Making the Future).
 Chomsky, Making the Future, op. cit., p. 14.
 HARDtalk. Noam Chomsky, Philosopher and Linguist. BBC News. 3rd November 2009.
 Chomsky, N. An Evening with Noam Chomsky. [Lecture] University of Montreal. 26th October 2013. For the subsequently given quote from Chomsky’s talk, see The Chomsky Videos, Noam Chomsky (Oct 26, 2013) “The Future of Anarchism” [Video] 2013, available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQkKnnLsxAo [Accessed 16th November 2013].
 Chomsky, N. Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture. [Paperback] London, Penguin; 2012 (hereafter – Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot), p. 75.
 Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot, p. 85.
 Chomsky, Rethinking Camelot, pp. 87-88.
 Scott, P.D. Deep Politics and the Death of JFK. [Paperback] University of California Press, 1996.
 Douglass, J.W. JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. [Paperback] Touchstone, 2010.
 Chomsky, N. 9-11: Was There An Alternative?. [Paperback] New York, Seven Stories Press; 2011. pp. 43-44, 49, 67.
 Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. [Film] Directed by: Achbar, M. & Wintonick, P. Canada: Necessary Illusions/National Film Board of Canada co-production; 1992.
(return to contents)