The Pelican Puzzle
We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Grammar vs. Rhetoric in the Writings of Noam Chomsky and Steven Poole

To set the context, here is the thoughtful and conscientious Russell Wvong:

Noam Chomsky: A Critical Review: There's a February 26, 1970 letter to the New York Review of Books by Samuel Huntington, with a response by Chomsky, which gives an example....

To the Editors:

In the space of three brief paragraphs in your January 1 issue, Noam Chomsky manages to mutilate the truth in a variety of ways with respect to my views and activities on Vietnam.

Mr. Chomsky writes as follows:

Writing in Foreign Affairs, he [Huntington] explains that the Viet Cong is "a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist." The conclusion is obvious, and he does not shrink from it. We can ensure that the constituency ceases to exist by "direct application of mechanical and conventional power...on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city...."

It would be difficult to conceive of a more blatantly dishonest instance of picking words out of context so as to give them a meaning directly opposite to that which the author stated. For the benefit of your readers, here is the "obvious conclusion" which I drew from my statement about the Viet Cong:

...the Viet Cong will remain a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist. Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation.

By omitting my next sentence--"Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation"--and linking my statement about the Viet Cong to two other phrases which appear earlier in the article, Mr. Chomsky completely reversed my argument.

Chomsky's response includes the following remarkable sophistry:

...I did not say that he "favored" this answer but only that he "outlined" it, "explained" it, and "does not shrink from it," all of which is literally true.

I am not a fan of the works or the politics of Sam Huntington. But nobody deserves to be misrepresented as Chomsky misrepresents him.

With this context set, I note that over at Crooked Timber, the Chomsky wars continue. Steven Poole enters the lists not as a Chomskyite by as an anti-anti-Chomskyite, trashing Peter Beamont with a deceptive and unfair low blow:

Steven Poole: Chomsky's critics too often mix concrete observations with wild, unfocused accusations -- exactly, indeed, what they accuse Chomsky himself of doing.... Peter Beamont...

[W]hat I find most noxious about Chomsky's argument is his desire to create a moral -- or rather immoral -- equivalence between the US and the greatest criminals in history. Thus... Chomsky claims: "Professions of benign intent by leaders should be dismissed by any rational observer. They are near universal and predictable, and hence carry virtually no information. The worst monsters -- Hitler, Stalin, Japanese fascists, Suharto, Saddam Hussein and many others -- have produced moving flights of rhetoric about their nobility of purpose."

Plainly, Chomsky's use of the superlative "worst", in calling Hitler, Stalin and Saddam etc "the worst monsters", is *grammatically* doing the opposite of creating an "equivalence" between them and other leaders. To note uncontroversially that there is one point of comparison between all leaders -- they profess benign intent -- is not to assert an overarching "equivalence" between them...

Is it? Is Beamont committing "wild, unfocused accusations"? Let's try out an English sentence:

  • Peter Beamont and Josef Goebbels are both human beings.

The grammar is as Steven Poole asserts it is: my sentence asserts one point of comparison--human-ness--between Peter Beamont and Josef Goebbels, but is grammatically silent on other points, and on "overarching 'equivalence'."

But there is another channel of meaning here besides the grammar of the sentences, a rhetorical channel, one having to do not so much with what the sentences themselves say but with why they say them, and thus with what the sentences say about our beliefs about the world and about right action in the world.

Why would a speaker choose to bring Josef Goebbels to mind, if all the speaker wanted to do was to assert that Peter Beamont is a human being? No speaker would do so--unless he or she had some other point to make besides the point that Peter Beamont is a human being. Rhetorically, one thing that the bringing of Josef Goebbels to the minds of the audience does is to assert that there are additional valid points of comparison between Beamont and Goebbels--points of comparison that the speaker expects the audience to seek out, and reflect upon.

Peter Beamont would be right to be pissed off at anyone who wrote "Peter Beamont and Josef Goebbels are both human beings.

Chomsky is playing the same game in the paragraph quoted up high that I am playing in my sentence: a grammatical denial accompanied by a rhetorical assertion. And Steven Poole is playing a different game--that of pretending that the grammatical level of meaning is the only one, that the rhetorical level of meaning simply does not exist. Peter Beamont, by contrast, is a straightforward guy, reading Chomsky's words and receiving the messages transmitted through both channels. For which Steven Poole trashes him. Unfairly. As Poole knows well--hence the "grammatically" weasal-word in the Poole passage I quoted.