June 25, 2007


Noam Chomsky said in an interview once that the style of his polemics is, as numerous critics contend, turgid--because in order to get a hearing, he has to check and double-check his facts and footnote them meticulously--his critics are able to ignore facts at will, because they're writing from an accepted consensus view, and that leaves more latitude for spriteliness of style.

This is too harsh a self-judgment. Actually Chomsky's a far better than average stylist. Certainly he's a far more than averagely concise writer, though I recollect the opposite being alleged by a newspaper columnist once. It's an odd complaint to come from that quarter--I can count on the fingers of one hand the newspaper columnists I've read who are not tediously verbose, and this columnist was by no means one of those fingers. Even odder was the sentence he quoted to demonstrate this fault. It was a remark made in an interview, and few of us are as concise in speech as in writing, but I tried three times, and failed, to rework the sentence so that it said all that Chomsky had said, in fewer words. I wonder what the columnist thought concise actually meant?

There is one serious weakness in Chomsky's style, which he's acknowledged, but only by projection. A couple of times I recollect him saying that some recent move in the giddy whirl of power politics with its casual exterminations and cynical justifications "would have been too much even for the irony of Swift." They're certainly too much for Chomsky in one respect; he's able to apprehend these killing ironies comprehensively enough, and detail them. But he's certainly not able to make his indignation stand out unforgettably through persistent savaging wit, nor to sum up an enormity in one sharp sudden epiphet that pops the vanity of its perps. This is a weakness Swift conspicuously lacked.

(A weakness he lacked; I seriously need a coffee; ah well, let it stand.)

Swift said of the one Lord Lieutenant of Ireland he personally esteemed: "No one ever ruined a nation with greater reluctance." He could drop into a paragraph, as a throwaway line, the rhetorical question: "Is this an age of Man to consider a crime improbable merely because it is great?" With that gift for slashing wit he combined as meticulous a habit of checking, re-checking, cross-checking, double-, triple- and quadruple-checking his facts as any journalist or historian could ever boast, though he never did himself--simply regarded it as the bare minimum of integrity serious writing required.

Michael Moore, in relation to Swift, has roughly the opposite balance of weaknesses and strengths. While I'd certainly never accuse him of Swftian irony at the top of his form, he's able to give a vivid comic shape to his indignation. What he conspicuously lacks is Swift's passion to attack as vigorously and directly as occasion warrants, but never at the cost of fuzzy thinking or avoidable misrepresentation.

C 2007 Martin Heavisides


Chancelucky said...


I personally find Chomsky easier to listen to than read. I do think that one reason people attack his prose style is that it is easier than taking on his arguments. Instead, he often gets derided for simply being too radical. Critics often don't specifically refute him, though I've occasionally seen a bit of it.

I would guess that Michael Moore would be highly-flattered to be compared to Swift in any way. I know he's written some books and was the editor of Mother Jones briefly, but I don't know that he thinks of himself as a writer as much as he sees himself as a provocateur with a flair for the dramatic. Much like Chomsky, Moore's critics often attack the delivery much more than the actual message or argument.

The fact that so many work so hard to attack both Chomsky and Moore is a sign that they're being taken seriously as individuals who impact public opinion.

It's interesting to me that both Lakoff and Chomsky started as linguists. I'm sure there are right wing American linguists somewhere, but there aren't many of them.

Martin Heavisides said...

The one time I saw Chomsky in person I thought his main talk was unimpressive, but he might have been having an off-night. He recovered considerably in the question and answer period.

Chancelucky said...

Was he speaking about politics or linguistics?

Martin Heavisides said...

Politics. I've never heard him speak on linguistics, though I've read him a little on the subject.