A popularity contest for public intellectuals seems about as silly as a beauty contest for dogs. Still both are done. The latest — and as far as I know the only — was conducted by the journals Prospect and Foreign Policy. Editors compiled a list of their top 100 intellectualoids and Web readers were asked to select their top five. More than 20,000 people voted.
As in an earlier BBC Radio poll for “greatest philosopher of all time,” the results confirmed the view of many cynics: to wit, that the public should not be trusted to decide an issue more important than “paper” versus “plastic.” In the BBC poll, Karl Marx was voted history’s greatest philosopher. According to the Prospect/FP poll, the world’s top public intellectual is Dr. Avram Noam Chomsky. By a landslide.
To no one’s surprise the list was heavily skewed to the Left, and included such obvious quota-queens and multi-culti quacks as Naomi Klein, Germaine Greer, radical cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. While a few conservatives made the list (Robert Kagan, Richard Posner, James Q. Wilson, and Paul Wolfowitz) the absence of important conservative intellectuals was disappointing if not expected. Not only did Roger Scruton fail to make the cut, so did Leszek Kolakowski, Irving Kristol, Hilton Kramer, Paul Johnson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Charles Murray, and Robert Nisbet. Milton Friedman was just one of two who made the list as a write-in (Stephen Hawking was the other).
At the same time we must be grateful for who was left off, most notably Gore Vidal, Alan Dershowitz, and the past half dozen Nobel Prize for Literature winners. Rounding out the top five were Umberto Eco, Richard Dawkins, Vaclav Havel, and Christopher Hitchens. I suspect Havel and Hitchens would agree that putting them ahead of Hawking and Aleksandr Solzenheitsyn is a bit presumptuous, to say the least.
The poll did reinforce the notion that the U.S. has supplanted Old Europe as the world’s intellectual powerhouse. France, which once enjoyed the status as Intellectual Capital of the World, had one measly name in the Top 40. Peru had more. This complete discrediting of France may say more about the inherent flaws in the poll; most voters were by definition from America and Britain since they are most likely to read English-language political magazines.
While the results may be seen as having an English-language bias, the enlightened editors of Prospect and FP would be expected to be more open to diversity. Even so, the editors could only come up with four French intellectuals (same number as China) compared to 39 Americans, and Britain’s 13. Another obvious flaw in the polling surfaced when the websites of at least three of the top 20 (including sites dedicated to Chomsky and Hitchens) linked to the Prospect poll and encouraged supporters to vote.
Chomsky’s top finish was predictable, particularly since the MIT linguistics professor has worn the unofficial mantle of world’s top intellectual since 9/11, the event which more than anything else rescued him from obscurity. Ask any hip young slacker to name one public intellectual and inevitably you will get the name Chomsky. Ask for two names and you will get a blank look.
OUTSIDE HIS FIELD OF EXPERTISE, however, Chomsky remains the proverbial anti-intellectual. The Prospect‘s David Herman (perhaps reluctantly) admits that Chomsky’s geo-political pronouncements are often “maddeningly simple-minded.” His numerous adolescent acolytes are not devotees of theoretical linguistics (yawn), but rather followers of his puerile politics. Give Chomsky credit where it is due, in the field of linguistics. But his forays into geo-politics recall Richard Posner’s remark in his book Public Intellectuals that “a successful academic may be able to use his success to reach the general public on matters about which he is an idiot.”
“Chomsky belongs to a tradition which goes back to Zola, Russell, and Sartre,” writes Herman. “[A] major thinker or writer who speaks out on the great public issues of his time, opposing his government on questions of conscience rather than the fine print of policy.” Were Zola around today he would doubtless sue this Herman fellow for defamation of character. Not only did Zola create some of the finest literary works of the 19th century, but he bravely spoke out against the injustices of his day and, in his defense of Dreyfus, against traditional French anti-Semitism. Besides, Zola was a reluctant public figure.
Chomsky, to the contrary, is able to remain in the public eye only by making more and more outlandish statements, i.e., he often compares America (and Israel) to Nazi Germany, calling “the pretenses for the invasion [of Iraq] no more convincing than Hitler’s.” In his spare time he defends Holocaust deniers (“I see no anti-Semitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers or even denial of the Holocaust”). He proposes America end global terror by not “participating in it,” and that American and Israeli military and political leaders be tried for war crimes. The U.S. is rotten through and through, according to Chomsky, and has been a threat to peace since 1492.
Incredibly, Chomsky is cited for his “political courage,” as if walking in step with Hollywood, the mainstream media, the professoriate, Big Labor, Old Europe, and its anti-American and anti-Israel blowhards were a sign of valor. Likewise if issuing controversial statements made one an intellectual then every Arkansas Klansman and British imam would be the recipient of a MacArthur Grant.
Chomsky’s real popularity among liberal arts majors and other slackers stems from his consistent support of America’s enemies, praising the Hanoi government during the Vietnam War, accusing the U.S. of exaggerating the Cambodia Killing Fields, and blaming 9/11 on the “U.S. invasion of Saudi Arabia.” A self-proclaimed “libertarian,” Chomsky loathes the most world’s most free nation and while praising the world’s most totalitarian regimes.
Adolescent rebellion is the most common way juveniles have of demonstrating their independence. Forever the adolescent, Chomsky has been rebelling against the United States and Israel his entire 72 years.
As the Prospect/FP poll illustrates, the French badly need a new intelligentsia. Chomsky despises America and all it stands for. Perhaps this is a good time for trade negotiations: one Massachusetts malcontent for a bottle of Chateau de Bligny.
Christopher Orlet is a frequent contributor and runs the Existential Journalist website.
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