Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Noam Chomsky, Judaism and the radical left

I mentioned that I was going to post on Language, Life and Logic a piece focusing on Noam Chomsky's linguistic ideas. In that post, I have also touched on (what I think are) some quite interesting ideological issues relating, in particular, to his family background and upbringing. So readers of Conservative Tendency may be interested to have a look at it.

You may also be interested in the transcript of a (in the words of Chris Bertram) 'wonderful interview with Noam Chomsky on work, learning and freedom' linked to this Crooked Timber post. (As I suggest there in a comment, there is some evidence in the interview of what a subsequent commenter refers to as a messiah complex.)

It surprises me that Chomsky does not see fit to devote any real intellectual energy to his social philosophy. Perhaps he senses that it would not survive the scrutiny of critical reflection. He seems to be content to live within an inherited myth. He compares unfavorably with many earlier thinkers in this regard (Georges Sorel, for example, whose use of myth was, I think, much more self-aware and sophisticated than Chomsky's).

There is also the broader issue of the general Jewish tendency to gravitate to left-wing, progressive and radical causes. What interests me particularly is the moral focus of Jewish culture which, I think, drives this tendency. And the link between this moral focus and religion.

I am inclined to see the passionate commitment to certain universal moral ideals which lies behind much radical, left-wing thought as having a religious source.

Furthermore, it seems to me that the atheism of many secular Jews is often quite unlike the atheism of ex-Christians, for example, in the sense that the former is entirely compatible with continuing to identify with and participate in the Jewish cultural tradition (which inevitably includes elements of Judaism), while the latter is generally considered incompatible with a continuing identification with Christianity.

In other words, the Jewish religious and moral tradition is arguably more 'sticky' (and so resilient) than its Christian equivalent because it is a part of a stronger, ethnically-focused, cultural tradition with which even secular and atheistic Jews continue to identify.

Noam Chomsky is a case in point. Whether or not he should be seen as a religious thinker is an open question. But I certainly incline to the view that he is.

Finally, as a footnote, I might add that – influenced by a figure very like Chomsky – I was involved in my late teens with the same sorts of radical groups which Chomsky has described in autobiographical notes, in which Jews worked together with Quakers and other radical Christians. It was a secular movement focused on issues of violence and exploitation etc., but it took its inspiration from an essentially Biblical understanding of justice. Writers such as Kierkegaard and Martin Buber were particularly revered, as well as contemporary theorists, most of them Jewish as it happens.