We spoke with Caitlin Flanagan to clarify some of her comments on Noam Chomsky’s work. The interview was conducted via Twitter. As is Current Affairs’ customary practice, the participant was unaware that this Twitter exchange constituted an “interview.” But it did.
CA: Are you aware of Noam Chomsky’s actual beliefs and writings at all?
CF: I am, thank you.
CA: So you are aware that the Wolfe book is based on a factual misunderstanding of Chomsky’s beliefs about recursion?
CF: I don’t think it’s based on recursion…
CA: And you are aware that your depiction of his view of intellectuals is the direct opposite of his actual view?
CF: Do you think Chomsky was enjoining “intellectuals” to remain tools of the state?
CA: Of course not. Which is why we explained precisely what he was and was not enjoining.
CF: What line of my essay contradicts your assertions?
CA: “whose opinions on American foreign policy were inherently more valuable than those of the common men” Which is the opposite of his belief. And you did not note that the person you are writing about doesn’t believe this.
CF: Do you think his essay had any effect on American college professors? In terms of re-imagining their right role in society?
CA: No. As Chomsky has documented, intellectuals have always been self-important and felt it their duty to issue pronouncements. [Anyway,] do you admit that Chomsky is strongly against the position that intellectuals have “inherently more valuable” opinions?
CF: Without Chomsky, student anti-war demonstrations would not have found support from so many faculty members…
CA: So no contrition over the error, no actual counterargument? [You] asked which exact parts of [the] article were mistaken, we told [you] precisely.
CF: You did not cite one single mistake.
CA: “people whose opinions on American foreign policy were inherently more valuable than those of the common men”
CF: There is no mistake. [“The Responsibility of Intellectuals”] was hugely influential. You shortchange Chomsky.
CA: It’s interesting that you’ve admitted you find Chomsky’s actual words irrelevant to whether Wolfe’s attack on him is fair.
CF: My opinion on this is irrelevant to your assertion. The opinion of the original readers of the essay is what matters.
CA: So Chomsky’s own beliefs are irrelevant to whether it is fair to smear him? You don’t even feel compelled to note them?
CF: Chomsky was instrumental in changing national opinion on the war – which he did by awakening academics to a powerful new role. Your reading of this essay – and its literary effect – is literal and ultimately dismissive of its power.
CA: Wait, this is your defense? [Our] failure is that [we are] reading Chomsky as literally saying what Chomsky is literally saying??
At this point, Caitlin Flanagan ceased to respond.