The Chomskyite Playbook and the Activist Left

David R. Adler
3 min readMay 8, 2024
Photo: Tamas Varga

In an earlier piece I critiqued Noam Chomsky’s well-worn notion of “manufacturing consent.” I have further thoughts on Chomsky, whose argumentative method and public demeanor bear closer inspection. I think it explains a lot, not only given the unquestioned esteem with which he’s held on the activist left but given the tenor of our times. I also highly recommend Michael Bérubé’s Chomsky chapter in his 2009 book The Left at War. And A Critical Chomsky Reader, online, from 2010.

This is typically how Chomsky operates:

1. Say something indefensible. Example: Endorse a discredited pseudo-analysis that denies the Srebrenica genocide. Hedge just enough, so that you’re ready to attack the critics who are about to attack you.

2. Get called out, widely, by people, including on the radical left, with actual knowledge of the subject.

3. Calmly deny that you endorsed the analysis at all.

4. Just as calmly, assert that your critics are deranged servants of American Empire who lack all moral principles and love killing and racism and war crimes.

5. Present these libels while making blunt declarations that everything you say is indisputable truth. Literally say things like, “This is entirely straightforward,” “This is clear as day to anyone who has bothered to look at the facts,” and so forth.

6. Sit back while your troll battalions descend on those who have questioned you, demanding they provide evidence to support such bad, very mean words about The Great Man, who totally did not endorse genocide denial, because he said so. “Debate me!”

I wish I could have back every minute I wasted responding to Chomsky cultists before I realized I was dealing with pure intellectual corruption. In the case above, the aim was to shill for Diana Johnstone (later an outspoken admirer of Marine Le Pen) and others sowing confusion about copiously documented war crimes in the Balkans, thus laundering their disreputable views into the mainstream. It was disinformation, in other words: the very thing Chomsky has purportedly built a career exposing.

In 2018, Paul Berman issued a once-and-for-all debunking of the widely accepted view that Chomsky defended Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson purely on free speech grounds. Chomsky in fact publicly doubted Faurisson was antisemitic at all, and in correspondence with Berman in The Village Voice went even further, arguing that denial of the Nazi genocide was not in itself evidence of antisemitism. His sneering tone, evasiveness and whataboutism exposed an almost proud lack of concern in the matter. And once again, he pretty much followed the script I outlined at the start.

Chomsky has taught generations of radical activists by example with his lack of rigor, integrity and basic decorum, and it’s had a disfiguring effect on their politics. It is an exact mirror image of MAGA: baselessly impugn the integrity of all who question you; accuse them of exactly what you are doing; dismiss any attempt to hold you accountable as a witch hunt; and above all, wear everybody down. If those who care about social justice cannot see this and demand higher intellectual and ethical standards, it’s on them.

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David R. Adler

Writer, guitarist and music educator based in Wakefield, United Kingdom.