I don’t think my WaPo review of Tom Wolfe’s new book The Kingdom of Speech was half bad, but there’s a better one out, which is very long and ergo can cover a lot more ground. It’s at 3:AM Magazine, is by “E. J. Spode” (probably a pseudonym), and, when printed out, is 19 pages long. But it’s very good, written partly in Wolfe’s own imitable style, and covers all the bases—including both evolution and linguistics, as Wolfe’s book was meant to take down both Charles Darwin and Noam Chomsky.
Whoever Spode is, that person did their homework, but wears the learning lightly. I won’t quote anything from it except for one point Spode makes at the end. And that is this: the book, though it got some bad press, was largely either praised or given neutral reviews by mainstream publications like The New York Times. Very few reviewers, it seems, actually checked the facts asserted by Chomsky, read Darwin to see if he really was the charlatan Wolfe maintains, or plowed through the complicated papers on Universal Grammar and the language of Brazil’s Pirahā people. And so they often praised Wolfe’s style, his snark, and so on, neglecting the fact that almost everything he said about Darwin, Chomsky, and linguistics was flat wrong.
This bespeaks not just sloppiness in book reviewing, but a growing anti-intellectualism in American life, whereas the best newspaper in the U.S. was unforgivably remiss in reviewing a widely-read book. This kind of distrust of “elites” like Darwin and Chomsky is, of course, most evident among the followers of Donald Trump.
After quoting some of the reviews, Spode says this:
The Trumpiest undercurrent of it all is the idea that the empirical evidence and logical argumentation is an invention of the elites — designed to bamboozle you into believing what your guts tell you is wrong. And by God, gut instincts are far betters arbiters of truth — not just in politics but in science as well. Ignore those pointy-headed intellectuals and listen to your gut my friends, because your gut is telling you the obvious truth that man’s higher faculties did not evolve from the ape and we have the super-duper-primitive people to prove it.
. . . The list is long and depressing here, but we can begin with Barbara King at NPR, who uncritically parrots the nonsense about Pirahã having no color terms or embedded clauses (see Everett’s own counterexample above) and then salutes Everett for “challenging a dominant discourse.”
Does it occur to King that by joining the parade of those primitivizing the Pirahã, she has added her support for a dominant discourse too? – a very old colonial narrative that, to borrow the words of Geoff Pullum, perhaps hides “our buried racist tendencies?” Perhaps yes, as she rallies to defend Everett: “The racism charge is plainly baseless; in his books Everett portrays the Pirahãs as clever people.” Well. That settles that.
As for The Kingdom of Speech and the fine scientific reasoning therein, Dwight Gardner, in the New York Times informs us that Wolfe’s book successfully “tars and feathers Mr. Chomsky before sticking a clown nose on his face and rolling him in a baby stroller off a cliff.” What? Just in case that wasn’t enough Wolfe boosterism, the Times added a second review of Wolfe’s book – this by Caitlin Flanagan – in which we are assured that Wolfe has “shank[ed]” Chomsky “with characteristic wit and savage precision.”
. . . Meanwhile we have those journalists that recognize the Everett/Wolfe stuff is all a bunch of hokum but simply don’t care. Why? Because, in this day and age, it isn’t about finding the truth; it’s about winning the news cycle. This attitude is pristinely reflected in a review of the book in Canada’s Globe and Mail.
“Wolfe is a reporter and an entertainer, an opinionated raconteur rather than a scientist, and that is why we will always report on his jocular provocations. And if they serve as an excuse to explain what universal grammar was in the first place – as it has done – then Chomsky should be thrilled.” [JAC: That is an execrable statement!]
Right. Because what could thrill Chomsky more than to have the media fraudulently misrepresent his theory using a facts-be-damned line of anti-intellectual argumentation that exoticizes another human culture? Chomsky must be “thrilled” about that, because, my God, his whole life he has been complaining that the media is too serious and too concerned with getting the facts right, when it should be, you know, writing about the Kardashians and otherwise using misinformation to bring eyeballs to advertisers. THRILLED I tell you!
And, finally, this:
I’m not worried about Chomsky, however, no more than I’m worried about Darwin’s position in future histories of science. Chomsky’s position too will be just fine. I do worry about how we will look in those histories, however. Because from where I sit the rampant anti-intellectual responses and the failures to distinguish nonsense from solid science in the attacks on Chomsky’s work look more like harbingers of a new dark age, one that rejects thoughtful scientific probes into human nature and levels charges of a new kind of apostasy– the apostasy of using one’s mind instead of gut instinct. And I suspect that, from the perspective of future intellectual historians, Chomsky’s ability to produce this last great piece of work against the backdrop of our new dark age will make his achievements seem all the more impressive.