The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Chomsky on Foucault (and Also, Exactly What Was Judith Butler Trying to Say?)

Posted on | November 29, 2017 | 2 Comments

Michel Foucault and his very wrong book, ‘The History of Sexuality.’

It’s not my habit to quote Noam Chomsky, whom I despise, but I happened upon something he once said about Michel Foucault:

You can make things look complicated, that’s part of the game that intellectuals play; things must look complicated. You might not be conscious about that, but it’s a way of gaining prestige, power and influence. . . .
The only way to understand Foucault is if you are a graduate student or you are attending a university and have been trained in this particular style of discourse. That’s a way of guaranteeing, it might not be his purpose, but that’s a way of guaranteeing that intellectuals will have power, prestige and influence. If something can be said simply, say it simply, so that the carpenter next door can understand you. Anything that is at all well understood about human affairs is pretty simple. I find Foucault really interesting but I remain skeptical of his mode of expression. I find that I have to decode him, and after I have decoded him, maybe I’m missing something. I don’t get the significance of what I am left with. I have never effectively understood what he was talking about. I mean, when I try to take the big words he uses and put them into words that I can understand and use, it is difficult for me to accomplish this task. It all strikes me as overly convoluted and very abstract. But what happens when you try to skip down to real cases? The trouble with Foucault, and with this certain kind of theory, arises when it tries to come down to earth. Really, nobody was able to explain to me the importance of his work.

It is a damning judgment of postmodernism that someone of Chomsky’s stature as an intellectual was forced to admit that he found Foucault’s writing impenetrable. And what Chomsky says about the deliberate mystification practiced by the purveyors of academic jargon is accurate. Truth tends to reside in ideas that are simple enough for ordinary people to understand without the tutorial guidance of professors. By writing in opaque jargon, intellectuals create a phony prestige for themselves and their colleagues in academia, who act as a priestly caste, interpreting these “sacred texts” for the students who are indoctrinated with the quasi-religious belief system of the intellectuals.


Anyone who has studied Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity knows that her 1990 book is nearly unreadable, and yet it also consistently ranks among the top sellers at Amazon (#9 in Gender Studies, as of Monday), simply because it is required reading for so many college students. Professor Butler’s fundamental idea can be summarized in a few phrases — the social construction of the gender binary within the heterosexual matrix — but it would require hours to explain what this means, and what logical consequences we can expect from the widespread popularization of this theory. However, Professor Butler certainly understood her own purpose in promoting the “subversion of identity,” i.e., the destruction of “gender,” the abolition of what anthropologists used to call “sex-role differentiation.” Professor Butler, like all feminists, is opposed to what many Christian teachers call the complementarity of male and female, particularly between husbands and wives.

Pull up a chair, and let me explain what I mean.

What do we mean by “masculine” and “feminine”? These words may conjure up many different mental images, but ever since I started my in-depth exploration of radical feminism in 2014, I have repeatedly made reference to the classic Hollywood image of Tarzan and Jane.

As a young boy, I remember being 6 or 7 years old, watching old Johnny Weissmuller movies on TV with my cousin Mark and my brother Kirby, and being captivated by the idea of the Lord of the Jungle, swinging on vines, wrestling crocodiles, and (of course) rescuing the lovely Jane. As a heroic vision of manhood, no one could beat Tarzan, nor could any woman match the beauty of Maureen O’Sullivan in the role of the civilized woman confronted by the ape-man: “Me Tarzan. You Jane.”

Yeah, baby. Welcome to the jungle.


One can see, in this adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ adventure novels, an interpretation of Darwinism that might be called racist. The backstory is that Tarzan was originally Lord Greystoke, adopted by an ape tribe after his noble parents were killed in Africa. That he not only survives, but rises to dominance in the unforgiving wilderness, can be seen as a parable of British colonial supremacy, the natural leadership of those who rule by right of their innate superiority. The idea that Tarzan movies were “racist” never occurred to us as children, and certainly neither Burroughs nor the makers of those 1930s films thought of themselves as advancing any kind of political agenda.

“Sexism”? Who ever heard of such a thing as “sexism” back then? Yet I suppose that Tarzan is the ultimate in sexism, and quite nearly a perfect script for “rape culture” as well. To us as boys, of course, watching those black-and-white Depression-era movies circa 1965, it was all just a daring adventure. We would go out roaming through the woods, imagining the tangles of honeysuckle in the Georgia hills as an African jungle, swinging from a muscadine vine near the creek, as if we were Tarzan over a mighty river full of dangerous crocodiles. Tarzan as an ideal of heroic manhood was paired, in our minds, with Jane as his natural mate, and so in addition to being racist and sexist, those old movies were also heteronormative, as the Gender Studies majors would say.

All of this — heroic masculinity and the basic complementarity between man and his mate — feminism utterly rejects, and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble is an academic attack on the naturalness of “gender,” which is inherently an attack on the sense of heterosexuality as natural.

Professor Butler, however, doesn’t state her purpose explicitly as did many radical feminists of the Second Wave. One can go back to the 1970s and read the works of lesbian feminists — Jill Johnston, Charlotte Bunch, Sidney Abbott and Barbara Love, Rita Mae Brown, Karla Jay, et al. — and find direct and unflinching denunciations of heterosexuality as an “institution” of male supremacy, but Professor Butler never says this directly. Indeed, she seems incapable of saying anything directly. She instead cites the work of others, asks suggestive questions about the connections between gender and sexuality, and does this in prose so opaque that the reader has to carefully study the pages to derive any meaning at all from Gender Trouble. What is apparent, however, is that Professor Butler writes from a perspective outside of what she calls “the heterosexual matrix,” with a purpose both to justify her anti-heterosexual stance, and also to suggest ways to subvert this social structure. Professor Butler can therefore be classified, along with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, as a pioneer of “queer theory.” Thus, feminism since the 1990s has merged with LGBT advocacy, which is why Feminism Is Queer, to invoke the title of Professor Mimi Marinucci’s recent textbook.

What caused me to pursue this 700-word digression is the fact that Professor Butler’s use of nearly incomprehensible jargon is quite like the problem with Foucault that Noam Chomsky observed. No one would read either Foucault or Butler for amusement, and both owe their influence to the fact that they are so commonly assigned as required reading for university students. In fact, Foucault’s book The History of Sexuality is one of the main sources on which Butler rests her arguments in Gender Trouble. It is worth noting that Foucault was a gay man who died of AIDS in 1984, and also worth noting that he was one of the prominent signatories of a notorious 1977 pro-pedophile petition in France. Another one of Butler’s sources, Gayle Rubin, had defended the homosexual pedophile group NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association). How many of the thousands of students who are assigned Gender Trouble (or Foucault’s work) are aware of these facts? How many university administrators have taken a critical look at Professor Butler’s work, and asked themselves what she is really advocating?

When we behold the now-furious quarrel between radical feminists and the transgender movement, we are looking at a fight between Second Wave feminist ideas and Third Wave “queer” feminism. While I am an opponent of feminism, per se, I find that at least the Second Wave radicals are on the side of biological reality, whereas transgender activists exploit the confusion emerging from Gender Studies programs, where Professor Butler’s bad ideas (and cluttered jargon) have prevailed.

Good writing is easy to read and comprehensible to any literate person. An honest writer, willing to state his argument plainly and risk criticism for his ideas, does not write the kind of difficult academic gibberish one finds in Foucault and Butler. It is no fun to be accused of sexism and homophobia for defending a traditional understanding of human nature, but I would be guilty of unmanly cowardice if I flinched in the face of such dangers, and I will not abandon my heroic boyhood ideals for the sake of political correctness. It takes courage to speak the truth, and the truth is still as simple as four words: “Me Tarzan. You Jane.”