Chomsky. It’s highly likely that the mere sound of his name will polarize you. You will find yourself either for Noam Chomsky or adamantly against. You will either stand with him on the Arab-Israeli conflict or you won’t; you either support his libertarian-socialist views or you’re firmly against; you either agree with him on issues of privacy and authority or you don’t. However, regardless of your position on the Chomsky-support-scale you have to recognize that once he’s gone — he’s 84 years old — he’ll be recognized as one of the world’s great contemporary thinkers and writers. In the same mold as George Orwell, who was one of Chomsky’s early influences, Chomsky speaks truth to power. Whether the topic is political criticism, mass media, analytic philosophy, the military-industrial complex, computer science or linguistics the range of Chomsky’s discourse is astonishing, and his opinion not to be ignored.
From the Guardian:
It may have been pouring with rain, water overrunning the gutters and spreading fast and deep across London’s Euston Road, but this did not stop a queue forming, and growing until it snaked almost all the way back to Euston station. Inside Friends House, a Quaker-run meeting hall, the excitement was palpable. People searched for friends and seats with thinly disguised anxiety; all watched the stage until, about 15 minutes late, a short, slightly top-heavy old man climbed carefully on to the stage and sat down. The hall filled with cheers and clapping, with whoops and with whistles.
Noam Chomsky, said two speakers (one of them Mariam Said, whose late husband, Edward, this lecture honours) “needs no introduction”. A tired turn of phrase, but they had a point: in a bookshop down the road the politics section is divided into biography, reference, the Clintons, Obama, Thatcher, Marx, and Noam Chomsky. He topped the first Foreign Policy/Prospect Magazine list of global thinkers in 2005 (the most recent, however, perhaps reflecting a new editorship and a new rubric, lists him not at all). One study of the most frequently cited academic sources of all time found that he ranked eighth, just below Plato and Freud. The list included the Bible.
When he starts speaking, it is in a monotone that makes no particular rhetorical claim on the audience’s attention; in fact, it’s almost soporific. Last October, he tells his audience, he visited Gaza for the first time. Within five minutes many of the hallmarks of Chomsky’s political writing, and speaking, are displayed: his anger, his extraordinary range of reference and experience – journalism from inside Gaza, personal testimony, detailed knowledge of the old Egyptian government, its secret service, the new Egyptian government, the historical context of the Israeli occupation, recent news reports (of sewage used by the Egyptians to flood tunnels out of Gaza, and by Israelis to spray non-violent protesters). Fact upon fact upon fact, but also a withering, sweeping sarcasm – the atrocities are “tolerated politely by Europe as usual”. Harsh, vivid phrases – the “hideously charred corpses of murdered infants”; bodies “writhing in agony” – unspool until they become almost a form of punctuation.
You could argue that the latter is necessary, simply a description of atrocities that must be reported, but it is also a method that has diminishing returns. The facts speak for themselves; the adjectives and the sarcasm have the counterintuitive effect of cheapening them, of imposing on the world a disappointingly crude and simplistic argument. “The sentences,” wrote Larissa MacFarquhar in a brilliant New Yorker profile of Chomsky 10 years ago, “are accusations of guilt, but not from a position of innocence or hope for something better: Chomsky’s sarcasm is the scowl of a fallen world, the sneer of hell’s veteran to its appalled naifs” – and thus, in an odd way, static and ungenerative.
first came to prominence in 1959, with the argument, detailed in a book review (but already present in his first book, published two years earlier), that contrary to the prevailing idea that children learned language by copying and by reinforcement (ie behaviourism), basic grammatical arrangements were already present at birth. The argument revolutionised the study of linguistics; it had fundamental ramifications for anyone studying the mind. It also has interesting, even troubling ramifications for his politics. If we are born with innate structures of linguistic and by extension moral thought, isn’t this a kind of determinism that denies political agency? What is the point of arguing for any change at all?
“The most libertarian positions accept the same view,” he answers. “That there are instincts, basic conditions of human nature that lead to a preferred social order. In fact, if you’re in favour of any policy – reform, revolution, stability, regression, whatever – if you’re at least minimally moral, it’s because you think it’s somehow good for people. And good for people means conforming to their fundamental nature. So whoever you are, whatever your position is, you’re making some tacit assumptions about fundamental human nature … The question is: what do we strive for in developing a social order that is conducive to fundamental human needs? Are human beings born to be servants to masters, or are they born to be free, creative individuals who work with others to inquire, create, develop their own lives? I mean, if humans were totally unstructured creatures, they would be … a tool which can properly be shaped by outside forces. That’s why if you look at the history of what’s called radical behaviourism, [where] you can be completely shaped by outside forces – when [the advocates of this] spell out what they think society ought to be, it’s totalitarian.”
Chomsky, now 84, has been politically engaged all his life; his first published article, in fact, was against fascism, and written when he was 10. Where does the anger come from? “I grew up in the Depression. My parents had jobs, but a lot of the family were unemployed working class, so they had no jobs at all. So I saw poverty and repression right away. People would come to the door trying to sell rags – that was when I was four years old. I remember riding with my mother in a trolley car and passing a textile worker’s strike where the women were striking outside and the police were beating them bloody.”
He met Carol, who would become his wife, at about the same time, when he was five years old. They married when she was 19 and he 21, and were together until she died nearly 60 years later, in 2008. He talks about her constantly, given the chance: how she was so strict about his schedule when they travelled (she often accompanied him on lecture tours) that in Latin America they called her El Comandante; the various bureaucratic scrapes they got into, all over the world. By all accounts, she also enforced balance in his life: made sure he watched an hour of TV a night, went to movies and concerts, encouraged his love of sailing (at one point, he owned a small fleet of sailboats, plus a motorboat); she water-skied until she was 75.
But she was also politically involved: she took her daughters (they had three children: two girls and a boy) to demonstrations; he tells me a story about how, when they were protesting against the Vietnam war, they were once both arrested on the same day. “And you get one phone call. So my wife called our older daughter, who was at that time 12, I guess, and told her, ‘We’re not going to come home tonight, can you take care of the two kids?’ That’s life.” At another point, when it looked like he would be jailed for a long time, she went back to school to study for a PhD, so that she could support the children alone. It makes no sense, he told an interviewer a couple of years ago, for a woman to die before her husband, “because women manage so much better, they talk and support each other. My oldest and closest friend is in the office next door to me; we haven’t once talked about Carol.” His eldest daughter often helps him now. “There’s a transition point, in some way.”
Does he think that in all these years of talking and arguing and writing, he has ever changed one specific thing? “I don’t think any individual changes anything alone. Martin Luther King was an important figure but he couldn’t have said: ‘This is what I changed.’ He came to prominence on a groundswell that was created by mostly young people acting on the ground. In the early years of the antiwar movement we were all doing organising and writing and speaking and gradually certain people could do certain things more easily and effectively, so I pretty much dropped out of organising – I thought the teaching and writing was more effective. Others, friends of mine, did the opposite. But they’re not less influential. Just not known.”
Read the entire article following the jump.