Conscience of a nation

When President George W Bush was sworn in, Washington braced itself for the biggest inaugural day demonstrations since Vietnam War protesters dogged Richard Nixon in 1973. The call to the streets was backed by a key veteran of that anti-war movement, Noam Chomsky.

Yet the United States’s number one dissident is neither surprised nor disappointed by this election. “It was a triumph of US democracy,” he says. “Issues on which the business world is united don’t arise in elections, so people vote on peripheral issues the media concentrate on: personality, style will Bush remember where Canada is? That’s how to maintain power when you can’t control people by force. That’s exactly the way the Madisonian system is supposed to work.”

Chomsky (72) has spent much of his life stripping away the US’s most cherished illusions. Attacking a political system of “four-year dictatorship” and an intelligentsia servile to power, he sees not a free press but the paradox of “brainwashing under freedom”. A perennial scourge of US foreign policy, from its Latin American “backyard” to Israel and Indonesia, he tilts at the US’s “flattering self-image” of benevolent intent. Domestic liberties in the world’s freest society coexist, he insists, with an imperial dynamic that, in making the world safe for US capital, leaves the blood of atrocities on American hands.

Edward Said, professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, sees Chomsky’s work as a “protracted war between fact and a series of myths. Noam is one of the most significant challengers of unjust power and delusions; he goes against every assumption about American altruism and humanitarianism.” Another friend, the journalist John Pilger, agrees Chomsky’s enduring theme is power, “that unaccountable power must always be scrutinised and never accepted at face value. He strips away layers of propaganda not recognised as propaganda, brilliantly sifting through political discourse. Often, he goes to the public record, revealing truth in the words of power itself.”

Chomsky first made his name in linguistic philosophy, where the “Chomskian revolution” in studying language as a faculty of the mind/brain was pivotal in the radical shift in cognitive science of the 1950s and 1960s; the era before him was known as “Linguistics BC”. While he has modified his linguistic theory over the years, his impact on the field has been likened to that of Albert Einstein or Sigmund Freud. He has broached barriers between the sciences and humanities. “He did for cognitive science what Galileo did for physical science,” says Neil Smith, professor of linguistics at University College, London. “We now study the mind as part of the physical world.”

Chomsky ranks with Karl Marx, William Shakespeare and the Bible as one of the 10 most quoted sources in the humanities. Even one of his staunchest critics, the philosopher Hilary Putnam, acknowledged that reading Chomsky was to be “struck by a sense of great intellectual power; one knows one is encountering an extraordinary mind”, whose virtues include “originality and scorn for the faddish and superficial”. His dual prowess, in linguistics and politics, and about 70 books, have fuelled suspicions that there must be two Chomskys. Yet their relationship remains an enigma.

When The New York Times called him “arguably the most important intellectual alive today”, the writer continued: “[So] how can he write such terrible things about US foreign policy?” His view of academics and journalists as “secular priests” has not endeared him to the media, yet his frequent talks in the US and abroad are guaranteed audiences in their thousands.

Chomsky, now institute professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, has described himself as a “fanatic” in terms of workload and a “neurotic letter writer”. According to Morris Halle, a colleague and friend of more than 40 years, “when you send him five pages of criticism, he sends 10 pages back, whoever you are. It’s not ego, it’s the substance of the criticism that’s the issue.” While many friends stress Chomsky’s work ethic, phenomenal memory, ironic sense of humour and self-effacement, Halle says he is “not much for small talk; everything he does he takes seriously with real commitment”.

Chomsky was born in 1928 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the eldest of two boys. His father William, a Hebrew scholar, had fled Russia in 1913 to avoid being drafted into the Tsarist army. His mother Elsie, who came as an infant from Lithuania, also taught in Hebrew school. “My immediate family was kind of a Jewish ghetto in Philadelphia,” says Chomsky. “My father’s family was extremely orthodox, from an East European shtetl.”

Chomsky was a child of the Great Depression of 1929 to 1939. Among his earliest memories were “seeing people coming to the door selling rags; and in a trolley car with my mother, I saw people beating up women strikers outside a textile factory”. He came early to political consciousness. “I always felt isolated in my picture of the world. This was the late Thirties; a time of political activism, debate and great fear of Hitler conquering Europe.

I saw the world as a complicated, frightening place.” Survival was tough for “the only Jewish family in a lower-middle-class neighbourhood that was mostly Irish and German-Catholic, and rabidly anti-Semitic. The local kids went to Jesuit school, and I grew up with a visceral fear of Catholics. There were pro-Nazi beer parties at the fall of Paris. Then in December 1941 [after the attack on Pearl Harbour] the neighbourhood shifted 180 degrees. The same people who were cheering for the Nazis would open their doors wearing tin hats to say, ‘pull down the blinds’. It was an educational experience.”

On the origins of his acute sense of moral responsibility, Chomsky is tentative: “I was very moved as a young child by oppression, destruction, the intense fear of what was going on in Europe. I’d hear Hitler’s speeches on the radio and see the reactions of my mother. By the time I was nine or 10 I was reading newspapers, and it went on from there. It seems obvious: you’re responsible for your own actions, and their anticipated consequences.” He was 16 when the US dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. “I was in a Hebrew- speaking summer camp when news came. I found it shocking, and equally shocking to me was that nobody seemed to care.”

Chomsky sees the debate among immigrants as his political education. A lifelong anarchist or “libertarian socialist” not a doctrine but a “tendency in human thought” he believes “violence, deceit and lawlessness are natural functions of the state”. At 10 he wrote an editorial for his school newspaper on the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War, a “lament about the rise of fascism”.

“I was always on the side of the losers,” he said. “I spent my free time from age 13 picking up anarchist books in stores. I was quickly attracted to left anarchist critiques of the Bolsheviks, and [became] interested in the Spanish anarchist revolution, which was crushed by communists.” He was active in a “fringe of Zionism” “always opposed to a Jewish state, and in favour of a binationalist outcome in Palestine based on Arab-Jewish cooperation, which wasn’t so unrealistic at the time as it seems today”.

In 1953 he spent six weeks on an Israeli kibbutz with his wife, Carol, whom he had married in 1949. “We seriously thought of moving there; I liked the life. The nice thing about physical labour is you have a finite task when it’s done, it’s done. No one’s going to second-guess you.” But there were flaws in what Chomsky saw as an anarchist experiment. “The way the Arabs, and even Oriental Jews, were treated was very ugly. The thing that disturbed me most was the ideological uniformity; it was deeply Stalinist left and Buberite which I found impossible to take.”

Drawn into linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, Chomsky became a junior fellow at Harvard. He moved down the road to MIT in 1955. “Jews were barely tolerated in Harvard; they weren’t part of the cultural life. One reason MIT became so great was that Jewish intellectuals couldn’t get jobs elsewhere.” He felt like an outsider in other ways. “I had no professional credentials. I got my position here in a research laboratory on electronics, of which I know nothing. But it happened to be the centre of innovative research and had no vested interests in the humanities. They were willing to experiment.”

His Syntactic Structures, published in 1957 when he was 29, revolutionised the study of language as part of psychology and biology. From his belief that, despite the Babel of tongues, humans share an innate language faculty, or “organ”, grew his theory of an underlying universal grammar. New disciplines, from psycholinguistics to how children learn language, sprang from his ideas. According to Jean Aitchison, professor of language and communication at Oxford: “In less than 120 pages, he turned linguistics from an obscure discipline, studied by missionaries, into a major social science. He shifted the question from the corpus of actual utterance to the mental system that produces it.”

Heir to enlightenment ideas of language as a “mirror of the mind”, Chomsky shares the Cartesian view that language is the human inheritance that most distinguishes man from animal or machine. His work is still disparaged in some quarters as unscientific “MIT mentalism”. Yet according to Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at MIT and author of The Language Instinct, Chomsky’s “theory of generative grammar is the most common single approach to linguistics even today. It’s a minority view, but everyone sets their sights on it: it’s the theory to beat.”

Chomsky’s scathing 1959 review of pyschologist Burrhus Skinner, for whom language was merely learned behaviour, bucked the empiricist tenet of the blank slate that there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses. “He gave the first, fatal shot to the school of behaviourism and made theories of innate mental structure respectable after centuries of their being unthinkable,” says Pinker, who hints at one link between theories of language and politics. “Skinner said behaviour should be controlled; he wanted to turn society into a Skinner box rewarding and punishing humans like the rats and pigeons in his experiments, a vision Chomsky described as like a ‘well-run concentration camp’.”

Chomsky has tended to shy away from explicitly linking his linguistic and political theories. Others, though, link his insistence on universality that everybody speaks “human” and the creativity evidenced by language to his anarchist vision of free association. Political systems often rest on a view of human nature, and in his 1970 essay Language and Freedom, Chomsky wrote of language as a “springboard” for investigating that nature. “Linkages were drawn in the 17th and 18th centuries between language as a fundamental, creative component of intelligence, and an instinct for freedom that could be the basis of how humans organise their lives,” he says.

“I think there is something to it, though there’s certainly no logical connection. But it’s an interesting question as to why behaviourism had the appeal and prestige it did when it’s so barren and shallow. Within the Marxist left not including Marx there’s a strong tendency to insist there is no human nature; that people are just constructed by their historical circumstances and environment. This makes no sense, but these ideas are very convenient for those who aspire to managerial politics; they remove moral barriers to manipulation and coercion. “If people have no fundamental human nature based on some instinct for freedom that can challenge and overthrow aggression and hierarchy, then there really are no moral values; if people are ignorant, malleable creatures who can be modified by experience and training, they can be controlled for their own good. That’s an appealing idea to intellectuals across the political spectrum. Leninism is one expression of it, and social democracy is another.”

By 1961 Chomsky was a full professor at MIT. In 1964, supporting students against the draft, he began openly resisting the Vietnam War. He rues it was “already much too late; after the US invaded South Vietnam, what we call ethnic cleansing when others are doing it was going on from the early Sixties. That was the time to get seriously involved.” For years, he recalls, “it was almost impossible to act publicly against the war. In Boston, a liberal city which likes to call itself the Athens of America, I spoke at the first major public meeting, in October 1965. We were attacked by hordes of people, and were only saved by the state police: they didn’t like what we were saying but didn’t want people murdered on Boston Common.” He became a tax resister in 1966 and was arrested at the 1967 Pentagon protest.

In his 1966 essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Chomsky described their duty as being “to speak the truth and to expose lies”. His first collection of political writings, American Power and the New Mandarins, was published in 1969. While intellectuals and “commissars” lie in the service of power, he suggests, it requires no expertise other than “Cartesian common sense” to understand politics or foreign affairs. Some critics have objected to an opposition between indoctrinated “elites” and “the people”. He responds: “In any inegalitarian society, there’s a natural tendency for those who share wealth and power to try to maintain it. Some systems do it by force; others by gaining the consent of the population, or at least their passivity.”

In Manufacturing Consent, co-authored with Edward Herman, Chomsky proposed a model of the mass media that moulds this consent with bias and omission. “Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism,” they wrote. While some see the “propaganda model” as reducing everyone to dupes or liars, others have dismissed it as conspiracy theory.
“It’s exactly the opposite it’s free-market theory,” says Chomsky. “The media are major corporations. They sell a product (readers or viewers) to a market (advertisers). If a Martian were looking at this system, what would he expect? That the media product would be shaped by the perspectives and interests of the sellers and buyers and the external conditions (the state). You’d expect no interaction at all. It’s no more a conspiracy than that General Motors tries to make a profit.”

The Internet is a means of evading media limitations, he believes, citing protests like those in Seattle, which were heavily reliant on Net organisation. But he sees a struggle being waged between its use as an “information superhighway”and as a channel for “e-commerce”.
He says: “As long as it was in the public sector it was free and open but limited; few people had access. Now access is wider, but the freedom is under attack.”

In Deterring Democracy, and other books on international affairs, Chomsky has copiously documented how Washington thwarts democratic experiments across the globe. Though his focus is increasingly on economic and trade issues, he continues to hold the US to account as a “rogue superpower” that distinguishes between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims of atrocity, depending on whether they take place in a client state or in an “official enemy”. He claims that if the Nuremberg laws had been applied then every post-war US president would have been hanged.

He was accused of playing down Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia, but maintains he was merely telling the truth about the number of deaths. “We also pointed out that casualties of American bombing had been greatly exaggerated, but no one criticised us for correcting that.” Nor does he expect change under Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Powell: “If you take Republicans at their words, they’ll probably be willing to use force only in more limited ways under the ‘Powell doctrine’ that says don’t intervene except with massive and overwhelming force. That’s only a nuance of difference with the Democrats.” But he deems the new administration “much more dangerous” in its commitment to the national missile defence programme. “It’ll be interpreted as a first-strike weapon system by any potential adversary. It’s absolutely insane.”

Fred Halliday, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, believes Chomsky, a luminary of a “new anti-imperialism”, overestimates US power and underestimates a public shift in attitudes and debates on human rights in the past 10 years. “He’s become the guru of the new anti- capitalist and Third World movements. They take his views very uncritically; it’s part of the Seattle mood whatever America does is wrong. He confronts orthodoxy but he’s becoming a big simplifier. What he can’t see is Third World and other regimes that are oppressive and not controlled by America.”

Pinker believes a tendency to treat Chomsky as a “guru and pontiff or a great Satan” is encouraged by his own style, “which portrays people who disagree with him as stupid or evil, using withering scorn in his rhetoric. It’s great sport if you identify with him, but it leads to equally extreme responses on the opposite side.” For Neil Smith, however, Chomsky “can be a ruthless debater in arguing for what he believes is the truth. He thinks faster than other people and tends to win arguments. But he’s divisive only because he puts forward novel positions that undermine others.”

Chomsky drew flak in the early Eighties for his stand for free speech in the case of Robert Faurisson, the French professor convicted in court of falsifying history for denying the existence of Nazi gas chambers. Chomsky says: “The principle that the state should determine historical truth and punish those who say otherwise is a legacy of totalitarianism. In this case what the state determines to be true happens to be true, but that’s irrelevant. It doesn’t show great sympathy for the memory of victims of the Holocaust to adopt the doctrines of their murderers.”

He also opposed the ITN libel case last year against LM magazine, which had alleged images of Trnopolje camp in Bosnia had been falsified as a big media corporation muscling in against free speech. For the Oxford historian Stephen Howe, Chomsky has “the faults as well as the virtues of the great moral crusader. Sometimes his attacks can seem excessive and indiscriminate.” Phil Edwards, former culture editor of Red Pepper magazine, believes “it’s difficult to criticise Chomsky on the left which is odd, given his own denunciation of conformity”.

Chomsky himself discourages uncritical adherence to anyone’s views, whether by Marxists or Freudians. He disavows the “Talmudic certainty” one commentator attributed to him. “It’s a bad choice of words; the Talmud is anything but certain it’s full of debate and argument. But if it’s true, it’s a fault.”

For Pilger, who says Chomsky almost single-handedly exposed Indonesian atrocities in East Timor, he is a “genuine people’s hero; an inspiration for struggles all over the world for that basic decency known as freedom. To a lot of people in the margins activists and movements he’s unfailingly supportive.”

While some sense cynicism, Chomsky favours Antonio Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. In his own unique role as a moral conscience, insisting that the privileges of the “free world” should not rest on corpses elsewhere, some see a theological thrust; that he carries a higher moral torch for the world’s most powerful country.

“There’s truth in that,” he says. “I’m a citizen of the US and I have a share of responsibility for what it does. I’d like to see it act in ways that meet decent moral standards. It’s back to moral truisms: it’s of little moral value to criticise the crimes of someone else though you should do it, and tell the truth. I have no influence over the policies of Sudan but a certain degree over the policies of the US. It’s not a matter of expectation but of aspiration.”

Chomsky’s latest book, A New Generation Draws the Line, is published by Verso

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Minding the gap — or not

Barbara Kingsolver's long-awaited new novel recalls a dangerous era for artists, writes Maya Jaggi.

Everyman’s an alien

Maya Jaggi detects echoes of 9/11 in a story about Chinese totalitarianism.

Cairo calling

Alaa Al Aswany, author of <i>The Yacoubian Building</i>, has a new novel,<i> Chicago</i>. He speaks to Maya Jaggi.

Arabic writers still fighting for freedom of expression

Maya Jaggi reports from the Cairo book fair on the struggle for freedom of expression.

When East is West

Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk has faced criminal charges and even death threats in his native Turkey, yet he refuses to be disillusioned.

Free spirit

Ben Okri has been described as a 'literary visionary' and 'irritatingly pseudomystical'. His latest novel, <i>Starbook</i>, continues his quest to capture Africa, writes Maya Jaggi.

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

‘We struggle for water, but power stations and coal mines...

A proposed pipeline will bring water polluted with Gauteng’s sewage to the Waterberg in Limpopo to boost the coal industry during the climate crisis

Journey through anxious Joburg

A new book has collected writing about the condition of living, yes, with a high crime rate, but also other, more pervasive existential urban stresses particular to the Global South

Football legend Maradona dies

The Argentinian icon died at his home on Wednesday, two weeks after having surgery on a blood clot in his brain

Covid vaccines: Hope balanced with caution

As Covid vaccines near the manufacturing stage, a look at two polio vaccines provides valuable historical insights

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…