The Voice of Dissidence
The Financial Post, July 8, 1995
|In the land of the free and the home of the brave,
Noam Chomsky is a dissident.
For 30 years, this mild-looking East Coast academic has been denouncing the U.S. government and its puppet-master, big business, for sponsoring the oppression, torture and murder of the poor in order to make the world safe for American capitalism.
This Savonarola of our century can fill a hall at the drop of a leaflet. But where the inflammatory friar of Florence was silenced by hanging and roasting at the stake, Chomsky's punishment is to be consigned to media oblivion in his own land.
In the 1960s his name was a mantra on every university campus in the West. If few of those excited students understood the significance of his work in linguistics, only the brain-dead were unaware that Chomsky had done a spell in jail for protesting against the Vietnam War.
Last month the passionate professor flew to England to be awarded an honorary degree by Cambridge University. This was in recognition of his theory that human beings have an innate (and unique) faculty for acquiring language, a hypothesis first published in 1957 when he was 30 years old, highly influential outside his own field, and still predominant within it.
Afterwards, 2,000 of his fans packed Central Hall in Westminster to hear the other Noam Chomsky deliver an ironic, but almost routine, dissection of America's crimes against democracy at home and abroad. ("Tough love?" he queries. "It means love the rich and tough on everyone else.")
Chomsky's award of a Cambridge degree was appropriate, as one of his heroes is Bertrand Russell. A picture of the Cambridge philosopher dominates his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His first copy was ruined by the person or persons unknown whom Chomsky calls "the sauerkraut bomber" and who wrecked the office in the 1970s.
Although Chomsky claims no great resemblance to his hero, least of all in their background, it is striking that both men did their mould-breaking work in an obscure discipline at a young age, that both became political activists, both were vilified by the establishment and both went to jail for their beliefs.
Why do they ignore you in the U.S., I asked Chomsky the morning after his Westminster rally. Have you lost your sting?
"It's not that I've lost my voice," he replied. "I never had one."
But in the Vietnam days?
"I was always completely excluded. This is total myth, when they say 'once upon a time we were open to it but now he's just repeating the same old stuff.' It's a myth concocted to justify why they don't allow dissident voices to appear."
Chomsky's voice, normally soft, had a hard edge and I saw a stiff neck behind the gentle, obliging manner.
Is it because you have no party, no club?
"No, it's because I'm saying the wrong things."
Chomsky believes -- no, he asserts -- that the power elite in the U.S. (or anywhere else) survives by marginalizing the uneducated and brainwashing the educated to bend both to its purposes.
Perhaps, I said, the people who run America really believe they live in a benign democracy. They are sincere.
"Yes," said Chomsky, his voice gentle again. "And the people who ran Russia had the same belief. And Himmler -- did you ever read Himmler's diaries? It's full of talk of his nobility and grandeur. So they're sincere in the sense that Himmler was sincere."
Yet you say ordinary people see the truth. They just prefer football to politics because they can participate in it?
"Can see the truth. That doesn't mean they do. There's no special inner light. It's common sense. The point about human affairs, the things people care about, is that nobody understands anything. Therefore, insofar as anything is known, you can explain it to a 10-year-old."
Chomsky's contempt for political pundits knows no bounds. He especially scorns Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state. His pronouncements, he said, are so absurd they made his MIT undergraduates laugh.
Why, if people can see the truth, don't they rise up in anger? Chomsky's answer is to quote the Scottish philosopher David Hume: "It is by opinion only that obedience is guaranteed." In other words, people are kept complaisant by propaganda.
So you are a conspiracy theorist? I said.
"Not at all. Conspiracy theory is a four-letter word that's used by intellectuals who know they don't have the capacity to answer arguments, so they try to throw mud. I'm as much of a conspiracy theorist as Adam Smith was."
But you call yourself an anarchist. That frightens people, doesn't it?
"Maybe it does. It shouldn't. I mean Russell was, in his best period, very close to anarchist. Anarchism in my view comes straight out of the Enlightenment and classical liberalism."
Chomsky describes himself as a libertarian socialist, and claims that ordinary people, even the redneck audiences he addressed during the Gulf War, agree with him once he has explained things to them.
"You talk for five minutes and puncture a few of the obvious myths and people see it, start laughing and I end up with a standing ovation. The covering of jingoism and fanaticism is so thin. But not at the Harvard Faculty Club. I could talk to them for 10 years and they wouldn't hear one word."
Are you a pessimist?
Chomsky's answer was indirect, but black. "The Enlightenment will look like a blip, an odd distortion in the Dark Ages of irrationality, fanaticism and hatred. There was just this little moment of which people like Russell and Dewey were the last representatives."
Do you not get demoralized?
"Why should I?"
You get big audiences but nothing changes.
"That's not true. The country is totally different to what it was 30 years ago." Chomsky cited attitudes to racial and sexual equality, the environment, even the fate of the American Indians.
I ventured surprise that U.S. politics had continued to move to the right in spite of the end of the cold war and "ideologism."
Chomsky jumped. "There's no end of ideologism. This is another invention of intellectuals. It's safe to say that almost anything that's written by elite intellectuals is a joke.
"Look. Intellectuals have to have a way of justifying their existence, of serving power, of sounding profound and so on. So you get this totally meaningless gibberish. There's ideological conflict all over the place."
Chomsky grew up in the poor Jewish working class culture of New York, which by his own account was highly sophisticated. He spent hours listening to the night-time arguments at his uncle's newsstand at 72nd St. and Broadway.
I said: You're an intellectual yourself.
"I'm a person. I'm no more an intellectual than the guy who mows my lawn."
You're a philosopher, a linguistics expert. By any categorization you're an intellectual.
"Nothing that I know about language and philosophy even bears on these topics. These are all in the public domain. They're perfectly straightforward.
"I happened to grow up in a milieu of relatives who were first-generation immigrants from eastern Europe, who never went to school and were mostly unemployed working class, and who all read, talked, went to concerts and so on."
Chomsky was patient when I suggested a connection between his linguistic theory and his political outlook. He pointed to Enlightenment writers who had seen language as an example of the innate creativity of mankind, but said for him there was no deductive connection.
But aren't you unusual in having this completely coherent picture of the world? Most people find it a lot messier.
"Maybe people don't say it as eloquently as Hume did, but everyone understands. If you have any degree of authority or power, even if it's over your children, you realize pretty quickly that if you're going to control them you're going to have to control their minds.
"That means the educational system . . . and everyone else must be in the business of some form of indoctrination or marginalization."
Has it ever occurred to you that your analysis . . .
"Could be totally wrong?" Chomsky broke in. "Of course. Maybe it is. And I'll be happy if someone tells me what the mistakes are."
As I left Chomsky at the airport I wondered: Can a man so brilliant be so deluded? Or will we be forced one day to admit that he was right all along?