Conscience of a Nation
The Guardian, January 20, 2001
George W Bush is sworn in as US president today, Washington will be
braced for the biggest inaugural-day demonstrations since Vietnam war
protesters dogged Richard Nixon in 1973. The call to the streets is
backed by a key veteran of that anti-war movement, Noam Chomsky. Yet
America's number one dissident is neither surprised nor disappointed
by this election.
"It was a triumph of US democracy," he says, with terse irony that can be mistaken for cynicism. "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 George 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, now 72, has spent much of his life stripping away America'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 America'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". For him: "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's latest book, A New Generation Draws The Line, is out next month. Its title echoes Tony Blair's words on the 1999 Kosovo war. For Chomsky, the "official doctrine" of the dawn of a brave new era of military intervention to safeguard human rights is as much a sham as the "New World Order" trumpeted during the Gulf war. Contrasting the avowed concern for Kosovo with indifference to Kurds in Nato's ally Turkey, or with US fuelling of atrocities in Colombia and (with its British sidekick) East Timor, he denies that the inconsistency can be benign. On Kosovo, Chomsky adds, since the worst Serb atrocities predictably followed the Nato air strikes they were said to justify, protecting human rights was neither a motive nor an outcome.
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 50s and 60s; the era before him was known as "Linguistics BC". While he has modified his linguistic theory over the years - the latest being the Minimalist Programme outlined last autumn in his book New Horizons In The Study Of Language And Mind - his impact on the field has been likened to that of Einstein or 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 Marx, Shakespeare and the Bible as one of the 10 most quoted sources in the humanities - and is the only writer among them still alive. 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 included "originality and scorn for the faddish and superficial". His dual prowess, in linguistics and politics, and some 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 American foreign policy?"
His view of academics and journalists as "secular priests" has scarcely endeared him to the US media , yet his frequent talks in the US and abroad are guaranteed audiences in their thousands. His speeches and interviews, including transcriptions from local radio, cram the internet.
He is institute professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, across the Charles river from Boston. His once wiry frame now appears fuller (though he remains a keen swimmer), and his soft, gravelly voice belies his reputation for fierce rows. Seriousness gives way to radiant anticipation of a weekend visit from his daughter Diane, who works for development agencies with her Nicaraguan husband in Managua, and and their two children, Ema and Inti. (Chomsky and his wife Carol have another daughter, Avi, who teaches Latin American history, and a son, Harry, a softwear engineer in California.)
Chomsky has described himself as a "fanatic" in terms of workload and a "neurotic letter writer". According to Morris Halle, a colleague and friend for 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." Two assistants help cope with the 200-odd emails he receives each day. 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." His mother's relatives, who included communists, were "unemployed and involved in a rich, vibrant intellectual life - ranging from music and art to political activity. Most had little formal education, but it was a lively working-class culture that happened to be Jewish." One uncle in New York, "a hunchback with a background in crime", ran a newsstand on the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway.
Chomsky was a child of the Great Depression of 1929-39. "By the standards of those days we were well off; both my parents had jobs." 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 30s; 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 Japanese attacked the US fleet at Pearl Harbor] 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." He adds: "Neither my brother nor I talked to my parents about this. They were in the Jewish ghetto and we were partly out in the streets. But it wasn't the kind of thing you talked about."
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 atomic 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. There was nobody to talk to because no-one saw it as an atrocity." While his progressive primary school had put a "premium on individual creativity", he found his high school - where he excelled - dullingly competitive.
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. He recalls: "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 bi-nationalist outcome in Palestine based on Arab-Jewish co-operation, 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 Schatz (now a linguist), whom he had known at Hebrew school and 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, where he worked under the libertarian Zellig Harris (and paid his way as a Hebrew schoolteacher), 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 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. (A chimpanzee whom researchers in the 1970s tried unsuccessfully to teach sign language was roguishly named Nim Chimpsky.) 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 BF Skinner, for whom language was merely learnt 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, happy in his research, and with a young family. In 1964, supporting students against the draft, he began openly resisting the Vietnam war ("it would have been hopelessly immoral not to"). 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 60s. That was the time to get seriously involved." He knew there was no going back. "It was a tremendous burden for my wife. She went back to college and got a degree partly because it looked as though I might go to jail."
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. Norman Mailer, who was jailed with him, recalled a "slim, sharp- featured man with an ascetic expression and an air of gentle but absolute moral authority" - who seemed "uneasy at the thought of missing class on Monday".
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, such as those in Seattle, which were heavily reliant on net organisation. But he sees a struggle being waged, since net development was handed to private corporations in the mid-90s, between its use as an "information superhighway"and as a channel for "ecommerce". 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" which 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 American 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 LSE, 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 80s 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 once 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."
On whether he is slowing down, he says: "I have to retire, but I don't think anything will change. My professional work is intense and exciting, and political commitments grow. Something has to go if you try to live two intense lives - like relaxation. If my wife and I get to see one movie in a year, we consider it a triumph." But on Cape Cod they have a summer cottage and a sailing boat. "It's the only way I can survive the rest of the year."
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 ("a realistic account of the way the world works will sound cynical"), Chomsky favours Gramsci's "pessisim 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 United States 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."
Life at a glance: Avram Noam Chomsky
Born: December 7 1928, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Education: Oak Lane Country Day School; Central High School, Phila- delphia;University of Pennsylvania.
Married: 1949 Carol Schatz (two daughters Avi, Diane; one son, Harry).
Career: 1951-55 Junior fellow, Harvard University; 1955- Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1961 professor, 1976- institute professor, linguistics and philosophy.
Some books: Syntactic Structures ('57), American Power And The New Mandarins (69) Language And Responsibility (79), The Chomsky Reader (87), Manufacturing Consent (88), Necessary Illusions (89), Deterring Democracy (92), Year 501 (93), World Orders, Old And New (97), Fateful Triangle (updated 99), The New Military Humanism (99), Rogue States (00), New Horizons In The Study Of Language and Mind (00), A New Generation Draws The Line (01).