Noam Chomsky... Still Furious at 76
Sunday Herald, March 20, 2005
On my way to meet Noam Chomsky in Boston, I pick up a copy of The American Prospect, whose cover features snarling caricatures of US Vice-President Dick Cheney, and of Chomsky: the man dubbed by Bono “the Elvis of academia”. Cheney is presented as the proverbial bull in an international china shop, Chomsky is portrayed by this “magazine of liberal intelligence” as the epitome of high- minded dove-ish, misguided idealism. Chomsky, of course, is well used to such attacks. For every cloying article by a disciple, there is a rocket from the enemy camp revelling in his perceived failings and undermining his reputation, denigrating his scholarship as a linguist and joyfully repeating statements which, when taken out of context, seem tinged with fanaticism.
To his credit, Chomsky puts them all on his website, whether it’s The New Yorker describing him as “the devil’s accountant” and “one of the greatest minds of the 20th century”, or The Nation, which lampooned him as “a very familiar kind of academic hack” whose career has been “the product of a combination of self-promotion, abuse of detractors, and the fudging of his findings”. He stands accused of asserting that every US President since Franklin D Roosevelt should have been impeached as war criminals; of supporting the murderous Pol Pot regime in Cambodia; and of comparing Israel to the Third Reich.
Leaving behind red-brick Harvard, where the winter snow is at last beginning to melt, one enters a vast industrial estate. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Chomsky has been professor of modern languages and linguistics since 1976, is home to more than 10,000 students, each of whom pays around $50,000 a year for the privilege of studying at America’s self-styled “ideas factory”.
Chomsky, who at 76 is technically retired, inhabits a suite of offices overflowing with foreign translations of his books and dusty academic journals. A photograph of the British philosopher Bertrand Russell hangs above a door, as a picture of the Pope might decorate a priest’s study. The professor, his gatekeeper says, has gone for a walk, but he should return soon, if he can find his way back. Apparently, he is exploring a hitherto uncharted underground route on the campus.
I am shown into his office, which looks as if it has been burgled. Papers are piled high and strewn on every available surface. On a desk are photographs of his grandchildren. Chomsky, who has been married to the same woman for more than half a century, has three children, two daughters – one of whom works for Oxfam, the other is a teacher – and a son, who is a software engineer. When finally he does appear, I am informed that my allotted hour has shrunk magically to 45 minutes. Interviewers, it’s intimated, are lining up like planes on a runway waiting for take-off. “Don’t take it personally,” I’m told.
I remind Chomsky of his 1990 visit to Scotland, when he spoke on “self-determination and power” at the Pearce Institute in Govan, Glasgow. “You’ve got to remind me what this is about,” says Chomsky. This does not seem a promising start. I remind him that he is coming to Edinburgh to deliver a Gifford Lecture. “I know that,” he says, rather testily. “But who are you?”
Chomsky is quietly impatient, his voice subdued and crackly. He has retained his wavy hair, which flops over his ears, and he dresses like a style-unconscious academic – black trainers, white socks, denims, charity-shop jumper. To some interviewers he comes across as bitter and despairing but others, including me, find a seam of laconic humour beneath the serious, restrained manner. When he starts to talk he often forgets to stop and in the course of our foreshortened hour he proves as difficult to interrupt as the Queen’s Christmas message. Wind him up and away he goes.
But with Chomsky it’s hard to know where to begin. Having spent more than 50 years at the MIT, he is the author of dozens of books and countless articles. A decade ago, Nature mentioned him in the same breath as Darwin and Descartes. Among his modern peers are Einstein, Picasso and Freud. Apparently, only Shakespeare and the Bible have been cited in scholarly publications more often than Chomsky has been. His influence is equally formidable, including generations of media students and the likes of John Pilger, Harold Pinter, Naomi Klein and James Kelman.
“If Chomsky has a specialist subject,” wrote Kelman, “then some would argue it is not linguistics, nor the philosophy of language, rather it is US global policy, with particular reference to the dissemination of all related knowledge.”
Not all of Chomsky’s devotees would agree with Kelman. Some, such as author and columnist Paul Johnson, wish he’d stuck with linguistics and kept his nose out of politics. Through his study of language and, in particular, syntax, Chomsky is credited with transforming the way foreign languages are taught through his theory of a “universal grammar”, and of “revolutionising our view of the mind”. Several of his books, including Syntactic Structures and Theory Of Syntax, published in 1957 and 1965 respectively, are invariably referred to as essential documents, though they’re hardly accessible to the layman.
Meanwhile Manufacturing Consent, which he co-wrote with Edward Herman in 1988, is on every rookie journalist’s reading list. Chomsky is the sceptics’ sceptic, believing that the true nature of the US’s role in the world is distorted and hidden from the American people by the corporate-owned media elite and federal government representatives who protect business interests in order to get re-elected or keep their jobs in the administration. Though he reluctantly supported Democrat John Kerry’s failed pitch for the presidency last November, Chomsky is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. From his perspective, there’s not a lot to choose between them ; they’re both “business parties”.
We begin by talking about the piece in The American Prospect. “It’s the journal of what they modestly call ‘the decent left’,” he says, oozing contempt. “It’s kind of moderate social democrat and they see themselves as embattled. You know, caught between two powerful forces which are crushing them. One is Dick Cheney, representing the White House, the Pentagon, one of the most powerful forces in history, and the other one – an equal and opposite force – is me. Do you think any intellectual or academic in history has ever received such praise? I mean, it’s way beyond the Nobel Prize. I already got someone to put it on the website. It tells you something about their attitudes. They’re pathetic, frightened, cowardly little people.”
Interesting, I note, that though his face is on the magazine’s cover, his name is nowhere to be seen in the piece. “Oh, no, no, no,” Chomsky says, grinning at my naivety, “you can’t mention it. You can’t mention anything. You can’t read anything. All you can do is report gossip . So you heard some gossip saying that I was in favour of Pol Pot or I support Osama bin Laden. That I’m in favour of [Slobodan] Milosevic. And then you heard it at a dinner party so it must be true. My previous interviewer is doing a documentary mainly on Palestine. She just got a PhD at New York University. She was telling me that if she ever so much as mentioned my name her faculty members practically collapsed in terror. The idea that you could look at anything of mine was so frightening it couldn’t happen. Which is standard. You can’t think because that’s too dangerous. Or you can’t look at public opinion. You should see public opinion. It’s amazing.”
In what way? Just before last November’s presidential election, he says, two of America’s most prestigious public attitude monitoring institutions – the Program on International Policy Attitudes and the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations – published studies which showed that both political parties, the media and what he calls “the decent left” are far to the right of the American public on most major issues. “I’m right in the mainstream,” says Chomsky. “And, of course, it wasn’t reported.”
“ The major facts were just suppressed,” he says. “Actually, these two reports were reported in two local papers in the country and a couple of op eds. That’s it. In the entire country. The most important information possible right before an election.”
What the reports showed, he explains, was that the American public are strongly opposed to the use of force, except in terms of the UN charter, and in the face of imminent attack. “The public wants the UN, not the US, to take the lead in an international crisis,” says Chomsky. “That includes reconstruction, security and so on in Iraq. A majority of the public is actually in favour of giving up the veto at the UN so the US would go along with the majority. An overwhelming majority supports the Kyoto protocol. In fact, so enthusiastically that Bush voters assumed that he was in favour of it, because it was so obviously the right thing to do.
“The same huge majority is in favour of joining the International Criminal Court. A large majority of the population takes it to be a moral issue for the government to provide health care for everybody. It goes on and on like this. The public is far to the left of anything in the establishment.”
Come the elections, he says, the public suffered from mass delusion. They didn’t understand what the candidates stood for. What they were voting for was imagery. “Elections are run by the public relations industry; the same guys who sell toothpaste.” Issues don’t register on the radar. “You don’t talk about what the candidates stand for, what you have is John Kerry goose-hunting and riding his motorcycle and George Bush pretending to be a simple kind of guy, who chops wood and takes care of his cattle …”
And plays golf?
“No, no. You don’t push that too much, that’s elitist. He is supposed to be an ordinary guy. Take a look at him! His sleeves are rolled up; he’s just getting ready to go back to the ranch. You don’t present him as what he is: a spoiled frat boy from Yale who only got somewhere because of his parents.”
Chomsky, one suspects, could continue in this vein ad nauseam. Even now, at an age when most people would rather be in a gated Florida compound than constantly locking horns with the establishment, he persists in banging his head against closed doors. In the US, he is either a pariah or a prophet, “a kind of modern-day soothsayer”, according to his biographer Robert Barsky.
“Unlike many leftists of his generation,” says Barsky, “Chomsky never flirted with movements or organisations that were later revealed to be totalitarian, oppressive, exclusionary, anti-revolutionary, and elitist … He has very little to regret. His work, in fact, contains some of the most accurate analyses of this century.”
Nobody can deny Chomsky’s commitment to the cause of truth. His father was a renowned Hebrew scholar who emigrated from the Ukraine to the United States in 1913 to avoid being drafted into the army. His mother was also a Hebrew scholar and wrote children’s books. Chomsky was born in Philadelphia in 1928, and his precocity was nurtured at an experimental elementary school. By 10, he was reading the proofs of his father’s edition of a 13th-century Hebrew grammar, and writing about the rise of fascism in Spain for his school newspaper. As a teenager he would often take a train from Philadelphia to New York to visit his uncle, who had a newspaper stand and a changeable political viewpoint. “First he was a follower of Trotsky,” Chomsky says, “then he was an anti-Trotskyite. He also taught himself so much Freud he wound up as a lay psychoanalyst with a penthouse apartment.”
At the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Chomsky met his mentor, Zellig Harris, a politically active professor of linguistics. It was Harris who dissuaded him from abandoning his studies and going to Israel where the new state was in formation. In 1956, at an MIT symposium on information theory, Chomsky presented a paper which overturned conventional linguistic wisdom. “Other linguists had said language had all the formal precision of mathematics,” said George Miller, a psychologist who was in the audience, “but Chomsky was the first linguist to make good the claim.”
Throughout his life, Chomsky has maintained his twin interests in politics and linguistics but it is the former which has consumed his energies in recent years and given him such a public profile. When he speaks, he says, crowds turn up in their thousands. In Sweden, the venue changed from a small hall to a football stadium. He turns down many more requests than he accepts. Rarely does he agree to appear on American television, because – as I can testify – he will not compromise by talking in sound bites. Proper discourse requires time to allow arguments to develop.
“You can only be on television if you have concision,” he says. “That means you can say something between two commercials. That’s a terrific technique of propaganda. On the rare occasions when I’ m asked to be on television, I usually refuse for this reason. If you’re gonna be asked a question, say, about terrorism and you’re given three sentences between commercials, you’ve got two choices. You can repeat conventional ideology – you say, yeah, Iran supports terrorism. Or you can sound like you’re from Neptune. You can say, yeah, the US is one of the leading terrorist states. The people have a right to ask what you mean. And so if it was a sane news channel – al-Jazeera, say – you could talk about it and explain what you mean. You’re not allowed to do that in the United States.”
On occasion, one suspects, Chomsky doth protest too much. Like fellow American “dissidents”, such as Michael Moore and Gore Vidal, he may complain about the manipulative power of the media and government but he can hardly complain that he has been rendered voiceless. Indeed, these days the internet is a potent weapon in his armoury. He can’t be both the most cited living person and marginalised.
There is little doubt, however, that his relentless monitoring of the American media and his fundamental distrust of the denizens of Washington DC make him a formidable and eloquent adversary and, consequently, persona non grata in certain quarters. In general, he believes that the US should stay out of other countries’ affairs. Bush’s White House, he says, only believes in democracy when it serves American interests. The same guys who backed Saddam Hussein’s brutal suppression of the Shi’ites are the ones who ordered the invasion of Iraq.
He is in full flow, bashing Paul Wolfowitz, the architect of the war in Iraq and US nominee for the presidency of the World Bank, rubbishing Tony Blair – “I suppose Hitler believed what he was saying too” – and recalling how, in 1985, Ronald Reagan declared a national emergency because he thought Nicaragua was about to march into Texas, when his assistant pokes her head round his door and says my 45-minute hour is up. On the way out, Chomsky draws my attention to a ghoulish painting hidden behind a filing cabinet.
“It’s a terrific Rorschach test,” he says menacingly. “When I ask people from North America what it is, nobody knows. When I ask people from South America, everybody knows. If you ask people from Europe, maybe 10% know. What it is, is Archbishop Romero on the 25th anniversary of his assassination [in El Salvador], six Latin American intellectuals – Jesuits – who were also murdered, all by elite forces armed and trained by the United States who also killed another 70,000 people. Nobody knows a thing about it.
“Suppose it had been in Czechoslovakia. Suppose the Russians had murdered an archbishop and killed [Vaclav] Havel and half-a-dozen of his associates. Would we know about it? Yeah. We probably would have nuked them. But when we do it, it doesn’t exist. It reminds me of the world.”