On the the railings outside my local train station at Harringay, in north London, someone has carefully placed a series of small white stickers. The stickers, all at eye level, are designed, I suppose, to be the first thing you see on the way to work and the last thing you see on your way home. They are all neatly typed with two words: READ CHOMSKY. Most mornings I find myself wondering for an instant whether the words are an imperative (‘If you do nothing else today…’), or a swaggering boast (along the lines of some of the station’s other typical graffiti: ‘Shagged Karen’, say).
Anyone who has read Noam Chomsky will know that both interpretations are justified. His writings, in linguistics (a discipline which he effectively invented) and on the hypocrisy and warmongering of America (and its principal ally) are among the few essential documents of our times. They are also not designed for the intellectually faint-hearted. As the most unforgiving critic of the Washington-run world order, Chomsky is often caricatured as supplying more reality, and more guilt, than many of us care to handle. His books have the manner and certainty of gospels, and they work by accretion, stockpiling the remorseless fact of distant atrocity done in each of our names. They seem to demand not so much readers as disciples, (prominent among whom you would count John Pilger and Harold Pinter, Michael Moore and Naomi Klein). To judge by sales figures (his little pamphlet on 11 September has sold upwards of half a million copies) the faithful are an ever-growing number.
Chomsky’s latest book, Hegemony or Survival – a devastating history of American foreign policy since 1945 (‘No president in that time, judged on the principles of Nuremberg, would have escaped hanging’) as well as a sustained dissection of the motivation and disastrous consequence of the current ‘war on terror’ – is the newest chapter of this lifetime of compulsive dissent. The transgressive thrill of Chomsky’s world view, in which an American elite routinely bombs and terrorises in the name of ‘freedom’ and in defence of market share, has led fans such as Bono of U2 to describe the 73-year-old professor as the ‘Elvis of academia’. In a recent profile in the New Yorker, Chomsky was identified, perhaps more accurately, as the ‘Devil’s accountant’, totting up the foreign corpses sacrificed in America’s ‘quest for global dominance’.
Chomsky works from within the empire, in one of its more rigorous outposts, at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology. MIT has none of the marginal, down-at-heel feel of a British university. Its pristine campus, all smoked glass and soaring marble, across the Charles river from Boston, has the sheen of a hi-tech business park. MIT advertises itself as ‘America’s ideas factory’, and nowhere does the production line work as efficiently as in the offices of Professor Chomsky.
His little suite of rooms, above a wholefood cafe full of ardent acolytes flirting with semantics, is piled variously with books and papers from the world’s subjugated corners and on the terra incognita of the human brain. On the walls are posters advertising the talks and lectures he has given over the years on East Timor and Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Above a door there is a large photo of Bertrand Russell, a fellow libertarian pin-up, and beside it a blue aerogram addressed to ‘Palestine’ and officially stamped by the US Postal Service ‘Return to Sender, No Such Address’. In a side office Chomsky sits with his assistant signing off proofs, going through letters and deliberating over demands on his precious time; a one-man cultural revolution. I am greeted with the stern information that today Professor Chomsky’s hours (one of which is allotted for our interview) are lasting only 50 minutes – take it or leave it.
The interviewer of Chomsky is faced with a series of anxieties. To anyone who has even dipped into his books, the idea of pinning him down or catching him out, or even directing his attention in the course of a truncated hour seems vaguely absurd. In reviewing a volume in which Chomsky debated some of his ideas with America’s leading philosophers, one critic noted how the book was like ‘watching a grandmaster play, blindfolded, 36 chess matches against the local worthies’.
If great minds are casually embarrassed, Chomsky reserves much of his scorn for the mainstream press, which he sees as mostly in collusion with orthodox power structures. ‘Somehow they [newspaper journalists] have to get rid of the stuff [dissident arguments],’ he once wrote. ‘You can’t deal with the arguments, that’s plain; for one thing you have to know something, and most of these people don’t know anything. Second, you would not be able to answer the arguments because they’re correct. Therefore what you have to do is somehow dismiss it. One technique [is to say] “It’s just emotional, it’s irresponsible, it’s angry”.’
In person, I’m bound to report, as in his prose, Chomsky seems anything but emotional or irresponsible (though a quiet anger does not often seem too far away). He is an unassuming presence. He pretty much always wears the same clothes: a navy sweater and brown cords and a pale-blue shirt. He speaks barely audibly, leaning back a little in his chair, which has the effect of making you strain forward slightly, and hang on his every word.
I start tentatively enough with a question about a remark he made recently in the New York Times about the fact that he continued to live in America, because it was ‘the greatest country in the world’. In what sense did he believe this?
He starts, too, as he means to go on. ‘I have to first of all give a background,’ he says, already a bit exasperated. ‘That interview never took place. It is rather interesting, interviews like that never take place.’
The New York Times made it up?
‘It was a senseless contraction of an hour-and-a-half telephone conversation in which I explained question by question why I am not going to answer this question or that question, because it is not a sensible question.’ Right.
‘And the published interview was contracted from the original questions and sentences extracted from my often lengthy explanations of why I was not going to answer. There is no country in the world where interviews like these would happen. Where these kind of trivial questions would be asked.’
I laugh a little, nervously, quickly running through some of my own more frivolous lines of inquiry in my head. Chomsky does not smile. Does he understand this kind of profile as an effort to marginalise him, by ‘the ruling elite’?
‘Well,’ he says, quietly. ‘I’m not sure the New York Times was consciously trying to trivialise me, but the effect of it is to put everything in the same category as the gossip you read in the magazines you pick up at supermarket counters. I was asked, for example, why I thought there were so many euphemisms for genitalia. It’s not a serious question. Whatever the purpose of such a tone is, the effect is to make it appear that anyone who departs from orthodox political doctrine is in some ways laughable.’
So, I say, he does not believe America is the greatest country in the world, then? ‘My feeling is, to answer your question, that evaluating countries is senseless and I would never put things in those terms, but that some of America’s advances, particularly in the area of free speech, that have been achieved by centuries of popular struggle, are to be admired.’
(I am reminded, at this point, of the British newspaper editor who told me he’d once phoned Chomsky to ask him to write a piece about ‘globalisation’. ‘That is not the right word,’ Chomsky replied, and put down the phone without ever explaining what the correct word was.)
In this respect, Chomsky has always reserved the right not only to answer the questions he chooses, but also to question the terms of the questioner. One of the features of his deconstruction of American power is the absence of mitigation. He recognises little distinction between conspiracy and cock-up. When we talk about the motivation behind the current conflict, I wonder if he believes coalition leaders, Tony Blair, Colin Powell, say, are entirely cynical and malign or simply self-deluded?
‘How people themselves perceive what they are doing is not a question that interests me,’ he says. ‘I mean, there are very few people who are going to look into the mirror and say that person I see is a savage monster; instead, they make up some construction that justifies what they do. If you ask the CEO of some major corporation what he does he will say, in all honesty, that he is slaving 20 hours a day to provide his customers with the best goods or services he can and creating the best possible working conditions for his employees. But then you take a look at what the corporation does, the effect of its legal structure, the vast inequalities in pay and conditions, and you see the reality is something far different.’
Given 50 years of self-delusion in the land of the free, 50 years in which, in Chomsky’s terms, it has wilfully supported and committed war crimes across the globe (from Korea to Angola to Indonesia), I wonder if he can countenance any possibility of redemption?
‘Things are a lot better than they were 40 years ago,’ he suggests, almost brightly. ‘I mean, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, opposition to state terror and aggression and torture and so on was zero. That was a horrible time: the massive Kennedy terror operation against Cuba, the first attacks on Vietnam in 1962, the imposition of national security states in South America. Compare this with the current Iraq war, when for the first time in the United States or even in Europe there have been massive popular protests against a foreign aggression before it even began. Governments don’t control people like they used to.’
Since he has been at the vanguard of that dissent for so long – imprisoned for Vietnam protests, hero-worshipped by the anti-globalisation movement – does he find that fact in any respect gratifying?
‘Not gratifying,’ he says, predictably quickly. ‘I’m happy to see it. At the end of my book I identify two possible long-term trajectories in global affairs: the first sees continuing international aggression, advancing state terrorism and the probable destruction of the species. The second sees civilised populations beginning to understand across the world that there is an alternative to that future.’
While he is saying this, I recall a remark he once made about the moment he heard about the bomb at Hiroshima. ‘I remember that I literally couldn’t talk to anybody,’ he said, of his 16-year-old self. ‘There was nobody. I was at a summer camp and I walked off into the woods and stayed alone for a couple of hours when I heard about it. I could never talk to anyone about it and never understood anyone’s reaction. I felt completely isolated.’
That isolation no longer imprisons Chomsky. He has long been in constant contact with a growing army of fellow travellers, these days by email. He retains, though, a sense of singularity, a feeling of himself against the world. It is tempting to think that there was one event in his early childhood that gave him this mission, but he says it was always there.
‘Growing up in the place I did I never was aware of any other option but to question everything. The first article I wrote,’ he says, ‘at the age of 10, was concerned with the Spanish civil war and the rise of fascism in Europe. Even as a child I would haunt second-hand bookshops for radical pamphlets.’
Did that engagement come from the example of his parents?
‘Certainly I was inside a political culture,’ he says. ‘First generation Jewish working class in Philadelphia, and there were strikes and rallies, and so on. I remember at the age of five travelling on a trolley car with my mother past a group of women on a picket line at a textile plant, seeing them being viciously beaten by security people. So that kind of thing stayed with me.’
Chomsky’s father was a rabbinical scholar who worked on medieval grammar, and as a child, Chomsky recalls, he would pore over whatever his father was engaged in, try to understand his notes.
It seems a short step from this to his revolutionary fascination with the structures of language but, typically, Chomsky refuses the simple link. Instead, he says, he never imagined himself in an academic career. In his twenties, married and with young children, it was not clear in what area he would make his mark. He was given a fellowship at MIT in an electronics lab – ‘though I hardly knew the difference between a tape recorder and a telephone’- and ironically, because the lab had been ‘given a ton of money by the Pentagon’, was pretty much left to his own devices. Instead of studying electric circuits he devoted his time to developing an understanding of the hard-wiring of the human mind. Quite quickly, he published a theory that the structures of language were innate, rather than acquired, and that all languages shared common underlying rules. His idea of Universal Grammar undid the prevailing consensus that language was entirely a learnt skill.
Chomsky rejects any suggestion of a link between his political theorising, in which events are subject to a unifying theory of power, and his academic work, which also overturned orthodoxy with a single heretical concept. But still, he describes his work in similar terms.
‘[Universal grammar] was obvious to me,’ he says. ‘And it was very counter to the prevailing doctrines at the time, in philosophy and psychology, but they were simply and demonstrably wrong. That language is a biologically-based capacity is so obvious there is hardly any point arguing it; that it is a specific human capacity is also self-evident.’
He uses the same constructions when he discusses the horrors of American foreign policy, which are, he contests, mostly ‘so obvious’ and ‘so self-evident’ as to be beyond debate. Thus the Marshall Plan was ‘clearly’ a device by which ‘the American people gave $13bn to American corporations’, and likewise the goal in Iraq is ‘unequivocally’ to ensure the US will have a client state at the heart of the oil-producing regions. ‘If you believe that this was at all about extending democracy, then you will also believe that Stalin was, as he claimed, extending democracy to the countries of Eastern Europe.’
The perfect simplicity of this kind of moral equivalence is what gives both Chomsky’s critics and his supporters their ammunition. (The one person to have seriously challenged Chomsky over his stance on post-11 September America is his one-time defender, Christopher Hitchens, who contends that everything for Chomsky, these days, is a truism. Their debate, conducted in the pages of the Nation and online, is the subject of endless webchat by people who care about these things, a kind of mythical rumble in the jungle for the left, and worth seeking out simply for the rhetorical strategies each combatant employs – Chomsky opting for the rope-a-dope tactic of insisting Hitchens ‘cannot mean what he says’.)
I wonder if the professor never finds, in such debates, the responsibility of being ‘the conscience of America’ an onerous one?
He smiles just a little wearily. ‘Responsibility I believe accrues through privilege,’ he begins. ‘People like you and me have an unbelievable amount of privilege and therefore we have a huge amount of responsibility. We live in free societies where we are not afraid of the police, we have extraordinary wealth available to us by global standards. If you have those things then you have the kind of responsibility that a person does not have if he or she is slaving 70 hours a week to put food on the table – a responsibility at the very least to inform yourself about power. Beyond that it is a question of whether you believe in moral certainties or not.’
Does he ever give himself time to stop, and, as it were, smell the roses?
‘I’d like to,’ he says, for once without too much conviction. ‘My time not working is devoted pretty much to playing with my grandchildren.’
Before my time is up, we talk about Bush’s visit to Britain, and the suggestion in his book that the new Cold War will not be between America and another superpower, or between America and international terrorism, but between America and informed global public opinion.
‘New York is a very insular society, but 11 September came as a wake-up call and many people, it seems, were led to the sudden realisation that they did not know enough about their country’s role in the world. Small publishers responded by reissuing some of the books that began to explain the history. People did not necessarily agree with the analysis, but it was clear that they wanted to hear it.’ Can he imagine a time when that swell of disquiet is reflected within the US electoral spectrum?
‘At the moment that does not seem possible, but there is no doubt that it could become so. It depends,’ he says, ‘on whether the United States is capable of creating a democracy not reliant on the concentration of capital, or if a popular movement can overcome those restrictions.’
It depends, many might say, on how many people read Chomsky.