“The man who needs no introduction” is the most hackneyed showbiz catchphrase imaginable. It is oddly apropos when applied to Noam Chomsky. How is it possible to adequately summarize his work and impact? Since the 1960s he has provided an ongoing, devastating critique of power, empire and oppression. Then there is the Herculean productivity: a voluminous written output, talks and appearances all around the world — not to mention the long shadow he has cast over the field of linguistics.
It is, not surprisingly, a full schedule and our allotted time with Chomsky was brief. Because of this, the topics covered were a sort of grab-bag, with no attempt at a discrete theme. I could have asked ten times more.
The interview was conducted at Noam Chomsky’s MIT office in Cambridge. He is startlingly devoid of pretense, with an unassuming demeanor akin to that of one’s thesis advisor.
There has not been much examination of Chomsky’s actual writing style. One could argue that much of its effectiveness is owed to a welcome lack of jargon or windy polemic. There is a sort of just-the-facts approach that not only isn’t dry but veers toward the colloquial. How intentional is this?
As it turns out, there is a reason his writing does often sound conversational. “Most of what I write is mostly written-up talks” and attendant notes. “I rarely have time to sit down and write an article” — the writing “often woven together from the background” of speaking appearances, frequently using the same phraseology. Quite simply, there is “no time” for laborious rewriting and multiple drafts. “In fact, they prepare the talks usually on the fly.”
The eschewal of rubric is a conscious effort to eliminate “complexity and obscurity …. If I’m writing about, say, technical linguistics, it’s not easy reading … the clinical articles are going to be for people who know about them. When you’re writing about human affairs, there’s no technical knowledge.”
Chomsky’s twin callings — activism and scholarship — draw upon a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of energy. Even more mind-boggling is the fact that he has three ongoing, almost full-time commitments. Number three is spending almost five to six hours a night responding to correspondence and e-mail. That alone is a full-time vocation.
He is still a working linguist. “If the world would go away, I’d be happy just to keep to the first [scholarship]. [But] I didn’t even get involved with linguistics until long after I was a political activist. I just grew up that way.” Linguistics serves as an “intellectually exciting activity … it’s hard work, because you have to know a lot, and so on…” The public sphere, he feels, is easier.
The opposition Chomsky has engendered ranges from simple vitriol to abject hysteria, including bizarre accusations of Holocaust denial and sympathy for Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. How handles things like this with an even hand.
“I feel it’s a compliment … and I have some sympathy for the people who are trying to defend state violence” and “their own positions.”
Mainstream media’s superficial reportage on Cambodia cast the lethal Khmer Rouge as arising without cause. Chomsky and colleague Edward Herman’s postulation was that the Khmer Rouge’s rise and eventual reign of terror — far from appearing, in essence, out of nowhere — was firmly a product of the American campaign of mass destruction in southeast Asia.
“The story about the Khmer Rouge … I suspect must be the best, most careful, accurate” chronicle. “Nobody’s found a thing [that’s inaccurate]. If we were to rewrite it now, we’d do it exactly the same way.”
Chomsky’s decidedly critical views of the Israeli government have spawned fever-pitch vituperation — disregarding, as he has often pointed out, that his views on the Middle East are more easily disseminated in Israel than stateside. He has a long history with Zionism, dating back to activity as a “Zionist youth leader in the 1940s.” Chomsky had been an adherent of creating a binational Jewish-Arab entity in Palestine, a perfectly respectable plank in the broad Zionist platform until the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948.
Noam Chomsky has been consistently opposed to the varied forms of nationalism and chauvinism. A white, Christian United States, quite obviously, would be anathema; nor, for example, would he applaud a Pakistan constituted along purely Islamic lines. One can draw obvious parallels.
Ideally, he envisions a world devoid of nation-states. But in the realm of realpolitik — where nation-states do in fact exist — he feels the State of Israel should have the same rights as other countries: the same, not more. Again, the inference is quite clear.
And he looks on in alarm at the rise of the Israeli right-wing, anti-Arab extremist politician Avigdor Lieberman, whose views — once considered part of the racist fringe — have moved into the mainstream.
But, Chomsky says, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be “solved.” Solved in the most literal meaning of the word, “probably in an ugly way,” with the United States “decisively providing support.”
He again shrugs off the invective as “partly a compliment and partly a validation of the theses I’ve determined.” At most it’s “annoying … I don’t take it very seriously.”
How is it possible to maintain a sense of optimism over the long run?
“It’s easy to despair,” Chomsky says. “There has been improvement. It’s true! Take a walk through the halls [of MIT]: What do you see? Half women, a third minorities, people informally dressed.” A far cry from Chomsky’s early years in the hierarchical academy: the province of white males garbed in regulation coat and tie.
“And it’s the same with other things. International solidarity movements … global justice movements. There’s reason for optimism. The real question is: is the trajectory favorable? Can positive change overcome negative change?” He has been heartened by immediate, widespread opposition to the war in Iraq, pointing out that the vaunted antiwar movement of the 1960s only gathered momentum years after the United States had been pulverizing Vietnam.
And the Bush administration? Is it, more or less business as usual or astonishingly wretched?
“They’re practically off the spectrum. The spectrum’s pretty narrow, but they are extreme. I mean, everything they’ve touched” is a “disaster. And they’re really dangerous. I suspect that a McCain administration will be worse. And I think he’s going to win. You can see the ads.” Chomsky compares the Bush-Cheney regime to Joe Btfsplk, uber-jinx from the classic Li’l Abner comic strip, accompanied wherever he goes by a perpetual, hovering rain cloud.
Just a few minutes remain before the interview draws to its conclusion; time for a few scattershot questions. Vegetarianism: he’s not an official adherent, but probably should be — and has, via his daughters’ eating habits, experienced stints of meat-free eating. The fusion of art and politics: nice if the two can be combined, but far from a required criterion. There is value in art for the sake of art.
Noam Chomsky’s books are in print, much of his writing is Web-accessible, and there are his steady contributions to Z magazine. He can be viewed on film, video, and in cyberspace. But Chomsky is not a seer, nor is he prone to dispensing easily quotable maxims. What is to be done, of course, is up to us.