Noam Chomsky, Still Furious at 76
By Alan Taylor
March 20, 2005 by the Sunday Herald/UK
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
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
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
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
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
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
'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
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
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.'
(c) 2005 newsquest (sunday herald) limit