Sunday, December 07, 2008

Noam Chomsky at 80

The great man is 80 years old today. By way of a tribute, here's my article on Chomsky from the New Statesman's 'Great Thinkers of Our Time' Series.

The charge of both anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism is regularly made by propagandists of the new world order against those who do not happen to share their enthusiasm for biennial invasions of sovereign states and the spreading of neoliberalism by B-52 and cluster bomb.

What the likes of Michael Gove, Barbara Amiel and Melanie Phillips cannot explain away, however, is the inconvenient reality that some of the most outspoken opponents of their world-view are either American or Jewish, or very often both. The international anti-war movement owes much to the efforts of Gore Vidal, Ramsey Clark, Michael Parenti and Howard Zinn. But the greatest of their number is Noam Chomsky, who has spent more than four decades warning of the danger that US imperialism poses to the peace and security of the world.

Born in Philadelphia in 1928, the son of Russian immigrants who had strong pacifist leanings, Chomsky's early education was at a progressive school and at the city's Central High School. At the University of Pennsylvania, he studied mathematics and philosophy, as well as linguistics. Since completing his PhD in linguistics in 1955, he has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was appointed Institute Professor in 1976.

His contribution to linguistics is profound. His Syntactic Structures (1957) is considered to be one of the intellectual achievements of the 20th century. Chomsky pioneered the idea that each human child has an innate capacity to master the grammar and deep structure of language. His insight was based on the observation that children learn grammar at a rate far greater than can be explained by their extrapolating from examples given to them. They must therefore have an innate capacity not only to learn language but also to understand how it works. Because language acquisition is universal, all languages must share the same fundamental structure or "depth grammar".

Chomsky's revolutionary work on grammar and language deeply influenced not only linguistics, but also cognitive science in general. It has had a major impact on his political thinking as well. What Chomsky offers is, in the words of the author Collin Coyne, an "account of international power exchange from the linguist's perspective". For Chomsky, the word "democracy" has two quite distinct meanings. According to the dictionary, a system is democratic to the extent that its citizens have ways to participate in decisions about public affairs. In the ideological sense of democracy, a society is deemed democratic by the US only if its business is run in a way that is subordinate to the interests of US business. Anyone still in doubt as to why Guatemala in the 1950s, Nicaragua in the 1980s and Yugoslavia in the 1990s were denied the label "democratic" by the US state department, despite the holding of free elections in these countries, need no longer be puzzled.

Chomsky came to prominence as a social critic of US foreign policy during the Vietnam war. His first major political text, American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), was critical of a liberal intelligentsia that had supported the Vietnam conflict or, if it opposed it, did so not because it was wrong but because of the high level of US casualties. In the 1970s and 1980s, Chomsky was, together with John Pilger, one of the few to speak out on the "hidden" genocide in East Timor, where, over a 20-year period, Indonesian forces armed and supported by the US were responsible for the deaths of more than 200,000 people.

As a non-Marxist, libertarian socialist, Chomsky embraced the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the same time, he understood the dangers that would be created by the new power vacuum. His fear that with the demise of the Soviet Union, the US military-industrial complex would seek out new enemies to justify its existence has been borne out by subsequent events. That it has done so successfully owes much to what Chomsky calls an "unholy alliance" between the US state and the "corporate media".

In works such as Manufacturing Consent (co-written with Edward Herman in 1988) and Necessary Illusions (1989), Chomsky challenged the orthodoxy that a "free press" acts as a "watchdog" in a capitalist democracy. He argued instead that by "framing their reporting and analysis in a manner supportive of established privilege and limiting discussion accordingly", the media help to preserve the status quo and the hegemony of global finance.

Chomsky's understanding of the mechanics of US imperialism and his ability at all times to see the "big picture" have led him to oppose recent US military interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as President Bush's war on terrorism. As befits a true liberal, he has never compromised his belief in the freedom of speech, even to the extent that in 1980 he wrote the preface to a book by Robert Faurisson that doubted the truth of the Holocaust.

In 40 years of writing about politics, Chomsky's errors of judgement - he was wrong to think that the fall of communism in eastern Europe was a "triumph of the spirit" and that the west missed a "great opportunity" to be rid of Saddam Hussein in 1991 - have been remarkably few. For anyone wanting to find out more about the world we live in, for anyone who does not understand why the US ignored the genocide in East Timor but intervened so aggressively in a low-scale civil war in Kosovo, there is one simple answer: read Noam Chomsky.

He may be widely disliked by establishment commentators, but through exposing unpalatable truths about the way his country is run and by reminding us that US military spending protects not US citizens but the interests of the big US corporations, Chomsky has done his country and the world an invaluable service. This, together with his pioneering work in linguistics, makes him one of the great thinkers of this or any other time.

Noam Chomsky: Born 1928 in Philadelphia, US. Has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955, where he is Institute Professor and professor of linguistics. Regarded as the father of modern linguistics, founder of the field of transformational-generative grammar, which relies heavily on logic and philosophy. A persistent, radical critic of American and capitalist hegemonic power, his pioneering linguistic works include Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar (1966) and Knowledge of Language: its nature, origins and use (1986), while political books range from American Power and the New Mandarins (1969) to Terrorizing the Neighborhood: American foreign policy in the post-cold war era (1991)


jock mctrousers said...

" What the likes of Michael Gove, Barbara Amiel and Melanie Phillips cannot explain away...." is ... well, you name it! It's hardly necessary to mount a defence of Noamsky if these idiots are the most formidable critics you can come up with. That aside, very worthy piece. I could quibble with some of Noamsky's views, especially about communism and anarchism, but he's still the place to start to 'get your mind right', to realise how much you take for granted is just propaganda. If there are people, and they read, in 2000 years, Noamsky will be read.

One point to correct, re Faurisson: Chomsky did not write the preface AS a preface - he wrote it as a review somewhere and it was incorporated into the book without his knowledge or permission. He DID, to his credit, continue to defend Faurisson's right to express his position and be published. Compare his attitude to the baying mobs of Trots calling for that Australian to be extradited to Germany - 'very instructive', as the great man would say.

ematejoca said...

Noam Chomsky contributions to linguistics and cognitive science are immense and ongoing.
Great article, Neil!

Anonymous said...

Juan Cole pointed out Chomsky and Finkelstein's blind spot regarding the power of the Israel Lobby. Neo Liberalism has no greater propagandist/promoter than the Israel Lobby, hence Abraham Foxmans' dictate, 'anti Americanism is anti semitism.'

jesse said...

A real living legend - whenever I want a fresh perspective on any political phenomenon, like the recent Obama victory, I just youtube Chomsky. He's always got a sound and correct reading of the situation.

Anonymous said...

sorry about being off topic, Neil, but is it just me who can't access comments on or post on Saakisivilli's total crap since its dimise off editors pick/front page. ((so fucking embarrassing even the Guardian should've been retching when they put it up))
Needless to say plenty out in force correcting this shameful cringing propaganda. Anyone know what's happened.

KNaylor said...

At least 51 comments had been written by 3pm this afternoon. All have disappeared and there has been no official notification about Comments now being closed.

I had my comment ready on A4 and I've saved Saakashvili's propaganda already. There might have been legal problems with it.

jock mctrousers said...

knaylor - well, that's just what you'd expect on CIF. The New Statesman site is getting just as bad. The articles are as insipid as you would expect from NS, but censorship used to be rare, and there are some entertaining regular commenters, but now there seems to be a new comments editor 'Ben' who thinks we would rather read his idea of a good discussion than the one the commenters come up with. He explained in his own expository blog that (loosely) "... the emergence of the internet has given an outlet to all sorts of freaks and weirdos who would previously been unable to get a letter in their local paper..." He said that his idea of a good discussion format was the BBC's Any Questions(I assume you know how much that is rigged) which was only spoiled by the weirdos who rang into Any Answers.

To state the obvious, is Ben in the right job?