Noam Chomsky (1928 - )

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Noam Chomsky

Was Emily Dickinson speaking to critics of U.S. foreign policy (during the Cold, Korean, Vietnam, and Persian Gulf Wars), when she wrote,

‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail
Assent - and you are sane
Demur - you’re straightway dangerous
And handled with a chain

Hearing Noam Chomsky ridiculed for criticizing C.I.A. interventions and the Government’s disregard for human rights at home and abroad, I was reminded of Dickinson’s warning. Since 1990, however, the general public is less tolerant of government wrong-doing; and information formerly confined to Chomsky’s books, columns, and speeches has appeared even in the New York Times and on popular news programs, such as 20/20.

Until recently, the response to Chomsky’s political writings by government “experts” and academic theorists unwilling to look beyond platitudes had been predictably fierce. And commentators in the mass media who seldom imagined or offered political choices beyond (a) and (b) have ignored Chomsky’s persistent consideration of (c), (d), (e), (f), and (g). What his critics could not imagine or consider was, to them, “outrageous” (as Gore Vidal, whose insights are similarly dismissed, once put it).

Born in Philadelphia, December 7, 1928, Noam Avram Chomsky is the son of Elsie Simonofsky and William Chomsky, a Hebrew scholar and teacher who immigrated to the U.S. from Russia in 1913. Educated in private and public schools, Noam Chomsky was a junior fellow at Harvard University and, in 1955, completed a Ph.D. degree at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then, he has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he holds a chair in modern languages and linguistics, and for brief periods at other universities in the U.S. and abroad. Married and the father of three children, he has been honored by scholarly societies and universities in this country and abroad, and inevitably draws large crowds in speaking about the foreign policy of his own and other governments. The London Times, in referring to him as one of the “makers of the twentieth century,” reflects the opinion of contemporary historians regarding his interests and influence.

Chomsky has said that his anarcho-socialist politics were formed by “the radical Jewish community in New York”; those political enthusiasms, in turn, led him to the study of linguistics. As a young man, he took a particular interest in Jewish culture and traditions, and considered moving to Israel. Since 1965, however, he has become one of the principal critics of the American-Israeli alliance, finding the Jewish state no more reliable than other nation-states in its handling of domestic and foreign affairs.

Although clear about options and opportunities available to us for escaping economic and political disaster, Chomsky remains pessimistic about any chance of our choosing them. “What is lacking, primarily, is imagination and will,” he has said. A major task involves our confronting a political system “designed to induce passivity, to make it appear that what happens in the world is beyond our control.” While hoping that we might overcome perceptions about being powerless in the face of “some current Great Satan,” or other “grand and impersonal forces,” he doubts that we will.

A man with a healthy anarchist skepticism toward the State and a strong stomach for bad news, Noam Chosmky has undoubtedly saved many lives by “exposing the bastards” responsible for injustice in their dirty little corners of the world, in his dogged, informative investigative research on American foreign policy. Persistent, he has taken risks in order to remain unrelentingly intellectual and rational in an age and culture that is highly anti-intellectual and irrational. When the military-industrial-university complex reigned supreme in the 1980s, he shouted “The emperor has no clothes!” until that nakedness became apparent to others who eventually joined Chomsky in a public chorus. Throughout the “long sleep” that accompanied the Cold War, he has acted, spoken, and written with what Francis Hope calls “a proud defensive independence,” retaining a writer’s hatred of obfuscation and resisting the platitudes of contemporary thought.

Long regarded as an important social critic, Chomsky took his place among the most influential linguists in the world with the publication of a “pale blue book” called Syntactic Structures (1957). Using a mathematical model, he constructed a system of generative grammar, a kind of “universal” grammar of languages. Throughout, he has emphasized the difference between “surface structures,” applying to sounds and words in our sentences, and “deep structures,” having to do with how we derive meaning from them. His sense of a linguistic order among a multiplicity of languages is reflected in theories that have influenced not only the way languages are now taught, but also the way we define ourselves as human, as Daniel Yergan once said.

Since the early, highly technical treatises on linguistics, he has also written less technical essays exploring the implications of studying language for disciplines such as psychology and philosophy. His speculative and personal Whidden Lectures, published in Reflections on Language (1976), for example, talk about language as “a mirror of mind,” as “a product of human intelligence created anew in each individual by operations that lie far beyond the reach of will or consciousness.” In suggesting similarities between the growth of language and the development of a bodily organ, Chomsky considers new ways of thinking about thinking and of understanding interactions among language, mind, and other mental organs. In this sense, his impulse to challenge preconceptions about language, which brought him first to public attention, resembles the impulse that led him, later, to challenge preconceptions about political and international affairs in his extraordinarily ambitious, prodigiously documented critiques.

American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), his first book on that topic, introduced a theme that reappears throughout his later writings and numerous speeches, to huge audiences around the world. In that early book, he called bureaucrats and scholars trained by and often housed by the universities “the new mandarins,” that is an elite—perhaps even an aristocracy—that tolerates and defends the right of the United States to dominate the globe. Quoting Randolph Bourne, the American literary radical who excoriated American intellectuals for their uncritical endorsement of America’s entering World War I, Chomsky took contemporary intellectuals to task for their complicity with the State and their refusal to “speak truth to power.”

In a shelf of books, Chomsky’s political journalism and social criticism document that charge, with further examples and extensive footnotes. Their common theme is provided by George Orwell’s comment, quoted at the beginning of The Political Economy of Human Rights: “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

Citing extensive statistics and examples in that two-volume study, Chomsky and Edward S. Herman describe the consequences of irresponsible and immoral behavior by leaders and their gullible, sometimes willfully ignorant followers. Discussing relations between the United States and the Third World, the authors focus on domestic institutions, including the mechanisms of propaganda, that cushion any criticism of U.S. policy. Actively supporting that policy are (1) international businesses that “stifle unions and contain reformist threats” that might interfere with their exercise of power; (2) bankers and industrialists who welcome a new fascist order that suppresses dissidents, priests, labor leaders, peasant organizers. Such people serve as functionaries “playing their assigned roles in a system that has worked according to choice and plan.”

Anyone choosing Noam Chomsky’s way of taking on the military-industrial-university complex has heavy work cut out for him or her. After the death of Paul Goodman, who joined him in initiating a national organization challenging illegitimate authority, RESIST, Chomsky inherited the mantle of the-critic-that-others-love-most-to-misrepresent. This happened during a “popular” war when Chomsky called U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf and ultimately in the war on Iraq, a “protection racket for the rich folk”; in a characteristic “transition” Saddam Hussein went from being a “friend,” during the Iran/Iraq war, to being “Hitler,” as had many previous dictators (Marcos, Noriega) once allied with the U.S. “They’re all fine as long as they’re our thugs.”

In the thick of battle, on the platform or the op-ed page, Chomsky is often remarkably restrained, even discrete—yet persistent, unrelenting. In subsequent writings, he continues to expose the deceit that enables callous or thoughtless leaders to impose their will on vulnerable people.

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material by Noam Chomsky
  • American Power and the New Mandarins. New York: Random House, 1969.
  • The Chomsky Reader. Ed. James Peck. New York: Pantheon, 1987.
  • Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T Press, 1988.
  • (and Edward Herman) The Political Economy of Human Rights: The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Vol. 1; and After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Construction of Imperial Ideology. Vol. II. Boston: South End Press, 1979.
  • Voices of Survival in the Nuclear Age. Dennis Paulson, ed. Santa Barbara, Cal.: Capra Press, 1986.
  • Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs. Boston: South End Press, 2000.
Selected material about Noam Chomsky
  • Leiber, Justin. Noam Chomsky: A Philosophic Overview. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975.
  • Lyons, John. Noam Chomsky. New York: Viking, 1970.
  • Thinkers of the Twentieth Century. Gale Publishing Co., 1983.
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