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Noam Chomsky at 95: One of the Greatest Living Challengers of Unjust Power and Delusions

Celebrating the man whose life more than anyone else’s tells us what it takes to be human.
Photo: Ungano & Agriodimas

Today, December 7, is Noam Chomsky’s 95th birth anniversary. 

In the introduction to his 1969 book American Power and the New Mandarins, Noam Chomsky cites a news item from the New York Times of March 18, 1968 captioned ‘Army Exhibit Bars Shooting at Vietnamese Hut’. The news item, Chomsky writes, “reports an attempt by the ‘peace movement’ to disrupt an exhibit in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry”.

“Beginning today, visitors can no longer enter a helicopter for simulated firing of a machine gun at targets in a diorama of the Vietnam Central Highlands. The targets were a hut, two bridges and an ammunition dump, and a light flashed when a hit was scored,” it read. 

“Apparently”, Chomsky continues, “it was great fun for the kiddies until those damned peaceniks turned up and started one of their interminable demonstrations…. According to the Times report, ‘demonstrators particularly objected to children being permitted to ‘fire’ at the hut, even though no people appear there or elsewhere on the diorama’, which just shows how unreasonable peaceniks can be. Although it is small compensation for the closing of this entertaining exhibit, (the Times report adds), ‘visitors can still test their skills elsewhere in the exhibition by simulated firing of an antitank weapon and several models of rifles’.”

In the next paragraph, Chomsky goes on thus:

“What can one say about a country where a museum of science in a great city can feature an exhibit in which people fire machine guns at Vietnamese huts, with a light flashing when a hit is scored? What can one say about a country where such an idea can even be considered? You have to weep for this country.”

This was written at the height of America’s war on Vietnam, and Noam Chomsky, aged 39, was already a veteran of the country-wide protests against that war, campaigning on university campuses including at Harvard and Berkley, leading an electrifying anti-war teach-in just outside the Pentagon, participating in civil disobedience movements and marching on Washington DC along with tens of thousands of others to ‘return’ tens of thousands of (army) ‘draft cards’ to the Attorney General’s office.

Chomsky, a tenured full professor at MIT since he was 32, had already been imprisoned several times, and was detained again in October 1967 after that historic Pentagon demonstration. This time, he happened to share his prison cell with the novelist Norman Mailer who, in his classic account of this stirring moment in American history – titled The Armies of the Night – described his cell-mate, “a slim, sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression and an air of gentle but absolute moral authority”, seemed “uneasy at the thought of missing class on Monday”. 

Normal Mailer
The Armies of the Night
New American Library (1968). The cover page shows Noam Chomsky (second from left) among other protesters.

In an interview given many years later, for the 2006 documentary Children of Armageddon, Chomsky was asked if he remembered the day news of the Hiroshima bombing broke in the US. Chomsky replied ‘Yes, quite well’, whereupon the interviewer wanted to know if he recalled how he had reacted to it. Chomsky hesitated a little – clearly, the memory was still a very disquieting one – before he confessed that he had been shocked. “Doubly shocked”, he added, by the sheer savagery of the act, of course, but equally, by the “complete absence of any reaction to it” around him. At that point, aged 16, he had just graduated from high school and was on a summer camp. As the news came in, “it didn’t seem to make any difference to anybody… and I remember I couldn’t talk to anyone. There was nobody. I couldn’t stay where I was. I just walked off by myself to somewhere in the woods and stayed there for maybe a couple of hours….. till it was getting dark. …I felt completely isolated…”

Chomsky then recounted an episode from several years later, possibly the early 1950s, when information about the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still widely censored in the US. One evening in Boston, Chomsky and his wife felt like watching a movie. They scanned the movie pages of the local newspaper to decide which film to see, and were surprised to find a film called ‘Hiroshima’ billed at a downtown Boston theatre located in Boston’s ‘Redlight’ district (so called because the neighbourhood mostly featured pornographic movies). The Chomskys were keen to check the film out and went.

It turned out that it was some kind of a poorly-made documentary film but it contained graphic images of the carnage of August 6, 1945, obviously filmed on-site at Hiroshima on, and immediately after, that dreadful day. There were pictures of appalling devastation, of people with their skin falling off their bodies, screaming and running towards the river in the hope of salving their wounds. And, Chomsky recalled with a perceptible shudder, “people in the audience were laughing… laughing.. They perhaps took it for a pornographic movie…” – One can actually hear Chomsky’s voice trail off as he remembers that day on camera.

Chomsky’s moral universe had been shaped, by his own account, “by the horrors of the 1930s, by the war in Ethiopia, the Russian purges, the China incident, the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi atrocities, the Western reaction to these events and, in part, their complicity in them…” The fall of Republican Barcelona in January 1939 in the Spanish Civil War was a watershed in Chomsky’s intellectual history.

It persuaded 10-year-old Noam to write, for his school magazine, his first published article. Even though he had taken up theoretical linguistics partly fortuitously, Chomsky was to eventually emerge as the 20th-century’s foremost language theorist/philosopher whose work has profoundly influenced education theory, psychology, psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics,  computational theory and computer learning as well as cognitive science in general. He pioneered the cognitivist, as opposed to the then widely popular behaviourist, approach to language theory, and established its preeminence among the competing epistemological systems of human language. And, in a very real sense, Chomsky’s path-breaking work in language theory also links up with the fundamental moral concerns that have informed all his adult years: human dignity, equality, social justice and freedom. Here’s what he once said about the linkages:

Noam Chomsky. Photo: Andrew Rusk/Flickr CC BY 2.0, Marc Lozano/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

“I like to believe that the intensive study of one aspect of human psychology – human language – may contribute to a humanistic social science that will serve as well as an instrument for social action. It must, needless to say, be stressed that social action cannot await a firmly established theory of man and society, nor can the validity of the latter be determined by our hopes and moral judgements. The two – speculation and action – must progress as best they can, looking forward to the day when theoretical enquiry will provide a firm guide to the unending, often grim, but never hopeless struggle for freedom and social justice.” (From the essay Language and Freedom, originally a lecture given at Loyola University, Chicago in January 1970)

Why does Chomsky believe that the study of the humans’ facility for language can open the door for meaningful social action? A clue to the answer probably lies in another part of the same essay, where he expands on the theme of freedom and creativity running through man’s use of language:

“Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.”

Freedom implies the ability to make choices, and Chomsky never tires of reminding us that everyone needs to make a choice on a multiplicity of issues everyday if we are to stay human. In the ‘Q&A’ session following a talk he delivered in the Asian School of Journalism in Chennai in October 2001, a budding journalist asked Chomsky if he was not being ‘too optimistic’ in a world that otherwise looked quite bleak. Chomsky’s reply was simple, almost matter-of-fact:

“There is no measure of how optimistic you ought to be. In fact, as far as optimism is concerned, you basically have two choices. You can say, ‘Nothing is going to work and so I am not going to do anything.’ You can therefore guarantee that the worst possible outcome will come about. Or you can take the other option and say, ‘Maybe something will work and I will engage myself in trying to  make it work. Maybe there is a chance that things will get better’. That is your choice. Nobody can tell you how right it is to be optimistic.”

Requiem for the American Dream
Noam Chomsky
Seven Stories Press (2017)

No hint of high passion here, for Chomsky clearly thinks he is only stating the obvious. But he also knows that, sometimes, there is no such thing as the obvious, at any rate not for the modern-day intellectual. As far back as June, 1966, while delivering at Harvard, in an anti-Vietnam War rally, what proved to be one of the 20th century’s great speeches, he had said:

“It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, seems enough of a truism to pass without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious.”

For Chomsky, however, this responsibility was always axiomatic. For the longest time, he has been a thorn in the side of successive US administrations, Republican and Democratic, for his incisive, insistent probing of the real drivers of American foreign policy. His unblinking gaze on how the US propped up the most brutal regimes in Nicaragua, El Salvadore, Guatemala and Chile through the 1970s earned him a place on President Nixon’s infamous ‘Enemies List’.

He is recognised as one of the chief architects of the independence of East Timor. By insistently, even stridently, raising his voice against unspeakable, US-aided Indonesian atrocities against the East Timorese, he had helped focus international public opinion on East Timor.

In 2002,  he appeared unsolicited at an Istanbul court to plead that he be made a co-accused in a criminal prosecution involving Fatih Tas, an important Turkish publisher. Tas had published a Turkish translation of Chomsky’s American Interventionism, a book of essays highlighting the Turkish government’s relentless persecution of Turkiye’s Kurdish population with American support.

Not amused, the Turkish State was prosecuting Tas for ‘producing propaganda against the unity of the country’. It was dismayed, however, by Chomsky’s sudden appearance in Turkiye and his plea to be tried alongside Tas. All the world’s media had got wind of the professor’s presence in the country and were sure to turn up in strength to report on the court proceedings live. The Turkish authorities panicked and dropped the prosecution, saving the publisher from a certain prison sentence.

Chomsky’s reaction was characteristically understated. Because “the US provides 80% of the arms for Turkiye for the express purpose of carrying out repression’’, he felt it was his duty, as a US citizen, to protest against Turkiye’s human rights abuses.

For many like me who have followed and admired Chomsky’s work for decades, it is unsurprising – because for him it is second nature – that he always downplays the impact of his own interventions in some of the most critical questions our world is confronted with: war and peace, egregious human rights violations by powerful States, the plunder of the commons by transnational corporations, the depredations of finance capital, and the ever-lengthening shadow of ecological disaster. And yet one couldn’t but marvel at Chomsky’s response to a question that Al Jazeera asked him in April this year in course of an interview. Here’s a look at that tete-a’-tete:

AJ: Few intellectuals have caused greater controversy than yourself. Do you have any regrets for any of the positions that you have taken or not taken related to your advocacy?

NC: For having not taken, yes. I wouldn’t retract those I have taken, but there are many things I should have done that I didn’t do….. I became quite active in opposing the (Vietnam) war in the early 1960s… but that was too late. Should have been 10 years earlier when the US began to support the French effort to reconquer their former colony and, when the French failed, the US took over, undermined the Geneva Accords, established a client state in the south that killed 60 or 70 thousand people. That’s when protest should have begun. Until the latter part of the 1960s, there was no really organised opposition. That was criminal and I should have started earlier, same on other things….Take Israel, the leading issue of my life since early childhood. I started talking about the criminal nature of Israel’s actions in 1969 – it should have been much earlier. I was familiar with the repression of the Palestinian population in Israel. I’d seen it at first hand…. I didn’t become involved until after the ’67 war and Israel initiated its policies of settlement and development in the occupied territories, which expanded and led to the current situation. I was much too mild in my criticism and much too late. 

“(T)here are many things I should have done that I didn’t do”. Nobler words than these have seldom been heard in our time. One hopes Noam Chomsky  – ‘the greatest living challenger of unjust power and delusions’, in Edward Said’s memorable words –continues to work and teach us all for many more years.

Anjan Basu can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com.

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