Who'd have thought?

by Ben Naparstek / 13 December, 2008
On the eve of his 80th birthday, public intellectual Noam Chomsky reflects that in the past 40 years there has been significant progress towards a civilised world.

Noam Chomsky stares back at the black-and-white portrait of Bertrand Russell on his office wall and feels like he's being judged. "It's those eyes," Chomsky says. "It's as if I've done something wrong." Asked why Russell's ghost might reprimand him, Chomsky demurs. The linguist and left-wing activist, who turns 80 on December 7, has never been one to admit to being wrong.

Chomsky is, according to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, among the 10 most cited thinkers of all time. Ranking higher than Hegel but trailing Freud, he is the only living member of that pantheon. Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines have named him as the world's top public intellectual.

Plus he belongs to the illustrious group - which includes Pope John Paul II, Gabriel García Márquez and Mark Twain - of celebrities prematurely declared dead. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez commended Chomsky's 2003 book Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance during his 2006 address to the United Nations General Assembly, and expressed regret that he never met his hero while he was still alive. (Perhaps Chavez had in mind the now deceased chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky used in a study of animal communication.) Hegemony or Survival subsequently rose to the top of the Amazon.com bestseller list.

Chomsky, who identifies as a "libertarian socialist", is an improbable standard-bearer for university campus activists. There's no Che Guevara glamour to the serene, slightly stooped professor seated before me in sneakers, a baggy grey pullover and outsize glasses. His quiet, froggy voice barely carries across the round table where we sit in his spartan headquarters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). And it's not rousing rhetoric that draws his disciples to pack the auditoriums whenever Chomsky lectures. His style, if it can be called that, is to deliver a barrage of historical statistics and examples, making the case - calmly, rationally and relentlessly - against -American hegemony.

For all his humility, he must get a charge out of addressing crowds of admirers? "There are more important things," Chomsky answers patiently, "than how you look in the eyes of other people."

No critic of US foreign policy has a more avid global following, but Chomsky is virtually ignored by the American media. "Here, I'm regarded as more of a threat," he speculates. Chomsky pulls out a framed 2005 cover from the liberal American Prospect magazine, depicting him and Dick Cheney as leering figures looming over a quavering huddle of liberals. "It's an interesting indication of their self-image as terrified little cowards," he says.

Some linguists say he is as vital to their field as Albert Einstein is to physics. The era before the Chomskyan revolution is sometimes referred to as BC, or Before Chomsky. In 1957, when not yet 30, he published his first book, Syntactic Structures, arguing that our ability to produce sentences is biological and not simply learned behaviour, as the "structuralist" orthodoxy had it. Chomsky posited a "universal grammar" that all people share.

Growing up in Philadelphia during the Depression, Chomsky thought deeply about language and politics. His father, William, an emigrant from Russia, was a respected Hebrew scholar and an expert on medieval grammar. Elsie, his mother, emigrated from Lithuania as an infant and taught Hebrew. Many in his extended family were unemployed, but Chomsky has happy memories of the pre-war years: "People were suffering. You could see it everywhere. But it was an intellectually and politically very lively time."

On weekends, he commuted to New York City to help his disabled Trotskyite uncle run his news-stand business, and Chomsky absorbed the heated debates that took place there. He hung out in anarchist bookstores, read political pamphlets and chatted with European refugees. When Barcelona fell in 1939, the 10-year-old wrote an editorial for the school newspaper about the ascent of European fascism.

Aged 21, he married Carol Schatz and the couple spent several months on an Israeli kibbutz, even considering a permanent move. The promise of an anarchist utopia was alluring, but he found the ideological fervour stifling and he was demoralised by the racism towards the Arabs and Mizrahi Jews.

In the mid-60s, his academic celebrity was long established. But as the US started bombing North Vietnam, he felt he had more urgent priorities than pondering syntax. Activism consumed him. Chomsky shared a cell with Norman Mailer after participating in the March on the Pentagon in 1967. In The Armies of the Night (1968), Mailer recalled his cellmate as "a slim, sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression, and an air of gentle but absolute moral integrity".

Carol returned to university to write a PhD on linguistics so she could support the family if Chomsky was jailed or lost his job - most of MIT's budget then came from the Pentagon.

Their elder daughter, Aviva, is now a Latin American scholar and a committed activist; son Harry is a violinist and computer programmer. Younger daughter Diane has lived in poverty in Nicaragua since her mid-20s, deliberately eschewing bourgeois comforts. So, does Chomsky feel guilty about his comfortable lifestyle? "Our lives are remarkably privileged by world standards, but we don't help anyone if we give them up," he says. I suggest that sounds like an indictment of Diane's lifestyle. He grimaces: "I'd be happier if she had running water in her house instead of a cold trickle a couple of hours a night, but that's her choice."

His first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins, was published in 1969 and collected his writings on Vietnam. Its arguments would form the cornerstone of his critique of subsequent American military interventions: the Government's humanitarian rhetoric is merely a cover for its imperial ambitions, and liberal intellectuals provide the legitimising figleaf for its atrocities.

After Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, his hatred of US foreign policy led him to write sympathetically about Pol Pot. In 1978, Chomsky and Edward Herman published After the Cataclysm, in which they rationalised the Cambodian Communists' lethal social engineering as an understandable remedy to the economic devastation caused by US attacks.

Nowadays, Chomsky is more tactful. His writings on the Khmer regime had a specific context, he insists - contrasting the Western media's treatment of crimes committed by the West and its proxies, and those perpetrated by enemy states. "We compared the Khmer Rouge atrocities and Indonesian atrocities in East Timor. In the case of Cambodia, the atrocities were by an official enemy where we could do nothing about it. There was a huge outcry, great passion and outrageous lying that would have impressed Stalin."

In 1975, Indonesian President Suharto, a US ally, invaded East Timor and by some accounts killed more than 100,000 civilians. To Chomsky, "It was our crime, we could do a lot about it, and there was silence and denial. By now, the facts are all there. If you choose to deny them, it's a definite choice. It's like Holocaust denial."

By this logic, David Irving would not be out of place among America's liberal commentariat. "There's a literary genre now - Samantha Power is the leading figure - in which we denounce ourselves for our failure to respond to the crimes of others. But we either totally ignore or else flatly deny our own crimes."

In her 2003 book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Power castigated the US for looking away from Suharto's massacres. "We didn't look away, we looked right there," says Chomsky, who calls Power "part of a liberal educated intellectual community, which is very clearly subject to Orwell's dictum about the indifference to reality of the nationalists". Power declined to comment on his remarks. But to Chomsky's detractors, few pundits have a shakier grasp on reality than him.

His call for Israel to become a binational state makes him a hate figure for many Jews, who argue that a system in which the Jewish people became a minority in an Arab-dominated country would be suicidal. "I think the hostility would decline," Chomsky says simply. There are moves towards federal arrangements in many parts of the world, he muses, and Israel should follow suit: "Life's a complicated and diverse affair. We all gain by having these cultural and linguistic systems enriched."

Most Jewish critics of the Israeli Government bridle at being labelled "self-haters", but Chomsky wears the tag proudly. "The first usage of the term is by King Ahab, who is the epitome of evil in the Bible. He condemned the prophet Elijah as a hater of Israel. Why? Because Elijah criticised the acts of the evil king. I'm certainly not insulted by being compared to the prophet Elijah."

Even those who tolerate Chomsky's extreme views on Israel are usually troubled by his association with neo-nazis. In 1979, he signed a petition defending the right to free expression of French literature professor Robert Faurisson, who had been suspended from teaching for his Holocaust denial. The petition referred to the "findings" of the "respected" academic.

Chomsky wrote Faurisson's publishers an essay, describing him as "a relatively apolitical sort of liberal", and told them to make the best use of it for the campaign. "I went through the evidence," Chomsky tells me, "and I said, 'Well, if this is the strongest evidence that his harshest critics can bring, then he's probably a relatively apolitical liberal.'"

When he learned that Faurisson was using the essay to preface his book Memoire en Defense (Memory in Defence), Chomsky got cold feet, but it had already gone to print. "I tried to retract it and that I feel was a mistake," he says. "I knew that in France, where there is total irrational hysteria among the educated classes, and also absolute hatred of freedom of speech, it would be grossly misinterpreted."

For Chomsky, the media is an elaborate mechanism for state thought control: "The Western intellectual community is dedicated to lying in support of state power." So media consumers and journalists are mere dupes with no faculty for independent thought? "These are tendencies," he parries. "There are some very decent people and fine journalists, in fact."

In an era of obsessive public-opinion polling, it could be argued that politicians are excessively attentive to the whims of popular opinion, not too little. But Chomsky downplays the influence of polls on politicians, adding "one of the ways of protecting the leadership from the public is simply by not publishing the results of opinion studies. That's the norm."

Were the revisions to the US$700 billion bailout plan, following nationwide protests, not the work of popular democracy? "That's only on the surface. The political system has so dissolved that all the public can do is shout, 'No.' If we had a full, functioning democracy, the public would do more than just scream, 'No.' They would have proposals and would insist that their representatives act on those proposals."

Instead, to Chomsky's mind, the US is a four-year dictatorship: "The way our system works is once every four years you have a choice between two candidates - both whose positions you oppose - and after that, 'Shut up.'"

Not everyone opposes President-elect Barack Obama, of course, but Chomsky has his own views. "He is dangerous," he says flatly. "He's a centre-right Democrat who insists that the United States is an outlaw state which must violate international law and resort to violence when it chooses."

What hope does his relentlessly cynical vision offer? Much, boasts Chomsky; in fact, he thinks the world is improving. "If you look at history, you see very definite and significant progress towards a more civilised world. It's true of the past 40 years."

He finds promise in public opinion - if only we could overcome the deliberate failures of our democratic institutions.

After September 11, Chomsky gained renewed popularity on the hard-left. He was virtually alone among commentators in protesting against the American military action in Afghanistan, which he termed "silent genocide".

Yet columnist Christopher Hitchens, formerly a champion of Chomsky, charged him with "losing the qualities that made him a great moral and political tutor in the years of the Indochina war". Hitchens, like many, was disturbed by Chomsky's suggestion that President Bill Clinton's 1998 bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan was comparable to the September 11 attacks.

Al Qaeda was mistakenly believed to be using the factory to manufacture chemical weapons. One security guard was killed in Clinton's strike, but it's likely that tens of thousands of Sudanese died as a result of not having access to the factory's medicines. I ask how Clinton's bombing, terrible though it was, can be likened to al Qaeda's deliberate attempt to kill thousands of people by flying planes into the World Trade Center? Chomsky corrects me: Clinton's strike was morally worse.

He starts talking about ants - when we go strolling, we know we'll crush ants; but we don't mean to kill them, as they're not worthy of moral thought. Ditto with Sudan: "We know we're going to kill lots of people, but we don't intend to kill them because they aren't even considered as individuals deserving of moral judgement. Okay, which is the lower level of morality?"

These days, Chomsky spends just a couple of hours a day in the office. His wife has advanced lung cancer. His voice drops an octave, if that's possible: "So most of our lives have been together and now she's terminally ill."

Chomsky survived a cancer operation a few years ago, but he's now in rude health. He's not afraid of his own mortality. "As a child, I thought it was an indescribable horror. That's passed over the years. I feel that I'm already a decade beyond what life is supposed to be according to the holy texts."

His assistant throws open his door, truncating our appointment; Chomsky is very busy today - he needs to be photographed for his old primary school. The octogenarian-to-be puts on the school's cap and flashes his gap-toothed smile for the camera. And for a moment the professor with no ego or charisma looks rather pleased with himself.

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