I first became aware of Noam Chomsky early in 1967. His article, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” appeared in the The New York Review of Books (Chomsky, 1967, February 23) and I have kept a copy close at hand ever since. The title echoed Julien Benda’s critical 1927 volume – later translated into English as The Treason of the Intellectuals (Benda, 2006). It castigated the French intelligentsia and scholarly community for their collusion with authoritarianism, racism and vulgar nationalism.
By then, of course, Chomsky had already made a permanent name for himself in the academic theory of linguistics. He was, however, on the cusp of a parallel career. Both would earn him a place in two separate strands of human thought and action.
In Syntactic Structures (1957), Chomsky the linguist advanced the notion of “innate language” and the idea that a genetic capacity for speech is a foundational biological inheritance. All members of our species are all born possessing a “universal grammar.” A genetically transferred structure into which various familiar sounds and occasional oddities such as grunts, clicks and whistles are “loaded” is one that all humanity shares. Although “words” may sound different depending on the particular phonemes found in German, Mandarin or Tagalog, there’s almost no detectable difference among speakers of Swedish, Japanese and Swahili in terms of the basic elements or organizing principles of language (cf. de Saussure  on the distinction between langue and parole). Moreover, according to Chomsky, language categorically distinguishes us from other animals. Although other animals may “communicate” through signs, gestures and vocalizations from a robin’s song to a dog’s snarl, human beings are unique in our complex linguistic abilities – abilities that are essential for other distinctive capacities such as aesthetic (some might insist on adding spiritual), abstract/analytical and critical/reflective competencies.
The idea that humanity was separated categorically from other species from whales to elephants to bonobos was not one that I easily accepted and, to be frank, I still have trouble imaging that our difference are not more like points on a continuum than unbridgeable gaps in capacity and experience. Chomsky’s language theory was, moreover, resisted by people more committed to “nurture” than to “nature” and by those who wished to distance themselves from the unrepentant “rationalism” reported in his Cartesian Linguistics (1965); but, like it or not, Chomsky’s work has been at the centre of discussion and debate about language for over half a century. At issue, of course, are diverse questions such as the hoary old “mind/body” dichotomy that can easily tie people up in unending ontological and epistemological knots without having much of a practical nature to show for it. Although still a little uncomfortable, I have more or less made my peace with him. Were such gradual, reluctant and tentative conversions ever to come to his attention, I suspect he’d say that it was about time, and quickly carry on to more interesting topics.
However much his language theory has been a subject of controversy, Noam Chomsky’s academic reputation is beyond dispute. He possesses about forty honourary doctorates and more awards and tributes than can be recalled; but, he has had another side – and it is even more controversial.
The labels used by and about him vary only a little and in nuanced ways best appreciated mainly by connoisseurs of radical politics and especially of the dreaded and hopelessly misunderstood ideology of anarchism. He calls himself an “anarcho-syndicalist.” He speaks respectfully of “libertarian socialism,” which separates him profoundly from the kind of “libertarians” that can be seen on the fringes of the Republican Party in the United States – Rand Paul, and all that. He quite properly considers himself a legitimate heir of the European Enlightenment. His commitment to individual freedom and creativity, human rights and doctrines of fairness, equity and ever greater democracy can hardly be overstated. As a result, he has inflamed ruling elites around the world, but most notably in his own country where he is not only considered a pariah by the obvious right-wing elements in positions of economic, political and social power, but also by a certain caste of public intellectuals who are annoyed by his advocacy on behalf of Palestinians even more than his views on “human nature.”
Politically, Chomsky was born into a Jewish family whose members varied from Roosevelt Democrats to “far-left socialists” and whose interests were inevitably shaped by the pervasive, open anti-semitism of his childhood. He wrote his first political article on the spread of fascism at the age of ten and, coincidentally, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah on the day that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and precipitated the entry of the United States into the wars against fascism. The main political question he faced was not whether he was going to be a leftist, but what sort of leftist he would be. The question was quickly settled in his mind. He was a firm critic of Marxism-Leninism and he would remain committed to anarchist values for life.
Chomsky’s politics became matters of national and international attention during the Vietnam conflict. Following his call to intellectuals, he produced American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), Two Essays on Cambodia (1970) and At War with Asia (1971). Just over the past thirty years or so (since 1985), he has cranked out no less than sixty-five volumes (not including edited anthologies) on political subjects including Turning the Tide: The U.S. and Latin America (1987), Class Warfare (1996), Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism and the Real World (2002), Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (2013) and, as is said about such extensive inventories, many more. His range has been vast and, his critics say, incessantly polemical and sometimes superficial. That is as may be, but he has not been without singular insight and influence. For instance, among his most important contributions was Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988, 2002), a book co-authored by Edward S. Herman which resulted in many otherwise less critical people gaining a new perspective on the ideological hegemony exercised through the allegedly free but rarely “fair and balanced” print and broadcast media.
Of necessity, there is a fair amount of repetition in Chomsky’s political work. Indeed, he might properly be called a commentator more than a scholar for two unrelated reasons. First, he makes no pretenses about being a specially trained expert on the areas he surveys. He relies largely on his vast reading rather than upon original research. He is therefore wise to speak and write with modesty for no one could plausibly be deeply knowledgeable about every aspect of geopolitics, imperial domination and the contentious political belief systems that seek to justify or condemn patterns of power, exploitation and liberation. Second, his polemics are explicitly designed to present a persuasive political position that relies both equally on informed ethics and rigorous evidence in the attempt to discern patterns of behaviour and power relations among and within societies.
It goes without saying that apologists for contemporary politics are going to disagree mightily with Chomsky’s interpretation of events. At the same time, I defy anyone to show precisely where Chomsky has made significant errors of fact.
In light of the enormous range of Chomsky’s knowledge, analysis and interpretation, Power Systems provides a manageable introduction to the themes he has previously explored at length. It serves as a commendable “sampler.” People who read this collection of interviews afresh and with an open mind will almost immediately experience an “Aha!” moment (or possibly several if them) as his plain speaking confounds the Orwellian doublespeak of the authorities. The clarity and obvious truth of his pronouncements will, in fact, make an attentive reader question why Chomsky’s views remain on the margins of political discourse. Of course, he has a good answer for that too: whether in the mass media or in official education, some subjects are simply off-limits and others are required to be discussed within such a repressive, biased framework that distortion is inevitable. So, we are led to reassuring conclusions that allow us to tolerate our leaders while we content ourselves with comforting myths or merely a heightened sense of impotence. This, at any rate, is the conclusion we must draw after reading his exploration of contemporary propaganda and applying it to otherwise intolerable discourses from the mythic “war on terror” abroad to the impending repression of free speech at home.
The subjects lucidly discussed in Power Systems include the failure of the Arab Spring and the ongoing oil wars that have been encouraged for almost twenty-five years since “Operation Desert Storm” put Iraq on the road to destruction in 1991. Chomsky also has critical things to say about education and the environment, military detention and the threat to civil liberties and the assault on trade unions and civil resistance. Although there are few stunning new revelations in the text, I would like to convince you that it is well worth reading. It displays a pattern of thought that is not merely important and undervalued, but essential if the degradation of democracy, the unsustainability of the economy and the hideous commitment to what Gore Vidal (2002, 2007) called the politics of “perpetual war” are to be resisted.
College educators in almost any discipline or field are constantly talking about “critical thinking,” though they usually mean clever problem-solving in situations where the nature and consequences of the problems to be solved are seldom discussed in depth. So, we talk about alleviating poverty or forestalling climate change without noticing that these are mainly symptoms of a larger disease and that the disease in question is located in the power arrangements that determine our political, social, personal and working lives.
Chomsky offers the possibility of an authentic diagnosis and a tentative therapy, for no one could be so optimistic as to imagine an easy cure. He invites us to see reality, no matter what the cost to our own ideological presumptions. In doing so, he exposes the hypocrisy of the hegemonic neoliberalism that is everywhere around us and that stifles creative alternatives to whatever follows the banality, “the reality is …”. It is the blindness that allows us to believe that the only people to be entrusted with such matters as economic prosperity, international security and the management of non-renewable resources are precisely the individuals and institutions that have been responsible for the mismanagement of all three and precipitated the so-called “challenges” we now face.
Benda, J. The treason of the intellectuals. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic structures. The Hague, NL: Mouton.
Chomsky, N. (1967, February 23). The responsibility of intellectuals. The New York Review of Books. Available online at www.chomsky.info
Chomsky, N. (1969). American power and the new mandarins. New York, NY: Pantheon.
Chomsky, N. (1970). Two essays on Cambodia. Nottingham, UK: Spokesman Books.
Chomsky, N. (1971). At war with Asia. New York, NY: Pantheon.
Chomsky, N. (1987) Turning the tide: The U.S. and Latin America. Boston, MA: South End Press.
Chomsky, N. (1988, 2002). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media (with Edward S. Herman). New York, NY: Pantheon.
Chomsky, N. (1996). Class warfare: Interviewed by David Barsamian. (Vancouver, BC: New Star Books.
Chomsky, N. (2013) Nuclear war and environmental catastrophe. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press.
de Saussure, F. (1986). Course in general linguistics, 3rd ed. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company.
Vidal, G. (2002). Perpetual war for perpetual peace: How we got to be so hated. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.
Vidal, G. (2007). Dreaming war: Blood for oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta. New York: Nation Books.
Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and political economy at Seneca College in Toronto. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org