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Noam Chomsky

David Jay Brown

Noam Chomsky

Although Noam Chomsky revolutionized the study of linguistics, he is best known as one of the leading critics of U.S. foreign policy. The book Chomsky for Beginners begins with David Cogswell’s statement “Noam Chomsky is one of the ten most-quoted writers of all time,” and one encounters this assertion in many essays about Chomsky’s work. However, when Chomsky read the draft for this introduction, he told me that, “this is probably nonsense invented by some PR office. It can’t possibly be true…inconceivable.” 

Yet, according to The Chicago Tribune, “a  survey of standard reference work, the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, found that over the past dozen years Chomsky was the most-often-cited living author. Among intellectual luminaries of all eras, Chomsky placed eighth, just behind Plato and Sigmund Freud.” The New York Times called Chomsky “arguably the most important intellectual alive.”

The son of a Hebrew language scholar, Chomsky’s independent scholarship earned him entry into the Society of Fellows at Harvard University in 1951. He received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955, although most of the research leading to this degree was done at Harvard between 1951 and 1955. After receiving his Ph.D., Chomsky taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for 19 years. In 1976, he was appointed Institute Professor, and he held the Ferrari P. Ward Chair of Modern Language and Linguistics. In addition to authoring more than eighty books on language and politics, Chomsky also lectures widely, and is one of America’s most popular speakers, drawing standing-room-only audiences all over the country.

In his book The End of Science, John Horgan states that, “in spite of his denials, Chomsky is the most important linguist who has ever lived.” The Encyclopedia Britannica declares that “it is hardly an exaggeration to say that there is no major theoretical issue in linguistics today that is debated in terms other than those in which he has chosen to define it.” Yet when Chomsky read over the draft for this introduction, and he read my phrase “Chomsky is generally regarded as the most important linguist who has ever lived,” he wrote me back saying, “that’s a huge exaggeration.” 

Among his many accomplishments as a linguist, Chomsky is most famous for his work on what is called generative grammar. He revolutionized the discipline of linguistics by arguing that the acquisition of language is part of the natural or innate structure of the human brain, and that there is a “universal grammar”, genetically hard-wired into us from birth, that defines the rules, range, and limits of all possible human languages. Some of his books on this subject include Knowledge of Language and Language and Mind.

Although the Arts and Humanities Citation Index declares Chomsky to be the most-often-cited living author, it’s rare that you’ll hear about him in the mainstream media. This is because since 1965 Chomsky has been very outspoken about his criticisms of U.S. foreign policy, and the corporate influence on the media. His book of essays American Power and the New Mandarins is considered to be one of the most substantial arguments ever against the American involvement in Vietnam. Some of his many other political books include Towards a New Cold War, The Manufacture of Consent, Rogue States, The Chomsky Reader, 9-11: Understanding Power and Middle East Illusions.

Many of Chomsky’s political books recount in disturbing detail how the U.S. government has supported violent dictators and totalitarian regimes throughout the world, and how it has repeatedly inflicted horrific atrocities on Third World countries that fail to support American corporate interests. He goes into painstaking detail describing how these atrocities have been covered up by the mainstream, corporate-owned media, and how they have created a strong negative sentiment toward America around the world. 

I spoke with Professor Chomsky on May 30, 2003. Despite his staggering accomplishments, Chomsky comes across as unusually humble. He has a very gentle, yet highly persuasive manner about him, and he choses his words with great care when he speaks. Chomsky exudes conviction and calmness, and expresses himself with great clarity, serenity and eloquence, as well as the utmost patience; I was acutely aware that he had answered some of the questions that I was asking him at least a thousand times before, yet he replied with such thoughtfulness that it seemed as if he was answering these questions for the first time.

There is a great generosity to Chomsky’s spirit, and he has an incredibly vast, truly encyclopedic knowledge-base of scientific and political facts stored in his head. I spoke with Chomsky about propaganda and the media, the political potential of the internet, how to improve democracy, medical marijuana and the Drug War, the relationship between language and consciousness, and what he thinks are the greatest threats to the human species–a subject he spoke about with great urgency.

David: Why do you think it’s so important to question authority?

Noam: Just out of the commitment to freedom. I think people have every right to be free, independent creatures, and that means to question any kind of hierarchy or domination, or authority. It’s almost true by definition if you believe in freedom.

David: All previous forms of media–television, radio, newspapers, etc.–have been monopolized by corporations. It seems that they can’t monopolize the internet. Do you think that this will make a difference sociologically?

Noam: First of all, historically, that’s not really true. I don’t know about other countries, but the history of media in the modern period–the last two centuries–has been studied pretty closely in England and the United States, and the period when the press was most free was probably the Nineteenth Century. There was a very substantial press in the Nineteenth Century, and it was very diverse. There was a working class press, an ethnic press, and so on–with a lot of participation and involvement. It reached a great many people, and it presented a variety opinions and point of views. 

Over time this changed. Actually there was an effort, first in England, to try to censor the independent press by various government means, such as taxation and others. Now that didn’t work, there were too many ways around it. It was finally recognized that through the forces of capital concentration and advertiser reliance, the independent press would simply be eroded since it would not be able to gain business support, either capital investment or advertising. And over time the press has narrowed, very sharply in fact. It’s been going on for the last few years, and the mass-based independent press has largely disappeared. 

In the United States, for example, as recently as the 1950’s, there were about 800 labor-based newspapers which reached, maybe, thirty million people a week. Of course that’s completely disappeared. If you go back to the early part of the century, about a century ago, popular-based, what we would call left-oriented journals, were on the scale of commercial press, and the same has been true in England. So it’s not entirely true that it’s always been monopolized, that’s a process that takes place through capital accumulation and reliance on advertising. 

The internet is a very important case. Like most of the modern economy, it was developed in the state system, and for about thirty years it was either within the Pentagon, or later the National Science Foundation. It was only privatized in the mid-90’s, and since then it has changed. So far it’s been impossible to really control, so if people want to use it for their own purposes they can. 

But there are major efforts being made by the corporate owners and advertisers to shape the internet, so that it will be mostly used for advertising, commerce, diversion and so on. Then those who wish to use it for information, political organizing, and other such activities will have a harder time. Now that hasn’t happened yet, and it’s really a terrain of struggle. But what’s going on with the internet is, in some respects, similar to the early days of print press, later radio, to some extent television.

David: What sort of difference do you think the internet has made politically? Do you see it as a tool for improving human rights and democracy?

Noam: The appearance of the internet has had a big effect. So a good deal of the organizing and activism of the past say ten years has been internet based. Now that’s true inside particular countries. So, for example, the overthrow of the dictatorship in Indonesia was very much facilitated by internet contact among people, many of them students, who were able to organize, and overthrow the dictatorship. Now we’ve just seen it in South Korea very dramatically. 

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