Noam Chomsky

The Soul of a Soulless World

Anjan Basu

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 Simulated Shooting at Vietnamese Hut'. "The 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.

"Apparently 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, "visitors, however, may still test their skills elsewhere in the exhibit 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 from a helicopter 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,40, was already a veteran of the country-wide protests against that war, campaigning on university campuses including Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley, leading an electrifying anti-war teach-in just outside the Pentagon, participating in civil disobedience movements and marching on Washington D.C. in October, 1967 along with tens of thousands of others to 'return' tens of thousands of 'draft cards' to the Attorney General's Office. (The US had already deployed more than 200,000 troops in Vietnam and had committed to raise that number significantly.) He had been imprisoned, too, and is understood to have encouraged his wife Carol to complete her doctoral dissertation quickly and look for a job, so that, in the event he lost his, they would still have a roof over their heads.

In the event, Noam Chomsky did not lose his job. He had been made a tenured full professor in MIT's School of Modern Languages and Linguistics at age 32. His first book, Syntactic Structures, published when he had just turned 28, had revolutionised linguistic theory, identifying Chomsky as a pioneer of the cognitivist (as opposed to the behaviourist) framework for the study of languages. Even as he was speaking tirelessly at anti-war teach-ins and helping set up the collective RESIST that came to play an important role in mobilising public opinion against the USA's escalating involvement in Vietnam, he completed another important book, Language and Mind (1968), which made a groundbreaking contribution to cognitive linguistic theory, opening the door to psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics. The novelist Norman Mailer, who happened to share a prison cell in October, 1967 with the young professor (whom Mailer had not met before but whose reputation as a genius had reached Mailer), recalls how 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".

By all accounts, this is an excellent thumb-nail portrait of Avram Noam Chomsky. Born to immigrant Jewish parents in Philadelphia on 7 December, 1928, Chomsky was early attracted to anarchism and cut his political commentator's teeth at age 10 at junior high school, when he wrote an article about the fall of Republican Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War earlier that year. In 1945, aged 16, he joined the University of Pennsylvania where, as an undergraduate, he studied logic, philosophy and languages, then moved to Penn's graduate programme and received his Master's in 1951. During 1951-1955, he was a Fellow at Harvard, but later chose to submit his PH D dissertation to his alma mater, Penn, which awarded him the degree in 1955. But well before that, his was a well-known name among linguists and lamguage philosophers, his first major academic article having been published in The Journal of Symbolic Logic in 1952, and the universities of Yale and Chicago having invited him to present his views on linguistic theory in 1954, when he had not turned 26 yet. Such major works as Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Topics in the Theory of Generative Grammar, The Sound Pattern of English and Cartesian Linguistics: A Chapter in the History of Rationalist Thought followed in quick succession and, by the mid-1960s, Chomsky was already among the foremost language theorists in the world. His academic influence soon extended to such widely diverse fields as computer science, psychology, anthropology, neuroscience, education, mathematics and literary criticism, besides, of course, philosophy. It is hardly surprising that he remains the most-cited scholar in all academic work in the humanities and social sciences put together.

And yet, of the well over 100 books he has authored himself—not to speak of the literally countless others he has edited or collaborated on—the large majority is taken up with non-academic subjects, more particularly with political commentary and analysis. Again, of his political writings, the lion's share is accounted for by his critique of American foreign policy from the 1950s right through to the present, because, even now when he is turning ninety, he remains as prolific as ever. Remarkably, though, he has always insisted on, and succeeded in, insulating his 'classroom from (my) politics'. He brings his razor-sharp intellect, high professional integrity and his crystal-clear prose to all his work. His political writing has another significant attribute: a passionate hatred of hypocrisy and double-speak. Noam Chomsky is a non-believer, but questions of justice and truth never fail to ignite in him something close to religious fervour.

In February, 2002, Chomsky appeared unsolicited in an Istanbul court and asked that he be tried alongside Fatih Tas, Director, Aram Publishing, who was being sued for having "acted in contravention of Turkey's national interest". What had happened is this: in 2001, Aram Publishing had published a Turkish translation of Chomsky's American Interventionism, a book of essays that highlighted, among other things, the Turkish government's relentless persecution of the Kurdish population that amounted, in Chomsky's words, to "one of the most severe human rights atrocities of the 1990s". For good measure, he had also said that the Kurds "have been miserably oppressed throughout the whole history of the modern Turkish state". Not amused, the Turkish state had hauled up Fatih Tas, the owner of the publishing firm, and was prosecuting him for "producing propaganda against the unity of the country", a charge that potentially carried a minimum prison term of one year. Chomsky announced his intention of appearing as a co-accused and turned up in court on 13 February, 2002, much to the court's dismay. Chomsky's formidable reputation ensured that a battery of print and TV journalists representing large swathes of international media were at hand to record and report on the proceedings live. The Turkish government baulked at the idea that its record of violence against the Kurds could be brought out tellingly in the courtroom as the whole world looked on. It dropped the prosecution altogether. Chomsky's reaction was characteristically matter-of-fact: "The prosecutor clearly made the right decision. I hope it will be a step towards establishing the freedom of speech that we all want to see in Turkey". He also linked what he had done to his duty as an American citizen to monitor and protest against human rights abuses in Turkey, because "the United States provides 80% of the arms for Turkey, for the express purpose of carrying out repression..." The next day, he flew to Diyarbakir to meet Kurdish leaders.

The historian Howard Zinn recalls how, when he flew to Turkey, Chomsky "had just returned from Porto Alegro, Brazil, where 50,000 people from many countries had gathered, in opposition to corporate control of the global economy, to declare: Another world is possible. And just before that he had India and Pakistan, to lecture—as he often does—on linguistics one evening, on politics the next... (and also insisted on joining) the growing campaign for economic justice" in these two countries.

Noam Chomsky has long been a thorn in the side of successive US administrations, Republican and Democrat, for his incisive, insistent probing of the real drivers of American foreign policy, whether in the context of Central or South America, Indochina or the Middle East. For a long time, his was virtually the lone western voice against Indonesia's unspeakable atrocities in East Timor. Agio Pereira, one of the front-ranking leaders of the Maubere Resistance in East Timor, fondly remembers how he first "heard of Professor Chomsky... in the late 1970s when I'd heard he paid from his own pocket for some Timorese refugees to fly to the USA to speak out about the tragedy of the people of East Timor". Chomsky's unwavering, unforgiving gaze through the 1960s-1970s on the USA's countless crimes in propping up the most ruthlessly tyrannical regimes in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Chile earned him a place on Richard Nixon's infamous 'Enemies List', which became public through a faux pas of a Nixon administration functionary in course of the Senate Watergate hearings. A quick look at any part of the book Power and Prospects shows how richly Chomsky deserved the honour of being on that list. Sample this: "...It is unfortunate but true that we live under the rule of force, not the rule of law, in the sense that the great powers do what they choose..... A dramatic recent example is the effort by Nicaragua to use the peaceful means required by international law in response to US terrorist attacks. Nicaragua went to the World Court; the US reacted by withdrawing its acceptance of the ICJ jurisdiction. When the court nonetheless issued a judgement (calling upon the US to terminate its 'unlawful use of force' against Nicaragua), the US simply dismissed it. Nicaragua then turned to the UN Security Council, which passed a resolution calling on all states to obey international law (11-1, three abstentions, blocked by US veto). Nicaragua tried the General Assembly, where the US again vetoed resolutions in two successive years, once joined by Israel and El Salvador, the second time by Israel alone, a negative US vote amounting to a veto. The (American) media paid no attention, correctly regarding world opinion as irrelevant when the most powerful state so decides". As recently as in 2011, Chomsky lent his powerful voice to the Occupy Movement, speaking indefatigably on public forums, giving interviews and writing articles, some of which were later collated in a book, Occupy, published by Penguin Books.

He also remains one of the most strident critics of Israel's illegal occupation of Arab territories and of its abysmal human rights record both in those areas and inside its own borders. The Zionist state considers Chomsky its implacable enemy, and barred him from entering Israel in 2010, understandably so, because Chomsky is on record that he considers Israel's actions in Gaza as "much worse than (the South African) apartheid". As recently as on 22 August this year, in an interview, he slammed Israeli interference in US politics, characterising it as far more obnoxious, and more potent, than Russia's meddling in American elections. His keen eye registers developments in India as well. In February, 2016, when government of India was seeking to foist a fraudulent, though clumsy, case of sedition upon JNU students, Chomsky added his name to an angry denunciation of the government's action. And in October this year, as Brazil was readying for her presidential poll, Chomsky joined other prominent intellectuals in warning Brazilians against electing the hard-right Jair Bolsonaro, whom they described as "the fascist, racist, misogynist, homophobic candidate who calls for violence and armed repression". Indeed, Chomsky insisted on meeting the jailed Workers' Party leader, Inacio Lula da Silva ("Lula") in prison, a request the Brazilian authorities acceded to with great reluctance. Back in the US, Chomsky wrote at length on what is at stake in the Brazilian election, pointing out how democracy has been systematically subverted over the past decade by corporate lobbies in alliance with global finance capital.

Always wary and watchful, Chomsky never lets up on surveying important socio-political developments in every corner of the world, and goes on recording his impressions with feverish energy. He knows the sordid depths that modern capitalism can plumb, and he does not tire of alerting us to the dangers of neo-liberalism. The social historian Edward Said once spoke of him as "one of the most significant challengers of unjust power and delusions". Noam Chomsky's unremitting challenge of unjust power in a vastly unequal world helps keep mankind's conscience alive in the 21st century.

[Anjan Basu freelances as commentator, literary critic and translator. He can be reached at]

Vol. 51, No.20, Nov 18 - 24, 2018