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As Noam Chomsky turns 90, a look at how he made the world seem a little less inhuman, and a lot more comprehensible

A woman was once astonished to learn, according to an old news report, that there is only one Noam Chomsky, not two. He has not one but two careers, and in each his contribution is of superhuman scale. In linguistics and cognitive sciences, he is routinely named as the greatest mind in the last 2,500 years (that is, since Indian grammarian Panini). In political activism, there is bit more competition within the last century itself, but his contribution is critical and immense. In short, as the New York Times once put it, Chomsky is the greatest public intellectual of our times.

He completes 90 years today, 7 December, and it is an occasion to introduce this unique personality to those who haven’t heard much about him, and exchange notes with those who have.

Let’s take politics first. His interventions form a veritable list of excesses of power, atrocities, injustice and plain roguery – of not only the states but also the corporates and the media – around the globe in the second half the 20th century.

His first major public intervention came in the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. After World War II, the US was in expansionist mode, its foreign policy another name for imperialism and interference. Chomsky protested against US armed action in Vietnam, and refused to pay taxes, for which crime he was jailed for a while. Sections of the media were critical of the US administration and there were protest marches in many campuses, and Chomsky was among the most convincing voices of dissent.

In particular, his 1967 essay in the New York Review of Books, titled ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, became an influential rallying point. This is the crux of the long essay, buttressed by facts, facts and more facts:

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

What started with Vietnam continued with other trouble spots, from Nicaragua to Cambodia. Soon, it went beyond the excesses of the state power to the excesses of other forms of power: how big multinationals are putting profit over people, how the media is at work to promote self-censorship.

Noam Chomsky speaking at an Occupy protest in Toronto in 2011. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Noam Chomsky speaking at an Occupy protest in Toronto in 2011. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike in linguistics, Chomsky does not have an overarching theory to offer in politics. He is placed broadly under the label of 'far left' or 'anarchism', but that’s merely a label. His attitude in political activism and criticism is that of the child who insists the emperor has no clothes. He has often credited this attitude to his non-formal schooling (he believes the mainstream schooling is designed to make us all conformists and harmless citizens). Encouraged to question authority, he has continued to do so in every domain, be it politics or linguistics – or religion, for that matter.

One can also summarise his politics by referring to Orwell’s Problem, named after one of the very few people he says he has learned from (Bertrand Russel figures prominently on this list). George Orwell wondered: How could people ‘know’ so little when so much information is out in public domain? Look around, question the narrative coming from the establishment or authorities, think for yourself, and if you see something wrong or unjust, raise your voice from whichever lectern or soapbox you can find.

This can, obviously, land you in deep trouble, not only from the establishment, but also from people who do not want to know more. (The profile for a Twitter handle in Chomsky's name, not official, quotes him: “The general population dosen't [sic] know what’s happening and it doesn't even know that it doesn't know.”) After the 9/11 terror attacks, Chomsky insisted America had it coming; after all these years of a bloodbath abroad, one at home was waiting to happen. Not many even among the outspoken critics of power – Christopher Hitchens being one representative name – could agree with him on this. He, however, continued – in writings, radio talks, interviews to underground pamphleteers and rarely in the mainstream media – to present several uncomfortable facts in support of his position.

A curious aspect of his way of doing politics is its rawness. Hitchens, for example, like Arundhati Roy at home, was known for his sharp wit and exceptional writing. So was Orwell. Chomsky, on the other hand, is not bothered about being reader-friendly, as if to say that ‘these are the facts, here are some more, and that’s all there is to it for you to get the picture’. He is positively suspicious of deploying rhetoric to win the argument. He does
not like to argue from the position of authority (‘You’d better believe this since Chomsky or the Pope or Oprah Winfrey says so’).

Moreover, he does not want to get into the academic game of building fashionable theories around what is essentially a matter of the naked-emperor quality. On this, a high watermark of academic-politics intersection will remain Chomsky’s televised debate with French philosopher Michel Foucault in 1971, titled ‘Human Nature: Power vs Justice’. The two are just about the most quoted names – statistically speaking, in academic journals and research bibliographies, representing two opposite schools. During the debate (also published as book, which makes for fascinating reading), Foucault keeps playing language games, seeking to first define ‘power’ or deconstruct the notion of ‘justice’, whereas Chomsky all along maintains something like: here’s a case of injustice, and here’s what any citizen must do about it, and that is all.

Talking about Chomsky’s work in linguistics would entail some preliminary explanation, which can get technical and would place demands a common reader cannot be expected to meet. What is notable is that within the same 24 hours of a day that we get, he has not only managed to predict that language is actually (not metaphorically) in your DNA – four decades before independent scientists established the fact — but also, to get onto a confidential list of ‘the enemies of the nation’ prepared by president Richard Nixon. (As of this month, he is teaching linguistics at the University of Arizona where he is a laureate professor after half a century at MIT, and also writing against Trump.)

He reads and writes prodigiously. (There’s an anecdote of a dinner guest trying small talk with a pre-teen Chomsky, pointing at a set of Encyclopedia Britannica and asking if he has read them. “No, only half of them,” was the reply.) He seems to have inexhaustible time available for all activists around the world: when he signs a campaign letter demanding the release of Kanhaiya Kumar of JNU or demanding better compensation to the farmers of Singur, rest assured that he knows the situation inside out.

During his second visit to India, in late 2001, during a private gathering, a student recollects how seamlessly he inhabited two worlds: responding to questions from budding linguists about finer aspects of his theory of universal grammar and questioning a group of political leaders and activists about, say, pharmaceutical pricing or rehabilitation of the Narmada dam oustees, often knowing the Indian situation better than they did.

Not that Chomsky is beyond questioning himself. A student of Gandhi’s life and works, for example, would find problematic his hedged stance (echoing Orwell) against the Mahatma — from whom people like Gene Sharp found much to learn. Also a troublesome equivalence when it comes to the instrumental use of violence. In politics as well in linguistics, Chomsky's career, as one can well guess, is not free of controversies. But his accomplishments have certainly made the world a little less inhuman and a lot more comprehensible.

Ashish Mehta is the editor of Governance Now

Updated Date: Dec 10, 2018 22:52 PM

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