March 03, 1996

Article at Science Spectra

Revolutionary Zeal

Noam Chomsky’s ground-breaking research on linguistics has spawned a scientific revolution, but his geopolitical polemics have created an army of critics. 

By Wilson da Silva

HE IS A TARGET for critics. Even his supporters sometimes temper their praise with criticism. And yet, Professor Noam Chomsky remains one of the most influential scholars of the 20th century.

The statistics are impressive. His bibliography contains more than 700 entries. He is one of the most cited scholars ever, on a par with Freud, Einstein and Newton. He is credited with igniting what has been called “the second cognitive revolution”, the first being Descartes some 400 years before. The New York Times Book Review once described Chomsky as “arguably the most important intellectual alive.”

But he has also been called a “crackpot conspiracy theorist” by his critics, and Time some years ago labeled him an “unapologetic leftist.” 

When reviewing Chomsky, it is hard to avoid superlatives, both reverential and vitriolic. But there are two sides to this most intriguing scholar. While his brilliance in the linguistics and cognitive science is undisputed, his forays into political analysis often draw censure and condemnation.

The Scientist

The basis for Chomsky’s scientific renown rests on his work on linguistics, particularly his ground-breaking book, Syntactic Structures, a dry treatise on the nature of human language. And yet, the American-born son of Jewish immigrants was not even interested in linguistics until pushed into it by his university tutor.      

His father had been a draft escapee from Tsarist Russia, a teacher of Hebrew and sociology who arrived in the United States in 1913. The elder Chomsky had always eschewed his family’s rigid Orthodox Jewish ways, preferring to be “merely observant”. His mother came from Lithuania, at the time home to the most secular and leftist of East European Jewish communities. As a young boy, he attended a progressive Deweyite school in Philadelphia. He had an early interest in politics, at the age of 12 publishing an analysis the Spanish Civil War in the school newspaper.      

Chomsky drifted through the first two years at the University of Pennsylvania. By accident, he later came to the notice of the linguistics professor Zelig Harris and Nelson Goodman, the philosophy professor. They put him to work compiling modern Hebrew grammar, and were impressed enough by his early talents in the field to recommend him for a junior research fellowship at Harvard University.

During this time, Chomsky maintained a strong interest in revolutionary politics, an interest sparked in his younger days at his uncle’s newspaper stand at the 72nd Street Subway in New York. It was a sidewalk meeting place for local intellectuals, many of them refugees from European Fascism. Debates would rage on everything from Bolshevism to Freud, and the young Chomsky could not help but be stimulated.

At Harvard, Chomsky grew interested in a field then known as “structured linguistics” thanks to the persuasive talents of Harris, whom Chomsky describes as a “friendly professor” who “happened to be one of the leading figures in modern linguistics.” 

A young Noam Chomsky in his MIT office
A young Noam Chomsky in his MIT office

He married Carol Schatz in 1949, and in 1953 they went to live and work in a kibbutz in Israel for six weeks. What he saw destroyed his early enthusiasm for Zionism. Whereas in its nascent form it had focused on Arab-Jewish cooperation and Socialist bi-nationalism, the contemporary version had, in Chomksy’s view, veered to the intolerant right. 

On his return from the kibbutz, Chomsky decided to abandon conventional linguistics and cut his own path in the field. Over the next two years, he developed the basis of this theories and passed it along to friends for comment.

“There was nobody much interested then,” he said in a recent interview. “Really, I was just circulating amongst a few friends for our mutual interest. Copies were run off on one of those smelly spirit duplicators – you know, the type that give you purple print.”

He had yet to formally complete an undergraduate degree, yet showed enough promise for the University of Pennsylvania to award him a B.A. and later, an M.A. Eventually, a chapter from a 1,000-page manuscript on his new linguistic theories was submitted to the University of Pennsylvania, and it earned him a doctorate. 

At 29, the treatise was finally published in book form, and the linguistics journal Language asked respected structural linguist, Robert Lees, to review it. Lees not only endorsed the veracity of the arguments, he used the review to announce his complete conversion.

To say Chomsky was obscure in 1957 would be an understatement – he was a complete unknown. And yet Syntactic Structures triggered an earthquake that over the years rattled not just the linguistics world, but produced rumbles in disciplines such as psychology, artificial intelligence, neuroscience and anthropology. 

In Syntactic Structures, Chomsky rejected the traditional empiricist view of language as a learned habit, and argued that humans are born with an inherent understanding of language structures. This ‘universal grammar’ is common to all humans, and every child was therefore born ‘knowing’ the principles of language before they even uttered a word.

Chomsky's Syntactic Structures, credited with igniting 'the second cognitive revolution'
Chomsky's Syntactic Structures, credited with igniting 'the second cognitive revolution'

The theories spawned a new branch of linguistics, and almost 40 years later research has buttressed his arguments on the instinct for language. To the dismay of some acolytes, he says such ability is unique in the world of living things, and discounts research suggesting other primates – chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans – have anything that represents even rudimentary language. 

“What would be a real biological miracle would be if we discovered that primates did have something like language,” he said in a linguistics lecture last year. “That would be like discovering that humans can fly but they never thought of moving their arms the right way until somebody came around and showed them. That kind of thing doesn’t happen in the biological world.”

Chomsky’s theories have also had an impact on biology, helping to bring back the genetic determinist equation in an era where, for so long, behaviorism was all the rage. The noted Harvard University biologist Professor Stephen Jay Gould has said of him: “Noam Chomsky’s linguistic theories represent the paradigm for modern concepts of proper integration between nature and nurture.”

The Polemicist

Few doubt Chomsky’s power to analyze and synthesize. But it is when he began applying this to the contemporary geopolitical landscape that he grew, simultaneously, into one of the most hated and the most respected intellectuals. 

It began in the early 1960s with the Vietnam War. At the time, Chomsky had a bright career ahead of him; a full professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, three young children and a split-level house in a comfortable Boston suburb. 

But the escalating U.S. military involvement in Vietnam prompted him to go public in 1966 with his opposition, publishing “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” in The New York Review of Books, in which he described the Vietnam War as a “savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population in Vietnam.” 

It was not a popular stance; the anti-war movement was minuscule at the time, and protests he attended in Boston were “forcibly broken up by pro-war supporters,” he recalls.

Chomsky went on to give sanctuary to draft dodgers and army deserters, and was an indicted co-conspirator in the 1970 trial of Dr Benjamin Spock, the renowned pediatrician who took a similar stance. His anti-war activities did eventually land him in jail, wher he once shared a cell with writer Norman Mailer. 

His career had taken a turn. Suddenly, he began to take a ‘hard science’ approach the disciplines like political science and international relations, upsetting established scholars who naturally questioned his qualifications. Chomsky recalls being dismayed to find a lack of the scientific method applied these disciplines, and a failure to subject premises and conclusions to the test of evidence. 

Chomsky marching on the Pentagon in Washington DC in 1967; with him are (to his right) political activist Marcus Raskin and writer Norman Mailer and (to his left) poet Robert Lowell, labour ctivist Sidney Lens, peace protestor Dagmar Wilson, an unidentified woman and paediatrician Benjamin Spock
Chomsky marching on the Pentagon in Washington DC in 1967; with him are (to his right) political activist Marcus Raskin and writer Norman Mailer and (to his left) poet Robert Lowell, labour ctivist Sidney Lens, peace protestor Dagmar Wilson, an unidentified woman and paediatrician Benjamin Spock

Chomsky made impact in the field with American Power and the New Mandarins in 1969, in which he suggested that, in the United States, “what is needed is a kind of de-Nazification.” In latter works he asserted that if the Nuremberg war crime trials had still been in session, “every post-war U.S. president would have been hanged”. He has been quoted as saying that “the biggest international terror operations that are known are the ones that are run out of Washington.” 

It is exactly this type of language that makes his critics shrill. That he should lend his weight as an intellectual of some measure to such seemingly outlandish statements makes him impossible for many in the disciplines to stomach his arguments. And yet, it finds ready acceptance among the public, especially on American campuses and overseas. 

Author David Barsamian, who profiled Chomsky for the book Chronicles of Dissent, explains his appeal thusly: “People will go to a talk by Chomsky partly just to reassure themselves that they haven’t gone mad; that they are right when they disbelieve what they read in the papers or watch on TV.”

Most recently he has won some public notoriety his 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, co-authored with Edward S. Herman, which was made into an award-winning documentary. Chomsky and Herman argue that the Western media “serve to mobilise support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity.” 

His argument is that the press – publishers and editors, right down to individual journalists – have so internalised the values of the status quo that they censor themselves without realising it. As examples, the authors compare the reportage in the late 1970s of the killing fields of Cambodia under the left-wing Khmer Rouge with the widespread massacres in East Timor by the right-wing Indonesian military, both involving hundreds of thousands of victims. How did Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime become a synonym for genocide while Indonesia’s President Suharto, still in power today, is honoured as a moderate, they ask.

Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media , a 1992 documentary by Canadian filmmakers Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media , a 1992 documentary by Canadian filmmakers Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick 

His critics charge that his analyses of geopolitical affairs are too simplistic, too radical, or too polemic. It is a phenomenon which has been called “the Chomsky problem.” The same New York Times Book Reviewarticle that in 1979 lionized “the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought,” also posed the dilemma of how to reconcile this with his seemingly conspiratorial view of world affairs. 

“On the one hand there is a large body of revolutionary and highly technical linguistic scholarship, much of it too difficult for anyone but the professional linguist or philosopher; on the other, an equally substantial body of political writings, accessible to any literate person but often maddeningly simple-minded.”

The Man

Chomsky the man is a calm figure. At the rostrum, his delivery is methodical, pedantic, even dull. In his soft and measured voice, Chomsky can say the harshest of things. And yet, agree with his political rhetoric or not, the strength of his arguments, the depth of knowledge, the instant recall of whole quotes – which, upon checking, are actually accurate – is impressive. There is a logic and clarity of argument that is compelling. And at 67, he is still passionate, if more cynical. 

“Internally, I am seething all the time,” Chomsky confessed to journalist John Pilger in the book, Distant Voices. “The standard role intellectuals have played through history is as servants of power. My responsibility is to find out the truth and expose it.”

Image Caption
Image Caption

Chomsky can annoy his friends as much as he enrages his enemies. His defence of the right to free speech extended to backing the right of a French professor to publish a book that denied the Nazi Holocaust ever happened. Chomsky did not endorse that claim, but took a lot of political heat for defending the Frenchman’s right to speak. 

It is all these facets of Chomsky that people come to see on his annual lecture tours, for which he is said to take no fees. Visiting Australia last year, he packed thousands into halls in three cities. In Sydney, his lectures were sold out, even as Pope John Paul II and software supremo Bill Gates held their own public sermons on the same day. 

At heart, he admits he is a political conservative, as he told journalist Hal Greenland in HQ Magazine: “Take a look at my life. I’m a mainstream American. I live in a suburb, in a split level house with a garden in the backyard. I can’t stand rock music and I’m probably the only person in the United States who doesn’t know what marijuana is.”