can’t see the forest

Noam Chomsky: an American Hero

Posted in Social and Politics by Curtis on 8/21/06

“Liberty, if it is anything at all, is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” –George Orwell

[Note: I have noticed that search engine terms for “Noam Chomsky speaking engagements” tend to account for a significant percentage of hits to this page. To my knowledge, Noam does not publish a list of upcoming engagements, but they are announced in local alternative media, generally well ahead of time. For transcripts and some a/v media of previous engagements, visit his website—there’s a link at the bottom of the page.]

Professor Noam Chomsky

Avram Noam Chomsky is the Institute Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught for over fifty years. His 1955 doctoral dissertation (Ph.D., U. of Penn.) and his 1957 book Syntactic Structures first developed his theory of transformational grammar, a theory which challenged the focus and methods of traditional linguistic study and behavioral psychology by asserting that the human language faculty is provided by a “language organ” common to all humans, and that mapping of this innate faculty for language is important to understanding the origins and the characteristics of language which are common to all human beings. In a manner of speaking, Chomsky’s linguistic theory concentrates on the inherent similarities between various language groups rather than on itemizations of their differences. Transformational grammar has exerted profound influence on the study of language acquisition in children, and has revolutionized its field in a manner vaguely comparable to the way in which Einstein’s relativity revolutionized the study of physics. The importance of his linguistic work is recognized throughout the realm of scholarship, if its implications are not entirely agreed upon. Full appreciation of his ideas, nonetheless, may be generations away, as is often the case with the greatest ideas in science.

Chomsky has also spent his entire career as a strong critic of US foreign policy and of the industrial paradigm in general, arguing that, in a healthy industrial economy, workers should not be alienated from their own means of production through wage labor and that economic, political, educational, scientific, and other major institutions of society could be—and should be—free of unjust hierarchies. He has described his large-scale socioeconomic views as “libertarian socialism.” As a critic of US policy, Chomsky’s principal beef has always been, most essentially, that the United States and its allied industrial powers do not apply to themselves the same standards to which they hold the rest of the world, and that the multitudinous manifestations of this hypocrisy are, often through semantic distortions, themselves used to justify and to excuse outright tyrannical behavior. He believes that the United States is not a functioning democracy—while acknowledging that Americans enjoy freedom of speech and of movement to a unique degree, he is also careful to point out that these liberties were won through popular struggle and that the removal of decision-making power from the public arena negates, to a high degree, the ability of citizens to use these freedoms to exercise democratic control of their own State.  He has illustrated again and again that the US media machine is ultimately a propaganda clearinghouse which, in practice if not necessarily by design, exists principally to further the interests of the companies which pay for it through advertisement, and that the interests of these often colossal, multinational corporations exert huge influence on the way in which information is presented, disseminated, and discussed in society. He has publicly debated his ideas with the likes of Michel Foucault as well as with pundit cranks such as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz.

In addition to his eminence as a scholar and as a champion of human rights and liberty, Chomsky is also a husband, a father, and a grandfather. Nearing eighty years of age, he continues a rigorous, intercontinental schedule of public speaking while maintaining his chair at MIT and while spending more time reading journals and other periodicals than many people spend at their full-time jobs. Far from an “ivory tower intellectual,” Chomsky is a man who has devoted himself to the public good, often at his own expense and always in the face of vicious criticism, without shirking his duties to his family and to his science. Even early in his career, before his name invoked the kind of reverence or controversy that it does today, Chomsky was never afraid to join hands with the public through grassroots organization and acts of protest through nonviolent civil disobedience. He has published numerous books on his sociopolitical and economic views, and is an active contributor to various periodical publications. If anyone is a man of his people, it is Noam Chomsky, and it is for this reason that I salute him as an American Hero.

Because of the consistency, factual basis, anti-authoritarianism, and scholarly underpinnings of his criticisms of modern industrial economics, politics, and society, Chomsky tends to elicit either superfluous praise (such as this!) or callous disregard. He has been accused of anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, and even of Khmer Rouge apologism, but all of these counts are founded upon distortions of his messages without regard for context. His views are scarcely covered by the US media, although his speaking engagements in the US and abroad continue to draw increasing numbers of people ready and willing to discuss issues of importance. According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, Chomsky is the most cited living scholar and the eighth most cited source overall in a list of sources which includes William Shakespeare and the Holy Bible. The 2005 Global Intellectuals Poll found Chomsky to be the leading living public intellectual, a charge to which Chomsky replied: “I don’t pay a lot of attention to polls. It was probably padded by some friends of mine.” Later, he clarified: “The only person who deserves a lot of attention is my new granddaughter.”

You rock, Noam.

In future posts I will be presenting some of Chomsky’s ideas, particularly in regards to politics and the economy, and will be taking a look at the implications of some of his most pungent criticisms of the status quo for the global community and the environment. One of the Professor’s most relevant criticisms of US foreign policy is that the connotations evoked by the word terrorism in the “civilized” Western world ignore that, by the same denotative definition of terrorism given in a US Army manual (for one), the United States is in fact the world leader in state-sponsored terrorism. In other words, when “they” do it, it’s terrorism; when “we” do essentially the same thing, it’s “dedication to human rights,” “development,” and any other number of euphemisms for the tyrannical imposition of political and economic primacy abroad. Chomsky has pointed out, with increasing fervency in recent years, that US and multinational corporate policy is the primary force behind the increasing threat of nuclear disaster and the continually escalating destruction of our global habitat. Chomsky says it’s not that political and business leaders don’t realize they’re destroying the world and proliferating terrorism—it’s that things like human rights and ecological sustainability are just not priorities for them, not compared to short-term profit. Corporations, by law, must place the monetary interests of their shareholders ahead of all other considerations. How, Chomsky would like to know, is this anything other than a recipe for disaster?

Recommended Media:

http://www.chomsky.info – The Official Noam Chomsky website. From here you can access many of Chomsky’s writings, audiovisual media of interviews and speaking engagements, criticism of Chomsky by others, and a wealth of other information.

http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noam_Chomsky – Wikipedia article on Chomsky.

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One Response

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  1. Stacy Mills said, on 1/18/07 at 1:44 am

    Google is the best search engine


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