Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher and political activist. He made groundbreaking contributions to the study of linguistics, developing a framework of universal grammar and an innate knowledge of language by human beings. While his linguistic studies have transformed the subject, he is best known for his political activism which has been critical of American imperialism, the role of the media and unrestrained capitalism. He identifies ideologically as a libertarian socialist and anarcho-syndicalism.
Avram Noam Chomsky was born on 7 December 1928 in Philadelphia, US. He was born to Russian immigrants of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. He was brought up in the Jewish faith and learnt Hebrew. He also received a wide-ranging liberal education. He excelled academically. Intellectually curious from an early age, he wrote his first article aged only ten years – an article which bemoaned the fall of Barcelona to Franco’s fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. (He later became fascinated by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and its description of anarchist communes.) He loved to visit alternative bookshops in New York, where he was drawn to books on socialism, anarchism and political issues. He developed an early attachment to anarchism and a dislike of Soviet-style Communism.
In 1945, he began studying at the University of Pennsylvania. Initially, he studied a range of subjects, including Arabic and philosophy but he began to specialise in the small field of theoretical linguistics.
In 1951, he was made a fellow of Harvard University and in 1952, he published his first academic article ‘Systems of Syntactic Analysis’ which was critical of the ‘behaviourist theories’ of language. The behaviourist theories of language emphasised the role of the environment and stimuli that people are exposed to. Chomsky was to research universal patterns of language and grammar that pointed to an innate understanding and knowledge of language by humans – whatever their upbringing. Chomsky also championed the idea that humans displayed considerable creativity in their use of language.
In 1953, he went on a tour of Europe and the Middle East with his wife, Carol. On the tour, he spent six weeks in a kibbutz, which was revealing for Chomsky. He had discussed Zionism as a child but was disappointed to find the attitudes of anti-Arab racism that was prevalent amongst Israelis. The visit was significant for forming his attitudes towards the Arab-Israeli conflict and his generally critical attitude towards Israel and the US support of Isreal.
“In the American Jewish community, there is little willingness to face the fact that the Palestinian Arabs have suffered a monstrous historical injustice, whatever one may think of the competing claims. Until this is recognized, discussion of the Middle East crisis cannot even begin.”
Chomsky, Peace in the Middle East? Reflections on Justice and Nationhood, 1974, p. 54.
In 1955, he gained a teaching post and assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) He was free to pursue his linguistic studies. He continued to develop new ideas which clashed with the existing orthodox views. Chomsky argued that language is a unique capacity for humans, which distinguishes us from other animal species. Initially, there was considerable resistance to Chomsky’s new views on the structure and source of language. However, over time, he became one of the most widely cited scholars in America. Also, he was highly regarded as a teacher, and many of linguistic students became specialists in their own right, and they helped to develop and strengthen Chomsky’s new ideas.
Opposition to the Vietnam War
In 1962, Noam Chomsky began speaking against American involvement in Vietnam. He considered American actions to be effectively an invasion – covered up with diplomatic niceties. As the conflict escalated, so did Chomsky’s opposition. He became an activist taking part in sit-ins outside the Pentagon and took part in other non-violent civil disobedience, such as a refusal to pay half of his taxes. In 1967, he co-founded the antiwar collective RESIST, which a was a grassroots activist organisation. Amongst the actions was to hand in the draft cards of young men who refused to join the US army. Chomsky was arrested on numerous occasions.
In 1967 he wrote “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” published in the New York Review of Books. In this article, Chomsky criticised American actions in Vietnam but also the role of the media and intellectuals in being subservient to the government’s misinformation and human rights abuses.
“The question, “What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities in Vietnam — as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.”
— Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” 1967
This and other articles were published in his first political book “American Power and the New Mandarins.” It established his reputation as a leading left-wing anti-establishment intellectual. It led to both praise and criticism, but he was largely ignored by the mainstream media. Chomsky was also put on a list of Richard Nixon’s main political opponents.
“The elite domination of the media and marginalization of dissidents that results from the operation of these filters occurs so naturally that media news people, frequently operating with complete integrity and goodwill, are able to convince themselves that they choose and interpret the news “objectively” and on the basis of professional news values.” – Chomsky, A Propaganda Model
In the 1970s, Chomsky published more works which were critical of American involvement in South East Asia and Isreal. He published one study which showed how American backed Indonesia committed crimes in East Timor. Chomsky claimed these crimes were comparable to the Khymer Rouge in Cambodia, but the media coverage of the two atrocities was completely different. To Chomsky, it showed how selective media coverage was forgiving to human rights abuses by American backed nations but exaggerated the crimes of ideological opponents. In 2002, he travelled to Turkey to defend a publisher charged with treason for publishing a Chomsky book. Chomsky insisted on being charged as a co-defendant, and the international media coverage led to the charges being dropped.
Chomsky visited trouble spots around the world. He visited Vietnam in 1972, and Nicaragua in 1985, and Palestinian territories in 1988. Chomsky felt it was important to meet ordinary people caught up in the conflict to get a better picture of what was actually happening. Throughout his life, he has maintained an active interest and activism in many global issues. He was particularly concerned about the East Timor conflict. In 1995, he visited Australia to give lectures on the situation in East Timor. East Timor achieved independence in 1999.
In 1988, he published with Harman “Manufacturing Consent” The Political Economy of the Mass Media” This furthered his work on the idea of mainstream media as a conscious or unconscious tool of propaganda for vested interests.
Chomsky retired from MIT in 2002, but if anything his political activism increased. He was highly critical of the War on Terror which was formulated by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks. However, Chomsky argued it was merely a continuation of the foreign policy started under Ronald Reagan – aimed at American exceptionalism and using military force to gain worldwide influence. He also supported protests against global capitalism. Notably the Occupy movement of 2011. He was a leading figure in criticising the mainstream of the Democratic party for its abandonment of working-class roots. Increasingly influential Chomsky is still largely ignored by the mainstream media, but the advent of social media and youtube have allowed Chomsky to gain a wider influence than in the 1960s and 70s. His talks have been viewed by millions and is part of new wave of socialist politics in America.
Chomsky has also been active in supporting the new environmental movement. Arguing that in recent decades human activity is putting the earth at real risk of becoming an unstable place to live. Chomsky has been very critical of the President Donald Trump and the US Republican party for doing nothing to tackle global climate change. He argues their decision to keep using fossil fuels makes it “the most dangerous organisation in human history.. It’s a crucial issue. It’s an existential threat. Now we have this astonishing spectacle of the United States alone in the world, not only refusing to participate in efforts to deal with climate change but dedicated to undermining them.” (1)
Although identified very much with the radical left, Chomsky retains an intellectual independence. Although critical of American democracy, he believes evolution within democratic institutions should be pursued over any kind of revolutionary ideal. In the 1970s, he criticised French philosophers for using language which was unintelligible to ordinary people. He has been critical of left-wing activists who seek to focus on conspiracy theories. He argues conspiracy theories are likely to be wrong and a distraction from the greater challenges ahead. He has also criticised Antifa, a left-wing organisation which seeks to physically confront the far right. Despite the many challenges faced, He remains hopeful humanity will choose to make the right choices. He often argues the problem is not individuals but institutions which work against humanity’s innate wish to be good.
“In the final analysis, we always have two choices: We can choose to descend into pessimism and apathy, assuming that nothing can be done, and helping to ensure that the worst will happen. Or we can grasp the opportunities that exist — and they do — and pursue them to the extent that we can, thus helping to contribute to a better world… Not a very hard choice.”
Chomsky is not affiliated with any particular religion. When asked if he was an atheist he replied he didn’t understand what an atheist was – ho could you not believe in anything. He is very critical of aspects of the Old Testament which suggest God’s chosen people can kill their enemies, but he has expressed great admiration for the Gospels and the teachings of Jesus Christ.
“Jesus himself, and most of the message of the Gospels, is a message of service to the poor, a critique of the rich and the powerful, and a pacifist doctrine. And it remained that way, that’s what Christianity was up … until Constantine.”March 1, 2006.
Chomsky married to Carol Doris Chomsky in 1949 until her death in 2008. They had three children together: Aviva, Diane, and Harry. In 2014 Chomsky married Valeria Wasserman.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan “Biography of Noam Chomsky”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net. Published 12 August 2019.
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Quotes by Noam Chomsky
“If we try to keep a sense of balance, the exposures of the past several months are analogous to the discovery that the directors of Murder, Inc. were also cheating on their income tax. Reprehensible, to be sure, but hardly the main point.”
“Watergate: A Skeptical View,” New York Review of Books, September 20, 1973.
“The point of public relations slogans like “Support Our Troops” is that they don’t mean anything … that’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody is going to be against and I suppose everybody will be for, because nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. But its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something, do you support our policy? And that’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.”
interview on WBAI, January 1992
“If we don’t believe in free expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
Noam Chomsky in interview by John Pilger 25 November 1992
“In the United States, the political system is a very marginal affair. There are two parties, so-called, but they’re really factions of the same party, the Business Party.”
interview by Adam Jones, February 20, 1990
“Tough love” is just the right phrase: love for the rich and privileged, tough for everyone else.
Powers and Prospects, 1996, p.137
“There are no conservatives in the United States. The United States does not have a conservative tradition. The people who call themselves conservatives, like the Heritage Foundation or Gingrich, are believers in — are radical statists. They believe in a powerful state, but a welfare state for the rich.”
Interview by Ira Shorr, February 11, 1996
“By comparative standards, the country is undertaxed. And it’s also regressively taxed, the tax burden falls mostly on the poor. What we need is a progressive tax system, of, incidentally, the kind that Jefferson advocated. You know, traditional libertarians, like Jefferson, advocated sharply progressive taxes, because they wanted a system of relative equality, knowing that that’s a prerequisite for democracy.”
Education and Democracy, 1995
“The September 11 attacks were major atrocities. In terms of number of victims they do not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and probably killing tens of thousands of people (no one knows, because the US blocked an inquiry at the UN and no one cares to pursue it). Not to speak of much worse cases, which easily come to mind. But that this was a horrendous crime is not in doubt. The primary victims, as usual, were working people: janitors, secretaries, firemen, etc. It is likely to prove to be a crushing blow to Palestinians and other poor and oppressed people. It is also likely to lead to harsh security controls, with many possible ramifications for undermining civil liberties and internal freedom.”
A Quick Reaction, September 12, 2001
“The Green New Deal is exactly the right idea. The costs of renewable energy are declining very sharply. If you eliminate the massive subsidies that are given to fossil fuels, they probably already surpass them. There are many means that can be implemented and carried out to overcome, certainly to mitigate, maybe to overcome, this serious crisis… A lot of the media commentary ridiculing this and that aspect of it are essentially beside the point… the basic idea is correct. “
Democracy Now (27 May 2019)