Chomsky plays the martyr, the wounded outsider, the victim of witch-hunts.
Noam Chomsky interview
Noam Chomsky's radical views on language found him global fame. 50 years on, the professor disusses death threats, the internet and why he thinks Obama was marketed like a brand of toothpaste.
By Nigel Farndale - -Published: 11:37AM BST 06 Jul 2010
In an almost empty hotel bar, around the corner from the British Museum, an 81-year-old American professor is sipping tea and talking in a monotone so muted I wonder whether he is having me on. I soon conclude that he isn't; that he doesn't do jokes; that he, Noam Chomsky, does not, in fact, possess a sense of humour.
Sacha Baron Cohen came to the same conclusion when, as Ali G, he asked Chomsky: 'How many words does you know, and what is some of them?' Chomsky didn't even smile, he simply informed his interviewer how many words the average Westerner knows, and then, as requested, revealed what is some of them.
Baron Cohen's question may have been amusing but it wasn't entirely random. Chomsky found global fame in the Sixties, in the unlikely field of linguistics. He more or less founded the discipline, becoming to it what Freud became to psychoanalysis and Einstein to cosmology.
In contradiction of the prevailing 'behaviourist' view that language was learned, Chomsky argued that the human mind is actually hard-wired for grammatical thought. The way children successfully acquire their native language in so little time suggested, for him, that the structures of language were innate, rather than acquired, and that all languages shared common underlying rules. This he called Universal Grammar but don't worry, I won't be testing you later, and linguistics is not what this interview is about.
Although I should perhaps add that the debate about language has moved on since Chomsky's theories in the Sixties. And Chomsky has moved on, too. In fact he is better known these days as a political activist. The man the American Right love to hate. The American Left aren't exactly wild about him either.
As a self-styled anarchist and Enlightenment liberal, he collects political enemies the way sticky paper collects flies.
You somehow imagine that a man with his rhetorical clout and reputation will have a booming voice, or at least some basic oratory skills. Yet here he is, barely 4ft away from me, and I am straining to hear him. It's nothing to do with his age or health – he is a slender, fit looking, slightly stooped man with greying wavy hair, a diffident manner and a tendency to glance sideways at you through wire-rimmed glasses.
It is more that his voice is a croak that begins at the back of the throat and barely has the energy to leave his mouth. When I put my tape recorder down on the table in front of him he says – sotto voce – 'You won't be able to hear me. No one can. I once did a three-hour interview with Radio Oxford only to be told the microphone hadn't picked me up.'
He is over here to give a lecture at the London School of Economics, and he will have a microphone for that. Over there, he is still an emeritus professor at the world-renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has taught for 55 years. And he is still being interviewed regularly on radio and television. Still addressing public meetings. Still writing polemical books (these days about world affairs). And perhaps what his voice shows, actually, is that he is used to being listened to, used to crowded rooms falling silent when he begins to talk.
'I am no Barack Obama,' he says to me now. 'I don't have any oratory skills. But I would not use them if I had. I don't like to listen to it. Even people I admire, like Martin Luther King, just turn me off. I don't think it is the way to reach people. If you are giving a graduate course you don't try to impress the students with oratory, you try to challenge them, get them to question you.'
Unlike Obama, Chomsky has never needed votes. Yet, as an academic, he has always attracted acolytes. He also attracts conspiracy-theory nuts by the thousand, giving foam-flecked bloggers the world over a sense that their paranoid ramblings have a whiff of academic respectability. 'Yes but I have never wanted them,' he says. 'It's one of the reasons I've stayed at MIT. The reason I like it there is the intellectual culture. You don't lecture people, you get them to question, to think for themselves, not follow. I don't want followers.'
He gets them anyway. To judge by his sales figures (his pamphlet on the meaning of 9/11 sold upwards of half a million copies), the followers are an ever-growing number. In the build up to the Iraq war, indeed, a simple piece of graffiti began appearing on campuses across the world: 'Read Chomsky'. And he is hero-worshipped by the antiglobalisation movement. Bono calls him the 'Elvis of Academia' and 'rebel without a pause'.
Other prominent disciples include (or included) John Pilger, Michael Moore and the late Harold Pinter. The usual suspects perhaps, but there can't be many silver-haired professors who have appeared on stage with Rage Against the Machine. And it is not just the young and trendy who seemingly have to go through a 'Chomsky phase'.
Even 'the corporate media' he professes to despise has been known to sing his praises. The New Yorker calls him 'One of the finest minds of the 20th century', while The New York Times has labelled him 'arguably the most important intellectual alive'.
But there is also a hint of sulphur in the air that swirls around him. A collection of essays called The Anti-Chomsky Reader, edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz, analyses Chomsky's anti-Americanism and concludes that he is man with a 'deep contempt for the truth'. The Left-wing Nation magazine, meanwhile, called him 'America's most prominent self-hating Jew'. Back in the early Sixties, long before opposition to the Vietnam War became a fashionable cause for the bien pensants, Chomsky was threatened with imprisonment for organising demonstrations and withholding his taxes.
He argued that the war was being fought to halt the spread of independent nationalism, not communism. Forty years on, after the attack on the twin towers, he became the professorial point-man for the campus opposition to the Bush administration.
Touring America's universities as he preached the cause of radical dissent, he argued that the attacks were ultimately caused by US policies and were rooted in the 'fury and despair' of the Arab world.
While he is keen to remind you that he has always described 9/11 as an atrocity, he adds that it pales next to the West's 'deep-seated culture of terrorism'. The US, to him, is the ultimate rogue nation. He even goes so far as to call it genocidal.
'We should recognise that in much of the world the United States is regarded as a leading terrorist state, with good reason,' he says. Most controversially, he has argued that every post-war American president would have been hanged for war crimes under the Nuremberg Laws.
Though he has had dozens of books published, and though he has a sizeable platform in the print and broadcast media, he still likes to play the martyr, the wounded outsider, the victim of witch-hunts. Surely, I say, it is a credit to the very American way of life he so often criticises that he is still seen as being part of the liberal establishment. He is still, after all, a professor at one of the leading science universities in the world.
Even in the Bush era, which was the most restrictive since McCarthy, he was still allowed to say whatever he wanted. 'I think that freedom is a lot to do with my association with MIT,' he says. 'It may have been funded by the Pentagon in the Fifties and Sixties, yet it was also the centre of the resistance movement. It had autonomy.'
He's not kidding. When Nixon drew up his 'enemies list' in the early Seventies it featured dozens of individuals but only one institution, MIT. Chomsky seems to have more respect for enemies like Nixon, who acknowledge he is an enemy, than supposed allies who subvert him more subtly and pretend he is their friend.
'If you don't like what someone has to say, argue with them,' he says. 'Don't ban them. In the US they have a corporate media system and they have a narrow spectrum that they will tolerate. I have the honour of being identified in print as the one person that they will never allow to appear on NPR [National Public Radio], the so-called liberal radio. I would appear on Fox News more easily than I would NPR. It's not censorship, it's part of the narrow liberal intellectual culture.'
And it gets personal in the States. What about his dust-up with that one-time liberal pin-up and fellow traveller Christopher Hitchens? As the post-9/11 arguments raged, it should be explained, Hitchens accused Chomsky of 'making excuses for theocratic fascism' and exercising 'moral equivalency' in his discussions of 9/11 and US imperialism. 'In some awful way, Chomsky's regard for the underdog has mutated into support for mad dogs,' Hitchens said.
When I ask Chomsky how he answers Hitchens' charge that he is an appeaser of Islamic fascism, he (disingenuously) denies that he knew that Hitchens had said that. 'He said that did he? I haven't read him for 15 years.'
It is sometimes said that Chomsky would be a better debater if he occasionally allowed that his enemies acted out of moral convictions as heartfelt as his own. He's genial in person, yet his writing hectors when it should persuade.
'This is not complicated,' he will write. 'You can be a pure hypocrite or you can look at events honestly.' His sentences brook no deviation. 'No one with even a shred of honesty would disagree' is a characteristic bit of Chomskyan throat-clearing. In linguistics, this style of his might be called 'the attenuated sympathetic'. But perhaps his position is more nuanced than my pen-portrait of him allows.
Chomsky may be considered a dissident in America, and a 'traitor' to some, but he is not a pacifist. Though he considered the dropping of the atom bomb 'one of the most unspeakable crimes in human history', he thought the US role in the Second World War justified, not least because he is Jewish.
He encountered anti-Semitism as a child, but never told his father, a rabbinical scholar who worked on medieval grammar. Theirs was a pretty academic household, it seems. Chomsky was 10 when he had his first article published, about the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism in Europe.
'Certainly I was inside a political culture,' he has said. 'First generation Jewish working class in Philadelphia. There were strikes and rallies, and so on. I remember at the age of five travelling on a trolley car with my mother past a group of women on a picket line at a textile plant, seeing them being viciously beaten by security people. So that kind of thing stayed with me.'
Nowadays he is sometimes the one being accused of anti-Semitism, in light of his criticisms of Israel. 'If you do a Google search you will probably read a lot of stuff about how I am someone who wants to kill all the Jews and hates the United States. The internet has compromised the quality of debate.
'It is basically positive but it has its downsides. If something comes to mind, people just put it up on the internet without even thinking about it. I get a ton of mail. It used to be hard copy, now it is mostly email and the quality is so different now. With letters, a lot of stuff is cut out, the stuff that has just popped into someone's mind. With email they send that stuff without thinking. There is more spontaneity to it but less contemplation.'
There may be a quiet anger and testiness just below his surface but, in terms of his public persona, Professor Chomsky is diffidence personified, and he is generous with his time. He diligently answers the thousands of emails sent to him every week, a laborious task that eats up several hours a day – and he usually signs off simply with 'Noam'. He recognises no hierarchies, according to his assistant. He is wearing jeans today. This is because he considers them 'unhierarchical'. Unlike suits.
Chomsky's new book is called Hopes and Prospects and is about the fallout from Iraq and Afghanistan. It also tackles the financial bail-out. Let's start with that, I say. Eighteen months on, Goldman Sachs is back with the biggest bonuses ever. What happened to the meltdown?
'To them nothing happened. The perpetrators of the crisis emerged more powerful, richer and better prepared for the next crisis, which they are creating. They are discussing it openly, the people called in as economic advisers to Obama.'
I take it he didn't buy into Obama's message of hope and change. 'Elections in the United States are expensive extravaganzas run by the public relations industry. The PR people looked at the polls and picked slogans accordingly.
'Did you know Obama won the best campaign of the advertising industry in 2008? It was politicians being marketed as a product, like toothpaste. What does that have to do with democracy? If you read his statement you find yourself asking what was the hope? What was the change? These were empty words.'
The special relationship isn't so special any more under Obama; he doesn't care what Britain thinks, is that correct? 'The best definition of the special relationship came at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. America was making decisions which would have affected England, caused its destruction, but without consulting Macmillan, the then prime minister.
'They decided not to let Britain know what they were planning to do because they decided they were not sufficiently rational to make the right decisions. Things weren't so different 40 years on. Bush considered Blair his lieutenant, not his partner. The US told Britain it had to support what they were going to do in the UN otherwise they were "irrelevant". That was the word that was used. Does that seem special to you?'
Does Chomsky consider Blair a war criminal? 'Of course. Have you seen the text of the Nuremburg tribunal? Worth looking at. It defines aggression as the supreme international crime. Different from other crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that follows.
'At Nuremburg the chief prosecutor Justice Jackson said: "We are handing the defendants a poisoned chalice and if we ever sip from it ourselves we have to accept the same consequences." Being hanged and being considered as a potential president of the EU, as Tony Blair was, are not the same consequences.'
Chomsky has had many death threats over the years, including one from the Unabomber. But did things get particularly ugly for him after 9/11? 'It was much worse in the Sixties. I had regular death threats. I remember once the MIT police called me up and said they had received a bomb threat. It was aimed at my home. It is open and easier now. It is a completely different atmosphere. People are more tolerant towards activists these days.'
Like that other scion of the left, Tony Benn, Chomsky has a tendency to flap his hands as he talks, birds trapped behind a pane of glass. Benn was devoted to his wife Caroline, whom he married in 1949 (she died in 2000). They had four children and many grandchildren. Chomsky was devoted to his wife Carol whom he married in 1949 (she died in 2008). They had three children and there are photographs of his grandchildren on his desk at MIT. And above his door is a large photo of Bertrand Russell, a fellow libertarian pin-up.
Having said there would be no more linguistics, I find myself back on the subject. What does Chomsky make of stories about undergraduates at British universities having to be taught grammar in their freshman years? To a linguist, one whose own literary style favours phrases such as 'generative transformational grammar', that must seem an abomination.
'Yes, there is that. It is probably down to the texting culture. The use of textonyms and so on. But it is also to do with the way young people read on screen. The digital age cuts back reading and, as a consequence, young people are losing the ability to think seriously. They get distracted more easily, breaking off to check an email. Speed-reading is exactly the wrong thing to do. You have to think about what you are reading.' He gives me his sideways look. 'You have to ponder.''Hopes and Prospects' by Noam Chomsky (Penguin, £18.99) is available