Mysterian

Jackson Lears

  • Why Only Us: Language and Evolution by Robert Berwick and Noam Chomsky
    MIT, 215 pp, £18.95, February 2016, ISBN 978 0 262 03424 1
  • Because We Say So by Noam Chomsky
    Penguin, 199 pp, £9.99, August 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 97248 9
  • What Kind of Creatures Are We? by Noam Chomsky
    Columbia, 167 pp, £17.00, January 2016, ISBN 978 0 231 17596 8
  • Who Rules the World? by Noam Chomsky
    Hamish Hamilton, 307 pp, £18.99, May 2016, ISBN 978 0 241 18943 6
  • Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals by Neil Smith and Nicholas Allott
    Cambridge, 461 pp, £18.99, January 2016, ISBN 978 1 107 44267 2

In 1971, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault faced off on Dutch television, or at least that’s what their host, Fons Elders, kept prodding them to do. They were discussing the idea of human nature, and though Elders knew they shared a left libertarian politics, he assumed they would have philosophical disagreements, that Chomsky would defend the idea of an essential human nature, rooted in biology, and that Foucault would dismiss it as a mere social construction. Yet the men kept agreeing with each other, until Chomsky said that violent resistance to illegitimate power could only be defended ‘in terms of justice … because the end that will be achieved is claimed as a just one.’ Foucault responded: ‘If you like, I will be a little bit Nietzschean about this … it seems to me that the idea of justice in itself is an idea which in effect has been invented and put to work in different types of societies as an instrument of a certain political and economic power or as a weapon against that power.’ And Chomsky replied: ‘Well, here I really disagree. I think there is some sort of an absolute basis – if you press me too hard I’ll be in trouble, because I can’t sketch it out – ultimately residing in fundamental human qualities, in terms of which a “real” notion of justice is grounded.’

In subsequent decades, left-wing intellectuals drifted increasingly from Chomsky’s epistemology to Foucault’s, from a belief in universal ideals to a hermeneutics of suspicion, but Chomsky’s unfashionable essentialist humanism has proved politically resilient; he continues to inspire readers throughout the literate West and beyond, despite his virtual banishment from the mainstream media in the United States. (In 1988, in Manufacturing Consent, he argued that the US mass media ‘carry out a system-supportive propaganda function’.)

Chomsky is, of course, not just a political activist and critic; he is also an extraordinarily prolific and influential linguistic theorist. It isn’t always easy to see the connections between his linguistic theory and his politics. His academic critics (and they are many) think he’s a con man or the high priest of a religious cult, or both. In fact, in both linguistics and politics, he is an Enlightenment rationalist and humanist.

Chomsky was born in Philadelphia in 1928. He grew up in an anti-Semitic neighbourhood full of German and Irish Catholics. His household was an enclave of Socialist Zionism, and he was enrolled in a progressive school. At ten he published an editorial in the school paper lamenting the fall of Barcelona to Franco’s forces. When he moved to a public high school he found an atmosphere of indoctrination and competition rather than learning. He began to take the train alone to New York, haunting bookshops, reading the anarchist Rudolf Rocker and any anti-Bolshevik Marxists he could find. He also managed to find a British edition of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which wasn’t published in the US until after the Second World War. Orwell celebrated the anarchists in Barcelona, who had been opposed by both the Americans and the Soviets. Struck by the contrast between Orwell’s account and the hostile reports in the established press, Chomsky began to develop a sense of the way the boundaries of ‘responsible opinion’ could be maintained by excluding dissent.

Enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania in 1945, he read Dwight Macdonald’s essay ‘The Responsibility of Peoples’. Macdonald asked why, if the German people were to be held responsible for Nazi atrocities, the American people were not thought responsible for the saturation bombing of Tokyo and Dresden, as well as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Two decades later, the question shaped Chomsky’s response to the Vietnam War, articulated in ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’ (1967). ‘The question “What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves,’ Chomsky wrote, ‘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 defence of freedom.’

Chomsky’s route to this position began with his reaction against the conformist culture of Penn. Searching for alternatives, he was drawn to the kibbutzim being organised in Palestine, and to the Zionism of Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, who advocated the foundation of a binational state in Palestine, rather than a Jewish one. He stayed at Penn thanks to the presence there of Zellig Harris, a linguist and left-wing Zionist who was interested in psychoanalysis. Chomsky, already the budding rationalist, didn’t share his mentor’s enthusiasm. In the early 1950s he pursued an idiosyncratic academic career, eventually receiving a PhD from Penn in 1955, but attracting attention en route for his innovative theoretical work. The linguist Roman Jakobson invited him to become a researcher at MIT, and he was soon made a full-time faculty member. MIT has been his institutional home ever since. Over the next half-century, Chomsky, and eventually his students and colleagues, transformed the discipline of linguistics and created a new idiom for an old way of thinking: the rationalist humanism that stretches back to Descartes and Plato.

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