How do you approach an interview with a man who has just been voted the world’s leading intellectual and who you have admired from a distance for a large part of your life?
Well, I decided to aim for an audio Chomsky primer. A Chomsky distiller. Rather than allow myself to ask him questions about current events, which will become dated and obscured by the mists of time a decade from now, I attempted to capture the over-arching themes of his political activism of the last 50 years and to explore the personal motivation behind his activism. I completely avoided his work in linguistics, which would have been completely over my head.
Of course – I failed. I’m not that good an interviewer and I didn’t have enough of his time to even begin to put 50 years of social activism into context. But you shoot for the stars, right?
So who is Noam Chomsky?
Here’s a mini-bio courtesy of Wikipedia:
Avram Noam Chomsky, Ph.D (born December 7, 1928) is the Institute Professor Emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky is credited with the creation of the theory of generative grammar, often considered the most significant contribution to the field of theoretical linguistics of the 20th century. He also helped spark the cognitive revolution in psychology through his review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior, which challenged the behaviorist approach to the study of mind and language dominant in the 1950s. His naturalistic approach to the study of language has also impacted the philosophy of language and mind (see Harman, Fodor). He is also credited with the establishment of the so-called Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages in terms of their generative power. Chomsky is also widely known for his political activism, and for his criticism of the foreign policy of the United States and other governments. Chomsky describes himself as a libertarian socialist, a sympathizer of anarcho-syndicalism.
According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, between 1980 and 1992 Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any living scholar, and the eighth most cited source overall.
Bono of U2 called Chomsky a “rebel without a pause, the Elvis of academia.” Rage Against The Machine took copies of his books on tour with the band. Pearl Jam ran a small pirate radio on one of their tours, playing Chomsky talks mixed along with their music. R.E.M. asked Chomsky to go on tour with them and open their concerts with a lecture (he declined).
However, he is also one of the most reviled people in America. Google Chomsky and you will find plenty of articles and sites dedicated to besmirching his reputation. He’s called the “Ayatollah of Anti-American Hate” and “the most treacherous intellect in America”. Wikipedia has a whole section devoted to criticisms of his work and of him as an individual. The far right hate him for questioning American foreign policy and for suggesting that American imperialism is alive and well. The far left despise him for not being left enough. The mainstream media ignore him for reasons best understood by themselves (you wouldn’t want to get in the way of people watching Reality TV, right?). The intellectuals hate him for questioning their silence.
Outside of America he is considered one of the few voices who have had the bravery and stamina to publicly question his country’s behaviour, day after day, year after year, for 50 years.
Whether you agree with his positions or not, this is a man who has devoted a large part of his life to truth and justice and is considered by many to be the world’s leading thinker.
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