Sunday, March 17, 2013

" He spends six or seven hours a day answering emails"

Lunch with FT: Noam Chomsky

There is a time capsule near the lifts of the Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It contains items from Building 20, home to fundamental wartime advances in physics, and where, in 1955, a 27-year-old began to transform humanity’s understanding of language. The original ramshackle facility is no more. But the linguist is still here, strolling past in a mustard-coloured puffer jacket.

“Professor Chomsky,” I call out. The 84-year-old greets me and we walk through the new Frank Gehry-designed building, all airy and angular. Students smile and wave and give up more space than Chomsky’s steady gait requires. MIT is in part a monument to his ideas, I suggest. His theories of grammar, which argue that language is innate, have revolutionised modern psychology, computing and cognitive science.

“One of the things about this field is that there’s not a lot you can do with it,” he deadpans, as we pass sleep-deprived coders. (Another example of Chomsky humour: he calls his assistant’s dog, “Cat”.) We step out into the bitter Cambridge day, towards the restaurant. He once came close to joining UC Berkeley, he admits, but California is too hot for him. “I like the cold weather. It means you get work done.”

I tell him I felt the same way when I studied at Harvard. “[Its] faculty doesn’t like me much,” he says. This is not true of the staff of Chomsky’s chosen lunch spot. The Black Sheep welcomes him like the regular he is. A chipper waiter shows us to a table in the corner of the cosy bistro. Perhaps the restaurant’s name is apt, I say. “Not at MIT [but] I don’t have much contact with the main academic world.”

However, Chomsky’s distance from the mainstream is not down to his academic work. Referring to him as a linguist is a bit like calling Arnold Schwarz­enegger a bodybuilder. Chomsky is arguably the world’s most prominent political activist. To his opponents, he is a crank who sees evil as made in America. To his supporters, he is a brave truth-teller and unrelenting huma­nist; a latter-day Bertrand Russell.

I am about to ask the professor about Hugo Chávez, who died the night before our lunch, but a waitress arrives and asks for our order. Chomsky chooses the clam chowder, and a salad with pecans, blue cheese, apples and a lot of adjectives. I go for tomato soup and a salmon salad. The professor asks for a cup of coffee and since we are about to discuss the late Venezuelan leader, I ask for a cup, too.

In 2006, Chávez recommended Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance to the UN General Assembly. “It’s a mixed story,” Chomsky says of Chávez’s legacy. He points to reduced poverty and increased literacy. “On the other hand there are plenty of problems,” such as violence and police corruption; he also mentions western hostility – in particular an attempted coup in 2002 supported by the US. America’s behaviour towards Caracas is obviously important in any assessment of Chávez but its appearance is an early signifier of a pattern in a Chomsky conversation: talk for long enough about politics with the professor and the probability of US foreign policy or National Socialism being mentioned approaches one.
I say that he hasn’t referred to Chávez’s human rights record. Some of Chomsky’s critics have accused him of going easy on the faults of autocrats so long as they are enemies of the US. Chomsky denies this vehemently: he spoke out against the consolidation of power by the state broadcaster; he protested the case of María Lourdes Afiuni, a judge who spent more than a year in prison awaiting trial for releasing a government critic. “And I do a million cases like that one.”

Still, Chomsky thinks about how hard to hit his targets. He admits as much as our soups arrive. “Suppose I criticise Iran. What impact does that have? The only impact it has is in fortifying those who want to carry out policies I don’t agree with, like bombing.” He argues that any criticisms about, say, Chávez, will invariably get into the mainstream media, whereas those he makes about the US will go unreported. This unfair treatment is the dissident’s lot, according to Chomsky. Intellectuals like to think of themselves as iconoclasts, he says. “But you take a look through history and it’s the exact opposite. The respected intellectuals are those who conform and serve power interests.”

Read the rest here.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Good Ol' Noam.
    10% bad, 90% good.
    He may be a commie (he says affectionately), but he made me aware, back in the day, of the genocide in East Timor. That started a change in my outlook on the nature of the U.S. Govt. that continues to evolve to this day. I guess Rothbard finished the transformation.

  4. "He explains that when he joined MIT it was nearly 100 per cent Pentagon-funded “but our lab was also one of the main centres for the anti-war resistance movement”."

    That's the knee slapper for today.