Chomsky Turns 85

Above: US academic, linguist and author Noam Chomsky in Amman, Jordan, Monday, May, 17, 2010.  Chomsky has been outspoken in telling the truth about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.  This picture occurred when he was talking to the media about being denied entry into Israel to deliver a lecture at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. (AP Photo/Nader Daoud).

Happy belated birthday from Popular Resistance

The name Noam Chomsky is familiar to the world for so many reasons. It is hard to describe the character of his life in small words. The obvious one that bubbles to the surface is the word “revolutionary.” When I think of Noam Chomsky the name has a double-meaning for me. The first meaning is his work in the sciences. John Searle wrote in the New York Review of Books about “Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics.” It is revolutionary to produce work that changes the way the human species understands itself. It is impossible to recognize something in the history of the study of the mind today without the feeling that Chomsky has contributed a piece of his own.

Stephen Wallace, the author, with Noam Chomsky.

Stephen Wallace, the author, with Noam Chomsky.

The second meaning of the name is radical social change: The flow of daily life free from authoritarian attitudes, the abolition of oppressive institutions, and the deepest reaches of our humanity in choosing to live decent and ethical lives. It is perhaps the most revolutionary act, in our time, to simply ask ourselves “what is the right thing to do?”

It is a question Chomsky has answered all of his life.

In an interview with alternative radio host, David Barsamian, Chomsky was asked to describe the story of “young Noam in the school yard.”

“‘There was the standard fat kid that everybody made fun of,’ he recalls, ‘I remember going up to stand next to him. I did for a while, but then I got scared and went away. I was very much ashamed of it afterwards. I felt—I’ll never do that again. That’s a feeling that stuck with me. You should stick with the underdog.’”

On December 7th, Chomsky turned eighty-five years old. There is no doubt that that feeling has stuck with him for all of those years.

Considering all of those who have locked themselves in the Ivory Tower, it is hard to think of an intellectual who has dedicated more time and energy to the understanding of systems of power – the deceitful character of mass media, the elements of fascism that function in the corporate world, the curtailing of education to produce subservient attitudes and submission to authority, and so much more.

It is perhaps a great irony that Chomsky’s soft-spokenness and commitment to rational inquiry have produced statements that resulted in controversy over the years. To say that if the Nuremberg Laws were applied, every post-war president would’ve been hanged, or that the “best politicians are the ones that are lazy, and corrupt,” demand examination by the listener.

A set of congratulations by the State would be most unexpected. This August it was reported that the CIA had kept a file on Chomsky, and, in violation of law, destroyed that file.

It brings to mind the term “memory hole,” coined by George Orwell. In the novel, any documents, articles, books contradicting the state propaganda were thrown down a chute called the memory hole, where they were incinerated, leaving no trace.

Chomsky’s political work has perhaps served to reach into the memory hole of United States history. To reveal the many forgotten atrocities – the massacre of the population of East Timor by Indonesian forces supported by the Carter administration; the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero by the US supported forces in El Salvador, and the subsequent cover-up in the American media; and, of course, the tragic state of Vietnam after the massacre lead by the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations – the extent of the damage done by the use of chemical weapons and the slaughtering of hundreds of thousands of innocent people. These are a few among many that Chomsky has pulled from the memory hole and highlighted for all to see.

It is a wonder to think that the man hasn’t succumbed to cynicism or infirmity in his old age. He still writes regularly, published in many outlets and still travels and speaks, with all of the uncompromising rationality, and all of the fierce condemnation of the man who said, fifty years earlier that the war in Vietnam was “…simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men, including all of us who have allowed it to go on and on with endless fury and destruction – all of us who would have remained silent had stability and order been secured.”

And yet, in personal exchanges, he reveals the tenderness and humanity of a man who shows what he refuses to surrender hope.

I had written him one night, not expecting a response explaining how it is hard to find a center to all of the issues – the crisis of the environment, the rising levels of poverty in the US, staggering amounts of student debt, the continued terrorizing and murder of innocent civilians by US forces all over the world, the lack of resources, simply to be able to explain to people something about what is happening.

It is quite a vulnerable thing to tell someone you are only just hovering above despair.

The next morning, I woke up and to my surprise; there was a response from the professor:

“It’s a problem that many of us have had to face, all our lives in various contexts.  I don’t know of any answers, except to try harder.  Usually, even in the most retrograde circumstances, there are some people who are concerned and willing to think for themselves, even over issues of immediate concern.  And over time, such small seeds can sprout with unanticipated vigor.  I’ve seen it happen over and over again even in my own personal experience over the years.”

What more was there to learn from that personal experience; especially if the university had lost its usefulness as an educational institution?

So, I asked him how one could find a way to educate oneself on these things, without the opportunity to formally enroll in classes, was there a secret? He responded with a quiet and warm humility:

“I won’t say that it’s easy, but it can be done.  My own experience is highly idiosyncratic, but I was largely self-educated, in substantial part by wandering around the Harvard library or by discussions with friends.  I also sat in on some grad courses in other fields.  And I was of course lucky to have university resources available.

“Some of the most educated people I’ve known were self-educated, literally with almost no formal schooling.  In the Boston area, many courses at universities are open.  All of mine have been.  And there are people who had no formal training in linguistics and are now contributors to advanced research who got into the field that way.  People with background in other fields, however, like math.

“It’s possible, but hard.  There’s no special ‘method’ that I know.  Just hard work, an open and critical mind, the other simple virtues, and being part of a community of people with similar concerns, even a handful makes a huge difference.”

And it is perhaps that warm and personal openness, of all the things that Chomsky has taught about and talked about, that deserves the most careful attention. The most revolutionary thing is to be humane.

Happy birthday, Noam Chomsky!

Stephen Wallace is an organizer and musician from Calvert County, Maryland.