Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Good Writers 2: Noam Chomsky

Now, Noam is, in a lot of ways, like Richard Mitchell. I think this may be because he is a linguist.

Everyone who knows of Noam Chomsky as a public figure is vaguely aware that he is a linguist. I actually have a linguistics degree – in foreign language literature. Don’t ask me how that can be. Ask the university. I really do have a Bachelor of Science in Language Arts and my major was French and Spanish. However, the “science” part of the very funny and contradictory-sounding degree name came as a result of having to take a certain number of courses in linguistics.

As my knowledge of linguistics never went beyond the superficial, having taken four introductory courses in the subject, I did not really read Noam Chomsky in his specialty domain. I know that he is the author of a theory that language is somehow partly innate as well as being taught, which is called the theory of universal grammar. I know that he wrote the sentence “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” But that is about the extent of my knowledge of his career as a linguist, sad to say.

However, I do believe that his preoccupation with language has forced him to have a more general preoccupation with truth. Richard Mitchell pointed out, in one of his essays, that the point of writing is Truth, and that good writing is that which shows truth, and that this can only be done through the correct use of language - and everything else is, as he put it, “whoring” or “communicating” (writing instruction manuals, for instance, or self-help books). He also pointed out that seeking for the truth is the opposite of fun; that it is hard and discouraging to keep finding out that you don’t know things you thought you were certain about or that you have been dishonest with yourself or deluded into believing or propagating a falsehood.

Well, that is sort of what ties Noam Chomsky to Richard Mitchell in my mind. He confronts things that are not fun to think about, in the realm of politics. And as he is trying to point them out to people in his own country and from his own background, and he is an upper-middle-class highly educated American, he writes about American doings and how they come up short if you are searching for that Truth with a capital T. For this, he sure gets a lot of grief.

I always wonder at the people who attack Chomsky for his criticism of US policies, or for his discussions of some political topic or other, or for his adherence to principle even when it means that he will take some unpopular stance. For example, he has repeatedly defended the freedom of expression of people who say really horrible and false and nasty things. It is amazing to me the number of people who are able to look at this defense and say he is actually defending the nasty ideas themselves, rather than freedom of expression. After all, if we only like freedom of expression when we agree with the ideas being expressed, it’s not really freedom of expression at all. This is self-evident, yet everyone seems to miss the point.

Chomsky wrote a very powerful essay when he was a quite young professor, during the Vietnam War, in which he argued that people who were educated and who used their minds had a greater responsibility than others to stand up against things that were wrong. The essay was, of course, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” written one year before I was born. I think about it a lot when I see modern political discourse and hear strange defenses coming from what he would have considered intellectuals, newspaper opinion columnists, or political theorists, or whatever, of what would be in any moral system at all, indefensible behavior or decisions. I thought about it again today as I was re-reading one of my favorite Richard Mitchell essays, “Writing Against Your Life,” when he said that “I’m OK, You’re OK” was a lie and said, “I am NOT OK. I have lied, I have misstated, I have …”

Chomsky told a story in an interview that I read, about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He said that when he heard of it, and he was a youth or teenager at the time, he felt that there was not a person on earth that he could talk to about how he was feeling, and went off for a walk because he could not face people.

Chomsky’s confrontation of painful things about our country (I say, as an American, albeit an expat) that so many of us would so much rather not know of, means that he has had to take a lot of abuse over the years. But he has also made a lot of friends of people who have some sort of masochistic need to search for the truth with a capital T the way he does. And now he is not alone, unlike when he was young and isolated; and this is because he confronts the demons through his writing, and others read it.

I think writers who make us uncomfortable are far greater than those who make us feel good – they give us a lot more potential for growth. This is why this series is actually focusing on writers who are not much for happy endings or comfortable morals that we can all nod and agree with. So, Chomsky is in good company.


Aiman said...


Hmmm...I've heard some very positive stuff about Naom Chomsky. I'm not very much concerned about him being a linguist but one able to speak the truth e.g. against the sanctions imposed on Iraq I remember. And he has been a conscientious voice in the Americas thankfully!

teh l4m3 said...

Chomsky is a brilliant linguist. I saw an old interview with him recently on PBS concerning his theories about language development in infants and toddlers, and how it helps us understand the underlying rules of all human language. Heady stuff.

CNK said...

Nice post Anna.

Chomsky takes a lot of heat from the same people that hate Michael Moore, and for much of the same reason - they've never read or watched anything by or about him. Chomsky and Moore couldn't be more different but to their critics they represent the "hate America first" crowd, or whatever they're calling it these days.

Chomsky isn't anti-American, he is concerned with exposing power and how the powerful use and manipulate the weak for their own benefit. He focuses more on America because he is American, if our role in the world were diminished he would still be commenting on America because of his belief in personal criticism, but not exclusively.

WitNit said...
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WitNit said...

Interesting. Do you have any examples where Chomsky has written that a principled position he took was completely mistaken? Or that he got his facts wrong and changed his political stance?

I know that Mitchell was truly self-aware enough to recognize and doubt his own certainty about issues. He knew the danger of his own mind being too certain about things.

Does Chomskey anywhere express the same level of of detached self-examination, self-doubt? And what I am looking for is an instance where he passionately advocated a critical position in his maturity that he later changed his mind about.

Among the crowd at The Nation, I've only seen this done by Christopher Hitchins.

Anna in PDX said...

Mark, this question deserves a post of its own! And requires some thought. So I will try to respond soon.

Anonymous said...

Chomsky is the Socrates of modern times. That is says the truth is important, but merely not as much I think as the fact that he basically says that salvation for humanity is in searching for truth. Each and everyone of us would better serve humanity if we questioned the media and the powers that be instead of always following whoever sounds most reasonable. As lucky westerners enjoying peace, prosperity, and relative freedom, we owe it to the world to perform our duty of self-examination, and conscious choices in all our actions as citizens, consumers, and human beings. If we did THINK more and consumed less many of the world woes would be solved.

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Noam knows what he is writing about always!

He is the Dud with capital D!