American Socrates: The Life and Mind of Noam Chomsky (rebroadcast)

Noam Chomsky for 50 years has been America’s Socrates, our public pest with questions that sting … not the city-square of Athens but a vast global village in pain and now, it seems, in danger. This holiday season, we’re rerunning our conversation with him.

The world in trouble today still beats a path to Noam Chomsky’s door, if only because he’s been forthright for so long about a whirlwind coming.  Not that the world quite knows what do with Noam Chomsky’s warnings of disaster in the making. Remember the famous faltering of the patrician TV host William F. Buckley Jr., meeting Chomsky’s icy anger about the war in Vietnam, in 1969.

It’s a strange thing about Noam Chomsky: the New York Times calls him ‘arguably’ the most important public thinker alive, though the paper seldom quotes him, or argues with him, and giant pop media stars on network television almost never do. And yet the man is universally famous and revered in his 89th year: he’s the scientist who taught us to think of human language as something embedded in our biology, not a social acquisition; he’s the humanist who railed against the Vietnam war and other projections of American power, on moral grounds first, ahead of practical considerations.  He remains a rock-star on college campuses, here and abroad; yet he’s still an alien in the places where policy gets made.  On his home ground at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he is a notably accessible old professor who answers his email and receives visitors like us with a twinkle.  

Last week, we visited Chomsky with an open ended mission in mind: We were looking for a non-standard account of our recent history from a man known for telling the truth. We’d written him that we wanted to hear not what he thinks, but how. He’d  written back that hard work and an open mind have a lot to do with it, also, in his words, a “Socratic-style willingness to ask whether conventional doctrines are justified.”

In the opening moments of our conversation, recorded and captured in the video below, Chomsky lays out a succinct demonstration of his method that might be applied to our present-day political crisis:

 “I think the fate of the species depends on it because, remember, it’s not just inequality, stagnation. It’s terminal disaster. We have constructed a perfect storm. That should be the screaming headlines every day. Since the Second World War, we have created two means of destruction. Since the neoliberal era, we have dismantled the way of handling them. That’s our pincers. That’s what we face, and if that problem isn’t solved we’re done with.”

Over the years Noam Chomsky has defended his heavyweight debating title against all comers: YouTube has him in the ring with Michel Foucault on the nature of human nature; with Alan Dershowitz on Israel; with John Silber on Central America. But looking beyond his intellectual pugilism, Chomsky’s life might be defined as much by his allies as his enemies.

One of Chomsky’s longest running partnerships is with his assistant, Bev Stohl, who serves as the gatekeeper in and out of Chomsky world at MIT. She’s a sprightly writer and wit who’s learned over most of two decades that a lot of laughter helps in living with genius. We caught up with Bev and her office pup Roxy this week.

Another critical alliance comes from Robert Barksy, the author of two admiring, critical books—Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent and  The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory TowerAs an admirer and biographer of Chomsky, Barsky helps us fill in the story of how NC became the most widely cited author and innovator in the literature of contemporary science as well as a by-word for rational humanism.

Our hour only is only the beginning of the Noam story though. For more, read our friend George Scialabba‘s many excellent essays on Chomsky—a man he ranks among his triumvirate intellectual heroes (along with Christopher Lasch and Richard Rorty). Here’s a good place to start for beginners.

Also, be sure to check out the Irish singer-songwriter Foy Vance‘s musical tribute “Noam Chomsky Is A Soft Revolution” which puts the linguist in a class of musical as well as political and literary dissidents—Dr. John, James Brown, and Willie Nelson as well as Jean-Paul Sartre, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Che Guevara.

Finally, watch these two bite-sized bits of Noam discussing two giant-sized philosophers, Bertrand Russell and Adam Smith.

Also, read a full transcript of the show on Medium.

Extra Credit Assignment from Prof. Barsky

“For brief introductions to the incredibly complex world that Chomsky describes, it might be worth watching a few videos. There is an incredibly important one that was done years ago on the BBC that offers a one hour summary of the basic philosophical tenants that underwrites his thought, and the interviewer is a very brilliant English philosopher. I have had occasion to talk about this interview with Noam and he agreed, and bemoaned that such programs are no longer easily found.
 The other incredibly important source to understand the generation preceding Noam, is the remarkable film by Joseph Dorman called Arguing the World. References made in this film to a tiny Jewish Zionist organization that existed from 1928 to 1943, started at Harvard, that set forth some crucial ideas that were to both reflect and guide the work of Chomsky’s teacher, Zellig Harris (I talk about this at length in my book about Harris). The group is called Avukah , and I have been working on a film and book about it for many years. Joseph’s film is a model for what I’m trying to do, and many of the people mentioned herein have direct or indirect influence on Noam’s thinking.”
Guest List
Noam Chomsky
MIT professor, linguist and critic of empire.
Beverley Stohl
Assistant to Noam Chomsky and writer at Bev Stohl's Stata Confusion.
Robert Barsky
Professor of English and French Literatures at Vanderbilt University and author of The Chomsky Effect: A Radical Works Beyond the Ivory Tower and Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent.

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  • Dev

    Why not talk about the elephant in the room? The Islamic terrorism! Chomsky justifies it as a legitimate weapon?

    • GuestAug27

      Why not talk about religious fanaticism of any kind including Christian, Zionist, as well as Islamic, and how this fanaticism is used divide poor people so that the “rich can laugh all the way to the bank”, as Chomsky pointed out?

      • Dev

        Chomsky does not represent poor, nor he has done anything for for poor. For him, Islamic terrorism is not a problem because never walks the walk. It is basically talk and talk!

  • Dev

    Ms. Roy has rather become a pariah in India. How can that be any good for an activist?

  • Debbie

    You are a fantastic interviewer, asking wonderful questions that get at the heart of things and people and motivations, and Noam Chomsky is so intelligent and probably the best person who you could ever interview. His command of the written word is amazing! Well done!

  • Potter

    Definitely I will listen again.. thank you!! Wishes for you all to have a wonderful Christmas holiday. Let’s look to a new year with (still) much to be thankful for, for one this show:the sensibility, sanity, enlightenment it brings.

  • blueshift

    the ‘organic’ language ability of babies – deep structure – has been thoroughly debunked by the field he created with this theory, psycholinguistics. this is, i think, is his most precious gift…. despite his *other* towering achievements.

  • GuestAug27

    Is it possible that the real reason why in the 1980s, the capitalism in the US and Western Europe started to shed its humane disguise, which of course it never had in the Global South, was the imminent demise of the USSR as a champion of communism, the only real alternative to capitalism? Perhaps even capitalism works better if it has some competition.

  • no ideas but in things – William Carlos Williams

  • rct

    Contrary to what Lydon says in the intro, the New York Times said no such thing about Chomsky being “arguably” the most important intellectual alive. This is often said in Chomsky’s presence and he says nothing to refute it. Curious.

    • Pete Crangle
      • rct

        You’ve missed the point entirely. It was the reviewer, Paul Robinson, professor at Stanford, who is the source of the quote, not the Times. Get it? Even Chomsky admits this when pressed.

        • Pete Crangle

          It appeared in the times. Get it?

          • rct

            The New York Times “calls” him… is what Lydon says. Please tell me who at the Times calls him that, would you please? Robinson has no role in this?

    • “….he says nothing to refute it…..Chomsky admits this when pressed.”
      Which is it?
      Superlatives are like symbols, they are end points or as Richard Rorty would call them, a “final vocabulary.”
      Does it make sense to rank intellectuals?
      The value of people like Chomsky is to disrupt the status quo – to get people to think, reflect, learn.
      It is like a game they are playing: catch me if you can!
      In that case, you can rank their gamesmanship. Chomsky doesn’t rank anywhere near people like Stephen Jay Gould or Gerald M Edelman.
      For the rest of us to play the game, we need to be patient – not to jump over the line before the starting gun fires.
      People who use superlatives are not in the game – they have “communicated their beliefs without regard to contingencies. “
      When the New York Times deems Chomsky “the most important intellectual alive,” they are merely moving their readers to the next topic. Game over! Chomsky wins!
      You do realize that his psycholinguistics thesis was a social trap for billions of people, who would be doomed by the syndrome of a 5,000 word vocabulary?
      The redemptive corollary to setting such a trap would be to profess a belief in political anarchy. How very Platonic….

      • rct

        Don’t understand why you don’t understand. When he is introduced that way he remains silent. Only when it is pointed out that Robinson is the source of the quote, not the Times, will he acknowledge it. Then, hilariously, he will say, “But in his next sentence he says that he disagrees with most everything I say.” Why hilariously? Because, of course, that is not the next sentence in Robinson’s review, nor does it appear anywhere in the review. Do you still think that the Times dubbed Chomsky “the most important intellectual alive”?

        • Chomsky probably doesn’t respond because he doesn’t want to dignify the meaningless hyperbole.
          Chris should probably re-word that to say: “In the NYT he was called” vs “the New York Times calls him”.

          • rct

            And how do you explain away the fact that the so-called Times quote is on several of his books? Let’s compare your response with what he has said. This should be fun. And we now know that you are aware that the quote is not a Times quote. Progress!

          • It’s been a slow progression because I don’t much care about superlatives outside the Patriots and Red Sox.
            The fact that the quote is found where? on the jacket?
            That would mean he lives in the same world the rest of us do and is subject to marketeers – it sells books.

          • rct

            On the jackets, of course. As a follower of his, I would have thought you’d noticed. His answer: He has no control over what is on the jackets. So who knew that the most important intellectual alive has no control, no say-so, no influence over his own books. If his publisher wanted to put on the jackets Arthur Schlesinger’s never-to-be forgotten description of the Chomp as “an intellectual crook” he would not protest?

          • In that case Chomsky apologized and admitted to some sloppiness – changes were made to the text upon its next publishing.
            No one is perfect….

            I cannot bring a world quite round,
            Although I patch it as I can.

            I sing a hero’s head, large eye
            And bearded bronze, but not a man,

            Although I patch him as I can
            And reach through him almost to man.

            If to serenade almost to man
            Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

            Say it is the serenade
            Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

            – Wallace Stevens

          • rct

            The Stevens relates to the Chomp. Somehow. Next–ingratitude. In 2015 Chomp and the Goodman siblings gave a presentation at the Parrish Church in Harvard Square. During q&a I corrected the false quote which we were treated to in the intro. Afterwards, a few of us were standing around putting questions to Chomsky. He was not paying attention to where he was standing–several steps above floor level. He move forward and plunged to the floor and would have surely suffered serious bodily harm had I not instantly reached out and caught him before he hit the ground. He then adjusted his glasses and without a word of thanks, walked away. Comment? Boo Sox. Boo Pats.

          • rct

            Sorry. The year should be 2005. Failed to proofread.

  • BS Terry

    Noam helped create the stupidity and ignorance of H Chavez and N Maduro. Thanks Noam for your help that destroyed Venezuela. You really are an intellectual. Noam never met a dictator he didn’t like. Noam doesn’t respond because he’s on the wrong side of history. He’s a goof-ball that’s got a lot of people duped.