American Socrates: The Life and Mind of Noam Chomsky

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.

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.
Reading List
Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, 2002.
Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman
Herman of Wharton and Chomsky of MIT lucidly document their argument that America's government and its corporate giants exercise control over what we read, see and hear. The authors identify the forces that they contend make the national media propagandistic, the major three being the motivation for profit through ad revenue, the media's close links to and often ownership by corporations, and their acceptance of information from biased sources. In five case studies, the writers show how TV, newspapers and radio distort world events. For example, the authors maintain that "it would have been very difficult for the Guatemalan government to murder tens of thousands over the past decade if the U.S. press had provided the kind of coverage they gave to the difficulties of Andrei Sakharov or the murder of Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland." Such allegations would be routine were it not for the excellent research behind this book's controversial charges. Extensive evidence is calmly presented, and in the end an indictment against the guardians of our freedoms is substantiated. A disturbing picture emerges of a news system that panders to the interests of America's privileged and neglects its duties when the concerns of minority groups and the underclass are at stake. First serial to the Progressive. Copyright 1988 Reed Business Information, Inc
Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power, 2017
Noam Chomsky
"Since Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, income inequality has not been novel material for a book. Nevertheless, the latest book from famed activist and linguist Chomsky (Who Rules the World?) seems fresher than almost any title on the subject in recent memory. The book, based on the documentary of the same name, is a compilation of interviews that the film’s directors conducted with Chomsky from 2011 to 2016. Chomsky observes the present-day United States with such lucid clarity that readers may feel they are viewing familiar terrain for the first time. He offers a “10 Principle” formula for how plutocratic interests operate (Principle No. 7 is “Engineer Elections”; Principle No. 3 is “Redesign the Economy”). Chomsky observes that much of what made the 1950s and ’60s the “Golden Age” of the U.S. economy was that, at the time, what was good for General Motors really was good for America: “When the U.S. was primarily a manufacturing center, it had to be concerned with its own consumers.” Chomsky also touches, fascinatingly, on subjects as diverse as “the psychology of nagging” (as employed by the advertising industry) and the disappearing sense of solidarity in our civic life. Chomsky and his collaborators have created a perceptive and revelatory examination of the forces driving America inequality." —Publishers Weekly
American Power and the New Mandarins: Historical and Political Essays, 1969.
Noam Chomsky
Whether assessing U.S. policy in the Middle East (Fateful Triangle) or analyzing the events of September 11 (9-11), linguist, intellectual giant and moral authority Chomsky has made a brilliant career out of telling his fellow Americans things they didn't want to hear. And it all began with this collection of provocative essays (first published by Pantheon in 1969), each advancing a cogent, rigorous argument for why we shouldn't have been in Vietnam. In his opening piece, Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, Chomsky establishes the premise that U.S. presence in Southeast Asia was little more than updated imperialism; that theory informs much of the writing that follows. In The Logic of Withdrawal, Chomsky methodically debunks the accepted reasons for U.S. intervention in a foreign civil war, and in On Resistance, he restates his case even more bluntly, writing that no one has appointed us judge and executioner for Vietnam or anywhere else. If it merely recalled the heady debates of a generation past, this volume would have been well worth reprinting. But at this moment in history, as America teeters on the brink of another war, Chomsky's ruminations about our role on the world stage take on renewed relevance. Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Pankaj Mishra
“In its literacy and literariness, [Age of Anger] has the feel of Edmund Wilson’s extraordinary dramas of modern ideas―books like To the Finland Station―but with a different endpoint and a more global canvas. Mishra reads like a brilliant autodidact, putting to shame the many students who dutifully did the reading for their classes but missed the incandescent fire and penetrating insight in canonical texts.” ―Samuel Moyn, The New Republic

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