The Unbridled Linguist
Los Angeles Times, February 1, 1988
|In the space of 24 hours last week, Noam Chomsky,
the world-renowned linguist and controversial critic of American
foreign policy, spoke at UCLA on U.S. policies in the Middle East,
held informal exchanges on linguistics and language, and addressed a
small, select group of influential Westsiders at a mansion, complete
with moat, in Pacific Palisades.
And although UCLA campus police, riot helmets in hand, stood by at Royce Hall as the turn-away crowd of 1,800 passed through a security check one by one, it was in the Palisades where the most volatile scene occurred.
The professor from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose radical impact on linguistics is known as "the Chomskyan revolution," is often said to be without peer in his field. While he has not had an equal impact on foreign policy, he is considered no less radical in his criticism of the United States, particularly its policies in the Middle East, Central America and other parts of the Third World. And as a Jew, he has offended some members of the American Jewish community for his support of Palestinian self-determination and his criticism of Israel.
"He's a very provocative person. We wanted to put him with some people in the community who have access to resources and can impact change," said Mary Brent Wehrli, executive director of the Southern California Ecumenical Council's task force on Central America, explaining the invitation to the heated discussion of U.S. Central America policies at businessman Leo Wyler's mansion. "We hope that he will provoke them."
The task force got its wish.
Chomsky's charges that U.S. government policies were connected to interests of the corporate elite so infuriated some of the 40 mostly wealthy guests seated around Wyler's massive fireplace that at one point the discussion deteriorated into shouted accusations and interruptions.
One man yelled out that he'd bet $100 that one of Chomsky's claims about National Security Council policy would turn out to be "a lie." ("I'll take that bet," actor Ed Asner called out.)
"You do yourself a great disservice," Harold Willens told Chomsky in the middle of it all. A longtime peace activist and frequent critic of government policy himself, Willens, the host along with Wyler, Fred Nicholas and UC Regent Stanley Sheinbaum, did not directly question Chomsky's allegations. Instead, he took on the great linguistic theorist for his language.
"You don't say it very well. Your language isn't precise enough or fair enough," Willens said.
Reporting Called One-Sided
The eruption came during an exchange over Chomsky's view that the U.S. media was reporting Nicaragua's abuses and deficiencies in democracy and not reporting in any depth its social reforms -- particularly as compared with Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The media, he said, were part of an elite consensus regarding the U.S. right to contain Nicaragua and a debate only over how it should be contained.
His charges came as no surprise to some in the room who tended to agree with him. Others seemed reluctant to believe him or genuinely confused about his implications.
Several angrily took him on for implying they had let themselves be "hoodwinked" and were "sitting back and being led" by such a group. They accused him of "unbridled bias," overstatement, dogmatism and of having "a shockingly closed mind for an intellectual." One woman started a hurt and angry reproach by calling out, "Why do you live here?"
"This is my country. I'd like to improve it," he replied.
Pushed Too Far
Later, when they broke for coffee and dessert, some flocked to him for more discussion, others kept their distance.
Privately, Willens expressed disappointment that Chomsky had talked down to the group and said that someone with such an iconoclastic point of view should become a better communicator.
Had Chomsky only talked of specific Central American issues such as the Arias peace accords and aid to the Contras, Wyler's daughter Barbara said afterwards, the guests would have left agreeing with him and his denunciation of U.S. policy.
"But he was pushing people farther than that," she said. A supporter of the task force and a grass-roots organizer on peace and justice issues, Barbara Wyler had hoped Chomsky would shake them up.
Instead, she said of those he had offended, "it was as if they had been told there was no Santa Claus."
Doesn't Seek to Offend
Noam Chomsky -- take him or leave him. He does not seek to offend people, he says, but he will neither apologize nor accommodate.
"I'm no diplomat," he said with a shrug and a small smile the following morning over a bowl of granola at the UCLA Guest House.
It is one of the more non-controversial and undisputed statements he makes.
At 59, Chomsky is a slightly built man who has the facade of a mild-mannered professor -- glasses, sandy, slightly unruly hair, a fleeting grin -- right down to the rumpled cords, rolled up shirt sleeves and tweed jacket.
He has been called everything from "the most important intellectual alive today" to a "pariah" who has been "banished from the margins of political debate."
But he simply says what his own research and thinking lead him to conclude. There seem to be no exceptions.
At Royce Hall, after he had spoken on U.S. policies in Iran and Israel, policies he attributed to a desire to control the oil in the region and thus protect U. S. economic interests, an Arab admirer of his work stepped to the mike and took him to task for not using Arab sources.
It was a shortcoming to which Chomsky immediately agreed. He does not read Arabic well, he said. And tactically, "it's more credible if I quote from Hebrew sources.
"Arab sources are not reliable," he added. "They exaggerate. They're careless...."
"Wanting to ask Noam Chomsky a question is like wanting to walk into a buzz saw," one man chuckled to his colleagues after Chomsky's presentation on language and interpretation at a philosophy colloquium that drew 300 to Rolphe Hall one afternoon.
His delivery during his week-long stay did not vary. Regardless the subject, occasion or audience, he methodically developed his argument point by point, often taking a chronological approach, referencing everything, inundating his listeners with detailed facts pulled from memory: He has read the footnotes, waded through newspapers and periodicals, compared and quantified accounts, closely examined the documents, including declassified government material. Not a point or fact has been overlooked or forgotten.
Not grandiloquent, he proceeds dispassionately, at times tediously, at times humorously, an offhand but trenchant sarcasm that seems to take the place of any emotional range.
He does not seek to offend, he said, and he does not get offended. He seems driven not out of a competitive streak but through an impatience to get the truth out.
Being called a liar the other night seemed to slide right off him. Just a momentary, barely visible ruffling of the feathers and a testy offer to send the man the National Security Council document in dispute.
"I don't care. Considering the hysteria, at least it removes the matter to a factual issue," he said after the Wyler house debate. "After all, why should he believe me?
"I rarely talk to groups with that background, at that social and economic level," he added, then went on to describe the gathering as split three ways: Those "extremely admirable" people who were already committed, those "who want to do something and are hurting" and those who were "naive, with no concept of what goes on in the world and their role in it. They're very insulated from reality. Talk to a group of welfare mothers and they know much more about the world than someone living in a stockade in Beverly Hills."
Asked about his credentials by a student at the philosophy colloquium, Chomsky responded : "I have no credentials in any subject, which is why I'm teaching linguistics. And it's exactly why I teach at MIT."
The university, he added to everyone's amusement, had no tradition in the humanities, so there was nothing to stop them from hiring him.
He was not joking, he explained the next day. He has degrees, but no credentials.
He has a BA, MA and Ph.D. in linguistics (1955) from the University of Pennsylvania, he said, but he calls them technicalities, saying he doubts if anyone opened his dissertation.
"Nobody was interested in what I was doing," he explained, adding that he had the same reception at Harvard where he was a junior fellow.
The Chomskyan revolution "redefined the study of language and mind" his colleague, Carlos Otero at UCLA, has written, describing its main feature as "his hypothesis that human beings are born with an innate knowledge of universal principles underlying the structure of human language and other cognitive structures."
Chomsky could not get anything published and could not get hired. It did not bother him. Instead, he and his wife, Carol, also a linguist, went to Israel in 1953 and joined a kibbutz. He had been raised an ardent Zionist, he said, attributing his lifelong political activism to those roots. He grew up during the Depression in a lower middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia. His father was a Hebrew teacher who studied medieval Hebrew grammar; his mother a Hebrew teacher. He first learned language from his father, he said, proofreading 14th-Century Hebrew grammar when he was 10. The family members were observant Jews, more cultural than religious.
"I'm Jewish," he said. "It's my background. I don't ask myself about it."
While on the kibbutz, he said, he was concerned about the direction the young country was taking in dealing with the Arabs. He believed the Arabs were being deliberately isolated and repressed under a military administration.
His outspoken criticism of Israel has drawn denunciation both here and there, yet he has not cut his ties with the country.
"In fact, I'm going there in April," he said, "for a linguistics conference. It's on my work... I'll give political talks while I'm there."
From the kibbutz, he went to MIT in 1961 for a job in the electronics department and has made the university his base ever since. He and his wife have three children, now grown.
Lecturer in Demand
He lectures at universities all over the world and has published dozens of books and hundreds of articles. The book he couldn't get published for lack of interest in the '50s, "Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory," was published in 1975 when the publishers came to him.
"The only thing that matters to me," he said, "is if I read stupid things about (my work). Then I think I've got to do something to correct it.
"I read all the time," he added. "I'm so busy I literally do not have time to go to the library. So what happens is, I subscribe to just about everything. I order every book and then usually give them away."
He has no research assistant, he said, but plenty of people come into the office and offer to help. In addition, he has contacts around the world, he said, "dissidents in their own societies, people who are marginalized."
"They clip for me and I clip for them. In fact I ended up buying two Xerox machines. I'm copying stuff all the time."
He is continuing his research in philosophy and linguistics, including researching technical problems in the latter, he said, in an effort to find underlying principles of grammar that will help explain individual languages.
He has just finished a book on U.S. political culture as reflected in the Iran-Contra hearings [The Culture of Terrorism]; he is about to come out with another, co-authored with Edward S. Herman, on political economy and the mass media [Manufacturing Consent], and he has a series of television lectures coming up for Canadian Broadcasting Company on U. S. policies and the media that he'll turn into a book [Necessary Illusions].
Sometimes, he said, he has to justify to himself all the time he spends on work in his field, work that he does "because I find the questions intriguing and exciting."
The question to him is never why he does so much else.
"That's the wrong question," he said. "I think 'Why do you do so little?' Take a look at the world."