Noam Chomsky: Jack of All Intellectual Trades, Master of None
Noam Chomsky: Mr. Anti-Establishment
If it is any consolation of whom Noam Chomsky is most likely to support for president in this year’s election, he has already shown support for presidential nominee Bernie Sanders if he can get past the primaries. Noam Chomsky has only donated to two political candidates…..ever; one: Ralph Nader in the 2000 presidential bid, and Bernie Sanders during his fifth Congressional campaign. In fact, Bernie Sanders was the first politician and is the most consistent politician Chomsky has signed checks for. In typical Chomsky fancy, when asked who he will be supporting in this election, he went for the ultimate anti-establishment candidate, Bernie Sanders, with a caveat and a slew of pessimism.
"I'm glad that Sanders is running. A good way to bring important ideas and facts to people. His candidacy might also press the Dems a little in a progressive direction. In our system of bought elections he has scarcely a chance of getting beyond the primaries, and even if by some miracle he were elected he wouldn't be able to do anything, lacking any congressional representatives, governors, etc. As far as I can see he's a thorn in the side of the Clinton machine, which is not a bad thing."
It would have actually been strange to expect a different perspective from a public intellectual. As noted in the Stephen Mack article, “The Decline of the Public Intellectual", a public intellectual's main social function is criticism. Noam Chomsky goes on to say that Bernie Sanders has the best policies but does not have an authentic chance of winning in a mainly bought system. Well then… it seems that Chomsky seems to believe that our democracy, is not a sort of democracy at all.
It is arguable that in this generation, Chomsky is the model political intellectual. His rise to prominence began in 1963 and he still is regarded as one of the greatest minds, offering criticism regarding foreign policy since Reagan, and most notably 9/11. It is astonishing how his politics have managed to resonate with every rebel generation. He encouraged and facilitated dissension for the purposes of the democracy. He may be a pest to the system, but somehow his words resonate with the people.
Establishing the Public Intellectual
How could a nerd who studied word structures and grammar in the brain become one of the most quoted and noted philosophers and political personas of our time? Somehow, an eighty seven year old Jewish linguist has become a viable source and voice for the critical theoretical political landscape of America. Chomsky is better known for his criticism of American political discourse than the grammar theory that earned him his dissertation from University of Pennsylvania. How did Noam Chomsky rise up as the public intellectual? The anti-establishment intellectual in a Bible toting, flag allegiance pledging, clergy comforting nation, who calls himself a libertarian socialist, is the man whose words resonated with Americans in their toughest times.
"With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy."
The public intellectual is the ultimate anti-establishment persona. When discovering the public intellectual, it is more important to note the positionality of whose voices we listen to the most rather than the training from whence they came. There was a time in American history when the public intellectual was the voice of reason. After all, our country was built on the very principle of intellectual snobs’ fear of the uneducated vote and an even greater illiterate democracy. Our founding fathers were well read. How else would they have been able rip off the philosophical doctrines from John Locke and Thomas Hobbes? Still, their brilliant connection of ideas carried the hearts of Americans right into the revolution and facilitated the rebel American spirit; a democracy founded on idealism and will not take anything less. Noam Chomsky, was too intrigued by this idea of revolution. It is no wonder that a Jewish who grew up in an anti-semantic neighborhood in Philadelphia during the Great Depression grew up to the most cited and quoted public intellectual during his lifetime.
Noam Chomsky is cut from the same cloth. A young Jewish man from immigrant parents, Chomsky was exposed to leftist politics and socialism as a teenager. Chomsky's mother and father exposed him to politics on the day to day level. They identified as Roosevelt Democrats, his extended family as socialists, and were active participants in labor unions. His uncle's ownership of a newspaper exposed him to regularly hosted political debates and information. As a young man, Chomsky would read books on anarchy and radical left wing ideologies, where he began to critically think about social structures. As a teenager, Chomsky audaciously identified as an anarchist. A young scholar, Chomsky began university at the University of Pennsylvania at the age of sixteen studying linguistics and philosophy. His work at the graduate level challenged traditional thinking of language learning. He made the observation that language and syntax are shaped by experience rather than a part of our cognitive processes and manifested before birth. His combination of language and psychology renders him one of the pioneers of psycho-linguistics and the development of cognitive psychology.
Entering the Political Stratosphere
During his tenure at the University of Pennsylvania and the Harvard Society of Fellows, Chomsky further developed his political thought. For a man of his background and his engagement in academia through various subjects such as mathematics, linguistics, cognitive psychology, meta-linguistics, philosophy, and ethics, he never abandoned his interest in politics from the perspective of the disenfranchised individual. Coming from the perspective of an immigrant Jew in working class America, having grown up in the Great Depression, Chomsky was still the young man who romanticized the ideals of anarchy. He was critical and conscious of the world around him in a compelling way, specifically during a time of McCarthyism and the Cold War. It wasn’t simply enough to express dissatisfaction with the world around him on a surface level, he had to critique and blame the social structure entangled in the mess around him for the problems that he saw as a consequence.
Claim to Fame:
Noam Chomsky's rise to prominence came after he published his essay against the conflict in Vietnam called the Responsibility of Intellectuals. His brash article spoke of the human ethics of the Vietnam War and boldly criticized the United States: the rising superpower and world policeman of the time. Chomsky gave credit to protesting students as a checks and balance and called upon the intellectual to use their power to uphold democracy. His lengthier piece, a fleshed out analysis of the same commentary in Responsibility of Intellectuals, and first political work titledAmerican Power and the New Mandarins put him as the intellectual behind the mass opposition to the United States's involvement in Vietnam. Much like our founding fathers, Chomsky believed in the responsibility and the power of the elite of a society. This was only the beginning of Chomsky's prominence in politics. Jewish Philadelphian Noam Chomsky became the face of opposition and the pinnacle of the left wing. The same anarchist and leftist politics that Chomsky learned in his youth were now being brought to fruition. His liberal politics were banned from mainstream media at the time, but he was a stark representation of what was happening on the college campuses. In 1967, Noam Chomsky refused to pay half of his taxes, and encouraged students to boycott the draft. He was also arrested later that year for an anti-war teach in. During this period of his life, Chomsky lost employment at prestigious universities, getting arrested multiple times in support of his views.
Establishment as the Public Intellectual:
Noam Chomsky led dissent in American politics at a very crucial time. At the time that Chomsky's prominence was beginning to peak, America was amid a full swing Civil Rights Movement in America. The White liberal was no longer impasse. In essence, Noam Chomsky represented the quintessential public intellectual, never allowing the American government to lay too comfortably on its golden hill of democracy. He would continue to be a point of criticism for the next forty years in American politics. Chomsky's criticisms of the American government were not limited. He questioned the intentions of our legislators, challenged the foundation, supported the rebels and even gave credit to the resistance. Noam Chomsky was such a pest that Richard Nixon placed him on the Enemies List of the White House (of course this list has 823 people so Nixon wasn't very friendly). Perhaps Chomsky's intrepid criticism is what caught people's attentions and kept his longevity as the public intellectual. Noam Chomsky's written works and lectures have seem to be concrete timepieces throughout American history. Since 1963, Chomsky has written over one hundred political criticisms and has been cited over 10,000 times between 1970-1990(can you imagine what those numbers must be now that access to information has been put online?)
Scandal as an American Public Intellectual
Noam Chomsky’s career has not been maintained on a cloud. He was actively criticized for his positions in relentless freedom of speech, even going as far as supporting a French scholar who claimed that the Holocaust never happened (a weird position to take considering how Chomsky himself is Jewish). The Faurrison Affair nearly ruined Noam Chomsky’s image. His words were once regarded as the voice of the left, and a critical component of the anti-establishment movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s but shifted. He had lost his credibility as the anti-establishment public intellectual but became the radical liberal who supports the principle over the ethic. Chomsky would not receive the same credibility again until 9/11, when his book 9-11: Was There an Alternative? Questioned the foreign policy choices of the United States in a time where disapproval of Congress and the President were at record lows. He publicly calls the GOP a “serious danger to human survival.” Till this day, Chomsky’s status is elevated from the public intellectual to the radical. In essence, Chomsky’s role as the public intellectual, despite public perception after this affair is amplified. It shows his commitment to the principles of democracy that exceeds understanding of the human level. It puts into question whether the public intellectual is to be a representative of the people of anti-establishment to the status quo. Perhaps much different that the role of the cleric as the public intellectual, Noam represents that anti John Winthrop. His goal is not to motivate American through a deep historical, spiritual bond but to wreak havoc with his mind. How effective has Noam Chomsky been? He has not enjoyed the same wide mass appeal as he once had in Vietnam, but he continues to be a lingering presence in American politics.
The Last Great Public Intellectual?
Noam Chomsky has had great success as the arbiter of dissension and the facilitator of criticizing those who have fallen short of the glory of democracy, but what further propels him as a public intellectual is the simple notion of time. Noam Chomsky has been around as a politically conscious intellectual for the past fifty three years. He has embodied the doctrine of the public intellectual of a quote that can't explain it any better than the one I will place below.
"So the public intellectual needs, it seems to me, to puncture the myth-makers of any era, including his own, whether it's those who promise that utopia is just around the corner if we see the total victory of free markets worldwide, or communism worldwide or positive genetic enhancement worldwide, or mouse-maneuvering democracy worldwide, or any other run-amok enthusiasm. Public intellectuals, much of the time at least, should be party poopers."
Noam Chomsky is Noam Chomsky because he is a party pooper. Leave it to him to have a criticism, to bring about chaos, to denounce the American Dream, and call to us to create a greater American democracy. The public intellectual's job is to be the counterpart to the politician. Look to Noam Chomsky if you want an example of what that looks like.
Original posting: 2/6/2016 at 11:59 p.m.
Updated post: 2/11/2016: Grammatical errors corrected and citations added.
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