Kiltr are bringing you a live discussion with Noam Chomsky on the implications of Trident & Austerity (7.20pm BST, 29 Sept). Go here to sign-in.
Noam Chomsky is the world’s leading public intellectual. While he may have come to the fore in the ‘60s with his pioneering work on structural linguistics, which completely redefined the field, particularly through the concept of universal grammar ,that’s not why he is so known and loved by the public.
While teaching and working at MIT since the late ‘50s, in the late ‘60s he became involved in the anti -Vietnam War movement, an influential essay entitled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” setting out his stall. Since, he has been mounting an engaged one-man campaign against the US’ involvement in wars abroad for their own political and material gain. The much-feared Third World War may not have happened, although, as Chomsky has shown us, it in a way it was actually fought by proxy, in the Third World. Chomsky, in such works as “ Hegemony or Survival”, has meticulously documented abuses of foreign policy by the US from Vietnam to Nicaragua, from El Salvador to Iraq.
Post 9/11, the Bush government would find an excellent excuse to propagate their “war on terror”; Chomsky would argue that, rather than being the world’s policeman, the US is the world’s no 1 rogue state. As he trenchantly stated, “Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way: stop participating in it.”
Perhaps Chomsky’s most important legacy, and one that is integral to understanding how the US gets away with its foreign strategy, is his work on the role of propaganda in the liberal Western state, as laid out in “Manufacturing Consent; The Political Economy of the Mass Media”. This book, which was able to further disseminate Chomsky’s views through the very successful film version, alerted many people to the way in which mass media hoodwinks the public into unquestioningly accepting the wisdom and ideology of the state, even when it runs counter to their own interests and experiences. We all grow up on war movies and news presenting the Americans as the good guys, saving the world from itself, a viewpoint extending into news reporting and political discourse; we have news, while North Korea has propaganda.
Chomsky brilliantly shows how our news and media also function as propaganda to maintain hegemony; and the purpose of this? “Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
Indeed, this viewpoint can lead him to go as far as claiming that World War II ultimately functioned as a means to destroy the power of the European proletariat. A controversial view, but Chomsky embraces freedom of speech, once coming under flak for supporting a Holocaust denier’s right to publish. As he has stated, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
Ultimately, Chomsky is a libertarian socialist, essentially an anarchist, one whose views were formed at an early age by seeing police attack striking women workers, while hearing of the anarchist communes being set up during the Spanish Civil War. One can see a link between his work as an activist and linguist in his essentially hopeful, positive views on both human creativity and humans’ potential to work together; “Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.” This ultimately optimistic view of humanity famously brought him into conflict with French post humanist, Marxist philosopher Michel Foucault in a legendary TV interview. There may not be such a dramatic encounter on Kiltr tomorrow, but we’re honoured and excited that Professor Chomsky is speaking to us.
I’ll leave the last words to the man himself: “Changes and progress very rarely are gifts from above. They come out of struggles from below.”