75 years of Noam Chomsky - many happy returns
An apparent paradox: the linguist that none other than the New York Times referred to as "arguably the most important intellectual alive" does not owe this fame primarily to his academic work, but rather the theory that US media like the NY Times do not allow critical voices like his to be heard at all. But the paradox is clarified in the rest of the Times article: if Chomsky is so important, why does he write such nonsense? On 7 December 2003, Chomsky's is turning 75. Time for a quick review of his political activism and his less known linguistic work.
When Noam Chomsky, the son of two Hebrew teachers, started studying linguistics after World War II, behaviorism was at its pinnacle. Decades before, Pavlov had demonstrated what came to be called the "conditioned reflex": a dog began to salivate when it heard a bell ring after it had gotten used to hearing it ring when being fed. Some scholars before Chomsky (especially B.F. Skinner) applied this discovery to language learning and developed concepts about how children learned their mother tongue as a reflex.
And yet, one wonders at the creativity that children, especially the youngest language learners, display when learning the basics. By no means do children simply repeat whole phrases they have learned by heart for a specific situation; rather, they investigate the rules underlying what they hear with an astonishing degree of logic - to the point that they often produce sentences that are "too logical" such as "Daddy buyed my some candy." The water gets really hot for behaviorists when it comes to correcting children, who not only prove to be creative, but particularly resistant to corrections:
Adult: "You mean, 'Daddy bought me some candy.'"
Child: "Yea, this morning he buyed me some."
Chomsky was convinced that children could never receive enough input to produce the right sentence for every situation. It was obvious that they "generate" new sentences. To do so, they master grammar rules - even as toddlers - that no one consciously teaches them and adults themselves find difficult to learn.
How do we know so much with so little input?
The human brain is able to generate an infinite number of sentences. Chimpanzees, in contrast, can learn some "sentences" by heart, but not extrapolate. In addition, any child can learn any human language. A Japanese child growing up in Cairo will learn Arabic just as well as a Mexican child can learn English. Hence, Chomsky surmised, there must be a deep structure, a grammar for all human languages: Chomsky's Universal Grammar.
This is where the water gets hot for Chomsky: he can only study the "surface structures" of languages, i.e. spoken or written English, never the deep structure of the human language facility he is trying to describe. He thus has to look for evidence - traces - of the deep structure on the surface. That could look like this:
1.I went to kindergarten.
2.*To kindergarten went I.
The non-linguist will first notice that impossible sentences are also investigated, though marked with an asterisk. Cunning linguists claim that Chomsky's main contribution to linguistics is the asterisk, for his works are full of impossible sentences. Whatever the case, Chomsky shows that there is a grammar beyond semantics. I don't know what a "krob" is, but the plural is probably "krobs". Chomsky most famous example is:
3.Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.
Even in such a nonsensical sentence, we would avoid another syntax such as:
4.*Sleep colorless green furiously ideas.
Am I closer to the deep structure now? Possibly, if I can derive rules from such examples about why a particular transformation - such as passive and active sentences - works one way and not another. Perhaps we can find some common ground between many - maybe all - languages that suggests what the deep structure of human language looks like. Chomsky thus looks for traces of words that have been moved during transformation:
5.He's not the kind of guy with whom I would want to spend a lot of time with.
6.He's not the kind of guy with whom I would want to spend a lot of time.
7.He's not the kind of guy I would want to spend a lot of time with.
Sentence 5 may not be considered nice, but people say similar things more often than they admit. Sentence 6 is a bit stilted, while sentence 7 is probably most common. And since we feel the "with" at the end of sentence 5, we plug it back in.
Is the same true for all 6,000 languages worldwide? You could at least get a fine PhD applying Chomsky ideas to an endangered language in the rain forest. And even if we find traces of transformation in all languages, would that tell us what the deep structure is? Sounds like you've got a topic for your post-doc. Thus, once Chomsky had drawn everyone's attention by tossing behaviorism out of the linguistic department, he also did his colleagues the favor of giving them all something to research.
Today, Chomsky's deep structure is considered unprovable / irrefutable - at least by linguistic means - and hence unscientific. One day, neurologists may demonstrate or disprove Chomsky's deep structure, which one would expect to exist on some level. Until then, his search for the "universal grammar" will remain a crucial philosophical issue.
How do we know so little with so much input?
These theories - described very briefly above and also known as generative or transformational grammar - are what made Chomsky a guru among linguists. But outside this circle, hardly anyone understands the details of these theories. Anti-globalization activists who chance upon Chomsky's "Government and Binding" don't stand much of a chance finishing the book, which makes for serious linguistics reading. Among activists, Chomsky is known for his comprehensive political writings.
During the Vietnam War, Chomsky was a seemingly mild-mannered professor at the top of his profession. He does not see any connection himself between his academic writings and his political theories, and the Chomsky archive contains just as little of his linguistics as the website at his university does of his politics. But there is one connection: whereas Chomsky the linguist wants to know why people can do such much with so little information, Chomsky the activist wants to know why people do so little with all of the information they have:
The facts are known to all who care to know. The press, foreign and domestic, has presented documentation to refute each falsehood as it appears. But the power of the government's propaganda apparatus is such that the citizen who does not undertake a research project on the subject can hardly hope to confront government pronouncements with fact.From Chomskys first political article, published in 1967
Nowhere does Chomsky suggest that people are simply dumb. After all, as a linguist he found them to have an innate creativity. If people are born smart and still know so little, someone must be making them dumb.
On his 57th birthday, Chomsky was presented with an excellent opportunity to show how people are dumbed down: on 12/07/75, Indonesia invaded East Timor. The media in the US were full of reports about civilians being massacred - only they were on Pol Pot's Cambodia, not East Timor. The US media were interested in the crimes of a communist regime, not those of an ally.
Chomsky tried to get as much information as possible about East Timor to inform his fellow Americans, but it was of little avail. In an effort to be "objective" (something media outside the US generally do not strive to seem, incidentally), the media in the US cover "both sides of the story", the pros and the cons. In the end, the public is conned, for the media leave no space for a third or fourth side. At one point in the Vietnam war, the debate was about whether the US should just pull out right away or really let loose to get the war over quickly. In letter to the New York Times, Chomsky wrote that the US had no business telling the Vietnamese what kind of government they could or could not have in the first place, but this third angle was not found to be publishable. In the end, Chomsky had to entertain the question of where he got his information about East Timor if not from the very press he criticized. He answered: from human right groups, reports from abroad, and so on.
Sometimes, some of the ideas of people too famous to be simply ignored are considered too radical. The result is a curious type of historical misrepresentation. For instance, Mark Twain and Jack London have both gone into the collective memory of Americans as authors of books for young people, not (in Twai''s case) as an opponent of the colonization of the Philippines by the US or (in London's case) as an adamant socialist. And today, Martin Luther King Jr. must be turning in his grave to see conservatives misusing his call for a "color-blind" society to call for an end to affirmative action. Everyone knows MLK's " I have a dream", but who remembers what he said about US foreign policy during the Vietnam War? "The greatest purveyor of violence on the planet is my own government" - a statement that Chomsky could easily have said as well. Indeed, on the current Iraq war, Chomsky has said:
Nothing has been heard from the present incumbents -- with their alleged concern for Iraqi democracy -- to indicate that they have any regrets for their previous support for Saddam Hussein (or others like him, still continuing) nor have they shown any signs of contrition for having helped him develop weapons of mass destruction (WMD) when he really was a serious danger.... In December 2002, Jack Straw, then foreign minister, released a dossier of Saddam's crimes. It was drawn almost entirely from the period of firm US-UK support, a fact overlooked with the usual display of moral integrity.Noam Chomsky
In 1988, Chomsky coauthored Manufacturing Consent with Edward S. Herman - a brilliant critique of propaganda in capitalist democracies. As the authors explain, countries like the US need sophisticated propaganda more than dictatorships because a dictator can always resort to violence against his own people. Hence, propaganda there is so obvious, so grotesque, so incredible.
In contrast, propaganda has been perfected to such an extent in the US that no one even sees it as such anymore. For instance, the US often threatens to withdraw funds or promises to offer aid to get foreign governments to toe the US line. The US press expresses this policy of extortion as follows:
UPI reported Friday that Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was scheduled to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush next week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York to sign a slew of high-tech cooperation deals between the two countries. Diplomatic sources told UPI the deals may be part of U.S. efforts to offer India incentives to soften its opposition to sending troops to Iraq.Aus Washington Times
Elijah Wald recently explained why Iraqis are more skeptical about US propaganda than Americans themselves. The media have not exactly been holding Bush's feet to the fire; the possibility that that he may have lied is repeatedly ruled out from the outset in the mainstream media:
Why were so many people so sure that Saddam had WMD? In part, of course, because he did once have them-and until challenged by U.N. inspectors after the first Gulf War had tried to conceal them. There may, however, have been another reason: Saddam himself apparently thought he had them [sic!].... It may be that evidence of such programs will yet turn up. Or possibly Saddam may have been duped by his own scientists, who didn't tell him their work on WMD was not getting far.... Alternatively,... Saddam may have been trying to fool everyone into thinking that he had something he hadn't. But if the assumption that Saddam had deadly weapons looks, at least for now, to have been mistaken, it was to an extent understandable.
Here, Time Magazine comes up with excuses for Bush instead of pressing him to come up with some himself.
Chomsky is quick to explain that none of this is to be taken as a conspiracy: no one meets with editors behind closed doors to tell journalists what to report. No one has to, for reporters know that they can become rich and famous if they just remain "normal". The best example: Bob Woodward. As an unknown journalist with nothing to lose, he broke the Watergate story right under the noses of the established reporters. And he became famous. But today, no one is afraid of the investigative journalist of yore. On the contrary, Woodward is the only journalist who has been able to spend hours with the otherwise so secretive Bush, and in his book "Bush at War" critical questions are few and far between:
After my interview with President Bush the morning of Aug. 20, the president offered a tour of his ranch. We walked outside, and he climbed behind the wheel of his pickup truck and motioned me toward the passenger side. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice and a female Secret Service agent squeezed into the cramped passenger back seat. Barney, his Scottie dog, parked himself between us in the front and was soon in his master's lap.
Woodward does not give us the information that voters need. Rather, he entertains us. As Chomsky puts it, the US media see their audience as consumers, not citizens. Today, TV shows aim to get a large audience for advertisers, not inform citizens. It all started with soap operas, whose content was the product of the advertising industry trying to get housewives to sit in front of the TV when ads for detergent were broadcast. Almost fifty years later, even "news" channels like CNN and Fox do not sell news to their audience, but the audience to the advertisers.
The breadth and volume of Chomsky's political writings is overwhelming. One wonders how he managed to moonlight as a renowned professor of linguistics. And in covering all of the major issues - from civil rights to the women's movement, colonialization, and its successor: globalization - in the past few decades, he repeatedly stressed that they are all part of one central problem: "private ownership of resources".
The furious-minded, mild-mannered Chomsky long ago earned his retirement, but he is now sorely needed as a guru of globalization critics. His legacy is immense, but his greatest achievement is probably that the next generations of linguists and activists will continue to emerge from the large circle of his listeners.