Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved.
by Rob Kennedy
"I remember when I was about six, there was the standard fat kid who everybody made fun of," he recalls in the documentary Manufacturing Consent. "In the schoolyard, a bunch of kids started taunting him. One of the kids brought over his older brother, and he was going to beat him up.
"I remember going up to stand next to him. I did for a while, but then I got scared and went away. I was very much ashamed of it afterwards. I felt - I'll never do that again. That's a feeling that stuck with me. You should stick with the underdog."
Meet Noam Chomsky, renowned professor of linguistics, distinguished philosopher and ardent political activist, who will be speaking at the University of Calgary on Tuesday, September 22. The different facets of Chomsky's work reflect the core of a man who has not only dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge, but has fought for the underdog using what he knows. Never afraid to step on toes, Chomsky's forums are always educational - and often controversial.
Chomsky rose to academic prominence in the field of linguistics with his ground-breaking book Syntactic Structures in 1957. Associate professor Elizabeth Ritter of the linguistics' department at the University of Calgary knows what Chomsky has meant to the discipline. "In a certain sub-set of linguistics, he's considered the leader in the field. He really revolutionized the way we think about linguistics back in the '50s, and he's continued to carve the way for people," she says. "He's just a profoundly influential linguist."
Ritter, who studied under Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-'80s, says Chomsky continues to develop linguistic theory today. "Chomsky seems to set the agenda. At each point, there's really Chomsky, and everybody else."
Chomsky has rivaled his linguistics accomplishments with his political activism. Born in Philadelphia in 1928, his heritage has never impeded him from criticizing what he believes is one of the biggest threats to human sovereignty - the United States, in particular, its foreign and consumerist policies.
In much of his work he outlines the U.S. agenda to hold power over Third World nations by funding puppet governments and exploiting their resources for its own benefit. Using horrific examples of rape, torture and massacre, Chomsky identifies U.S.-backed dictatorships in areas such as Latin America and Asia. His footnotes come from sources on the scene - groups such as Amnesty International, The Red Cross and various church groups.
In the past 30 years he has written numerous books - including Turning The Tide, and The Political Economy of Human Rights with Edward S. Herman - depicting the struggles of oppressed peoples.
In 1967, Chomsky's protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War landed him in a jail cell with writer Norman Mailer, after their group marched to the Pentagon. He was listed on Richard Nixon's "enemy list" and was threatened with a lengthy prison sentence.
"Chomsky has been consistently committed to his beliefs, even when it's been something that endangered his situation," explains professor Robert Ware of the U of C's philosophy department. Ware met Chomsky in 1968 at MIT. He studied linguistics and was involved in several demonstrations alongside Chomsky.
"He was very politically motivated right from the beginning," says Ware. "He published an article when he was 12 or 13 about the Spanish Civil War and the injustices the anarchists were fighting against. Ever since then he has taken progressive positions."
The demands on Chomsky are astounding. He has telephone interviews booked a year in advance, and lectures scheduled all over the world. At 70 years old, his itinerary hasn't let up - neither has his struggle to empower the impoverished.
Chomsky describes himself as an anarchosyndicalist. He believes communities and individuals must be freed from the illegitimate power wielded by states and corporations, enabling them to create their own destines and satisfy their true needs.
Robert Barsky gets to the essence of Chomsky in his 1997 biography A Life Of Dissent. "He was a scientist who had rational ideas that had made him famous in his field, and a social conscience that gave him the courage and the confidence to recognize that rationality could also be employed to a greater social end: encouraging people to think for, and believe in, themselves."
Agreeing with the infamous article by the New York Times describing Chomsky, Ware says: "He is arguably the most important intellectual today. Chomsky has done more than anyone else in the 20th century to show that everyone can be critical and creative. He's quite the opposite of an elitist. He thinks that every human being has creative abilities."
Despite being intensely controversial, Chomsky's popularity is undeniable. "There is an enormous turn-out for his talks," says Ware. "Everywhere he goes halls are filled and there's people waiting outside to hear him. A lot of those people go away and start re-thinking what they're doing."
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