American linguist, philosopher, and political activist, Noam Chomsky (December 7, 1928) is one of the world’s most respected, though highly controversial thinkers. He regularly voices his views on various topics, including geopolitics and social issues.
Raphael Salkie was Professor of Linguistics at the University of Brighton, UK, for 40 years prior to his retirement in 2020, and the author of numerous books on language and Chomsky. His latest work is Simply Chomsky.
Simply Charly: You’ve had an abiding interest in the work of Noam Chomsky since your days as a university student, and especially since you’ve taught linguistics and translation at the University of Brighton for 40 years. But what’s even more striking is that you’ve also absorbed his political activist writings when most of your professional colleagues have ignored this aspect of his work. What is it about Chomsky that has fascinated you for so long?
Raphael Salkie: I encountered both aspects of Chomsky’s work in my first year as an undergraduate student. Chomsky’s political writing turned me from a well-meaning Liberal into a well-informed Libertarian Socialist. And I found that learning about Generative Grammar (not on the syllabus) with François Lecercle (then a lecteur, now a distinguished professor in Paris) was far more interesting than reading Gustave Flaubert and Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. I was looking for a path in life, and Chomsky’s mixture of linguistics and political activism looked like a good one. In the years since, I have admired how Chomsky holds firm to his beliefs in both areas, despite widespread hostility and misunderstanding.
SC: You recently released a book on Chomsky entitled Simply Chomsky, which more or less updates your previous work, The Chomsky Update, written 30 years ago. What has changed in this new book, and why another book on Chomsky?
RS: The older book was the first to deal with Chomsky’s politics, but it started with the linguistics and gave that more space. This time I have started with the politics and put greater emphasis on that part. The new book highlights two topics in Chomsky’s recent political activism—the threat of nuclear catastrophe, and the climate crisis—which have figured prominently in his books, talks, and interviews in the past decade. These topics were always there, but now they are central. For the linguistics chapters, I have concentrated on explaining the computational approach to language, and the implications for the evolution of language, as Chomsky has been doing for much of the past 20 years. The earlier book also looked at some critics of Chomsky’s linguistics, but now I agree with him that most of the criticism is ill-informed and not worth anyone’s time.
The best up-to-date book about Chomsky is the 2016 edition of Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals, by Neil Smith and Nicholas Allott. It’s excellent but about 450 pages long, and only one chapter at the end is about his politics. I wanted to put the politics first and to focus on Chomsky’s current concerns. I have long thought that a clear understanding of the basics of Chomsky’s thinking is the most important thing to communicate, and that’s what I have tried to do in this book. I was also determined to challenge some of the myths and lies about Chomsky, so I started the book with them.
SC: Who do you hope to reach with your new work?
RS: Primarily anyone who is interested in Chomsky’s politics. Simply Chomsky is intended to guide these people—hopefully, lots of them—in the foundations of his activism, so they can go on to read, and fit into the big picture, some of the many essays and interviews on www.chomsky.info, or read Chomsky’s books, or watch videos of him speaking on YouTube. Alongside them, any young person who comes across Chomsky’s name, or plans to study linguistics, will ideally find the language chapters a solid, basic introduction: they can then study Chomsky’s work in more depth if they want. I hope that these young people will also find the politics chapters interesting and perhaps surprising, so that they get involved in one of the options for change that I discuss in the last chapter on Chomsky’s legacy. That would please me greatly.
SC: Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition, the view that language is an innate faculty, that we are born with a set of rules about language in our minds, has been controversial since its inception. Can you give us a broad outline of Chomsky’s theory and where it stands today among other competing schools of thought?
RS: If you look at recent textbooks about first language acquisition, you will usually find Chomsky’s theory compared with hypotheses that emphasize the role of children’s experience and learning. That’s a little misleading. Even the fiercest critics of Chomsky agree that there is a genetic basis for acquisition, and Chomsky always emphasizes that acquiring a language involves learning along with genetic endowment (as well as with principles that are independent of language, such as computational efficiency). The key point for Chomsky is that the innate, genetic part can give us a window into the human mind—a unique way of investigating something that is distinctively human. Researchers who emphasize the role of children’s experience in language acquisition tend not to be interested in that—though, to be fair, their emphasis can derive from a desire to find useful ways to help young people with language problems. So the competing schools of thought are mostly about different interests and research questions.
SC: Chomsky also has controversial views about how human language evolved. Can you tell us about them?
RS: Chomsky speculates that an abrupt and small rewiring of the brain occurred between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago in one individual—either due to random mutation or because of the previous increase in brain size in hominids. The result was what he calls the “basic property” of human language—hierarchical structure, captured most economically by Chomsky’s operation called Merge. Most other theories about language evolution do not address the basic property, which means that they can be at best partial, and at worst irrelevant.
SC: Is it true that Chomsky’s work ignores meaning in language and language use?
RS: Chomsky says a lot about meaning. To pick a well-known example, he points out that “John is easy to please” and “John is eager to please” look similar, but differ in who is doing the pleasing—surely a question of meaning. Chomsky accepts that language use may be intrinsically interesting, but he thinks that it cannot be investigated rigorously in the way that form and meaning can.
SC: Since the late 1960s, Chomsky has been an outspoken critic of American hegemony and U.S. foreign policy. His stance against U.S. intervention in Vietnam, which he considered an act of terrorism, is well-known as is his position regarding the Israeli–Palestinian conflict among sundry others. Can you give us some insight into how Chomsky views America’s role outside its own borders?
RS: Chomsky often compares America to a mafia don: as long as his gang is making plenty of money, he prefers to use legitimate methods, but he won’t hesitate to use threats, bribery, blackmail, and violence when it suits him. And unlike the mafia, there are no cops for the U.S. to worry about.
SC: How does the U.S. narrow the debate and justify its involvement in the economies of foreign nations around the globe?
RS: One ingredient is the common assumption in mainstream U.S. media that American involvement is benign, and its goal is to support freedom, peace, and democracy, despite occasional “mistakes.” Other empires may have been greedy and vicious, but the U.S. is portrayed as kind and generous. This is an old trick: when the British controlled much of the globe, they tried to promote the same benevolent image. It was a myth then, and it remains so today.
Another strategy is to demonize people in other countries who challenge American involvement. Such people are “communists,” “terrorists,” “anti-Americans,” and “fanatics.”
On top of that, the leading mainstream media in the U.S. are owned by large corporations who have a vested interest in supporting American policy around the world. This “Propaganda Model” isn’t a “conspiracy theory”—it follows from the nature of the media. There may be tactical disagreements among the U.S. corporate elite, but the ultimate aim is always wealth and power.
SC: The invasion of Iraq was one of the most egregious overt acts of aggression against a foreign nation in recent memory. The pretext for the invasion was that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) which we and our allies had to remove so we could free the Iraqi people from the grip of their evil dictator Saddam Hussein and restore order to that region of the world. Not so, says Chomsky. The real reasons for the invasion were transparent. He queries: “Just ask yourself: If Iraq’s main exports were asparagus and tomatoes and the energy-producing region in the world were the South Pacific, do you think the United States would invade it?” What is your take on this military fiasco?
RS: Chomsky is absolutely right. The invasion of Iraq was due to naked greed, and justified by lies from political leaders who were not questioned in the leading media. The results have been disastrous for the region—but a success in showing the world what happens to countries that do not accept U.S. domination. No mafia don could wish for more.
SC: Another tool the U.S. uses to bend foreign nations to their will is by offering them enormous development loans from institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and World Bank. Saddled with crushing debts they have no possibility of repaying, such countries would then be forced to acquiesce to political pressure from the United States on a variety of issues. Can you give us some examples of this draconian policy?
RS: In 1990, Yemen refused to support the U.S. Security Council resolution calling for an attack on Iraq. The country was punished immediately: £12m in annual aid was withdrawn. US diplomats told Yemen’s UN ambassador that he’d just cast the most expensive vote of his career.
In 2003, it was the turn of Mexico, Chile, Cameroon, Pakistan, Angola, and Guinea to sit on the Security Council as the U.S. and the UK pushed for a full-scale invasion of Iraq. Angola was hoping for a U.S. aid package to be approved, and Chile was waiting for a free-trade agreement to be ratified. Huge pressure was applied—unsuccessfully, as it turned out. The invasion went ahead anyway: as I said earlier, mafia dons prefer legitimacy, but will pursue their interests no matter what.
SC: Is there anything in Chomsky’s work that you disagree with?
RS: Very little. I have never been convinced that Chomsky’s frequent references to early modern thinkers like René Descartes, Isaac Newton, and David Hume adds much to his linguistics. Not that he is wrong in what he says—in fact, his account of Newton’s unhappiness with the notion of gravity is superb. Anyway, I say almost nothing about that in the book. I should add, however, that Chomsky’s 2020 witness statement in support of WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange contains a long and very relevant quote from David Hume: see https://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2020/10/your-man-in-the-public-gallery-assange-hearing-day-21/.
I also worry that Chomsky’s references to the history of “science” do not pay enough attention to the connection between science and technology, as well as the wider society. Science flourishes when ideas can be freely exchanged, and when anyone can contribute—that is, in a real democracy. Science and technology would flourish even more if neither was devoted to developing new weapons.
I think antisemitism is a more important current problem in many parts of the world than Chomsky acknowledges. The mistreatment of Jews, just for being Jewish, makes them feel frightened, isolated, confused, and angry. Antisemitism has never gone away, and it has often been inflamed when ruling elites feel threatened, diverting protests into attacks on Jews. I entirely understand why Chomsky puts more emphasis on thinking about the Middle East, where the dangers are very real and the influence of the U.S. has been very damaging. I also know that Chomsky has received much vile abuse from the “mainstream” Jewish Community. I would love to talk with him about these issues—I would no doubt learn a lot!
SC: At age 91, Chomsky hasn’t stopped his brisk pace of work as he continues to travel, lecture, and write, having just released a new book on climate change called Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal. What do you feel will be Chomsky’s lasting legacy?
RS: Above all, Chomsky reminds us to think for ourselves, challenge illegitimate authority, and expose common prejudices. This applies to political action and in studying language.
His Propaganda Model is crucial in understanding how the media try to keep us isolated, frightened, passive, and confused.
For Chomsky the scientist, language is a window to the mind—a key to understanding a crucial part of our genetic human nature.
Most urgently, we need Chomsky’s calm, provocative, and unflinching voice to help us survive the climate crisis and the threat of nuclear holocaust.