Golden Gater Online

April 27, 1995

Chomsky tenacious about controversy:

Linguist talks about morality, media, God

Editors note: This is Part II of a two-part series. Part I focused on Noam Chomsky's controversial political beliefs.

by Bonnie Dhall

According to noted linguist and political critic, Noam Chomsky, the capitalistic system in the U.S. violates the creativity in human beings, making them tools of production.

"What he does in linguistics is exactly what he campaigns against in politics," said George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley. Lakoff, who has also made it into the textbooks for his work in the field, said Chomsky is known as one of the biggest dictators of all within the academic world.

"He feeds off people. He doesn't allow anyone to disagree with him. I was in the first generation of that," said Lakoff, who said he did a lot of the early work on Chomsky's theory.

Lakoff said Chomsky has not contributed anything important to the field of linguistics for the last 30 years.

Chomsky said he just sent a new book to press called "The Minimalist Program." Asked to describe it in simple terms he said he couldn't, but he would try.

"It's about an effort which is now being undertaken more or less for the first time, to try to demonstrate that the properties of the language faculties of the mind are minimal in a certain sense," Chomsky said. "In other words, they are the best that could happen under certain fixed external conditions which are given independently. If that's true, or to the extent that it's true, the language faculty of the brain is something completely unique in the biological world, much more like things that you find in the inorganic world," Chomsky said.

If this admittedly difficult concept still isn't clear there is always the book which Chomsky said is due out around September.

"It's a book I wrote myself," said Chomsky. "But in the sciences nothing is done by oneself. Everything is cooperative work."

Still, Lakoff said he was not one of a group of UC Berkeley professors who signed a protest letter when Chomsky spoke in Berkeley about two years ago.

The protest was in response to an opinion Chomsky wrote on freedom of speech in l980 which was added to a book written by Robert Faurisson. Faurisson has argued that there is no verifiable truth on the gas chambers used in the Holocaust.

Chomsky, the son of a noted Hebrew scholar, said that freedom of speech is one of the things he values the most. "I'd defend the freedom of speech for people like Henry Kissinger, who doesn't just deny atrocities, he carries them out," Chomsky said.

Even today Chomsky takes a lot of flack over the Faurisson issue. "I just do what I think is right," Chomsky said. "I don't care what flack there is."

Chomsky said the Berkeley protest letter was sent to some bookstores who participated in organizing his talks in the Bay Area, condemning them for allowing him to speak. "Well," Chomsky said, "that made me feel good. Now that doesn't necessarily prove that what I was saying was the right kind of thing, but it's a good indication."

Chomsky said he believes that "if you are not offending people who ought to be offended, you're doing something wrong." For example, he said "if I was asked by the New York Times to write op-eds regularly, I'd think I'm probably doing something wrong, because obviously they would be seeing what I'm doing as supportive to the power systems that they try to defend. And that's not what I would like to be doing."

Chomsky is known for his criticism of the media as a propaganda tool to push the government's agenda. He and co-author Edward S. Herman in their book called "Manufacturing Consent" singled out the New York Times coverage of the Cambodia and East Timor crises, arguing persuasively that the latter was down played because U.S. interests were at stake. The movie of the same name makes a more effective point of this than the book, when the unrolling of l,l75 index column inches of the Cambodian crisis New York Times coverage is shown beside the 70 inches for East Timor.

Chomsky said the difference between thinking and action was the difference between being a moral human being and not being a moral human being.

"For example," said Chomsky explaining his own activism, "suppose you see a crime being committed across the street, someone being beaten or raped or something or other. If you just sit and think, oh that's bad, I mean if you think nothing, you're not a human being at all. If you think that's bad, well you have maybe a shred of humanity, but unless you do something about it, you're not a moral agent."

Asked if he believed in God, Chomsky asked back, "Suppose somebody says I believe in God, what are they believing in? What is it that they're believing in? I can't answer it because I don't understand the question.

"We all believe when we can't help believing that there's a world out there that we are inside of. You believe it, I believe it, Einstein believed it. If there is a world out there that we're inside of and we're part of it, there are truths about that world whether we can find them or not and that's the end of the story," Chomsky said. "We may not be able to find the truths about the world, but if it's there, there are truths about it. Maybe they're not even explainable in our language."

"Chomsky is a fascinating person. I like his ideas," said Lee Sprague, a junior at SF State, who is a member of the Student Kouncil of Inter-Tribal Nations (SKINS).

"I'd pay to see him speak," Sprague said.

Scott Davey, associate director of AS Performing Arts said SF State has been "dying to get Chomsky on campus for a couple of years.

"We almost had him, but Berkeley got him instead two years ago," Davey said.