Crossing the linguistics/activism divide in Noam Chomsky
March 29, 2012 4:28 PM   Subscribe

I remember reading an interview in which Noam Chomsky made connections between his work in linguistics and his later political activism. Can anyone locate that interview, or perhaps another good essay that connects those two components of his career?
posted by mecran01 to Education (4 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I happen to have an answer to this right at my fingertips because the issue was discussed in an Askme a couple days ago (link) and somebody did not like my answer about Chomsky and I didn't post it there because it did not really address that asker's question.

It does address yours!

This is not a question with a cut-and-dry answer. But, for example in this book the very first page is a question to Noam:

"do you see a link between your scientific activities and your political activities?"

And Noam says "There is no direct connection between my political activities and the work bearing on language structure". A pretty unequivocal statement, but there are some reasons that we can perhaps consider it a little disingenuous.

One is that the biggest message in his answer is that it doesn't take any technical expertise to make the political analysis that he does. He wants everybody to know that you don't have to be a world-class linguist to see through political chicanery; just look at the evidence with your own critical eye and powers of reason and draw your own conclusions.

Two is that the book which everyone reads is Manufacturing Consent. This is a book about propaganda, about language, by a professional linguist. It is hard for me to not consider that about as direct a connection as you can possibly make.

Three is that his employer, MIT, is a major client of the American Military Industrial Complex. A detailed biography of Chomsky is going to have one helluva long endnote listing all the CIA and NSA and USAF and so forth grants that he was a beneficiary of early in his career. So if he uses his science to prop up his politics that exposes him to accusations of pretty blatant hypocrisy.

So I don't think your question has a definite and easy answer. But it is a good question and I am very interested in the correct answer to it myself.
posted by bukvich at 8:11 PM on March 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

I imagine you saw this index of Chomsky interviews, but just in case I thought I'd point you to it, FWIW.
posted by forthright at 8:18 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

In the (excellent) documentary "Manufacturing Consent', there is a brief clip of an interview from the 1960s where a young Chomsky says that there may be 'tenuous points of contact' between the two sides of his work. I always remembered this because it was one of the few times he even broached the subject - and it was an elegant way to phrase things. I am sure he has worked out the relationship in his head by now but there are good reasons why he wouldn't want to mix the two in public.
posted by jmccw at 7:23 AM on March 30, 2012

John Cowan wrote on my blog just yesterday:
Here's Chomsky's response (he's made it several times in different forms and forums) to people who ask if his linguistics and his politics are intertwingled:

"There is a kind of a loose, abstract connection in the background. But if you look for practical connections, they're non-existent. I'd do the same political things if I was an algebraic topologist and somebody could have the same linguistic views as I do and be a fascist or a Stalinist. There'd be no contradiction."
I basically agree with him, though bukvich makes some good points, and it bugs the hell out of me that people who agree with his politics tend to take his (in my opinion, bullshit) linguistics on faith because hey, it's Chomsky, and he's Right.
posted by languagehat at 8:34 AM on March 30, 2012

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