- Professor of linguistics, prolific pamphleteer, highly influential leftist
- Known for his extreme views (e.g., that America is worse than Nazi Germany)
- “The so-called War on Terror is pure hypocrisy, virtually without exception”
Born to Jewish parents in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on December 7, 1928, Noam Chomsky has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1955. In 1961 he was appointed full Professor in MIT's Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics (now the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy). From 1966 to 1976 he held the Ferrari P. Ward Professorship of Modern Languages and Linguistics. In 1976 he was appointed Institute Professor.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Professor Chomsky is “the most cited living author” and ranks just below Plato and Sigmund Freud among the most cited authors of all time. While acknowledging that he is reviled in some quarters for his ferocious anti-Americanism, a recent New Yorker profile calls Chomsky “one of the greatest minds of the 20th century.”
Chomsky is without question the most politically influential living academic among other academics and their students. He is promoted by rock groups such as Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam at their concerts the way the Beatles once promoted the Guru Maharaji, with the performers solemnly reading excerpts from his work in between sets and urging their followers to read him too. The devotion of Chomsky’s followers is summarized by radio producer David Barsamian, who describes the master’s effulgence in openly religious terms: "He is for many of us our rabbi, our preacher, our rinpoche, our sensei."
Manufacturing Consent, a documentary adapted from one of Chomsky’s books with the same title, has achieved the status of an underground classic in university film festivals. And at the climactic moment in the Academy Award-winning Good Will Hunting, the genius-janitor, played by Matt Damon, vanquishes the incorrect thinking of a group of sophomoric college students with a fiery speech quoting Professor Chomsky on the illicit nature of American power.
Any analysis of Chomsky must address linguistics, the field he remade so thoroughly by his scholarly work of the late 1950s that he was often compared to Einstein and other paradigm shifters. Those who admire this achievement but not his politics are at pains to explain what they take to be a disjunction between his work in linguistics and his sociopolitical ideas. They see the former as so brilliant and compelling as to be unarguable -- in all a massive scientific achievement -- and the latter as so venomous and counter-factual as to be emotionally disturbing.
Paul Postal and Robert Levine, linguists who have known and worked with Chomsky, take the view that the two aspects of his life’s work in fact manifest the same key properties: "a deep disregard of, and contempt for, the truth; a monumental disdain for standards of inquiry; a relentless strain of self-promotion; notable descents into incoherence; and a penchant for verbally abusing those who disagree with him."
Chomsky’s work in linguistics allowed him to make a transition from the university to the public arena in the mid-1960s and to be taken seriously as a critic of the war in Vietnam. In a series of influential articles that appeared in the New York Review of Books and other publications, he distinguished himself by the cold intellectual ferocity of his attacks on American policy. Although a generation older than most members of the New Left, he shared the latter's eagerness to romanticize the Third World.
Chomsky was one of the chief deniers of the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, which took place in the wake of the Communist victory and American withdrawal from Indochina. He directed vitriolic attacks towards the reporters and witnesses who testified to the human catastrophe that was taking place there. Initially, Chomsky tried to minimize the deaths (a “few thousand”) and compared those killed by Pol Pot and his followers to the collaborators who had been executed by resistance movements in Europe at the end of World War II. By 1980, however, it was no longer possible to deny that some 2 million of Cambodia's 7.8 million people had perished at the hands of the Communists. But Professor Chomsky continued to deny the genocide, proposing that the underlying problem may have been a failure of the rice crop. As late as 1988, Chomsky returned to the subject and insisted that whatever had happened in Cambodia, the U.S. was to blame.
This conclusion is the principal theme of what may be loosely termed Chomsky's intellectual oeuvre: Whatever evil exists in the world, the United States is to blame. His intellectual obsession is America and its “grand strategy of world domination.” In 1967 Professor Chomsky wrote that America “needed a kind of denazification.” The Third Reich has provided him with his central metaphor for his own country ever since.
The long conflict with the Soviets and the fact that it was fought out primarily in the Third World allowed Chomsky to elaborate on his analogy with the Nazis and to spin his narrative on the evils of American power. The Soviet dictatorship was not only "morally equivalent" to democratic America, in Chomsky’s view, but actually better because it was less powerful. The chief sin of Stalinism in his eyes was not the murder of millions, but the fact that he had given socialism a bad name.
Professor Chomsky has denounced every U.S. President from Woodrow Wilson and FDR to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as the front men in “four-year dictatorships” by a ruling class. In his view, the U.S., led by a series of lesser Hitlers, picked up where the Nazis left off after they were defeated in 1945. According to Chomsky, a case could be made for impeaching every President since World War II because “they’ve all been either outright war criminals or involved in serious war crimes.”
Chomsky also detests the state of Israel, a country he regards as playing the role of Little Satan to the American Great Satan and functioning strategically as an “offshore military and technology base for the United States.”
According to the website Stand4Facts.org, Chomsky has made the following statements about Israel, Jews, and the Holocaust:
- “I see no anti-Semitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers, or even denial of the holocaust. Nor would there be anti-Semitic implications, per se, in the claim that the holocaust (whether one believes it took place or not) is being exploited, viciously so, by apologists for Israeli repression and violence.”
- “I objected to the founding of Israel as a Jewish state. I don't think a Jewish or Christian or Islamic state is a proper concept. I would object to the United States as a Christian state.”
- Israel is “a state based on the principle of discrimination. There is no other way for a state with non-Jewish citizens to remain a Jewish state…”
- “Israel is virtually a U.S. military base, an offshoot of the U.S. military system.”
- “There are a great many horrible regimes in the world. To take just one, the world's longest military occupation. There's little doubt that those under the military occupation would be much better off if the occupation were terminated. Does it follow that we should bomb Tel Aviv?”
- “Of course [suicide bombers are] terrorists and there's been Palestinian terrorism all the way through. I have always opposed it….But it's very small as compared with the U.S.-backed Israeli terrorism.”
- “I mean you’d have to go back to the worst days of the American South to know what it’s been like for the Palestinians in the occupied territories.”
- “What this wall [separation barrier] is really doing is…helping turn Palestinian communities into dungeons, next to which the bantustans of South Africa look like symbols of freedom, sovereignty and self-determination.”
Of a pattern with this animus toward Israel is Chomsky’s involvement with neo-Nazis and Holocaust revisionism. This saga began in 1980 with Chomsky’s support of Robert Faurisson, a French anti-Semite who was fired by the University of Lyon for his hate-filled screeds. (“The alleged Hitlerite gas chambers and the alleged genocide of the Jews form one and the same historical lie,” Faurisson wrote.) Chomsky penned a preface to a book by Faurisson, explaining that the latter was an “apolitical liberal” whose work was based on “extensive historical research” and contained “no hint of anti-Semitic implications.”
In the post-9/11 political ferment, Professor Chomsky’s reputation, which had suffered because of his support of Pol Pot and his dalliance with figures like Faurisson, was revived by the anti-war Left. His following has grown, particularly in Europe and Asia, where his views have helped inform an inchoate anti-Americanism, and on the university campus, where divesting from Israel (a cause he has championed) and attacks against the War on Terror are de rigueur.
In May 2006, Chomsky made the following comments about Hezbollah and Hamas:
- "The United States considers Hizbullah a terrorist organization, but the term terrorism is used by the great powers simply to refer to forms of violence of which they disapprove. So the U.S. was of course supporting the Israeli invasions and occupation of southern Lebanon. Hizbullah was instrumental in driving them out, so for that reason they are a terrorist organization."
- "Personally I'm very much opposed to Hamas' policies in almost every respect. However, we should recognize that the policies of Hamas are more forthcoming and more conducive to a peaceful settlement than those of the United States or Israel. So to repeat: the policies, in my view, are unacceptable, but preferable to the policies of the United States and Israel."
- "Hamas has called for a long-term indefinite truce on the international border. There is a long-standing international consensus that goes back over thirty years that there should be a two-state political settlement on the international border, the pre-June 1967 border, with minor and mutual modifications. That's the official phrase. Hamas is willing to accept that as a long-term truce. The United States and Israel are unwilling even to consider it."
- "The demand on Hamas by the United States and the European Union and Israel... The demand is first that they recognize the State of Israel. Actually, that they recognize its right to exist. Well, Israel and the U.S. certainly don't recognize the right of Palestine to exist, nor recognize any state of Palestine. In fact, they have been acting consistently to undermine any such possibility. The second condition is that Hamas must renounce violence. Israel and the United States certainly do not renounce violence. The third condition is that Hamas accept international agreements. The United States and Israel reject international agreements."
- "So, though the policies of Hamas are, again in my view, unacceptable, they happen to be closer to the international consensus on a political peaceful settlement than those of their antagonists, and it's a reflection of the power of the imperial states - the United States and Europe - that they are able to shift the framework, so that the problem appears to be Hamas' policies, and not the more extreme policies of the United States and Israel."
Professor Chomsky’s 2003 book, Hegemony or Survival, casts America as a threat to global survival. The New York Times and Washington Post both treated Hegemony and Survival as a significant work, with Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power writing in the Times that Chomsky’s book was “sobering and instructive.
Chomsky dismisses the atrocity of 9/11 as one that was dwarfed in magnitude by Bill Clinton’s 1998 missile attack on a factory in the Sudan following the bombings of two U.S. embassies by al Qaeda, in which no one was injured.
Telling an MIT audience of 2,000 that the U.S. military response against the terrorists in Afghanistan was a calculated “genocide” that would cause the deaths of 3 to 4 million Afghanis, Chomsky denounced America as “the world’s greatest terrorist state.” He also traveled to the Muslim world to repeat the charges of U.S. genocide and terror to millions in Islamabad and New Delhi. (None of Chomsky’s predictions of “genocide” and “famine” came to pass in Afghanistan, thanks to $350 million in food shipments supplied by the United States. Chomsky himself was aware of these shipments even as he made his accusations.)
Chomsky sees the 9/11 attacks as a turning point in history when the guns that were historically trained on the Third World by imperialist powers like America, were turned around. He sees this as a positive development, because in Professor Chomsky’s eyes unless American “hegemony” is destroyed, the world faces a grim future.
In June 2004 Chomsky was a guest speaker at an International Socialist Organization event, along with such notables as Marian Wright Edelman, Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg, Tom Hayden, and Alice Walker.
In September 2007, Chomsky was praised by Osama bin Laden as "one of the most capable" citizens of the United States.
In 2010, Chomsky lauded Bradley Manning, the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst who had stolen and distributed, to the Julian Assange-founded website WikiLeaks, hundreds of thousands of classified documents containing sensitive information about the American government and its military. According to Chomsky, Manning was a man of "courage" and "integrity." At one time, WikiLeaks listed Noam Chomsky as a volunteer administrator of its Facebook page, although Chomsky denied the association.
After U.S. Navy SEALs found and killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on May 1, 2011, Chomsky said:
"It’s increasingly clear that the operation was a planned assassination, multiply violating elementary norms of international law. There appears to have been no attempt to apprehend the unarmed victim ...
"Less is said about Pakistani anger that the U.S. invaded their territory to carry out a political assassination. Anti-American fervor is already very high in Pakistan, and these events are likely to exacerbate it. The decision to dump the body at sea is already, predictably, provoking both anger and skepticism in much of the Muslim world.
"We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. Uncontroversially, his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a 'suspect' but uncontroversially the 'decider' who gave the orders to commit the 'supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole' [quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal] for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.
"Same with the name, Operation Geronimo. The imperial mentality is so profound, throughout western society, that no one can perceive that they are glorifying bin Laden by identifying him with courageous resistance against genocidal invaders."
In May 2013, Chomsky revisited the theme of America's allegedly unjust killing of bin Laden, when he told interviewer Amy Goodman:
"I was saying that I’ve written plenty of unpopular articles, and one of the most unpopular had to do with the murder, not killing, of Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden was a suspect.... In fact, personally, I don’t have any doubt that he was responsible [for 9/11], but my personal opinion is nothing that stands up in a court of law. You have to have evidence. You have to have a trial, a serious trial. And it was pretty clear that the U.S. government didn’t want that. He was captured, apprehended, by, you know, the most skilled masters of war—to use the Somali warlord’s expression—that exist in the world, 80 of them, I think. He was defenseless.... [I]t was a criminal—in my view, just total—a complete criminal act. No justification."
In October 2013, Chomsky denounced the U.S. "drone campaign" that targets terrorists overseas with deadly missiles, as "by far the biggest terrorist campaign in the world." "It’s never described that way," added Chomsky, "but of course, [that is] what it is. Furthermore, it’s a terrorist-generating campaign. From the highest levels and the most respected sources, it’s recognized that the drone attacks create potential terrorists on quite a substantial scale. So therefore, it is a threat to U.S. security, quite apart from being a terrorist campaign in itself."
Chomsky is a longtime member of both the Democratic Socialists of America and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He is also a board of advisors member with the Free Gaza Movement. And he an advisory editor for Against the Current, a bimonthly magazine produced by Solidarity, featuring articles by members as well as revolutionary activists and intellectuals from social movements around the world.
In a May 2017 interview with the BBC, Chomsky said that the modern-day Republican Party is worse than the Islamic terrorist organization ISIS, asking rhetorically: “Is ISIS dedicated to trying to destroy the prospects for organized human existence?” “What does it mean to say not only are we not doing anything about climate change" he added, "but we’re trying to accelerate the race to the precipice? It doesn’t matter whether they genuinely believe it or not if the consequence of that is, ‘let’s use more fossil fuels, let’s refuse to subsidize developing countries, let’s eliminate regulations that reduce greenhouse gases.’ If that’s the consequence, that’s extremely dangerous.” In addition, Chomsky stated that Donald Trump's recent victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election was fueled by “white supremacy.”
Much of this profile is adapted from the Introduction to the book, The Anti-Chomsky Reader, which is edited by Peter Collier and David Horowitz. Peter Collier is the author of that Introduction.