Happy Birthday: Noam Chomsky at 88

Noam Chomsky 1977Today is Noam Chomsky’s 88th birthday. It’s remarkable to see him these days. We know that the human brain deteriorates distinctly around the age of 70. Yet Chomsky’s certainly doesn’t seem to have. Now part of this is no doubt that he was operating at such a high level before that he’s still sailing above most of us.

Noam Chomsky vs William Buckley

But it’s not that I don’t see it. I don’t think he is quite as quick as he was in 1969. Watch him debating William F Buckley. He was 40 years old at that time. It’s interesting in that Chomsky flails Buckley effortlessly. But it is clear that Buckley (no intellectual slouch) is working very hard and losing to a man who seems to be preoccupied with something else — perhaps a linguistics question that came up at the graduate seminar that day. It’s only because of Chomsky’s passive speaking style that conservatives think of this confrontation as something of a tie rather than an embarrassing defeat, which it obviously was.

After all these years, this exchange is well worth watching. It isn’t just because nothing has changed in a categorical sense. It’s also just wondrous to watch Chomsky at the peak of his powers (full debate):

I can’t speak to Chomsky’s work on linguistics. The basics of it are clear. I even put “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” into my most recent book to make a point about the lack of editing from certain small presses. But that is a subject for another time. For the last fifty years, Chomsky has been known for his political work. And it is the reason that he’s been important in my life.

Chomsky at 88

It is still amazing to listen to him or, even better, read him. He’s probably been the biggest influence on my thinking about foreign affairs. That has, in turn, changed how I’ve thought about domestic matters. But this interview he did with Mehdi Hasan is probably the most insightful thing I’ve seen about the post-Trump world. Given that I’ve highlighted it twice already, you’ve probably seen it. But if not, you really should take the time.

The down side of Noam Chomsky is that he can make you feel hopeless. His insights are so clear that it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that those in power know. That’s what is so devastating in the Buckley interview: that it shows that Buckley understands what Chomsky is talking about, but that he just doesn’t care because all the pain that the country causes results in much better lives for people like Buckley — and let’s be honest: Chomsky and me as well.

Chomsky Still Has Much to Teach

The one thing that I can get almost no one to understand is the biggest thing that I learned from Chomsky: that all the stuff we tell ourselves about being a force for good in the world is a lie. That’s not to say that we kill innocent children for pleasure. But it is to say that killing innocent children would only get in the way of our policies if it might create an unacceptable level of blow-back.

The world — my world — is a far greater place because Noam Chomsky is in it. And even at 88 years old, he continues to improve it. I hope I can wish him many more happy birthdays.

5 thoughts on “Happy Birthday: Noam Chomsky at 88

  1. I’d have to agree about “force for good” being the most important lesson for me, as well. It was certainly the hardest to accept. What probably won me over were his repeated citations of media outlets in other powerful nations. They all say “we don’t want war, we want peace, but we must fight this war to save the innocent and our future,” etc. I suppose that’s because a near-universal hatred of cruelty mixes with a near-universal wish to feel group pride. That “if we show weakness, we invite future attacks” stuff has probably been around since swords.

    On the question of “do they know,” my mind is unclear. I suspect there are some in power who honestly believe they are doing good, even as their policies harm many. But I know enough Dr. Noam to imagine how he’d respond to that! “Such attitudes, even if sincerely held, are so unconcerned with real-life consequences that they do not deserve to be considered seriously.” Or words to that effect …

  2. The whole debate is on youtube actually (not just part). It is funny but whenever I watch Firing Line I cannot help but think of Robin Williams…

    • Yeah … whenever Pat Robertson steps out of his crypt, I think of Al Franken’s parody of him in the 1990s. Sometimes comedians get at a deeper truth.

      • Interesting comment.

        I think it was Marshall Mcluhan who declared that all comedians are engaged in some form of protest (by the very nature of the art of comedy). And I believe that was said in the context of the development of the twentieth century stand up comedian…

        Then again Mcluhan always went back to the ancient Greeks to get to the root of a more “modern” term or even an idea. So I am thinking that is ultimately what inpired him to say that. His fixation with the etymological I guess.

        Such an odd bird that Marshall Mcluhan.

        • Sad to say, I never read McLuhan — only criticisms of his work, and that’s not fair! I should definitely get to the originals one of these days! So little time, so much to know …

          He did provide one of my favorite Woody Allen jokes ever!


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