Chomsky swims against mainstream

Views: The scholar is honored for his work in linguistics, but his political ideas get a cooler reception.

January 03, 1999|By Norman Solomon

NOAM CHOMSKY has been the world's most important linguist since he revolutionized the study of language 40 years ago. In the United States, mainstream news outlets acknowledge his enormous stature in the field of linguistics. But the media response to Chomsky's work in the realm of politics is a different story.

During this decade, millions of Americans have been drawn to the books and speeches of Chomsky the political analyst. His vast knowledge, clarity and strong commitment to humane values make Chomsky an appreciated speaker - and an energizing catalyst for social activism. At frequent appearances across the country, overflow audiences of thousands are routine.

News media in many foreign countries are eager for political discourse with Chomsky, who is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It's symbolic that he is often at the studios of WGBH in Boston - not to be interviewed on that public television station but to appear via satellite on broadcasts abroad.

For the most part, Chomsky has remained off the radar screen of U.S. mass media. With typical discretion, the nightly ``NewsHour'' program anchored by Jim Lehrer, on national PBS television, has interviewed Chomsky just once in 23 years.

Chomsky often arouses discomfort. That's fitting, says David Barsamian, an independent radio producer who has interviewed him many times.

``He's on the cutting edge - he's pushing the envelope of permissible thought,'' says Barsamian. ``He's challenging us to examine and re-examine our assumptions. He's like an avant-garde musician, exploring and expanding the Some of America's eminent journalists have derided Chomsky's assertion that the mass media disseminate propaganda. Asked about Chomsky's analysis, Jeff Greenfield, who was then with ABC said: ``Some of that stuff looks to me like it's from Neptune.'' Greenfield added that Chomsky's ``notions about the limits of debate in this country'' are ``absolutely wacko.''

Chomsky is an unwavering foe of authoritarian rule - whether by governments or corporations. During the past three decades, dozens of Chomsky's books have exposed the undemocratic - and sometimes brutal - character of institutions revered by the American press.

His books, articles and speeches about the Middle East infuriate those who believe that the Israeli government can do little wrong. With meticulous documentation, Chomsky has denounced Israel's treatment of Palestinians and the touted ``peace process.'' (Chomsky, who is Jewish, taught Hebrew early in his life. He and his wife Carol - who both lived on a kibbutz for six weeks in 1953 - had considered moving to Israel.)

Chomsky's approach to civil liberties has rankled people across the political spectrum. He sees Marxist-Leninist ideology as totalitarian, and he has been a steadfast foe of constraints on public debate in American society. His vehement support of absolute freedom of expression has earned him fierce denunciations - which peaked nearly 20 years ago, when he defended the free-speech rights of a French denier of the Holocaust.

``I simply do not agree that the state, or any other system of organized power and violence, should have the authority to determine what people think or say,'' Chomsky explains. ``If the state is granted the power to shut me up, my counter argument is not that what I am saying might be valuable. That would be a contemptible position, in my view.'' The best position, Chomsky says, is the defense of free speech.

Public radio stations in many regions, except the East Coast, air Chomsky interviews and speeches. But decision-makers at National Public Radio News - ostensibly devoted to depth and breadth - have avoided Chomsky like the plague. The number of times that he has been on ``Morning Edition'' or ``All Things Considered'' during the last quarter-century can be counted on one hand.

In a letter to the public-broadcasting newspaper Current four years ago, ``All Things Considered'' host Robert Siegel was remarkably dismissive - sniffing that Chomsky ``evidently enjoys a small, avid, and largely academic audience who seem to be persuaded that the tangible world of politics is all the result of delusion, false consciousness and media manipulation.''

When I asked Siegel for clarification recently, he mentioned that he had interviewed Chomsky on ``All Things Considered'' once in 1988. ``I should assure you that there are people of varied political stripes who believe they should be on NPR and are unfairly excluded,'' Siegel added. ``The editor in chief of the New Republic, no political bedfellow of Professor Chomsky, has expressed himself in this regard.''

But NPR News programs routinely present views in line with the editorial outlook of the New Republic. The airing of political perspectives akin to Chomksy's, however, is rare indeed. That's a key point: Avoidance of Chomsky is significant, because it reflects media biases that operate across the board.

While Chomsky is out of step with the media powers-that-be, his efforts are in sync with broad movements for social justice throughout the world. They face massive obstacles, while corporate power - boosted by economic globalization - continues to consolidate itself.

At 70, Chomsky is working as hard as ever. No armchair thinker, he has long been contemptuous of ``intellectuals posturing before one another.'' Human freedoms, he notes, are ``never a gift from above.'' In the real world, ``protection against tyranny comes from struggle.''

At the close of his latest book, ``The Common Good,'' Chomsky comments on the struggles for human rights and democracy: ``We've had plenty of successes; they're cumulative, and they lead us to new peaks to climb. We've also had plenty of failures. Nobody ever said it was going to be easy.''

Norman Solomon is the co-author of ``Wizards of Media Oz: Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News.''

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