Thursday, June 6, 2013

Noam Chomsky

Of course, you could just read Noam Chomsky's wikipedia page and get a more factual account of his life. But this is a blog and it's not meant to be absolutely factual, rigorous, and devoid of errors. This is my account, maybe riddled with the inaccuracies that (very normally) affect memory over time and the partiality of my opinions.



When I was 18, I left my home for being an intern in a high-school kind of far away. Being an intern gives you time to read... even after you've met the friends with whom you'll spend most evenings playing role-playing games. I encountered Noam Chomsky's name in a book about artificial intelligence. Indeed, Noam had been one of the pioneers (alongside Marvin Minsky, for example) who laid the first stones of the road towards creating computerized intelligence. These first steps took place a surprisingly long time ago... in the 1950s.

Then I forgot.

Then I finished my studies and as I started being interested in the news and politics and stuffs... I saw his name popping up again around a conversation about the wars waged by USA in Afghanistan or Iraq. Or maybe it was about Israel not giving a damn about international laws and treaties, and running a military operation, killing a handful of civilians and then spewing out a propaganda campaign with faked videos on Youtube. And I was surprised. Because I knew Chomsky's name as being associated to computer science. Not political advocacy.

And then I started broadening my horizons, educating myself by reading books, watching conferences available on Youtube, listening to audiobooks. And there he was again! A rather young Noam Chomsky being interviewed about some of his most important work: generative grammar. And he explained how our brains are naturally wired for a certain sort of grammar, and that explains how languages may have emerged among different humanoid groups with very similar structures: a subject, a verb, a complement.

And on a forum on the Internet, during a written debate, I heard about the notion of "manufacturing consent", a political ploy to influence the masses into adopting certain behaviors or thoughts, by feeding them skewed information, false dilemmas and false equivalencies, rhetoric, by giving them false choices between a democratic candidate who's sold to the rich or a republican candidate who's also sold to the rich. So I looked up this notion of "manufacturing consent", and there it was again: Noam Chomsky was the one who put words on a form of manipulation that was not so new.

At this point, I became (more) curious. Who was this superman of the intellect? Who was this guy, qualified to intervene in computer science, linguistics, politics, and with one hell of a broad knowledge of the political history of the world through the 20th century? Well, he deserves an incredible amount of credit. Raised in a Jewish family in the USA, he learned English and Yiddish and showed early signs of high intellectual aptitude. Some essay he's written when he was 12 would put to shame half of the adult population. Fast forward: he became a professor of linguistics at MIT and his command of many languages allowed him to read many newspapers from many countries. From his own testimony, he's declared reading some 80 different publications. Since the Vietnam war, Chomsky became a peace-activist and political activist speaking in favor of labor unions and against the imperialism of the USA and other powerful nations.

Intellectually and politically, the following figures can be associated to Noam Chomsky: John Pilger, Bertrand Russel, Stephane Hessel, Julian Assange, Jeremy Scahill, Amy Goodman, Michael Moore, Steven Pinker, Daniel Ellsberg, Lawrence Lessig and of course I'm forgetting a lot of others. Chomsky has written over 100 books and given uncountable conferences on either politics or academic subjects.

Conclusion:

Noam Chomsky is one of the most influential intellectuals of the 20th and 21st centuries. Being one of the most cited sources of all time, he earned this phrase in The Pennsylvania Gazette by Hugues Samuel: "According to a recent survey by the Institute for Scientific Information, only Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, and Freud are cited more often in academic journals than Chomsky, who edges out Hegel and Cicero". So I highly recommend you to head to Youtube and look for anything you can find on Chomsky. Being able to still hear what he has to say in the political and social context that he has known (unlike the commentators of the past) is precious. Huge props to him!

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