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Chomsky in 2011

Noam Chomsky (1928- ) is an American intellectual. Along with the likes of Cicero and Marx, he is one of the authors most cited by university professors. He has written many books on the nature of language and the evils of American power abroad.

In the 1950s he helped to make the study of language into something more like a real science. He studied English syntax – the rules English has for putting words together in a certain order. But he was not so much interested in English as in the nature of language itself and what it can tell us about the inner workings of the human mind.

He pushed beyond the mere rules of English to the deeper rules that govern every language in search of the universal grammar. Such a universal grammar, he said, could not be universal unless it was built into the human brain from birth.

This has set him against fashionable thought in two quarters.

First, against those who think they can build a computer that possesses more intelligence than man. Both computers and languages work by applying a set of rules. But the rules a computer can apply are much simpler than the sort that govern human language. That means that no matter how much memory or power you give a computer, it can never match the human mind. Its design is too simple for that.

Second, it put Chomsky against left-wing thinking about human nature. Although Chomsky himself is a leading intellectual on the left, he thinks that much of what makes us human is built into the brain – it is not largely a matter of upbringing and education as most on the left believe.

Chomsky is good at following a line of argument to the bitter end, using reason alone where most are guided by received wisdom instead.

He applies this style of thinking to everything, including foreign affairs and the use of American power abroad. He believes in democracy as well as world justice as the equality of nations: America should not do unto other countries what it does not want to have done unto itself. When America breaks this rule, as it often does, he calls it immoral.

Such talk delights those who hate America, like Hugo Chavez and Nasrallah.

Chomsky is not only against the war in Iraq, he was even against the American war in Afghanistan after 9/11. In the 1960s he was against the Vietnam war. He is also against Israel, even though he is Jewish.

He reads the New York Times, the Guardian and other such newspapers, but he reads between the lines, noting what is not being said as much as what is. He even has a propaganda model to account for what gets reported.

His writing style is dreadful. While it is the common style among American professors, you would think he would know better, with his understanding of language. Nevertheless, you are willing to make your way through it because his arguments are good, sometimes even surprising.

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