Chomsky’s Appeal: Speaking Scientifically to the Power of Truth

Chomsky speaks to a packed auditorium of rapt listeners at Academia Sinica last week. Photo: Trista di Genova, The Wild East
Chomsky speaks to a packed auditorium of rapt listeners at Academia Sinica last week. Photo: Trista di Genova, The Wild East

By DC Rapier for The Wild East Magazine

It is often said that Noam Chomsky, emeritus professor of MIT’s Institute of Linguistics and Philosophy, ‘speaks truth to power’, meaning he has the courage (or temerity, depending on one’s point of view) to challenge the powers-that-be with straight talk. He himself contends that the label, though succinct as a slogan, is neither appropriate nor accurate.

In an interview with David Tresilian in Paris for the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram Chomsky stated,
”First of all, you don’t have to speak truth to power, because they know it already. And secondly, you don’t speak truth to anybody, that’s too arrogant. What you do is join with people and try to find the truth, so you listen to them and tell them what you think and so on, and you try to encourage people to think for themselves. The ones you are concerned with are the victims, not the powerful, so the slogan ought to be to engage with the powerless and help them and help yourself to find the truth. It’s not an easy slogan to formulate in five words, but I think it’s the right one.” [Al-Ahram weekly on-line international edition, 3 – 9 June 2010 Issue No. 1001]

Professor Chomsky’s adherence to this credo was apparent at the talk he gave at Academia Sinica on August 9 in Taipei. Throughout his 90-minute speech, entitled ‘Contours of World Orders; Continuities and Changes’ and during the subsequent, all-too-brief Q & A session, he spoke with conviction, the conviction of a seasoned crusader; but, it must be emphatically noted, without the prideful panoply or oratorical arrogance of one whose desire is conquest or conversion.

Chomsky is no firebrand; he speaks not with the passion of a proselytizer. Rather, he speaks with the scholarly, even-toned logic of one who hopes to reveal a pathway to truth.

“I’m not trying to convert, but to inform. I don’t want people to believe me, any more than they should believe the party line I’m criticizing – academic authority, the media, the overt state propagandists, or whatever. In talks and in print, I try to stress what I think is true: that with a little willingness to explore and use one’s mind, it is possible to discover a good deal about the social and political world that is generally hidden. I feel that I’ve achieved something if people are encouraged to take up this challenge and learn for themselves.” (Noam Chomsky: Language and Politics, C. Otero, ed. New York, Black Rose, 1983)

Professor Chomsky meets backstage with Ross Kenneger and Wild East senior correspondent, Trista di Genova
Professor Chomsky meets backstage with Ross Kenneger and Wild East senior correspondent, Trista di Genova
His is not an appeal to a belief system, then. His conviction is to the slowly smoldering search for understanding of the world through the examination of facts and the analysis of data. First and foremost, Chomsky is a scientist who has audaciously applied scientific method to a field of human study which heretofore has only nominally and perhaps vacuously been called ‘political science’.

His credentials as a scientist and intellectual have been well-established for half a century and are thoroughly uncontroversial. His contributions to the fields of linguistics and psychology are enough to assure him a lofty place in the annals of science. Indeed, even detractors such as Paul Robinson of the New York Times extolled Chomsky as “arguably the most important intellectual alive today”, before berating his views of American foreign policy as “maddeningly simple-minded”, a view shared by many despite Chomsky’s impeccable credentials.

Having received honorary degrees from thirty-plus institutions of higher learning, numerous prestigious awards as well as his Ph.D in linguistics, perennially in demand around the world as a lecturer on the topics of linguistics and foreign policy issues, one must wonder how his political opinions and theories are so generally — and most especially in the United States — reviled and dismissed out-of-hand as naïve, simplistic or “anti-American.”

Moreover, being the author and co-author of upwards of a hundred books would seem to indicate that Professor Chomsky is anything but an amateur dabbler in the realm of foreign affairs. While sheer volume of work, of course, does not assure verisimilitude or scholastic merit, all but the most cursory examination of his work reveals extensive footnoting and referencing; precisely as one would expect from a notable scholar and scientist. His most recent book, ‘Hopes and Prospects’, a collection of lectures and essays, for example, contains more than 470 footnoted references, many with extensive supplemental commentary. Admittedly, the presence of annotations, footnotes and cited references do not in and of themselves make for scholarship, but the lack thereof would certainly compel any rational, educated researcher to determine the work in question to be decisively unscholarly. Chomsky’s work, it must be admitted by even his harshest critics, exhibits erudition at the very least.

Yet, Chomsky’s body of work regarding foreign policy, particularly US foreign policy is scorned and derided, often without thoughtful examination. Examples of this scorn and derision are numerous and easily found, particularly if one trolls the blogs of right-wing commentators where ad hominem attacks typically range from asserting that he is a ‘CIA shill’ to castigating him as a ‘self-loathing Jew’. This base approach to criticism of Chomsky’s views is tantamount to an attempt to refute the theory of evolution by fabricating spurious gossip about Darwin and the deckhands aboard ‘the Beagle’. A more sophisticated example of Chomsky-bashing is “The Anti-Chomsky Reader,” an assemblage of essays by eight writers who derisively discuss Chomsky’s intellectual career and the evolution of what is termed ‘his anti-Americanism’. Another volume ‘Chomsky and His Critics’ offers more scholarly criticism, but it is limited to the esoterica of linguistics.

Again, anyone who strives to think for oneself (as Chomsky exhorts) must seriously question whether the pervasive derision of this sort is justified, and on what grounds.

The audience at Academia Sinica on that momentous Monday– numbering more than a thousand – sat in rapt attention during the length of Chomsky’s wide-ranging talk. It was not the prospect of flamboyant oratory that drew an extraordinarily diverse crowd to assemble there. They heard no rousing declamations, no bombastic tirades, no podium-thumping exhortations, no purple prose goading the mob to action. What they heard was Avram Noam Chomsky, American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and political activist, quintessentially professorial, reading his text, quietly, in a near monotone voice that gave evidence of his more than four-score years. Responding to criticism that his speaking style was boring, Chomsky once said “I’m a boring speaker and I like it that way…. People are interested in the issues, and they’re interested in the issues because they are important.”

In this age of demagogic bombasts, famous (and infamous) for bloated, turgid rants and supercilious harangues on the ‘fear-of-the-day’ or cause célèbre, what was it about hearing a soft-spoken, octogenarian academician that appealed to the disparate gathering in Taipei on August 9th? One may conclude that what brought all those people together was the chance to bear witness – a hunger even – to one man’s quest for truth in a world of obfuscation, deception and propaganda.

‘Speaking truth to power’ may, indeed, be too facile a slogan. What Chomsky does is speak to the power of truth.

Audio of Lecture

One thought on “Chomsky’s Appeal: Speaking Scientifically to the Power of Truth

  • August 16, 2010 at 1:30 am

    Can’t get the link to the audio file active, P. It’s in the media section right now. The other mp3 recording is too big, over 10meg.
    Nor does embedding video I made of the speech work.
    Here are the links to two YouTube videos of Chomsky’s speech that day:


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