Noam Chomsky: Writing history while teaching linguistics

Historians in the News

Noam Chomsky's eighth-floor office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is sparse, cheaply furnished and gloomy, lightened only a little by a few giant plants and some pictures tacked to the walls, writes Denis Staunton.

The most prominent picture is a large black-and-white photograph of Bertrand Russell that stands on top of a filing cabinet just inside the door. Below it is a quotation from the British philosopher's autobiography: "Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind."

Tall piles of books occupy the entire surface of his desk and we sit at a small, round table in the centre of the room, Chomsky wearing a baggy grey jumper and his familiar, Woody Allen-style glasses.

His manner is exceptionally polite and gentle, an effect enhanced by the softness of his voice, which often falls to a whisper during our hour-long conversation. He has worked at MIT for 50 years, teaching linguistics and the philosophy of language and developing his influential theories of universal grammar.

At 77, Chomsky is not only the world's most famous public intellectual but one of the most energetic, writing more books and articles, giving more interviews and making more public appearances than ever.

Best known as a critic of American foreign policy, he has also condemned communist tyranny and in 1993, the last time he visited Ireland, he spoke out in west Belfast against the IRA's armed campaign.

As an advocate for social justice who admires free market icon Adam Smith and a progressive educator who rejects post-modernism and defends Enlightenment values, Chomsky can be as awkward a thinker for some on the Left as for the Right....

Q Let's talk about it a different way and speak about the use of force or military intervention. Are there benign examples of the use of military force that you can think of?

A It depends on how you define them.

There's very extensive legal literature on so-called humanitarian intervention. There are extensive studies. If you work through them, it's extremely hard to find a genuine example.

I mean, there are examples of the use of military force which had benign consequences, definitely. In fact, in the last 50 years the two most dramatic cases are India's intervention in East Pakistan which did stop atrocities, and Vietnam's intervention in Cambodia which terminated Pol Pot's atrocities in fact just at the point that they were peaking.

Those are the two most striking examples in the last half century of military intervention with benign consequences. And how did the West react? The US was infuriated in both cases. It imposed sanctions against India and sent the Sixth fleet to the Bay of Bengal, threatening.

Kissinger was totally furious. The reason was that it spoilt some photo-ops he was hoping to get on a secret trip to China through Pakistan.

But the reaction was very harsh and punitive. In the case of Vietnam it was worse. In the case of Pol Pot, the US and Britain immediately turned to supporting the Khmer Rouge. They supported a Chinese invasion to punish Vietnam for the crime of having terminated Pol Pot's atrocities.

The press was denouncing them as the Prussians of Asia. The US imposed very harsh sanctions.

So here are two cases. Now I wouldn't call those humanitarian interventions. They didn't intervene because they were trying to help people. They had their own reasons of state. In fact, in Vietnam's case, it was really defensive. Pol Pot was carrying out atrocities inside Vietnam and along the border so it was kind of a defensive reaction.

But the consequences were very benign. And the West reacted with extreme harshness. I can't think of any other examples....

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