On Noam Chomsky’s Birthday, Here’s a Guide for Millennials
What Apple is to communication, Levi’s to denims, Coke to soft drinks and McDonalds to meals—Noam Chomsky is to anarchism. All of these were born in the US and have taken the world by storm. But let’s steer clear of the rest and chomp on Chomsky, the radical philosopher and political activist, who the Indian jholawallas—this is not a gaali, mind you—swear by.
Academic Pop Star of Counter Culture
Is there such a thing, in the first place? Well, those of you who spent undergrad years hero-worshipping a professor, would vouch for it. Tell me, weren’t you seduced by his rebellious demeanour, or her habit of taking long lectures under the tree by the canteen instead of the cold and dingy classrooms? Yes, in all likelihood, we all had that one rockstar prof who made our tedious academic lives better.
Chomsky was ‘that Prof’ at MIT in the 1960s. Being an academic in the US in the 60s meant that the world revolved around you. Or so you thought. The most vociferous criticism of the Vietnam war came from the University wallahs. The Civil Rights Movement was being bolstered by students and academics alike. Feminist movements were gaining momentum within and outside classrooms. And yeah, sexual liberation, too, was happening on the university campuses. The ‘flowerchild’ generation had it all- from Rock-and-Roll to the oh-I’m-so-important feeling.
Chomsky’s anti-war essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” catapulted the linguist to fame in 1967 during the Vietnam war. After all, he jolted the armchair intellectuals by stating:
Each time you held a placard at Jantar Mantar, you tried to answer this very question—what have I done?
So, What Did He Teach?
No, unlike some of our profs who used dharnas and protests to bunk classes, Chomsky took his academic avatar rather seriously. His concept of ‘universal grammar’ told the world that we are one, after all. That a certain set of linguistic rules is common to all human beings—no wonder the word for mother is similar in most languages. Ok, it at least starts with an ‘M’ in most cases. (When in doubt, use the ‘mother’ card!)
Chomsky also legitimised smugness through his studies in linguistics. Next time you want to lord over your pet cat or dog, not cow for heaven’s sake, just say… “I am superior for I have the Language Acquisition Device” and become Darth Vader to your furry Chewbacca.
While Chomsky the public intellectual has many critics, most of his students have the nicest things to say about his classes at MIT. Since you didn’t come to this page to be bombarded with academic citations and references, here is a Quora thread for you.
Chomsky’s India Connect
If you want to be taken as a serious ‘resistance’ personality, get Chomsky as a signatory to your next petition or statement. Last year, when JNU was in throes of perdition for being “anti-national”, Chomsky signed a statement expressing solidarity with the students and faculty members protesting the government’s heavy-handed actions. Before that, he signed a petition in 2007 seeking release of Dr Binayak Sen, who was arrested under the ‘sedition law’.
While one may disagree with his politics, it is difficult to disregard his formulations on propaganda and neo-imperialism. India’s experiments with propaganda—state as well as resistance—can be better understood with Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media’. Propaganda model of communication seems to be working rather well for us in India.
There may be a Nim Chimpsky or two to disprove Chomsky’s ideas, but the octogenarian remains one of the most influential living thought leaders in the world of linguistics as well as political philosophy.