(excerpted from original article)
In 1967, as nearly half a million American troops fought in Vietnam, MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky wrote an essay for “The New York Review of Books” that derided his fellow intellectuals for standing by silently in the face of such an abhorrent war. Literary critic George Steiner wrote a letter of response that was heavy with anguish: “The intellectual is responsible. What then shall he do?” Steiner asked, wondering if he should help his draft-age students escape to Canada& or if he himself should run for the border. Chomsky replied with measured gravity, saying that he thought it best for the “anti-war American intellectual to stay here and oppose the government, in as outspoken a way as he can, inside the country, and within the universities that have accepted a large measure of complicity in war and repression.” It was a call to action that Chomsky himself has lived by unwaveringly ever since.
Prophet, blasphemer, genius, traitor—Noam Chomsky has been called all four. In linguistics, his significance is indisputable. His 1957 book, “Syntactic Structures,” revolutionized the field with his thesis—now widely accepted—that all human language shared a universal grammatical structure. In politics, his activities have been more controversial, as he has spent the better part of the past 40 years excoriating the United States government for a wide variety of crimes. In numerous books on U.S. foreign policy and in speeches around the world, he has pilloried America for its intervention in Central America in the 80s, its collusion with Israel against the Palestinians, its support of despots from Indonesia to Chile and its entry into both wars with Iraq.
Chomsky’s indictments can be enough to make you rend your garments in despair. His critics are many, their attacks ranging from the ad hominem (he’s frequently labeled anti-American and anti-Semitic) to the sound (such as the charge that his arguments are cloaked in deceptive sophistry). Still, he has near cult-like status among progressives and workers worldwide, and rockstar creed with the kids—how many other scholars, after all, can say they’ve released a split 7-inch with Bad Religion?
Going to see Chomsky in his office at MIT is like visiting a sort of lefty Yoda. He is a smiling and wrinkled old, anarchist Jew who sits ensconced in his cave of books, quietly dispensing his philosophy with all the exactitude and ruthlessness of a precision-guided missile.