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Thomas Ferguson

Published onApr 19, 2019
Thomas Ferguson

A short 90th birthday tribute to Noam Chomsky? It feels like being asked to appreciate Picasso in 500 words.

But I will try, by just highlighting a few key aspects of his work and life that most deeply impress me personally.

First is the way this famous theoretician typically develops his arguments about politics and society. Never does he declare that what he is writing about cannot be understood without a verbose detour into theory.

No, instead we get plain English discussions of who is trying to do what to whom within and between power structures along with careful discussions of the often devastating consequences these maneuvers have on ordinary people.

In Noam’s writing we find an implicit lesson—explicit in the case of his seminal American Power and the New Mandarins: The intellectual muscle flexing that pervaded the social sciences he was taking to task—including much of that produced by my then-faculty colleagues at MIT—is worthless. It is just not that hard to understand power and its workings, if you focus on the concrete and palpable. “Postmodernism” is just another symptom of the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.

A second implication is equally important: That the emphasis on high theory that spread like a toxic fog over both banks of the Seine and the rest of the world is mostly an elite preoccupation. In fact, the main consumers of mandarin thought are mandarins and those who subsidize them in the power structure, along with the press, which transmits their musings so breathlessly.

Which links to another of Noam’s great merits: He, along with our late, lamented friend Ed Herman, never neglected the role the press plays in the preservation of power structures. The contrast with orthodoxy could not be more glaring. Just look at the work that comes out of, say, the Kennedy School, that purports to describe the role the press plays in political campaigns. You will look in vain for a serious discussion of how the concerns of large media enterprises affect campaign coverage. Such inquiries just don’t happen: Mostly we hear about silly theories of “professional” norms and such, in a world where anxious journalists now live like Peter Rabbit and his family in Farmer MacGregor’s garden, liable at any moment to have their hours cut back or their enterprises terminated.

A final aspect of Noam’s work that I would single out is the way he has always transcended the monoglot English preoccupations of mainstream American commentary. Not only journalism, but social science in America only rarely pauses to consider how things look in the rest of the world. What passes for “global” perspectives today is usually the common sense of multinational finance and industry.

Noam Chomsky, more than anyone, has taught us that “fake news” long predates Donald Trump and the “right wing” media. His fluency in several other languages has enriched his work, while the precision of his language and focus reflect the clarity of his thinking, which remains accessible and relevant because it speaks to people, not to power.

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