Being Left, Part 8: Chomsky

In December 2013 David Marty did an extensive interview with Michael Albert. We present it in nine parts – of which this is the eighth. Other parts address: Radicalization, Media, Debating Vision, Venezuela, Occupy and IOPS, Fanfare, Chomsky, and a conclusion. 


The Mystique

I know you have been close friends with and often worked with Noam Chomsky. I would imagine you get questions about him quite often. I hope you won’t mind if I ask a few. First, just how smart is he? Can you give a couple for examples of the things he can do, but other mortals, including yourself, can’t. 

You are right, especially when traveling and giving talks, and over dinner or in a bar after, I often get questions about Noam, and even about linguistics. This one is tricky because many different factors contribute to what we typically call smart. For example, there is raw calculation, doing mental manipulations rapidly and accurately, with many variables accounted for, especially if the manipulations are demanding. Math calculation is an obvious but not the only case of this. I think Noam is probably very good at raw calculation, but I don’t know that he is exceptional. His disciplines just don’t call for it that much, at least that I get to see. 

Another factor is memory, holding lots of evidence in mind, sifting it well, recalling it, etc. Noam’s memory is incredible, not uniquely so, perhaps, but still, really unusual. Personally, I haven’t encountered anyone with a memory matching his younger self, and for relevant data, perhaps even now, in his eighties. 

Noam’s discipline is also incredible, but I think this is a little more common. Take anyone who produces a vast amount of creative and even unmatchably excellent ideas – or communications, novels, art, athletic accomplishments, or whatever else – and I suspect very nearly without exception you will also have someone who is able to focus and persist and who does so, over and over, almost compulsively. Talent has to be developed and then regularly utilized for it to be evident as more than just a one time burst of luck. Noam’s focus and perseverance are pretty much peerless among folks in intellectual disciplines, I think.

Another element, I think perhaps even more important, is that Noam’s thinking rarely gets mired into a fixed pattern and his related ability to break from accepted patterns, including frequent and familiar ones and even ones that he has contributed to creating, and thus to treat each new situation on its own merits without pigeon holing it into past views, is quite exceptional. 

This capacity is hard to explain. For one thing, running contrary to having this type of flexibility, it is also an essential attribute of creative and effective thought that we respect our past beliefs. You can’t jettison what you have amassed as beliefs and start over every five minutes. You have to build up a toolbox of concepts, information, connections and so on, and then use that with a considerable degree of fidelity. Yet, attaining the big insight, the genius achievement, typically requires breaking old molds. So it is a kind of balancing act of contrary requirements. 1. Respect and act in light of past beliefs. 2. Flexibly question and even transcend old beliefs. And this is where Noam does, I think, operate very nearly uniquely. In linguistics he has broken the old mold numerous times, including transcending his own past allegiances I suspect uniquely for a single individual in one creative field. And in politics his approach, in this respect, is pretty similar. He manages to flexibly address very nearly all situations where doing so will yield advances. And yet, when he should rely on his past views taking them as valid to get the best results, he does.

What is odd, in Noam’s case, is that this willingness to dismiss the past and take an out of the box future path is not in any sense a personality trait. I suspect for many people who continually upset old frameworks or who even just often see essential twists that others miss – the inclination to do so is built into their personality. They do it in thought precisely because they do it in all domains. Like someone who is comedic all the time, willy nilly, because it is built into their personalities, others are boundary breakers, all the time, for the same reason. But Noam’s personal style and his choices in daily relations are pretty staid, even conservative, and certainly not boundary breaking. He doesn’t break rules, so to speak, or function outside the box, as a way of being. In fact, in his personal life, I would say he very nearly opposite that. If he were an investor, it would be in blue chip items, I bet, not in long shots. Asked about future possibilities, he typically expects more of the same, not a break and a leap. For him, a cautionary principle, don’t upset the cart, weighs heavy. Yet, addressing an array of data and information, Noam routinely takes it apart and puts it together in ways that reveal new patterns. I have thought, watching him over the years, that he often escapes seeing things as past formulations say they should be seen by utilizing analogies that break each situation from its familiar context and thus from the biases of past beliefs about that context. 

Finally, another element of profound creativity and in some ways maybe even most critical, is the related ability – or in some cases the luck – to ask the right question. Such a question is often quite simple in many ways, but nonetheless gets at what really matters and at what has been overlooked as almost too obvious to worry about. This is related to the escape-old-biases attribute, mentioned above, of course, but I think maybe it adds another brick in the wall that is Noam’s smarts. The archetype of this is Einstein asking what happens if you hitch a ride on a light beam or you are inside a falling elevator. I bet in the future a new archetype will be Noam asking how a child can possibly learn languages so quickly – and then, also, can learn concepts so quickly. 

How nice is he on a personal level? I have only seen him answering questions, including my own, though I imagine he has life outside of that. Is he a talkative person? How much does he work? Why does he do what he does instead of enjoying doing research in his field of linguistics, teaching, writing or maybe even retire and send some time on his own and with his grandchildren? No one would blame him for that.

Actually, I think a lot of people would blame him for that, albeit unfairly, though I think understandably. Even in his eighties, we feel like, where is Noam about this or that event or topic, what the hell is he doing instead of what we need him to do. Think of a great novelist writing one novel, but then not another. People resent it, understandably. If a person can do what others can’t, and can do it so well, and then doesn’t do it, it feels like he or she is somehow cheating the world.

You also asked about nice. Nice is like smart, I think, and more so. Nice is very much in the eyes of the beholder, and has many components. Noam is in my view very nice. But not everyone would agree. Noam says what he thinks. He listens, but he doesn’t deny what he believes is the truth just to get along with someone. Some people think it is appropriate to back off from pounding away at one’s truths, particularly when it is truths about an issue others are made uncomfortable by. And sometimes, no doubt it is wise to back off. But mostly, in issues of science and politics, I think it is not nice to hold one’s tongue, and, in fact, is instead often what I would call paternalistic, though others might call it sensitive or caring. Can you go too far in pushing for views you feel are correct and important? Sure, in some contexts. And I think some would say Noam sometimes does. My own feeling is that it is better to err on the side of too much honesty and truth, even when it discomforts others, than on the side of limiting honesty and truth for what could often be paternalistic or self serving reasons.

Noam cares when it can help, when the pain is real, but not for appearances sake or when the pain is minor. If you are having a meal with Noam, say, or sitting around chatting, yes he is quite the conversationalist. But the conversation can’t be about details of popular culture, or what was on TV last night, or the content of recent movies, or sports, or modern music – meaning the last sixty or seventy or hundred years – and so on. He just doesn’t have much to say about any of that, or more accurately he has nothing to say about the details of it, knowing nothing about the details – though, truth be told, when he does venture into those realms for more general discussion that addresses the large aspects – and not the details – it will be interesting unless one doesn’t like hearing perspectives contrary to one’s own. 

Noam works, a ton, day and night. It isn’t quite like most people breathe, say, but close. See your question, earlier, about smarts and my reply about focus. Why does he do it? Partly he feels a responsibility to do it – the politics. Partly because he enjoys doing it – some of the linguistics/philosophy part. And again, partly because he feels a responsibility – the rest of the linguistics/philosophy. 

It is hard to imagine him losing his temper. Have you ever witnessed that?

Sure. At injustices. Can he also be angry, say, at people? Yes. But you will not see it, typically. He is a very civil person, and to say he is quite private puts it mildly though this is diminishing a bit with age. On the other hand, even when Noam is not loosing his temper, his wit and sarcasm can sting, though most often it comes from him to just make a point, be on record accurately, use an analogy to clarify, etc.

Some Issues

What have been your most important disagreements with him? Who do you think was right? 

There haven’t been too many that have mattered much, I think. Trivial stuff, yes, but substantive stuff, not very often. One disagreement was, for many years Noam would be spending a lot of time traveling to places to speak. He gets on a plane, travels a bunch of hours, arrives, speaks for maybe a couple of hours, comes back the next day, or maybe it takes even more time than that that. I used to berate him, what are you doing? You just spent two days to talk for two hours. You could have written up the talk, and a few more, and it would have gone out widely (which is true for him, but not for everyone) so that ten or twenty or even fifty times as many people could have seen it. And he would say, essentially, but speaking is different and is also important. 

It was loggerheads and I felt I was right because he simply couldn’t refute my facts – the time spent and associated opportunity cost in not doing things he could have done instead – and had only a vague intuitive assertion of the merits of speaking. I used to feel like he probably liked speaking a lot and was letting that color his perception. We are all human, after all. 

Okay, I now think I was wrong. There is something about people seeing you talking and hearing you directly, and hearing or even asking a question, that somehow in many cases makes public speaking much more effective, more lasting than writing. I honestly don’t know what that something is. And part of me thinks it should not be the case. 

For example, if I am reading Noam on some topic it is likely to involve more content than a related talk, and in addition I can go at my own pace and pay attention when my focus is good and my interest is high. I can pause and think about what is there. For those reasons, I should get more out of the written presentation, I think, than hearing a talk. Well, contrary to that, I suspect that most audiences, or at least those who sit and really listening, get more out of the talk then they would out of an essay.  

It is a long story, but I actually became convinced that I wrongly underrated speaking, at least in the current historical period, in an odd way. It wasn’t due to my own experiences giving lots of talks – not as many as Noam, and to smaller audiences, but still, really a lot – and seeing the positive effects. In my case, I told myself, the audiences were not going to read the material if I just wrote it and sent it off for publication (not least because not many outlets would publish, and second, not many activists would read it, not knowing why they ought to, not seeing it in venues, and so on). So I felt that for myself, and for others who are also not so well known as Noam, and who therefore don’t have a guaranteed readership if we stay home and write instead of traveling and talking, it made sense to travel and talk – even despite all the very considerable costs. But for Noam? It seemed not so wise a trade to talk at the cost of losing a day or two, twenty or thirty times a year, instead of write. 

Well, I learned, later, about how a particular physics innovation called Feynman diagrams spread through the world of physicists, and, oddly, it was that knowledge that convinced me Noam had a point. Feynman diagrams did not spread, as one would expect, mainly by people reading very clear, detailed, and complete written presentations of the new methods. Those presentations existed, but they were not central to the spread, at least at the outset. It was instead by hearing one, or in the case of Feynman diagrams, two primary advocates of the new methods speak in person, that people began to take up the new approach. I decided if the human dimension mattered even in a domain where you would think it would literally be least relevant and helpful, which was learning a new scientific formalism and calculating method, then Noam was likely right about how much it mattered in radical politics. So I now think Noam was right and I was wrong on that issue.

The big and lasting debate we have is about economic vision, and I answered about that, earlier.

Switching gears just a little, I’ve heard Noam say that even if he was a charismatic speaker he wouldn’t use it. However I find it impossible to self restrain one’s style when speaking in public. For instance, I’ve noticed you and he have very different speaking styles, though you both do a lot of public talks. What do you think about public speaking? How do you think your approach and his differ, and why? 

I am quite sure people can control their own style in speaking – I could read a talk or could give it without notes. I could give it with great emotion and exhortation, or give it very soberly and with piles of evidence. We make choices. I answered earlier about the worth of speaking, above. But it varies with cases. I have done speaking trips that were outrageous – in one case, I think it was about twenty five talks in eighteen days, every day in a new city, all across Europe. For that kind of trip, you get up each day, you travel by bus, train, or plane, you meet with some folks, you eat something, you give a talk and sometimes two talks, you go to bed – and then when you wake up you rush to the station to start over for a new day. Why does one do that? 

People who I know, wondering why I do such trips, often think it must partly be because it is fun. You see cities, people come to hear you. Actually, in truth, you mainly see train stations or airports, plus a venue where you speak. You sleep in a new bed every night. There is tons of waiting. These things are not everyone’s idea of fun, and certainly not mine. They are exhausting, and on the plane, you often catch some wicked bug that lasts a couple of weeks, or even longer. 

I am sometimes asked to go a long way to speak about something folks there could address as well. I don’t get the point, and I tend to refuse. Those who asked me, incredibly, then tend to get angry. Why am I not saying yes? Or I am asked to speak about something I don’t really know that much about and, again, I refuse. And again, people get angry. Or I am asked to speak, but for so short a time that nothing much can be achieved. I refuse that too. Even more anger. This, is, I think, all topsy turkey. It is people accepting invitations when they have little to add to what local people could provide so their travel is a wasted expense, or when they don’t have information that will contribute, that ought to provoke anger, but it never does. 

In general, to talk in person about something consequential, where you are well versed, and where you have time to make a case and convey worthy ideas that you think may have a valuable impact, and especially where you can also meet with those who are most interested, does seem worth the expense, time, and effort – and to me feels like a responsibility that outweighs the costs. 

Noam’s approach to public speaking, and he does it for the same reasons as I do it, I think – but a lot more often and to much larger audiences – is to present piles and piles of germane evidence, and to reveal relations he believes are present and urge their validity. He employs a lot of dry humor which you can see even in videos of his talks, particularly when he gets sarcastic. There is also plenty of anger, if you listen closely, however, there are no histrionics at all. Sentences are all pretty much delivered the same way, one like another. He makes everything as clear as he can, but without special intonation. That is what he means when he says he wouldn’t use certain talents, even if he had them – which, by the way, I am quite certain he does. He also rarely urges actions or particular choices on an audience. What they do is up to them and he doesn’t want anyone doing anything just because he says it is desirable, but instead only because they weigh the situation and decide for themselves.

Noam barely changes his delivery, the content, anything, in light of who his audience is. For him such changes smell of what he doesn’t like about what you are calling charisma – that is trying to get agreement by way of something other than a clear rendition of facts and their connections and thus their meaning. 

My approach to public speaking is in some respects different. I don’t like reading a talk, say. I feel like, the audience can go and read it themselves and whatever the special virtue of giving a talk may be, surely it must be enhanced by the speaker being him or herself, rather than reading out loud. Since my memory is almost the exact opposite of Noam’s – mine is abysmal – I can’t pile on evidence which for me would mean undertaking virtually herculean memorization, and very rarely have I even tried that. Also, my training, so to speak, was in physics and math and due to that, piles and piles of evidence are not only beyond my capacity to present but, in any event, also not the way I am most inclined to understand things and to arrive at positions, or, therefore, the way I try to make a case to others. I prefer to find one or two really key bits of compelling evidence, or even better, one or two thought experiments which make the point in question unequivocally. So my talks tend not to include lots of factual data, but, instead, they tend to try to engage people in thinking more deeply about key data rather than more widely sifting more data. They highlight the implication of key bits of data, key examples with far ranging relevance.

I think both approaches have merit. Noam does some of mine in the course of piling on the evidence when he emphasizes a particular analogy, say, to make a point crystal clear. And I do a little piling on of evidence, at least sometimes, along with hammering away at the implications of a few critical facts or thought experiments. 

How about writing? How does Noam do that?

I am tempted to say he puts pen to paper – but of course it is really that he puts hands to keys, like the rest of us. I haven’t sat watching him while he is typing. Nor have I asked him specifically about this, so I can only guess except for one thing that he reports when asked.

That one thing is that he can leave a project and later return, and he will take up exactly where he left off, with no time given to catching back up. He thinks that is a trait that serves him really well, and that many others don’t seem to have. I think he is quite right that being able to do that is a considerable advantage. Most of us, if we write for a few hours today, and then we pick it up again tomorrow, the next day, or the next week, tend to waste time rereading it, fiddling around with it, etc., before getting back into the writing. He just plunges in, he reports, with no effect for the interruption. 

As to how Noam writes, my guess is, he does it in long sessions – and here long means four or five but sometimes even ten or twelve hours, I would bet, and relentlessly. That is, if he is working on a book, or whatever, my guess is that he will work on it, every day, as much as he can. I also suspect that the answer is at least pretty similar for anyone who writes a lot. Perhaps the hardest part, and the most critical part, is to do it without taking off days and weeks, and to write diligently, even when the words don’t seem to be coming.

I have written to Chomsky on several occasions and was very impressed by how quickly I got a response. He does not know who I am and yet he replies very kindly, sometimes writing several pages of rich texts. But I know he gets hundreds of queries every day! Has he finally cloned himself or did he find a hidden 25th hour of the day I did not know about? How do you explain that?

He does answer pretty much all email, but let’s not get carried away. No one can write several pages of rich text hundreds or even just dozens of times a day. That Noam replies so often and fully is due to his sense of responsibility plus a feeling that such communications are read closely – which may not always be true. It takes him a lot of time, to be sure. And again there is a cost/benefit issue. Is it worth it to reply to the emails relative to what else you could be doing? It takes a bit less time than you might imagine, though, because most things he is asked in email – and I am tempted to say virtually everything he is asked – he has dealt with quite often. His response is on the tip of his tongue, so to speak, and when it needs to be a bit longer than he can quickly type out, it is there, in his computer, to be copied. And keep in mind his memory. What seems like research must have been done, was actually him just spewing out what was right there in his head. 

On top of all that, I think answering is just who he is, what his habits are. I know the dynamic well, myself, partly from knowing him, partly from my own experiences. If you answer everything at one point in your life, day in and day out, you start to do it automatically, all the time, year in and year out, and you tend to keep up even when there is steadily more to answer. If you start to pick and choose, however, then you probably tend to keep doing that, and soon you aren’t answering much at all.

Mentor or Friend

What do you think you have learned from him? What does he represent for you in your life? 

No doubt I learned a ton about the world, social relations, the nature of imperialism, the ills of mainstream media, and so on – just like others who have read his work – though in my case I not only read it, I used to typeset it. 

I have been able to ask Noam his reaction on things, whenever I wanted, for decades. We even have our own version of text messaging – though neither of us do the real thing – which is quick emails back and forth late at night. Many times his views have caused me to act other than I would have, had I not gotten his feedback. More generally, his example has hopefully taught me scrupulous honesty, a kind of integrity of values and actions. I think I have learned from him openness to debate, but without paternalism. If you know him, and you relate to him often, you pick up, as well, elements of how to think, how to compose an argument, etc. 

I think one calls this kind of relationship, even if with a friend, mentoring. He has represented a model to try to learn from and emulate – the mode of thinking, the honesty, and so on. And he has been a friend. And, as well, he has been a tremendously effective supporter. I don’t think we could have begun and developed South End press, and later Z Magazine, and all the rest, without his help, lending his content, ideas, public advocacy, and just plain old morale boost.

There is a bit of insanity to some of the hoopla about Noam, of course. We used to joke about selling locks of his hair to finance Z. Sadly, it may not be a complete joke. Or we started a summer school called ZMI, the Z Media Institute. It runs about ten days, and Noam comes for one of those days, from morning until late at night, to talk, do seminars, interact with the students over meals, etc. Students came, in the first year or two, I think, not least for that one day. They got much more, and word of mouth meant people kept coming in subsequent years, but still, “when is Noam day,” was on everyone’s mind, every year. And reasonably so. 

Sometimes people caring about some notable person and wanting to see or hear the person, is overwhelmingly a product of hype. People eager to experience the person don’t actually know anything about the person, and much that they believe they know is just image. To some extent some of that happens for Noam, too. He is now a kind of intellectual demigod, I guess. I have no doubt lots of people go to hear him give a talk just to be able to say they were there, to have seen the great man, and so on. But, for a lot of other people, like those at our summer school, and I hope for many of the people in his live audiences, they know what they are getting. They read the work, too, and their eagerness to attend is warranted. They aren’t being fooled. What they see is what they get. No magic, just the person and his ideas…and that is worth experiencing. 

And it has been for me, too.



  1. avatar
    Michael February 1, 2019 1:53 am 

    One more comment since I am at it. This idea that there is something awful about teaching at MIT is, perhaps, easy to arrive at, but I think it is incorrect. He was able to do much good and to help many by being where he was. I, too, have found myself working in places where there were environments that were a great mix of good and not good, often I eventually left as a result. The military complex is so vast and controlling in the U.S., it is not easy to wholly escape it, and Noam did not work in defense activities. MIT left him free to do his work and it has, as a result, reached the world in a remarkable way.

  2. avatar
    Michael February 1, 2019 1:46 am 

    I don’t know where the comment with my name on it about Noam came from. I did not write it and do not understand it. Yes, I add comments to articles from time to time on ZNET, but this one is not mine. I have read, listened to, and even traveled from Latin America (when I lived there for a number of years) once on a research project that included a meeting with Noam. He was gracious and generous and it meant the world to me. One of the biggest mistakes I made was not to study with him when I was a graduate student in Boston a number of years ago. I have tried to make up for it through reading and listening to youtube.com and Democracy Now! Thanks goodness. A similar error was not studying with Howard Zinn, likewise I had to do a lot of catch up beginning many years ago.

  3. avatar
    Michael Rissler February 1, 2014 7:10 pm 

    I understand the point the writer is making and there are certainly stands we have to make in many ways and I have done this in ways that have had large impact on my life. But in this case, one has to consider what would be gained by Noam or someone in a similar situation? He is not working on drone projects nor is he using them. I doubt there is any university or college that it could be argued is not benefiting in some way from the so-called military-industrial complex. This complex is the nature of our government and economy. It would be easier to renounce one’s citizenship and go live in another country. And there is no question that Noam has put himself at risk in countless ways throughout his career and life.

  4. Mel-Veronica Idal January 31, 2014 4:47 pm 

    The big problem with Noam is his link to military-funded M.I.T. A principled person would step away and draw attention to the fact that cutting-edge drone design and tech is undertaken at M.I.T.
    His association with M.I.T. is a big fat blot on the man’s legacy.

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