Get involved – some Chomsky-inspired thoughts


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This is an edited extract from the final chapter of my book, Simply Chomsky. The book is a concise introduction to Chomsky’s political ideas and his linguistics. See below for how to get the book, so that you can read more in other chapters.

This article  floats some ideas about how to build on Chomsky’s politics. I believe that Chomsky would endorse most of them, and that he would applaud my attempt to think for myself rather than just parroting his views. But he doesn’t necessarily agree with them.

A warning 

There is no essential connection between Chomsky’s linguistics and his political activism (see Myth 7 in Chapter 2). Yes, both of them challenge conventional  wisdom. Both of them are based on evidence. But Chomsky’s linguistics tries to be scientific—he thinks of it as part of the science of biology. Science is sometimes complicated and very hard. If you want to make sense of it, you need to study, read, gather data, experiment, and, ideally, work alongside experts. Political activism is not complicated. It doesn’t require extensive study or special expertise. More important are courage, firm principles, a sense of humor, optimism, and the ability to listen. It is positively harmful, in my view, to give the impression that you need to study any body of scientific writing in order to contribute to justice and freedom in the world. Chomsky has emphasized that point many times. 

Some of Chomsky’s finest supporters don’t agree with me on this point: Carlos Otero, Jean Bricmont, Robert Barsky, Neil Smith, and Nicholas Allott have all tried to link Chomsky’s linguistics and his politics (as I did too, after lengthy health warnings, in my 1990 book, The Chomsky Update). I seem to be in a small minority when I say that the links are trivial—though another member of the minority is Chomsky himself, whose view on the matter should probably carry some weight.

Your basic choices

Some of the politics chapters in this book have dealt with specific parts of the world, such as Korea and the Middle East. Chomsky has often spoken about these regions, and they are currently important flashpoints where the US is an obstacle to peace and justice. Other chapters have dealt with urgent threats to human survival, notably nuclear war and the climate crisis, where the US government and its corporate allies are leading us into an abyss. 

What can you, dear reader, do about these problems? If you live in the US or another democratic country where you and other like-minded people can vote out the government and replace it with a better one, you have essentially two choices: 

  1. 1.  Join a political party that has a chance of gaining power and is closest to your views. Right now, that probably means the Democrats in the US and the Labour Party in the UK. 
  2. 2.  Do something else. 

Let’s look at these two alternatives carefully. The first one is currenlty a live topic for many people. In the US Democratic Party and the British Labour Party, powerful people conspire tenaciously, and often viciously, to keep the party near the “center” ground. For people who desperately want radical political change, like Chomsky and the present writer, the traditional left-of-center parties do not look too promising at present. Should you stay in, or join, a political party and try to make it  a genuine force for change? 

Political parties—for and against 

Let’s look at some good reasons for working for change within large, established political parties. Most importantly, they offer a route to power. They have resources, including paid workers, buildings, money, and millions of supporters. They have connections to trade unions, who also have resources, and who are surely crucial in social change. Political parties are where the action is. The alternative is to be just a voice shouting impotently in the wilderness: as the late English comedian Jeremy Hardy once said, you can instead spend the rest of your life shouting “bastards” at the TV news. Or as the old saying goes, “An unorganized socialist is a contradiction in terms.” If you want a world where people cooperate, and we care about everyone, then cutting yourself off is a large step in the wrong direction. 

There are some fantastic people in the US Democratic Party, the British Labour Party, and similar organizations throughout the world. Many of them work tirelessly at the grassroots, giving up much of their free time and expecting no recognition or reward. Some of them are prominent figures. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of Congress for part of New York City, says that “in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no American should be too poor to live,” and she seems to mean it. She is young, articulate, tenacious, and witty. Her “Green New Deal” offers a way to change the economy and avoid climate catastrophe. Labour members of the UK parliament like Rebecca Long-Bailey and John McDonnell have similar inspiring qualities, and they also propose a just transition to a green economy. They have supported a Universal Basic Income, which would guarantee that every person in the country has their basic  needs met—enough money to have a place to live, enough to eat, and health care. 

Large political parties get media coverage—not always positive, of course, but they are in the news. We need, very urgently, to ensure that dangerous bullies like Donald Trump are never re-elected and that evil lying clowns like Boris Johnson are voted out of office. This means working, and voting, for the organizations that have a chance of doing this. Chomsky has said that he would vote for the Democrat candidate in the 2020 presidential election. 

So what are the reasons not to sign up? Most obviously, these parties are coalitions of people with a wide range of different views, often opposed to mine. Some of these people hate progressive and liberal individuals like me with virulent loathing. Leading Democrat politicians in the US often treat Ocasio-Cortez and her colleagues with contempt.  I have experience here: years ago, I spoke at a meeting in my hometown, which was supposed to build bridges between the Labour Right and socialists like me. It was not a lot of fun: the verbal abuse from the Right was vitriolic, and if looks could kill, I would be long dead. The only people who have directed so much hatred at me personally were fascists in the National Front and the British National Party. Is it possible to rescue the Democratic and Labour Parties? 

I noted earlier in my book that much of Chomsky’s criticism is directed against the liberal end of the mainstream spectrum. These are the people who set the boundaries for acceptable political debate, and they have also committed terrible atrocities: it was the Democrat Presidents Kennedy and Johnson who escalated the murderous US assault on Indochina. It was the UK Labour Party that joined the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, applauded the bombing of a radio station in Belgrade in 1999 (see chapter 5), and supplied former MPs for the boards of arms companies, as I pointed out in Chapter 4. Barack Obama happily expanded oil production in the US, described by Chomsky as “an eloquent death-knell for the species” (see Chapter 9), and pursued brave whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. 

Working within mainstream political parties can be very boring. Party meetings are often full of tedious procedural business, necessary at times and beloved by some activists but felt by many others to be eroding their brains. In my family, we like to parody party bureaucracy with a recurrent joke about “voting to suspend standing orders” after dinner. More seriously, working for piecemeal reforms, constantly compromising with businesspeople, and regularly being encouraged to scale down your ambitions so that you are “realistic” and “electable,” takes a toll: you can start to believe this type of thinking and become cynical and joyless—in short, you may turn into the type of person you joined the party to challenge. 

So that’s one choice. Lots of people are working hard to keep  dangerous bullies like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson from power. Should you join them? 

Alternatives 

Or you can choose the other alternative, doing something else. You probably want a little more detail, so here are some thoughts. You could devote yourself to eliminating one of the big dangers that Chomsky regularly emphasizes: nuclear devastation or climate catastrophe. Find the best group you can which is trying to avert these dangers, and join up: perhaps the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons on the first one, and 350.org on the second. Check them out, see what actions they take and who supports them. Use your skills, time, energy, and money to build up these organizations and increase their impact. 

You could decide that a major obstacle to radical change is the demonization of immigrants and refugees, based on the pernicious and divisive belief that “Some humans ain’t human” in the words of the late singer John Prine. You could go further and decide that nationalism, and indeed national borders, are ludicrous relics of a bygone age, and that future generations (if there are any) will look back on these relics as we look back on slavery—with disgust. 

You could take as your starting point the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Chomsky devoted a book to the UDHR on its 50th anniversary (Chomsky 1999). If we believe that all humans, regardless of their ethnic, religious, and cultural background, have the same basic rights, then we should trumpet that loud and clear. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it also creates a platform for common cause between political activists and religious people, many of whom believe that God does not discriminate between people on the basis of ethnic origin, skin color, or nationality. 

Or you can put your energy into a small-scale, local campaign. Here’s an example. Brighton, where I live, is famous for its beach, which has lots of stones and very little sand. Disabled people can look at the beach from the footpath nearby, but are almost entirely unable to walk on it or ride on it in a wheelchai and be close to the sea. One woman, Claire Nelson, has made it her mission to make Brighton beach accessible to everyone. She says that several seaside towns around the world put down temporary boardwalks for wheelchairs in the summer and have developed creative solutions for a range of disabilities. The local newspaper recently reported that her tireless work is beginning to get results (Booker-Lewis 2020). The great thing about local campaigns is that they sometimes succeed, and you can see change happening. 

Back to Chomsky 

Or you can think about more fundamental issues. If you agree with Chomsky that structures of power and domination must be challenged and dismantled, and that we need an “Independent Left” to pursue that agenda, then go ahead and contribute. What needs to be done? 

Chomsky has often spoken about education, as we saw in Chapter 3. We need more people who don’t tolerate injustice and become active champions for change. It is starting to happen, with inspiring young women like Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg taking the lead. As someone memorably said, “When leaders behave like children, it is time for children to behave like leaders.” 

Reforming education is a vital part of empowering young people. Mostly, that is about removing barriers to their natural curiosity and resisting the constant attacks on real education from the right. Rote learning, testing, and undermining public education have been a constant priority for mainstream politicians for as long as I can remember. This is a crucial terrain of class conflict, if you will forgive the vulgar-Marxist jargon, and every victory is important. 

It isn’t just schooling: our entire approach to young people should be based on respect and support—and then getting out of their way when they steamroller joyously through the oppressive structures which dominate our world. Older people, particularly parents and teachers, need to encourage curiosity, disrespect for illegitimate authority, playfulness, creativity, and courage. (Note that parents are NOT to blame: expecting two people to be sole caretakers while they also struggle to make a living is cruel and unworkable: again, future generations will probably be aghast that we take it for granted.) 

An essential first step is to make it illegal for adults to use violence against young people. More and more countries are doing this, and it must happen everywhere. The organization Children are Unbeatable will tell you more. Criminalizing adult violence should go alongside support for parents and teachers, so they can change their ways. 

Anarchism

Looking back now at Chapter 4, we saw that for Chomsky, anarchism is about challenging illegitimate authority, and extending democracy to every area of social and economic life. The link with education is this: we should design teaching and learning so that they help young people to take the lead and show us the way. The movement for change should be non-violent, of course, but also diverse, messy, and unpredictable. It will make us old-timers feel uncomfortable at times. It will have to be tough enough to stand up to the vicious attacks from established power that will rain down when that power feels threatened. It won’t always be fun, and sometimes it will be dull or dangerous. The movement will need to build up strong bonds of solidarity to endure despite the bad times. 

What about Chapter 5, where we talked about Chomsky’s consistent drive to expose and counteract “propaganda?” Remember also his troubling claim in Chapter 3 that educated people are most indoctrinated: they create the propaganda, and they come to believe it. You could devote your energy to continuing this part of Chomsky’s work. In the UK, Media Lens is one (small) organization that does this, with the explicit aim of following Chomsky’s lead. This is an exciting area, where you will find great people to work with. You can support, or create, alternative news sources, and try to change (or dismantle) some of the worst mainstream media. This doesn’t need special intelligence or study. It’s more like cleaning out our minds and unlearning rubbish that we have taken for granted. 

The choice before you is whether to build a good political party, or to be part of a more diffuse movement. If you can do both, that’s great. Just remember to take care of yourself and the people close to you while you do it. 

Two final thoughts 

Firstly, if you live in a rich, democratic country, where established power is usually not brutal, you are immensely privileged. The possibilities for useful political action are many, and the personal cost to you is less likely to be devastating than it is in many parts of the world. Chomsky often makes these points, while also emphasizing that privileged people need to be inspired by those who are less fortunate: the labor organizers, human rights defenders, environmental activists, and opponents of exploitation, poverty, racism, and sexism in the poor parts of the world. Against overwhelming odds, and often at great personal cost, these people are in the front line of the battle for a better world. We need to follow their lead. 

Secondly, if any part of this piece is helpful, then I am glad, but it is important that you think for yourself. Chomsky saw the value of that at a young age, and he has done it all his life. You can contribute to his legacy by doing the same. 

References

Booker-Lewis, S. 2020. Help for disabled people to use Brighton beach on the way. The Argus, 4 March 2020. Online: https://www.theargus.co.uk/news/18279485.help-disabled-people-use-brighton-beach-way/. 

Chomsky, N. 1999. The Umbrella of U.S. power: the universal declaration of human rights and the contradictions of U.S. Policy. New York, NY, Seven Stories Press.

Salkie, R. 1990/2015. The Chomsky update: linguistics and politics. London, Unwin Hyman. (Reissued 2015 in Routledge Library Editions).

This is an edited extract from Simply Chomsky (New York, Simply Charly, 2020).  You can order  the book, and read a sample, at https://www.amazon.com/Simply-Chomsky-Great-Raphael-Salkie/dp/194365770X/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=. Paperback is $9.99, Kindle and audiobook versions are also available.  You can read a much longer sample at books.google.co.uk.

Raphael Salkie taught linguistics and translation at the University of Brighton for 40 years prior to his retirement in 2020. His interest in Noam Chomsky goes back to his first year as a university student when he found that learning about generative grammar (which wasn’t on the syllabus) interested him more than his official studies. He has written and lectured extensively about Chomsky over the years, and he has tried to challenge illegitimate authority whenever he could, as Chomsky has often advocated.  Email: rsalkie@yahoo.co.uk. 

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