Lecture: Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky
Photo: © Bev Stohl/Noam Chomsky, 2004.

Simple Truths and Hard Problems

Mention Noam Chomsky to most young radicals and they'll likely sigh with reverence at the mere mention of the name. Yet the 76-year-old avowed anarchist and prophet of the radical left might easily be mistaken for just another mild-mannered academic, as much in his element teaching linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as he is rabblerousing. Dressed, typically, in a button-down shirt and rumpled corduroy jacket, he is soft-spoken to the point of inaudibility and often slides into pensive mumbling during interviews.

Chomsky's official title is that of Institute Professor in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT. But he is famous—-some would say infamous—-as a leading voice of social dissent.

In his Lewis Burke Frumkes Lecture in Philosophy at NYU, an annual event sponsored by the University's Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences' Department of Philosophy, Chomsky spoke on "Simple Truths and Hard Problems: Some Thoughts on Terror, Justice, and Self-Defense." He addressed the principle of universality as a moral truism. By universality, he means the idea that "we should apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others." His primary criticism of the Bush administration is that, in his opinion, it believes itself to be exempt from this principle.

Chomsky cited the American occupation of a hospital in Fallujah, Iraq as an example. Although the takeover of a hospital is a direct breach of the Geneva Convention, asserted Chomsky, the U.S. government could never imagine being punished for violating what he called the "supreme law of the land."

The U.S. Media: Turning a Blind Eye on War Crimes

Equally troubling, he argued, is what he perceives to be the newsmedia's tendency to turn a blind eye on blatant breaches of international law. In a speakerphone discussion with Professor Mark Dery's graduate seminar, "Radical Media Criticism," also at NYU, Chomsky called coverage of the Iraq war "one of the more disgraceful periods of American journalism." In his opinion, "It has been absolutely shocking."

Taking up a thread from "Simple Truths and Hard Problems," Chomsky claimed that the media also ignore the principle of universality. When Professor Dery's students asked the activist intellectual to cite an example in support of this charge, Chomsky criticized The New York Times's portrayal of the U.S. takeover of Fallujah General Hospital. "The editors did the wrong thing," he said. "What they did is what the Nazi press did: they made it [the takeover of Fallujah General Hospital] seem like a triumph. In fact, it was a major war crime, for which the civilian leadership is subject not only to trial but even to the death penalty, under U.S. law. That's the way it should be portrayed."

"The coverage of the Iraq war is one of the more disgraceful periods of American journalism. It has been absolutely shocking."

Too often, said Chomsky, American journalists report from the point of view of the American occupiers. Though there are many reports of the suffering of U.S. soldiers, he noted, there is virtually nothing written from the perspective of the Iraqi civilians. "There has been pretty horrible reporting in the past," in U.S. coverage of the civilian cost of American occupation, "but this is really one of the low points," he said.

Chomsky noted, as well, the banning earlier this year of the independent Arabic news station Al-jazeera. Al-jazeera.net reports that on August 5, the U.S.-backed Iraqi interim government accused the station of "advocating violence and inciting hatred," and ordered the closure if its Baghdad office. Al-jazeera was subsequently banned from broadcasting in Iraq. The Guardian reported that the ban was extended indefinitely in early September. Chomsky compared the American government's suppression of free speech, in this case, to the totalitarian censorship typical of North Korea.

The Politics of Language

On the subject of reportage by journalists in Iraq, a student asked Chomsky whether he thought the use of military jargon by reporters served the truth or obscured it, at worst spreading disinformation in the form of Pentagon-approved doublespeak. In one sense, replied Chomsky, using military jargon is a compromise—-a reporter's decision to play the military briefing game, so to speak, in order to achieve the higher purpose of getting access to information. "These are among the compromises people have to make," he said. But, he warned, "if a journalist gets to the point of misleading readers by suggesting to them that…some special expertise…[is required] to understand these things, that's wrong. That's helping to marginalize people. The journalist should be making it clear to people…that they themselves can understand all these things. They may have to do a little work, but it's not quantum physics."

Another student asked for Chomsky's opinion on the politics of the media's use of terms such as "liberal" and "conservative."

"The press just adopts the conventions that are handed down by the power systems," declared Chomsky. "It shouldn't, but it does. It's obedient, in other words. It uses terms [such as] 'liberal' and 'conservative' in ways which have absolutely no meaning at all." Of course, he conceded, we capitulate to the status quo and the power elite "all the time, but when the press does it, it's much more serious, because they're supposed to have a function in a democratic society."

Happy Bedfellows: The Media and the Power Elite

Ironically, he argued, the corporate newsmedia are closely tied to the powers that be. "The press is part of the whole corporate system of domination and control," Chomsky stated. "That's even true of National Public Radio. They're part of an elite intellectual culture that is highly dominated by centers of power. That's true of academic life as well [but] the press is particularly obvious because they are just a major corporation. They keep to the framework of those who they serve and which they're part of."

Asked if he could think of a journalist who has managed to stay true to his moral convictions, Chomsky named Charles Glass, the veteran reporter who in 1987 was taken hostage in Lebanon by Shiite Muslims (he escaped two months later). Glass, said Chomsky, is a reporter with a fearlessly independent voice.

Maintaining one's journalistic integrity, said Chomsky, begins with never believing "what a government official says, no matter what government it is. It should be taken for granted by journalists that government officials are trying to defend their own position. That's their job and it's the job of the reporter to expose it, not repeat it."

Why aren't journalists doing that, one of Dery's students wanted to know.

"Sometimes they do," said Chomsky. "The point is, if you go too far, you're going to run into difficulties because you're facing institutional controls."

The High Cost of Speaking Out

For example, noted Chomsky, he is under indictment by Turkish courts for civil disobedience. During the Viet Nam war, he narrowly escaped "a very long jail sentence" for his civil disobedience. Still, he dismissed his own actions as only marginally dangerous, pointing out that activists in Turkey and Columbia face far more serious retribution for speaking out against injustice—-assassination, for example.

Nonetheless, said Chomsky, not everyone need risk state-sanctioned murder in order to live an ethical life. Activists can act effectively, even within established institutions, he argued. "There are many ways to live a very decent life within institutional constraints," he said. "For us, it's extremely easy (by comparative standards), because we don't face harsh repression."

Adversarial Journalism within Corporate Constraints

A student pressed Chomsky for concrete examples of how reporters can do adversarial journalism within the institutional framework of the corporate newsmedia.

"The duty of journalists is to tell the truth," said Chomsky. "Journalism means you go back to the actual facts, you look at the documents, you discover what the record is, and you report it that way."
Even in the corporate mainstream, he said, journalists can maneuver within institutional constraints yet speak truth to power.

"It's very commonly the case, if you read the national press, that you will find in the first paragraph of the front page article something which is basically for the editors and the headline writers," said Chomsky. "[But] you get down to the end, the last paragraph on the continuation page, and you often find material that reporters are putting in because they think that is what is important."

Chomsky advocates working within the system. Indeed, he emphasized, he, too, makes compromises to achieve his political ends. "There are times I give talks wearing a tie and a jacket, using the terminology of the ideological disciplines, because that's the way to get a point across to a certain kind of audience. All right, that's a small compromise. It doesn't mean much."

Joy Wang is a senior at NYU, majoring in journalism and politics.


  • Chomsky, Noam. Interview. Dec. 2, 2004.
  • Chomsky, Noam. "Simple Truths and Hard Problems: Some Thoughts on Terror, Justice and Self-Defense." Lewis Burke Frumkes Lecture in Philosophy. Nov.15, 2004.
  • Harding, Luke. "Iraq extends al-Jazeera ban and raids offices." The Guardian. Sept. 6, 2004.
  • Tape, Nurah. "Iraq urged to rescind Al-jazeera ban." Al-jazeera.net. Sept. 7, 2004.
  • "The Official Noam Chomsky Website" http://www.chomsky.info/