Noam Chomsky

Honoring Noam Chomsky


At the request of Noam’s family who did not want to alert the press and create chaos as Noam was in his initial care for a very serious stroke, for the past year I’ve not shared what I have known. Like so many others, I have certainly missed his voice, wisdom and insights since the worst round of the Israel-Gaza war and genocide began.

As you will see in yesterday’s Portside article last June Noam suffered a major stroke at his home in Tucson. After months of care there, his wife brought him to Brazil, her home nation, for further care. His current situation is described in the article.

Two years ago, with Reiner Braun of the International Peace Bureau I recorded an interview with Noam in advance of IPB’s world conference in Barcelona. In just a very few moments, backed later with compelling visuals, Noam described the existential challenges we face and how to address them. See the Chomsky on Sources of Hope video in the right hand column of our CPDCS home page:

Finally, in December, 2019, I had the honor of introducing Noam at IPB’s Sean McBride Prize ceremony in New York. I spoke from my heart and mind, and the text follows below


December 2019 McBride Prize Introduction


Irene Gendzier, Noam’s long-time friend and collaborator, will be giving a more formal introduction and overview of his many contributions.

It has been my privilege to have worked on and off with Noam, among my most important teachers, models and inspirations, off and on for the last four decades. And it will also be my pleasure and privilege in a few moments to present him with his more than well-earned Sean McBride peace prize on behalf of the International Peace Bureau.

On the Internet, we can read that Noam has been an outstanding linguist, an academic, an anti-war activist and – this surprised me – a “journalist.” The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that Noam is an “American theoretical linguist whose work from the 1950s revolutionized the field of linguistics by treating language as a uniquely human, biologically based cognitive capacity.” It continues that “Through his contributions to linguistics and related fields, including cognitive psychology and the philosophies of mind and language,” Noam “helped to initiate and sustain what came to be known as the “cognitive revolution.” It also tells us that “Chomsky also gained a worldwide following as a political dissident for his analyses of the pernicious influence of economic elites on U.S. domestic politics, foreign policy, and intellectual culture.”

Let me add to this encyclopedic knowledge.

I think that for all of us here who are not linguists, cognitive scientists or journalists, that Noam is a man who has had profound impacts on who we have become, how we see the world, and the actions we have taken for peace, justice and environmental sustainability. It goes without saying that over the past half century with Noam’s indefatigable thinking, writing and speaking that he has nourished movements across the country and around the world.

We are not giving him the Right Livelihood Award, but he certainly deserves that too.

The pop singer Rod Stewart sang that “the first cut is the deepest”, and as I introduce Noam, I want to highlight what for me and many others was Noam’s “first cut”, his most important contribution. I also want to share something more personal that Fred Branfman wrote that tells us who Noam really is.

In 1967 Noam published an essay titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” in the New York Review of Books. I want to quote from its opening paragraphs, because I think that in a profound way it illuminates Noam’s commitments, his way of being, and the model and challenge that has been among his greatest gifts to us:

The article began with reference to Dwight Macdonald who, a generation earlier had asked: “To what extent were the German or Japanese people responsible for the atrocities committed by their governments? …To what extent are the British or American people responsible for the vicious terror bombings of civilians, perfected as a technique of warfare by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, surely among the most unspeakable crimes in history…to anyone whose political and moral consciousness had been formed by the horrors of the 1930s, by the war in Ethiopia, the Russian purge, the “China Incident,” the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi atrocities, the Western reaction to these events and, in part, complicity in them—these questions had particular significance and poignancy.

Noam continued: “With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the ‘responsibility of people,’ given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.

“IT IS”, Noam repeated, “THE RESPONSIBILITY of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.”

From the corridors of power in Washington and Wall Street, to corruptions within academia’s ivory towers, Indochina, the Middle East, Latin America and beyond, Noam has lifted the veils of distortion and lies, serving as a liberating, democratic and very human force.

Six years ago, Fred Branfman, who exposed the covert bombing of Laos by the U.S. and served as the Director of Project Air War wrote an article titled When I Saw Noam Chomsky Cry. It was about Noam’s visit to Laos in 1970. Fred was an extraordinary figure, who lived among Laotians and documented the unprecedented and criminal six years of secret bombings of the people of the Plain of Jars in Laos. Fred heard the stories of “countless grandmothers burned alive by napalm, countless children buried alive by 500-pound bombs, parents shredded by anti-personnel bombs” in a land that was transformed into a moonscape. Tens of thousands of peaceful villagers were killed or driven underground and into caves or into Vientiane, the Laotian capital city. Before Noam showed up bound for Hanoi, Fred had escorted and briefed journalists from CBS, ABC, the New York Times and other media outlets with the hope that they’d expose these horrendous bombings to the world.

           The delegation’s flight from Vientiane to Hanoi was cancelled, but Noam accepted Fred’s invitation to say on to meet with U.S. Embassy and Lao Cabinet officials, the Prime minister, the Pathet Lao representative and a former guerilla soldier. But what stood out in Fred’s memory was a meeting with Plain of Jars refugees. The journalists Fred had introduced to them had listened politely, and then returned to their hotels to write their stories without showing any emotion. But Fred was stunned and when, while translating Noam’s questions and the refugees’ heart-rending answers, he saw Noam “break down and begin weeping.” As he wrote, he saw into Noam’s soul.

Beyond, or maybe related to, Noam’s intellect and his moral compass are his humility, his generosity of spirit and his common decency, to which I would add his intellectual and physical courage. Few people have driven themselves to publish as many books in any field, let alone as many fields as Noam has. Yet, Noam has consistently made the time to speak at community-based movement building and fund raising events, and he has found the energy and will to work into the early morning hours answering inquiries sent to him from graduate students and others across the country and around the world who he has yet to meet.

And yet, in that place where his humility meets his vision of what then must be done, Noam has too often thought that he hasn’t done enough to stop the killing, prevent the unjust imprisonments, and to work for human freedom.

Among the areas where Noam has provided us with path breaking history and analysis, has been his work as a leading critic of Israeli and U.S. Middle East policies. In the tradition of no good deed going unpunished, Noam’s mitzvah has been the subject of vile attacks by people and organizations for whom the truth is too painful and threatening. In 1969, two years after the Six-Day Middle East War, Noam wrote and published Peace in the Middle East? and co-founded the Committee on New Alternatives in the Middle East with a statement designed to break the silence. That book, whose introduction was written by Irene Gendzier, and the statement paved the way for thousands who have since worked for Palestinian rights, for a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and who are now resisting the campaign to silence the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Noam was an outstanding critic of Ronald Reagan’s Central American wars, and among the memories I cherish is being arrested with Noam and Howard Zinn when hundreds of us closed the Federal Building in Boston to protest the Contra War.

And, in 1983 and 84, Noam was there for us when we held our first conference and made a film about the Deadly Connection, the roles that U.S. nuclear weapons and first-strike threats of nuclear attacks have served as the ultimate enforcer of empire. In December 1991, Noam was the featured speaker in the country’s first major peace movement conference following the 9-11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. As with today’s conference, there were waiting lists to get on the waiting list. And Noam’s talk helped to break the fearful silence that many here will remember prevailed in the months following those terrorist attacks. Noam has been kind enough to tolerate my requests to film interviews that we have shown at IPB conferences in Europe.

Friends, I’ve gone on quite long enough. In presenting Noam IPB’s Sean McBride Peace Prize, let me invoke Einstein’s observation that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I don’t know if he got those proportions right, they reflect just how hard and courageously Noam has worked to stop the killing, for peace, justice and human survival. He has never stopped becoming and giving.

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