Q&A: Noam Chomsky

The world's most famous linguist talks left, right, and leisure

Linguistics. It just isn't a sexy discipline. But mention the name Noam Chomsky, and suddenly people are interested in what you're doing.

It's easy to forget Chomsky is a linguist, since most people only know him as a political darling of the left. But the 82-year-old is still an academic; despite his emeritus status at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he still teaches, and he still holds biweekly office hours—although good luck stopping by unannounced. It took a week and a half to schedule my 15-minute phone conversation, a timetable to which I am told I must strictly adhere, as I was squeezed into his schedule with great effort.

On Tuesday, Chomsky will squeeze a visit to Knoxville into his schedule when he gives a lecture at the University of Tennessee. (And yes, it will be on politics, not linguistics—we asked.) The school has moved the event from its originally scheduled location to Cox Auditorium to accommodate the expected crowd—over 800 people have RSVPed on Facebook that they will be attending, some even driving from Cincinnati!—so get there early.

One of the biggest topics after the tragic shooting in Arizona is whether rhetoric can actually inflame actions. What are your thoughts about this?

I think we all know that inflammatory rhetoric can have an effect on people's actions. Whether it affected this particular person, I don't know. Wouldn't be surprised. But a general atmosphere of anger or threats, denunciation, vilification—that has to have an effect on how people perceive things.

Do you think the calls to limit inflammatory rhetoric are out of bounds or reasonable?

I don't think it can be limited by state action. We don't want to introduce state censorship. One of the real achievements of American democracy is that there is a very high level of protection of freedom of speech. That's something that we should preserve. But I think that there are many other ways to turn towards a more civilized discourse—instead of hysterical denunciation.

How do you think we could move toward that?

That's a matter of our choice as to how to act and how to induce other people to act.

There's angry rhetoric coming from the tea party, which has had huge political gains. Do you think it's possible for the left to adopt similar tactics and succeed politically?

Well, first of all we should be clear about the facts. There is a left in the country, but it barely appears in the public domain. What's called "the left" is actually centrist. The Democratic Party is called the left—that's a centrist, business-dominated party, not identical to the Republicans, but not very different from them. The left, such as it is, is essentially marginalized, has no voice in the media or public discussion.

But for the "true left," would tea party tactics work?

Some of the things the tea party is doing are exactly the right things, in my opinion. We should be organizing people to confront the real problems of society, and they are very severe. I think the tea party's choices of action are very seriously misguided and are only increasing the problems. But to organize people to deal with the plight in which they find themselves, sure, that's exactly what democracy's about, and that's what the left ought to be doing.

Over the years you've become a cultural icon. Is there a time you were referenced in pop culture that stands out to you as cool, or does all of that not interest you?

What interests me is having an opportunity to talk to people about things I think are important. It's true that those opportunities have been enhanced over the years. For example, when I began speaking publicly about general issues—the Vietnam War, the economy, and so on—I was talking to people in their living rooms, or, you know, a church with half-a-dozen people or something. ... Now the situation is so radically reversed—this morning, for example, I've already had to turn down probably a dozen requests for talks here or there. ... It's unfortunate. There are a great many people who could be doing these things, and who simply are not invited because they're unknown, people doing extremely good work.

Who are some of these people you're talking about?

Just today I've happened to read extremely good articles on these topics by Roger Bybee—by Paul Street, who ... now is the coauthor of a book on the tea party which is very good. ... On international affairs, Stephen Zunes is a very fine analyst, writing constantly, but rarely invited to give talks about things that are quite crucial, like what's happening in the Middle East, or in Tunisia.

I see that our time is up, but if I could ask one last quick question: When you are not teaching or speaking or writing or reading or all that, what do you like to do for fun?

Not very much, I'm afraid. Play with my grandchildren. But mostly I work.

Do you ever read for pleasure?

I do sometimes—not as much as I'd like to. The demands are just too heavy. Constant. Overwhelming. Just answering e-mail alone takes five or six hours a day, and that's the least of it.