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Serendipity and Self-Justification

To the degree that Chomsky's activism was the product of his very conscious determination to be instrumental in the creation of a good society, his scientific achievement was serendipitous. While, in retrospect, it may seem as though he moved smoothly from one academic triumph to another, Chomsky's ascent to the status of recognized figure within the academy was, at times, haphazard: he got into linguistics "more or less by accident"; he became a Harvard Fellow and was subsequently offered the research position in the electronics lab at mit thanks to the intervention of friends; Morris Halle put him in contact with an editor who agreed to publish the results of his "hobby" (Syntactic Structures); he was praised in a long and detailed review, which attracted the attention of many key people in the field. If we take into account his approach to institutions (particularly places of higher learning), his renegade attitude towards academia in general, and the broad number of fields that interested him (logic, mathematics, philosophy, linguistics, languages, literature), it is surprising that his career has been such a success.

The most frequently discussed aspect of Chomsky's career path is his having chosen/been chosen by mit, an institution that didn't even have a linguistics department when Chomsky first arrived (or for that matter a department of philosophy or even psychology), and that, moreover, was the epicenter of research for the United States military. Some have suggested that Chomsky's institutional affiliation has hampered his work because it has compelled him to defend its scientificity while forcing him into a direct collaboration with the military.

In 1969, the Pentagon and NASA were financing two MIT laboratories; one (now called Draper) was working on inertial guidance systems, while the other (Lincoln) was (to the best of Chomsky's recollection) "engaged in some things that involved ongoing counterinsurgency" (13 Feb. 1996). Chomsky maintains that it was impossible at that time for mit and its researchers to sever ties with the military-industrial complex and continue to function. What he proposed then he stands by even today: universities with departments that work on bacterial warfare should do so openly, by developing departments of death. His intention was to inform the general population of what was going on so that individuals could make informed and unencumbered decisions about their actions. Such thinking was behind his response to the Pounds Committee, which was formed to defuse the tension that was mushrooming between the mit administration and a group of students who were adamantly opposed to the military connection: "The students and I submitted a dissident report disagreeing with the majority. The way it broke down was that the right-wing faculty wanted to keep the labs, the liberal faculty wanted to break the relations (at least formally), and the radical students and I wanted to keep the labs on campus, on the principle that what is going to be going on anyway ought to be open and above board, so that people would know what is happening and act accordingly" (31 Mar. 1995).

Of course, there was resistance to the report from the majority of faculty members, "including all the liberal faculty, [who] were smart enough to understand just what that implied, and wanted what amounted to a formal administrative change, so that technically the labs weren't part of the Institute, hence the connections remained pretty much invisible, though not much changed" (31 Mar. 1995). In short, Chomsky's position on this issue is that no formal constraints should be put on research. So at this time he took what he calls "a pretty extreme position," and indeed "one that might be hard to defend had anyone ever criticized it," which he describes as follows:

Nothing should be done to impede people from teaching and doing their research even if at that very moment it was being used to massacre and destroy. That was not academic. At the time, the mit political science department was doing just that (in my opinion), and the issue was very much alive as Kennedy-Johnson "action intellectuals" started returning to the universities after Nixon's election. In fact, as a spokesman for the Rosa Luxemburg collective, I went to see the President of MIT in 1969 to inform him that we intended to protest publicly if there turned out to be any truth to the rumours then circulating that Walt Rostow (who we regarded as a war criminal) was being denied a position atMIT on political grounds (claims that were hardly plausible, and turned out to be utterly false). (13 Feb. 1996)
So, according to Chomsky, no institution should legislate what people are permitted to work on. Instead, "people have a responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of their actions, and therefore have the responsibility of thinking about the research they undertake and what it might lead to under existing conditions" (13 Feb. 1996).

When berated for accepting a salary from an institution so intimately involved in the business of death and destruction, Chomsky pointed out that receiving financing from an institution only limits one's ability to speak out if that institution is totalitarian in nature. Interestingly, most of the criticism came from the left, prompting Chomsky to ask: "Did you ever hear anyone suggest that Marx shouldn't have worked in the British Museum, the very symbol of British Imperialism?" (31 Mar. 1995).

Chomsky has also defended his affiliation with MIT in the context of the hard-sciences-versus-social-sciences debate. Defining the parameters of that discussion, he writes:

[T]here is a noticeable general difference between the sciences and mathematics on the one hand, and the humanities and social sciences on the other. It's a first approximation, but one that is real. In the former, the factors of integrity tend to dominate more over the factors of ideology. It's not that scientists are more honest people. It's just that nature is a harsh taskmaster. You can lie or distort the story of the French Revolution as long as you like, and nothing will happen. Propose a false theory in chemistry, and it'll be refuted tomorrow. Fakery in scientific experiment is a very marginal phenomenon, contrary to what you read in the press, and is quickly discovered, for a very simple reason: people replicate, and it's their professional task to check results and the thinking that leads to them. (22 July 1992)
The natural or "hard" sciences are "driven by internal considerations, by what can be studied next, what is on the fringes of understanding" (14 June 1993). Advancement in science progresses in an incremental fashion, and while a given end may be morally reprehensible to some, the accidental discoveries made in the process of attaining that end may be of enormous benefit to many. For example, although a government might decide to give massive funding to a researcher who is working on a truth serum so that its agents can extract information from captured spies, that researcher will be obliged, in formulating the serum, to analyze how particular drugs affect the thinking process, and thus be of use to the population at large in a variety of crucial ways.

Such considerations lead Chomsky to compare Harvard and MIT ­ the institutions within which he has worked. He describes them as two of the most influential universities in the world. "Harvard is humanities based: it's the place where people are trained to rule the world," while " MIT is science-based: it's the place where people are trained to make the world work" (18 Feb. 1993). Although Chomsky's linguistic research clearly belongs to the domain of the hard sciences, it may be consigned to its softer edges as it is still far from having the depth of mathematics or physics according to his own definition. It is obvious, however, where his sympathies lie:

For political dissidents, MIT is a far more friendly place. Virtually all the faculty peace activism in Cambridge, for example, has come from MIT, with some drifters occasionally from Harvard. My own experience is typical. If I walk into the Harvard Faculty Club, you can feel the chill settle, literally. It's inconceivable that I could be asked to give a talk at the Kennedy School of Government (ada-style liberalism, in large measure), unless it's organized by some group they can't control (like the foreign press, which runs regular programs), in which case they grit their teeth and bear it. In contrast, I've had a very friendly and supportive environment at MIT, no matter what I've been doing. (18 Feb. 1993)
This is a contentious point, for there are, of course, exceptions to the rule that Chomsky is at pains to illustrate. One such exception is the case of Elaine Bernard: although she is not a Harvard faculty member, she finds the atmosphere of that institution reasonably supportive. Bernard moved from Canada to the United States in 1989. She had been an activist for many years and had served as president of the British Columbia New Democratic Party. She is now the executive director of the Harvard Trade Union Program and a member of the New Politics editorial board. Another is the case of David Noble, a historian who taught for nine years at MIT and conducted research on how science and technology develop as products not only of accumulated knowledge and skills, but also of social power and conflict. Noble, like Chomsky, is, as well, an activist and social critic who assists rank-and-file groups in several industries in their struggle with new technologies. He was the cofounder, with Ralph Nader, of the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest. In 1984, he was fired by MIT "for his ideas and his actions in support of those ideas." He subsequently "brought a suit against MIT to obtain and make public the documentary record of his political firing and on the basis of this record the American Historical Association subsequently condemned MIT for the firing" (Noble, Progress 165). Chomsky comments: "As for David Noble, it's always hard to make judgments about such issues, but my own is that it wasn't primarily his (quite outstanding) dissident work that led to the tenure denial ­ in a department that considers itself rather to the left-liberal side, I suppose" (27 June 1995).

The basis of Chomsky's reputation at MIT is his scientific research. He is acclaimed within the university for being a valuable contributor to the scientific fields within which he works ­ not for his actions and writings in the political realm. This gives him a certain leverage and a freedom from ideological control that he would not enjoy if he had become attached to a humanities-based university.

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