by Aisha Chapra Sander
Aisha Sander visits with Noam Chomsky after their interview at University of Arizona, Tucson.
Photo by: Valeria Chomsky

World-renowned linguist and political dissident Noam Chomsky moved to Tucson in 2017 to join the faculty in the department of linguistics at the University of Arizona. Chomsky’s previous visits to UA with his wife, Valeria Wasserman Chomsky, led to his decision. “We’ve very much come to appreciate the intellectual environment and the lifestyle,” Chomsky said.

Chomsky teaches a course called “What is Politics?” at UA. One of the key components of the class is to invite activists to speak. Patagonia Area Regional Alliance (PARA) was invited to speak at Chomsky’s class on Feb. 6, where Carolyn Shafer’s talk was met with great enthusiasm by the Chomskys and the students. The Chomskys are intrigued by the diverse and unique character of the Mountain Empire and hope to visit in the future.

The Chomskys find Tucson very interesting. Chomsky said that it is politically interesting because “it’s very mixed. For example,…the split is very wide. There are issues that really grip people – like the border issue – like the group No More Deaths…and on the other hand you have plenty of people who have a cellar full of assault rifles.”

“My wife and I live in a desert paradise,” Chomsky said. Valeria manages a vegetable garden, a chicken coop, and their two dogs. Though they do not have any such thing as a typical day in Tucson, Chomsky said he spends most of his day in front of the computer working on either work related to linguistics, or his other main interest, world affairs.

Chomsky said that the most unexpected experiences he has had are related to these two main interests. In linguistics, he said, “it was almost unimaginable that we could ever reach the point that I think we are beginning to discover.”

When Chomsky started his studies “the prevailing doctrine was that languages can vary arbitrarily, and each language has to be studied on its own without consideration of other,” he said. Now linguists agree that the prevailing theory was “totally impossible.” “If it were true, nobody could ever learn a language, language could never evolve. Language looks like a very complex object, but a child has very simple sparse information and all children acquire their language reflexively, kind of like growing, you don’t even try,” he said. Therefore, there must be “a fundamental basic system, which is at the root quite simple, operates by natural laws of computational efficiency and that out of that comes the minor variations that look like to us different languages. We are well on our way to perceiving to how that could be established, which is a dramatic change from 50 to 60 years ago.”

“On the other side, I think the unexpected thing, is that we have survived, literally. I mean I remember Aug. 6, 1945 very well and it seemed to me at the time that it’s almost impossible for humans to survive…and if you look at the record, we have come so close to nuclear war, often just by accident, that it is literally miraculous that we have survived. At that time, in 1945, the issue of global warming was not at all understood. We now know that that’s a lethal threat in the near future. When you think of these things its kind of amazing that organized society still exists.”

Chomsky also reflected, “If you look back 50-60 years ago, hard to imagine that we would ever come to a point where women’s rights are recognized. Remember 50 years ago the government still had obligatory segregation in federal housing. In the 1960’s the country still had anti-miscegenation laws that the Nazis would refuse to adopt because they were so extreme. That was only 50-60 years ago. So a lot has changed in all directions.”

Chomsky said that he has hope because “if you look back at the things that have improved they didn’t come as gifts from God or from political leaders, they were all won by popular activism and struggle, almost all young people, and that’s still going on. Take the Green New Deal that Ocasio-Cortez introduced. That was done by the work of the Sunrise Movement, young people who just sat in offices, insisted, demanded that changes take place and managed to get a group of some of the new congressional delegates to push it through. It’s not going to be enacted but it’s the right move. And that kind of thing is hopeful.”