Why People Are Remembering Noam Chomsky

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Over the weekend, a number of tributes to public intellectual Noam Chomsky were posted on social media, remarking on his life and career. But the 95-year-old linguist, by all public accounts, is not dead yet.

What’s been said about Noam Chomsky’s health status?

The outpouring came after U.K.-based outlet Media Lens posted on Facebook on June 7: “No doubt like many other people around the world, we have been surprised and profoundly concerned that Noam Chomsky has not commented publicly on current events; in particular, the Israeli genocide of Palestinians.” Media Lens followed with a series of purported updates on Chomsky’s condition, sourced to Reddit posts by Chomsky’s former assistant Bev Stohl, and concluding that “it is very unlikely he will return to the public eye.”

Chomsky—who in one of his last media appearances said in April last year that he “first started talking publicly about the criminal nature of Israel’s actions in 1969” but that he regretted not speaking out earlier about the “repression” of Palestinians—has been noticeably absent from public eye over the past year. Some have also pointed out that Chomsky, who was well-known for regularly responding to emails sent to him, has not engaged in such communication since last June.

Stohl, who worked as Chomsky’s office manager at MIT for 24 years until her retirement in 2017 and is the author of a 2023 memoir Chomsky and Me, responded in September on Reddit to a user asking about Chomsky’s condition: “He was active through mid June. I know it’s hard not knowing for sure what’s happening. He is taking a much-needed rest after a very stressful time.” Stohl commented in January on another Reddit discussion that her former boss “remains out of commission” due to “a medical event last June [that] has necessitated his pulling back completely. I wish I could be more specific.”

On Feb. 5, Stohl posted on Reddit that she was in contact with a close family member and that Chomsky “is still with us, now watching the news (he doesn’t look happy about what he’s watching). I will answer basic questions and give you updates as the family member I’m in touch with feels comfortable.” Stohl commented on the post on April 23 to add that “Noam has not made significant progress, I’m sorry to say. I doubt he will be able to return to the public eye, as he is not communicating much if at all.” In a since-removed April 25 comment, she added: “His ability to speak is complicated by factors I can’t yet disclose. When the relative I’m in touch with visited him a month ago, he did not communicate with her. He is not ambulatory. I’m not sure for how long this will go on. He is not in pain.” Stohl later edited the post to say that Chomsky’s “family is very private” and she will “no longer be adding to this discussion.”

Stohl, in a statement sent to TIME after publication, expressed regret that Media Lens “exposed” what she said “was never intended to be revealed to the public.” She added that Chomsky’s “family does not want anything revealed aside from the fact that Noam is out of the public eye for medical reasons” and emphasized that it is up to them to decide when and how more information is publicized. Neither Chomsky nor his wife and correspondence manager Valeria responded immediately to TIME’s requests for comment.

Update: Noam Chomsky Suffered ‘Massive Stroke’ and Is Recovering in Brazil

How have social media users reacted?

While Chomsky’s health status has yet to be confirmed, the speculation about his deterioration has been met with both praise for and condemnation of him.

Nathan Robinson, the founder and editor of socialist magazine Current Affairs, is one of several leftist media figures who paid homage to Chomsky. Robinson, who is the co-author with Chomsky of the forthcoming book The Myth of American Idealism: How U.S. Foreign Policy Endangers the World, said on X: “So many thousands of people have stories about how he has changed their lives. He certainly changed mine.” (Robinson told TIME he had no other information to share than what’s already public.)

British-American journalist Mehdi Hasan posted to his 1.5 million X followers: “Sending prayers Noam’s way. There has been no one else like him in our lifetime.”

Jon Schwarz, a former senior writer at The Intercept, described the Facebook post by Media Lens about Chomsky’s condition as “extremely distressing” and urged people to “focus on gratitude for everything he’s given us for so long.” Meanwhile, Aaron Maté, a Canadian journalist for far-left site The Grayzone, thanked Chomsky “for a lifetime of immeasurable service to humanity.”

“An intellectual giant in an age of confusion, misinformation & soundbites,” Scottish activist and publisher of literary journal Rebel Inc. Kevin Williamson posted on X.

“Chomsky is best we’ve ever had or ever will have,” Sam Haselby, senior editor of Aeon Magazine, added. “Toni Morrison wrote it’s great good fortune to miss someone before they’re gone.”

Others, however, have used the newfound attention on Chomsky to criticize his controversial stances. James Rushton, a Ukraine-based policy analyst, posted on X: “Incredibly sad to hear Noam Chomsky has apparently denied his last genocide.” And Australian political activist Drew Pavlou added, amid the flow of premature eulogies, that Chomsky “managed to outlive most of the victims of the Cambodian Genocide by about 45 years.” Chomsky has been accused of defending the brutal regime of Pol Pot as well as of downplaying the massacre of Bosnians.

Who is Noam Chomsky?

Chomsky, born Avram Noam Chomsky to Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia in December 1928, is one of the most cited scholars in modern history. He joined the staff of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955 and became an emeritus professor in 2002 until he moved to the University of Arizona in 2017 as a laureate professor. Though Chomsky is credited with revolutionizing the field of linguistics, he became better known to the wider world as a prominent anti-war activist and prolific social and political commentator, noted for his criticism of capitalism and American imperialism.

Chomsky “has described his own politics variously as anarchist, anarchosyndicalist, and libertarian socialist,” according to a biography on his website. He rose to prominence as an outspoken opponent of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war and went on to write or co-write dozens of books, including his Orwell Award-winning 1988 critique of mass media Manufacturing Consent. In 2005, Chomsky was voted the world’s top public intellectual in a global poll.

Chomsky recently came under scrutiny for his reported association with financier and convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, whom Chomsky said he “met occasionally” to discuss geopolitics with and consulted for help moving money between his own accounts.

In June 2023, British journalist Piers Morgan asked Chomsky, during what may have been his final media appearance, “If you could write your own heading on your own tombstone: ‘Here lies Noam Chomsky. He—’ What would you like the rest of that sentence to say?”

Chomsky replied: “He tried his best.”

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