Feb

6

LectureHop: Chomsky Waxes Political

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Chomsky’s second speech, a discussion of Harold Pinter’s censorious Nobel Prize acceptance speech, failed to impress contributor Armin Rosen. He sends this evaluation of the MIT linguist’s decidedly uncritical reception.


I remember reading somewhere that Noam Chomsky was a controversial figure, but if I had to depend on my own sense perceptions for evidence, I’d have serious trouble believing it. Yes, a few people stood outside of Miller Theatre alleging that Chomsky was in fact a “radical adviser to < ?xml:namespace prefix = st1 />U.S. imperialism.” But, the fact that these people were Sparticists, and the fact that they provided what was virtually the evening’s only counterpoint to Chomsky’s polarizing views on American foreign policy, is evidence either that the entire educated world is in accord with Mr. Chomsky’s somewhat divisive political views, or that students at this University are, simply put, intellectually impotent.

And then there’s a horrifying third possibility, which is that some intellectually impotent faculty organizer went ahead and assumed that the entire educated world is in accord with said linguist-cum-ultraleft polemicist, and deliberately engineered this event as a means of reinforcing Chomsky’s abominable political views. A cursory glance at the program description led me to logically eliminate this possibility: the concept of the event, which was to juxtapose playwright Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech with Chomsky’s own views on American foreign policy, implied the kind of differentiation of opinion that makes for intriguing, provocative intellectual discussion. After all—if Pinter and Chomsky were in complete agreement then screening the speech in front of a sold-out Miller Theatre would be the most ludicrous possible act of redundancy. 

I was hopeful through the first third of Pinter’s speech, in which the English playwright brilliantly dissected the concept of artistic truth before discussing his own process of creating that truth. Artistic subjectivity is solid ground for discourse and debate, as would have been the last two thirds of the speech, in which Pinter disingenuously de-contextualizes 60 years of cultural and geopolitical history in order to portray the United States as a merciless, aliberal rogue state guilty of the worst human rights abuses in history—had anybody but Noam Chomsky been there to respond to it.

But Chomsky was, alas, the night’s main attraction, and he precluded any chance of dialogue between himself and the Nobel Prize winner when he read an excerpt from a New York Times opinion piece asserting that one of the only people who would agree with Pinter’s radical politics was Chomsky himself. But, in very crude terms, it takes two to tango—and the students and audience members who questioned Chomsky weren’t interested in dialogue either.

The ass-kissing began when an anti-war coalition member asked for Chomsky’s support for a proposed student walkout on Feb. 15, a query which was followed by softballs on such Chomsky favorites as American hegemony, possible war with Iran, and neoliberal economics. None of the questions demanded even a modicum of thought or analysis on Chomsky’s part, and his answers, which were delivered in his trademark, low-decibel growl, seemed more like recitation than argumentation. This is inexcusable—Chomsky, like all divisive public thinkers left or right should always, always be on the defensive, and asking him what he thinks about the fall of the American Empire is the intellectual equivalent of pissing yourself in front of Justin Timberlake. I’d expect this kind of thing at say, Brown. But not here.

While the almost immediately-discarded purpose of the event was to explore the unlikely political and intellectual kinship between Harold Pinter, a giant of the creative arts, and Noam Chomsky, the giant of modern linguistics, the comparison I found myself most intrigued by was somewhat more abstract. The perception of the German operatic composer Richard Wagner as a creative genius has long overwhelmed that of him as a virulent anti-Semite andGerman supremacist—which is to say that in history’s opinion, genius is grounds for forgiving even the gravest of deficiencies in character. Chomsky the linguist will likely long outlive Chomsky the armchair political scientist, just as Wagner the composer has long outlived (or at least long overshadowed) Wagner the racist. History is usually kind to the extraordinarily brilliant—or at least a certain diminutive, obnoxiously soft-spoken MIT professor had better hope so.

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13 Comments

  1. A fan  

    "the intellectual equivalent of pissing yourself in front of Justin Timberlake."

    Beautiful.

  2. I'm shocked!  

    Shocked to find a renowned leftist critic of US foreign policy preaching to the choir at an elite liberal university!

    Obviously Chomsky is a fair target for criticism, and the level of public debate around here is often disappointing. Of course, this is exactly why the last thing we need is another show of self-righteous outrage and indignation.

    Case in point: You treat Chomsky's foreign-policy dabbling as a blot on his reputation, but nowhere in this piece do you engage his actual ideas or opinions on the matter.

    And speaking of damaged reputations, you seem to be suggesting that history has somehow forgiven or excused Wagner's anti-Semitism on the grounds of his artistic achievement. This is, at the least, misleading. Nobody argues that Wagner's anti-Semitism doesn't matter because of the quality of his music; they simply recognize that the one does not affect the other. It is possible to recognize an enjoy his (or anyone else's) aesthetic achievement without overlooking his serious moral failures. I do not endorse anti-Semitism by listening to Wagner any more than I condone statutory rape by watching Chinatown. If you'd like to raise the quality of public discourse on campus, you could start by avoiding such reductive thinking.

  3. Amazing  

    "is evidence either that the entire educated world is in accord with Mr. Chomsky's somewhat divisive political views, or that students at this University are, simply put, intellectually impotent. "

    Or, get this bwog, the majority of students at Columbia are on the left. Mind blowing, no?

  4. yes  

    the bwog is -gasp- not one mega-mind. unfathomable that a blog would take more than one person to run it, no?

    • the point  

      of course bwog is not a mega-mind. but there are issues on which bwog agrees to speak collectively, and commentary like this should be distinguished from that. it should be fairly clear when the subject of an opinion is "bwog" vs. "joe smith" or whatever, but some people still make the mistake.

  5. invisible_hand

    did you really just draw a comparison between chomsky's political theory and wagner's anti-semitism?

  6. I dunno about you...  

    but I'm still waiting for Owain Evan's review of this puppy.

  7. Anonymous  

    "Chomsky, like all divisive public thinkers left or right should always, always be on the defensive,"

    That's just lazyness. Divisive public thinkers need not be on the constant defensive, unless you have some inert opposition to divisiveness.

    The fact with the Chomsky event is that no one who opposed Chomsky chose to attend the event and ask him a question. That is sad, but nothing precluded them from doing so. It's not that there aren't people on this campus who would challenge Chomsky--Kulawik et al would, so would any Zionist group--but it's that they didn't come to play ball, which is their choice. Maybe the Heyman Center should have done a better job reaching out to them to encourage them to take a whack at the Chomster.

    But back to my main point, everyone who's educated on the spectrum of American foreign policy opinions knows where Chomsky stands. The book on him was opened and closed a long time ago, and because his views are so distinct and known, maybe people just find it impotent and futile to ask him a challenging question, as they know they will disagree with the basic premises and sources Chomsky cites?

    The more definitive and known (and thus divisive) a speaker's opinions, the less the audience feels the need to poke the speaker. On the flipside, a more mainstream thinker--take Thomas Friedman as a polar opposite of Chomsky--would best be subjected to the highest scrutiny, as fewer know definitively what differentiates his views from the next guy.

    • Anonymous  

      To clarify, I'm not advocating not challenging speakers, I'm simply saying that Chomsky is what he is, most people know what he is, and that is that-- and that with less prolific intellectuals or intellectuals with less publically defined positions, the importance of scrutiny is higher.

      Chomsky is the devil (or in my opinion angel) we know. Someone else is the devil we don't.

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