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.