LectureHop: Chomsky, American Imperialism, and Said’s Legacy
Written by Bwog Staff
Bwog Oldie Justin Vlasits endured enormous lines winding throughout IAB in order to bring you this report on Linguist/Political Activist Noam Chomsky’s speech last night.
In today’s intellectual climate, with its emphasis on tight specialization, it is uncommon to see someone excel in more than one field. Noam Chomsky is a member of this rare breed, and probably more so than any other American public intellectual of his generation. In the linguistics community he has proved somewhat controversial for his notion of generative grammar, but in the realm of contemporary political thought, he stands as a symbol of the nation’s most radical left. So when Chomsky gave the Edward Said Memorial Lecture last night, he attempted to take up where Said leaves off in his book Orientalism and discuss American imperialism after the Cold War.
Listening to Chomsky’s lecture was a bit like getting hit on the head with a baseball bat. His mission was not to finesse you with a subtle argument in the way that Said might have; rather, it was to reeducate you, actively and without relent. Chomsky’s examples of US interference in the Americas, the Philippines, and the Middle East were enough to make anyone skeptical of the narrative with which we present ourselves—that of the peace-bringing, freedom-loving flag-wavers coming to liberate the world. He presented a Machiavellian picture of our foreign policy in which our government is uninterested in the ideals of our founding documents unless they can be used to justify acting in our own economic or geopolitical self-interest.
Even to an avid reader of The Nation, Chomsky’s details were illuminating. He reads news and current events in much the same way that Said close reads Flaubert—neither ever neglects to historicize. What was so refreshing about Chomsky was that he did not need to present a grand theory of political economy in order to convey his message; throughout the lecture, he operated in a totally brute-fact style.
Unfortunately, the audience did not bring the same kind of critical eye to Chomsky’s lecture: rather, it seemed to consist almost entirely of fans unwilling to part from or even begin to criticize his narratives. While there were many of the Old New Left present, the hall was mostly filled with students. A small group lined up at the very end for Q&A as if approaching a great oracle, asking questions that showcased their unrelenting devotion to the one justifying their political views. One questioner prefaced his remark by saying, “I’d like to thank you for…well…your whole career.” While someone asked him what he thought about China, no one suggested that its growing economic clout could upset the “unipolar” world that Chomsky discussed as the situation of global politics without qualification.
Another student, however, had the courage to ask the question that must have been on everyone’s mind: “What can we do now?” Chomsky responded simply: what we’ve always done. The powers that be must listen to a mass movement, he reasoned; this simply has not changed. At that moment I realized exactly how Said’s analysis differed from Chomsky’s. For Said, there is always more than just the brute facts—after the historical, literary, and cultural analysis, we may not be able to “fix the problem,” but at least we feel like we understand the world better. Chomsky however, ended with the brute facts. While their approaches in this lecture followed similar problematics, at least in this respect, Chomsky did not live up to Said’s example.