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The definitive moment of Noam Chomsky’s life came when he was only six years old. One day after class, one of Chomsky’s classmates threatened to beat up a defenseless fat kid in the schoolyard with the help of his older brother. Chomsky describes his reaction to the scene in the documentary Manufacturing Consent: “I remember going up to stand next to him. I did for a while, but then I got scared and went away. I was very much ashamed of it afterwards. I felt—I’ll never do that again. That’s a feeling that stuck with me. You should stick with the underdog.”
Chomsky kept his promise. Throughout his life, he’s taken on (what he perceives as) the ultimate bully—the United States—and he’s never backed down. This past week, he released Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, in which he argues what he has been arguing for the past 40 years—that America’s foreign policy, from Vietnam to Iraq, has been motivated by a thirst to expand its empire. As usual, he bolsters his claims with an unearthly number of facts and footnotes, and the logic of his arguments seems all but irrefutable. Chomsky’s relentless criticism of U.S. foreign policy (along with his groundbreaking work as a linguist) has earned him The New York Times’ praise as “arguably the most important intellectual alive.”
For me, hearing Chomsky speak for the first time was a life-changing experience. His ability to take preconceptions and destroy them—to completely remodel one’s understanding of reality with cold, hard facts—blew me away. When I left what was then the ARCO Forum last fall, I felt as though I had been through the Matrix and back. Chomsky really has this effect because he bombards you with evidence and logic, not empty rhetoric. It is nearly impossible to hear him or read him—once you’ve actually checked his facts yourself (he even cites page numbers in public addresses)—and deny what he’s saying.
It is Chomsky’s amazing ability to reason that leads me to believe that he has the power to make the Left make sense—and perhaps, to single-handedly push America in a more progressive direction.
Unfortunately, Chomsky continues to squander this potential by making decisions that destroy his credibility in the eyes of most Americans. In perhaps his most infamous move, on the day after the Sept. 11 attacks, Chomsky stated: “The terrorist attacks were major atrocities. In scale they may not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing unknown numbers of people.” As a result of his poor timing and unwillingness to moderate his tone, his message was lost to anyone not already on the extreme Left. He sounded callous and dogmatic; instead of provoking change, he provoked disgust.
Chomsky’s most recent blunder came on his Oct. 28 lecture in Cuba. With Cuban President Fidel Castro in the audience, Chomsky argued that, after the failed effort in Iraq, Bush and his cronies would have to “manufacture” another enemy in order to be re-elected in 2004.
“It is a frightened country and it is easy to conjure up an imminent threat,” he said. “They have a card that they can play...terrify the population with some invented threat, and that is not very hard to do.”
He continued his scathing (when is he not scathing?) attack by arguing that Cuba—a country the Bush administration has accused of developing a biological weapons research program—could be Bush’s next target.
Talk about alienating yourself from a larger audience. Riling up Fidel Castro doesn’t exactly win you friends in America.
The problem is that Chomsky doesn’t care. He has never been able to compromise his beliefs for the sake of being accepted, and he doesn’t seem to mind the fact that most people dismiss him as a conspiracy theorist after such remarks. And while I do admire Chomsky for his unflinching integrity, I find myself wondering if he is more concerned with exposing injustice than removing injustice, more interested in criticizing America than in improving it. Chomsky is almost 75 years old and he has a choice to make: he can continue to radically dissent to his heart’s delight, or he can try to win a broader audience and actually change things.
Chomsky has his reasons for his unwavering radicalism. He could care less about persuading swing voters not to vote for Bush, because he distrusts governments in general. He believes that real change comes about as a result of grass-roots movements, not the political process. Yet, even if he is waiting for Americans to rise up in mass movements, he’s not going to spark widespread protest unless he can get more people to embrace his message. And if he wants to convince Americans, he’s simply got to tone it down.
Instead of standing up to the bully by himself, Chomsky should convince the rest of the kids in the schoolyard to rise up with him and actually make the bully back down.
Sam Graham-Felsen ’03-’04 is a social studies concentrator, affiliated with Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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