Monday, April 25, 2011

Noam Chomsky at the University of Denver

I have known Noam for many years and thus, any occasion on which I hear him has a depth of shadows or memories. When I was in the student movement against university involvement in the Vietnam war, Noam focused on the resistance to the draft and off campus activity. He thought rightly that universities can, sometimes, be a haven for critical thought, the asking of questions. This is of course an enormously important moral value, one often elided horribly in what universities do (MIT lived off Pentagon contracts for unspeakable activites about Vietnam, for example), but an ideal that also needs to be defended and fought for. It is the foundation of citizenship, democracy, and philosophy – see here .

Noam has an unusual power of intellect. It is clear in his work on linguistics and for many many years on American foreign policy. He sees deeply into the patterns of the policy, into the conflicting relationship between “values and interests” (see below). Glenn Greenwald has recently emphasized the central point that one must apply the same shining principles in each case (this is Kant’s point about the element of universality in morals, John Rawls’s about placing oneself in an original position). It is the opposite of what the New York Times does about torture (Egypt tortures [including those “extraordinarily rendered”]; the US does “very harsh interrogations”).

As I said on good Friday, this is the difference between genuine democratic politics and ultimately philosophy, and partisanship (partisanship at the expense of principle leads – not slowly - to the abyss). In Greenwald’s case, it is in his fierce insistence that the torture of Bradley Manning be recognized for what it is (he was able through his blog and the work of other bloggers and international authorities and governments and ordinary State Department people like P.J. Crowley, now a hero of the foreign service (who was forced to resign by Obama for answering a question at a University seminar and telling the truth that Manning was tortured), and finally, demonstrators at an Obama fund-raiser in San Francisco, to put the pressure on Obama that forced the transfer of Manning to Leavenworth, and as announced by the Pentagon (and hopefully true), comparatively improved conditions. See Greenwald’s important comments on what standing up has meant in this regard here and here.

Noam has this quality in thinking about American foreign policy more and more persistently than any other writer. He names the truth. He names it in a detail, with a pattern, that is very unusual (in this talk, from French-backed Moroccan colonialism in the Western Sahara, despite ostensible UN protections, to Palestine. Whether he comes to Eugene or the University of Denver, unpublicized in the wider community, or Mallorca or New Delhi or Rio, several thousand people come out to hear him. One may assert that there is not a hunger for the truth among the young and old alike, including among Americans, but that is false.

In Manufacturing Consent, Noam recalls an incident when he was 6 in which a bully taunted and beat up a little boy who was overweight and Noam did nothing. He has never since done nothing.

Noam travels the world, in much demand, to name the truth and engage in discussions with many. Because he is one of the great intellectuals in the social sciences and humanities (I sometimes say to students, name 5 people who founded important ways of thinking in the 20th century in these academic fields – Freud and Keynes are a special category, but in the next level, Chomsky in linguistics would probably be among those considered), he does bring a quality, along with his passion, which is recognizable to anyone who pays attention.

Noam began his love of language with Hebrew. He also became deeply interested in anarchism, a conviction which informs what he thinks (in Mallorca, he spent some time after his talk debating anarchism with others, a natural thing to do in Spain; for my own recent experiences on this, see here).

The lack of getting dressed up for talks is simply his way of retaining an anarchist contempt for suits. He shows his respect for his audience by speaking the truth as best he can. He just talks to us as a human being, no different from the rest of us – you too could stand up even now, he seems to be saying in his jeans and sweater, looking out with a big grin. Judging by the responses, including that of my 14 year old son, he does pretty well. The answer he gave to a critical question on Venezula and Chavez’s tyranny illustrates why – he imagined a Venezuelan CIA toppling the government of the US, and a news organization which advocated it; but the government was restored by a movement from below. It would not have closed the news organization after 5 years (Noam still criticized this); the executives of it would have been shot for treason.

In philosophy of social science classes, I used to teach IQ testing as an example of what can go horrifically wrong in pseudoscience. I used Noam’s debate with Richard Herrnstein, a defender of IQ testing and advocate of Arthur Jensen’s racism. Herrnstein would not go beyond the crude justifications of IQ testing in the behavioral literature (operationalism or vapid circularity: “intelligence is what IQ tests test). So Noam devastated him in the debate(see N.J. Block and Gerald Dworkin, The IQ Controversy). Though the most wellknown American intellectual in the world - his books sell very very widely), he is screened out of debates in the corporate media (as I am, having debated neocons for some years only on educational tv – ch. 12 – in Denver). Debate is good for democracy and would have been useful for Noam to do (just the response on Venezuela was a devastating use of Rawls’s original position, for example, applying the same decent standards to everyone). But the American elite has no interest in debate or democracy, whose defense must come, as in Madison, from below.

Noam retains an older spirit from the movement of the 1960s and can – really through the quality of intellectual achievement – choose or make fashion in this respect – dress unassumingly (I also prefer it, though I sometimes dress up for an occasion, even a political one).

My grandfather and grandmother were anarchists. My mother was brought up in an anarchist educational community in Stelton, New Jersey; later, my grandparents founded a cooperative farm in Michigan in the depression (it included urban anarchists, communists and socialists, who had a tough time on the land – see my Marx’s Politics, ch. 4) and in which my uncle Red (her younger brother) was vital.

I was not an anarchist then, but have come to like anarchy – call it democratic individuality – quite a bit, especially in the circumstances of growing American militarist decadence.

My parents were agnostics, but I grew up in a jewish household where a certain amount of Yiddish still remained in the idiom. I have since in Spain spent a lot of time in the Alhambra and in the synagogues recovered from being walled over by Catholic Kings and Franco, seen the letters in Arabic and Hebrew curve up in the flowering marble, and had a sense of their beauty. So Noam and I have at times had an amusing correspondance about these matters.

At the American Political Science Association meetings in 2002 in Boston, there was a panel on my Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? (1999). 4 scholars commented on it (one said the book was “eerily prescient” about the war in Afghanistan and the Patriot Act). It is perhaps unsurprising that as a political theorist peregrinating into international relations, the book is well thought of but does not have to be taken in or discussed that much in mainstream international relations. With the disaster of American foreign policy, as I underline on this blog, this is all shifting, and some of the arguments may be even becoming surprisingly well known in the field (cf. my relationship with John Mearsheimer, for example, where we agree a lot). See also here.

At that meeting, 4 policy oriented political scientists interested in foreign policy (would-be advisors to Presidents), including Joe Nye and Charles Kupchan, discussed their new books. 150 people came. The Caucus for a New Political Science invited Noam to speak in the evening – 600 people (1/5 of the convention) came. But few are the mainstream academic books that discuss Chomsky (Steve Krasner’s Defending the National Interest has a couple of favorable citations, though without comment). Even this amounted to a bit of a bold, in your face attitude by Krasner in this fairly tepid and often misguided field. Within international relations, there is often little debate about real issues, despite the now surprising consensus that the Iraq War is a horror. See here.

When Noam came to Colorado 5 or 6 years ago, I went to his talk at Metro (4,000 or so came). When he spoke in Boulder the next night, he mentioned my book – I was told by a friend; it meant a great deal to me – and read the epigraph from James Madison about how war – for instance, the XYZ affair trumped up against the French Revolution - was used to stigmatize the new party of Madison and Jefferson as “Gallomen” (followers of the French Revolution as opposed to the quasi-Monarchical John Adams, labelled derisively an “Angloman”), to further tyranny at home. I, too, am into patterns, and this is an old and repeated one, both of the lies told by Presidents and the stigmatization of “foreigners” to pillory and crush reform and radical movements, as well as the Bill of Rights, domestically. The recent wave of anti-Arab racism about the Islamic Center in New York, and Mayor Bloomberg’s standing up to it are a case in point (Obama does not join in the anti-Arab racism; Obama briefly stood up with Bloomberg before he sat down - "I said freedom of conscience protects their right to build the Center, I didn't say it was wise.")

Noam was heroic in the draft resistance movement (could easily have gone to jail for standing up for individuals who burned their draft cards). But that movement had an elitist quality which many of the rest of us – I was in the Boston Draft Resistance Movement, counselled others on the draft, and eventually gave up a 2-s deferment as a matter of principle: that we all, poor and middle class, students and workers, were citizens, and that radical students needed sometimes to go into the army to organize against the War – some of my friends did. I was lucky enough, it turned out, not to be taken at my draft induction.

The Resistance, centered in the churches and backed by ministers like William Sloane Coffin, boldly burned their draft cards. That was a great act of individual resistance and invitation to punishment – of civil disobedience (or flight to Canada). Some went to jail. But the Resistance as an organization put out posters of soldiers coiled like a prickly porcupine with guns, as if the working class all supported the war. Actually, working people were more against the war and earlier than any other segment of the population, led by black people. In Cambridge, some 60% of voters supported an anti-war referendum, that the US withdraw immediately from Vietnam, in November 1965 (I participated in that campaign), and a similar resolution passed in San Francisco in 1966.

Over the years, Noam has taken heart in many movements from below. His comments on the latest airport strike in Cairo which succeeded against the military just now, an excellent starting point for this speech (I did not know this, but see here on the role of workers in the revolt), on the anti-Iraq war movement as being the second greatest power in the world (the United States, beginning its dive, was still number one), his participation in the world social forum from below (a democratic answer to Davos and the G-8) and many other occasions, have given him a deeper view of democracy in action. He said, by way of analogy, that what he was discussing in terms of class power, was analogous in the United States to the Middle East. One thinks of Madison, and the startling new efforts of working and poor people here to fight back. He does not read Marx particularly (I can remember no reference to Marx in his writing); he started from an elite analysis though he always wanted it to be blown up by anarchy, Barcelona in the Spanish civil war being a model - see here - and has become, over the years, deeper, more insightful. Though he did not mention it in this talk, he has also seen the value of nonviolence particularly in Palestine.

There was once a big meeting of the Boston Draft Resistance Group and the Resistance on the draft at Sanders Theater at Harvard. Many spoke including John Rawls, in one of the few occasions he came to a political gathering. Rawls gave a brilliant speech, one which has stuck with me over the years, on how conscription would look from the point of view of an original position. I have since commented, for example in Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, ch 5, on his thought that conscientious objection – or conscientious refusal - can be not just to war in general but to particular wars. But that day, everybody wondered – me, too – what a philosophy professor was doing, taking an interlude in our rather fierce debate over how to resist the draft and a clash between democracy and moral elitism or in the Resistance’s terms, making a big and important moral statement but having contempt for “good Americans” (good Germans), particularly poor people.

For some members of the Resistance also looked down on the broad movement which resisted the draft and the war in many ways. Organizing in the army would be vital in the emergence of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) and the many equivalents of the recent events in Cairo which totally disrupted the imperialist war effort – from “fragging” racist officers – rolling grenades into their tents - to a friend who fixes cars in Denver; he and another person at the garage were in a Company which would go the opposite way when assigned to fight, camp out and use all the drugs they had been able to acquire for a week, and then come back and report a large “kill-rate.” Of such things were McNamara’s “body counts” of enemies – along with the mass, genocidal killing of civilians, some 3 million Vietnamese dead, mainly slaughtered by Americans and the South Vietnamese puppet government – composed.

A wiser approach might have been to salute and praise the Resisters for their courage, and encourage many of them to unite with less spectacular but also quite effective ways of opposing the War – all these efforts and more were needed to resist and halt the massive power of the US government. But that might have required the wisdom of Gandhi and King, in short supply, among student radicals like me at the time. Looking to unite with others on principle wherever possible while still fighting out important differences is the key to having a democratic movement which does not rip itself apart.

At that meeting, as a graduate student, I volunteered to be on a committee to draft a short statement/petition against the draft. The two older volunteers for the petition were Noam Chomsky, who drafted it, and Hilary Putnam (they are longstanding friends). I was in the Government Department at Harvard and didn’t know of either of them.

Noam’s statement read something like “We oppose this unjust war.We demand equal punishment.” The thought he was getting at was one of civil disobedience, something I have learned about over time and am now deeply sympathetic to. But at the time, I looked at the contradiction in these two sentences, and with a fair amount of choutzpah (yiddish for cheekiness), said: I agree with the first sentence. But we are the ones fighting injustice. Why should we volunteer for or accept punishment?

Noam reared up and looked down at me, and probably tried to say something sensible about civil disobedience, but Hilary touched his elbow and said; “you know Noam, he has a point.”

I met Hilary later that week at the Harvard Restaurant with John Rawls and we had a long discussion of Althusser whom I had briefly met in Paris (attended his seminars with my friend Bob Leonhardt who was a student at the Ecole Normale Superieure where Althusser taught), Capital, the revolution in chemistry of Laviosier and Scheele (the discovery and naming of oxygen) and philosophy of science. Over years, Hilary and I would become dear friends. I would also later become friends with Rawls, who has always struck me as the most democratic person I have met, possibly because of his initial stuttering, someone who had to fight to make himself heard – I could later listen to Rawls talk about philosophy and every word glowed – someone who, with genuine humility, bore his fame lightly and exemplified democracy. Noam also does well at this, but his fame now runs far beyond academia, is heavier, the controversy fiercer. I also took John’s attitude as a teacher (or way of being) as something to aspire to.

I took my son to hear Noam because in his 80s, he may not come through here so many times again; I am not often in Cambridge; he often is not there when I am. My son, who is savvy politically, wanted to go, but rightly had some skepticism about his dad. Yet he applauded loudly at the end. As Rob says below, this was an intellectual occasion which will glow in the memories of those who were lucky enough to be present.

The Colorado Progressive Community News
Don't Kvetch, Organize….

An evening to remember: Noam Chomsky at the University of Denver – April 21, 2011.
April 23, 2011
by Rob Prince

Noam Chomsky, University of Denver, April 21, 2011 – Comments and Reflections..


What follows are a mix of general reactions received by email, phone and in person over the past few days. They reflect a wide range of views, not all by any means complimentary to Chomsky. But they suggest what I consider to be the most important consequence of his talks – his ability to trigger dialogue, `for’, `against’ – whatever. It is likely that some of the themes he touched on will be discussed at the University of Denver for some time into the future. And in the end, isn’t that exactly what a university should do? Stimulate civil thought, dialogue, including dissent on the campus


“It was a beautiful event last night; I felt I was a part of something incredible”… (Denver bookstore and medical marijuana shop owner)

“Thank Mona for the tickets. I thought that [Chomsky] was brilliant! and what a turnout. At 82, the man is still “the dogs bollocks” as they say.” (Suburban high school principal)

“… the event was Splendid and Sublime.” (grad student from Latin America)

“I’ve read all 50 of his books – everyone. I consider him the greatest intellectual of the 20th century” (Denver classical musican)

“Awesome speaking job last night at Chomsky, it was great.” (Undergrad student at University of Denver)

“I’m glad the students got to spend some quality time with [Chomsky]. His insights are without parallel and the way he can link/connect events over the years consistent to his theory/perspective is the sign of a superior intellect. This is not my first Chomsky event and each time I am mesmerized by that intellect while fighting off slumber.” (prof at a metro Denver area college)

“Last night was fabulous. It was great to meet Chomsky and pick his brains for a while. He was a champ! He had been traveling since who knows when, but he was absolutely fine, and chose to stay and talk with us after the event.” (student involved in organizing the event)

“Thanks for bring Chomsky, a true intellectual who shows the difference between what that is and the rest of us mere smart people!” (retired community activist)

“All I can say is thank you so much for providing me with the opportunity to be a part of this event. What a ride! Thank you again for supporting and believing in us unconditionally. I will never forget this experience.” (student involved in organizing the event)

“I once heard a speech by `the great Habernas’ (Jurgen Habermas – German sociologist), who, on a worldwide trip, got lost and accidentally wound up in Denver to give a speech. A `Chomsky of the 1980s’, same adulation; I’d read his stuff, understood much of it – a most boring speaker. Chomsky likewise. Fascinating analysis,, `radical dull’ (a local writer)

“ He says the same thing as Jon Stewart on the Daily Show but at least Jon Stewart is funny”. (elementary school teacher – Denver suburb)

“A few details and comments from today’s New York Times apart, it’s essentially the same speech I heard him give 9 years ago in New York City.” (retired educator)

“Good analysis, has made an undeniable contribution, but drones on and is too cynical.” (local Denver activist and high quality amateur baseball player)”

“He should give his honorarium to the Pol Pot Memorial Fund” (a global wanderer, passing through Colorado)


Some Further thoughts…

From a number of perspectives, Noam Chomsky’s visit to the University of Denver, was a success.

• the turnout was strong – somewhere between 2500-3000 in attendance filling Hamilton Gym in the university’s Ritchie Center to the gills
• this was accomplished with virtually no money spent on publicity; there was no publicity in the Denver area’s major media outlets, suggesting both that sometimes such advertising is not needed and more importantly, that there is at the very least, great interest in hearing Chomsky’s ideas.
• most of those in attendance were from the university community, but there were many from different social movements in Denver including a good showing of local trade unionists, the city’s Arab communities attended in significant numbers, many peace activists from various causes as well. There was also a contingent of the university’s college Republicans.
• the event came off smoothly; suggestions of anti-Chomsky protesters did not materialize. There were no disruptions of any kind.

Chomsky’s analysis is global, his historical analogies strong. No, he is not a particularly exciting speaker, his writings more interesting than his spoken word. Dressed in an old sweater and blue jeans, he speaks in a monotone, softly, his words sometimes garbled. If not for the sophistication and thoroughness of his analysis, I would venture to say his remarks could even be considered not so much as controversial as dull.

Still, what he lacks in style, he more than compensates for in content.
Noam Chomsky is a lot more than the simple rabble rouser he is often accused of being. He is not simply a `first class’, but a world class intellectual, respected for both his pioneering works on linguistics (that are as controversial in some circles as his political views) and his political analysis. Obviously, he could also be labeled a `dissident’, but so what? Isn’t the mission of a private university, especially one that striving to be a `flagship’ institution in the Rocky Mountain region to offer its facilities to the Chomsky’s of our world, among others?

His voice has another meaning: that the left movement, the progressive movement, in the United States is far from dead, that the notices of its death are premature. It’s ironic that someone whose message borders on the cynical – is also the one who gives hope! for the movement’s regeneration. Perhaps it has to do with the fact, that in order to change the world, one has to understand it, strip bare the illusions, the pretexts and get to the core.

And further it is the respect that he has gained worldwide for his writings – both professional on linguistics and his political analyses – that draws such an enormous crowd wherever he seems to go. People, including here in Colorado, just flock to see him, get his autograph, get a few words with him. Before coming to the University of Denver, he spoke at the University of Oregon in Eugene. There he spoke to an audience that included 5000 ticket holders and included an `overflow’ crowd. Imagine, at the University of Denver his audience was a mere 2500+.

What makes him so popular?

Despite the low keyed delivery, Chomsky’s is among the most searing – and accurate – critiques of U.S. foreign policy anywhere. He knows his stuff, has a grasp of the main themes of U.S. foreign policy like few others and can explain the dynamics of this policy as well as – and perhaps better than – anyone. There was an excellent question asked from the floor (by someone I know rather well actually, a long time social movement’s activist and leading progressive in Denver’s Jewish Community) concerning the paradox between the values of this country and its actions all over the world. It obviously struck a chord with Chomsky as his answer to that question was rather detailed.

Few can tease out as well as Chomsky the difference between the pretexts for U.S. foreign intervention and the deeper themes driving those policies or explain different aspects of that policy as well. Although his talk was well organized, there were a few points I felt he made especially well. They are:

• his emphasis on the role of energy (oil and natural gas) in shaping U.S. Middle East policy
• his searing critique of the U.S. – Saudi strategic relationship and in general the vital role that U.S. support for the Saudi monarchy plays in overall U.S. policy. His emphasis on the Saudi role in spreading the narrow Wahhabist version of Islam far beyond Saudi Arabia hit the nail on the head
• his argument, that if not for U.S. support, Israel would have had to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza and respect the creation of an independent Palestinian state there along ago
• his defense (not without some criticism) of Chavez in Venezuela in response to a question from the floor.
• And of course the general hypocrisy – that gulf – between the values the United States claims to represent and its actions worldwide, and especially in the Middle East.
• One point of contention: his description of Libya as an essentially tribal conflict between Khadaffi and the Libyan rebels. Perhaps 40 years ago; today this analysis is a little off the mark.

And true enough there were some, perhaps 100, out of that 2500+ audience that walked out prior to the end of his remarks, especially when the criticisms of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories were made.

But overall, a memorable evening, a special moment for the university and for Colorado…

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