Tuesday, June 08, 2004

A Chomsky Flashback

Reader Mark sent me this fantastic tale of encountering the good professor himself:

Hi Benjamin:

I came upon your blog today from a link posted by Andrew Sullivan, and can't
resist sending this reminiscence:

In 1973 Noam Chomsky was already a well-known polemicist and in those days, at least, the prestige of his early achievement in linguistics gave him an undeserved credibility. He came to Brooklyn College, where I was a freshman student, to give a talk or lecture and I was in the audience. No doubt his anti-Western themes were the same then as they are today with slight variations, but I remember only one thing he said, because it caused a kind of epiphany: "it's reasonably clear that Richard Nixon stole the [1972] election." Now I had been a McGovernite in 1972, had manned campaign tables, stuffed envelopes and made phone calls for the candidate, and in 1973 I was following the burgeoning Watergate controversy with fascination. But I knew that no one "steals" a 60% to 40% landslide. It took a few moments for the full absurdity to sink in, and then I got up and walked out. What really struck me was the dressing of reluctant academic objectivity ("it is reasonably clear, etc. . . .") with which he coated this piece of rhetoric, and the apparent ease by which it went down with the rest of the audience. I learned a lesson that day from Noam Chomsky, though it wasn't the one he had come to teach, and as a small side-benefit it's been unnecessary for me to pay the slightest attention to him ever since.

Yes, that's it exactly: "reluctant academic objectivity", the professorial waving hand of dismissal. I've encountered it too. I once saw Chomsky on local television saying something like: "Nobody really wants to talk about it, but the comparison on everybody's mind is Nazi Germany..." referring to the United States in Iraq. Its a marvelous way of distracting people from the extremism of what's being said. "I don't want to think it," he wants us to believe, "but everybody else is, so..." It is also, as I mentioned in my review of Peace in the Middle East?, an extraordinarily cowardly way for an intellectual to conduct himself. It essentially amounts to a refusal to take responsibility for the implications of one's political stances, a refusal to engage honestly with those who may disagree with you. So much for speaking truth to power.

Thanks to Mark and all the rest who wrote in. Keep the emails coming, guys, I'm loving it!