Noam Chomsky spoke to a packed audience at Westbrook’s Performing Center for the Arts on Monday. His talk, titled “Arab Spring, American Winter,” compared the democratic uprising in Egypt with the Occupy Wall Street protests here in the U.S. Chomsky noted, while Egyptian protesters fought to gain basic freedoms and democratic liberties from a repressive, dictatorial regime, Americans are finding their own freedoms and worker rights stripped away.
Chomsky is Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Philosophy at M.I.T. He is author of dozens of books, a celebrated progressive activist, and widely considered the world’s leading intellectual. Yet, despite all the man’s accolades not one member of the press was present in the auditorium, which was filled to capacity.
“He really has been a voice in the wilderness,” noted the person sitting next to me before the talk began.
Indeed, at 83 and still as mentally sharp as ever, Chomsky remains something of an anomaly in modern American discourse. While Europe has a long tradition of celebrated public intellectuals, it is difficult to identify a modern day peer (save perhaps, for Ralph Nader, or the late Howard Zinn) of Chomsky's.
Chomsky’s views on foreign policy and media propaganda (most acutely spelled out in Manufacturing Consent, which he wrote with Wharton School professor, Edward Herman), have been indispensable to my work as both an academic and activist.
Professor Chomsky’s latest book, Hopes and Prospects, is a compilation of recent speeches, essays and articles covering the economy, U.S. global hegemony and accounts from the frontlines of progressive activism.
Ever the iconoclast, Chomsky remains committed to rebuking official doctrines (of the right, but more often than not the left), concepts of American exceptionalism and other sacred cows.
Chomsky’s commitment to speaking truth to power, notes author Chris Hedges in his book, Death of the Liberal Class is what makes him so feared by the liberal intelligentsia.
Chomsky, Hedges writes, “...reminds us that genuine intellectual inquiry is always subversive. It challenges cultural and political assumptions. It critiques structures. It is relentlessly self-critical. It implodes the self-indulgent myths and stereotypes we use to aggrandize ourselves and ignore our complicity in acts of violence and oppression. And genuine inquiry always makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable.”
By that account, Hopes and Prospects finds Chomsky at his best. Much of the book is devoted to in-depth examinations of the destructive neoliberal polices the U.S., the World Bank and the IMF (or the “Unholy Trinity” as Chomsky labeled the groups in his speech) impose on developing nations, particularly in Latin America.
In writing on the hypocrisy of the so-called “war on drugs,” Chomsky observes:
“Even if we adopt the imperial premises, it is hard to take seriously the announced goals of the ‘drug war,’ which persists without notable change despite extensive evidence that other measures—prevention and treatment—are far more cost-effective…”
He goes on to describe the establishment of the war on drugs in the 1970s as the “perfect remedy” to rising opposition to the Vietnam War, and the growing populist unrest amongst the counter-culture movement.
“With the enthusiastic participation of the media, a tale was concocted of an ‘addicted army’ that would bring down domestic society as the shattered troops returned home, all part of an insidious communist plot…”
“The ideological construction fulfilled these functions admirably. The United States became the victim of the Vietnamese, not the perpetrator of crimes against them, and the sacred image of the ‘city on the hill’ was preserved. Furthermore, the basis was laid for a ‘law and order’ campaign at home to discipline those who were straying beyond the bounds of subordination to power and doctrine.”For me, the highlight of the evening came during the question-and-answer portion of the talk. Responding to a student who asked if there is anything he does like about U.S. foreign policy (the four pre-selected questions were all asinine), Chomsky promptly invoked his view of the responsibility of intellectuals in a democratic society.
“I’m here,” he said. “I have a share of responsibility for what the U.S. government does. And to an extent I can do something about it, especially in a free country like this one.”
Click here to hear Noam Chomsky’s “Arab Spring, American Winter” lecture in its entirety.
And click here for Lance Tapley’s article on the talk in the Portland Phoenix.