what did i expect? i'm at a reception in a lovely Annex home waiting for Noam Chomsky to appear before his Sunday-evening speech at Bloor Street United Church. The food is lavish. And the guests are a small shining cluster of Toronto's left intelligentsia, ages 25 to 90. Scientist Ursula Franklin and author Linda McQuaig are deep in conversation in the dining room. Columnist Rick Salutin is embracing his toddler son on the steps, talking to no one. Chomsky is upstairs resting his voice. I mean, he's 74. He just flew in. And he's getting set to address a crowd of 1,200. How much schmoozing can you ask of a people's scholar?
I, for one, am not going to demand any energy from him when his fans await. In fact, the MIT professor's huge following is itself one of the hopeful signs of our times. So I guess it's good news that the event has been sold out for weeks.
This is my first time seeing him live. And I'm enjoying watching his mind in action as he gesticulates at the church podium. That doesn't mean he doesn't eventually put me to sleep. (Honesty is dictating here.) One reason is that he is so informed -- who can keep up with his barrage of historical detail?
The speech is typical of his cinemascopic approach. His account starts well before the second world war to bring us to our present consuming narrative. Iraq, he notes, has the second-largest oil reserves in the world. "Back in 1945, the State Department described the oil resource region, of which Iraq is a large component, as a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the great prizes of world history. Of course, they decided to take control as the post-war system was being organized.'
The speech shows how elements of American foreign policy have been consistent over all these decades. What he repeats for emphasis is that "the U.S. doesn't need the oil. What's important is control."
His description of how the U.S. went after secular nationalism in the Islamic world has a chilling resonance. In 1958, he says, "a lot of things happened around the world. The U.S. faced what the Eisenhower administration called three major crises. One was in the Middle East, one was in North Africa and the third was Indonesia. Oil producers -- all incidentally Islamic. The problem in all three places was indigenous nationalism, and in Indonesia, particularly, too much democracy.
"If you look closely at particular examples during the Cold War, there's always a superpower interchange in the background, but usually pretty far in the background. The problem was indigenous nationalism, and that was true, as Eisenhower and his Secretary of State insisted in these three cases.'
Chomsky's view is that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism we see today is directly related to the defeats meted out to these secular social movements.
Somewhere between Kissinger's adoption of Mideast stalemate in 1971 and Camp David in 1978, I start to drift. In the past, I might have blamed Chomsky for confounding us with more detail than depth. But frankly, since Bush's civilian-rights-trampling "war on terror" began, I have come to treasure the linguistics pioneer in a way my normal, skeptical self never would have before.
What really impresses me is how he has used his cerebral authority to shine a beam of light on history through a lens that values human rights. That light has become a beacon for many. You can see this looking around the lovely, packed chapel.
This understated New Englander is the memory of a social movement. For the past 40 years, reference by reference, Chomsky has stitched vast details into a design that connects the ravages of violence and impoverishment around the world into one picture. Sure, we all have our own quibbles with him. For me, there are shades of grey around economic issues that Chomsky sees more in class-struggle black-and-white. That is the downside of his otherwise feisty and appealing anarchist label. But each reader to her own, I say. I've lost my taste for splitting hairs.
When it comes to his analysis of the media as a conscious pillar of conformity, everyone in the business knows it's a much more subtle story. The manufacturing of news is actually done under conditions that certainly do limit the media's range. But the business part of it is only one piece of a chaotic and somewhat random media puzzle. Newspeople have to think fast. They go for the predictable and are influenced by the questions everyone else is dwelling on. Deadline pressure is mind-numbing.
But it is strange timing that Chomsky has come to town just days after CanWest Global mega-lord Izzy Asper made his outrageous speech to an Israel Bonds fundraising event. It seems heaven-sent to prove Chomsky's point. What effect will Asper's sweeping allegations of anti-Israel bias against CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Associated Press, the Washington Post, the New York Times, BBC, the CBC and others have on his own newsrooms?
"You, the public," Asper told the audience, "must be more vigilant and aggressive against media wrong-doers, by your e-mails, your phone calls, your cancellation of subscriptions, your refusal to patronize advertisers of offending media....' Talk about manufacturing consent.
Admittedly, Chomsky's use of secondary sources -- particularly newspaper articles -- as got-ya points has never been completely intellectually satisfying. But it is part of a methodology that has given him the bandwidth needed to traverse a wide terrain.
Science is Chomsky's ace in the hole. It's the foundation for his voice of authority. Under these wispy wings of grey hair, behind those bad glasses, is a mind that academe cannot ignore. By landing on countless course curricula, he has recruited many for whom he speaks their truth.
And then there are the others. Right now, the spiciest of these is Chomsky's dukes-up with fellow lefty scribe Christopher Hitchens, who recently quit The Nation out of post-9/11 dismay that the left lacks conviction in its condemnation of the evil of al Qaeda.
A questioner puts the accusation to Chomsky from the floor. "Did he cite a source?' Chomksy asks cuttingly. Who on the left is soft on al Qaeda besides tiny marginal groups? he asks.
But I've got a question burning in my brain. In the elections last week, Americans predictably rallied behind a murderous and costly military adventure that could unhinge their economy and make their daily world seriously more dangerous. Why exactly is that, again?
The answer to my question appears and reappears. He describes a well-worn path to fear. "The standard campaign speech was "I'm going to get those bad guys all over the world and kill 'em,'" he says. "It's not hard for unscrupulous leaders to frighten the population. Remember how administration moderates told the Senate how the Sandinistas were following a script taken from Mein Kampf in their plan to conquer the hemisphere. People didn't roll in the aisles in laughter, because they were frightened. When Reagan said Gaddafi was trying to expel us from the world, people were scared.
"The U.S. is a very frightened country. Frightened people will huddle under the umbrella of power," he says.
Later in the question period, Chomsky is asked if the world is better or worse than it was before. I'm surprised at how quick and sure his answer is.
"Take 40 years ago. John F. Kennedy's administration publically announced that the U.S. Air Force was beginning to bomb South Vietnam. Chemical warfare was authorized to destroy food crops, and plans were afoot to drive people into concentration camps to separate them from the guerrillas. But was there any protest? No American president would dream of doing anything like that now. This is the first time in history -- in American or European history -- that there has been massive protest before a war. The U.S. is a lot more civilized than it was 40 years ago.' Thanks, Noam. I need these firstname.lastname@example.org