A Sour Chomsky Shows Disrespect to a Young, Paying Audience

Last night Noam Chomsky was to give a lecture at the Miller Theater at Columbia University in N.Y. The Miller Theater was sold out 2 weeks back for the event, $5 a head. Probably 500 people. The outside walls of the theater were plastered with posters calling Chomsky un-American. When I came in a tall African guy was trying to chivvy tickets from others. Later I saw where he had gotten in. There was a table of Chomsky’s books out front and a crowd of young hipsters. Pretty Asian girls, guys with snowboarding jackets. Not a lot of oldsters (except for mwah, of course). I had to sit in a back row, a disappointment. I wanted to watch his face, this son of a great Hebrew scholar who can take apart Zionism like an old radio.

The lights went down, a screen lit up. We got to watch Harold Pinter’s speech accepting the Nobel Prize in Litteratoor from 2005. The playwright wore a red lap blanket and said the crimes of the U.S. were legion and unreported, from Nicaragua to Chile to Indonesia to Iraq, and Tony Blair was the U.S.’s poodle. The speech went on for 40 minutes, it felt like; and was a little motheaten.

After the speech the lights came up and without fanfare Chomsky came to the podium. He said he was going to take questions now. Well I thought that was odd. The event was advertised as a lecture from Chomsky. No. He was just taking questions, after Pinter’s taped old speech.

There were a half dozen questions, and then Chomsky said, OK, Thank you, and walked off the stage. A short burst of applause, and that was the end of it. He had answered questions for 15 or 20 minutes, it felt like. Most of it was a tired attack on the big corporations, and—a newer thread—celebrating the democratic movement of integration that is occurring now in South America. I wanted more, much much more. I wanted to see that mind in real exercise, on the jumbotron. (I wanted to hear more about Israel than the idea that it is America’s client, trying out 100 new warplanes—his one statement about Israel.)

As it was, the event seemed faintly squalid. The mind at the end of the day, in its nightclothes, wandering around a house. It was so casual as to be insulting to us, all the folks who had paid to hear him. And I heard a lot of grumbling as I went out on to Broadway.

When someone had asked a more difficult question, Chomsky said, Well that is a complex question, I’ve written about it. As if to say, don’t make me jump thru any hoops, kid, you can go buy the book.

He had one interesting idea/emotion. Maybe I will get his actual words off my taperecorder later (for now I’m infected by his laziness). He kept saying that If we wanted to stop the war, we could. We possessed the power. He said that the people of Venezuela had shown great resolution, and any people was capable of democratic resolution, if they only cared. There was something wonderful and sour about this idea. He was judging us pitilessly, and saying, You are responsible for this war because you are doing diddly and you have all the rights in the world. You could be holding your elected representatives’ feet to the fire. A student asked him to endorse the Feb. 15 strike by students, and Chomsky had said, Well that’s good, maybe you will actually do something. Another time he described us as privileged with free speech, and we face no risks to expressing ourselves, unlike South Americans, or Russians, or Saudis.

It was a theme that wanted to be developed, in a grand speech. No grandeur. Just nightclothes.

A few possible explanations:

1. Chomsky had given a speech about linguistics earlier that day at Columbia. Dude is 78. You can’t expect multiple pops. (OK; but he shouldn’t have scheduled this speech and demanded $5 from all of us.)

2. Chomsky’s whole life is this now: the guru of the left continually answers questions from eager minds, 24/7. What you see is what you get. Why do you expect him to stand on ceremony? This is a better explanation, actually. Chomsky does email all day long, answering questions. He answered one of mine once. He feels a real responsibility and I guess this is genuinely now The Chomsky presence, he doesn’t put on a tutu, he answers a few questions, like the Delphic oracle. If you’re expecting a stemwinder, go listen to a fool, turn on CSpan. (Well I still expect a little moment. A little concentration of energy for a hall full of young people. Just think of Norman Finkelstein’s speeches, they’re an hour long and full of wit and ideas).

3. Arrogance. He is overly adored, it has made him contemptuous and lazy. I don’t want to believe this.

4. Chomsky’s handlers were hustling him on to another event. Beforehand, I saw a truck unloading gold party chairs on Broadway. Maybe a fancy dinner? (If true, inexcusable Marie Antoinette behavior).

5. Old. My father tells a story about a scientist waiting to meet Einstein because he wanted to be worthy of him when he does; so he wins some prize and then sees Einstein at Princeton and Einstein is old, not all there, and the guy feels punctured.

6. True sourness. Many greats go sour as they age. Robert Frost, Mark Twain. Maybe Chomsky has doddering contempt for us as soft and overprivileged, which he expressed.