Another excerpt in the serialization of Parts One and Two of the memoir Remembering Tomorrow by Michael Albert, this time chapter 5, distributed in this 40th year since the New Left and May 68.
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
Til I’m sure that you’re dead.
MIT is one of the most famous and prominent institutions of higher learning in the world. Famous people come and go. The major MIT auditorium, Kresge, where the Living Theatre performed, was also for me the scene of a far more personally demanding experience. I had been elected president of the MIT student body and Hubert Humphrey, Vice President of the U.S., was coming to town. It was arranged that he would debate three students in Kresge. We all were to appear on stage, but the others agreed it was to be a showdown between myself, representing the local movement, and the Hump, which was my name for Hubert, representing the devil as incarnated in Lyndon Johnson and U.S. imperialism.
Before the debate I was alone in a room behind the Kresge stage. Humphrey, with his impeccable liberal credentials, was in another room, probably with his bodyguards and aides-de-camp, also behind the Kresge stage. This wasn’t Ali versus Frasier, but still I sat in a chair with my hands grasping the arms feeling like they were digging into the wood. I don’t know what to call the emotions I felt. Fury, fear, rage, catatonia. It was a little bit of everything. The Hump was probably next door having a drink.
I often speak publicly nowadays, sometimes to ten, fifty, or a hundred people, sometimes to a few thousand. I always feel a little squeamish before starting a talk, though after I start the nervousness and stage fright quickly recede. But for the Humphrey debate I was completely wired and scared silly. I had prepared by researching a bunch of case-study examples of international events and conditions, choosing them to rebut anything that Humphrey might bring up while we debated. So I had lots of facts and connections about Vietnam and the war, but also about India, Latin America, the U.S., and so on. As it turned out, the debate was a massacre. When I got on stage and saw Humphrey, I was ready to rumble. Humphrey wasn’t. Hubert underestimated the situation, and got beat down.
I was dumbfounded. I could not understand how the vice president of the U.S. could be so intellectually empty, verbally slow, and unprepared. No doubt Humphrey wasn’t as mentally moribund as I took him to be—and maybe I was better at this sort of exchange than I gave myself credit for—but HH certainly wasn’t the massive intellect and cruel soul I had anticipated. I wrote that it was like debating a talking marshmallow. How could the U.S. imperial juggernaut proceed with people as mushy as Humphrey at the helm? I later decided there were two main answers to that question. The first was that people like Humphrey weren’t at the top levels of power. The second was that even mush-heads, when they command an imperial juggernaut against meager opposition, win most battles.
With his businesslike anger and his bloodhounds that kneel
If he needs a third eye he just grows it.
On another occasion, I encountered in the main hallway of MIT James Killian, who was not only chairman of the MIT Board of Overseers but also director of the Ford Motor Company and of numerous other Fortune 500 corporations. Killian was a living, breathing, ruling-class actor who played starring roles in the long-running drama “Empires Are Us.”
Humphrey played at vice president. Killian was full of vice and was also a president. In just a few minutes of chatting with Killian I was chilled to the bone. It wasn’t his words—it was that this guy was the Bold Marauder. Killian seemed to me violent, amoral, and pathological, but also competent. He was like Hannibal Lector. Perhaps it was an artifact of the preconceptions of capitalists that I carried in my own mind, but while I saw civility in Killian, I didn’t see a soul. What I decided is that there are people up top who lack moral character and have sufficient amoral mind to get hierarchy’s dirty jobs done. I realized they were more present at the heights of corporate rule than at the heights of political rule because if you didn’t have a quick mind plus steel nerves plus uncaring blood in the corporate world, you lost. In corporate institutions, more or less equally armed people struggle for market share and pathology triumphs. In the political hierarchy, while there are some Killians prowling the corridors, there are apparently also many Humphreys.
When I asked Noam Chomsky how people as dimwitted as the Hump could make pressure-laden decisions that were horribly effective at attaining elite ends, Chomsky’s answer was that when an elephant fights fleas almost any decisions the elephant makes wind up looking like brilliant strategy. The elephant tends to trounce fleas regardless of which way the elephant flounces. The limits of elephant strategy become evident only when flea opposition sufficiently escapes conformity and submission to mount a real threat. At such times elephants can look exceedingly stupid.
There Ain’t Nothing Like Ali
Power never takes a back step–only in the face of more power.
As undergraduate association president I met Muhammad Ali when he came to MIT to speak. Given the brevity of the exchange, even Ali’s aura could barely make the event memorable. But I do remember listening on the radio to Cassius Clay’s fights, and sometimes seeing them on TV. Before Clay, I barely knew boxing, and I never before gave a damn about it. I never understood it until talking with a friend, Sandy Carter, decades later, who had fought Golden Gloves and explained the sport to me. But Clay’s Olympic exploits in 1960 made me, like millions of others, a staunch fan.
Cassius Clay exuded charisma. Clay was so flamboyant, playful, clever, intensely confident, and outrageously irreverent that his excitement boosted you up a notch, and that notch Clay boosted us up helped lead to a mid-century cultural, political, and social explosion. Indeed, I was so vested in Cassius Clay’s success, and then in Muhammad Ali’s success, that to listen to his fights was a kind of joyous but incredibly intense torture. If Clay didn’t win all his early fights, if he lost even one, I think I would have been devastated.
When Clay beat the incredibly frightening Sonny Liston in 1964, going in as a 19-and-0 underdog and coming out as a 20-and-0 World Champion, it was like lightning flashing on behalf of liberty. When Clay immediately thereafter became a Muslim, changing his name to Mohammed Ali, a good part of the U.S. was culturally expanded. When the world heavyweight champion, the most famous person on the face of the planet, a person who could have anything or do anything he wanted, later said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong” and refused induction and got stripped of his title and his license to fight and sentenced to jail, that was a great historical moment.
Clay came back from his gold medal Olympics in love with America, with boxing, and with his medal. He went to eat a cheeseburger in a Louisville restaurant. The restaurant wouldn’t serve him. Clay threw his medal into the Ohio River. Bang, bang, Clay was marching into history.
Years later, out on bail from refusing the draft, Ali joined Martin Luther King Jr. at a rally for fair housing in Louisville. Ali said, “In your struggle for freedom, justice, and equality I am with you. I came to Louisville because I could not remain silent while my own people, many I grew up with, many I went to school with, many my blood relatives, were being beaten, stomped, and kicked in the streets simply because they want freedom and justice and equality in housing.”
Later the same day, in front of cameras, Ali continued:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home
and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.
I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people, or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom, and equality.
The fact that Ali is now celebrated and revered in the U.S. is not a sign of societal health, but is, instead, a sign of societal hypocrisy and, regrettably, also a sign of his own ill health. The spirit of Ali has absolutely nothing in common with the corporate hacks who today laud him, just as the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. is routinely violated by many who now celebrate him.
Stars Are Us
“Incapacity of the masses.” What a tool for all exploiters and dominators, past present and future, and especially for the modern aspiring enslavers, whatever their insignia.
One of the central themes running through hippie movements during my MIT days was excellence. What was it? What did it mean? Where did it come from? What did it warrant? Were stars excellent? My own lessons in understanding excellence, and even genius, occurred largely in daily life, not in the movement.
Go is an ancient Asian board game just as chess is, but in Go you place identical stones on the board. They are ideally made of slate and shell and are always shaped like M&M’s, so they make a nice “plunk” when you slap them down. One player has white stones and the other has black ones. The board is a 19x19 intersection grid that looks like graph paper. You put your stones, turn by turn, on the intersections. You try to cordon off areas and also to capture groups of the opponent’s stones. You can’t change the position of a stone once you place it on the board, but even so, because there are so many intersections, the game involves a stupendous array of possibilities.
Go has helped me pass a lot of time pleasurably, but my biggest lesson came in my earliest playing days. I had been playing friends, including a physics faculty member at MIT for about a year. I heard about a club, and went to try it out. I entered and was promptly asked my rank. Rank? I just said that I thought I was pretty good. Okay, play that fellow over there. He will give you a nice handicap that will make the game interesting. He let me put nine stones at designated spots on the board before we even moved. I thought this was ridiculous. How could anyone at some local club, or maybe anywhere in the world, give me such a huge advantage? It was tantamount, I learned later, to giving me a queen in chess.
He proceeded not to just win, but to humiliate me. After mulling over this seeming miracle, I saw the guy who played me start playing another fellow. My torturer was now playing with the advantage of a nine-stone handicap. I watched him lose, badly, and I was now well beyond surprise. I asked the winner just how good he was—at least eighteen handicap stones better than me—compared to, say, the best player in the world. He said real masters could give him nine stones and still beat him soundly. I not only had no idea what Go was about, but, more important, I had no idea how gigantic the gap was between being truly accomplished at something and being an okay amateur.
I learned the same lesson somewhat earlier, by a physical example. When applying for colleges I visited Princeton University for an interview. I arrived on a horribly gloomy day that soured me to the school. I went to the Princeton gym, however, hoping to see Bill Bradley work out. I didn’t know what Dollar Bill (that was his nickname) looked like, but I knew that he was touted as being the greatest college basketball player of all time. So I weaseled my way into the gym and sat on the floor near the court, as if I belonged there.
After a while some team members came out of the locker room to practice. One guy seemed phenomenal and I decided he must be Dollar Bill. After watching the phenom for awhile, another team member came onto the floor and started shooting and then this second guy played my phenom one-on-one. The first guy was in fact Geoff Petrie, who later also had an NBA career. But watching the real Bill Bradley, the second guy, make mincemeat of the phenom in their little competition, and just seeing Bradley’s absolute confidence and the beauty of his movement, I saw, as later with Go, the gigantic range of human capacity.
Even from a great distance you can see this range in athletics. I used to see it watching my idol (Say Hey) Willie Mays run out from under his hat. Willie was not only exciting, but just plain phenomenal, a hero of my youth. Or I saw it much later in life, watching Torbull and Dean synchronously slide across the ice to Bolero, chilling my spine. When watching such exceptional displays nowadays, I wonder why human excellence threatens many egos or makes people despair for equity. Exceptional excellence should inspire and glorify everyone. It certainly shouldn’t endanger equity.
The same lesson recurred much later, involving a tennis pro at a center where I played near Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The local pro I took lessons from and became friends with was a good club pro. We would play sometimes in an unusual manner, a tennis version of taking a multi-stone Go handicap. The pro got one serve for each point instead of two. I got three serves instead of two. Moreover, every game started 30-love in my favor, and I could hit my shots as wide as the doubles lines, whereas he had to hit his in the singles court. We called my shots generously. We called his shots close. It was fun, exciting, and with this handicap I could compete.
So one day we were talking and I asked how he would do at Wimbledon. He said that he would get annihilated in the first round. Again, the vast range from an okay amateur (me), up to a club pro (him), and then to a top pro (winning Wimbledon), was evident. Some people find this mountainous difference off-putting. Some deny that it exists. I have always found the difference a joy to behold—even when being bashed over the board or on the court. And brains show range, too.
At MIT, in one math course we had a take-home final exam. Take-home final exams are notoriously the most difficult challenges MIT students ever face. After all, you can take the test home and use any source you want, and it is just some problems, so how can you miss? The take-home test has to be awfully hard or the methodology makes no sense. In this case, it was ten true/false questions, but when you put true or false, you had to explain why. You ought to be able to guess fifty percent, except that you can’t get credit for your guess unless you explain your reasoning. I think I got a 50 on the test, maybe less. At any rate, there was this one student who got it all right, and who got an extra credit question to boot. And in the few class sessions I had attended, this student had always stood out in a way I had never seen from any other student in any class. I was very good at test-taking and at math, but this fellow was mathematically Martian. We were never friends, but I bet he is a prominent mathematician now, probably among the top few in the world.
At MIT, I also encountered a physicist, this time faculty, named Steven Weinberg. He too was, even to my not-so-tutored eyes, special. Later, he got a Nobel Prize for work he was doing roughly at the time I first encountered him. I also attended some lectures by Julian Schwinger once, and he was clearly incredibly smart as well, but I didn’t get quite the same feeling from him as from Weinberg. With Weinberg it was like watching Willie Mays. He had the means to arrive at answers, always.
And then there has been knowing Noam Chomsky, which is a bit like knowing Newton. Noam told me once he had been awed a bit by a biologist friend named Salvador Luria, another Nobel prize winner, who was quite political. Noam said Luria would arrive at conclusions without seeming to traverse intermediate ground. He just got there. This used to be said about the famous physicist Richard Feynman too. For some especially talented people what they do, in other words, is like what everyone else does, only better. They use the same data, manipulate it into the same arguments, but faster or deeper. I think this is true of Noam, but with him the added power is really quite incredible, like it was, say, for Von Neuman in mathematics, who was famously noted for his calculating capacity. In contrast, there are other especially talented people who can certainly think in a world-class way, though perhaps not supremely (Einstein, for example, was only a creditable mathematician), but can also get to the end point by what seems to be magic. They leap over what the rest of us do, and use completely inexplicable pathways.
You have to believe in yourself, that’s the secret..
Without it, you go down to defeat.
Having celebrated exceptional range of achievement, I should say that in my experience the range that each typical individual has personal access to is often more than the range that each such individual actually traverses. Of course we don’t each pursue most avenues of human excellence that we could, not having time for it, and we never learn what we might have attained in areas we didn’t pursue. But beyond that, even in areas we do pursue, often we don’t tap our fullest potentials. This accounts, to a considerable degree, for the gap between very accomplished and more run-of-the-mill performance, I think, and sometimes perhaps even for the gap between genius and everything else. The geniuses reach their potential. The rest of us don’t.
I first learned about the gap between what we do and what we are capable of doing in an odd adventure not long out of high school. My then-best friend Larry Seidman and I went across the country in an old VW bus. There were all kinds of high points, naturally. I like to tell about arriving on the West Coast at about two in the morning. I was driving and I couldn’t find San Francisco. I have always been notorious for getting lost, but this was an extreme instance and I certainly wasn’t senile or jaded way back then. In more recent times, I have gone out of a hotel, circled to the reverse side of the block, bought a toothbrush, circled back, and been unable to find my hotel. But not finding San Francisco perhaps takes the cake. Larry slept through it, only to laugh later.
But the story at hand isn’t about that. We stopped over at the Grand Canyon. We decided to go down to the Colorado River and Larry did it sensibly, strolling down the path at a leisurely pace. I did it more or less like a lunatic who had just escaped an asylum, running off the path, climbing things, overjoyed and uplifted by the environment.
The Grand Canyon is deep. Its sun is hot. By the time we got to the bottom, I was well beyond exhausted. We had to sleep there and then sit and soak in a public shower they had down there until mid-afternoon the next day to avoid the heat of the day before trying to climb out. And even all that wasn’t enough. About three-quarters of the way up, I was zombified. My parched mouth felt like sandpaper. It was no longer animate. I have never been in such a condition before or since. I could barely move, even with Larry cajoling me, fearing he would have to try to carry me if we were to get out of the canyon. Just as I went to make another of what seemed likely to be my last few self-propelled steps, a large rattlesnake rattled under my foot and took off like a rocket into the surrounding bushes. Simultaneously, I reflexively jumped back about five feet. Adrenaline put me in overdrive. From being roughly in the shape people who die in the desert are in right before they sit down to wait for the end, I became unable to not run the rest of the way home. Larry had a hard time keeping up. My reserve capacities were suddenly accessible. I decided a lot of great performance is due to people learning to utilize full capacities.
I learned that the human body, and I suspect also the human mind, is capable of much more than most of us ever get from them. Differences in our accomplishments, it followed, owe not only to different inborn talents, which are certainly real enough, and to different training and learned skills, which are also real, but to different ability to tap the roots of our potentials, which talent is probably part learned, part stumbled on, and part persevered to. When I look at professional athletes, for example, I take it for granted that what they are doing that I can’t do is, at least in part, getting the most out of themselves.
As long as we are taking this side trip into sports, have you ever watched an athletic contest and heard the announcer say about one athlete or another that “he’s in the zone?” The phrase communicates that the athlete is functioning at a level that comes only very rarely, that isn’t invited, that can’t be made to stay, but that is truly phenomenal. In basketball, almost all players believe in being in the zone and talk about how, in the zone, they see the basket much wider across than normal. In other sports, athletes say everything slows down, that they are more in touch, or that things come automatically. Mathematicians have considered these claims, however, and have decided that they have no reality but are only how we explain random variations to ourselves—though it must be admitted that mathematicians also talk about singular times when ideas just bubble up incredibly and they can’t seem to stop the flow of insights.
Take shooting baskets. The mathematicians say that if you look at the shooting percentage of a player at any level, and you then look at its day-to-day composition and see how many times and with what regularity the player strung together a spell of significantly more baskets made per shot taken, it turns out to be exactly as often as we would expect him or her to do if we assumed no variation in underlying probability of hitting shots from shot to shot. In other words, you get the patterns of great achievement even if you assume the player isn’t fluctuating in the actual quality of their play, just like if you flip a coin a thousand times every so often you will get a long run of heads (a hot streak) and of tales (a cold streak) even though your flipping ability and the odds on each toss never vary. There is no such thing, in other words, as being in the zone. There is only the statistical happenstance of sometimes getting a good run though your shooting quality is constant. The zone is like throwing a bunch of sequential winners when playing dice. You may think you were throwing the dice better, but you weren’t. Chance gave you a good run.
I usually side with mathematicians when they make a case based on sound logic and evidence, and I have a hard time not doing so in this case, too. Their argument is very strong. But, I have a few experiences that make me wonder, nonetheless, about being in the zone.
There was a young woman named Gerry Satenstein, the daughter of a friend of my mother’s, who I was friends with in grade school. I remember one time we were playing hockey on a lake in our neighborhood with some other folks, no doubt including my then-best friend Donald Pearlman, who later played on the high school hockey team, and others, too. Gerry might have played on the high school team too, but for sexism. She was an excellent athlete. I was, however, not much for the ice, having trouble even keeping upright. I remember Gerry coming alongside and taking my hand and scooting with me over the ice, then letting go but talking with me, while we flew. She got me to skate faster and with better balance than I ever had before, showing me that it was possible, mostly by preventing my fear of falling from interfering with my staying up, by keeping me distracted by our talk so my feet could do much better than otherwise. I would be flabbergasted if Gerry remembers any of this, but it was very similar to how my father taught me how to ride a bike.
We were having difficulty and Dad stood in front of me, holding the bike with me on it, and we talked. He got me focused on something, let go of the bike, and I was balancing even without moving. I noticed that I was balancing after a time, held it a bit longer, and knew I could ride. Once you see that you can do something, skating or biking or anything else, you can do it thereafter much more easily than otherwise. If you feel, however, that you can’t do something, skating or biking or anything else, odds are very good that you will be right, you won’t be able to do it.
If you think this observation is inflated, consider how athletic accomplishments occur. Someone like Roger Bannister achieves some previously unheard of goal, say a four-minute mile, and suddenly others follow suit. The goal enters human range. Thanks for the insight, and for skating and biking, go to Gerry and Dad. It is related to being in the zone, but not quite the same.
In high school, one summer vacation, I was playing tennis one evening at the Beach and Tennis Club with a fellow I didn’t even much like. It was getting dark, but we both entered a groove. We were rallying, not playing, but the quality kept climbing. For maybe an hour, finally cut off by darkness, I played way over my head and so did he. I don’t believe it was typical play made to appear atypical by lots of lucky bounces. It was actually, in fact, atypical. If I could have attained the same level of play, the same quality of swing, the same speed and smoothness of motion and quickness afoot all the time, I might have played competitively in college and who knows what else. The play that night indicated ultimate capacity. Even at this level I was no Rod Laver, but it was a capacity I very rarely approached again. I think I was in the zone, such as mine was.
Similarly, in my freshman year at MIT, AEPi had a softball team that played in intramurals. Surprisingly, MIT at the time had more campus intramural sports than any college but the Naval Academy. We were practicing in an indoor gym, a “cage” it was called. I wanted to play third base and the brothers were essentially trying me out for that position. One was hitting me grounders, hard, that I had to field and throw across to first base. I got in a groove. He just kept hitting, harder, with less time between each ground ball. And I just kept scooping them up and throwing strikes across the infield. I wasn’t Brooks Robinson, but neither was I me. I was in the zone, fielding like I never had before and never did again.
My head tells me the mathematicians are onto something when talking about night-to-night variations in professional basketball. But my experiences tell me there is also something to being in the zone. Can we usher ourselves into the zone? Can we get into the zone mentally, physically, emotionally?
The Incongruous Star: Noam Chomsky
A habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving to them only that
degree or certainty which the evidence warrants.
For all the famous people who passed through MIT during my stay, or whom I have known in any other capacity since, for all the great achievers, to me the most important has been Noam Chomsky. His example has illuminated many paths I have followed. I met Chomsky when taking his course “Intellectuals and Social Change.” We became friends, he a mentor, me a student, and we have stayed close for decades.
Chomsky is often asked what makes him so productive. He flusters and says the only thing he can see in his makeup that seems different from most other people is that he can sit down at a project after having been away for a time and pick it back up instantly, getting immediately back in gear. Noam is right. Other writers typically waste time rereading what we have written and reintegrating ourselves when we return from time off. He is wrong, however, in believing that this is the main thing that differentiates him from the rest of us.
I have been Noam’s publisher for nearly forty years and talked with him many hundreds of times. I have regularly had his input on my work and occasionally offered my input on his. I have seen him in all kinds of interactions and shared all kinds of moments with him, personal and political, social and private, on stage and off. It has been a highlight of my life to not only have Noam as a friend and guide, but also to learn from and enjoy so many of his engagements and undertakings. It hasn’t even been annoying that whenever I go someplace to speak, from Florida to Ohio, New York to Alaska, Greece to Brazil, England to India, Poland to Australia, invariably considerable time goes to answering questions about Chomsky. How is Noam doing? What does Noam think about the invasion? Why did Noam say that stuff about Cambodia? How does Noam do it? And even, can you explain Noam’s linguistics to me? So here are some answers.
Lydia Sargent and I went to Poland in 1980. The trip occurred because South End Press had published young Polish writer Slawomir Magala’s book on the uprisings in that country and the emergence of the Polish Workers’ Party led by Lech Walesa. Lydia and I went to Frankfurt for the International Book Fair, and continued on to meet Magala in Warsaw and to see events in Poland. I remember being in an apartment talking with Swavek—the author’s nickname—and with a number of his friends as well.
At one point, as I was replying to questions about America, the subject of Chomsky’s political writings came up. Later, after a break, there was more general discussion, and as there was a biologist and a linguist present, Chomsky’s linguistic theories came up for some airing. As I was telling my hosts about Chomsky’s views on linguistics, just as I had relayed information about his views about Poland and Russia shortly before, someone interrupted and said, “Wait a minute, how could you know both Chomskys personally? That’s quite a coincidence.”
I had heard right. It turned out these Poles, who were certainly among the most cosmopolitan people in Poland, all thought that there was one Chomsky who was political and who wrote the books about Vietnam, and another who was a linguist and wrote about grammar and human nature. On reflection, I realized it was a far more likely explanation that there were two special people with one name than that there was one person with two incredibly stellar but thoroughly unconnected professions. So what does make Chomsky special? First, what makes Chomsky so insightful and productive? Second, what makes Chomsky someone worth admiring and emulating?
Partly what makes Chomsky insightful and productive is inborn. Genetic endowment, obviously desirable, isn’t something we should praise, and can’t be emulated. I can be awed by attributes someone was born with, even if the capacities had to be nurtured to emerge, whether we are talking about Jackie Robinson’s speed, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s prose, Bob Dylan’s song, Emmy Noether’s mathematical creativity, or Barbra Streisand’s voice. I can enjoy seeing these traits at work. I can be wowed by them. I can be fascinated and enlightened by them. But it doesn’t make sense that the owner is worthy of special respect, admiration, or emulation based simply on being born with special abilities.
Noam’s inborn abilities include an incredible memory that retains both broad strokes and also fine detail with computer-like recall. Memory declines with age, but even at seventy five Noam’s remains formidable. In the 1960s, Noam would routinely give references from books he’d read referencing a page, or even a part of a page. But Noam’s memory was by no means photographic, just profound, at least for things he found important. Even now, at speaking engagements, people will query all manner of topics, completely off the assigned agenda, and Noam will reply with singular information in a field other than his own that even experts in that subject can only marvel at.
Second, Noam can think rapidly and clearly. If he was in physics, say, or math, I would have a better feeling for whether this part of his capacity is just incredibly substantial, like von Neumann, or phenomenal, like Feynman. But there is another trait Noam has for which I suspect there are both inborn and also trained aspects that involve effort and discipline.
Noam can, and routinely does, extricate himself from habit and familiarity to consider possibilities that are strikingly different than most people contemplate. It isn’t only that there is a wealth of data at hand, or that he can make connections and test logical possibilities that would try another person’s capacity. Others who have these talents mostly just collect, enumerate, and detail what is known, or maybe discover some new facts, but don’t repeatedly generate dramatically new insights. Noam asks the unexpected question. He raises the odd possibility. He sees the hidden connection.
Think of Einstein. What Einstein did that was phenomenal was to extract general physical truths from snippets of physical reality, generating previously untried insights. To think about what would happen if someone ran alongside a light ray, or to think through the dynamics of a falling elevator, two of Einstein’s guiding thought experiments, didn’t require tremendous calculating capacity or following a logical train of thought through endless byways. The genius Einstein exhibited was not in the number of steps in his deductions, or in their technical difficulty, but in undertaking the key steps at all and following them down paths that others would habitually avoid. The genius was in the innovation. It was in his leaps off the beaten path. Einstein often leaped, and his main catapult was what scientists call thought experiments. His mental gymnastics pared away reality’s inessentials and highlighted its key aspects. To do this, Einstein envisioned unattainable contexts, rendered pure and pristine, ready for him to turn inside out.
I think one of the ways Noam innovates is by employing analogies far more often and far more effectively than other people do. Noam takes a familiar situation—and this is a trait that we can learn from and try to emulate—and finds another that is structurally like it, regarding which, however, his (and our) habits and biases operate less powerfully or not at all. He uses this technique both to try to communicate to reticent audiences views that affront their prejudices or expectations, and, I believe, to discover new views for himself as well. He does this magic by analyzing the less-controversial and less-familiar situation that he invents or sometimes remembers in analogy, and then demonstrating the possible meaning it holds for the situation that is under discussion and obstructed by preconceptions.
Physicists do something similar, which is what may have attuned me to the importance of this trait in Noam, when they abstract away countless details, assume all kinds of features that are unattainable, and view in their mind’s eye what occurs in the imagined world to discern innermost dynamics without endless cluttering facts and personal prejudices interfering. Noam’s analogy trick is quite similar, but is more suited to the realm of worldly affairs, though I would guess that regarding linguistics he probably uses both analogies and thought experiments, or a cross between the two.
The analogy technique Noam uses can be found all through his writings. Thus he switches from talking about the U.S. in Vietnam (fraught with preconception and prejudice) to the role of Russia in Eastern Europe (where an American sees more clearly). He switches from discussing the possibility of a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (biased for someone from the U.S.) to the possibility of Iran invading Afghanistan (clearer for someone from the U.S.). He switches from assessing the possibility of the U.S. punishing Syria for housing terrorists who attack the U.S. (confused) to Britain punishing the U.S. for housing and financing IRA acts in Britain (clearer). Or he switches from talking about the media emphasizing 9/11 as terrorism to the rest of the world seeing the U.S. embargo of Iraq as chemical and biological terror waged on civilians, or from comparing U.S. and old Soviet media dynamics, or U.S. foreign policy and the behavior of Mafia dons, and so on.
Noam also works hard. Is he driven, compulsive, and even over the top when it comes to work? If you named twenty prominent athletes, actors, and musicians over the past thirty years, Noam would probably have heard of two or three, or maybe five at most, but he would be able to offer essentially zero information about any of them. Noam sees maybe two or three movies a year. He sees a few hours of TV a year. He listens to almost no radio.
Carol Chomsky and Noam have a summer home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. They have a motor boat and a small sailboat and they live on a lake in the summers and in a home in Lexington, Massachusetts, the rest of the year. Over the course of each summer they probably get out on the water in either boat three or four times. They visit the beach more often, walking down to the lake and sitting for a time, often with guests, and Lydia and I have been there many times. Mostly, though, Noam is ensconced in his study, writing, in the summer just like during the rest of the year. Hour upon hour he reads and writes. Combine this diligence with the quick start and with very little editing, since the writing winds up pretty much the way it first comes out, and you get a lot of output, and actually way more output than most people realize.
Noam often answers short letters from unknown folks with long letters back, to the tune of a small book’s worth of correspondence each month. Noam revolutionizes an intellectual discipline—linguistics and what is called cognitive science—not once, but every few years. He teaches a seminar each Friday, or did so for decades, and people came from all over the planet just to attend. Why? Each week Noam presented new, original material. This alone is an unfathomable pace of production.
Meanwhile, another Noam churns out scathing denunciations of U.S. foreign policy, media machinations, and other political phenomena, speaks dozens of times a year, each time for hours, does many interviews each week, travels the globe giving talks, and wherever he goes he addresses that place’s history and context with the same incredible precision and innovation he offers about the U.S.
Anyone’s hard work is worthy of admiration but maybe in a desirable world not everyone should be so driven as Noam. Indeed, I suspect in a desirable world, while Noam would still have worked tirelessly on his science out of the joy and accomplishment of it, he would also have been out sailing on the water, weeding in the garden, and even laughing at movies considerably more often than he does in our current world. So his sacrifice for justice also merits admiration. But what is really most admirable about Noam, it seems to me, is he is scrupulously honest. He has the thing we call integrity in large supply. He respects but does not condescend to others. And he cares.
Honesty is easy to understand. Noam says what is on his mind, sometimes at a cost. Indeed, bad comes with good. Noam’s death grip on the truth can interfere, at times, with other virtues, such as sensitivity to the impact words may have on others. Assessing someone in Noam’s position, my tendency is to think truth-telling should take precedence over sensitivity, though others might disagree, and it certainly isn’t one size fits all.
Integrity is harder to pin down. It means being true to one’s values, when one has values that one can be true to. Noam does have values and is true to them. This too can reach levels that cause problems. Noam eschews people affecting the choices of other people by anything other than logic and evidence. This causes Noam to be tremendously wary of his notoriety, worrying that his words will be overweighted by his listeners. It makes Noam loathe giving advice, to the point that quite often he will withhold words that might usefully have been heard. Respecting others is tricky for Noam. He is constantly queried by people who are relatively ignorant of what they ask about. A person in a position like his gets used to these kinds of questions. Respecting the people involved means taking them seriously and answering honestly with patience and attention to communicating clearly. Noam does that. But he also quite reasonably wants such exchanges to move along and a problem arises because Noam is a quick study.
When someone starts to ask Noam something familiar, Noam tends to fill in the blanks, deducing the person’s real intent, and interrupting to begin answering sometimes well before the person finishes their question. This can sidetrack Noam’s hearing what is actually being said in the interests of saving time and even imposing accuracy. Experience counts and often Noam helps the questioner by making the question more precise and complete. Other times, however, Noam jumps too quickly and misrepresents the questioner, due to thinking he recognizes the questioner when in fact he doesn’t. In other words, sometimes a person accosting Noam or disagreeing with him knows more than those who typically use essentially the same initial words. Noam may miss this difference, thereby seeming to be oblivious to the person’s true intents and insights. It is not pleasant when it happens to you, and I have undergone it plenty of times, but it is not ill motivated, either.
To understand caring is hard. There are people who routinely evidence extreme sympathy and concern for others, but who, in my view, don’t really give a damn. Something that looks and sounds like caring is present, to be sure, and many people are very impressed by its symptoms, but minutes or even seconds later the seeming concern is gone. It has no staying power and few implications beyond appearances. With Noam the caring is less evident, less demonstrative, and less of a show, but it lasts and it has implications.
Noam believes strongly in civility, though I think many people who have gotten into debates with him and had their views dismissed or even annihilated—sometimes with words like “stupid” and “trivial” punctuating the dissection—would find that hard to believe. But for Noam, calling an idea stupid or calling a claim trivial is not uncivil but truthful. In this, he is a scientist in the sense that scientists routinely debate and skewer one another in no uncertain terms. Finding the truth and escaping falsehoods, which is the scientist’s reason for being, demands this behavior.
But Noam does not denigrate others to build himself up. Likewise, Noam does not evidence the kind of condescending and self-promoting or guilt-salving concern for others that is all too frequent in many circles, particularly, I hate to say it, in progressive (politically correct) circles. Noam’s caring is real. There is no pomp or circumstance. He does not weep wildly or gush effusively. But Noam remembers people’s needs. He fulfills requests. He notices pain and tries to do real things to alleviate it. He is quite civil. You could even call Noam very conservative in daily life characteristics. If there is a sign to stay off a lawn, Noam obeys. Noam routinely abides almost all rules unless higher values take precedence.
For Noam’s seventieth birthday, as a present, I oversaw a kind of testimonial tribute. I put on the Internet a means by which people could write a message that he would see on his birthday. About two thousand people entered messages and the results went online. Most of these folks were people who Noam had never closely met but who had read his work, or heard him speak, and had been dramatically affected and wanted to register their thanks. Many other people who contributed did know Noam, but also wanted to say their piece to their friend, ally, teacher, coworker, or what have you.
The entry I was most moved by was written by Fred Branfman, who was himself a very effective advocate of human rights and supporter of the Indochinese people against U.S. violence.
When you visited me in Laos in 1970, I was at a real low point, anguished by the bombing and feeling almost totally isolated. Your passion, commitment and shared pain about the need to stop the bombing, and warm, personal support and caring, meant more to me than you will ever know. It also meant a lot to me for reasons I can’t quite explain that of the dozens and dozens of people I took out to the camps to interview the refugees from the bombing you were the only one, besides myself, to cry. Your subsequent article for the New York Review of Books and all the other writing and speaking you did on Laos, was also the only body of work that got it absolutely right. It has given me a little more faith in the species ever since to know that it has produced a being of so much integrity, passion and intellect. I feel a lot of love for you on your birthday—and shake my head in amazement knowing that you’ll never stop.
Noam and I have had plenty of arguments over the years. Noam can be a very ornery fellow, and he is world-class stubborn, even if not demonstrative or flailing about it. He expects to be right, since he most often is, and he doesn’t like to lose an argument—ever.
This may be a bit like someone not liking to fall down when crossing the room, or to slip in the tub—in other words, not liking to do something that is highly unfamiliar and which has a negative aspect. Still, it is an unendearing trait that makes Noam the human he is. It can be and has been for numerous people immensely annoying, frustrating, and even hurtful. All in all, though, I have never known anyone smarter, with a better memory, with a greater facility for creatively escaping the bounds of acceptable thought, or, more admirably, a person with more honesty, integrity, respect, and real universal concern. Noam is a package deal. As with everyone, Noam travels through life warts and all. It is just that in Noam’s journey there are few warts, and the “and all” is a big deal.
Oftentimes Noam and I will see what’s out in the world a bit differently or feel responses ought to have slightly different aspects. Sometimes we have larger disagreements. Here are two such disputes, each important, I think.
The first was about what I call the crowding-out effect, borrowing the label from economists. Noam goes out and speaks a huge amount to very large audiences. Everyone wants Noam to come and talk. Very few people want any of the many others who, while perhaps not as excellent as Noam, would be much more than ample. The result is that Noam talks a huge volume but even with his great industry, many places, settling for no one other than Noam, have no speaker. Other undeniably worthy speakers, lacking fame, won’t fill the bill because they won’t attract sufficient audience. What to do?
Over the years, I urged Noam to tell those asking him to come speak that he would not do so unless there could be a second speaker on the bill with him whom he would select. Each time he would go out, in that scenario, so too would Steve Shalom go, or Holly Sklar, Cynthia Peters, or Clarence Lusane, and so on. In this way, others would be seen, word of mouth about the quality of their talks would spread, and in time these people would get more invitations. Then these additional people, becoming better known, could themselves do the same thing, bringing along still another generation. After a bit, many more people, steadily more diverse in background and experience, would be going around speaking and many more talks would be given and heard.
Noam never did this and we argued about it quite a few times. His resistance was partly ideological and partly personal. He didn’t want to use his “bargaining power” to impose conditions—he would also deny that he could get a positive response by making such demands, which was of course false—and he also, I am sure, didn’t want to share the stage with a co-speaker, since that would mean traveling just as far, taking as much time away from other work, but speaking and dealing with questions for a lot less time, not to mention having to listen to the other speaker. I speak publicly recently much more than earlier, though still only a fraction as often as Noam does, and I now understand better his side of this dispute. I now think what’s needed is not largesse by prominent speakers placing demands on hosts, but for speakers’ bureaus to impose the condition for us.
A second disagreement has been over matters of vision, economic mostly, but otherwise as well. This is a far more important debate, I think, and one where I have to say, years passing or not, I haven’t given an inch. Noam feels that trying to describe a future society can overstep existing bounds of knowledge, crowd out creativity by establishing aims prematurely, and tend toward sectarianism. He feels broad values are what we need, plus practice, practice, and more practice that in turn yields day-to-day innovations that in turn lead to people experimenting with and implementing new ways of being from the bottom up. I feel this is all well and good, true on every count, but after a couple of hundred years of it we should have something more to show. How do the lessons of thinking hard, analyzing, and experimenting become part of the general popular movement if they are not presented, debated, refined, and finally advocated?
To me, it seems obvious that we need answers to the question “what do you want” that can provide hope, direction, and a positive tone able to inform both analysis and strategy. This entails more than a list of broad values and aspirations. It requires institutional pictures. Noam’s concern is to ensure participation and avoid elites imposing a view on movements. My answer is that I agree with this priority but I feel we will get what Noam fears if we don’t have movements full of participants who understand, advocate, and continually refine a full vision able to motivate and orient participation. The alternative to elitist vision isn’t having no vision, but having the most accessible, widely shared, compelling, and substantial vision we can write up, debate, refine, and advocate.
Our differences aside, I once wrote a piece built around the experience of reading Chomsky and its impact on people and also around how Noam manages to constantly immerse himself in so much data about pain without becoming jaded himself. It isn’t that his burrowing in the tombs of injustice doesn’t take a toll—it does. There are times when Noam is brought down low by the news he wades through, and times when he is wired tight and becomes difficult. How Carol Chomsky gets through all that may be as amazing as some of Noam’s accomplishments. At any rate, the essay I wrote with these personal dimensions and of course also the problem of changing the world in mind was called “Stop the Killing Train.” For me, this was an infrequent attempt at being poetic and it later became the lead essay of a book going by the same name. Over a decade old, written in the lead-up to the first Gulf War, I think the essay is no less timely now than when it was written, and perhaps it is a good way to move on from Noam—so here is the key part.
Evolution has given humans the capacity to perceive, think, feel, imagine. At a
time of war—as now in the Gulf—if we get aroused to action we begin to see the whole train as it persists day in and day out. When this happens, what do we do about it. Become depressed? Cynical? Anguished? Cry? Day dream of Armageddon? Day dream of justice? Hand out a leaflet?
Suppose a hypothetical god got tired of what we humans do to one another and decided that from January 1, 1991 onward all corpses unnaturally created any where in the “free world” would cease to decompose. Anyone dying for want of food or medicine, anyone hung or garroted to death, shot or beaten to death, raped or bombed to death, anyone dying unjustly and inhumanely would, as a corpse, persist without decomposing. And the permanent corpse would then automatically enter a glass-walled cattle car attached to an ethereal train traveling monotonously across the U.S., state by state, never stopping. One by one the corpses would be loaded onto the cattle cars and after every thousand corpses piled in, higgeldy piggeldy, a new car would hitch up and begin filling too. Mile after mile the killing train would roll along, each corpse viewed through its transparent walls, 200 new corpses a minute, one new car every five minutes, day and night, without pause.
By the end of 1991, on its first birthday, the killing train would measure over 2,000 miles long. Traveling at 20 miles an hour it would take about five days to pass any intersection. By the year 2000, assuming no dramatic change in institutions and behavior in the interim, the train would stretch from coast to coast about seven times. It would take about six weeks from the time its engine passed the Statue of Liberty to when its caboose would go by, God still wondering when pitiful, aspiring humanity would get the message.
Think how a young child sometimes points to a picture in a book or maga zine and asks for an explanation, “Tell me about a tree?” A car? A boat? A train? A big train? The killing train? Go ahead, answer that.
If the ecologists are right that this planet is a single super-organism, they are wrong that pollution, toxic waste, and other human-created garbage is the most deadly virus attacking it. The killing train is worse.
Think about the pain that radiates from the Vietnam War monument with its 50,000 names in Washington, D.C. Imagine the lost opportunity and lost love and the network of negative influences that radiate from the unnecessary deaths enumerated on that monument. Now think about the killing train stretching from coast to coast and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. Consider its impact, not only on those on board, but on every person that any of those corpses ever loved or would have loved, fed or would have fed, taught or would have taught.
Who rides the killing train? Citizens of the “Third World,” selling their organs for food, selling their babies to save their families, suffering disappearances and starvation. They live in Brazil, the Philippines, El Salvador, and New York. They are headed for the killing train. Every day. Millions.
Is this exaggerated? When 10 million children die yearly for lack of basic medical aid that the U.S. could provide at almost no cost in countries whose economies Exxon and the Bank of America have looted, what can you call it other than mass murder? Bloated diseased bodies are victims of murder just as surely as bullet-riddled bodies tossed into rivers by death squads. Denying medicine is no less criminal than supplying torture racks or stealing resources.
Once we begin to see it, how do we face the killing train? Part of me says these crimes are so grotesque, so inhumane, that the perpetrators deserve to die. A little tiny killing train for the killers and no more big killing train for everyone else. An eye for a million eyes. What other step makes more sense?
But that’s not the way the world works. People give the orders, wield the axes, withhold the food, pay the pitiful salaries, but institutions create the pressures that mold these people. When an institutional cancer consumes the human patient, what kind of surgeon can cut it all away? Is the weight of repression so intense it can never be lifted?
At first, becoming attuned to our country’s responsibility for the corpses the hypothetical God stacked behind transparent cattle-car walls makes handing out leaflets, or arguing for peace with a co-worker, or urging a relative to think twice about paying taxes, or going to a demonstration, or sitting in, or even doing civil disobedience seem insignificant. But the fact is, these are the acts that the hypothetical God, tired of our behavior, would be calling for if she were to actually parade the “free world’s” corpses down our main streets in killing trains. These are the acts that can accumulate into a firestorm of informed protest that raises the cost of profiteering and domination so high that the institutions breeding such behavior start to buckle.
“You lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win.” Every loss is part of the
process that leads to transforming institutions so that there can be no people as vile as Hussein or Bush. No more “Good Germans” or “Good Americans,” cremated Jews or decapitated peasants.
Finally, about knowing Noam, I might echo what Bob Dylan had to say about Dave Van Ronk: “No puppet strings on him, ever. He was big, sky high, and I looked up to him. He came from the land of giants.”