Introducing Noam Chomsky
by Peter Bohmer
November 1, 2010
at the Thomas Merton Center Dinner for Noam Chomsky where he was given their annual award for lifelong contributions to Social Justice.
It is great to be back in Pittsburgh. I lived here from 1984-1987 and have fond memories of its people and the movements I was involved in—unemployed groups, anti-apartheid and Central American solidarity. The Thomas Merton Center was involved in all of them. The persistence and dedication of the Merton Center and its members in working on the most important issues of the day from 1972 to the present is inspiring and impressive.
This is the second time I have introduced Noam Chomsky. The first time was in Olympia WA 15 years ago where in front of 1800 people he corrected me for saying here is a man who speaks truth to power. Noam said he believes in speaking truth to those who do not have power. Very profound and simple and strategic!
One of the many things I respect so much is Noam’s unwavering and systemic criticism of our political and economic system and those who run it; his belief that meaningful and radical change come from the bottom up, his respect for ordinary people—their intelligence and that when they have access to good information, they will act in ethical ways to further equality and justice. Noam’s integrity, his moral compass and his commitment to do what he can to create a world where all people can live with dignity are exemplary.
It is a great pleasure and honor to introduce Noam Chomsky whom I first got to know taking a class he taught in 1968 called "Intellectuals and Social Change". His class profoundly changed my life and the lives of many other students in it. I now ask all of you to reflect a little on when you first became acquainted with Chomsky’s ideas and writings and talks and how they have affected and influenced you and changed you.
I remember going to his office and seeing newspapers from many places as well as government documents and writings by major policymakers and apologists for U.S. policy such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. I learned the importance of not just reading people on the left but of also carefully reading and critiquing primary sources such as national security documents and government reports.
Let me share a few of the ideas I learned in that class and since that I find essential. Noam pointed out the United States was fighting a war against the people of Vietnam because U.S. elites would not permit a country to be totally independent of U.S. control. The domino theory that the U.S. was committed to stop was that a society organized to meet the needs of its people, would inspire oppressed people in other nations to revolt. It wasn’t external subversion spreading but rather what Noam later called in speaking up so cogently against the U.S. organized war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua– the threat of a good example. A society overcoming poverty, illiteracy, lack of health care and hunger was an enemy because this positive example could spread to other U.S. allies such as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala where U.S. multinationals dominated. He pointed out that the freedom the U.S. is concerned about protecting is the freedom of U.S. multinationals to exploit. This analysis has informed my understanding of U.S. aggression against Cuba and current attempts to subvert Venezuela.
Another important idea I learned is how narrow the debate is among the policy makers, mass media, and Democrats and Republicans. Noam pointed out with regards to the so-called respectable opinion about the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, that neither the Doves nor the Hawks questioned the right of the United States to intervene and fight in Vietnam, or the morality of the war. We see this in the present when much of the support or opposition to the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan is based on whether the U.S. can win these wars which is the wrong question—the right of the U.S. to be there, the right of self-determination is almost never asked. We need to expand this debate just like we need to expand our discussion of alternate ideologies and of alternate economic systems beyond neoliberal capitalism versus Keynesian capitalism.
Related to this is Noam’s demonstration that the U.S. fears and opposes democracy around the world rather than its claims that it promotes it. Look at some of our closest allies in the Middle East. Would truly democratic societies in the Middle East support U.S. domination? Wouldn’t they use their oil and resources to meet the needs of their own people and not put the interests of their own elites and Exxon-Mobil and Boeing first? That is why the U.S. supports the dictatorships of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
I remember his constant challenging the expertise claimed by the architects of the Vietnam war and his lifelong work to undermine their elitism, secrecy and undemocratic nature. Also important then and now is Noam’s argument that when those in power used the term, national interest, to justify U.S. intervention, counterinsurgency, and war; they use the term, national interest, to hide the narrow interests of the rich and powerful.
What also came across consistently is his strong commitment to libertarian socialism. We read Rosa Luxemburg, her powerful advocacy for socialism and revolution and her commitment to free speech and worker self-organization but opposition to vanguard parties. I learned about the Spanish Civil war and the programs of anarchists and others who put the needs and self-organization of landless peasants and workers first in fighting fascism. His commitment to the truth and evidence is central to his analysis even if it meant criticizing for example, revolutions and revolutionary groups such as the National Liberation Front in Vietnam. At the same time, he always made clear that we live in the United States and our main responsibility is to challenge our own government and institutions.
Another principle that Noam taught and has continued to apply is challenging the double standard the United States uses for itself compared to others; how it doesn’t apply principles to ourselves and our allies that we apply to our so-called enemies. I remember Noam’s comments in our class that Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962 were unacceptable to U.S. leaders who were willing to fight a nuclear war over them, while U.S. nuclear weapons in Turkey should not be questioned. Or today how Israeli and U.S. nuclear weapons are perfectly acceptable while with regards to Iran, it is conventional wisdom that Iran should be destroyed if building them.
Noam has consistently supported political prisoners throughout the world. I can attest to this from my own personal experience when I was incarcerated in a California State Prison in 1973 and he provided a lot of public support such as promoting a petition calling for my release.
Tomorrow are the midterm elections and it looks like the Republicans will gain a lot of seats in the U.S. Senate and House, and at the State level. We should not blame the American people if this is the outcome. Rather we need to build social movements that explain what is going on and why, that link the U.S. wars abroad to the economic war on people at home, that builds power from below, that are based on the best in people, and that project alternatives beyond the corporate liberal and pro-war ones of the current administration. Noam Chomsky has contributed in so many ways to changing the dominant narrative. The theme of his talk tonight is War and the U.S. Economy.
Noam’s lifelong commitment to speaking the truth to those without power is inspirational. His ideas and speaking up against injustice and his moral clarity have resonated with, taught and influenced so many of us, nationally and globally. Thank You, Noam!
(postscript, November 2nd: The talk was given the night before the election of November 2, 2010 but I would not have made any substantive changes if I had I given it a day later).
Introduction for Noam Chomsky,November 1, 2010
Introducing Noam Chomsky