Radical Noam

I was talking to a close relative of mine yesterday morning and when I mentioned that I was going to a talk by Noam Chomsky in the afternoon, the response was a slight grimace and the judgment that Chomsky in recent times had become ‘shrill’. As it happens, nothing could have been further from the truth. I was in a lecture-theatre in St Mary’s on the Falls Road which had a video-link to the main hall where Chomsky was speaking, and you had to strain to hear what he was saying – not because the microphones were deficient but because he speaks in a voice that is more of a murmur than an enunciation. He’s a big heavy man, wearing jeans and a tent-like shirt, with curling white hair capping a big strong face. He did a commentary on American (i.e., US) policy from the beginning of the Second World War up to the present time, arguing that this consisted of at first sharing out spheres of influence in the world and then appropriating the lot when it became the ‘unipolar power’. American presidents? One worse than the other – Clinton was at least as bad as Bush, but he didn’t play an in-your-face game, so the Europeans quite liked him. As for Obama – he got three awards over the past year – the election, the Nobel Peace prize and an award from the advertising industry, with the third of these the most significant.

There are two ways you can react to someone like Chomsky, who directs his withering fire at so many targets. Either you dismiss him as a crank with a bee in his bonnet about everything established and mainstream, or you realize that the way of regarding recent history – the US big and exciting, bringing its wealth and civilization to the rest of the world – is a flattering construction, and that there are other ways of seeing the world. Ways that aren’t nearly as optimistic but have the benefit of being true.

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