Chomsky lecture on Zinn packs SUNY New Paltz

Noted author and philosopher Noam Chomsky and filmmaker and editor Anthony Arnove take questions from the audience gathered at SUNY New Paltz's Lecture Center last Sunday afternoon. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

In an article in last week’s Alm@nac previewing Noam Chomsky’s Dec. 4 visit to SUNY-New Paltz, this correspondent described the speaker as a “rock star” to linguistics geeks. But I seem to have underestimated his appeal — at least combined with the appeal of the subject of his lecture, the eminent historian Howard Zinn. Never mind that Chomsky is now 82 years old, and that Zinn died nearly two years ago: Both remain rock stars among the progressive intelligentsia, judging by the incredible turnout at Sunday’s event.

Thousands attended, filling not only Lecture Center 100 on the SUNY campus, but also LC 102, 104, 108 and at least one classroom in the Humanities Building, where folks young and old flocked to hear Chomsky and filmmaker Anthony Arnove, live or on video screens, speak about the legacy of their late friend and colleague. Outside, supporters of the campus contingent of Occupy Wall Street (OWS) marched and chanted in solidarity. And according to the guest speakers, Zinn would have been delighted by the Occupy movement and attended as many of their sit-ins as possible.

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“Howard would’ve so wanted to be at these events,” said Arnove, who got to know the historian while working on a multimedia performance based on Zinn’s highly influential A People’s History of the United States. “To see Howard inspiring people, finding new audiences, is really remarkable.” He cited specific examples of ways in which the OWS organizers paid tribute to Zinn, “renaming” occupied campus buildings after him and organizing lecture series in his name.

Chomsky, whose association with Zinn dates back to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, concurred, saying that the rise of the Occupy movement “would’ve been the fulfillment of the dream of a lifetime for Howard,” whom he characterized as a man who “lived a life consistent with his work.” As more and more OWS protestors get evicted from their makeshift campsites in public parks, both speakers emphasized the need for the movement to reach out more to middle-class Americans, and to take to heart Zinn’s oft-repeated observation that history teaches us that any meaningful social change requires commitment over a long stretch of time.

“Tactics have a sort of half-life…You have to keep principles in mind, and not be too wedded to the tactics,” said Chomsky. Noting that it is often forgotten that the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement was laid way back in the 1930s, Chomsky said, “Howard dedicated a lot of his life to overcoming the lack of historical memory.”

The linguist and philosopher, known for his early opposition to American intervention in Vietnam and Iraq, also drew parallels between OWS and the Arab Spring, especially with regard to the need to “counter propaganda” funded by financial interests. He noted that what he called the “triumvirate” of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Treasury had been praising the Mubarak government right up until the point where masses of Egyptian citizens rose up in revolt. Both activist groups, he said, are motivated by a “desire for authentic, functioning democracy” in a world where “the democratic system has been shredded.”

Chomsky evoked laughter from the crowd in describing the “shocked” response to this year’s Republican presidential debates that he has observed in his travels to other countries. In his view, the GOP has “abandoned any pretense of being a real political party. They’re now the party of the super-rich. But you’re not supposed to say ‘the wealthy’ anymore; you’re supposed to say ‘job-creators.’”

In recent decades, the eminent linguist has made it his business to keep close tabs on how politicians and the mass media use language to frame the issues. “There’s not a gap anymore; it’s a chasm between what people want and what’s talked about in Washington…People don’t regard the deficit as the biggest problem; it’s jobs…People think that the rich should be taxed, and that their benefits should be protected.”

Going on to talk about the current push, even among some liberals, to privatize Medicare and Social Security, Chomsky observed, “Social Security is based on the principle of solidarity, and that’s a very dangerous principle. You might start to care about someone else.” He drew sustained applause from the crowd with his advocacy of single-payer health care: “There’s an easy way out of the deficit, and it’s not at all Utopian: We just have to shift to the same system of health care that the rest of the industrialized world has.”

Also high on Chomsky’s list of dangerous trends is America’s denial of the seriousness of climate change, an area where he said that major recent disclosures of alarming data by various scientific bodies were being totally ignored by the media. He painted a picture of how an extraterrestrial observer would be mystified and horrified by our failure to acknowledge the problem and take strong action. “The most powerful country in history is cheerfully leading the lemmings over the cliff,” he said, pointing out that several of the GOP presidential candidates actually want to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. “The US is leading the pack backwards…This is not only a very severe crisis for American democracy, it’s a crisis for the whole world.”

Nevertheless, both Chomsky and Arnove found reasons to remain hopeful and hold onto the long view of history championed by Zinn. They saw the bonds and associations being developed among participants in the Occupy movement as being potentially very important in what Zinn called our “atomized society.” While lauding the efforts of OWS to create models for participatory, inclusive decision-making, Arnove noted, “We don’t want to live in a society that always has to have consensus. People have to be able to disagree.”

Much has been written about the ways in which cell phone technology and social media have changed the face of political protest in recent years. During the question-and-answer session after their lectures, Chomsky and Arnove addressed a question that had been submitted via Facebook: “Is the younger generation’s obsession with Facebook good for democracy?” Although he appears to be only about half Chomsky’s age, Arnove admitted that he is neither a Facebook nor a Twitter user — another line that drew considerable applause from the audience. He said that although these tools can be valuable for organizing such actions as “flash mobs” and were very important to the success of the Arab Spring, they don’t take the place of live conversations and face-to-face dialogue. He also argued that the availability of instant communication 24/7 has led to exploitation of the labor force, since it is turning the 40-hour workweek into one of typically 60 or 70 hours.

Chomsky agreed that social media like Twitter were a “mixed story — great for activism, for communicating simple concepts.” But, he added, “When you write a one-sentence question, that means you haven’t thought about it.” He thought that his students were doing less reading these days, not understanding the literary references that he used in his lectures. “There’s a tendency toward superficiality, which could be harmful,” he warned.

Whatever the tools currently in use for social activism, both speakers said that they continue to feel encouraged by what Zinn called “the countless small actions of unknown people,” many of whom continue to look to Zinn’s writings about the history of ordinary Americans for inspiration. “Howard conveyed better than anyone else I know the joy of being an activist,” Arnove said. ++

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