Chomsky at Swat? Noam way!

Noam Chomsky, renowned professor of linguistics and opponent of neo-liberalism, and his daughter Aviva Chomsky, professor of Latin American studies and political activist, visited Swarthmore on Tuesday to lecture about their respective fields. The lectures were co-sponsored by various departments, but the Chomskys were invited by Professor Donna Jo Napoli of the Linguistics department, who has been a longtime family friend. Noam and Aviva Chomsky picked the theme and subject of their lectures, so both of them settled on politics, Noam Chomsky speaking on capitalism in Really existing capitalist democracy: Can it be survived?, and Aviva Chomsky speaking on divestment and the relationship between workers and the environment in Whose Planet? Whose Economic Development? Jobs vs. Environment in the U.S. and Latin America.

Noam Chomsky has been a longstanding faculty member of MIT and reached prominence through his work in linguistics. Professor Napoli introduced him, saying, “He revolutionized linguistics through the way in which he carried out language analysis.  He arrived at conclusions purely by logic in the face of data — conclusions that have been confirmed by more recent methods of brain imaging. His approach to political science has been similar: he looks at the data and reasons his way to conclusions, no matter how unpopular those conclusions may be.” The Vietnam War spurred him to enter the political scene, and he has since then become very involved in political theory as a vocal opponent of neo-liberalism.

His lecture focused largely on criticisms of the real world application of the ideals of capitalism and democracy. To Chomsky, it seemed the biggest discrepancy in a capitalist democracy is the relationship between popular attitude and actual policy, stating that the lowest 70% do not have any effect on the policies that are implemented. He referred to the sequester, a political action that was influenced entirely by the rich, and to a living wage, which is preferred by 80% of the population  but has yet to be implemented because it isn’t in the best interest of the rich. There have even been constant tax cuts for the upper class in the face of majority support for implementing higher taxes for corporations and the rich. “It’s a plutocracy,” Chomsky said, “or to borrow a quote from Jim Hightower, a radical kleptocracy.”

He stated that conservative philosophy vocally favored the rich, and critiqued current democratic ideology in the United States as being too conservative. “It’s been said that there is only one party, the business party with two factions, democrats and republicans, but while there is only the business party, there is actually only one faction, moderate republicans. There has been a marked shift to the right in American politics,” said Chomsky.

Chomsky went on to talk about the role of government. “The government should look for national security, but instead seeks to increase the reach of its powers – look at Edward Snowden, or Chelsea Manning for example.” He echoed the sentiment that whistleblowers should be applauded and critiqued the American free press for not being free at all, pointing to a marked lack of coverage compared to other foreign newspapers. Chomsky stated that the goal in a democratic government should be to have informed voters making rational decisions, yet the current goal of public relations is to make uninformed voters make irrational choices. He heavily criticized the United States’ war on terror, stating that it’s only been used to justify the mass surveillance carried out by the NSA. The use of drones itself is a terrorist campaign conducted by the government that largely creates more enemies of the United States. The public is intentionally kept in the dark about what is happening to them, and entry into the political system is restricted. Chomsky ended on a positive note; stating that what is required is a complete educational reform. A shift from mandatory testing and routine memorization to encouraging individual learning and interest is necessary as the current institution discourages independent thinkers.

The reaction to Chomsky’s lecture was extremely enthusiastic. A line started forming at LPAC Pearson theatre at 6:00, an hour before his lecture, and the theatre reached capacity shortly after the ushers opened house.

Professor Aviva Chomsky of Salem State University is a Latin American historian and influential political activist. Her work has mostly focused on mine workers in Colombia and other Latin American countries, as well as Appalachia. Her lecture focused largely on balancing the lives of workers and environmental concerns and the efficacy of the divestment movement, a movement that has been active on campus. Aviva Chomsky stated that she was a supporter of the divestment movement, and finds it an important tool for raising awareness, but she did have some criticisms. In drawing parallels with the anti-apartheid divestment campaign, she claimed that the biggest difference is that there was an internal call from the National African Conference which she has yet to see from Appalachian mine workers. She compared the divestment movement to a move to shut down the power plant in Salem, Massachusetts. Though various residents wanted to close it, none of them were willing to give up electricity — which would mean that shutting it down would merely mean opening another plant elsewhere.

“When you travel to eastern Kentucky it’s clear what’s wrong with mountaintop removal mining, and all of us are involved and affected in one way or another but we’re usually not aware of it. Part of our privilege in this country is that we get to be unaware of the effects of our economic energy policies, so we can just enjoy our electricity and return on investments without having to see what’s behind them,” she said.

Indeed, both Chomsky’s emphasized that Americans largely have the privilege to remain isolated from the consequences of their wasteful and unsustainable lifestyles. And both of them spoke out against this isolation, leaving their respective fields — Latin American studies and Linguistics — to take on political issues. That speaks to the role of the intellect in our time: not merely to analyze, but, when possible, to speak out.

And that’s a lesson all Swatties can take home.