How Noam Chomsky Came to Sign that Divestment Letter

Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Today, The Daily Gazette published a pro-divestment letter signed by three recipients of Swarthmore honorary degrees: sociologist Arlie Hochschild ‘62, activist John Braxton ’70, and, most notably, linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky. Here is an excerpt from the letter, which references Swarthmore’s 1989 divestment from South Africa:

Swarthmore has been a powerful voice for justice at critical moments in history. Right now, we are at one of those points. […] Swarthmore played a significant role in [the anti-apartheid] campaign. It is time for Swarthmore to stand up and do the right thing once again.

The road to obtaining Chomsky’s signature began with Braxton, who authored the letter. It was Braxton’s idea to get honorary degree holders to sign it.

“We’re trying to convince the board that they’ve made a mistake,” he said. “The people that they have decided are worthy of respect think that they are making a mistake.”

Once Braxton had written the letter, contacting Chomsky was an obvious next step – Chomsky had received his honorary degree in 1970, at Braxton’s graduation ceremony. So Braxton emailed him.

“[Chomsky] said yes, he’d be very glad to sign. He was very responsive,” Braxton said.

Chomsky sent back the letter without edits, save for one: the linguist corrected a misspelling of “Rockefeller.”

“I guess that means he read it carefully enough [to spot a misspelling],” Braxton said.

In an email to The Daily Gazette, Chomsky wrote that Swarthmore could play an important role in ending the use of fossil fuels.

“Divestment from a prestigious university like Swarthmore [would] be a powerful signal to others that the matter has to be taken very seriously,” Chomsky said.

When asked if eventual divestment was inevitable, Chomsky responded that “[n]othing is inevitable.”

“We can, if we choose, accelerate the race to the precipice, as every likely Republican candidate is demanding,” he said.

Having obtained Chomsky’s signature, Braxton gave the letter to Swarthmore Mountain Justice (MJ) last fall. Then, MJ members contacted Hochschild, who received her honorary degree in 1993, and obtained her signature as well. The Daily Gazette was unable to reach Hochschild for comment.

Braxton suggested that Mountain Justice might try to recruit more honorary degree holders to sign the letter. MJ’s Sophia Zaia ‘18 did not say whether the organization was making an effort to do so, but said it would always welcome more support. For now, she seemed satisfied with the three signatories.

“I think it holds a lot of weight. […] They are intellectuals who have really respected standing in society,” she said.

Featured image courtesy of

Eduard Saakashvili

Eduard is a film and media studies major from Tbilisi, Georgia. He abandoned The Daily Gazette during sophomore year to focus on his career in club fencing. Big mistake.

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