The Most Important Intellectual Alive Todayby J. S. Henry
The headline on The Cauldron, the student newspaper at Cleveland State, was "Democracy Nonexistent in U.S. --Chomsky Says." It was the day after the eminent linguist and U.S. dissident delivered a speech in the Moot Court Room at CSU's Marshall College of Law. It was certainly an attention-grabbing headline. The story was a pallid reiteration of the MIT professor's rather dull speech, delivered to a packed room of about 60 people, nearly all of whom seemed to agree heartily with his vision of the country's political system: corrupt beyond hope, utterly duplicitous, unworthy of serious discussion.
My friend Cindy called me a week before the great event. She knew I idolized Chomsky because recently I'd been given a freelance writing assignment by a major reference publisher to do a 3500-word profile of the man, and the honor was all I could talk about for months. I even posted a query in alt.fan.noam-chomsky for info on the distinguished linguist. (I didn't understand generative grammar and someone who did wrote me a nice explanation.) So Cindy left a message on my machine telling me Chomsky was to speak. I called the law college to confirm. They suggested I arrive no later than forty minutes before his speech was to begin. I thought that would be no problem.
In fact, I arrived nearly and hour and a half before the speech. There was still a class going on in the Moot Court Room, and I had to wait nearly a half hour before I could get a seat. It was the first time I'd been in the College of Law. It was really very nice -- nicer than the buildings that housed the liberal arts, which were generally falling apart. I'd decided that this was okay; it was as it should be. The liberal arts, I had decided in the second year of a master of arts program in English, served no purpose. The idea of creating a well-informed citizenry, widely knowledgeable, just didn't make any sense to me. The students at Cleveland State came from the working class black neighborhoods (popularly known as "slums"), and the working class white neighborhoods (known as "ethnic enclaves"), and couldn't give a damn about Renee Descartes or Sinclair Lewis. Who could blame them? I'd spent more than a decade in and out of five undergraduate English programs in two states, and was happily on my way to getting an M.A., and I didn't give a damn about either of them. I just wanted to get out of debt, tighten up my abs, and move to Kuala Lumpur.
The lobby of the Marshall College of Law was nicely appointed. It had thick comfortable chairs, and couches, and potted plants, all set neatly about the base of a diagonal staircase to the Moot Court Room. There was nice fake paneling, and an information window. I was very early, and looking around, I felt fairly certain I was the only Chomskyan there. Only three or four other people were in the room, and judging from certain cultural markers, I had them pegged as law students. This is what a liberal arts education has done to me: when I look around, all I see are cultural markers. A decade and a half of critical thinking has put me in a profound dissociative trance. Nothing exists purely and simple as itself. Everything refers to something else. No choices are arbitrary. Nothings means what it appears to mean. The Enlightenment myth of rationality has deluded us all.
Finally, about twenty minutes before the scheduled talk, the class let out and a small crowd of Chomskyans began to mill in. The brave and the weird took the first row of seats. The less brave and less weird took the second. I took an aisle seat in the third, and retrieved a first edition paperback of Rabbit, Run from my bag, pretending to read it as the room slowly filled. Rabbit Angstrom had just abandoned his pregnant wife and small child, and was driving through the backwoods of West Virginia. (I was taking an American Novels of the 1960s, of which the prototype, we students had been instructed, was Rabbit, Run.) I held the book open in my hands and examined the page of words. Long Updikeian paragraphs, glorifying the banality of Middle America. Made my head spin. Rabbit Angstrom, it occurred to me, was like the undergraduate -- like the kid or the middle-age secretary or garage mechanic at CSU who other graduate English students are charged with teaching to write. It is an impossible task. There were millions and millions of people in this country, it seemed clear to me, who, frankly, didn't have a chance in hell of improving their lot in life. Somebody had to plunge America's stuffed-up toilets, and it wasn't going to be me, or anyone with time on their hands to sit listening to Noam Chomsky for 90 minutes in the middle of a weekday.
Chomsky spoke for about an hour, offering us proof after proof that we were dupes, had been dupes for generations, and would continue to be dupes well into the future. It was a well thought out assault, and all of us sat there clapping and laughing at the right moments, all the while pretending it wasn't us he was talking about but some other group of incredibly wealthy, lazy elitists who were squandering the world's resources in exchange for leisure and home electronics. "What a bunch of selfish dunderheads," we thought, applauding."How could those people be so cruel?"
After his speech, Chomsky took a few questions. I had one I wanted to ask but knew, of course, that I wouldn't. It was the question that could keep me from chucking my ambitions and moving to Kuala Lumpur. But I knew I wouldn't ask it. Why not? Because of my liberal arts education. I had been so inundated with prompts to analyze everything that I'd been mummified into silence lest someone analyze me. How could I ask this question in a room full of liberal arts majors trained to deconstruct anything that drifts past their penetrating gazes?
My question was, "What stories do you tell yourself to make it okay to continue living here in Western Civilization?" And, "How do you accept a paycheck from, for god's sake, an institution 90 percent funded by the Department of Defense?" If anyone was to have a sensible internal narrative rationalizing our indefensible lifestyle, it's surely Noam Chomsky. He lives in a house. He drives a car. He probably even has a bank account and wears clothes assembled by low-wage slaves.
There was one interesting question. Actually, it was a pretty stupid, predictable question but it got an interesting response. Someone asked, "How can we as citizens do anything to change the system?" Chomsky sort of smirked and replied, "You know, I've lectured all over the world, in countries where people could be killed for simply organizing a meeting to discuss change; but only in America do people ask me that question. You bring about change by organizing. It's the only way it's ever been done, and it's the only way it ever will be done."
Then someone in the upper terrace seats unfurled a banner decrying the use of the Chief Wahoo mascot by the Cleveland Indians baseball team, and Chomsky was finished.
I had brought a copy of one of Chomsky's books for him to sign and, tentatively, I walked up to him with it. I'm not a big autograph person--mostly because of the cultural signals begin an autograph hound might send to other liberal arts majors--but I thought Chomsky was a pretty important person in 20th Century science and, well, here he was--in Cleveland. I was the second person to go up to him. The first, a man about my age, dressed about like me with hair about like mine, was inviting Chomsky to take a tour of "our dying city." Chomsky shook his head good naturedly and said, in a very shy, tiny voice, "I'm pretty booked up." When I got up to him I shook his hand and said "Thank you," a remark that seemed to confuse him although I thought it pretty clearly referred to the speech he'd just delivered. Then I handed him the book and asked if he would sign it. He was about to, and then he paused and made sure it was one of his. (I hate dusk jackets so all my books are black, faded, and dusty.) As he was signing it, I noticed he had a bunch of very long, very gray hairs growing on the tip of his nose. I, too, have such hairs (though mine aren't gray), and I shave them regularly, thinking they look ridiculous. I also noticed his gums were receding, making his teeth seem to be enormous, with spaces between each at the root. He nodded and bowed slightly, and handed the book back to me, looking terribly uncomfortable with the whole ritual. Afterward, I drove home and took a nap. (I'm pretty sure I have chronic fatigue syndrome.)
Someone hired to review one of Chomsky's books for the New York Times once made the mistake of saying that Noam Chomsky is the most important intellectual alive today. This quote now appears (ironically) on the book jacket of every book he publishes, and in every story written about him in the mainstream media (not ironically). He's got the best of both worlds.