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Culture Literature

EIBF 2022: Noam Chomsky, ‘Dissent Across the Decades’

It’s a wonder at this stage in his career that 93-year old Linguist Noam Chomsky is able to show up to any event at all, let alone engage in an hour-long discussion concerning complex topics at the behest of the paying British public, so his remote appearance at the Edinburgh Book Festival was bound to draw in a fair few punters. Central Hall was packed to the rafters, all waiting with bated breath as Dr Chomsky set up the Zoom call, which after a brief delay lit up the large screen behind the interviewer and writer for The Guardian, Nesrine Malik. The discussion was to be about his new book Chronicles of Dissent, a series of talks between Chomsky and Alternative Radio’s David Barsamian spanning a 10-year period and a wide range of topics. Things didn’t quite pan out this way though, with Chomsky methodically plodding through his own particular trains of thought regardless of the relevance to the questions asked. Because of this, Malik was generally a welcome presence, for it was her firm hand that managed to steer Noam back on course when he would go off on long tangents. In an ideal world perhaps we would’ve been granted a longer period of conversation.

The main thrust of Noam’s first long-winded response to Malik’s question on the limits of the press was essentially the notion that mainstream media channels any discussion through its own presupposed window and controls the narrative by giving the illusion that the reader is receiving all sides of the debate when they may well not be. Not a bad point, but following a rather lengthy anecdote about the unpublished introduction to Orwell’s Animal Farm,  it certainly took a while to get there. When Chomsky was pressed upon what other avenues can be used if the media is unavoidably corrupt, he didn’t have many suggestions. 

In a similar vein, Chomsky was asked about his opinions on the more disruptive elements of protest movements, such as BLM, which some have criticised for veering towards tactics like looting and destruction of property. Chomsky condemns such actors and thinks that the serious protesters would never engage in this, likening things back to the protests surrounding the Vietnam War or the Indo-China War, talking of an example where the Vietnamese soldiers disapproved of the violent tactics employed by the American protestors, instead preferring it when ‘unthinkably mild’ tactics were used, like women silently standing by the graves of their fallen husbands. Again, not much was done by Chomsky to recognise the position of those who are unable to find other solutions and can only resort to extreme methods; many don’t have the luxury of waiting for society to catch up. ‘We shouldn’t speak truth to power’ was a heavily utilised catchphrase, meaning that we shouldn’t give oppressive structures any credence. Still, in lieu of an alternative, traditional avenues and methods that spill out into extremities cannot be fully vilified. 

Chomsky was later asked to justify his signing of the Harper magazine letter, which seemed to be a blanket condemnation of cancel culture by a predominantly older white academic group of scholars and authors. Chomsky acknowledged the flaws of the letter, stating that he too had reservations about its contents, but he stood by the core principle, that the silencing of opinions you don’t agree with is never justifiable. Chomsky knows, and stated as much, that cancel culture is a tactic ‘as old as the hills’, predominantly used to silence the marginalised. 

A lot of what Chomsky has to say is still powerful: I rather enjoyed his assertion that true activism has to do good rather than simply feel good, and the notion of powerful social movements starting humbly in living rooms. On the other hand, he offered little practical advice on the terms of those in the generations below him; perhaps it is unfair to ask this of him. It seemed like a large part of Chomsky’s train of thought on the night had come from one single article on the Ukraine crisis that he had read recently- an article that he felt was curtailing proper discussion on the matter because it didn’t talk about the idea that Russia could be called down from their position via a NATO withdrawal. Chomsky maintains that the NATO red line was established years ago and that the Western view that Putin is a maniacal dictator may not be based on truth. It appears fairly clear to most people though that Putin doesn’t have good intentions here, based on various examples of him outright stating he wishes to annex the neighbouring nation of Ukraine. 

Following the conversation with Malik, which left me none the wiser about the contents of the book the panel was presumably supposed to, at least briefly, touch on, the question and answer portion swiftly followed. Asked of him were such inane questions as: “If Biden was here today what would you say?”, or, “Do you support Scottish independence?”. Gentle chiding of Biden’s inadequacy and a lukewarm nod of approval regarding Scottish independence was met with rapturous applause from the audience. It is undeniably good to see Chomsky still showing up to these things, opening many people’s eyes to different ways of perceiving the world. Most likely, though, his appearance would leave many feeling a little underwhelmed. The audience, the interviewer, and the subject all seemed to have their own agendas regarding where the conversation should go, and an hour was a meagre amount of time to explore any of these avenues. It’s not necessarily the case that Chomsky has lost his touch, but it could be argued that he has done his work, and what should happen now is that we take his ideas, and run with them ourselves.

Image Credit: “Noam Chomsky, 2004” by Duncan Rawlinson is licensed under CC BY 2.0 .