Sunday, January 21, 2007

When Noam Met the Cadets

After following Andrew Sullivan's link to a rather spectacular (in the true sense of a "spectacle") 1969 debate between William Buckley and Noam Chomsky, I discovered another Chomsky video they had on file, of a talk he gave on Just War Theory to some 200 West Point students enrolled in a philosophy class. This lecture, given over 35 years after his Buckley debate, is striking and moving for a number of reasons. One remarkable feature is Chomsky's consistent and continued command of facts -- something I've always found immensely admirable and impressive about his work -- about wars, whether they be in Greece, Vietnam, Iran, or Lebanon. Though we often hear only one side of the story from Chomsky, it is a story that is unrelentingly and commendably grounded in winning the debate over history, over what really happened, as he reminded Buckley, "in the real world."

But the most striking aspects of his talk at West Point have to do with the most obvious of facts: that this is Noam Chomsky giving a talk at West Point. Here, we do not see the kind of (largely deserving) condescending and facetious treatment Gerald Early gave to Ann Coulter when she came to Wash U. Nor do we see any expressions of resentment or suspicion -- not to be confused with weariness and boredom, which we may indeed see -- from a group of cadets forced to attend a lecture given by an MIT linguist who has never served his country in the military. On the contrary. Chomsky is given an ebullient introduction by a West Point philosophy professor, and following his talk, and question and answer session, is received with rousing applause and a gift.

Ultimately, this is a scene of intense beauty, and intense sorrow.

It is a shockingly beautiful testament to the idea of the United States of America that Noam Chomsky would be invited to speak at West Point -- or allowed to speak freely at all -- and be received with open minds and intense gratification by a military institution that has carried out exactly the kind of terroristic, aggressive, and imperialistic missions that Chomsky claims has and continues to be perpretated by the United States government.

And it is nothing but sorrowful and shameful that these incredibly intelligent and talented students -- younger than the readers and writers of this blog -- are being trained to risk their lives for a world far more bloodthirsty and dangerous than it need be. Nay, that it can be.


Blogger Josh the Hippie Killer said...

I know 2 kids from my year in high school that decided to go to West Point (after 9/11 but before Iraq). One was Nelson. He was an intelligent, athletic, open-minded kid who went to West Point because he wanted to become a general (a goal well-within his reach). The other kid was Matt. He went there because his favorite movie was Top Gun (no joke), and because although he got good grades, he was too short-sighted to see what he was getting himself into.

The summer after freshmen year of college I went out to dinner with both of them. Nelson, who was ranked 3rd in his class at WP, told me about all of the BS he had to put up with in order to reach his eventual goal. Meanwhile, Matt told me about all of the different ways that he now knew how to kill people. (At the restaurant, we were seated outside on a beautiful South Florida eve. At one point a minor trash-talking scuffle began between our table and some kids walking past the restaurant on a sidewalk. In the heat of the moment, Matt actually took a knife off of the table, tucked it into his wrist, and started to get up; thankfully, Nelson was able to calm him down.)

Which brings me to my point. I don't know exactly how many of the 4,000 West Point undergrads saw Noam speak, but at a school that I fear is made up of more 'Matt's than 'Nelson's, Chomsky was simply speaking to his same core audience of Nelsons in a land full of Matts. It is very cool that Chomsky was invited to speak there, but I doubt how much his warm reception really signifies.

1:00 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

This Matt seems perhaps a good illustration of the "high IQ kid taking up other people's time" from the education post. But maybe I'm too harsh.

Even if you gathered up the 200 most open-minded, let's just go ahead and say "liberal" cadets at West Point, would they really be more open to someone like Noam Chomsky? I don't know, maybe--I always assume people just loathe the man without knowing anything about him, but then again he disseminates like 4,000 pages of literature every year and seems widely read.

The other thing I thought about the video is how damn polite the audience is. Not just in their applauding, but in the deferential tone and the "Sir" beginning to every question. But hey, that's the military for ya--some good ol fashioned discipline and manners.

11:15 PM  

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