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The Secret of Noam


“Isn’t it interesting,” he pauses, reflecting, “that eating a banana is somehow comical.” Noam Chomsky says this to me with a semi-straight face.

He understands the humor in the situation, yet to his mind the concept seems more of an intellectual observation than a funny moment. It’s evident as soon as he begins to talk: the man has none of the animation, the expression that you’d expect from someone so closely affiliated with the field of linguistics.

If you could somehow manifest a quieter, more monotonous version of Ben Stein’s character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’re just beginning to scratch the surface. And yet, Chomsky is a warm, inviting soul, happy to discuss any theory or idea you could possibly dream up. Our conversation ran the gamut, from politics to porn.

It’s surprisingly easy to get an interview with the man the New York Times called ‘arguably the most important intellectual alive.’ A quick search on the M.I.T. website yielded his email address and an email exchange later, we’d agreed on a lunch date in his office.

The instructions were simple. Noam takes his sandwich plain: no frills, no mayo, perhaps a slice of tomato and a leaf of lettuce to complement the turkey. Definitely hold the avocado. We arrived with his order in hand, contemplating for a moment wrapping it in a McDonald’s bag as a hilarious punchline to a joke that would probably be lost on Chomsky. In the end, it was decided that we’d leave the gentle ribbing for less important intellectuals with more reliable senses of humor.

Jeff Jetton: I ordered you the turkey on marble rye from the deli downstairs. Is this a thing of habit?

Noam Chomsky: For about the past 20 years or so.

Jeff Jetton: That exact order, huh?

Noam Chomsky: It used to be a bagel and American cheese.

Jeff Jetton: Why isn’t it called ‘The Chomsky’?

Noam Chomsky: [laughs]

Jeff Jetton: How long have you worked here at M.I.T.?

Noam Chomsky: Since ’55.

Jeff Jetton: And you can’t even get a sandwich named after you? Where’s the respect?

Noam Chomsky: [laughs]

Jeff Jetton: Are you a foodie?

Noam Chomsky: Am I a… ? Meaning?

Jeff Jetton: Are you into gourmet food?

Noam Chomsky: I’m into eating as little as possible, paying as little attention as possible. I never cook. Never use the stove or anything.

Jeff Jetton: Do you know how to cook?

Noam Chomsky: I’ve done it.

Jeff Jetton: Not interested huh?

Noam Chomsky: Not interested.

Jeff Jetton: So, let’s start out. Were you popular in high school? Something tells me you were secretly the high school quarterback and you’re too embarrassed to admit it.

Noam Chomsky: I was sort of an outsider. I had friends but I hated high school.

Jeff Jetton: Why?

Noam Chomsky: My parents worked, so from about 18 months I’ve been in school. But up until 8th grade I was in an experimental school run by Temple University. Progressive school, and that was great. But in high school I had to go to an actual ‘high school’. There was one academic high school where I was, one for boys, one for girls, and it was very rigid. For the teachers it was a dream because the kids there wanted to go to college, so the teachers could sit back and relax. But it was very rigid, you know, tests, grades. I had never had grades before, never knew I was a good student, nothing. And it was a bore. It was a black hole.

Jeff Jetton: Did you play sports?

Noam Chomsky: On my own, not in the high school system.

Jeff Jetton: You’ve spoken in the past about your views on sports. That, at least people who watch sports, that maybe it’s a distraction for the masses to keep them concentrated on trivialities.

Noam Chomsky: It can be that, doesn’t have to be.

Jeff Jetton: Do you watch?

Noam Chomsky: Do I myself? No. But when my grandson, who was a jock, wanted to go to games I was happy to take him to professional sports games. It was fun.

Jeff Jetton: You have a lot of good sports teams here in Boston.

Noam Chomsky: Yeah. We went to all of them during his jock phase.

Jeff Jetton: [laughs] Collect cards?

Noam Chomsky: Baseball cards. This was back in the ’30s.

Jeff Jetton: Do you still have them?

Noam Chomsky: [shakes head] But I can tell you, if you really want to be bored, I can describe the first baseball game that I went to, inning by inning.

Jeff Jetton: No thanks, definitely not. [laughs]

Noam Chomsky: Terrific game, it was the world championship Yankees. We were sitting right behind Joe Dimaggio in the bleachers, Red Ruffing pitching, Bill Dickey catching. Lou Gehrig on first. It was incredible.

Dakota Fine: Inning by inning?

Noam Chomsky: Oh, I won’t bore you.

Jeff Jetton: Do you ever find your life ruled by your principles? It must be hard to live completely by the parameters set forth in your ideals. Do you ever have to eschew things like buying products made by large companies or driving automobiles, purchasing gasoline, things like that?

Noam Chomsky: I don’t see any particular significance to that, and I don’t pay any attention to it. For one thing, I don’t buy much. Almost buy nothing. I buy what I need, do it the easiest way possible.

Jeff Jetton: I guess, when you go on a road trip… how do you drive across the country without eating an apple pie from McDonald’s?

Noam Chomsky: Well, the last time I drove across the country was 1956 and I don’t think there were any McDonald’s around then.

Jeff Jetton: Speaking of road trips I’m thinking of creating a graphic novel called ‘Salman and Hitch.’ In my head it’s kind of the cross-country roadtrip adventures of Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie. And the way I’m imaging it, you play a recurring role. It’s a graphic novel, but what I’d like is for you to show up occasionally in the novel having weekend adventures with Hitch and Salman.

Noam Chomsky: I don’t have any weekend adventures. I don’t take time off. You’d have to invent it.

Jeff Jetton: I’ll invent it, I was just wondering if you’d be okay with defending Hitchens’ honour in a bar fight?

Noam Chomsky: Anything you like.

Jeff Jetton: Alright, cool. Let’s talk for a moment about Egypt and the current state of affairs in the Middle East in general. Tunisia, Egypt, seemingly a domino effect taking place in the middle east. North Africa and now Wisconsin. What’s next? What do you think the implications are for the U.S. internationally?

Noam Chomsky: I think it’s pretty serious. There’s kind of a hidden point which isn’t being brought out, and that is that it is inconceivable that the U.S. would permit democracy in the Middle East, and for a very simple reason. Just take a look at polls of Arab public opinion. They exist. You can’t find them in the press, but they exist from prestigious polling agencies. Released by major institutions. And what they show is that if there was democracy in the Middle East, the entire U.S. program for domination of the Middle East would be down the tube. I mean, Arab public opinion does not regard Iran as a hostile entity. In fact it’s so supportive of Iran that a majority would think the place would be better off if Iran had nuclear weapons. The main enemies are the United States and Isreal, in the 80, 90 percent range. You look at popular figures, the most popular figure is the prime minister of Turkey, Erdogan, and then it goes down the list. You get Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, you don’t get Obama, or in fact any western leader. The public doesn’t want the whole imperial project.  So if you had democracy, it would be all over.

Jeff Jetton: So you don’t think the United States will let democracy flourish?

Noam Chomsky: They don’t want democracy here, why would they want it in the Middle East? In fact, what’s going on in – you mentioned Wisconsin and that’s quite appropriate. The last thirty years have been a major assault against democracy here, and the governor of Wisconsin is trying to carry it forward. Finally there’s some resistance, but plainly elites here don’t want democracy. And why should they? Democracy is always harmful to elite interests. Almost by definition. In the Middle East it’s dramatic because of the attitudes of the population.

Jeff Jetton: I’m also curious about your views on Somali piracy. I imagine that in Somalia [the pirates] are hailed as heroes, kind of modern day Robin Hoods. In your view can we really blame these rogue warriors for developing out of the ashes of failed states.

Noam Chomsky: You can understand what they’re doing. I’m not in favor of piracy, or any acts of violence. But the source of the piracy is in the West, actually Europe more than the United States. First of all the waters near Somalia were used for fishing. Well, they’ve been heavily polluted, mostly by Europe, Saudi Arabia, and the United States marginally. The toxic waste has destroyed the waters there. They can’t fish. The state itself had a function – I mean, it has a long complicate

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