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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.? 10.0pt;line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif"”>

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?