When Chomsky wept

Fred Branfman recounts how he first met Noam Chomsky in Laos in February 1970 and goes on to write: In recent years I have been in regular contact with Noam, mainly by email, but also when staying in his house for 10 days prior to attending Howard Zinn’s April 3, 2010, memorial service. It was a deeply emotional period for both of us, particularly Noam, who had deep ties to Howard, and the visit made a deep impression on me.

I found essentially the same Noam whom I had met 40 years earlier. No interest in small talk. Self-deprecation. Anger at the ongoing refusal of America’s intellectuals and journalists to take a stand on U.S. leaders’ war crimes. Great moral issues of our time. A nice guy, offering to give me a ride back from a meeting in Cambridge, or to pick up some groceries at the supermarket for one of our meals.

I asked Noam how he felt about being routinely criticized for focusing on the crimes of U.S. leaders and not those of other nations. He said he felt this was appropriate since he was an American citizen, and U.S. leaders have by far committed more war crimes abroad than any others since the end of WWII. I agreed, also noting that there are so many prominent public intellectuals and journalists who criticize foreign leaders, so few who dare point out the war crimes committed by their own.

And, as 40 years earlier, I was above all struck by his unrelenting work. He spent almost all his time reading, writing, being interviewed in person or over the telephone, speaking and, in an act of generosity for which he is particularly known, continually answering an unending stream of emails — often for as much as five or six hours a day.

And, I discovered, he continued to speak widely all over the country and world, to the point where his schedule is usually filled up years in advance. At age 82 he kept a schedule that would overwhelm someone 40 years younger.

I was also struck by his asceticism. When I telephoned him I realized he had the same phone number and lived in the same modest suburban home as he had 40 years ago. He wears jeans, and has virtually no interest in food or material possessions. He is periodically visited by friends and family, but engages in no other leisure-time activities.

I was particularly moved one night as I was sitting opposite him at dinner, struck as usual by the enormous distance between what Noam knows about U.S. leaders’ slaughter of innocents around the world and what the public realizes. I suddenly thought of Winston Smith from Orwell’s “1984,” who sees little hope of changing society and focuses only on trying to remain sane and commit to paper the truth in the hope that future generations will remember it. I told Noam that to me, at that moment, he represented Winston Smith to me.

I will always remember his reaction.

He just looked at me.

And smiled sadly.

Noam can be tough on those who he feels support U.S. war-making, but he is even harder on himself. On one occasion I mentioned that I had asked a lifelong political activist with whom we were both friendly whether, looking back on his life, he had any regrets. Our friend had responded that he wished he had spent more time with his family, and pursuing a variety of his non-political interests. “Do you have any regrets?” I asked Noam. His answer shocked me. Muttering more to himself than to me he said, “I didn’t do nearly enough.”

On another occasion I asked Noam how much satisfaction he took from having written so many books, founding a new field of linguistics, being so influential around the world. “None,” he answered grimly, explaining that he felt he hadn’t really been able to convince enough people to understand the true depth of U.S. leaders’ savage and brutal treatment of the world’s non-people. He felt frustrated, for example, that more people did not understand how U.S. leaders’ killing hundreds of thousands of innocents and destroying the very base of South Vietnamese society had succeeded, how they had actually won in Indochina by destroying the possibility of an alternative economic and social model to that of the U.S. emerging.

One evening as I was climbing the stairs to my bedroom I looked into Noam’s office. He spends his time at home these days sitting in a large office chair in front of his computer, and his posture resembled nothing so much to me as a Buddhist monk in meditation.

And then it hit me.

I suddenly realized, “Noam has been living, as I did relatively briefly during the war, for the past 40 years. He has been working around the clock, reading, writing, speaking, not wasting a minute, in a focused attempt to try and stop U.S. killing, to force the world to realize the plight of the ‘unpeople.’” [Continue reading…]

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