It was a pleasant evening to think about the apocalypse. The setting was the FedEx Global Education Center, a three-year old facility on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus that was "funded in large part by a generous gift from the FedEx Corporation," according to its website. As a site crosshatched with educational and corporate concerns, it was a suitably ironic venue for Noam Chomsky, linguist and critic of American empire, to hold forth.
The occasion was the opening of UNC art professor elin o'Hara slavick's show in the building. Called Aftermath: Protesting Cartography + Hiroshima, it's an exhibition of her recent work imagining and charting the bombing runs of American forces around the world, throughout the last century. (Brian Howe reviewed her book, Bomb After Bomb: A Violent Cartography, in these pages three years ago.) Twentieth-century modernity itself was ushered in to the deafening fanfare of bombardment. There was no more pivotal period than the Great War, which wiped out the better part of a generation of young British, French and Germans. Those who survived the meat grinder of the trenches gave us modern painting and literature, and modern political theories like communism and fascism.
Chomsky was born a decade and one month after the armistice. In fact, he'll turn 82 this Dec. 7, on the 69th anniversary of the date that lives in infamy. It's appropriate, because his fame is predicated on his relentless agitation against the imposition of American empire. The war with Japan began with the attack on Pearl Harbor that claimed the lives of about 2,500 servicemen and civilians, and ended less than four years later with the nuclear annihilation of approximately 200,000 Japanese civilians. In America, it's the former event that is the outrage, not the latter.
Before an invited audience of about 200 in the Nelson Mandela Auditorium, Chomsky shambled up to the podium. Eschewing jacket and tie, Chomsky began his talk, titled "What we say goes. Not."
Chomsky has been using the first part of the title, which he attributes to George Bush the Elder, for a while—he used it as a book title in 2007. Indeed, his talk was sort of a greatest hits set. In an hour or so, he took us on a tour of American power, going back to the notion of a "Grand Area," cooked up during World War II by U.S. policymakers to outline the vast swaths of the world that America would seek to dominate. This presumption of influence has been the defining feature of American policy—and American presidents—ever since, including the U.S.- and British-sponsored overthrow of Iran's secular republic in 1953 and the Kennedy administration's decision to support the army uprising in Iraq in 1963, which led to Baath rule and the ascension of a young party leader named Saddam Hussein. Onward the narrative went—with meaningful asides about unilluminated corners of the world's secret history, such as the parallels between Israel's 1967 bombing of the USS Liberty and Iraq's 1987 attack on the USS Stark (both attacking countries were U.S. allies, and in both cases the "accidents" were investigated and quietly resolved). In 1991, Saddam misinterpreted signals from Washington and invaded Kuwait; when he realized he'd overreached, he attempted to walk it back, to no avail. The period of sanctions that lasted for 12 years—not to be lifted until the attacks ordered by Bush the Younger—were described as meeting the definition of genocide by two United Nations administrators who resigned in succession.
Listening to Chomsky can be a bracing experience: What was Saddam's crime, really? It was the exercise of national sovereignty, which is the same crime the regime in Iran is currently guilty of. Chomsky noted that Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers—India, Pakistan and Israel—that are not subject to nonproliferation agreements, and lefty heads nodded as he told us that President Lula of Brazil had endorsed Iran's right to enrich its uranium. Murmurs of conspiratorial pleasure went through the audience when he argued that the Israel-Palestine "peace process" is really only a debate between Israel and the U.S. on one side and the rest of the world on the other. And some were shocked to learn that the U.S. has exempted itself from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice. Chomsky wound up with a warning that the U.S. is building up for a confrontation with Iran—Obama is bolstering the forces at Diego Garcia, a British-controlled island in the Indian Ocean that is used as a staging area.
Chomsky's facts tend to check out. He's an old-schooler who actually reads public documents. He is also, touchingly, still on the daily newspaper schedule: "Keep an eye on tomorrow's papers," he said, for reports of a coup attempt in Ecuador against Rafael Correa, the country's young, left-leaning president. (Tomorrow's papers, Mr. Chomsky? Why not follow Correa on Twitter right now at twitter.com/rafaelcorrea?) But Chomsky was correct: If you kept an eye on the papers, or drilled beneath the Huffington Post babble about Tea Parties and Christine O'Donnell and Glenn Beck, you could find reports of an embattled Correa being attacked with tear gas, and pitched battles between police and army factions in the streets of Quito. (Correa—or an imposter—abruptly stopped using Twitter on April 24, 2009, after his re-election—and after 5,949 tweets.)
During the Q-and-A someone asked what hopes he had for our future. He responded with Confucius' definition of the exemplary person: "One who keeps on trying even though he knows there is no hope." And Chomsky certainly didn't sound hopeful. "I think in 500 years, humans will be barely surviving," he said, citing nuclear war and global warming as the biggest threats. (After O'Donnell's primary defeat of Delaware Republican Mike Castle, Chomsky said, every remaining Republican running for Senate this year professes to doubt the existence of global warming.)
Hope arrived with the last question: Should we rethink the ideal of nonviolent protest? "If a nonviolent approach won't work," Chomsky said, "we might as well kiss each other goodbye." Relieved applause resounded through the room.
We streamed out to the atrium of the FedEx Center, where free food and beverages awaited us. The hors d'oeuvres were exceptional: sun-dried tomato chutney on wonton crisps, for example, and smoked salmon with wasabi cream on coconut jasmine rice cake. To drink: pinot grigio, zinfandel and pinot noir, along with Heineken, Amstel Light and Pellegrino.
I strolled around, looking at slavick's art, which was displayed on three floors and included such things as relics from eucalyptus trees that were incinerated by an A-bomb and unsettling cyanotypes of such artifacts as a stratified bottle from a Japanese bomb site.
On the main floor, Chomsky was surrounded by young admirers, and he answered their earnest, anxious questions. The scene reminded me of the times in college that I encountered Allen Ginsberg. I saw one young woman maneuver behind Chomsky so her friend could snap a picture of her wearing a "Hey, look! Noam Chomsky!" expression on her face.
How can a state as apparently destructive as the United States survive while allowing intellectuals like Chomsky and artists like slavick to—as the optimistic cliché goes— speak truth to power? The United States is full of conscientious citizens, and to turn a common question about the deity on its head, how can a good and just people allow its government to inflict so much pain?
Perhaps it's not really our government—they just let us live here. During his talk, Chomsky cited Adam Smith in noting that the state is not a moral agent; accordingly, the U.S. could simply be an out-of-control juggernaut that we can't harness, despite the fact that we seem to have elections all the time. But the policies don't really change, even as we go to war over proxy issues every two years—it's blue versus red, Jon Stewart versus Rush Limbaugh, "Yes We Can" versus the Tea Party, while the issues are God, gays and guns—and, if we're lucky, feeble efforts to make our health care system marginally less cruel.
Indeed, efforts to move the country one way or another seem reminiscent of the Great War and its trenches. Take the battle of the Somme, fought over a period of five months in 1916: After more than a million deaths, the lines only moved about six miles.
I started to make my way out of the FedEx Center, but someone standing at the bar spotted my notebook. He introduced himself as the man who'd asked the question about rethinking nonviolence. The thought was still on his mind.
"I respect Professor Chomsky's geopolitical knowledge, but I'm not sure he understands nonviolence versus violence," he said. "No insurgency has ever succeeded purely on nonviolence. Look at Afghanistan—they resisted.
"Chomsky's like a rock star," he continued. "He's not going to say that. But what I'm saying is that violence should be discussed."
I took my leave, and he turned to the bar to order another free beer.