After being denied entry to the West Bank by Israel, Noam Chomsky spent some time in Amman and then made his way to Lebanon. He took a tour of the south which coincided with the 10-year anniversary of the Israeli withdrawal from most of occupied Lebanon. A few days later I was one of the several hundred people to pack into the UNESCO center auditorium to see him speak.
I first saw Chomsky deliver a lecture as a college freshman eight years ago. It was only one or two years before that that I had discovered some of his work, and I remember being awed by the man. Here was someone who fearlessly articulated the kinds of thing we Arabs knew, and Americans were oblivious to. Whatever doubts I may have had about his credentials (I had none) were dispelled by the aggressive Zionist contingent protesting the event. Hundreds of us lined up outside Irvine Auditorium while a few dozen Hillelniks chanted and passed out propaganda leaflets. I was elated.
The lecture was everything I’d hoped for. Chomsky reviewed the imperial history of the world, highlighted the nefarious corporatization of politics and conquest and lambasted the venality of the ruling American aristocracy. He recalled his labor Zionist youth and imparted one razor bit of insight which reverberated in my mind then and now (I’m paraphrasing):
“Many people do not know that America has a heavily-armed permanent military base on the Mediterranean. It’s called Israel.”
I couldn’t believe he said it; this was 2002 (Do you remember what that was like – only one year after 9/11? The televised braying heads were orchestrating a WMD tour de fuck and George W. Bush was a demigod).
I was one of many who thronged the speaker after the lecture. I managed to get a handshake in, thanking him profusely and reverently for his courage. It’s embarrassing to recall, but what can I say? He inspired me.
That was eight years ago and I’ve become more critical of Chomsky in the intervening period. It was mostly his stance on the two-state ‘solution’ that shook my faith in the man’s unimpeachability (which is a good thing; no one is right all of the time). Later, I’d find the W&M Israel lobby analytical model more convincing than the imperial structuralist one offered by Chomsky. To be sure, they’re not mutually exclusive and probably both useful depending on your desired degree of analysis. We may even need a grand unified theory of imperial ambition and special interest engineering. But the disagreement was enough to demonstrate that Chomsky hadn’t pinned it completely.
So it was with guarded skepticism that I took my seat in the packed auditorium last week. We only waited for a few minutes before Chomsky walked down the aisle and to the stage. He passed close by and I was glad to see he looked just as healthy as he did years ago.
The lecture was in many ways unoriginal, rehashing the imperial history of the world and imperialism’s contemporary variations. The fact that nothing Chomsky said was revelatory is of course due to the fact that his ideas have mostly been adopted as self-evident. In a funny way, the measure of an individual’s ideological influence corresponds inversely to how obvious and unoriginal those ideas appear years later. Everyone knows that bodies in motion stay in motion (until Barack Obama blasts them with a drone strike), and everyone knows that the US acts to maintain hegemonic supremacy through legal and illegal means.
The most interesting part of the lecture was the Q&A. Someone asked about the one-state solution and Chomsky responded that the one-state solution was better than the two-state solution, but that the no-state solution was better than either. He went on to provocatively suggest that no one has proposed a doable one-state model yet. What may emerge is a phased one-state model. Two-states first, then with normalization and integration, maybe one-state. But there was no way to go from here and now to one-state. I got the distinct feeling that Chomsky hadn’t updated his analytical framework while I listened; he spoke of the two-state solution as though it was somehow still possible to implement.
For the record, I disagree with his assessment. I’m pretty confident that the world which witnessed radical Soviet and South African restructuring will also see a radical Palestine/Israel restructuring.
Chomsky only took ten questions, but I managed to get one in. My question was:
“Press reports recently suggested that you intended to meet with Salam Fayyad. What’s your opinion of the view that he’s an imperial stooge, with no electoral legitimacy?”
The speaker tastefully avoided answering the question (no prevaricating – he just didn’t answer), which is a type of answer. Chomsky inadvertently provided some insight into the tight spaces he’s trying to maneuver. I have no doubt that he knows that Salam Fayyad is an imperial stooge, but his allegiance to two states leaves him with no good way to honestly confront that reality. Salam Fayyad is Israel’s partner for peace, and any believer in the two-state model can’t but rally behind the Occupation’s Administrator in Chief.
It’s like Harvey Dent said to Batman: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Noam Chomsky has now lived long enough to see himself loosely allied with the American imperial project in Palestine; Israel for the Jews, and Fayyadistan for the Hunched Henchmen.
Chomsky is no villain, but he can’t afford to be associated with them either. But despite how I feel, we owe Chomsky an immense debt of gratitude. His fifty years of activism and record of speaking truth to power cannot be disregarded or diminished, no matter what his position may be today.