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Anthony Badami '11: I am embarrassed

I first encountered the work of Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as a wide-eyed freshman in high school. My inchoate intellectual views were just starting to take shape, and I had developed a keen interest (nay, an obsession) with political philosophy and foreign affairs. When reading the Economist or skimming the pages of the New York Times, I felt that I had my finger on the pulse, the pumping lifeblood, of global society.

One banal day of literary perusing, I stumbled upon a copy of Manufacturing Consent in the current events section of my local library. I had heard the name "Chomsky" somewhere before but could not place it. After reading just a few pages, I was hooked.

My intellectual journey since has been tumultuous indeed. From Chomsky, I moved on to other thinkers, both public and academic. But I always returned, especially when jaded, to lap up what refreshment I could from his reviving commentary.

I am sure that many in the Brown community have a special place in their hearts and minds for Chomsky. There is no need for me to preach to the choir, to beat a dead horse, to implement a hackneyed metaphor. Brown students get it.

Or not.

As I sat through the question-and-answer period of last week's lecture (featuring you-know-who), I was appalled, startled and utterly embarrassed: Is this all that the Brown intellectual population can offer?

The exchange, if it can be called that, was littered (pun intended) with uninformed, vague and repetitive questions. Had no one read a single work, article, book or interview of Chomsky's before the lecture? Do we really need to be asking a commentator of his stature, "What can we as students do?" Must this question be asked twice?

Yet this is not the worst part. Not a single Brown student asked a challenging, provocative or formidable question. Brown Students for Israel, are you asleep at the wheel? Did you have a mandatory meeting running concurrently with the lecture? The man said that he doesn't believe Israel should exist. You should be haranguing!

I do not reserve my criticism solely for the questioners — I take serious issue with Common Ground as well. Applause for securing arguably the most important intellectual alive, but could you not give this deity a more stimulating introduction? It was dry, colorless and minimal.

Furthermore, the question-and-answer session was sloppy and unorganized. Tip: When a speaker has finished speaking, it is your job to man the mic and direct questions. Chomsky was left up at the podium, uncomfortably and awkwardly, for nearly a minute before anyone even got in line for questions. How deflating.

And I will not go into the shameless bit of political self-promotion that occurred as well — the crowd spoke for itself. Suffice to say, it exemplified the general tone of the night — do not criticize, do not inquire, try to protect your hide and let this batty old nut speak his deranged message.

When Chomsky exits this earth, we will certainly have a prolific collection of political, social, economic and philosophical commentary left behind. But all of this is accessory. Chomsky often wrote on unfashionable topics, and much of his political writing will be irrelevant centuries from now. However, what can endure, if we let it, is his spirit of tireless critique of power and privilege, which will always exist. 

I have myriad differences and disagreements with Chomsky's work, especially his Manichean treatment of foreign affairs and his unelaborated opinions on morality, which he seems to take for granted. But I still respect his ability to transcend traditional academic structures, both in breadth and depth, to offer powerful evaluations of the way that power operates.

For our departing seniors, much from Chomsky can be applied here. As you escape the embrace of Brown, you will face, most likely for the first time, the need to provide for your own subsistence, your own survival. To gain income, to feed yourselves and your families, you will need to play an institutional role, whether it be for a law firm, a financial company, academia, a non-governmental organization, the government, etc.

But you need not relent totally: Be aware of the implications your institutional actions can have on the personal lives of real people. You may be able to justify your transgressions on the small scale, in the short run, but just know that, once upon a time, you were a wide-eyed freshman as well, and you too had ideals and principles.

I end, of course, with a quotation from Professor Chomsky:

"To speak truth to power is not a particularly honorable vocation … It is a waste of time and a pointless pursuit to speak truth to those who exercise power in coercive institutions."

Why? They already know the truth, as do you. Thus, I charge you always to question those who claim to know absolutely, whether it be in a million-dollar board meeting or a college lecture hall.

Au revoir, seniors. It's been real. 

Anthony Badami '11 is a political theory concentrator from Kansas City, Mo. He can be reached at anthony_badami at brown.edu




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