Daily Star: Lee Smith on Chomsky
Exception to the rule. In Lee Smith on Chomsky, the Daily Star publishes its rare piece not written from a leftist-arabist perspective. Thanks guys. Let's have more.
I have zero interest and or/respect for Chomsky the man or his ideas. I have tangled seriously, and less seriously, with his fans on other blogs.
The interest I still marginally have in posting this good piece is the big deal the Chomsky visit was in Lebanon, and the good points raised by Lee Smith regarding the wisdom of presenting only one American point of view at AUB.
I am guessing that like in the US, 80-90% of the faculty is on the left (Lebanese and expats). As to AUB President Waterbury, it is no secret he's a man of the left. Maybe AUB is a truly a modern American university: one point of view allowed.
From Gulag U.S.A., a tenured dissident
By Lee Smith (Link to Daily Star, or full article below)
On the eve of his first-ever visit to Lebanon last week, Noam Chomsky told a reporter he would "try to familiarize himself with the country by 'riding around in taxi cabs.'" For anyone familiar with Chomsky's work, the implication was truly astonishing, suggesting one of the great "man-bites-dog" stories in contemporary intellectual history: "Chomsky to listen! World-famous American dissident intellectual will consider other perspectives and facts to integrate into rigid worldview. Washington role as 'mother of all evil' in jeopardy."
His cab drivers must have been reading an awful lot of Chomsky because by the time the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of linguistics gave a lecture titled "The Great Soul of Power" at the American University of Beirut exactly one week ago, this newspaper described it as "vintage" Chomsky. "It is the responsibility of intellectuals to take dissident positions," Chomsky said; "This is all the more the case for Western intellectuals who can't blame their subservience on fear, only cowardice."
To be honest, I didn't get to hear this particular dissident Western intellectual call out every other Western intellectual and journalist for not speaking truth to power because I was home that night getting to the stunning surprise ending of Michael Moore's "Dude, Who Stole My Country?" - don't worry, I won't give it away. But I'm curious if everyone was too fearful, subservient and cowardly to inform the professor who co-sponsored his appearance. No? Poor Chomsky, only he could find the tens of thousands souls lost in the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory bombing in Sudan, and still miss the petro-fortune buried right under his lecture notes. Prince Walid bin Talal, owner of Kingdom Holdings, with extensive investments in American media companies, started the Center of American Studies and Research, host of the Edward Said lectures that Chomsky was invited to give, with a $5.3 million endowment.
For that much money, you'd think the AUB could hire someone to vet the subject matter to avoid any potential embarrassment. "The great soul of power," a reporter for this newspaper wrote, "refers to the special reverence which public intellectuals and journalists ordinarily hold toward those in political power." What was Chomsky thinking? Oh, but I wasn't talking about you, your highness, you're not politically powerful, just one of the world's richest men, and I'm not an intellectual or journalist, I'm a dissident.
Professor, maybe you and Michael Moore missed it while on the dissident circuit, enhancing your brand visibility, but there was plenty of intellectual debate before the Iraq war that continues to this day, from the mainstream New York Times to scores of books and new media like satellite television and the Internet. To pretend it doesn't exist may help you to market your marginalization, but in the end it makes you not an intellectual but an ideologue.
At its best, Chomsky's political analysis strikes me as though it was written by a sensitive, deeply disillusioned teenager who has just found out from someone's older brother that states pursue interests. At his worst, Chomsky's just a vicious sensationalist, like when he asserted that the United States' demanding Iran cease its interference in Iraqi affairs "is like Hitler calling on the Americans to stop their interference in the affairs of a Europe pacified under German occupation." Is it really like that, professor? Don't be na•ve. Do you have any facts to back up that rhetoric, professor? Don't be na•ve.
In short, Professor Chomsky is the kind of luxury that only the U.S. can afford. Apparently, so is the AUB, which receives between $3 million to $4 million dollars every year in American taxpayer money. If I didn't know better, I'd think that the university still took its role seriously as a bridge between the U.S. and the Arab world. As such, it would try to present a fuller range of American political discourse and intellectual life, an especially useful calling at this time in our shared history. But recent invited speakers and conference attendees like Chomsky, University of Michigan professor Juan Cole and Mark LeVine of the University of California, Irvine, suggest that the only American voices worth hearing on Bliss Street are from a left decidedly hostile to current U.S. Middle East policy. Wouldn't it be instructive to hear other voices? Does everyone, even in Lebanon, think American policy in the region is really sinister? Or is it just every academic invited by the AUB who thinks so?
Here's a strange comparison: In Lebanon, democracy looks like Hizbullah, Amal, the Free Patriotic Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Lebanese Forces and the Future Movement, among many others. But at the American University of Beirut's American studies lecture series, the oldest and largest democracy in the world is represented by a left-wing professoriate that believes their country has been hijacked by an extremist right.
Maybe this perspective is soothing to the university's expatriate community, which likes to be reminded of how hard it is to speak truth to power back in the gulag, and it's probably a pleasant diversion for American grad students about to head home to train another generation of dissident intellectuals or opt for the big payout in the private sector; but I wonder what it's like for Arab undergraduates who might really want to know how the U.S. works. I sure won't blame Lebanese kids graduating from AUB who having been lectured to by an endless series of tenured radicals if they are wondering who actually voted for Bush, if every American they have ever met says they hate the elected leader of the U.S. I, too, would think there was a secret cabal running the U.S. government. So, how is the AUB educating Arab students at a time when it is pretty useful to have a close understanding of the American political process, cultural and intellectual life?
There are plenty of excellent universities in Lebanon - St. Joseph, the Lebanese American University, Haigazian, among others - that could no doubt use the U.S. aid money funneled to the AUB every year, largely because of its reputation and (Chomsky will love this) the power of its Washington lobbyists. So, maybe there should be more competition for those $3 million to $4 million dollars, which American taxpayers are happy to share - just as long as you give them credit for the great diversity of American political and intellectual life and represent it as such. After all, like Lebanon, the U.S. is a democracy.
Lee Smith is a journalist and Hudson Institute visiting fellow based in Beirut. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.