The Johns Hopkins Gazette: November 10, 1997
Nov. 10, 1997
VOL. 27, NO. 11


Chomsky Looks At "Ourselves and the Other"

Political activist brings his special brand of rhetoric to Homewood

Leslie Rice
News and Information

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Because it was to be held in the Glass Pavilion, which seats about 350 people, and because a vigorous promotion of a lecture by legendary linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky would inevitably draw more people than the space could handle, the Hopkins Anthropology Department deliberately kept news of Chomsky's Nov. 3 talk low-key--fliers posted around campus that morning, a mention in The Gazette, invitations to friends. Nevertheless, news of his visit spread fast.

And that Monday evening, when Chomsky, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who revolutionized the scientific study of language and propaganda, delivered the department's sixth annual Sidney W. Mintz Lecture, more than 500 students, faculty, staff and followers from as far away as Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania and Virginia squeezed into the Glass Pavilion to hear him. They used every chair, sat cross-legged on the floor, pressed against the steaming glass walls of the room and listened raptly as Chomsky, in usual form, dazzled with his expansive knowledge of history, philosophy, linguistics and world order.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, chairman of Hopkins' Anthropology Department, was not surprised at the turnout. Well-acquainted with Chomsky's international reputation for his uncompromisingly honest critique of the conduct of the world and national politics, Trouillot is also familiar with the impact that honesty has on the people who encounter Chomsky.

"I was in Harvard Square a few weeks ago looking for a cab," Trouillot told the audience. "I found one, and not surprisingly-- to those of you who know Cambridge--the driver was Haitian. On our way to the airport, we chatted about different things. As we moved from topic to topic, my driver volunteered his opinion about 'these Harvard people' who get in his cab. 'They have nothing to do with us, of course,' he said. 'But there is a guy at MIT. I went to hear him talk about Haiti just a few days ago. He makes sense. Perhaps you know him. Chansky, Chomsky, something like that.' I said, 'Yes, I know him.'

"It is a measure of Professor Chomsky's reach that a black immigrant cab driver in Boston recognizes in him something that makes sense--something close to home at the very moment that home is uncertain or, indeed, undefined."

Chomsky's talk, "Ourselves and the Other," looked at the way people of the United States view the "Other"--countries culturally different from themselves--and their ability or, more often, inability, for honest self-appraisal.

"It is easier to transcend our comprehension of the rest of the world, even the 'other,' those who are different from ourselves," he said. "But when it comes to understanding ourselves, it is often far more difficult to cut through its seeming simplicity, its familiarity."

For example, he said, look at propaganda in the Soviet Union under communism. People make much of its use by the Soviet government when really--as propaganda goes--it was atypical and unsophisticated.

"There was no attempt during those times to study the effect of the practice of propaganda, or the political 'education' of the people," he said. "It was a blunt instrument of uncertain impact. Instead, the government was able to rely on fear, repression, domination."

That is why the government, the media and the corporate elites of free, democratic countries must rely on far more persuasive, complex methods to shape public opinion. And no country in the world, he says, spends more money, time and research on the manipulation of information than the United States.

"The industry of disseminating information, of inciting or inclining the public to do or buy something, takes up one-sixth of the nation's GNP [gross national product]. Advertising alone spends $350 billion a year. And now, as never before, the amount of information that can reach the public is exploding with the new opportunities on the Internet," he said.

That is why, for example, there was little dialogue among the public on U.S. trade hearings that threatened to impose crippling economic sanctions against Thailand in September 1989, when that country announced it would restrict the sale of U.S. cigarettes and its advertising to its domestic population. This occurred the same month President Bush delivered his famous speech declaring war on drugs.

It is also why there is little grasp of how, to protect U.S. corporate interests, our government thwarted economic reforms by Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the very reforms that had delivered him to presidency in a historic landslide election. This occurred after the U.S. had delivered the exiled president back to power following the country's bloody 1993 coup, led by a military group tacitly supported by the U.S.

"He's a real hero of mine, and I'm not a hero-worshiper at all," said Havely Taylor, administrative assistant at the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, who, first learned of Chomsky as a student at Indiana University 10 years ago. "But I've always been so impressed by the way he is brilliant with detail and yet has a very complete sense of the whole picture. And even though he might be condemning the U.S., he's also comparing U.S. acts with those of other countries and drawing comparisons. You don't get the sense he is sitting in judgment; instead, he is studying human perception, globally, without boundaries. He simply tells it like he sees it, and I find that incredibly refreshing."