Noam Chomsky is indefatigable. At the ripe old age of 82, he addressed a massive audience at Cardiff’s St David’s Hall on Saturday morning for nearly three hours, covering many aspects of politics in the Middle East. Chomsky lived up to his reputation as a walking hard drive of geopolitical and statistical information, listing endless examples of the delusions and deceptions of Western realpolitik and the collusion of the mass media in state-corporate propaganda. All of this was occasionally punctuated by acerbic asides, such as Chomsky's en passant description of Tony Blair as ‘slow on the uptake’ for having praised Mubarak when the Egyptian uprising had clearly made the continuation of the dictator’s rule untenable, even in the eyes of the US. That such mischievous impertinence is infrequent from Chomsky makes it all the more relishable.
But it wasn't all fun and games. There was ample evidence, too, of Chomsky’s liberal-statist inclinations. Chomsky repeatedly referred to the trade unions as ‘barriers’ to capitalist expansion (I would argue, on the contrary, that the history of the twentieth century, at least, shows the trade unions to be facilitators of the capitalist state, if not actually part of it). Chomsky also advocated a two state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Perhaps most dispiriting of all, though, was the wave of whooping and applause that accompanied Chomsky’s declaration that devolution is ‘progressive’ on the grounds that it brings ‘decision-making closer to the people’ (yes, but who makes the decisions in a devolved parliament? And on behalf of precisely which ‘people’?).
A long-time reader of Chomsky, this was my first experience of seeing his eminence in the flesh. Despite his liberal political assumptions, Chomsky seems to me to be a person of integrity and conviction and I hope that he will be able to do what he is doing now for many more years to come. In terms of public communication, however, he is at his best not when preaching to large crowds of converts, but when facing down elite journalists in interviews. It was certainly entertaining to watch Chomsky gently ‘owning’ Jeremy Paxman in a Newsnight interview recently – an encounter that recalled Chomsky’s tête-à-tête with a tetchy Andrew Marr in 1996.
The consternation of journalists such as Marr and Paxman when presented with Chomsky reminds me of Upton Sinclair’s observation that ‘it is difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it’. It also reveals the depth of ideological indoctrination among elite journalists - something which Chomsky has unceasingly exposed in his impressive body of written work. But if Marr and Paxman are perplexed by Chomsky, one can only wonder how they'd react to an interviewee with a class analysis of contemporary capitalism.