I recently watched “Manufacturing Consent,” a documentary on your career. Some of it – your highly problematic concept of freedom for example – was familiar from my previous studies. Much more was breathless panegyric on the part of the documentary maker. However, the part that convinced me to write this letter concerns the anecdote you credit with setting you on the road to a life of emasculating pity and gentle asphyxiation.
You, in the documentary, relate the childhood story of a fat boy who was being bullied. You saw this and stood next to the boy for a while but eventually became frightened and ran away. You felt shame at your cowardice – as you should have. Reflecting on your childhood cowardice, you decided that you should, from that moment forth, always stick up for the underdog.
I can’t help wondering why?
The bullying victim, as you describe him, has no virtues. He is fat and unable to defend himself, either physically or socially. You do not mention his artistic ability, the ways he made other students laugh or how he took care of his grandmother. You say nothing about his intelligence, if he had any, or his passion for the tuba. He is just a bundle of fatness and weakness in your description. Nothing good.
The bullies had no virtues either, but they at least had the beginnings of things that could become virtues. It requires initiative to bully someone and initiative, guided by a good teacher, can easily develop into enterprise. The bullies were embracing and exercising power. The embrace of power can easily develop into the embrace of power and responsibility.
You, likewise, exhibited the beginnings of virtue when you attempted to seize power for yourself and from the bullies. I think your early affinity for power, despite your anarchist stuff, has truly developed into the virtue of power and responsibility. You certainly wield the power of your fame, your position and your wealth with skill and assurance against underdog heretics like Daniel Everett. The fact you set aside your anarchist “stand up to the power” nonsense in order to defend your work is one of the best things I can say about your character, Professor, and I don’t mean this as a backhanded compliment.
You also showed the beginnings of virtue in your instinct to rescue the fat boy. It is good to help someone so that they might become strong, so they might ennoble you, themselves or some third party. It is also good to help someone for selfish reasons like earning favor with the boy’s parents or impressing a girl. But, Dr. Chomsky, I don’t see how you converted your potentially virtuous impulses into any of these potentially virtuous outcomes. Your description of the fat boy is extremely unflattering and you do not appear to have helped him become stronger. You did not turn your compassion to profit and thus, did not enable the fat boy to feel as if his suffering benefited someone or something. You just showed up, reinforced his helplessness and ran away.
And so I cannot help wonder why you helped the fat boy at all. It is perhaps because you simply forgot to mention the fat boy’s good qualities or because you did not want to seem to brag about how you helped the fat boy grow into a strong, independent man. Maybe you didn’t want any of us to figure out that one of your beloved friends used to be fat and weak and thus risk embarrassing him. If this is so, I apologize in advance for the things I’m about to say.
I suspect you had a much darker reason for skipping the fat boy’s virtues and embracing underdogs. I think you liked that boy’s jelly rolls and the way he jiggled when he walked. I think you took joy in his impotent protestations and the wet lipped dread he felt in the face of those bullies. I think that when you saw him dominated and prostrated you saw an object of pure lowness against which to contrast your goodness, a foil by which the radiance of your virility and power might shine all the brighter. I think, Professor Chomsky, you love all that is helpless and broken because these things, held under the umbrella of your pity, emphasize the godlike heights from which your “kindness” condescends.
This love for sickness and the secret desire to propagate it is perhaps too much to infer from your fat boy anecdote and I was prepared to give you benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, the makers of “Manufacturing Consent” then presented your views of the East Timorese, those faceless, gloriously suffering abstractions who never do get names or independent motives in your film. We get no indication of the things they make, their contributions to culture or the triumphs they’ve achieved. Their virtues are once more entirely beside the point. There is no discussion of how, in the future, they might become as strong as the Indonesian oppressors. There is no plan to help them help themselves. Like the fat boy, it is only East Timorese weakness and suffering – their failure – that seems to attract you. Perhaps this is the fault of the filmmakers and you, in spite of your anarchism and suspicion against power, do wish the East Timorese to become strong. I doubted it, but it’s best to err on the side of charitable readings.
Sadly, the third example of your life-denying pity is so offensive that I cannot in good conscience even pretend to forgive. You spent most of your life as an educator, Professor Chomsky. An educator’s job, before all else, is to empower and ennoble his students. A student is supposed to leave your class, with the tools and weapons needed to survive in an unpredictable, dynamic and cruel world that is all the more beautiful for its cruelty. She is supposed to take what you have given her and use it to exercise power responsibly in her field of work or in her social role.
Despite this duty to ennoble and empower you, for the sake of your goddamned pity, for your hatred of all that is healthy and confident, stood in front of your MIT students at their commencement and told them to reject “the power.” You didn’t tell them to remember the East Timorese and use their power to help. You didn’t ask them to remember a sense of responsibility as they climb the various ladders of life. You didn’t ask them to develop the virtues necessary for a good family or neighborhood or village. You told them to remain weak forever. The pompous hypocrisy of you, a millionaire celebrity, saying this to a crowd of 22 year olds would be funny if it wasn’t so vile.
I think you’re a vulture, Dr. Chomsky. I think you like the dead and dying because you feed off of misery. I think the virtues of the East Timorese do not matter to you because you want them to “reject the power” and remain pathetic forever. I think you fear and hate the virtue of your students because if they grow and succeed they’ll provide you no carrion, no rotting intestines for your sanctified, sickly nihilism to devour. I think, Professor Chomsky, that the fat boy was happy to see you go.