In an age accustomed to sound bites, sloganeering, and 140-character tweets, the presence in Memphis of M.I.T. professor Noam Chomsky was an anomaly, to say the least.
Beyond arguably, the man — world-famous for his contributions to linguistics and psychology, on one hand, and for his sustained criticism and analysis of political events and tendencies, on the other — qualified as a sage. This is a fact documented by the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, which in 1992 identified Chomsky, the author of more than 100 books, as a source cited in academic circles more often than any other and the eighth-most cited source overall.
When Chomsky spoke at Rhodes College on Friday night, in the first of two well-attended local appearances, one of his hosts spelled that out to the audience this way: "He ranks just behind Sigmund Freud and just ahead of Hegel and Cicero."
Although Chomsky modestly noted at Rhodes that "the sign on my door says 'linguist,'" it was his political side that predominated, both at Rhodes, where his appearance was billed as part of the college's "Communities in Conversation" series, and at First Congregational Church on Saturday, where he was the featured speaker at the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center's 30th-anniversary celebration.
Another of his hosts, Rhodes' Jonathan Judaken, who formally presided over the evening, went on to suggest that Chomsky would speak for 35 minutes, with a 45-minute question-and-answer session to follow. That turned out to be something of an understatement. Chomsky would speak — perhaps "discourse" is the more correct verb — for well over an hour, and the Q&A was reduced to something like 15 minutes, accordingly.
And the term "standing room only" would constitute yet another understatement. The audience that turned out for Chomsky at Rhodes filled the auditorium, which seats some 700-plus people, with at least 250 more seated in the aisles and standing along the walls. In addition, a few hundred more could be counted in the anteroom to the auditorium and in a line which queued all the way down the steps to the entrance to the building.
Making this turnout all the more remarkable was the fact that the Rhodes lecture was due to have started at 5 p.m. on Friday but was delayed at least an hour and a half by the lateness of Chomsky's flight. Nobody left during the interval, and, even more astonishingly, nobody, not even the standees or the back-of-the-auditorium crowd which remained outside the line of sight, became unruly.
And no one would confuse Chomsky with a rock star. The tousled, grandfatherly-looking 83-year-old once described himself this way: "I'm a boring speaker and I like it that way. ... I doubt that people are attracted to whatever the persona is. ... People are interested in the issues, and they're interested in the issues because they are important. We don't want to be swayed by superficial eloquence, by emotion and so on."
Chomsky was too modest. To all appearances, he was listened to avidly, both at Rhodes and at First Congregational, where, as 9th District congressman Steve Cohen noted in his introduction, "He has brought together a number of people who otherwise would not have been brought together in Memphis, Tennessee."
Perhaps the best way of gauging Chomsky's rapport with his audiences was the degree to which his obvious applause lines and laugh lines never failed to get their due response, either at Rhodes, for an aside like "Democrats are now what used to be called 'moderate Republicans,' or at First Congregational, for his observation, apropos the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" ruling, concerning "the right of private capital to buy elections": It was a right, Chomsky noted wryly, that "they've always had."
Chomsky's exposition at Rhodes was predicated on his support for the current worldwide "Occupy" movements challenging political/economic establishments, and his speech at First Congregational on the dual anniversaries of the Peace and Justice Center's founding and the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, whose official holiday was then but two days off.
But at both sites, Chomsky treated his listeners to developed treatises that sounded more classroom lectures than speeches per se.
In celebrating the spirit and prospects of the Occupy movement, he reviewed the decline of the American labor movement, the ups and downs of which he traced. The first significant down, he said, surprisingly, came via President Woodrow Wilson in the course of the post-World War I "Red Scare" era.
Another surprise came when Chomsky, famous for his critiques of capitalism, described the post-war period of American prosperity — under the rubric, internationally, of the Bretton Woods economic agreement — as something of a "Golden Age." The real decline into a growing income inequality he attributed to the period of economic deregulation that began in the 1970s and came to fruition under Presidents Reagan and Clinton.
Today's economy, controlled by "a tiny minority of 1 percent," is protected by a "government insurance policy," Chomsky said. "It's called 'Too Big to Fail.'"
Meanwhile, the United States is falling behind the rest of the industrial world because of its increasing reliance on "fake" money (the inflated proceeds of the late housing boom being a case in point) rather than on "making things."
Other ongoing problems result from an upsurge in military spending and a "completely dysfunctional health-care system," Chomsky said.
Nor did he let the Founding Fathers off the hook. At Rhodes he had distinguished between Aristotle's concept of democracy, to be achieved by eliminating inequality in something resembling a welfare state, and that of the influential Federalist thinker and president James Madison, who was largely responsible for an American constitutional system which, said Chomsky, is designed to isolate an economically fortunate minority from the leveling instincts of the majority.
And at First Congregational, Chomsky noted a fact which receives little if any play in the nation's textbooks — that one of the animating impulses of the American Revolution was a fear that sentiment in the mother country of Great Britain was rapidly turning against the continuation of slavery in the colonies.
Both from the stage at Rhodes and in a private conversation with this reporter, Chomsky disclaimed any direct relationship between his pioneering linguistic work and his geopolitical analyses. But perhaps, after all, there is a relationship between the "father of linguistics," who famously discerned a universal and innate grammar intent on ordering the world of phenomena via language and the peerless social critic who sees humanity's inner motive to be that of evolving, despite persistent resistance and setbacks, ever more rights for the species at large.
His final words from the stage at Rhodes, "Carry forward," seemed, in any case, to go in both directions.