A personal tribute in honor of Noam Chomsky’s 90th birthday
“Vietnam: How Government Became Wolves” appeared in the New York Review of Books when I was a teenage antiwarrior, in an issue my friend’s father dropped on the kitchen table, alongside the pamphlets we were sorting. It’s Noam’s review of the Pentagon Papers. The moral authority it gathers drifts upwards from its quiet, dogged prosecution of details on earth. So, I learned, the war could be opposed on narrow grounds, without Gandhian nonviolence and asceticism and therefore without giving up girls. As memorable as this moral education was, “what would Jesus say?” still worked better on the streets to stun a reactionary than what Noam said.
Years later, an English literature major and lost in the weeds of The Faerie Queene, I was in a linguistics class assigned Syntactic Structures. Same unusual name and same cover art from NYRB and Mouton. Probably the same guy. There it was again— magisterial authority about mind and language gleaned from details of the English auxiliary system.
Science!—without chemical burns or any manual labor at all. That was the ticket.
In our first appointment, I intended to tender some counterexamples to something in the manuscript of Lectures on Government and Binding. The next lesson of my moral education was that a second sentence is never to be suffered if the first breaches first principle even if the first sentence is from Lectures on Government and Binding. So I understood then that to be worthy of Israel, Jacob must wrestle with the angel, who scorns submission, even if or especially if it is submission to his word. A kind of role-playing. The advisee is Jacob, the advisor is the angel; and, I just drew the archangel Noam, the biggest badass of them all. But, not quite. The third moral lesson came quietly, over the course of being advised and its apprenticeship in how to advise. If truth is a sacrament that does not suffer error, it also does not suffer ostracism from its communion. I observed that the graver the objection, the stiller the voice that voices it.
Not much of this has worked on the streets either. A career launch in linguistics sacrifices first principle to the golden calf of technical glitter, daily to gild received consensus.
Advisees advised by lesser angels don’t often receive interruption as a token of respect; and, it doesn’t often transmit the gravity of an objection to say it even softer, even as clenched jaw strains to do so. But, a moral education is also good for a little backbone, which works nicely in the streets and at conferences. With Noam’s grace and modesty and selfless dedication vivid, I have often thought and once said out loud in the idiom of my forefathers, “If Noam Chomsky can be a mensch, who the fuck are you?” And, for me, on the street or off it, it is always to be asked and imagined what would Noam say.