It all started with a single email. A graduate class I’d been taking on colonialism and imperialism cited Noam Chomsky so I figured, Why not? Send him an email and see if he responds. Much to my surprise, Noam Chomsky did respond. We conversed for about a month and when all was said and done I felt like a kid in a candy store. It wasn’t that I saw eye-to-eye with him on much (I really didn’t), but I was afforded the privilege to correspond with perhaps the most significant and vocal intellectual of the New Left; I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. In the process, I learnt much about my views, about the sharpest criticisms of my positions, and most importantly, what true mastery of a subject requires. Say what you will about Noam Chomsky, but he knows his history like few others.
My impression of why his political leanings are quite radical stem from a very simple assumption: his worldview. Chomsky is often defined as an anarcho-syndicalist, which in a cursory explanation, translates to the belief in upending capitalist society relying on labour unions with the ultimate objective of achieving a non-hierarchical society. I know, heady stuff eh? As such, if you see the world through such a lens, you may likely come to share many of Chomsky’s conclusions.
But back to the topic at hand. To name a few, Chomsky and I debated Israeli-Palestinian history, identity politics, American foreign policy, the Cold War, the media, propaganda, and sports. I’ve attached a few of our emails trading barbs which, I feel, capture the experience and will hopefully become the source of future posts seeking to deconstruct and unravel some of the controversies we encountered.
Following this rather fruitful exchange with Chomsky I decided to test my luck and send out some more feelers to commentators who I thought would be interesting to engage with: Bret Stephens, Maajid Nawaz, Sam Harris, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Norm Finkelstein. Guess who responded? That’s right, of all those I emailed Norm Finkelstein was the only to respond! Finkelstein was really engaging, and although I did not venture into the realm of Israel/Palestine, our discussions of political correctness, the state of free speech today, and university campuses was productive. I, like Finkelstein, am a free speech purist. I believe that it is a terribly slippery slope and whether the label is ‘anti-Semite’ or ‘Islamophobe’, both are equally destructive in promoting open dialogue. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who are genuinely anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim – unquestionably there are. What is it to say is that aimlessly labelling people as such (which I have witnessed repeatedly) dilutes the term’s potency and silences debate. Once we devolve into the ‘you’re a racist/sexist/homophobe conversation’, it’s over. Engaging such rhetoric only strengthens the accusation and ignoring it, evidently, concludes the discourse; so where does that leave us? Again, attached below are emails between myself and Norm Finkelstein which I expect to engender future posts about free speech, anti-Semitism, and the academic ‘establishment’.
What is the moral of the story? Well for me, the biggest take away was the inability of center-left or center-right commentators to even give me the time of day. Perhaps Chomsky and Finkelstein’s receptiveness reflects their broader societal beliefs in inspiring people to think differently and critically. Maybe that’s just speculation. But I can say that those other commentators did fail. I am the 22 year old politically-engaged and passionate graduate student who is courtside to the battle for hearts and minds on university campuses. If they ignored me, who won’t they ignore?