Wednesday, March 3


A day spent avoiding work . . .

Had a good surf with Oscar this morning. Cold water and fairly crappy waves meant that we had Matunuk all to ourselves. With no other surfers to compete against we had some decent rides in waist high slop.

Oscar and I got caught in traffic on the way back to Connecticut so we were nearly late for Chomsky’s talk in the auditorium. Prof. Jim Whitman from the law school introduced Chomsky which surprised me given that I didn’t see Whitman as much of a radical (I was expecting some fawning undergraduate). I think Whitman’s intro peeved Chomsky a little. Whitman started by mentioning that Chomsky had led a fundamental revolution in linguistics and that such revolutions were rare in any field. He then noted that Chomsky had also found time to work in the area of foreign relations, where he’d had less influence (this got a laugh). This was fine but then Whitman started going on about how Chomsky had maintained a “singularity of vision” despite attracting “almost no converts” and I almost got the sense that he was painting Chomsky as a stubborn guy who just didn’t know when to quit.

Anyway, Chomsky started by saying “well I know it’s one of the rules of public speaking not to disagree with the person who speaks first, but I’m going to take issue with one of the things the first speaker said.” He then gave a stock story about how opposition to the Vietnam war started with meetings of only 3 or 4 people in a lounge room. In contrast, opposition to the recent war grew quickly to massive proportions (February 2003 saw the world’s largest ever day of protest) even before the war had started. This suggests a large shift in attitudes toward the kind of views Chomsky presents. In Whitman’s defense, he was probably referring to Chomsky’s influence over the academy and policy makers, which, as I’m sure Chomsky would admit, has been negligible.

The bulk of the talk was clearly aimed at the converted. Chomsky made no attempt to sugar coat his more unconventional views (in fact he referred to some of his more unconventional premises as ‘axiomatic’ – hardly a way to convince the skeptical). I felt this was a pity given that Chomsky has the knowledge base to make his points more convincingly just by going through the facts. That’s what he does in his books. This makes the books kind of repetitive but that’s not his fault, history is repetitive. Chomsky gave a talk that would have been better suited to a conference of radicals than to an open talk at a university.

I was amused to hear Chomsky talk at some length about Australia’s pharmaceutical benefits scheme. United States negotiators wanted to undermine the scheme in the recent trade agreement between the US and Australia. Health care is one the handful of things Australia still manages to do better than the US despite John Howard’s desire to turn us into the United States’ mini-me.

Now that I think about it, I’m even more annoyed with Chomsky for talking about some of his claims as axiomatic. As an analytic philosopher Chomsky knows what an axiom really is. He was using the term to refer to views that he claimed (more or less correctly) were confirmed by all the historical data. Something confirmed by data is NOT an axiom. He should know better and should have made more of an effort to point out that his claims were based on the historical record. This would be both clearer and more persuasive.


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