There are at least a thousand people struggling to pour into the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, trying to witness a roundtable discussion on academic freedom, and many are surely there for one person: Noam Chomsky, MIT linguistics professor, harsh critic of U.S. foreign policy and iconoclastic superstar. The problem is that there’s a wall of activists with handouts, revolutionist newspapers and clipboards in the way.
Past the barrier of leftists, the cavernous Chapel is almost filled to capacity as the moderator, Tariq Ali, a British-Pakistani commentator, warms up the crowd. The roundtable was spurred after the much-publicized incident in which Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure at DePaul, presumably because of his controversial stances on Israel. “It is very important for us to stand up and say: ‘This is where we stand and this is what we’re going to defend,’” Ali says. Then, the bomb: “Noam wanted to be here, but there’s been a personal tragedy,” Ali says, and for a split second the big question is: Has Noam Chomsky, 78, died? No, but his wife is apparently ill and, as a result, there’s no real-life Chomsky in Chicago, but there is a video message.
The video fades in to Chomsky sitting in front of a bookcase, wearing a blue shirt and his usual big wire-frame glasses. “The assault on academic freedom is broad, but it has focused on Middle East programs; that makes sense,” he says, with a deadpan, almost brooding tone of voice, using the Middle East reference to talk about Iran for fifteen solid minutes. He even mocks Westerners for being deeply offended by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comments on Iranian homosexuals, since Westerners “have such a stellar record on a homosexuals.” For the seriousness of the speech, Chomsky will throw a couple of jokes in there, but you have to listen carefully. (Andy Seifert)