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An Evening to Remember: Noam Chomsky at the University of Denver – April 21, 2011.

April 23, 2011

Noam Chomsky, University of Denver, April 21, 2011 – Comments and Reflections..


What follows are a mix of general reactions  received by email, phone and in person over the past few days. They reflect a wide range of views, not all by any means complimentary to Chomsky. But they suggest what I consider to be the most important consequence of his talks – his ability to trigger dialogue, `for’, `against’ – whatever. It is likely that some of the themes he touched on will be discussed at the University of Denver for some time into the future. And in the end, isn’t that exactly what a university should do? Stimulate civil thought, dialogue, including dissent on the campus


“It was a beautiful event last night; I felt I was a part of something incredible”… (Denver bookstore and medical marijuana shop owner)

“Thank Mona for the tickets. I thought that [Chomsky] was brilliant!  and what a turnout. At 82, the man is still “the dogs bollocks” as they say.” (Suburban high school principal)

“… the event was Splendid and Sublime.” (grad student from Latin America)

“I’ve read all 50 of his books – everyone. I consider him the greatest intellectual of the 20th century” (Denver classical musican)

“Awesome speaking job last night at Chomsky, it was great.” (Undergrad student at University of Denver)

“I’m glad the students got to spend some quality time with [Chomsky]. His insights are without parallel and the way he can link/connect events over the years consistent to his theory/perspective is the sign of a superior intellect.  This is not my first Chomsky event and each time I am mesmerized by that intellect while fighting off slumber.” (prof at a metro Denver area college)

“Last night was fabulous. It was great to meet Chomsky and pick his brains for a while. He was a champ! He had been traveling since who knows when, but he was absolutely fine, and chose to stay and talk with us after the event.” (student involved in organizing the event)

“It was a beautiful event last night; I felt I was a part of something incredible”

“Awesome! I must confess that my favorite part of this whole thing was watching the undergrads steadily gain confidence and momentum throughout the process.  It seemed like at the start they were nervous about handling problems and issues (winning USG support, for example), and by the end when curve-balls came along they would handle them well and without hesitation.  Chomsky was the kindest famous person that I have met.  David [Barsamian] was great too, I think he may end up speaking to MEDG at some point. (planning tables for outside groups at the event). ” (grad student involved in the event organizing)

“Thanks for bring Chomsky, a true intellectual who shows the difference between what that is and the rest of us mere smart people!” (retired community activist)

“All I can say is thank you so much for providing me with the opportunity to be a part of this event.  What a ride! Thank you again for supporting and believing in us unconditionally.  I will never forget this experience.” (student involved in organizing the event)

“I once heard a speech by `the great Habernas’ (Jurgen Habernas – German sociologist), who, on a worldwide trip, got lost and accidentally wound up in Denver to give a speech. A `Chomsky of the 1980s’, same adulation; I’d read his stuff, understood much of it – a most boring speaker. Chomsky likewise.  Fascinating analysis,, `radical dull’ (a local writer)

“ He says the same thing as John Stewart on the Daily Show but at least John Stewart is funny”. (elementary school teacher – Denver suburb)

“A few details and comments from today’s New York Times apart, it’s essentially the same speech I heard him give 9 years ago in New York City.” (retired educator)

“Good analysis, has made an undeniable contribution, but drones on and is too cynical.” (local Denver activist and high quality amateur baseball player)”

“He should give his honorarium to the Pol Pot Memorial Fund” (a global wanderer, passing through Colorado)

My own blurb is that Chomskey is too dogmatic for my tastes and (2) he is too willing to like people who oppose capitalism but are also nasty. By the way, he’s just as dogmatic about linquistics.  Years ago I studied his linguistics and ultimately felt that his criticism of behaviourial linguistics was valid up to a point, but he refused to recognize that point and what lay beyond. ” (former Peace Corps Volunteer, high level government employee – turned novelist)

“My own blurb is that Chomsky is too dogmatic for my tastes and (2) he is too willing to like people who oppose capitalism but are also nasty. By the way, he’s just as dogmatic about linquistics.

“In terms of substance you know what I think about Chomsky, only he would say that the US is intervening in a tribal conflict in Libya.  He is opposed to all US military intervention no matter how many civilians in Benghazi were saved or what message that sends to the Bechir Al Asads of the world that this US President will not stand for anymore Hammas.” (an organizer for the Democratic Party from California)


Some Further thoughts…

From a number of perspectives, Noam Chomsky’s visit to the University of Denver, was a success.

  • the turnout was strong – somewhere between 2500-3000 in attendance filling Hamilton Gym in the university’s Ritchie Center to the gills
  • this was accomplished with virtually no money spent on publicity; there was no publicity in the Denver area’s major media outlets, suggesting both that sometimes such advertising is not needed and more importantly, that there is at the very least, great interest in hearing Chomsky’s ideas.
  • most of those in attendance were from the university community, but there were many from different social movements in Denver including a good showing of local trade unionists, the city’s Arab communities attended in significant numbers, many peace activists from various causes as well. There was also a contingent of the university’s college Republicans.
  • the event came off smoothly; suggestions of anti-Chomsky protesters did not materialize. There were no disruptions of any kind.

Chomsky’s analysis is global, his historical analogies strong.

No, he is not a particularly exciting speaker, his writings more interesting than his spoken word. Dressed in an old sweater and blue jeans, he speaks in a monotone, softly, his words sometimes garbled. If not for the sophistication and thoroughness of his analysis, I would venture to say his remarks could even be considered not so much as controversial as dull.

Still, what he lacks in style, he more than compensates for in content.

Noam Chomsky is a lot more than the simple rabble rouser he is often accused of being. He is not simply a `first class’, but a world class intellectual, respected for both his pioneering works on linguistics (that are as controversial in some circles as his political views) and his political analysis. Obviously, he could also be labeled a `dissident’, but so what? Isn’t the mission of a private university, especially one that striving to be a `flagship’ institution in the Rocky Mountain region to offer its facilities to the Chomsky’s of our world, among others?

His voice has another meaning: that the left movement, the progressive movement, in the United States is far from dead, that the notices of its death are premature. It’s ironic that someone whose message borders on the cynical – is also the one who gives hope! for the movement’s regeneration. Perhaps it has to do with the fact, that in order to change the world, one has to understand it,  strip bare the illusions, the pretexts and get to the core.

And further it is the respect that he has gained worldwide for his writings – both professional on linguistics and his political analyses – that draws such an enormous crowd wherever he seems to go. People, including here in Colorado, just flock to see him, get his autograph, get a few words with him. Before coming to the University of Denver, he spoke at the University of Oregon in Eugene. There he spoke to an audience that included 5000 ticket holders and included an `overflow’ crowd. Imagine, at the University of Denver his audience was a mere 2500+.

What makes him so popular?

Despite the low keyed delivery, Chomsky’s is among the most searing – and accurate – critiques of U.S. foreign policy anywhere. He knows his stuff, has a grasp of the main themes of U.S. foreign policy like few others and can explain the dynamics of this policy as well as – and perhaps better than – anyone. There was an excellent question asked from the floor (by someone I know rather well actually, a long time social movement’s activist and leading progressive in Denver’s Jewish Community) concerning the paradox between the values of this country and its actions all over the world. It obviously struck a chord with Chomsky as his answer to that question was rather detailed.

Few can tease out as well as Chomsky the difference between the pretexts for U.S. foreign intervention and the deeper themes driving those policies or explain different aspects of that policy as well. Although his talk was well organized, there were a few points I felt he made especially well. They are:

  • his emphasis on the role of energy (oil and natural gas) in shaping U.S. Middle East policy
  • his searing critique of the U.S. – Saudi strategic relationship and in general the vital role that U.S. support for the Saudi monarchy plays in overall U.S. policy. His emphasis on the Saudi role in spreading the narrow Wahhabist version of Islam far beyond Saudi Arabia hit the nail on the head
  • his argument, that if not for U.S. support, Israel would have had to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza and respect the creation of an independent Palestinian state there along ago
  • his defense (not without some criticism) of Chavez in Venezuela in response to a question from the floor.
  • And of course the general hypocrisy – that gulf – between the values the United States claims to represent and its actions worldwide, and especially in the Middle East.
  • One point of contention:  his description of Libya as an essentially tribal conflict between Khadaffi and the Libyan rebels. Perhaps 40 years ago; today this analysis is a little off the mark.

And true enough there were some, perhaps 100, out of that 2500+ audience that walked out prior to the end of his remarks, especially when the criticisms of Israeli policy in the Occupied Territories were made.

But overall, a memorable evening, a special moment for the university and for Colorado…


Korbel Newsletter (piece on Chomsky event is lower down)

Chomsky…Is the World Too Big To Fail?





5 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Kendall permalink
    April 23, 2011 4:21 pm

    I must add my voice to the chorus of kudos to DU, to you, Rob, and to your dedicated students, for bringing this event here. I would go to hear Chomsky speak anywhere — this was my first opportunity. I don’t care if he repeats himself — so much the better! I couldn’t possibly remember all I learned. One startling takeaway: Slavery in the U.S. didn’t end with the Civil War, it was simply sent to prison. This was merely an aside, in answer to the question about Values and Interests. But it’s a perspective I had not been exposed to before, and it kicks like a rented mule.

  2. April 23, 2011 8:20 pm

    From a close friend who I saw sitting high up on the balcony:

    Rob, I very much enjoyed it. These people who complain about him being dull I think lack the power of concentration to follow a developed argument. It’s not entertainment, but it is deeply informative. His talk was very simalar to the published one he gave in Ambsterdam that’s currently all over the net. I wrote this down from that talk: “Business leaders who are conducting propaganda campaigns to convince the population that anthropogenic global warming is a liberal hoax understand full well how grave the treat is, but they must maximize short-term profit and market share. If they don’t someone else will.’ This is what always strikes me about our present crisis. To me it is above all a moral crisis.
    But we have no MLK to frame it with the kind powerful clarity that calls people to act. I had this idea of each of us in the book club taking a stab at a chapter of a book on some aspect of why and how we’re stuck. I had some better thoughts on the theme that I didn’t write down. It just seems so clear that the way the world is being run is obsolete and killing the planet. Just a thought.

  3. lol permalink
    May 18, 2011 6:36 pm

    Nice that a diploma mill invited a scholar to speak. Pretty funny that you guys are about to have no library.


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