The Chomsky Effect, A Meeting of the Minds in 1969, & The Power of The Keepers

Illustration by Susan Coyne

Tune in today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website to hear our conversation with Noam Chomsky.

Mary McGrath: It was Chomsky week at Open Source, and everybody did their part. Chris rocked the interview, per usual; Conor edited it beautifully with Becca’s help; Susan drew and painted up a storm, and Zach and Frank made some amazing videos.

From left: Becca, Frank, Conor, Chris, Noam, Mary, Susan and Zach

Noam got in all of our heads. It’s a serious treat to meet this man and feel his generous gaze. Who’s like him we wondered? Isaac Newton? Charles Dickens? An incredibly hard-working person with intense purity of thought, intelligence and skin in the game over many years? As Chris says, for a guy who delivers bad news 24/7, he has a serene kind of glow. I kept wondering — what if everyone suddenly saw the world with the clarity Noam has? If he’s right that the systems in place are deliberately preventing us from seeing what’s right in front of us and therefore doing anything about the peril and doomsday that gets ever closer, what would happen if we opened our eyes?

Illustration by Susan Coyne

Zach Goldhammer: Before this week, I thought I was immune to what our guest Robert Barsky calls the Chomsky Effect.

I knew Chomsky only vaguely as a persistent voice crying out against war, imperialism, economic exploitation and the hegemony of those shadowy, undemocratic, unaccountable powers he holds responsible. When I’d heard Chomsky in the past, in snippets here and there on Democracy Now or in this or that lefty documentary, I almost always agreed with what he had to say—it all seemed unimpeachably true—but it never strongly moved me.

The question of why Chomsky’s truisms didn’t seem engaging to me might be traced back to this David Foster Wallace quote that’s always echoing in my mind:

“How do trite things become trite? Why is the truth usually not just un-interesting but anti-interesting?”

I still don’t know the answer to that riddle, but I did realize, after spending a significant amount of time in Chomskyland this week, that there is a way in which the almost-obvious truths can still carry revolutionary urgency.

The key for me came from reading friend-of-the-show George Scialabba—who ranks Chomsky among his triumvirate of intellectual heroes—and particularly from finding this personal reflection embedded in his piece on “Chomsky for Beginners”:

I first encountered Chomsky thirty years ago, as a gentle but insistently reasonable voice emanating from my radio. When the interview was over, I rushed out, bought his books, and was hooked. Whether or not you agree with Marx’s Capital, or with Chomsky or Edmund Burke or Leon Trotsky, there’s something exhilarating about reading any of them: the power, the momentum, the sense of a vast argument gathering force like a storm system. If you do agree — if, like Chomsky, you think that part of the colossal amount of unnecessary suffering in the world is caused by your own government and the business/financial class who mostly control it, and that the privilege of being an American citizen makes you responsible for doing something about that — then reading him can feel like a revelation and a summons.

This passage hit me in part because it gave me hope that our own radio program might strike a similarly resonant chord with some new legion of listeners; some who might be hearing Chomsky’s voice—still gentle, still insistent after all these years—for the first time.

But it also reminded me that I’d already had my own experience with a variation of the “Chomsky effect,” though it came from a different voice. Scialabba’s description of hearing Chomsky on the radio matches almost exactly with my first experience watching Bernie Sanders campaign announcement on a TV in DC in 2015. Like Scialabba, I quickly became hooked on these simple yet grand-scale ideas which seemed to have a stormlike, gathering force.

Video produced by Zach Goldhammer

There are of course significant differences between Chomsky and Sanders. Chomsky is less of a prescriptivist and more of a diagnostician. He is not a stump-speech advocate for democratic socialism or social democracy. His role is to lead individuals towards a correct understanding of our world and its contradictions—an understanding we may already sense intuitively before we are able even to put into language; much less a coherent political ideology. For Chomsky, it seems, this understanding must necessarily precede any form of collective action or Sanders-style “political revolution.”

Some of this difference might be boiled down to Chomsky’s own self-styled description of himself as an “anarcho-syndicalist” (read his own description of what that means here). But that’s not the whole story. There’s something zen-like in this approach; a method of leading disciples towards an internal flash of enlightenment rather than just getting them to recite slogans and carry banners.

As Barsky says, Chomsky’s own political anarchy is really “ [A]n anarchy of generosity … he has the effect of a facilitator, catalyst, and inspiration, rather than the leader of some form of (anarchist) vanguard.”

Up From the Archives: Noam Chomsky on Chris Lydon in 1969

Christopher Lydon: From p 239 of Noam Chomsky’s first Vietnam book, American Power and the New Mandarins. I didn’t realize till a couple of years ago that he put my shy 27 year old self among “the most perceptive observers of the Vietnam tragedy.” A little chilling. If my lyin’ eyes could see the naked savagery of the US presence in Vietnam… I mean: Jack and Bobby Kennedy foresaw it in their Saigon diaries in 1951! I. F. Stone wrote about the immoral folly of it in his blessed Weekly from the Fifties. John Kerry saw it, and wrote it in letters home, every day he served there in the Sixties… why couldn’t we, didn’t we, all wake up and insist on stopping it? This past week of 50-year hindsight and present dread with the great Chomsky has been an awful mix of regret and inspiration. The man is a saint of the first order — a mind of preternatural penetration, a heart with the crazy courage to keep saying what he sees. Woe to us for listening instead to so many fakers and idiots. I was so glad to get clarification this week on Professor Chomsky’s identification with Bertrand Russell, who took his own lumps as an obnoxious peacenik. Bertie was Noam’s model of irreverence for anything but the solid truth. Noam should be ours!

Becca Degregorio: Noam Chomsky is guarded by a sprightly writer and wit named Beverly Stohl (and her trusty cocker spaniel Roxy). She was so warm, helpful and vibrant that we came back a week later to interview her too.

As a gatekeeper, confidant and right hand of the world’s most cited living author, Bev tells a unique story. In under an hour she told us about Noam’s hidden humor, his adventures with his grandkids and the types of food he eats. She described the mixed bag of visitors that stop by his office. She told us about her first day on the job, and how she wouldn’t have recognized the linguist had his briefcase not read “N.C.” Her input colored the contours of Noam for us, and we’re glad we made the second trip for it. You can read Bev’s account of “What it’s like to be Noam Chomsky’s Assisant” here.


We’ve put together a Noam Chomsky reading list on our website, which also includes some videos recommended by Robert Barsky. This one from the BBC called “The Ideas of Chomsky” is plugged by our devoted fan and frequent commenter, Robert Peabody. We all loved this animated documentary by French filmmaker Michel Gondry:

French filmmaker Michel Gondry’s animated odyssey into the mind of Noam Chomsky

More Noam Chomsky Video Fun

Frank Horton produced these two videos from Chris’ conversation this week:

Chomsky illuminates what Adam Smith actually meant by his famous phrase. (OS video)
Chomsky reveals why he so greatly admires the British philosopher Bertrand Russell. (OS video)

Watch: The Keepers

Frank Horton: Professor Robert Barsky told Chris this week that the animating concern at the core of Noam Chomsky’s political thought is power. In his words: “At the end of the day so much of Noam Chomsky’s work is about power. It’s about those people who are in power; those people who are disempowered; those who are seeking power; those people who are outside the realm of seeking power.” For an excellent case study of power in practice be sure to watch the riveting new Netflix documentary The Keepers. The seven-episode series cracks open the unsolved murder case of Sister Cathy, a much beloved nun who was murdered in the 1960s in Baltimore. Over the course of the series, power makes an appearance in all variety of forms — the power of institutions, the power of religious beliefs, the power of gender relations. And, finally, in the end, perhaps most movingly, the power of resilience.

MM: Speaking of power, my favorite conservative pundit, Peggy Noonan, nailed it once again, this week on Hillary. Her WSJ column, Hillary Lacks Remorse of Conscience is Chomsky-esque — ish. It’s behind a paywall, so visit the library to absorb it all!

That’s all for this week. We’ll be back at it again tomorrow. Send lawyers, guns and money!

Mary, Zach, Chris, Frank and Becca.

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.