Published September 30, 2011
When Noam Chomsky appeared on the stage in one of Iceland’s biggest auditoriums on Friday September 9, one could clearly discern cries of joy and excitement through the thundering applause. The guest of honour himself, however, looked unaffected and started his lecture without ado, as soon as the Head of the School of Humanities had introduced him—it would probably be pushing it a little to say that he started in mid-sentence, but still the impression was a little bit like witnessing an old rock band, still very much on top of its act but slightly ‘over the hill’ all the same, sliding into one of its best-known anthems, not quite for the first time. ‘The Two Nine Elevens’ was the title of his talk, and Chomsky wasted no time explaining its meaning to his public: not just September 11, 2001, which reportedly is the day that changed the course of history, but also September 11, 1973 which, according to the speaker, should be considered a much more important date.
In keeping with the title, the lecture was largely dedicated to a critique of US foreign policy, with special emphasis on Latin America and the assassination of Osama bin Laden. We will not plunge into the details of Chomsky’s presentation here, not least because that seems totally futile in the age of all-encompassing communication: readers can listen for themselves on the University of Iceland’s website, or read the lecture, more or less verbatim, at Al Jazeera or on the webzine TomDispatch. During the talk, Chomsky mentioned in passing that the lecture’s organisers had specifically asked him to address 9/11 on this occasion, and even if that choice of topic was of course quite appropriate in light of the fact that the lecture took place only two days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the current writer cannot help wondering whether it hadn’t been nice to have the ‘old seer’ turn his eyes a little bit more TOWARD THE FUTURE, instead of playing that somewhat familiar tune yet again.
Not to mention that it would have been much appreciated if Chomsky had spoken a little longer than he did—perhaps giving the audience (at least those of them that made it into the auditorium and didn’t have to content themselves with watching the show on a screen in the building’s smaller auditoriums) a chance to throw in a few questions or comments. To witness a social critic of Chomsky’s calibre leave the podium after barely half an hour’s performance, going directly to his seat, and having to swallow the notion of ‘that’s all, folks,’ left a somewhat bitter taste in one’s mouth.
Some consolation was provided by the anticipation of an interview with Chomsky in the popular Sunday talk-show Silfur Egils, mentioned by the Head of the School of Humanities in his closing words. And one can safely say that in that interview, the world-famous social critic abruptly silenced the voice of dismay that had been grumbling in the present writer’s head for nearly two days. Not only did he turn his merciless gaze on the role played by “us Icelanders” in that total collapse of financial capitalism that seems to be taking place before our eyes—could one discern a slightly ironic grimace in his otherwise unchanging face when he spoke of the “totally mad policy” that had been upheld in this country in the period before (and maybe also after?) The Crash? He also turned his attention towards what is to come and offered some reflection on the renewed surge of rabid eschatologists within his nation’s Republican Party: there we behold a group of people, led by Governor Rick Perry, who really believe that Christ’s return to Earth is imminent and that consequently—to take but one example—it is utterly futile to combat such threats as global warming. Furthermore, Chomsky addressed the commonplace hypothesis about China’s unstoppable rise in global politics, subjecting it to scathing criticism—China being at best a crumbling giant, seized by internal strife.
Apart from this, of course, he said many other things that won’t be detailed here. But, to finish, let us ask, in the giant’s wake: what was Chomsky’s message to us? Or, rather, how can we put his advice into practice? Three points:
(1) We need to tackle the urgent environmental problems facing us.
(2) We need to harness—and, most preferably, get rid of!—financial capitalism, Iceland’s (and the world’s) new ancient enemy.
(3) We need to sever the unholy alliance of finance and politics, making politics descend from its pedestal down to its rightful place among the people.
We didn’t really need Chomsky to tell us this, but having him on our side certainly doesn’t hurt.