Chomsky Goes to the Dentist

Photograph Source: Hans Peters / Anefo – Creative Commons Zero, Public Domain Dedication

– Petrolia.

Chomsky went to the dentist, who made his inspection and observed the patient was grinding his teeth. Consultation with Mrs. Chomsky disclosed that teeth-grinding was not taking place during the hours of sleep. When else? They narrowed it down quickly enough to the period each morning when Chomsky was reading the New York Times, unconsciously gnashing his molars at every page.

I asked Chomsky why, with the evidence and experience of a lifetime, he kept hoping against hope that the corporate press, particularly the New York Times, was going to get it right. Reality should long since have conditioned him to keep his jaw muscles relaxed. Chomsky sighed, as if in anticipation of all the stupid perversions of truth he was condemned to keep reading for the rest of his life, jolted each morning into furious bouts of grinding.

People will go to a talk by Chomsky partly just to reassure themselves that they haven’t gone mad; that they are right when they disbelieve what they read in the papers or watch on TV. For hundreds of thousands of people over the years­–he must have spoken to more American students than any other person alive–Chomsky has offered the assurance, the intellectual and moral authority that there is another way of looking at things. In this vital function he stands in the same relationship to his audience as did a philosopher he admires greatly, Bertrand Russell. Chomsky’s greatest virtue is that his fundamental message is a simple one. Here’s how he put it in an interview with Fred Gardner in the Anderson Valley Advertiser:

Any form of authority requires justification; it’s not self-justified. And the justification can rarely be given. Sometimes you can give it. I think you can give an argument that you shouldn’t let a three-year-old run across the street. That’s a form of authority that’s justifiable. But there aren’t many of them, and usually the effort to give justification fails. And when we try to face it, we find that the authority is illegitimate. Any time you find that a form of authority is illegitimate, you ought to challenge it. It’s something that conflicts with human rights and liberties. And that goes on forever. You overcome one thing and discover the next.

In my view what a popular movement out be is just basically libertarian: concerned with forms of oppression, authority and domination, challenging them. Sometimes they’re justifiable under particular conditions, sometimes they’re not. If they are not, try to overcome them.

September 3, 1992.

This is excerpted from The Golden Age is In Us.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.