Noam Chomsky at 95: No Strings on Him

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

“A habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving to them only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants.”

—Bertrand Russell

“Justice will not come until those who are not injured are as outraged as those who are.”

—Solon 560 BC

Sometimes a voice reverberates across space and time. Sometimes a voice feels missing somewhere, sometime. Sometimes a voice does both, simultaneously, forever.

For all the famous people who passed through MIT during my student stay there, or whom I have known in any other capacity since, or even who I have ever read from or read about, for all the great achievers who ever made a difference anywhere anytime, to my life the most important has been Noam Chomsky. His example has illuminated many paths that I and countless others have tried to navigate. Instead of throwing piddling pebbles at a giant, I prefer to just say thank you. And happy birthday, Noam, December 7. 95! Whatever befalls, may you be for us all, forever young.

I met Noam when I took his course “Intellectuals and Social Change” at MIT where I was a student. It was the sixties and we became friends—me a student, he a mentor nineteen years my senior, and, please take note, at that time nineteen years was a veritable lifetime—and yet we have stayed close for six decades since.

I have often heard people ask Noam “what makes you so productive?” I have often heard him fluster a bit and then reply that the only thing he could see in his makeup that seemed different from most other people was that he could sit down at a project after having been away for a time and on returning get immediately back in gear. Other writers—I well know—typically waste time rereading and reintegrating when we return to projects that we earlier set aside for even just a day much less longer. But despite the surprising wisdom of his simple answer, I saw in Noam more defining differences than just that.

For nearly sixty years I have quite often enjoyed Noam’s input on and aid to my work and have occasionally even offered some ill-informed reactions to his. I have seen him in all kinds of interactions and shared all kinds of moments with him, personal and political, social and private, on stage and off. It has been a highlight of my life to not only have had Noam as a friend and guide, but also to have learned from and enjoyed so many of his stories and undertakings. It hasn’t even been annoying that whenever I have gone someplace to speak, from Florida to Ohio, New York to Alaska, Greece to Brazil, England to India, Poland to Australia, and Korea to Venezuela, invariably considerable time has gone to answering questions about Noam. How is Noam doing? Is Noam really an anarchist? What does Noam think about the invasion? Why did Noam say that stuff about Cambodia? How does Noam do it? How does Noam do it? How does Noam do it? And even, sometimes, can you explain Noam’s linguistics? Noam’s shine extends to everywhere. Literally everywhere. His voice reverberates. So here are a few snapshot answers about the incredible, the good, the problematic, and the incandescent I have had the privilege of seeing first hand.

Lydia Sargent and I went to Poland in 1980. The trip occurred because South End Press had recently published the then young Polish writer Slawomir Magala’s book on the uprisings in his country and the emergence of the Polish Workers’ Party led by Lech Walesa. Lydia and I had gone for business at the International Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany, and had then continued on to meet Magala to learn about events in Poland. I remember Lydia talking with a leftist General about feminism. He got woken. I also remember Lydia and I being in an apartment talking with Swavek—the author’s nickname—and a number of his friends. At one point, I was replying to some question about America, and the subject of Chomsky’s political writings came up. Later there was more general discussion, and as there was a linguist present, Chomsky’s linguistic theories came up for some airing. As I was telling my hosts a story about Chomsky the linguist, just as I had earlier relayed stories about Chomsky the politico, someone said, “Wait a minute, how could you know both Chomskys personally? That’s quite a coincidence.”

I started to chuckle but realized the questioner was serious. It turned out these activists, who were certainly among the most cosmopolitan people in Poland, nearly all thought that there was one Chomsky who was political and wrote books about history, Vietnam, and revolution, and there was another Chomsky who was a linguist and wrote books about grammar, cognition, and human nature. On reflection, I realized that though I initially found the question weird, it was actually quite reasonable. After all, wasn’t it more likely that two people would share one name than that one person would have two incredibly stellar but thoroughly unconnected careers. So first, what makes Chomsky so insightful and productive? Second, what makes Chomsky so admirable?

Partly Chomsky’s insightfulness and productivity were inborn. But genetic endowment, while obviously desirable, isn’t something we should praise and can’t be emulated. We can be awed by Usain Bolt’s incomparable speed, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s magical prose, Adele’s emotive voice, Einstein’s physical intuition, Martin Luther King’s speechifying brilliance, Dylan’s transcendent lyrics, and Emmy Noether’s mathematical creativity. We can enjoy seeing such traits at work. We can be wowed by them. We can be fascinated and enlightened by them. We can even be inspired by them. But it doesn’t make sense to say that the owner is worthy of special respect, admiration, or emulation based simply on having been born with special abilities.

Noam’s special memory could retain both broad strokes and also fine detail with computer-like recall. Everyone’s memory tends to decline with age, even Noam’s, but even at seventy five and then eighty five, and now ninety five Noam’s memory dazzles. In the 1960s, in that course of his that I took, Noam would routinely give references from books he’d read and if asked would sometimes even refer to a page, or sometimes even a part of a page. But Noam’s memory was by no means photographic, just profound, and even then, only for things he found important. At speaking engagements people would query all manner of important topics completely off his assigned speaking agenda, and Noam would almost always reply with in depth information whose range and precision in a field other than his own even experts in that other subject would marvel at. I saw this happen over and over with questions regarding prevailing conditions in countries he was visiting and also regarding ideas in linguistics, philosophy, history, cognitive science, and biological science. So, really, four and a half decades after the conversation in Poland—one, two, or many Noams? Judge for yourself. You can see such exchanges on Youtube anytime you wish.

Second, consider Noam’s rapid and clear thinking. If he was a physicist, say, or a mathematician, we could better judge this in-born part of his capacity as only incredibly substantial, like for most any great scientist, or as out-right phenomenal, like for von Neumann or Feynman. But another Noam trait had inborn but also had trained aspects that emerged from his effort and discipline. Noam routinely extricates himself from habit and familiarity to consider possibilities strikingly different than what most people contemplate. It isn’t just that he would imbibe a wealth of data, or make connections and test logical possibilities that would exceed other people’s capacities. Others born even with great memory and quick minds mostly just collect, enumerate, and detail what is known, or perhaps discover a new fact, or very occassionally even a new connection, but they don’t repeatedly generate dramatically new insights that repeatedly transform a whole discipline. Again, visit Youtube. You can watch Noam repeatedly ask unexpected questions. He operates way outside every box. He entertains the otherwise unseen possibility. He sees the hidden connection.

Think of Einstein. What Einstein did that was phenomenal was to extract general physical truths from snippets of physical reality to generate previously unknown insights. To think about what would happen if someone ran alongside a light ray, or to think through the dynamics of a falling elevator, two of Einstein’s guiding thought experiments, didn’t require tremendous calculating capacity. Einstein didn’t have to follow a logical train of thought through countless complicated steps. The genius Einstein exhibited was often not in the number of steps in his deductions, nor in their technical difficulty to compute. His genius was in undertaking the key steps at all and in then following them down paths that others didn’t even notice or didn’t dare traverse. His genius was in his leaps off the beaten path. Einstein’s frequent way to leap was what scientists call thought experiments. These mental gymnastics pared away reality’s inessential contingent details to better highlight its deepest core meanings. To do this, Einstein envisioned unattainable contexts and rendered them pure and pristine inside his head by removing endless detail. Then he turned the essence inside out and upside down until he had a new explanation.

One way Noam has innovated has been by employing analogies (more or less like thought experiments) far more often and far more effectively than other people do. Noam would take a familiar situation—and this is a trait that we can learn from and try to emulate—and find another that was structurally like the first but regarding which his (and our) habits and biases would operate less powerfully or not at all. He would use this technique both to successfully communicate to reticent audiences assessments that if he had initially offered them about the first situation would have affronted people and been warded off by their prior prejudices or expectations—and he also used such context switching, I suspect, to himself discover new views. He did this magic by analyzing the structurally similar but less-controversial and less-familiar situation that he invented or that he remembered in analogy, and then showing himself (or us) the meaning the aloof setting held for the emotionally fraught setting whose implications were obstructed by preconceptions.

Physicists abstract away countless details, assume all kinds of simplifications that are in the real world unattainable, and view in their mind’s eye what occurs in the imagined simpler world to discern innermost real world dynamics without letting endless cluttering facts and personal prejudices obscure the deep truth. Noam’s analogy trick is similar, but it is more suited to the realm of worldly affairs, though I would guess that regarding linguistics he probably also used both analogies and thought experiments, or perhaps a cross between the two. In Linguistics, for example, one breakthrough he made, and he authored a great many, came when he asked how babies could hear only a very few examples of communication and then fully speak and understand a language. He wondered what had to be innately inside the baby, all babies, but not squirrels or even dogs, to allow that.

The analogy technique Noam used can be found all through his social writings. He would switch from talking about the U.S. in Vietnam (then obscured by emotional preconceptions and prejudices that the U.S. could do no wrong) to the role of Russia in Eastern Europe (where an American could see invasion and imperialism more clearly). He would switch from discussing the possibility of a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (which deeply-held axiomatic U.S. beliefs biased against recognizing since the U.S.was never the bad invader) to the possibility of Iran invading Afghanistan (easier to conceive for someone from the U.S.). He would switch from assessing the criminality of the U.S. punishing Afghanistan’s whole population for their country housing terrorists who attacked the U.S. (confused, after all, how could we be criminal) to Britain (if it had done so) punishing the U.S. for housing and financing IRA acts in Britain (easy to analyze since of course anyone else can be criminal). Or he would compare the media emphasizing 9/11 as terrorism but not seeing the U.S. embargo of Iraq as chemical and biological warfare waged on civilians. He would move from discussing U.S. media dynamics to discussing old Soviet media dynamics, or from discussing U.S. foreign policy to discussing the behavior of Mafia dons, and so on. The analogies would bypass confounding biases to reveal core features and then he would switch back to see them in more difficult to accept circumstances like scientists of with thought experiments more generally.

Noam, like virtually all geniuses, also worked hard. Has he been driven, compulsive, and even over the top when it comes to work? By everyday standards, yes, arguably he has. If you named twenty prominent athletes, actors, and musicians over the past thirty years, Noam would probably have heard of two or three, or maybe five at most, and he would be able to offer essentially zero information about any of them. No memory for that. Noam would see maybe two or three movies a year. He would see a few hours of TV other than news a year. He would listen to almost no radio. He knew what he wanted to know, and in that realm his knowledge was incandescent.

Noam used to have a summer home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. There was a motor boat and a small sailboat, and he and his then wife Carol lived on a lake in the summers and in a home in Lexington, Massachusetts the rest of the year. Over the course of each summer he and Carol would get out on the ocean in either boat barely more than a handful of times. They would visit the tiny beach of the lake they were alongside via a short walk way more often, including with guests, and Lydia and I were there many times. Mostly, though, Noam was ensconced in his study, reading and writing in the summer just like during the rest of the year. Hour upon hour he would read and write. Combine this diligence with his quick start ability and with very little editing needed since his writing winds up, I am guessing about this, pretty much the way it first comes out, and you get a lot of output, and actually you get way more output than most people familiar with either his political or his scientific production, or even with both, realize.

You see, Noam typically answered even short letters from unknown folks with long letters back to the extent of a small book’s worth of correspondence each month. More, Noam revolutionized linguistics and what is called cognitive science—not once in a lifetime, but multiple times. Indeed, for decades at MIT, Noam taught a linguistics seminar each Friday that people came from near but also far just to attend. Why? Because each week Noam would present some original material that he had settled on in the prior week. This alone, even without his other involvements, was an unfathomable pace of production.

But meanwhile, there were other involvements. Another Noam churned out scathing denunciations of U.S. foreign policy, excoriated mainstream media machinations, and comprehensively clarified diverse political phenomena. Noam spoke publicly dozens of times a year and wherever he went he would address that place’s history and current events with almost the same incredible precision and innovation as he would offer about the U.S. Noam’s talks often continued for hours. He did countless interviews, often a few each week. Each part of his life seemed virtually impossible, yet all the parts did happen, and they happened over and over. So, two, three, many Noam’s?

Anyone’s hard work is worthy of admiration though maybe in a desirable world no one would be quite as driven as Noam has been in our world. Indeed, in a desirable world, while Noam would still have worked tirelessly on his science out of the joy and accomplishment of it, he would undoubtedly have also been out sailing more often, weeding in his garden more often, and even laughing at movies more than he has done in our world. So his sacrifice to take so much time to tirelessly reveal injustices merits admiration. But the most admirable Noam, it has always seemed to me, has been the scrupulously honest Noam. Noam is another name for integrity in enormous supply. The most admirable Noam respects but does not condescend to others. He cares.

Honesty is easy to understand. Noam always says what is on his mind, sometimes at a cost. Indeed, bad can come from good. Noam’s unbreakable grip on the truth has interfered, at times, with other virtues, such as sensitivity to the impact his words might have on others. Assessing someone in Noam’s position, I tend to think truth-telling should most often take precedence over what’s called sensitivity but is sometimes little more than compromise or even hypocrisy—though others might disagree about this, and it certainly isn’t one size fits all.

Integrity is harder to pin down. It presumably means being true to one’s values, when one has values that one can be true to. Noam has had values and has been true to them. This too can reach levels that cause problems. Noam eschewed anyone affecting the choices of another by anything other than logic and evidence. You can see the effects of this in his speaking style and in his writing, and it has caused Noam to be tremendously wary of and often even to deny his own notoriety. He has frequently worried that his words would be unduly attended by his listeners. This has often made Noam loathe to give advice to the point that he would withhold words that might usefully have been heard.

Respecting others had another kind of pitfall for Noam. He was constantly queried by people who were relatively ignorant of what they asked about. A person in a position like Noam’s gets used to these kinds of questions. For Noam, respecting his questioners meant taking them seriously and answering honestly with patience and attention to communicating clearly. Noam did that, again at a level that closely examined might seem humanly impossible. Noam would receive letters out of the blue. Some would have ridiculous formulations or ask questions he had answered a thousand times. No matter. He would reply to everyone as if he was replying to a knowledgeable co-worker or to an interviewer chatting with him. But he also quite reasonably wanted such exchanges to move along and so a problem sometimes arose because Noam also means a very quick study.

When someone would start to ask Noam something familiar, sometimes Noam would tend to fill in the blanks. After hearing a few words, Noam would deduce the person’s intent and interrupt to begin answering even before the person finished their question. This could on occasion sidetrack Noam from hearing what was actually being asked in the interests of saving time and even imposing accuracy when there were a bunch of people wanting his attention after a talk so that moving along and breadth of exchange were important. Experience edifies and so most often Noam actually helped questioners by making their questions more precise and complete. Other times, however, Noam would jump too quickly and misperceive the questioner’s query due to thinking he recognized the questioner’s point when in fact he didn’t. In other words, sometimes a person querying Noam or disagreeing with him had a different point than those who had previously used essentially the same initial words. Noam might then miss this difference, thereby seeming to be oblivious to the person’s true intents and insights. It was not pleasant when it happened to you, but it was never ill motivated.

To understand caring is hard. There are people who routinely verbally offer sympathy and concern for others—have a nice day, they say—but who, at least in my experience, don’t sincerely give a damn. Something that looks and sounds like caring is present, and many people are very impressed by its appearance, but minutes or even seconds later the seeming concern could be gone. Appearance without essence has little or no staying power and few implications beyond false appearances. For Noam, the caring was less evident, less demonstrative, less of a show, but it lasted and had implications.

Noam believes strongly in civility though I think many people who have gotten into debates with him and had their views dissected—sometimes with words like “trivial” punctuating the dissection—would find a belief in civility hard to believe. But for Noam, calling a claim trivial is not uncivil but honest. It is a comment about a thought and not a comment about the person who presented the thought. In this, Noam was a scientist in the sense that scientists routinely debate and mercilessly skewer one another’s views. And scientists don’t take offense at that, or even understand taking offense at that. Finding the truth and escaping falsehoods, which is the scientist’s reason for being, demands this behavior. I have seen Noam publicly say an idea was dumb—not least some of mine—but I have never seen him publicly say a person was dumb.

Noam did not denigrate others to build himself up or to knock others down. Likewise, Noam did not evidence the kind of condescending and self-promoting or guilt-salving concern for others that is all too frequent in many circles. Noam’s caring was real. There was no pomp or circumstance. He did not performatively weep wildly or gush effusively. And his caring didn’t follow a line dictated from elsewhere, but came from within. Noam remembered people’s needs. He fulfilled requests. He noticed pain and tried to do real things to alleviate it. He was on time to not waste others’ time. He was civil. You could even call Noam conservative in daily life characteristics. If there was a sign to stay off a lawn, Noam obeyed even if crossing the lawn would get him where he was looking to go faster. Indeed, I have watched Noam routinely abide almost all rules unless higher values took precedence. Noam is also another word for private. In fifty years I have seen him voluntarily talk about what he considered purely personal matters only rarely. I think few have seen more.

For Noam’s seventieth birthday, twenty-five years ago this December, as a present I arranged a kind of testimonial tribute. I put on the Internet a means by which people could write a message that Noam would receive in a bound volume on his birthday. About a thousand people entered messages online. Most of these were people who Noam had never closely or even at all known but who had read his work, or heard him speak and been dramatically affected by him and just wanted to register their thanks. Many other contributors did know Noam, and they also wanted to say their piece to their friend, ally, student, teacher, coworker, or what have you.

As I assembled the uniformly emotional messages, the entry I was most moved by was written by Fred Branfman, who was himself a very effective advocate of human rights and a supporter of the Indochinese people against unimaginably callous U.S. violence. Branfman wrote:

“When you visited me in Laos in 1970, I was at a real low point, anguished by the bombing and feeling almost totally isolated. Your passion, commitment and shared pain about the need to stop the bombing, and warm, personal support and caring, meant more to me than you will ever know. It also meant a lot to me for reasons I can’t quite explain that of the dozens and dozens of people I took out to the camps to interview the refugees from the bombing you were the only one, besides myself, to cry. Your subsequent article for the New York Review of Books and all the other writing and speaking you did on Laos, was also the only body of work that got it absolutely right. It has given me a little more faith in the species ever since to know that it has produced a being of so much integrity, passion and intellect. I feel a lot of love for you on your birthday—and shake my head in amazement knowing that you’ll never stop.”

Noam and I have had a few arguments over the years. Noam can be world-class stubborn, even if not demonstrative or flailing about it. Then again is it stubborn when you are right? Noam expected to be right because he almost always was right, and probably also because when he asserted something it wasn’t reflex, he had thought seriously about it. But he also didn’t like to be wrong. In his case, this may have been a bit like someone not liking to fall down when crossing a room, or not liking to slip in the tub. In other words, he didn’t like to suffer something that was highly unfamiliar and also had a negative aspect. To some people this could feel annoying, frustrating, even hurtful. All in all, though, I have never known anyone smarter, with a better memory, with a greater facility for creatively escaping the bounds of acceptable thought, or, still more admirably, with more honesty, integrity, respect for others, real universal concern, and devotion to doing what needs doing. As with everyone, Noam is multi-sided. It is just that in Noam’s journey there have been very few downsides, and the upsides have been huge. And would you believe, he is also a very funny guy.

Despite my managing to learn enough from Noam so I usually found myself agreeing with him, sometimes Noam and I would see what’s out in the world a bit differently and feel responses ought to have slightly different attributes. A couple of times we had a still larger disagreement. Here are two, each of which reveals Noam attributes in their evolution, I think.

The first was about what we might call a crowding-out effect, borrowing that label from economists. Noam went out and spoke a huge amount to very large audiences. A great many venues wisely wanted Noam to come talk. Many fewer venues ignored many other available speakers who, while not as excellent as Noam, would be way more than ample. The result was that Noam talked a huge volume but even with his great frequency, many places would settle for no one other than Noam and so would have no speaker. An unintended consequence was that undeniably worthy speakers who lacked Noam’s notoriety, wouldn’t get invites they ought to have gotten because if invited they wouldn’t attract sufficient audience. What to do?

Over the years, I urged Noam to tell those asking him to come speak that he would not do so unless there could be a second speaker on the bill with him whom he would select. Each time he would go out in that scenario, so too would Steve Shalom go, or Holly Sklar, or Cynthia Peters, or Peter Bohmer, or Clarence Lusane, or Robin Hahnel, and so on. In this way, others would be seen, word of mouth about the quality of their talks would spread, and in time those other people would get direct invitations. Then those additional people, having become better known, could themselves do the same thing, bringing still more speakers to visibility. After a bit, many more people, steadily more diverse in background and experience, would be going around speaking and many more talks would be given and heard.

Noam almost never did this and we argued about it quite a few times. His resistance was partly ideological and partly personal. Ideologically, he didn’t want to use his “bargaining power” to impose conditions on potential hosts—and he would also tend to deny that he could get a positive response by making such demands, which was humility trumping reality. He also, personally, I suspect, didn’t overly want to share the stage with a co-speaker, since that would have himself traveling just as far, taking just as much time away from other work, but speaking and dealing with questions for a lot less time. I have myself since our earliest disagreements about this issue spoken publicly quite a lot though only a fraction as often as Noam, and in doing so I have come to better understand his side of this dispute. Indeed, I came to understand and admire his not wanting to impose his will. And I also eventually got his not wanting to halve his air time. I now think what’s needed is not to get prominent speakers to place demands on hosts, but for speakers’ bureaus to impose conditions on behalf of a community of speakers.

A second disagreement has been over matters of vision, economic mostly, but otherwise as well. This has been a debate and even dispute where I have to say that, again, with passing years while he moderated somewhat, I moderated more than somewhat. Noam felt way back that trying to describe a future society could and indeed would overstep existing bounds of knowledge. It might also crowd out creativity by establishing aims prematurely. And it might tend toward sectarianism. He felt broad values for a better future were all that we needed to offer, plus practice, practice, and more practice that would yield on the spot day-to-day innovations that would lead to implementing new ways of being from the bottom up. Noam felt that to pre-think and set forth institutional vision in advance could curb such exploration. I instead felt this was all well and good as fair warning about negative possibilities to watch for, except that after a few hundred years of such efforts, we should have something more to show. How could the lessons of thinking hard, analyzing, and experimenting become part of broad movements, I wondered, if they were not presented, debated, refined, and finally advocated by broad movements?

To me, it seemed obvious that we needed answers to the question “what do you want” that went well beyond just offering worthy values. We needed answers that could provide hope, direction, and a positive tone able to inform both analysis and strategy, and I thought this entailed more than offering only a list of broad values and aspirations. I thought it required institutional substance. Noam’s concern, in contrast, was to ensure participation and to avoid elites emerging to impose a view on movements. I agreed with his aim but I also felt we would get what Noam feared if we didn’t have movements full of participants who understand, advocate, and continually refine a viable worthy vision able to motivate and orient sustained participation. The alternative to elitist vision, I thought, wasn’t having no institutional vision at all, but having the most accessible, widely shared, compelling, and substantial but not over-detailed and in any event quite flexible institutional vision we could write up, debate, refine, and advocate. In short, I thought I was right. But as time passed I arrived at greater awareness of the validity of Noam’s concerns and the need to attend to them even as I still believed in the importance of having core institutional vision. The point? Even on the rare occasions when Noam wasn’t totally right, even supposing this was such a case, he was always right enough to pay close attention to and not dismiss. That is—to disagree with Noam without very close consideration of his points and careful accommodation to them usually turns out to be quite foolish. In short, this guy is right even when he is wrong.

I remember a time in Noam’s office in a wing of MIT ironically largely financed since WWII by the Pentagon. It was 1969 or thereabouts. Robin Hahnel and I were being recruited by the Weatherman organization. I asked Noam his advice. Remember, Noam didn’t like providing personal life advice. He also felt he had little to offer about strategy and he didn’t want his words over weighted. Double whammy on answering. But in this case he answered anyhow. He said, roughly, Michael, the Weather-people seem courageous and sincere, but they will blow up some stuff and perhaps themselves as well, and in doing so they will damage rather than aid change. Robin and I heeded his advice. Neither of us joined Weatherman.

I once wrote a piece propelled by the experience of reading Chomsky and its impact on people and in particular on me, and also by my wondering how Noam managed to constantly immerse himself in so much data about social pain and injustice without himself becoming jaded. It wasn’t that his burrowing in the blood-drenched tombs of injustice didn’t take a toll. It did. There are times when Noam was brought low by the news he dissected and times when he was wired tight and became difficult. How family around him got through all that may be as amazing as some of Noam’s accomplishments. At any rate, the essay I wrote fueled by these personal thoughts and of course also by the problem of changing the world was called “Stop the Killing Train.” For me, it was an infrequent attempt at being poetic. Written in the lead-up to the first Gulf War, I think the essay is no less timely now than when it was first written precisely because lessons from Noam will never be anything less than timely. The message of that piece was that things all around are abysmal. Violence is even greater than it seems. Injustice is even more vile than it seems. The need to resist and seek better is evident and paramount. So don’t bemoan, seek better. And perhaps that message, his message, is a good way to move on from discussing Noam per se, to noting what Noam would reply to this essay. He would tell me to stop talking about him and his life, but if you must do that, he might say, then at least draw lessons about the world as it is and as it can be.

So finally, about knowing Noam, I might echo what Bob Dylan had to say about Dave Van Ronk: “No puppet strings on him, ever. He was big, sky-high, and I looked up to him. He came from the land of giants.”

Michael Albert is the co-founder of ZNet and Z Magazine.