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Chomsky at Peking University


Noam Chomsky spoke at Peking University on Friday, August 13th. Chomsky, famous for his political activism and his significant contributions to the fields of linguistics, cognitive science and philosophy, is one of the leading public intellectuals of the past century. At 82, the combative professor of linguistics shows no signs of retreating from the limelight. He has published three books in the past year and will undoubtedly publish more in the year to come. Before his talk, Chomsky was presented with an honorary doctorate from Peking University.
Chomsky delivered a short lecture to an audience of around 2,000 composed of faculty, journalists, and a large contingent of students. The lecture itself offered few new insights. Vaguely titled: Contours of World Order: Continuities and Changes, he began his talk by identifying what he saw as the two dominant threats to human society: "nuclear warfare" and "environmental damage."

On the subject of nuclear proliferation, Chomsky discussed at length Iran's nuclear program and the consolidation of the US as a military and political leader in the twentieth century. On environmental degradation, Chomsky glossed the threat of global warming, and ended with a rather bleak, even ominous assessment of the human condition: universal "consumer prosperity" is ecologically impossible. That is, economic development in China and India must be counterbalanced by a decline in Western wealth if the earth is to survive. What was likely intended to be a condemnation of overconsumption seemed instead a preface to Armageddon.

However, it seemed that most of the students present were familiar with Chomsky's work and few appeared surprised by the content of his talk.

If enthusiasm sometimes ebbed during the speech itself, it was revived during the Q&A.

Particularly memorable was Chomsky's charmingly candid and thoroughly unpretentious account of his own success in the intellectual world. When asked about his experiences as an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania, Chomsky replied that he spent most of his time "playing handball in the gym and attending graduate courses." He added, with a hint of rebellious pride, "I actually had no credentials...the reason I was at MIT was that MIT didn't require credentials."  Chomsky's playful irreverence toward academic institutions was greeted by more than a few smiles in the serious atmosphere of Beijing University.

But the true highlight of the night was a simple but compelling question posed at the beginning of the Q&A: "What can we do to make the world a more peaceful place?" After a brief pause, Chomsky's response was clear and pragmatic: "You can't do very much about the crisis in Congo" but "you can have an impact on your own society."

Chomsky's humanist message appeared to resonate with the student audience. Despite anchoring his discussion in complex theories about world development, Chomsky returned to the core principles of political activism in his answer. Problems are complicated, but the demand for action is simple. Even in an era where "global" has become a nagging, indispensable appendage to every word, social change begins at home, through meaningful action in the community. It is, I think, this confidence in rational, committed activism that has earned him so many young admirers.
By the last few questions, the bleak "contours of the world" had acquired a silver lining. Despite believing that we are teetering on the brink of destruction, Chomsky still believes in the potential of individual agency and the possibility of progress.

Reflecting upon the positive changes in MIT over the past fifty years, he said: "That's how changes take place, helpless individual people who collectively are able to carry it out." As Chomsky reminds us, change is not given, "you have to work for it." And, if we are indeed facing nuclear proliferation and ecological ruin, the work at hand is even more demanding, more urgent than ever.
At the end of the night, a student asked Chomsky what he does when he is "under pressure." Appropriately, Chomsky replied, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, "I go to work."

Links and Sources
Chomsky in Asia: Public Lecture by Professor Noam Chomsky, Peking University 2010
Peking University: PKU to Confer Honorary Doctorate on Noam Chomsky
Economic Observer: Another take on the lecture (Chinese)
Douban: Album of images from the event


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