Thursday, September 11, 2014

Weathering the Storm


I open Noam Chomsky’s e-mails on weekdays and forward on to him at another e-mail address those I can’t take care of myself.  Once in a while I open up a nasty rant from a person who doesn’t like his politics, most likely because they misunderstand his point of view (the beauty of a blog is that I can say what I think, plus, I have been reading these messages for twenty years). 

Putting aside his significant work in linguistics, Noam is a prominent human rights activist, a defender of mistreated and voiceless individuals, groups, and countries, and he exposes the ills of mainstream media and US foreign policy.  He’s concerned about fracking, tsunamis, the so-called drug war, and the survival of the planet. He participates endlessly in debates and discussions, is an inexhaustible lecturer, holds interviews twice weekly in his office, and responds to e-mails through the early morning hours seven days a week.  He does much of this at great personal expense, traveling extensively within and outside the country until he’s too tired to stand. The only time he sits is to write, and sometimes to eat. 

More than a few times I’ve been tempted to hit “reply” and give an enraged writer hell, telling him how severely misinformed he is.  I would tell him that Noam doesn’t fabricate numbers, statistics, or facts – you can find almost everything he quotes in a journal or newspaper article, or book.  I would point out to them that sympathizing with Palestinians doesn’t mean he hates Jews.  He’s a pacifist – a guardian of peace. He believes war is unjustifiable.

Many of these ranters suggest he leave the United States and live somewhere else. I would suggest that his criticism of the US government’s policies doesn’t mean he hates being an American. I would remind them of the first amendment, which guarantees “the rights of free expression and action that are fundamental to democratic government.” And I would ask them to become more informed about the real facts – and maybe actually read something Noam has written, with an open mind and an eye toward understanding. 

But it’s my job to pass all messages not directed toward me onto Noam, whether an e-mail from a colleague or a note from one of his grandsons, and thousands of others in between, many from people he’s never met.  So, once I've added any essential piece of backup for clarity, I pass them on, even the few I would prefer to send to the trash with one simple keystroke. 

A few months ago, when I was angered by one of these slanderous e-mails, I jumped out of my chair, gathered up some travel and scheduling items for an impromptu meeting, and stormed into his office.  Ok, I didn’t actually storm.  Noam doesn’t respond to that kind of drama.

I excused myself for interrupting his reading, asking him if I could talk with him for a minute, then I launched right into it. “Noam, don’t you ever get upset with the nasty, antagonistic e-mails from enraged people?  Considering the [immeasurable] sacrifices you’ve made, how do you keep from getting angry?” I asked.

Noam replied, “Do you get angry with a hurricane?”

“No, I don’t get angry with the hurricane, but I am upset when people are hurt by a hurricane.”

Noam repeated, “But do you get angry with the hurricane?”

“No,” I said, becoming frustrated that he wasn’t sharing my outrage.

“Well, people are hurricanes,” he said. 

I thought, what the hell does that mean, ‘people are hurricanes?  Judging by what I know about Noam, he wanted me to think, and to figure it out for myself. I guessed he was reminding me that anger can be a big waste of time unless you harness it into action.  Also, hurricanes are unpredictable, and they erupt, just like people.  And I suppose when you find yourself in the path of a hurricane, it’s prudent to protect yourself, and keep out of harm’s way, as you can’t control it any more than you can control a person.  These are my thoughts. 

As with most things, I went home and talked this over with my partner Laura, a psychotherapist who has witnessed anger and frustration in a multitude of sizes and shapes.  She said, “I think there’s a way in which people carry their own weather systems.  Weather is affected by both internal and external experiences – past and present.  By what they’ve learned, what they’ve eaten, their assumptions, and by what’s going on around them.  There are some people who walk in the door and you can feel the storminess around them, and sometimes you feel something more subtle.” 

I wondered whether that was what Noam intended to convey to me, as well – people have their own unpredictable weather patterns, so it’s best to put on your raincoat and boots and wait it out.

I had to check with him again, so I recently asked Noam to give me some insight on how he keeps from reacting to a writer’s fury.  I worded it in a way that wouldn’t hint that he was possibly answering a question I was supposed to have figured out for myself.  He said “People usually have reasons for being angry, however distorted and unpleasant.  And there's always some hope that they can be dealt with. Sometimes it even works, after a lot of effort.  But what's the point in being angry about it?  A three-year old doubtless has a reason for an annoying tantrum, but do we get angry at the kid?” 

I thought, well, yes, we do, but the same is true as about the hurricane - it's useless to get mad at the child.  I also realized two things.  First, something that I keep learning in a circular manner, that even an unpleasant and hostile form of discourse can be a step toward understanding.

And second, not only was he talking about our lack of ability to control some things, but he was also talking about compassion. 


Monday, September 8, 2014

Meeting Noam Chomsky




I heard the knob hit the wall before I saw the man.  I looked up, startled by the sound, and saw a nice looking man of slim to medium build, somewhere around 5’10”, with a healthy head of white hair and large wire-rimmed glasses, standing at the wall of faculty mailboxes which were for some reason located in our suite.  He was wearing a light blue shirt, blue jeans rolled up with a full four-inch cuff, and beige walking shoes with white socks.  In one hand he held a bulging worn briefcase, and in the other, a dark blue canvas bag.  He looked to be in his early to mid-sixties.  I had read a little more about him over the last week or so, and the more I learned, the more overwhelmed and intimidated I became.  He was a media and US foreign policy critic, he worked alone and side-by-side with Howard Zinn and others as a Vietnam War resister, he was a human rights advocate, and of course a linguistics professor.  He debated experts like Jean Piaget, Michel Foucault, John Silber, and William F. Buckley. I recognized him from his pictures, and it wasn’t until I stood to introduce myself that I realized how nervous I was. 

I extended my hand toward him, and he took it.  “Hi, Professor Chomsky.  I’m Bev Stohl.  It’s nice to meet you.”  So far so good, I thought, as he murmured a preoccupied ‘hello,’ plopped the leather briefcase onto my desk and fished inside for a handful of papers. I noticed the initials NC in faded gold at the top, near the handle, so I knew I had the right guy, but the quiet was unnerving. I needed to fill the void. “It must be strange for you to come in and meet your new assistant for the first time.”  As I said this aloud, it occurred to me that this probably wasn’t at all strange to him.  It was too late to start over, and fainting or quitting would make a bad first impression, so I just stood there, looking at him.
“You can call me Noam,” he said cheerily, his widening smile easing my anxiety, “And I have full confidence in Jamie and Morris’s decision.  If they chose you for the job, then I’m sure we’ll make a great team.”   I noticed that his smile emanated not only from his mouth but also his eyes, which sparkled mischievously behind his thick lenses.
He tilted his head slightly upward when he said this, making him seem playfully delighted – I hoped at the thought of our working together.  Maybe I wouldn’t have to be shipped home after all.  And standing there with him for the first time, I wondered “What’s the big deal about working for Noam Chomsky?”