In Boston, we had the honor of interviewing Professor Noam Chomsky, the “world’s top intellectual” according to the New York Times. I was extremely excited to meet him because I had studied his work in school and admired his courage for speaking his convictions on the global stage.
As I tried to find his office in a perplexing MIT building that appeared as though the fabric of reality had collapsed in on itself, I flashed back to a philosophy class I had taken at American University. The class, “Greatest Minds of the 20th Century” had spent a week on Chomsky’s work. This time we were not in his office to discuss linguistics or his groundbreaking refutation of B.F. Skinner’s work on behavioral psychology (although I did spy two of Skinner’s books on the shelf in Chomsky’s office) but American identity.
Professor Chomsky was gracious and seemed interested in our questions and project. He said that Muslims were the latest minority “enemy” America had fought beginning with the Native Americans and spoke about the role fear has played in shaping the American identity.
The discussion also covered everything from the significance of cultural icons like Rambo to the people who inspired Chomsky (champions of the poor like assassinated El Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King) to US foreign policy in places like Somalia—which Chomsky discussed after hearing of our trip to interview the Somali meatpackers in Nebraska.
Despite his pessimistic view of American power and its treatment of minorities—he related some of the anti-Semitism he had encountered as a child as an example—he said that better communication and interfaith dialogue was a good way to build relations between the US and the Muslim world.
Chomsky was conscious of the gap in knowledge of Islam in the United States, and cited his MIT dean in the 1970s who had agreed to help then-US ally Iran—which the dean mistakenly referred to as an “Arab” country—build its nuclear program. “That is the level of understanding we’re working with here,” Chomsky said, also mentioning the woman at the McCain rally who had called Obama an “Arab.”
This study has allowed us to consider American identity from many different perspectives, and Professor Chomsky provided one of the most outspoken, sophisticated, and unique views yet. As I walked out into the brisk October air I was thrilled—no afternoon could be better spent than listening to one of the world’s great philosophers discuss the very issues of our project.