Getting Into Chomsky
Posted: 02 June 2003
Word Count: 1199
Summary: something I wrote the day after seeing Chomsky lecture at St Paul's Cathedral
Last night my friend John said he’d written the only existing joke about a professor of Linguistics.
“Who’s the smallest ever professor of Linguistics?” John asked. “Gnome Chomsky,” went his reply.
John met me and my old housemate Lisa in St. Paul’s Cathedral last night, just after five o’clock. Noam Chomsky was going to give a talk at seven for the 10th Anniversary of the Kurdish Human Rights Project, put on by the BAR Human Rights Committee. The £15 tickets sold out a few weeks before this but we thought we’d try to get in anyway – figured the organisers of a human rights lecture wouldn’t want to turn anyone away. St. Paul’s choir was performing Evensong and outside was a dry freeze so we sat on the hard wooden chairs at the back of the cathedral, listened to the collective voice and devised a plan to circumvent the ticket-taking process by sitting there until Noam came on. Maybe drop some dosh into a donation box afterwards. Evensong ended at six and the choir swished past us in white robing; John figured we were in the clear. A stout woman in an anorak marched down the centre isle, with a fluorescent yellow band around her left arm: a talisman of officialdom. She shooed us out and her face was wry, her body language impatient, like she expected our deviance and had been preparing for people like us all day.
A girl with short red hair stood behind a wooden desk near the entrance to the cathedral and I asked her if she was the person to talk to about getting tickets. She said she wasn’t, and that she was only selling Noam Chomsky books. Out in the cold, a queue of smug ticket holders had already formed up the steps of St. Paul’s. John, Lisa and I decided we would go for a drink, then return to the cathedral just prior to seven and bargain our way in. The first place we tried was a busy pub on the corner, but the door was locked. They were closing and weren’t letting anyone else in. The next place was a coffee shop. We got through the door this time, but the tired Filipino woman behind the counter was clearly not going to serve us. She was cleaning the nozzles on the espresso machine and the trays of muffins and date bars were covered with cellophane. The next place we tried was called Ochre and it was open. We sat and drank tea in front of a large screen that showed the image of a crackling hearth fire. It pseudo-warmed my frappéd toes.
John said Noam wasn’t much of a public speaker anyway and it was no big loss if we missed out. Incidentally, he said, Noam was no longer in fashion and had been bested by the likes of John Pilger and Michael Moore. He said that while he liked reading Noam, Noam was pretty much one-sided and rarely offered any solutions to the pattern of atrocities he had shown are played upon the more vulnerable countries by the terrorist, imperialist giants. He said Noam utilised a secular discourse to talk about morals, and that that was a contradiction because politics, for example, were intrinsically amoral, and needed to be assessed without the hindrance of good versus bad.
Someone needed to come to Noam’s rescue. I countered with: “Noam never claimed to have all the answers,” and, um, “politicians talk about morals and politics together (axis of evil) – why can’t Noam?”
I was no match for John though, and didn’t have the vocabulary for his kind of debate, so I remarked on how good the tea was.
The line-up back at St. Paul’s was a two-headed snake, going up the stairs to both the north and south entranceways, so John went home. Lisa and I stayed and met up with another friend of hers, Ilya Gridneff. Ilya was a journalist for the Russian Mirror and without ticket as well. He had tried to get in on his press pass, but was rebuffed by the militant with the fluorescent armband. It was now 6:40 and our chances weren’t good. We debated which door we should go for. Ilya joked that behind the south door was a Zionist conspiracy, a black pit swallowing all the political activists, hippies and left-wingers. I approached a woman at this door and asked if it was possible to get tickets. She said, “not here it isn’t,” and I said, “oh, you already tried?” and she said, “I’ve had my ticket for weeks. There just aren’t any left.”
We waited until almost everyone was inside and went for the north door, where about 30 hapless others stood. It was unbearably freezing. Lisa, Ilya and I stood at the front of the crowd and were lambasted by a small man in a white hat, who said we jumped the queue. “We’ve been here since five,” said Lisa in a calm manner, characteristic of her. “I’ve been here since three!” the guy lied. He pleaded with the ticket collector: “I should be the one to get in first!” Ilya commented that the crowd was getting ugly. People began to push and shuffle. Another official-looking guy came out, stood in front of the great oak doors of the north entrance to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and held his arms out wide. “I am very sorry,” he said, “there are absolutely no tickets left. The lecture has started and nobody else is coming in.” He and two others walked the tall doors shut and we all stood there feeling ostracised and dejected. I was shuddering cold. Nobody moved.
An old man carrying a placard that said, “I Love Palestine. Stop The Killing” began to descend the steps when a few seconds later the doors opened and they let us all in for £5, standing room at the back.
We caught the end of Harold Pinter’s introduction and then Noam Chomsky walked out in a grey suit. He climbed the pulpit and preached to a cathedral full of political activists, hippies and left-wingers. These pillars had never seen so many dreadlocks.
And he was a lousy speaker: monotone and riddled with uh’s. But his poor public speaking efforts were peripheral to what he said. He talked about Kurdish activists and the torture and imprisonment they’ve endured in their long fight for even the most fundamental freedoms; he talked about the substantial support given to the Turkish regime by the U.S. and other governments. He recounted the tenacity and courage he personally witnessed on a trip to Turkey a few months ago, telling us about a precious gift he was given by a Kurd: a Kurdish/English dictionary, something that could have meant imprisonment for the man if he was caught with it.
We stood at the back of St.Paul’s Cathedral for an hour and a half, still cold. A few people laid on the floor and looked up at the colossal dome, listening to Noam’s old voice echo over the stained glass, oak and marble. I was so far back I could barely see that amazing man; he looked small as a gnome.
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