“People are upset about Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib,” Noam Chomsky told 750 people packed into the Woodfords Congregational Church last Saturday night, “but if you’re concerned about human rights, take a walk into a maximum-security prison.”
An explosion of cheers rocked the chandeliers. Chomsky, the renowned 81-year-old linguistics scholar and radical critic of America’s ruling class, was telling an appreciative audience of young and old about the many international sins of the Washington-Wall Street cabal. But this remark about domestic wickedness ignited the loudest applause.
Thank you, Noam. After five years of writing about solitary confinement and other tortures in the Maine State Prison, I was more than inspired when I heard this. But even more stirring was the audience’s reaction. The message is getting across in Maine — thanks in no small part to the publicity given LD 1611, the bill to restrict solitary confinement that the Legislature this year diluted into a study of the subject, but that will be back in 2011. Maybe in the next legislative session there’s a chance.
Hidden in plain sight
In blue jeans and gray sweater, speaking in quiet, ironic tones, quoting from the New York Times but recounting a different American history from that told by the Times, Chomsky showed the imperialist agenda to be hidden in plain sight.
America’s rulers don’t care if Muslims “from Morocco to Indonesia” hate the United States, he said, as long as their brutal dictators and elites support our plutocracy’s aims, which have to do with oil and other corporate interests. He viewed Obama’s foreign policy as more of the same, seeing the US attitude toward Iran, for example, as a “recipe for more war.”
All this could have been discouraging — how can one wrestle with a “very deeply rooted imperialist mentality”? Should you call Senators Snowe and Collins and explain that the US can have better relations with the Muslim world if it stopped being so imperialist? Would they know the word “imperialist”?
But “popular activism,” Chomsky maintained, can quickly divert seemingly inexorable currents of history, and he put in evidence the movements for civil rights and women’s rights. It was a fitting and encouraging ending to an event sponsored by Peace Action Maine.
From political to poetic
Next, my wife Peggy and I accompanied some Chomskyites downtown to the North Star Music Café, where another (though far less famous) radical icon, John Sinclair, was to perform his poems.
Sinclair, 68, has been a multi-activist (alternative-newspaper pioneer, manager of the lefty band MC5, chairman of the anti-racist White Panther Party), but a constant has been his promotion of the right to smoke pot. His imprisonment for over two years for giving two joints to an undercover cop in Michigan inspired a song by John Lennon and a 1971 rally demanding his freedom attended by Lennon, Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and others in the Original Counter-Cultural All-Stars.
So it was appropriate that when we encountered the white-bearded Sinclair he was sitting alone outside the café smoking what appeared to be a joint. After he ambled inside, the jazz band Free Radicals, from Houston, interpreted Thelonius Monk while Sinclair held forth in a toke-torched but well-practiced voice about Detroit neighborhoods and jazz greats, never missing a syncopated beat.