If one of the greatest thinkers of the age — on the level, some people believe, of Galileo or Descartes — were to give a free, public speech in Biddeford, in a rare Maine appearance, you might want to go hear him. If this great man were also the most trenchant critic of American government, as others believe, you might have your interest sharpened. And if you couldn’t make it to the University of New England at noon on January 25, you might look forward to the coverage in the daily papers and on the TV news.
But, in this last case, unless the next day you read the story in the small Biddeford JournalTribune or watched an interview on Channel 6’s “207” magazine, you were out of luck. Typical of the exposure given 77-year-old MIT linguistics professor and philosopher Noam Chomsky by most American news media, he was blanked out by the Portland Press Herald, the big southern Maine daily, and there was no coverage by the Portland TV news shows or Maine Public Radio. (Seth Harkness, a Press Herald Biddeford-based reporter, said he “couldn’t recall” what took precedence over Chomsky and deferred further comment to the newspaper’s Portland editors, who wouldn’t respond to the Portland Phoenix’s inquiries.)
This paucity of coverage is ironically fitting, since Chomsky is a biting critic of the mainstream media, which he sees filtering news through screens adjusted to corporate, advertiser, and Republican or Democratic governmental-elite propaganda settings. Chomsky is coauthor of Manufacturing Consent, which details how filters to the news are constructed.
But his speech was quite an occasion. A security guard told me it was the best-attended event he had ever seen on campus, and he had been there many years. Not only did Chomsky speak to 450 people in a big hall, but also to hundreds more — by some estimates given me, another 1000 — via closed-circuit TV in the gymnasium.
Part of a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, his speech was on the US government’s flouting of human rights worldwide. In scholarly tones, he made this argument:
— The world’s standards for human rights appear in the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for which the United States voted. These rights include the entitlement to live in a democracy with equality; freedom of speech and freedom from torture; rights to privacy, food, clothing, housing, medical care, and security in unemployment, sickness, and old age.
— The US has been almost alone in refusing to promote the global implementation of many of these rights. Ours is the only country besides Somalia that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child — “and Somalia doesn’t have a government,” Chomsky noted dryly. The G.W. Bush administration has rescinded the US’s adherence to the UN Convention against Torture, he said. The Reagan administration ignored the World Court’s decision demanding the US stop its aid to the Contras rebels against the elected left-wing government in Nicaragua, he said. On another issue, Chomsky quoted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that international court jurisdiction “has proven inappropriate for the United States.” By such statements and actions, he said, the US has shown itself “to be an outlaw state.”