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Chomsky and Cleaver Talk About Activism


Gabor Csanyi -- The Tech
Professor Noam A. Chomsky and Kathleen Cleaver discuss racial issues as part of the Race 2000 series.

By Dalié Jiménez
STAFF reporter

Institute Professor Noam A. Chomsky and Kathleen Cleaver, a former member of the Black Panthers, discussed issues of race and cultural division on Thursday evening.

The joint talk was part of the Race 2000 series, sponsored by the MIT Committee on Race Relations, which President Charles M. Vest created in 1994. The series will feature a variety of lectures on different aspects of race.

Speaking to a large audience in 26-100, Chomsky and Cleaver shared some of their personal experiences with race and activism and their hopes for the future. The talk was moderated by Ayida Mthembu, assistant dean for counseling and support services.

Mthembu said the talks were designed to "challenge the traditional, limited, and restrictive ways that we've been divided and kept isolated from one another."

Speakers have similar background

Although they were born in very different periods, both Chomsky and Cleaver spoke of fast becoming aware of the injustices in the world.

As a child of the depression and a first generation Jewish immigrant, Chomsky describes his childhood as a "very intellectually lively period." By watching demonstrations and workers being killed, and listening to the working class, he learned to pay attention to people's problems.

Cleaver said she was born into activism, since her parents were involved in several movements. After living in India with her family, she realized, "the country was run by people of color and they seemed to be doing a pretty good job," Cleaver said.

"So it never occurred to me that there was any reason for whites to run everybody's lives," she added.

Activists have different interests

The activists' differences were highlighted when they answered Mthembu's question about how they stay focused in their work in activism while many others have given up as times and politics have changed.

Cleaver spoke of the joys of the struggle. "I feel happiest when I know I'm doing something that in some ways breaks through and brings down the kind of barriers that restrict people's ability to be creative, whole and healthy," she said.

She also spoke of loving "the exhilaration of feeling that somehow or other we can change this culture and make a difference."

Chomsky, however, gave a very different answer. "To tell you the honest truthŠ I hate to go to jail; I certainly don't like to go to meetings; I can't stand demonstrations, and I don't like talking to a lot of people," he said.

After the laughter quieted down, he continued by listing some of the things that he considered wrong with the world. Without leaving our immediate area, just by taking a walk downtown, to Central Square, you can see what's happening - people are begging for food, he said.

"It's impossible not to pay attention to these things, to be alive and not to be aware of it, and to be aware and not to possibly try to do something about it," he said. "It wouldn't be my first choice, but there is no choice if you want to be able to look at yourself in the mirror."

Restrictions on speech occur often

Chomsky said the activism of the 1960s terrified the establishment. "The institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young were failing," and people were challenging authority and really changing the country, he said.

Chomsky denied the idea that the activism of the period has ended. He said it's part of the "false propaganda that's trying to get people back to passivity."

Although by comparative standards, the United States has a very good record on freedom of speech, Chomsky said, there are still cases of censorship, "but the really serious ones are not called censorship, they are the control of the arena of public discussion and information by private corporationsŠ what amounts to totalitarian organizations," he added.

Condemning corporations such as Microsoft, which he said pretend to control something as public as the Internet and are attempting to gain more control over people's lives, Chomsky said there are "much bigger monsters out there which are not regarded as an attack on freedom of speech" which need to be so regarded.

Audience questions future projects

At the end of the program there were a few minutes given for the audience to pose comments or questions to the panel.

A Guatemalan native asked Cleaver about the challenges faced by blacks and Latinos in this country as they strive to build a common agenda.

"There's an intrinsic identification with the same issues" between both races, Cleaver said. "However, there seem to be an enormous amount of social barriers."

"The future depends on enlightened, committed, leadership, that's not self-serving and not corrupt," she said. "I think people have to start working together in building a sense of trust, but it takes an effort. It takes a commitment, although it doesn't mean it can't be done."

A student asked how to get people to realize that there are still issues to be addressed and causes to be fought.

Cleaver noted that the financial burdens imposed by society do not allow people to fully dedicate themselves to activism, and later pick up where they left off as she did.

"There are ways of ensuring that people who stay out of line will not step back into line," Chomsky added.

However, both agreed that the range of things one can do is inexhaustible. "There is endless misery and suffering, and it's needless," Chomsky said. "It's there because our institutions are catastrophic failures," he said.

Attendees react positively to event

Students that attended the forum had many positive things to say. "It's really good to see something like this happening at MIT," said Kamla A. Topsey '00, the junior co-chair of the Black Students' Union. "Since the Extropians, no one has really talked about this. Maybe this will be the thing that will get us talking about it."

Lisa M. Saldano G also expressed her satisfaction. "It was refreshing to have something so atypical to MIT happening," she said. "It adds depth and breadth to an MIT education."

Speakers have varied experiences

Chomsky is a graduate of Harvard University and has been at MIT since 1955. He has written numerous books in linguistics, philosophy, contemporary issues, international affairs and U.S. foreign policy.

Kathleen Cleaver is a graduate of Yale law school who in the 1960s left college to join the civil rights movement was communications secretary of the Black Panthers. She spent several years in exile in Algeria and returned to the United States and completed her education.