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Chomsky is Alive, Actually, and Hungry for Debate

By Marc Santora
THE NEW YORK TIMES

At a news conference after his spirited address to the United Nations on Wednesday, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela expressed one regret: not having met that icon of the American left, the linguist and MIT Institute Professor Noam Chomsky, before his death.

Thursday, a call to Chomsky’s house found him very much alive. In fact, he was struggling through “10,000 e-mails” he had received since the remarks by Chavez, who urged Americans to read one of Chomsky’s books instead of watching Superman and Batman movies, which he said “make people stupid.”

At 77, Chomsky has joined the exclusive club of luminaries, like the actor Abe Vigoda and Mark Twain, who were reported dead before their time, only to contradict the reports by continuing to breathe.

“I continue to work and write,” he said, speaking from his house in Lexington, Mass.

Chavez, while addressing world leaders at the United Nations, flagged “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance,” which Chomsky published in 2003, as a must-read. Chomsky said he was glad that Chavez liked his book, but he would not describe himself as flattered. “We should look at ourselves through our own eyes and not other people’s eyes,” he said.

Chomsky said he had taken no offense at Chavez’s remarks about his being dead. In fact, Chavez’s promotion of the book propelled it Thursday into Amazon’s top 10 best sellers.

While retired from teaching full time, Chomsky still goes to his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, occasionally lecturing and also working on a new book.

At the United Nations, the remarks by Chavez on Wednesday set off a firestorm that almost overshadowed the visit by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose country has been under intense global scrutiny for its nuclear ambitions. From the podium of the General Assembly, the Venezuelan leader said he smelled lingering sulfur, left by President Bush, who had spoken there the day before and whom he branded “the devil.”

Chavez continued mocking Bush on Thursday in Harlem, where he announced the expansion of a program to send cheap Venezuelan oil to poor families in New York. He told a group gathered on the street that the president was an “ex-alcoholic” who had “a lot of hang-ups” and tried to walk “like John Wayne.”

Chomsky said that he would not choose to use the same harsh oratory, but added that the Venezuelan leader was simply expressing the views of many in the world. And he said Chavez’s anger was understandable.

“The Bush administration backed a coup to overthrow his government,” he said. “Suppose Venezuela supported a military coup that overthrew the government of the United States? Would we think it was a joke?”

Proving that he was still up for a lively debate, Chomsky then went on to talk about income inequality in Latin America, the history of the United Nations, Iraq, Iran, Fidel Castro and, finally, the man who so fervently admires him, Chavez.

“I have been quite interested in his policies,” Chomsky said. “Personally, I think many of them are quite constructive.” Most important, he said, Chavez seems to have the overwhelming support of the people in his country. “He has gone through six closely supervised elections,” he said.