Meeting with Noam Chomsky… Part 1

La version française, c’est par ici : A la rencontre de Noam Chomsky… 1ère partie

Noam Chomsky and Marv Waterstone.

When Thomas and I first started our year-long trip around the world in November 2016, one of our common wishes was to meet and exchange with inspiring wise men and women. Noam Chomsky ranked really high on Thomas’s list of “must-meet” persons. Indeed, he had been telling me about Professor Chomsky for years and had in mind to interview him as part of his first documentary movie. I, being 100% opportunistic there, had agreed to help in making it happen and to share the experience. The man, almost 90, is described in the media as one of the greatest intellectual of our times. He has had a dual international career; he is recognized by his peers as leading searcher in modern linguistic and known by the public for his subversive critic of the American hegemony and the media…  How could I say no to meeting him in person? So, off we went, travelling the world with the hope to find and interview Noam Chomsky, in New York City, our final stop.

Problem number one, as a friend told us, half-way through our journey, he did not live in the Big Apple. Professor Emeritus at the MIT, he was in Boston. I know, we could have googled him and found this piece of information quite easily, in the first place, but what can I say… we were too busy and excited quitting our lives and getting ready to live in the moment; disconnected from the overwhelming flow of negative news bombarding us every day and reconnected to something much deeper that I will dare to call “our humanity”. As soon as we found out where Noam Chomsky lived, we added Boston on our list of places to visit! But life had other plans for us… by the time we made it there, he had moved to Tucson to start teaching at the University of Arizona. At the end of our one-year trip around the world, in December, we had not met or initiated contact with him. Probably for the best as Thomas still lacked confidence in his project and wanted some extra time to prepare before exchanging with such an eminent intellectual for an eventual interview.

Back to France to celebrate a year of travelling, Christmas and New Year’s evening with family and friends. Our next project on the adventure agenda was to move to Canada, at the beginning of 2018, to see if we could cope with Canadian winter. The canvas was already “half-painted” as we were well advanced in our application for permanent residency there and even though we had not committed to it yet, I had found a place for us to stay in Montreal. But beyond the challenging prospect of spending the coldest winter of our lives after two years of summer, this scenario did not feel right. Chomsky was there, on our minds. Well, he was more on Thomas’s mind than mine…. Still, both of us were like kids; he was on a quest to chase his dream and I was curious and excited by the perspective of helping him.

So Thomas put on his first-class investigating journalist hat, and I switched on the logistics killing machine mode. In three weeks, we achieved to:

  1. Find out that Noam Chomsky was giving a course open to the community (including international visitors) on “What is politics?”, starting on January 11th
  2. Register to participate in this 8-week program
  3. Find a house and a cat to sit, in Tucson, for 6 weeks
  4. Build a partnership with an airline company which gave us last-minute flight tickets to Los Angeles

And, just like that, the dream came true!

I would like to take a few lines here to make a digression; this story is a condensed and subjective version of what happened in reality. So when I say “just like that”, it is relative. I deliberately chose to opt for an optimistic and positive style. However you should know that in between each good news and decision there were minutes, days, weeks and sometimes months also filled with doubts, stress, painful conversations, poor choices, work to make things happen, waiting times, etc. Thomas A. Edison, remembered in history as one of the greatest inventors of the 19th century, said “I have not failed; I have found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” In our case, we did not meet Noam Chomsky during our one-year trip. However, we found ways that did not work and leaded us to meet other incredible wise persons instead. Besides, we kept on believing and trying and it eventually paid off!

Let’s get back to the story. We now are in Arizona. It’s been 7 weeks since the beginning of the course. Every class is a mine of knowledge; I am blown away by the level of the content. It feels like I am discovering what I needed to understand our society; its current state and mechanisms. At the same time I cannot prevent myself from navigating through radically different emotional states such as intense feeling of enlightenment to anger, apathy or empowerment.

And that’s me now facing another problem… I have been following the class on “What is politics?” for almost two months. I am learning major things and part of me feels the urge and responsibility to share some of it; but what and how? To tell you the truth, deep down, my insecure self who did not want to face her fears of writing was relying on Thomas, the journalist, to create quality content. Luckily, the good side of my ego went “there is no way I am gonna be standing still waiting for others to take action and give me a role. I too can try to make things happen!”

A few years back, I got involved in the organization of a change-making international conference. I’ll give it to you, I was lucky to be at the right place, at the right time and motivated enough to find and connect with the right people. Again, things did not happen magically. In addition of putting energy into finding it, I then volunteered quite a bit of time to help make the event happen. In the end the organizers decided to include me in the program as part of the organizing committee, to thank me. I was super honoured. The day of the event a friend of mine came to me and said: “Aurelie, it is such a relief to see you in the program as part of the organizing team. You are the only one who seems to be JUST a normal person like most of us.” At the time, I stayed speechless. I was upset. He was right; I was just a normal person who had not achieved much (if not nothing) for humanity, especially compared to the other co-organizers… It took me years to realize this friend never intended to make me feel small.

Today, I understand the meaning of his words more than ever, because they talk to me. I am still this average normal person who wants to contribute to something bigger than her, like millions of others, I hope. I still feel very small compared to the eminent persons in the room, namely in the current context; Noam Chomsky and Marv Waterstone, his co-lecturer for the course I am following. Difference is, I have been there before and so I know better now. I don’t need to be already known to, as Gandhi said, “be the change I want to see”. I need to make choices and commit to them by taking actions and by reaching out to others. As my “co-organizers” on this conference taught me, there are incredible people out there who are willing to help normal persons, like you and me, step out of their comfort zone, and be part of something bigger. In fact, we need each other. Derek Sivers presents and illustrates this idea really well in his TED Talk on “How to start a movement”. Without followers there is neither leader nor movement.

My “role models” are not by my side as I am writing this article but for sure they are in my heart. And so I know, I owe to find the answer to these questions in order to move forward: what and how shall I share? First and foremost, as I tried to illustrate here and in my previous posts, one of the biggest lessons this journey has been teaching me is that it is ok to feel small or down. Life is not a wonderland where things happen all by magic, but it is full of wonders which are worth working and fighting for. I am tired of movies and media trying to make me believe life is only about extremes. It’s either white, the individual happiness: success & fun; or black, the universal burden: crisis & work. This is wrong! What happened to all the shades of grey that make up for most of our lives? I sure want and will keep on trying to put the message out there that there are other truths worth observing. Secondly, regarding the experience in Tucson, what I have been learning is both precious and touchy matter. I wouldn’t want to plagiarize or distort what intellectuals such as Marv Waterstone and Noam Chomsky do so well: Share thoroughly documented knowledge, whilst making it more accessible to the public so we can learn parts of our untold history and evolve. What I feel legitimate for, though, is sharing the impact of their lessons on me, how this experience has leaded me to see the world from a different angle and how it will influence my future choices and actions.

There is a Native American legend which tells the story of a tiny bird called the Hummingbird and which inspired the name of the French movement founded by Pierre Rabhi; les Colibris. The legend says that while a huge fire devastates the forest, all the animals are petrified and staying still, spectators of the ravages. Only the hummingbird remains active, trying to extinguish the fire by bringing a few drops of water with its beak and multiplying his trips. When the other animals tell him he will not be able to extinguish the fire with his small drops of water, the bird answers that he knows but he is doing his part. When I left France a year and a half ago, I said goodbye to my stability and some form of security. I had a roof, all the necessary material comforts to be well, interesting career prospects, friends and family nearby. I decided to leave everything and sell most of my belongings in exchange for the promise of a unique experience, meeting incredible persons and learning from and with them. I remember my therapist asking me if I was scared. I remember brazenly answering him “No, I’m fine. I have already experienced a long journey and insecurity. I know I can manage.” I was lying to myself. Beyond the material insecurity, I was afraid this trip would be in vain. I was afraid to do, like the moon, a new cycle around the earth to return to square one without having found how to do my part.

Looking at Noam Chomsky sharing his knowledge and answering our questions every week, I don’t see the 89-year-old man who wrote more than a hundred books, took serious risks to defend his ideas, inspired millions of people… I see a profoundly wise man who continues to share his knowledge and plant seeds of change so that a future on Earth could be possible for our species. Professor Chomsky’s dream, as I see it, is so big and requires such a paradigm shift that he probably won’t live long enough to see it come to true – if it does. For me, this is a proof that just as a goal, the destination is important but its value lies in the accomplished journey and in the relationships built along the way. It doesn’t matter if I am a leader or a follower, or if I get recognition or immediate results. What mostly matters, I believe, is to dare trying and to persevere despite the obstacles.

From left to right: Thomas Saupique, Aurelie Viotto, Marv Waterstone, Noam Chomsky and Valeria Chomsky.

3 comments

  1. While reading this post the voice in my head was saying “Yes, that is how I feel!” when reflecting on participating in “What is Politics” with Noam Chomsky and Marv Waterstone. After each talk with Professor Waterstone or Professor Chomsky, we broke up into small discussion groups to agree on a question that may be addressed by both men at the end of class. Aurelie’s questions were compassionate and focused on as she states in her blog “how do we reconnect with our humanity”? I loved the discussions of our group. Perhaps this blog can keep the questions and dialogue going. Thank you Aurelie.

    • Wow! Thank you for your feedback Tina. I would love for this blog to keep the questions and dialogue going 🙂 I am certainly open to thoughts and discussion!

  2. I loved reading this! Especially salient is the poignant realization that without followers there are no leaders and no movement. We are all doing our small parts to add beauty to the world.

    If you two are looking for more political action, take a look at cooperationjackson.org
    A fascinating example a community coming together – they are purchasing land for a land grant protected from eminent domain in order to begin urban farming and sustainable living from the ground up!

    I wish that you and Thomas enjoy the next exciting leg of your journey, wherever that may be!

    With love,

    Joseph

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