21 May 2020
Reasons for not despairing
Many London readers will remember Stanley Green, perhaps not by that name, but as the “Protein Man”. Mr Green made it his life mission to serenade the shoppers of Oxford Street – though not in song, with a billboard. He was against protein which he advised led to lust, and was thus best avoided. Less known was his similar position, as it were, on sitting – also a cause of lustfulness.
One felt, on occasional encounters with Mr Green, that he found his work its own reward, but how much more he might have achieved had he being living at this time. The world now is full of those who would wish us to abstain, not, it is true, from protein and sitting or indeed lust, but from many of our past pleasures. Last week one of those contenders for Mr Green’s crown was in town to make us all feel as gloomy as possible. Well, not literally in town, given the current problems in getting here and that he is 91, and that he lives in Arizona. But that great hero of the anti-movement, Noam Chomsky, was, through the capitalist wonders of Zoom, able to pop up to address the students of the Cambridge Union, on human survival.
Mr Chomsky has been around for a very long time and has been against things for, it seems, even longer. He is fundamentally a distinguished academic linguist, a man of great learning and considerable erudition who has made major contributions to the study of linguistics in history and evolution. More than that, he has been able to take the techniques of linguistology (I made that word up but derived it from historiography; Mr C should be proud) to study other academic disciplines and to find our modern society sadly failing in so many matters. He is undoubtedly a very clever scholar, but like many clever scholars, he can from time to time confuse.
For instance, he describes himself as a “socialist/ libertarian”. That’s a tricky concept for us of lesser brain to get our minds around. Libertarians are surely against government, all government. Socialists though are in favour of lots of government, providing they are doing the governing, so as to guide and assist the populace on their sometimes reluctant way to better lives. Not easy to be both at the same time, but Mr C seems to manage it with ease. Generally though, he is in the Left box in any given political controversy, especially if involving fashionable causes. Not just the box either; frequently he is out of the box and marching, an attitude which has got him arrested on various occasions, especially when he was opposing President Nixon’s Vietnam policy. So virulently did he oppose the war that Mr Nixon noted him as a leading opponent of his administration, an honour indeed for a man holding no political office, and a tribute to the power of ideological protest.
That was fifty years ago, but Professor Chomsky has not let up since. He is an environmental activist, a proponent of the rights of Palestinians, against American ownership of nuclear weapons. And he still loves talking to students and encouraging student activism, as he did last week with the Cambridge Union. On nuclear weapons he says “[one] seriously cannot imagine that we’ve somehow escaped. It’s a miracle…”. He is somewhat against President Trump, in case you might have doubted that, referencing “the criminal actions of the megalomaniac in the White House”. He bashed Cambridge University’s investment policies (not green enough), and neo-liberalism (a plague). But he praised student activism – though whether this included support for free speech he did not clarify – and praised the UK health service (not too controversial at the moment, that one). The student audience loved it of course – one member even suggesting that Professor C be granted eternal life.
“You have to decide,” he said in an interview after, “whether the species is going to survive”, not just a comment on Covid19, but a blending of worries about the environment, capitalism, Trumpism, and the population’s tendency to sit around and do nothing. Or at least spend too much time drinking, eating, shopping, and watching the telly, with side indulgences in protein and sitting; we know where that leads.
It is easy to laugh at the old anarchist warrior as he continues to fight life’s battles. Many of us do indeed like our settled existences, and for all the pressures on us at the moment, in our hearts we probably would happily return to how we were last year, perhaps with added kindness and a large pay rise for nurses. We have remarkably well stocked lives in 2020, even if they seem to bring us unexpectedly low levels of joy. But they certainly divert most us from political action and protest groups and barricade storming. Which means that those 91 year old academics and young students make all the running when it comes to creating noise and stealing headlines.
The sad thing is the lack of true radicalism in that world of noise and campaigning headlines. Their causes are mostly the same ones that they were grumbling about – or at least the old professors were – seventy and more years ago. More socialism, less capitalism. Smash the rich. Nationalise everything in sight. America the imperialist of the world (Donald may be lots of things but he is a real failure as an imperialist). The rotten old Tories and their nasty friends. Environmentalism is sort of new – but not that new. What was campaigning against intensive agriculture and industrial pollution has turned into anti cars in cities and shutting down coal mines. And feels more like another version of bash the rich than “Silent Spring” ever was.
That is not to say these are bad causes – though arguably some of them are. But what about reforming our creaking governmental systems, bringing power to the people? Turning the civil service back into the well-oiled austere piece of machinery it used to be? A root and branch reform of the NHS, a fine body of healthcare professionals led by buffoons, if there ever was? Giving decision making back to the people, really giving power back, by handing schools over to parents, roads to motorists, trimming local councils to be just service providers and frugal guardians of council tax, a heavy burden as always on the shoulders of poorer workers.
This is of course all very boring to the young and to students, and even to old war-horses who like the footstamping and cheering in the union hall. But it is what would undermine the populist politicians they all claim to dislike so much. Give the people control of their own lives; you might just find they start to trust you with their votes. And Professor Chomsky; you are never too old in the USA to stand for political office. Win that and you will prove you really have captured some hearts and minds.