In the space of 24 hours last week, Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist and controversial critic of American foreign policy, spoke at UCLA on U.S. policies in the Middle East, held informal exchanges on linguistics and language, and addressed a small, select group of influential Westsiders at a mansion, complete with moat, in Pacific Palisades.
And although UCLA campus police, riot helmets in hand, stood by at Royce Hall as the turn-away crowd of 1,800 passed through a security check one by one, it was in the Palisades where the most volatile scene occurred.
The professor from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose radical impact on linguistics is known as "the Chomskyan revolution," is often said to be without peer in his field. While he has not had an equal impact on foreign policy, he is considered no less radical in his criticism of the United States, particularly its policies in the Middle East, Central America and other parts of the Third World. And as a Jew, he has offended some members of the American Jewish community for his support of Palestinian self-determination and his criticism of Israel.
"He's a very provocative person. We wanted to put him with some people in the community who have access to resources and can impact change," said Mary Brent Wehrli, executive director of the Southern California Ecumenical Council's task force on Central America, explaining the invitation to the heated discussion of U.S. Central America policies at businessman Leo Wyler's mansion. "We hope that he will provoke them."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 3, 1988 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 2 Column 1 View Desk 1 inches; 12 words Type of Material: Correction
The photo of Noam Chomsky on Page 1 of Monday's View section was by Marianna Diamos.
The task force got its wish.
Chomsky's charges that U.S. government policies were connected to interests of the corporate elite so infuriated some of the 40 mostly wealthy guests seated around Wyler's massive fireplace that at one point the discussion deteriorated into shouted accusations and interruptions.
One man yelled out that he'd bet $100 that one of Chomsky's claims about National Security Council policy would turn out to be "a lie." ("I'll take that bet," actor Ed Asner called out.)
"You do yourself a great disservice," Harold Willens told Chomsky in the middle of it all. A longtime peace activist and frequent critic of government policy himself, Willens, the host along with Wyler, Fred Nicholas and UC Regent Stanley Sheinbaum, did not directly question Chomsky's allegations. Instead, he took on the great linguistic theorist for his language.
"You don't say it very well. Your language isn't precise enough or fair enough," Willens said.
Reporting Called One-Sided
The eruption came during an exchange over Chomsky's view that the U.S. media was reporting Nicaragua's abuses and deficiencies in democracy and not reporting in any depth its social reforms--particularly as compared with Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The media, he said, were part of an elite consensus regarding the U.S. right to contain Nicaragua and a debate only over how it should be contained.
His charges came as no surprise to some in the room who tended to agree with him. Others seemed reluctant to believe him or genuinely confused about his implications.
Several angrily took him on for implying they had let themselves be "hoodwinked" and were "sitting back and being led" by such a group. They accused him of "unbridled bias," overstatement, dogmatism and of having "a shockingly closed mind for an intellectual." One woman started a hurt and angry reproach by calling out, "Why do you live here?"
"This is my country. I'd like to improve it," he replied.
Pushed Too Far
Later, when they broke for coffee and dessert, some flocked to him for more discussion, others kept their distance.
Privately, Willens expressed disappointment that Chomsky had talked down to the group and said that someone with such an iconoclastic point of view should become a better communicator.
Had Chomsky only talked of specific Central American issues such as the Arias peace accords and aid to the Contras, Wyler's daughter Barbara said afterwards, the guests would have left agreeing with him and his denunciation of U.S. policy.
"But he was pushing people farther than that," she said. A supporter of the task force and a grass-roots organizer on peace and justice issues, Barbara Wyler had hoped Chomsky would shake them up.
Instead, she said of those he had offended, "it was as if they had been told there was no Santa Claus."
Doesn't Seek to Offend
Noam Chomsky--take him or leave him. He does not seek to offend people, he says, but he will neither apologize nor accommodate.
"I'm no diplomat," he said with a shrug and a small smile the following morning over a bowl of granola at the UCLA Guest House.
It is one of the more non-controversial and undisputed statements he makes.
At 59, Chomsky is a slightly built man who has the facade of a mild-mannered professor--glasses, sandy, slightly unruly hair, a fleeting grin--right down to the rumpled cords, rolled up shirt sleeves and tweed jacket.