When Chomsky wept, by Fred Branfman
Source Jim Devine
Date 12/06/20/17:01

When Chomsky wept
By Fred Branfman

Forty-two years ago I had an unusual experience. I became friendly
with a guy named Noam Chomsky. I came to know him as a human being
before becoming fully aware of his fame and the impact of his work. I
have often thought of this experience since — both because of the
insights it gave me into him and, more important, the deep trouble in
which our nation and world find themselves today. His foremost
contribution for me has been his constant focus on how U.S. leaders
treat so many of the world’s population as “unpeople,” either
exploiting them economically or engaging in war-making, which has
murdered, maimed or made homeless over 20 million people since the end
of World War II (over 5 million in Iraq and 16 million in Indochina
according to official U.S. government statistics).

Our friendship was forged over concern for some of these “unpeople”
when he visited Laos in February 1970. I had been living in a Lao
village outside the capital city of Vientiane for three years at that
point and spoke Laotian. But five months earlier I had been shocked to
my core when I interviewed the first Lao refugees brought down to
Vientiane from the Plain of Jars in northern Laos, which had been
controlled by the communist Pathet Lao since 1964. I had discovered to
my horror that U.S. executive branch leaders had been clandestinely
bombing these peaceful villagers for five-and-a-half years, driving
tens of thousands underground and into caves, where they had been
forced to live like animals.

I had learned of countless grandmothers burned alive by napalm,
countless children buried alive by 500-pound bombs, parents shredded
by anti-personnel bombs. I had felt pellets from these bombs still in
the bodies of the refugees lucky enough to escape, interviewed people
blinded by the bombing, seen napalm wounds on the bodies of infants. I
had also learned that the U.S. bombing of the Plain of Jars had turned
a 700-year-old civilization of some 200,000 people into a wasteland,
and that its main victims were the old people, parents and children
who had to remain near the villages — not the communist soldiers who
could move through the heavily carpeted forests, largely undetectable
from the air. And I had soon also discovered that U.S. Executive
branch leaders had conducted this bombing unilaterally, without even
informing, let alone obtaining the consent of, Congress or the
American people. And I realized that these devastated Plain of Jars
refugees were the lucky ones. They had survived. U.S. bombing of
hundreds of thousands of other innocent Lao was not only continuing
but escalating.

I had grown up believing in American values but this bombing of
innocent civilians violated every one of them. Looking at U.S.
executive branch leaders from the perspective of a Lao refugee camp, I
had learned in a few weeks that they were the enemy of human decency,
democracy, human rights and international law abroad, and that in this
real world might made right and crime paid. However much one believed
America was a “nation of laws not men” at home, it was clearly a
nation of cruel, brutal and lawless men in Laos.

Without any conscious decision on my part, I immediately found myself
committing to do whatever I could to try and stop this unimaginable
horror. As a Jew steeped in the Holocaust, I felt as if I had
discovered the truth of Auschwitz and Buchenwald while the killing was
still going on. I soon found myself working as hard as I could to take
everyone I could find — including journalists like CBS’s Bernard Kalb,
ABC’s Ted Koppel, the New York Times’ Flora Lewis — out to the camps
in the hopes they would do stories about the bombing to expose it to
the world.

One day I heard that three antiwar activists — Doug Dowd, Richard
Fernandez and Noam Chomsky — were spending a few nights at the Hotel
Lane Xang in Vientiane before catching the International Control
Commission (ICC) aircraft for a week-long visit to Hanoi. (The only
way to go to Hanoi at the time other than through Phnom Penh.) I
called one of their rooms, introduced myself, we met, and Noam came
out the next day to the village where I lived for dinner, planning to
leave for Hanoi the day after.

I had spent most of the ’60s in the Mideast, Tanzania and Laos, and
knew relatively little about Doug, Dick or Noam, though I knew Noam
was a famous linguist and had written a good deal about the Indochina
war. My focus at that point was on trying to inform them about the
seriousness of the bombing, in the hopes they might do something about

On a personal level I took an immediate liking to Noam. He was
mild-mannered but intense – the latter quality was one we shared — and
obviously caring. One of the reasons I was so horrified by the bombing
is that I had come to know the Lao as people by living in my village
for the previous three years – particularly a 70-year-old man named
Paw Thou Douang whom I had come to love as a kind of surrogate father.
He was kind, wise and gentle, and I respected him as much as anyone I
had ever met. I was particularly struck by how warmly Noam related to
Paw Thou during our dinner with him and his family. He clearly felt an
immediate affinity with them that I hadn’t seen in the many other
visitors I had taken to the village. He also displayed a focused
curiosity about the details of what was happening in Laos, to which I
was more than pleased to respond.

The next day the three visitors discovered disturbing news: the ICC
flight to Hanoi had been canceled and the next flight would be a week
hence. All three had busy schedules, and began making plans to return
home for the week. I suggested to Noam, however, that he might want to
stay. I said I could arrange for him to meet refugees from the
bombing, U.S. Embassy and Lao Cabinet officials, Prime Minister
Souvanna Phouma, the Pathet Lao representative and a former guerrilla
soldier — as I had been doing with the media. From his perspective it
was a unique opportunity to learn about the U.S. secret war in Laos,
from mine a part of my effort to make the bombing known to the world
in the hope of ending it.

Noam agreed, and I guess we both had one of the most unique
experiences of our lives — he on the back of my motorcycle, me driving
him about the streets of Vientiane, as he sought to learn as much as
he could about U.S. war-making in Laos, still at that point largely
unknown to the world outside. It was only in the next month that
Richard Nixon finally admitted for the first time that the U.S. had
been bombing Laos for the previous six years, though he and Henry
Kissinger continued to lie by claiming that the bombing was only
striking military targets.

I have a number of particularly vivid memories of Noam from our week
together. One was watching him read a newspaper. He would gaze at a
page, seem to memorize it, and then a second later turn it and gaze at
the next page. On one occasion I gave him a 500-page book to read on
the war in Laos at about 10 at night, and met him the next morning at
breakfast prior to our visit to political officer Jim Murphy at the
U.S. Embassy. During the interview the issue of the number of North
Vietnamese troops in Laos came up. The Embassy claimed that 50,000 had
invaded Laos, when the evidence clearly showed there were no more than
a few thousand. I almost fell off my chair when Noam quoted a footnote
making that point, several hundred pages in, from the book I had given
him the night before. I had heard the term “photographic memory”
before. But I had never seen it so much in action, or put to such good
use. (Interestingly enough, Jim showed Noam internal Embassy documents
also confirming the lower number, which Noam later cited in his long
chapter on Laos in “At War With Asia.”)

I was also struck by his self-deprecation. He had a near-aversion to
talking about himself — contrary to most of the “Big Foot” journalists
I had met. He had little interest in small talk, gossip or discussion
of personalities, and was focused almost entirely on the issues at
hand. He downplayed his linguistic work, saying it was unimportant
compared to opposing the mass murder going on in Indochina. He had no
interest whatsoever in checking out Vientiane’s notorious nightlife,
tourist sites or relaxing by the pool. He was clearly driven, a man on
a mission. He struck me as a genuine intellectual, a guy who lived in
his head. And I could relate. I also lived in my head, and had a

But what most struck me by far was what occurred when we traveled out
to a camp that housed refugees from the Plain of Jars. I had taken
dozens of journalists and other folks out to the camps at that point,
and found that almost all were emotionally distanced from the
refugees’ suffering. Whether CBS’s Bernard Kalb, NBC’s Welles Hangen,
or the New York Times’ Sidney Schanberg, the journalists listened
politely, asked questions, took notes and then went back to their
hotels to file their stories. They showed little emotion or interest
in what the villagers had been through other than what they needed to
write their stories. Our talks in the car back to their hotels usually
concerned either dinner that night or the next day’s events.

I was thus stunned when, as I was translating Noam’s questions and the
refugees’ answers, I suddenly saw him break down and begin weeping. I
was struck not only that most of the others I had taken out to the
camps had been so defended against what was, after all, this most
natural, human response. It was that Noam himself had seemed so
intellectual to me, to so live in a world of ideas, words and
concepts, had so rarely expressed any feelings about anything. I
realized at that moment that I was seeing into his soul. And the
visual image of him weeping in that camp has stayed with me ever
since. When I think of Noam this is what I see.

One of the reasons his reaction so struck me was that he did not know
those Laotians. It was relatively easy for me, having lived among them
and loved people like Paw Thou so much, to commit to trying to stop
the bombing. But I have stood in awe not only of Noam, but of the many
thousands of Americans who spent so many years of their lives trying
to stop the killing of Indochinese they did not know in a war they
never saw.

As we drove back from the camp that day, he remained quiet, still
shaken by what he had learned. He had written extensively of U.S.
war-making in Indochina before this. But this was the first time he
had met its victims face-to-face. And in the silence, an unspoken bond
that we have never discussed was forged between us.

As I look back on my life I feel I was a better person during this
period than I have been before or since. And I realized that at that
time we were both coming from the same place: Compared to the
unconscionable Calvary of these innocent, gentle, kind people — and so
many others — everything else seemed trivial. Once you knew that
innocent people were dying, how could you justify to yourself doing
anything other than trying to save their lives?

And I realized in the silence of that car ride that beneath Noam’s
public persona as the intellectual’s intellectual, who relied on facts
and reason to make his case, there lay a deeply feeling human being.
For Noam these Lao peasants were human beings with names, faces,
dreams and as much of a right to their lives as those who so
carelessly laid waste to them. But for many of these visiting
journalists, not to mention Americans back home, these Lao villagers
were faceless “unpeople” whose lives had no meaning whatsoever.

When I returned to the U.S., Noam and I remained in regular contact
for the duration of the war. I became more impressed with Noam as I
began to read his work and realized that no one else wrote in such
detail, with such logic, and with so much depth of understanding,
about both the horrors of the war and the system that produced them.
But what impressed me even more about him — and his friend, Boston
University’s Howard Zinn — was that they went beyond writing and
speaking and actually put their bodies on the line to oppose it.

Noam and Howard were part of my “affinity group” during the May Day
demonstrations that saw thousands arrested, and we were in adjoining
jail cells during the Redress civil disobedience action in D.C. I also
learned that Noam was a leader of Resist, a group that promoted draft
and tax resistance to the war, and would have been indicted had not
the Tet Offensive occurred. He had been speaking against the war since
1963, before most of us had even heard of it. And he had endured
numerous death threats and a wide variety of other difficulties — to
the point where his wife, Carol, went back to school to develop a
profession in case something happened to Noam that prevented him from
supporting their three children.

When the war ended I made a fateful decision. Rather than continuing
to oppose the next set of horrors U.S. leaders were producing, I
decided to work domestically to try to replace them with a new
generation of leaders who opposed war and promoted social justice. I
then spent the next 15 years on domestic politics and policy — with
Tom Hayden and the grass-roots Campaign for Economic Democracy, as a
Cabinet-level official with Gov. Jerry Brown, at Sen. Gary Hart’s
think tank and directing Rebuild America, advised by many of America’s
top economists and business leaders.

I only had sporadic contact with Noam during this period. Part of it
was that our interests now diverged. He continued to pour out
articles, books and speeches exposing and opposing murderous U.S.
policy toward East Timor, Reagan’s terrorist wars in Central America,
Clinton’s disastrous economic policies in Haiti and other third-world
nations and his bombing of Kosovo, and the issue he seems to feel most
passionately about: America’s sponsorship of Israeli mistreatment of
Palestinians. These concerns were far from my own focus on electoral
politics and domestic issues such as solar energy and developing a
national economic strategy.

As I look back on it now, however, I realize another largely
unconscious factor was at work: I tended to avoid Noam because I
assumed he would regard me as immoral for abandoning the work of
trying to save lives and entering a compromised and corrupt political
system. I often found myself suddenly engaging in defensive dialogues
in my head with him, trying to justify what I was doing — which became
harder as the electoral efforts I was associated with failed, and I
found myself far more ego-oriented than during the war.

After more than a decade, I was in Boston and called Noam. He warmly
invited me over to his home and we chatted for a while. I finally
asked him how he felt about my having gone into electoral politics. I
also mentioned that I was then staying with a former progressive
friend who was working for a major bank who had told me that morning
that he did not want to meet Noam because he assumed Noam would put
him down. Noam was genuinely shocked by the story. “Why, we’re all
compromised,” he said. “Look at me. I work at MIT, which has received
millions from the Defense Department.” He seemed genuinely puzzled and
hurt that either my friend or I would think that he would denigrate us
for what we were doing.

In recent years I have been in regular contact with Noam, mainly by
email, but also when staying in his house for 10 days prior to
attending Howard Zinn’s April 3, 2010, memorial service. It was a
deeply emotional period for both of us, particularly Noam, who had
deep ties to Howard, and the visit made a deep impression on me.

I found essentially the same Noam whom I had met 40 years earlier. No
interest in small talk. Self-deprecation. Anger at the ongoing refusal
of America’s intellectuals and journalists to take a stand on U.S.
leaders’ war crimes. Great moral issues of our time. A nice guy,
offering to give me a ride back from a meeting in Cambridge, or to
pick up some groceries at the supermarket for one of our meals.

I asked Noam how he felt about being routinely criticized for focusing
on the crimes of U.S. leaders and not those of other nations. He said
he felt this was appropriate since he was an American citizen, and
U.S. leaders have by far committed more war crimes abroad than any
others since the end of WWII. I agreed, also noting that there are so
many prominent public intellectuals and journalists who criticize
foreign leaders, so few who dare point out the war crimes committed by
their own.

And, as 40 years earlier, I was above all struck by his unrelenting
work. He spent almost all his time reading, writing, being interviewed
in person or over the telephone, speaking and, in an act of generosity
for which he is particularly known, continually answering an unending
stream of emails — often for as much as five or six hours a day.

And, I discovered, he continued to speak widely all over the country
and world, to the point where his schedule is usually filled up years
in advance. At age 82 he kept a schedule that would overwhelm someone
40 years younger.

I was also struck by his asceticism. When I telephoned him I realized
he had the same phone number and lived in the same modest suburban
home as he had 40 years ago. He wears jeans, and has virtually no
interest in food or material possessions. He is periodically visited
by friends and family, but engages in no other leisure-time

I was particularly moved one night as I was sitting opposite him at
dinner, struck as usual by the enormous distance between what Noam
knows about U.S. leaders’ slaughter of innocents around the world and
what the public realizes. I suddenly thought of Winston Smith from
Orwell’s “1984,” who sees little hope of changing society and focuses
only on trying to remain sane and commit to paper the truth in the
hope that future generations will remember it. I told Noam that to me,
at that moment, he represented Winston Smith to me.

I will always remember his reaction.

He just looked at me.

And smiled sadly.

Noam can be tough on those who he feels support U.S. war-making, but
he is even harder on himself. On one occasion I mentioned that I had
asked a lifelong political activist with whom we were both friendly
whether, looking back on his life, he had any regrets. Our friend had
responded that he wished he had spent more time with his family, and
pursuing a variety of his non-political interests. “Do you have any
regrets?” I asked Noam. His answer shocked me. Muttering more to
himself than to me he said, “I didn’t do nearly enough.”

On another occasion I asked Noam how much satisfaction he took from
having written so many books, founding a new field of linguistics,
being so influential around the world. “None,” he answered grimly,
explaining that he felt he hadn’t really been able to convince enough
people to understand the true depth of U.S. leaders’ savage and brutal
treatment of the world’s non-people. He felt frustrated, for example,
that more people did not understand how U.S. leaders’ killing hundreds
of thousands of innocents and destroying the very base of South
Vietnamese society had succeeded, how they had actually won in
Indochina by destroying the possibility of an alternative economic and
social model to that of the U.S. emerging.

One evening as I was climbing the stairs to my bedroom I looked into
Noam’s office. He spends his time at home these days sitting in a
large office chair in front of his computer, and his posture resembled
nothing so much to me as a Buddhist monk in meditation.

And then it hit me.

I suddenly realized, “Noam has been living, as I did relatively
briefly during the war, for the past 40 years. He has been working
around the clock, reading, writing, speaking, not wasting a minute, in
a focused attempt to try and stop U.S. killing, to force the world to
realize the plight of the `unpeople.’”

And, I am unembarrassed to say, I experienced a great love for him at
that moment. And an insight. For as long as I can remember, ever since
reading of “Mahatma” Gandhi, I had wondered what the term “Great Soul”
really meant. And at that moment I finally understood. If part of
being a “Great Soul” is to fully respond to the human suffering of the
voiceless, and to pour one’s entire mind, body and soul into trying to
reduce it, I had finally met one. The Jewish tradition puts it a
different way, in the legend of the 36 “Just Men” who — without their
knowing it — at any one moment keep humanity alive. If Noam is not one
of those 36, I asked myself, who is? I was also reminded of the many
who have compared Noam to honored Old Testament prophets like Amos or
Jeremiah, who also angrily criticized the corrupt rulers of their
times whose names we do not even remember.

Although decent people can disagree over some of the stands Noam has
taken in the past 40 years, I felt that at that moment, on his stairs,
such controversies seemed irrelevant to appreciating who he is and
what he represents. I realized that while I, like most people I know,
have gone in and out of hearing the screams of the victims of U.S.
war-making over the past decades, Noam has been unable to screen them

During my stay with Noam he was visited by the famed Indian writer
Arundhati Roy who, like so many non-Americans around the world,
clearly felt tremendous respect, admiration and love for him. I only
understood what he meant to her, however, when I read these words from
her chapter “The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky”: “Chomsky (reveals) the
pitiless heart of the American war machine … willing to annihilate
millions of human beings, civilians, soldiers, women, children,
villages, whole ecosystems – with scientifically honed methods of
brutality … When the sun sets on the American empire, as it will, as
it must, Noam Chomsky’s work will survive … As a could’ve been gook,
and who knows, perhaps a potential gook, hardly a day goes by when I
don’t find myself thinking — for one reason or another — ‘Chomsky
Zindabad.’ (‘Long live Chomsky’).“

And I found myself wondering why that is, why Noam is so affected by
the suffering of U.S. leaders’ victims.

I have for the past decade immersed myself in the branch of psychology
that holds that the key to much of our behavior is how we
unconsciously play out early childhood traumas, particularly learning
we will die, in our adult lives. And I found myself trying to figure
Noam out from that point of view.

I have learned that our lives are largely driven by the unconscious
defenses we develop early on against emotional pain. And it became
clear to me that a key to understanding Noam is that, for whatever
reason, he has fewer defenses than the rest of us against the pain of
the world. He has no “skin.” He is forever tormented, as I was in
Laos, by the suffering of the “unpeople” — and works around the clock
to try and reduce it.

And, conversely, it is when he is with them that he feels most alive
and the inner feeling most clearly bursts through his intellectual

During my stay with him I asked Noam whom he most admired in the
world. He responded by describing several recent visits to peasants in
rural areas of Colombia who are fighting to protect their rain forests
from exploitation. Noam spent several days listening to, and
recording, their stories of great pain and great courage. On his most
recent visit they climbed a hill and, led by their shamans, performed
an elaborate ceremony dedicating a forest to Carol. I had not seen him
so moved, alive and emotional since 40 years earlier in Laos.

I recently remembered Noam weeping in the Lao refugee camp, and again
found myself wondering why he is that way. What in his childhood or
life could account for that? It proved impossible to make much
progress in this area, however. For Noam not only guards his privacy
but is not particularly interested in psychological and spiritual
explanations of human behavior. Although he acknowledges that therapy
has been useful for people he knows, he regards attempts to explain
human behavior as essentially “stories.” He believes there are too
many variables involved in understanding human beings for the human
brain to ever really comprehend it — not to mention the impossibility
of conducting the kind of controlled experiments that might yield
scientifically credible answers.

And, one suspects, he regards too much time devoted to such “stories”
as misplaced when so many actual human beings are suffering and
building mass movements is the only hope of saving them.

If enough of us had worked like Noam to try to force American leaders
to stop killing and exploiting the innocent these past 40 years, after
all, countless people would have been saved, and America and the world
would not only be far richer, more peaceful and more just. It would
not be presently heading toward the collapse of civilization as we
know it from climate change. Noam believes the major responsibility
for this lies with a short-term driven corporate system that regards
climate change as an “externality,” i.e., a problem for someone else
to worry about. But it is also clear that the fact that not enough of
the rest of us, certainly including myself, respond appropriately to
civilization’s looming death is a major part of the problem as well.

And, I thus finally realized, the important question was not why Noam
responds the way he does to the suffering of the innocent around the

It was why so many of the rest of us do not.

Fred Branfman can be reached at His Web site is

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