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Chomsky and Cleaver reflect on '60s activism

Institute Professor Noam Chomsky and Kathleen Cleaver, a veteran of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panther Party, looked back in anger and forward in guarded optimism last week as they explored the fabled 1960s' impact on activism.

The Chomsky-Cleaver conversation, moderated by Ayida Mthembu, assistant dean for undergraduate education and student affairs, took place October 16 in Rm 26-100 before a near-capacity crowd. The event was part of Race 2000 -- A Provocative Series on Race Relations, sponsored by the Committee on Campus Race Relations.

In her opening remarks, Dean Mthembu noted that both Professor Chomsky and Ms. Cleaver were "educators, activists and intellectuals working for positive social change." During the Sixties, Professor Chomsky was noted for his activism against the Vietnam War and has since then published several books on the United States' oppressive reach in foreign affairs. Ms. Cleaver, formerly married to activist Eldridge Cleaver, was the communications secretary for the Black Panther Party and is now a visiting professor of law at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York City. She is currently writing an autobiography, Memories of Love and War.

Dean Mthembu's questions guided the two speakers to discuss what inspired their individual activism, what sustained and kept them going as activists, and what closed the door on the Sixties.

On the topic of inspiration, Professor Chomsky recalled witnessing striking workers being beaten by police and encountering anti-Semitism in his neighborhood. He described himself as a child of the Depression and characterized that era as "an intellectually lively time."

Kathleen Cleaver's parents were activists, but "I was born during the McCarthy era, so I never heard about that as a child," she said.

Later, on a trip to India with her father, she saw a "country run by people of color������������������ I immediately became incompatible with growing up in Alabama." Seeing girls protesting segregation and losing a friend to murder were her "triggers" to commit herself to civil rights work, she said.

A full-time civil rights worker by the time she was in her early 20s, Ms. Cleaver said, "I became more and more revolutionary as resistance to our attempts to change society increased."

As to what sustained her, she declared, "It's joyful to struggle. I feel happiest when I'm doing something to break down barriers. The revolution gave me exhilaration. It gave me skills and a great education. I loved the feeling I could change this culture and make a difference."

Professor Chomsky responded wryly on this topic. "I hate to go to jail," he said. "I don't like meetings and I can't stand demonstrations. It's just what you have to do. Take a walk to Kendall Square. People are begging for food. How can we be alive and not be aware? How can we be aware and not do?"

Accepting that "most things worth doing are going to involve failure" is part of activism, he said. "But there's no choice if you want to look yourself in the mirror."

Both speakers saw the 1960s as an engine that drove tremendous and positive social changes through a political landscape still attempting counterattack.

Professor Chomsky declared, "The idea that the Sixties ended is completely false -- that's part of the propaganda that's trying to get people back to passivity." He cited the environmental and women's movements as well as the activism that inspired so much work and travel in Central America as examples of an expanding activist universe.

The counterattack, based in the federal Counter Intelligence Program (CointelPro) against the mass movements of the Sixties and their offspring, he continued, is still underway, following "major, long-standing effects. It did ruin a lot of things and caused serious harm to others."

Ms. Cleaver agreed. In response to the question, "What happened to the Sixties? Why did you give up?" she said of the Black Panther Party -- one of whose leaders, Fred Hampton, was gunned down by the FBI -- "We did not disappear. We were destroyed. Our links to one another, to other newspapers and networks, were destroyed."

As for the future of student activism, both Professor Chomsky and Ms. Cleaver expressed the belief that it is a "very individual matter," as Professor Chomsky put it.

"Some costs today are more severe than in the Sixties. Then, you could take a couple of years off, devote them to activism. Now, economic laws have sharply restricted opportunities to do that," he said.

Ms. Cleaver recalled, "I was in full-time political work from 1967 to 1979. Now, that's unaffordable, due to what it takes to have a home, a car, pay rent; also, there are quite subtle obstacles. The individualism of the media and of education form ideological obstacles to collective action."

As the conversation concluded, Professor Chomsky added a call on behalf of the Internet. "Like nearly every part of technology, the Internet is publicly funded. There's a serious invasion of it by Bill Gates." Professor Chomsky's message to the Internet generation? "Claim it -- it's yours."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 22, 1997.

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