The Chomsky Nomination: A Response

In late 1998, my colleague Ajay Heble and I nominated Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT for an honorary doctorate at the University of Guelph, an honour which Chomsky graciously agreed to accept. During his visit to Guelph in February 1999, Professor Chomsky showed his characteristic generosity: in addition to his address at the commencement ceremony, he found time in a tight schedule for what amounted to a seminar with student journalists, and spoke to an overflow crowd at Chalmers Street United Church—where the Chomsky lecture was appropriately introduced by Guillermo Verdecchia, co-author of the hit play The Noam Chomsky Lectures. The church was packed, as were two large meeting rooms linked to the main event by video feeds. As is his habit, Professor Chomsky refused any honorarium; with his agreement, the proceeds from ticket sales were donated to organizations working in solidarity with the people of East Timor and Haiti.

On December 1, 1998, after the University of Guelph had released the news that Professor Chomsky would shortly be visiting our campus to receive an honorary degree, the university's student newspaper, The Ontarion, printed an interview with Professor Heble and myself about this approaching event. Then on February 2, 1999 one of the newspaper's editors published an editorial which clumsily accused us of having effectively misled the University's Senate in our nomination of Chomsky. The following response appeared in the next issue of The Ontarion, on February 9, 1999.


The Editor, 
The Ontarion, 
Room 264, University Centre, 
Fax: 824-7838. February 4, 1999.


To the Editor:

The remarks directed against me and my colleague Professor Ajay Heble by Jayson McDonald in his editorial of February 2nd (“An honourary [sic] criticism”) contain an interesting mixture of malice and misinformation.

This editorial claims that, having nominated Professor Noam Chomsky for an honorary doctorate at this university, Dr. Heble and I subsequently revealed political motivations for the nomination which we had concealed from the University's Senate. Referring to a news item that appeared in the December 1st issue of The Ontarion, McDonald writes that

Heble and Keefer spent a full one-third of that article describing their political “rationale” for nominating Chomsky when indeed it had little if any mention in their actual nomination letter or the final selection made by the U of G senate.

As McDonald himself notes, the article in question was written, not by us, but by an Ontarion journalist. It is a novelty, I believe, for people who have been interviewed by a newspaper to find themselves reproached by one of the editors of that same journal for the arrangement and emphasis of the resulting story.

In addition to McDonald's unpleasant insinuation of bad faith, he is also making a claim, in the sentence I have quoted, about the substance of our nomination. That claim is false.

Our letter of nomination, after signalling the unparalleled impact of Professor Chomsky's work in linguistics over more than four decades, and after indicating his influence on a wide range of cultural theorists, went on to propose that this great thinker deserves our respectful attention for other reasons as well. “In addition to being a scholar of worldwide reputation,” we wrote,

he has also repeatedly been described as the exemplary public intellectual and oppositional thinker of our era. Since the mid-1960s, when he became an outspoken critic of the American wars in south-east Asia, Noam Chomsky has devoted his scholarly energies, his analytical lucidity, and his powers of ethical discrimination to a long series of searching analyses of military aggression, human rights abuses, political and economic injustices, and the systems of misinformation and propaganda which help to make them possible.

One of two things becomes painfully clear: either Mr. McDonald had not bothered to read the letter of nomination and was misleadingly making it seem that he had, or else he had indeed read it and was offering a misleading impression of its substance. But he must have read the text, since he knows that it contains no reference either to Mr. George Walker Bush or to the University of Toronto.

It would of course be a very strange thing if it did. But I do not think, on the other hand, that there was anything very astonishing in the fact that the University of Toronto's presentation of an honorary doctorate to ex-President Bush a year ago came up during Professor Heble's and my interviews with The Ontarion. That award had been vigorously opposed by many faculty members of the University of Toronto, and had entered the public record as a matter of controversy. As is well known, throughout Mr. Bush's career as director of the CIA, Vice-President and President, the most trenchant and persistent critic of the many violations of international law and of human rights over which he presided was none other than Noam Chomsky. And as I have indicated, our nomination of Professor Chomsky foregrounded his tireless efforts to promote justice no less than it did the exemplary intellectual rigour of his work as a linguist.

But perhaps we ought to raise our eyes from this petty dispute to the rather more important fact that during the coming days our campus will be honoured by the presence of one of the greatest scholars and public intellectuals of our time. Can we hope that The Ontarion may yet find some more adequate means than Mr. McDonald's editorial of responding to this event?

Michael Keefer

Associate Professor
School of Literatures and Performance Studies in English