“My heroes have always been cowboys,” Willie Nelson sang, a sentiment I shared when I was a child in California. My hero in my teenage years, while most of my contemporaries were demonstrating against the US war in Vietnam, was the greatest cowboy star of them all, John Wayne. When I was 16, he gave me a job. I admired him, and I still do.
Things changed when I moved to Beirut in 1972 and saw the devastation wreaked by US weaponry on Palestinian refugee camps and Lebanese villages. The connections to other places, such as Vietnam and Chile, became clearer. In 1974, I read a book on US policy in the Middle East, which made sharp criticisms of the western press that I had by then joined. It was Peace in the Middle East by Noam Chomsky, whose books on language I had studied as a philosophy student.
I wrote to Chomsky, citing my reports on Israeli actions in south Lebanon, including the sinking of Lebanese fishing boats whose crews had to swim long distances to shore, that my editors either refused to publish or rewrote to change facts unflattering to the Israelis or critical of US policies. He wrote back, beginning a correspondence that continues to this day.
A year later, while I was visiting Cambridge, Massachusetts, we arranged to meet. He picked me up at my friends’ place in a battered old car for lunch at his house in Lexington with his wife, Carol. We became friends. When you know some people better, you see their flaws. With Noam, it was the opposite. The closer I came to knowing him, the more I saw his heroic qualities. A scholar who has more or less defined contemporary linguistic analysis, he nonetheless engaged with the world, always on the side of the oppressed. The US establishment treats him as a pariah. Yet, at the age of 84, Noam produces books, essays and lectures (he will give the Edward Said Lecture in London on 18 March) at a rate that should shame the rest of us.