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South Philadelphia Artist Peter Pagast's Noam Chomsky Mural


The side of a row home on the 3000 block of Ridge Avenue in North Philly adorns a mural of a young Malcolm X. Next to X reads a quote: “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.”

So, it would seem, with that in mind, South Philly mural artist Peter Pagast  has been on a 4-year mission to put up his own mural. Pagast’s would be of linguist, self-proclaimed libertarian socialist, and Philadelphia native, Noam Chomsky.

Pagast is a former employee of the mural arts program. After a fundraiser last month at The Fire  in Fishtown, he’s a third of the way toward realizing the funding of his dream. He hasn’t narrowed down a wall yet, though he’s been offered a spot at 19th and Fairmount, as well as a potential wall in West Philadelphia – appropriately connected to an anarchist community center.

He says that though, right now, there’s no official date or site, the mural is going up in the spring of 2010. He’s been working on getting grants, has a donation button on his website, and is in the process of getting another fundraiser together, this time in West Philadelphia, likely at Studio 34, a wellness space along Baltimore Avenue. “I’m in the process of talking to some bands to see who’s interested in doing it,” he says. “It’s probably a few months away.”

But is the city ready for a mural of Chomsky? With Malcolm X’s quote in mind, the answer should be a resounding yes. But Chomsky would arguably be the most controversial figure officially painted up in our concrete jungle.

Of course, that’s more a testament to what’s considered controversial than what actually is.

Leaving aside Chomsky’s half-century influence on linguistics, the MIT professor is probably worthy of a nice nose-thumbing toward American power and empire for almost as long – though it’s not in his character to do so. “He makes a bold statement,” says Pagast, “and he’s immediately got it backed up by at least five references. He tells people not to believe him when he makes a claim. He tells them to go out and look it up for themselves.”

In February of 1967, with the citizens of the United States still strongly backing the Vietnam War, Chomsky published The Responsibility of Intellectuals, an essay that goes directly after the intellectual and pedagogical classes of the United States for their subservience to power and justification of atrocities, specifically those happening in Vietnam. He’s published more than 60 political theory and criticism books and collections since then.

After Chomsky’s numerous critiques of the Vietnam War, he became well-known for his analyses of U.S. power meddling in Central and South America, which, he writes, has included numerous coups, secret bombing campaigns, and the destruction of entire countries. He claims we’ve often come to the aid of those countries which commit the most and worst atrocities – all without the approval and knowledge of the majority of people in the United States. And no, he doesn’t just write of the contras.

These views of American dominance have made Chomsky controversial, and he’s been mostly ignored by the mainstream American media. Chomsky doesn’t take on the United States as a country, but more often points out her points of deceit and, more importantly, outright hypocrisy in the conquest for global dominance.

In 2002’s Power and Terror, a collection of post-9/11 talks and interviews, Chomsky says: “Every time Blair of Bush or Clinton or Madeline Albright or someone else calls for a war in Iraq, they always say it the same way. They say, this is the worst monster in history. How can we allow him to exist? He even committed the ultimate crime: he used gas “against his own people.” How can such a person exist?

“All of which is correct, except for what’s missing. He did use gas against “his own people” (actually, Kurds are hardly his own people) with our support…He was developing weapons of mass destruction at a time when he was really dangerous, and we provided him the aid and support to do it, perfectly consciously.”

Chomsky delivers hard truths that are on record, but simply forgotten due to media downplay and a symptom of the reason Gore Vidal has coined the phrase, “the United States of Amnesia.” One of these forgotten truths, he explains in his 2003 bestseller, Hegemony or Survival, is that the Reagan Administration created the phrase, and began the “War on Terror” in 1981. Since then, he explains, the United States has done very little to combat terror and has actually perpetuated it with a series of both military and economic aid toward countries that avoid human rights, and derision toward those who have done little comparatively, and it mostly has had to do with who the people of each nation has elected into power. “Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way,” he says in Power and Terror. “Stop participating in it.”

This statement may be best represented (though Chomsky gives numerous examples) by his explaining in Hegemony or Survival of 1985 being recognized by western journalists as the peak year (at the time) for state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East. The journalistic recognition usually has to do with two Americans who were killed in the region by Palestinian terrorists. He points out, however, that in that same year, a “car bomb outside a mosque in Beirut that killed 80 people (mostly women and girls) and wounded 250 others, timed to explode as people were leaving and traced back to the CIA and British intelligence.”

If Pagast’s idea is that more than a few passers-by may see his Chomsky mural and become interested enough to learn more about the man, then now is the perfect time for such a mural. Chomsky has his critics (the Wikipedia page for “Criticism of Noam Chomsky” brings up an 8,942-word article; criticism comes from the right, left, socialists, anarchists, conspiracy theorists, and others) but the ideas behind his oft-ignored revelations and research (both in the political and scholarly arenas) remains the sole reason behind his more than 30 honorary degrees, as well as the New York Times’ admission in its review of Hegemony or Survival of his status as a “global phenomenon…perhaps the most widely read voice on foreign policy on the planet.”

Chomsky, for some of us, represents the epitome of a lifelong thirst for knowledge that, even in his 80s and after the publication of more than 100 books, cannot be quenched. His blacklisting by the mainstream media after all these years and accomplishments is a testament to the subjects of his writing over the years.

“He’s basically the leading intellectual of our time,” says Pagast. “More people should be aware of someone like that. And hopefully more people will become interested enough to read him after seeing the mural.”

Pagast will be holding his fundraiser within the next two months in West Philadelphia and is open to hearing of more walls on which to paint his mural. He can be found on the web at www.peterpagast.com, which will announce the location and date of the fundraiser when he becomes aware of it.