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Noam Chomsky at the “Conformity, Propaganda, and the Fight for a Left Future with Noam Chomsky” event on Apr. 13. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Political activist and renowned linguist Noam Chomsky, who has received several degrees from Penn, spoke about the importance of student and grassroots activists at a virtual event on Monday.

Chomsky said students can play a key role in resisting systems of corporate conformity, reshaping public discourse, and combating socioeconomic inequality. The event, called “Conformity, Propaganda, and the Fight for a Left Future with Noam Chomsky” was co-hosted by Penn Justice Democrats and Penn Against the Occupation, and garnered over 115 attendees.

Chomsky urged current students to look to young activists from past decades for guidance in their efforts to resist corporate-dominated social and educational norms at institutions like Penn. He said that grassroots student organizing in the 1960s on student, local, and national issues helped transform the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the university where Chomsky spent most of his teaching career.

Chomsky said this shift in MIT's institutional culture began with a group of only seven or eight students. He added that leftist activists on college campuses should expect strong pushback in response to their activism from the institutions they protest. 

"It's going to be crushed. Every effort will be made to crush it," Chomsky said at the event, adding that activists should not give up when faced with resistance.

Chomsky said that in recent decades, universities have faced intense pressure to operate more like businesses than academic institutions. He cited the increasing employment of graduate students and adjunct professors instead of tenured faculty, tuition hikes, and changes to the architecture of college campuses themselves as manifestations of the changes.

"New university architecture is designed — this is worldwide — so that students don't have places to gather. It's just to scatter people. And tuitions have shot way up, too, which is, of course, a controlling device," Chomsky said.

He added that, despite these pressures, grassroots activism, especially from students and young people, has substantively changed public discourse and the national legislative agenda over the course of the past several decades.

College junior and organizing member of Penn Justice Dems Jack Cahill said Penn Justice Dems wanted to host Chomsky because he is one of the country's leading public intellectuals with political views that align with the group's progressive ideals. 

College junior Marissa Ephron, an organizing member of both Penn Justice Dems and PAO, said that PAO proposed co-hosting the event after Penn Justice Dems began publicizing it.

Chomsky said that years of activist efforts have made mainstream news outlets more tolerant of social issues in their news coverage. He attributed this change in large part to the fact that young activists of the 1960s and 1970s now occupy some of the influential roles in those organizations.

He concluded the event with a critique of American anti-union policies and socioeconomic inequality, arguing that the surge in socioeconomic inequality over the past four decades occurred by design.

[Former President Ronald] Reagan — or whoever did his thinking for him — understood very well that if you're going to impose the neoliberal programs that are advocated by the business world and the economics profession, it's going to be a terrible blow to people, as it's proven to be. So you have to eliminate their means of defense, obviously. Their means of defense are labor unions," Chomsky said.

College first year Evie Klein said that she was moved by listening to Chomsky speak.

"It was really inspiring because he was laying out this historical argument for why we have produced change and how progress has occurred," Klein said.

Chomsky said that progress will only occur through action by grassroots activists if it is sustained.

"These things don't happen by magic," he said. "They take hard work."