(This article and its content were first published in the Buenos Aires Herald (print edition), March 13, 2015).
People of all ages line up for hours to listen to keynote address by US philosopher
There are plenty of intellectual heavyweights speaking at this week’s Emancipation and Equality Forum in Buenos Aires, but none with the star power of Noam Chomsky to steal the show.
His keynote address was delivered to an enraptured audience yesterday, galvanized by the sheer presence of the world-famous MIT linguistics professor and longtime critic of US foreign policy.
Although his talk started at 6pm, the lines of hopeful attendees stretched almost five blocks away from the Cervantes Theatre hours earlier, growing in size throughout the day. The line was made up of a hive of animated discussion and eagerness, with little doubt about who everybody was most looking forward to hearing speak.
“Me? I’m here for Chomsky!” beams Agustina Bermúdez, a 20-year-old foreign affairs student at the Argentine Catholic University (UCA) in Puerto Madero. “I’m reading the first of his books right now. He’s a very important person.” On this point there can be little disagreement, despite the gathering’s diverse make-up. Though probably skewed towards younger participants including many current students, the crowd spans every age and background.
It is, however, clearly united in reverence to the revolutionary linguistics professor. Alongside Agustina, yet at the other end of the age spectrum, 77-year-old retiree Fernando Ferrero is as enthusiastic as the brightest-eyed undergraduate. He’s travelled from Pagancillo in La Rioja province — 1,275 kilometres by road — to be here.
“I had to come,” he said. “This is probably our last chance to see him here. He’s 86 now.”
Fernando is certainly not the only one in the crowd who travelled great distances to be here.
A few metres further down the line, first-year politics student Michaela, 22, and social worker Verónica, 21, are straining under the weight of crammed hiking bags that would probably be more at home to Patagonia’s Route 40 than the Libertad sidewalk they find themselves on.
“We travelled here from Uruguay specifically for this,” they say, grinning. “We just really hope we get in.”
Disappointment sets in
The seating certainly wasn’t guaranteed for everyone. With limited space inside and free admission to the public, it was inevitable that many would be turned away from the lavish doors of the Cervantes, and this was indeed the case as the venue was soon at capacity.
Anticipating this, the organizers decided to stream Chomsky’s entire keynote address, like the rest of the conference, on a giant screen erected especially for the occasion in the nearby Plaza Libertad. Combined with the lines of devoted fans, and air of anti-authoritarian resentment, the unmistakable riff of rock concert was generated by the professor’s attendance yesterday.
What is that gives him such universal appeal through all strands of society? Andreas Jiménez, a 24-year-old Colombian Political Science major at Buenos Aires University (UBA), who’s lived and studied in the city for four years, had a theory.
“He’s so accessible, so direct and easy to understand,” he said.
Chomsky’s straight and simple prose has unmistakably helped his popularity worldwide. Among the crowds milling in the queues and beyond them, books of his running the gamut of decay are clutched as the owners prep themselves for his keynote address. It’s as if people wanted to prove their devotion to his texts.
As the sun began to set, the fiery speeches that preceded Chomsky’s, including a rousing defense of Venezuela against recent US policies by Colombian activist Piedad Córdoba, whipped up the crowds inside and out into rapturous applause and chanting of old Peronist marching songs. The anticipation had reached fever pitch.
When Chomsky out humbly from behind the curtain on to the Cervantes stage, the applause quickly died down. The thousands of attentive disciples in Buenos Aires became quiet and turned their full attention to the man of the moment.