31 August 2010 **** Front Page
By Tapani Lausti
Noam Chomsky, Hopes and Prospects. Hamish Hamilton 2010.
Noam Chomsky's books are greeted with respect by large numbers of readers around the world. For many mainstream journalists, however, he is someone who is "off the scale entirely". His popularity is ridiculed: "He has dedicated followers who see him as guru and gadfly, speaking unwanted truth to power." It is claimed that his "critique would also be strengthened by some recognition of the irony that he owes his considerable success to the system he despises. Does it bother him, perhaps, that he has lived the American dream?"
All quotes above come from the chief leader writer of the British Sunday paper The Observer, Rafael Behr (4 July 2010). It is worth quoting a full paragraph from Behr's review: "No one defends western capitalism on the grounds that it is the perfect system, only that it is the best available. Likewise, the US comes out badly in comparison with an abstract ideal of beneficent global stewardship, but it comes out better in comparison with most available alternatives. Globalisation under the Chinese Communist party, anyone? Anti-American exile in Tehran? At least a dissident in the US can sustain an academic career while constantly denouncing his leaders."
By constructing a bogus dichotomy of "an abstract ideal" and "available alternatives" Behr seems to think that the horrors of the real world would become less unbearable. However, there is nothing abstract in being a victim of American direct or indirect aggression in various parts of the world. Compare China and the U.S. in the light of this quote from Chomsky's book: "There is however one dimension in which the United States reigns supreme: means of violence, on which it spends almost as much as the rest of the world combined, and is technologically far more advanced." (p. 174)
It is difficult for mainstream journalists to see this reality because of the doctrinal filters that help them to see the U.S. as an ultimately benign power, even if it occasionally errs in its ways. Behr writes: "Perhaps Chomsky's analysis of all that is wrong with the west would resonate more if he modulated it with some occasional flicker of admiration for the achievements of western civilisation." This is a meaningless comment on Chomsky's work. No achievement helps to belittle the way the West has imposed its power on the rest of the world. Behr, however, has no time for this kind of analysis: "[Chomsky] dismisses vast tracts of history in a few splenetic paragraphs, as if no alternative interpretation is worth considering."
Yet, Chomsky always bases his analyses on documentary material and the work of credible historians. He quotes military historian Geoffrey Parker who describes how the Europeans' expansion from America to Southeast Asia astonished local populations by its savagery. They were "equally appalled by the all-destructive fury of European warfare." Chomsky comments that victims were hardly pacifist societies, "but European savagery was something new, not so much in technology but in spirit." (p. 4)
For the record, in 2003 The Observer supported the invasion of Iraq. John Pilger wrote at the time: "Pretending to wring its hands, the paper announced it was for attacking Iraq: a position promoted by its news and feature pages for more than a year now, notably in its barren "investigations" seeking to link Iraq with both the anthrax scare and al-Qaeda. The paper that stood proudly against Eden on Suez is but a supplicant to the warmongering Blair, willing to support the very crime the judges at Nuremberg deemed the most serious of all: an unprovoked attack on a sovereign country offering no threat." (The Observer: the great betrayal, 3 February 2003)
In this book, Chomsky has this to say about Iraq: "Though the wreckage of Iraq today is too visible to try to conceal, the assault of the new barbarians is carefully circumscribed in the doctrinal system, often with the agency delicately obscured, and almost always excluding the horrendous effects of the Clinton sanctions, one of the great crimes of the last decade of the millennium — including their crucial role in preventing the threat that Iraqis might gain control of their own country, sending Saddam to the same fate as Ceausescu, Marcos, Suharto, Chun, and many other monsters supported by the United States and UK until they could no longer be maintained." (p. 128)
As to Chomsky "living the American dream," he is simply one of those Americans who in spite of their comfortable lives have participated in the hard campaign which he describes in this way: "International law cannot be enforced against powerful states, except by their own populations. This is always a difficult task, particularly so when articulate opinion declares crime to be legitimate, either explicitly or by tacit adoption of a criminal framework, which is more insidous because it renders the crimes invisible." (p. 156)
Noam Chomsky is intensely disliked by many mainstream journalists for a very good reason. By showing their inability or unwillingness to distance themselves from truth-distorting elite opinion he hits them where it hurts most. Journalists are proud of their supposed independence and react angrily if someone shows this to be mostly an illusion.
Hopes and Prospects, By Noam Chomsky Reviewed by Johann Hari, The Independent, 16 July 2010
Visit the archive: Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Iraq, United States, Book reviews
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