What happens if America’s brightest dissident philosopher of the left gets to write for the newspapers? In “Interventions” [Penguin 2007 ISBN: 978-0-141-03180-4, review copy 2008 “updated & expanded edition] Noam Chomsky gets his chance to reach out through pages of daily newspapers by writing bite-sized chunks of reality – tiny little logic bombs making noises where they should not. This collection of op-eds was written & published between 2002 to 2008 covering the usual gamete of topics. To give everything a little context there is both an “Editor’s Note” (by Greg Ruggiero) and a Foreword by Peter Hart. These alone are worth the price of admission given that most of the rest of the contents has been churned up from the usual body of canonical Chomsky from that period. So, what should the reader expect? Most media in the USA is like that in the UK – far to the right of the political spectrum yet they define what is “normal” in political discourse. Theirs is the spectrum of acceptable debate. Yet here we have Chomsky’s little hand-grenade. It simply shouldn’t belong.
Usually Noam Chomsky struggles to be heard or published in the mainstream media. Hart gives us a run down of the dominant conservative voices lending a hand to the usual op-eds published in American daily newspapers. He writes:
“One of the benefits of right-wing punditry is never having to worry much about the adverse consequences of being wrong about something.”
That is the problem when the spectrum is dominated by a narrow point of view. It is self-affirming. Nobody will tell you are wrong. Hence the public sees a highly distorted view of reality. It shapes and shares its own belief-system within the echo-chamber of conservative ideas. Thus it that Chomsky stands out for being a scholar who is studiously right about everything – even if you don’t agree with him you will find it hard to pick holes in his arguments. They are well researched and water-tight. They have to be. He is under the microscope whereas the pundits of the right are not. Tom Friedman of the New York Times wrote once in favour of the Caribbean Free Trade initiative despite admitting that he had no idea what it was. He knew two words “free trade“. Therefore it must be good. You need an academic like Chomsky to dissect such a “free trade” agreement to discover it is something entirely different. Free trade is a label to disguise an investor’s rights treaty undermining the economic sovereignty of any nation who signs it.
Many of us are reading the Chomsky interpretation and campaigning against such monsters. Why anyone would want to be against something labelled “free trade” remains a mystery to the right-wing writers in the press.
“Citizen opposition to elite-friendly global trade policy is hardly considered a legitimate point of view.”
So the protestors can be denounced and marginalised. The normal conservative op-eds bristle with self-righteous praise for neo-liberal models. Those self-same voices are those who have the most to gain. They seek to lecture those who have most to lose of the benefits of things that they do not themselves understand. This elite are only interested in the ideology, not the facts. To get the facts you would have had to find some of the more obscure dailies who published these op-eds by Chomsky.
It kicks off one year after 9/11 with an appraisal of how the Arab world understands US foreign policy. Usually the point of view of those in our bomb sights are not considered to be “legitimate” yet here you have it. Do they hate our freedoms? No, far from it. They just wish those freedoms were extended to include them. The resentment is over specific policies.
“What they hate is official policies that deny them the freedoms to which they, too, aspire.”
It was a former head of Israeli military intelligence who neatly summed it up with these words:
“When the swamps disappears, there will be no mosquitos.”
Chomsky speculates for the reader about the kind of peace we could enjoy if US foreign policy was more concerned with “draining the swamp” and less with bombing anything that moved. Maybe then the West could live up to the ideals that it professes to live by.
Soon the op-eds are marching into 2003 and the start of the war against Iraq. Given the parlous state of debate on the matter in the US media it must have been a gentle shock to read a Chomsky op-ed from the time. He is heartened that so many of the citizenry came out to campaign against the war worldwide. It is something that took years to happen when the US invaded Vietnam. The public are now vastly less willing to tolerate aggression and this has some kind of civilising effect. Hence an enormous propaganda campaign was launched to convince the public of the righteousness of the campaign.
Iraq had to be portrayed as the ultimate evil and a threat to the very survival of the United States. Absurdities then, absurdities in retrospect. In the first Gulf war the USA coerced the UN Security Council to acquiesce to its wishes. Much of the world opposed it yet the coercion worked. This is a matter that Chomsky points out is invalid in any court of law. But there were domestic dividends for the Bush II administration as it entered elections weakened by it governance of the homeland & the economy. It always takes a good war and some trumped-up national security crisis to keep people’s minds off how bad things are at home.
Chomsky returns to the record of the USA in the UN with a healthy reminder of just how uncooperative the Americans can be. Most Americans may well be unaware how the USA has stood unique and alone in voting AGAINST protocols to prevent the use of poisonous gas in war. Likewise they vetoed plans to outlaw the militarisation of outer space. Every resolution against terrorism has been vetoed too. International appeals for a peace treaty between Palestine and Israel have gone the same way. Voted down by the USA and Israel. Yet here they are, cap in hand to the UN, demanding a permission slip to allow them to go to war, threatening to go to war anyway.
The Bush administration was so used to hard-ball they failed to recognise that it wasn’t working. Tit-for-tat measures used, for example, against that other great made-up enemy, North Korea, only served to raise tensions and undermine security in the region. North Korea had a track record of cooperation if peaceful measures were taken. Hence that was all it took – peace. The US was like a bull in a china shop riding rough-shod over diplomatic efforts that might have brought lasting peace.
Yet there were Western Governments who were also unwilling to play ball with the USA on the Iraq invasion. Those nations whose government yielded to pressure from the ballot box were roundly condemned by Washington. Yes, a handful of dictatorships did support the war-for-oil. It is something Chomsky uses to demonstrate the Bush II regime’s contempt for genuine democracy. Their hypocrisy knew no depths.
Likewise we learn again of the North American track record on harbouring known terrorists when they are “our” terrorists. The case in point are the many anti-Cuban terrorists currently free in the US. When the Cubans tracked them down and handed over the information to the FBI the Americans leapt into action by arresting those Cuban messengers delivering the evidence. The resulting show trial would have brought a smile to the face of any totalitarian dictator.
So when the dust settled in Iraq by April 2004 it was possible to survey how the average Iraqi felt about things. Asked what Iraq needed 70% said “democracy” although they didn’t mean the American sham government, they mean real democracy in the traditional sense. This was something that Washington simply could not allow. Americans would not stand for a military occupation of their nation so why should the Iraqis put up with it? Yet again THEIR feelings on the matter were not “legitimate” as far as the Washington elites were concerned. The only goal that mattered was the establishment of military bases in a dependent client state that was sitting on a lot of oil. Behind the scenes all was not as it seems. The US Government had devoted vast resources to enforce an embargo against Cuba with relatively little attention being paid to tracking the finances of Osama bin Laden. Chomsky speculates thus:
“Successful defiance of the United States is intolerable, ranked far higher as a priority than combating terror.”
By 2004 the Bush administration had not only succeeded in winding up the North Koreans but the Russians too. A decision in the US to develop new bunker buster bombs was heeded in both Russia and China. The “ripple” effects thus described by Chomsky lead to insecurity for us all. We are in a more dangerous world for the likes of George W Bush…
We are soon moved on to the new US governing regime in Iraq with reminders of what the same governors achieved in Central America. In 1984 Nicaragua had taken its case for self defence against American Contra terrorists to the World Court in the Hague. And won. The US was told to refrain from the unlawful use of force. What happened?
Washington ignored the court, then vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions affirming the judgment and calling on all states to observe international law.”
Of course the USA is above international law. We wonder how many times a sentiment like that has appeared in an American newspaper north of the Rio Grande? A US State Department legal adviser explained the rationale on the basis that since the rest of the world doesn’t agree with the USA on this matter then the USA will just have to do its own thing on matters they consider to be “domestic”. Of course this is no justification whatsoever. Nicaragua is nowhere near the USA and represents no armed threat whatsoever. But remember Cuba? Cuba is no military threat but it seems to deserve more attention than real terrorists.
By the time of the 2004 op-eds Chomsky was imploring his readership to begin their democracy building not in Iraq but somewhat closer to home. America to be precise. He outlined the many deficiencies in the version of “democracy” so abused in the USA. Voter turnout was hitting record lows. Research on the matter showed voters to be disenchanted and powerless. Of course this is exactly what an elite needs. The ‘crisis’ for the establishment elite (in modern democracy) started in the 1960s when people felt empowered to enter democratic debate. Decisions, it seems, should very much be made by rich people, not the poor majority. Their masters know better than them. The working class are dis-engaged and under-represented. They do not vote, but the rich elite do because they know the result will serve them. This comes about because both the main rivals in US democracy represent rich white people and big business. No other choice is presented, hence a majority of the population are simply edited out of existence. Airbrushed from history because only big money can pay for political influence.
Later Chomsky turns to the universality of Human Rights versus neo-liberal economics. He reveals the work of one such neo-liberal economist suggesting that polluting industries should move to poor countries because life was cheap there. All perfectly rational. Brazil’s secretary for the environment was less than charmed by this retorting that it was also “totally insane“. Whilst the US government may well reject the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights it population does not. When asked the majority call for
“..sharp cuts in military spending along with sharply increased spending for education, medical research, job training, conservation, renewable energy and other social programs, as well as for the United Nations and economic and humanitarian aid, along with the reversal of Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy.”
As we learn it is quite normal for official US policy to be the opposite of what the majority want. This is because of the cavernous deficiency in the American democratic system. A deficit that other English-speaking nations seem in a hurry to adopt. The government is bought and paid for by a very narrow section of society. No other voices can get funded so are excluded. Hence there is no choice at the ballot box for those who wish for choice. It is all very self-selecting. The poor become disenfranchised and don’t vote. Exactly the desired result.
We then take a diversion into the reformation of US social security safety nets due to aa demographic crisis; too many old people wanting pensions and too few young working people to pay for them. This Chomsky dismisses as utter nonsense; propaganda from the same people who bring you today’s austerity programs. Chomsky compares the treatment of American social security with healthcare. Uniquely in the world the Americans have to pay for their healthcare for outcomes lower than that in more efficient systems elsewhere. Why? Chomsky explains that if you allow healthcare to be run by big business then the politicians cannot touch it. No matter that it is run at enormous economic & human cost. It serves the purpose of the elite who profit from it. Hence it stays untouched. Social security on the other hand “is of little value for the rich“. It benefits only the poor. Thus these are the priorities for the people who matter.
Every now and again Chomsky throws his weight against a topic that you won’t normally find in his books. It is worth digging out the section written in 2005 concerning that uniquely North American delusion of teaching kids “intelligent design“. Chomsky muses upon this with uniquely hilarious results. He concludes that “the curriculum has not encompassed one obvious point of view: malignant design“.
“Unlike intelligent design, for which the evidence is zero, malignant design has tons of empirical evidence, much more than Darwinian evolution, by some criteria: the world’s cruelty.”
One wonders how often the average American gets to digest genius like that over their cornflakes in the morning? This dose of good medicine was distributed by The New York Times syndicate. Ironically, and as usual, they were well received in the foreign press but less so in the USA itself where most journals refused to publish such dissenting views. The New York Times itself didn’t publish them, neither did the Los Angeles Times or the Washington Post. But look on the bright side, they got an airing in the Knoxville Voice. There is no tolerance in the American mainstream media for the such dissent. Chomsky remains outside the acceptable spectrum of debate. If Chomsky lived in Europe he would be a regular columnist in our daily papers. Not so in his home country.
Although there is a lot of same-old/same-old in the contents of this book it is delightful bite-sized Chomsky. If you haven’t read his work before then this would be a good intro although, sadly, some of the content ages very quickly. You have to catch Chomsky whilst he is hot and describing the events of the day. We all need a Chomsky to decode the meaning of modern culture. Without him we would be at the mercy of the corporate media machine. In such a vacuum it would be easy to slip into believing whatever infotainment they churn out in the interests of establishment power. It is a much-needed anchor on reality to have this bright light shining through the smoke screen of current affairs.
This remains our final analysis. We are all a lot better off for reading Noam Chomsky and his dissenting vision of reality. His views may not be fashionable, or “legitimate”, but they remain all we have left of the truth.