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Chomsky's New Book
By David Swanson
Imagine you could take years and years to carefully study political history, that you could read numerous sources of political news from around the world, that you could do your own research into declassified government documents and little known areas of information, and that you could travel extensively so that you might compare various societies and governments in the current day.
If you can get someone to pay you or feed you while you do all of that, then by all means do it. Otherwise, your second best option is to listen to Noam Chomsky. Chomsky knows an incredible amount of information and is brilliant at analyzing it. He does so without any theory or pretense, using a vocabulary that any high school graduate has mastered.
Sitting down and talking to Noam Chomsky at length about current affairs has to be one of the most illuminating experiences going. But, what if you got the chance to do that and couldn’t always think of the best questions or cite the best examples for Noam to comment on?
Not to worry: David Barsamian has conducted a series of interviews with Chomsky between March 2003 and February 2005, and has consistently asked penetrating and provocative questions. These interviews have just been published as "Imperial Ambitions: Conversations on the Post-9/11 World." You can buy the book or the audio compact disc and I highly recommend doing so.
If you're familiar with Chomsky, he will still manage to surprise you with analyses of recent events that you've never imagined before. If you're not familiar with Chomsky, this book is probably an ideal place to start. Chomsky is one of the most quoted writers ever and is extremely well known in many countries around the world. He appears on mainstream media in many countries as well, just not his own, the United States. Some years back, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting ran a headline: "Chomsky Appears on PBS, Western Civilization Survives." But that was Chomsky's one and only appearance on airwaves that clearly have a lot of space for intensely boring pundits predictably mouthing the same corporate-corrupted logic.
To find out why the US corporate media is horrified of Chomsky, you need only listen to him for a little while. He compares accepted United States' actions to identical but reviled actions by other states. He pulls out quotes from the past articulating almost the exact same position that the US media has just announced as a new breakthrough in human civilization. He points out areas in which the United States is unique among industrialized countries and questions whether they are desirable or necessary: such as our uniquely high level of fear and insecurity or our uniquely high level of religiosity. Chomsky is not out to soothe our souls and comfort our cherished misconceptions. He wants us to see the world differently and to act to change it, but to drop the also uniquely American idea that political change can be fast and easy: one demonstration or election means little, he warns us; we need long-term tedious activism.
Chomsky is well known as a linguist, and his philosophy of language is quite platonic and mystical in the traditional scientistic manner that sees itself as following the Enlightenment away from magical thinking. And Chomsky's belief in science has led him to make various denunciations of postmodern thought in which he tosses out the good and creative along with the silly and pretentious. But when Chomsky turns to politics he forswears not only pretentious language but also metaphysical theories of history. He is completely down to earth and pragmatic. If living a double-life as a philosopher could get every political writer to speak as plainly and powerfully as Chomsky, I'd be all for it. This current book contains none of Chomsky the philosopher. It's purely the political activist.
I'd love to quote a dozen examples from the book, but they're not really aphoristic. You need to read a few paragraphs in most cases to get the point. But part of what makes Chomsky's arguments so powerful is the historical cases he pulls out of his memory. I'll offer one example. Chomsky sees the recent US attack on Iraq as having been contingent on Iraq offering absolutely no threat to the United States (exactly the opposite of what Bush alleged). Chomsky offers another example of this pattern:
"President Kennedy was trying to organize the hemisphere to support his terrorist attacks against Cuba, which were very severe. Generally, other countries in the Western Hemisphere just have to do what they're told by the United States, or they're in bad trouble. But Mexico refused to go along with the campaign against Cuba. And the Mexican ambassador said, 'If we publicly declare that Cuba is a threat to our security, forty million Mexicans will die laughing.' "
The danger in reading Chomsky is that millions of Americans will die laughing every time they turn on their televisions.