I first read Noam Chomsky in 1985, or maybe it was 1986. I was living in San Antonio; I believe the article was in a friend’s magazine, I don’t remember which one. The article pointed out what now seems to me an obvious fact that I had never thought about: the general tendency of democracy is to spread decision-making power, while the general tendency of capitalism is to concentrate that power. Thus the two supposed pillars of the US system are seen to be just that, opposite poles. It’s partly this kind of thing that has supposedly made Chomsky the most frequently quoted person alive today, and in English, it’s said, third all-time behind the Bible and Shakespeare.
I recently read his latest article, provocatively titled “Why It’s Over For America”, and it’s a particularly good one. One of his greatest strengths has always been his understanding of language. I googled Chomskyan Revolution and copied the following phrases from the descriptions of the links on the first Google page.
‘The Chomskyan “revolution” and its historiography
It has become common-place to talk about a ‘Chomskyan Revolution’…
The Chomskyan revolution raised the profile of linguistics and the new universities of the 1960’s provided an opportunity for expansion…
Has there been a ‘Chomskyan Revolution’ in linguistics?
His 1957 treatise, Syntactic Structures, initiated the so-called Chomskyan Revolution; in that book, Chomsky proposed a new linguistic theory…
The ‘Chomskyan revolution’ (that took place more than a decade before Metz’s Langage et Cinema was published) was particularly lost on film theory.
The last one is in many ways the most interesting. It’s indicative of the power of Chomsky’s approach that it’s normal to speak of the revolution his ideas caused — the phrase returned, as Google likes to say, “about 54,600” hits. But if film folks, by stereotype more brains than brawn, and very concerned with communication, at least certain kinds of it, don’t get Chomsky, then it’s not surprising that the warmakers and the oil people and the CEOs don’t get him either.
He’s not telling them something they want to hear, and he’s saying it very directly. He does the same with politics; he’s pretty much the ne plus ultra in bad attitudes.
This article begins with the uncontroversial idea that the world faces three important near-term issues:
…nuclear war, environmental disaster, and the fact that the government of the world’s leading power is acting in ways that increase the likelihood of these catastrophes.
Then there’s a fourth issue: the government in question claims to be democratic, but its policies are quite different from what people say they want. Chomsky quotes Gar Alperovitz: “…the American ‘system’ as a whole is in real trouble”, and that is the true fear. Chomsky even compares the US to some widely considered definitions of a failed state, and finds strong correlations.
As usual, though, he is mainly concerned with power and its abuses.
Perhaps one could put it best by saying that Chomsky analyses, comments on and above all criticizes the phenomenon of power — the power of government (particularly in his own country, the United States), of commerce, of the media. Drawing parallels with the past and keeping abreast of the latest developments, he has spent decades explaining how he believes these powers operate, and emphasizing their often disastrous impact on entire populations, be it in Vietnam, Turkey, Palestine, East Timor, Iraq, South, Central or North America or wherever. It is people that matter to him.
Thus the so-called Chomskyan calculus for determining which war or other disaster was the most destructive is simply subtraction: which one killed more people?
It’s been said that Chomsky is hard to read. It seems to me rather that he follows Strunk’s rule 17, omit needless words. He doesn’t use many big words, his sentences are not overly complex, but his prose is dense with ideas. It does take some effort to absorb everything he’s saying, because he’s saying a lot.
The current article shows how useful it is to combine a knowledge of history, current events, and language. It has too many examples of the approach to quote, but here’s one.
Unlike Europe, China refuses to be intimidated by Washington, a primary reason for the growing fear of China on the part of US planners. Much of Iran’s oil already goes to China, and China is providing Iran with weapons, presumably considered a deterrent to US threats. Still more uncomfortable for Washington is the fact that, according to the Financial Times, “the Sino-Saudi relationship has developed dramatically,” including Chinese military aid to Saudi Arabia and gas exploration rights for China. By 2005, Saudi Arabia provided about 17 per cent of China’s oil imports. Chinese and Saudi oil companies have signed deals for drilling and construction of a huge refinery (with Exxon Mobil as a partner). A January 2006 visit by Saudi king Abdullah to Beijing was expected to lead to a Sino-Saudi memorandum of understanding calling for “increased cooperation and investment between the two countries in oil, natural gas, and minerals.”
Indian analyst Aijaz Ahmad observes that Iran could “emerge as the virtual linchpin in the making, over the next decade or so, of what China and Russia have come to regard as an absolutely indispensable Asian Energy Security Grid, for breaking Western control of the world’s energy supplies and securing the great industrial revolution of Asia.” South Korea and southeast Asian countries are likely to join, possibly Japan as well. A crucial question is how India will react. It rejected US pressures to withdraw from an oil pipeline deal with Iran. On the other hand, India joined the United States and the EU in voting for an anti-Iranian resolution at the IAEA, joining also in their hypocrisy, since India rejects the NPT regime to which Iran, so far, appears to be largely conforming. Ahmad reports that India may have secretly reversed its stand under Iranian threats to terminate a $20bn gas deal. Washington later warned India that its “nuclear deal with the US could be ditched” if India did not go along with US demands, eliciting a sharp rejoinder from the Indian foreign ministry and an evasive tempering of the warning by the US embassy.
The big picture, which for some reason isn’t brought up much in the mainstream media. Perhaps it’s because these aren’t really current events; or maybe it’s that everyone already knows these critical features of the background, freeing big media to spend its time on The Runaway Bride.
Here’s one that shows how much Chomsky has heard the complaint that he’s destructive rather than constructive.
The persistence of the strong line of continuity to the present again reveals that the United States is very much like other powerful states. It pursues the strategic and economic interests of dominant sectors of the domestic population, to the accompaniment of rhetorical flourishes about its dedication to the highest values. That is practically a historical universal, and the reason why sensible people pay scant attention to declarations of noble intent by leaders, or accolades by their followers.
One commonly hears that carping critics complain about what is wrong, but do not present solutions. There is an accurate translation for that charge: “They present solutions, but I don’t like them.” In addition to the proposals that should be familiar about dealing with the crises that reach to the level of survival, a few simple suggestions for the United States have already been mentioned: 1) accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court; 2) sign and carry forward the Kyoto protocols; 3) let the UN take the lead in international crises; 4) rely on diplomatic and economic measures rather than military ones in confronting terror; 5) keep to the traditional interpretation of the UN Charter; 6) give up the Security Council veto and have “a decent respect for the opinion of mankind,” as the Declaration of Independence advises, even if power centers disagree; 7) cut back sharply on military spending and sharply increase social spending. For people who believe in democracy, these are very conservative suggestions: they appear to be the opinions of the majority of the US population, in most cases the overwhelming majority. They are in radical opposition to public policy. To be sure, we cannot be very confident about the state of public opinion on such matters because of another feature of the democratic deficit: the topics scarcely enter into public discussion and the basic facts are little known. In a highly atomized society, the public is therefore largely deprived of the opportunity to form considered opinions.
Another conservative suggestion is that facts, logic, and elementary moral principles should matter. Those who take the trouble to adhere to that suggestion will soon be led to abandon a good part of familiar doctrine, though it is surely much easier to repeat self-serving mantras. Such simple truths carry us some distance toward developing more specific and detailed answers. More important, they open the way to implement them, opportunities that are readily within our grasp if we can free ourselves from the shackles of doctrine and imposed illusion.
Chomsky has been said by some to have a mean streak. Of course he himself has pointed out that nobody’s a hero. But there’s also the issue of honesty, the perceived lack of which draws his wrath. His scorn is reserved for ridiculous arguments, of which, truth be told, he sees a lot. By instinct and by training, and with effect, he calls bullshit.
But the most important issue is the lives and welfare of the non-powerful. Public people who don’t always appear to be acting for personal gain are so rare on the American stage that many in the audience don’t what to make of him; but to me Chomsky is, despite his protestations, a true American hero.