The loneliness of Noam Chomsky
The loneliness of Noam Chomsky
"I will never apologise for the
President George Bush Sr.
SITTING in my home in
Everybody knows that authoritarian regimes, regardless of their ideology, use the mass media for propaganda. But what about democratically elected regimes in the "free world"?
Today, thanks to Noam Chomsky and his fellow media analysts, it is almost axiomatic for thousands, possibly millions, of us that public opinion in "free market" democracies is manufactured just like any other mass market product â€” soap, switches, or sliced bread. We know that while, legally and constitutionally, speech may be free, the space in which that freedom can be exercised has been snatched from us and auctioned to the highest bidders. Neoliberal capitalism isn't just about the accumulation of capital (for some). It's also about the accumulation of power (for some), the accumulation of freedom (for some). Conversely, for the rest of the world, the people who are excluded from neoliberalism's governing body, it's about the erosion of capital, the erosion of power, the erosion of freedom. In the "free" market, free speech has become a commodity like everything else â€” â€” justice, human rights, drinking water, clean air. It's available only to those who can afford it. And naturally, those who can afford it use free speech to manufacture the kind of product, confect the kind of public opinion, that best suits their purpose. (News they can use.) Exactly how they do this has been the subject of much of Noam Chomsky's political writing.
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, has a controlling interest in major Italian newspapers, magazines, television channels, and publishing houses. "[T]he prime minister in effect controls about 90 per cent of Italian TV viewership," reports the Financial Times. What price free speech? Free speech for whom? Admittedly, Berlusconi is an extreme example. In other democracies â€” the United States in particular â€” media barons, powerful corporate lobbies, and government officials are imbricated in a more elaborate, but less obvious, manner. (George Bush Jr.'s connections to the oil lobby, to the arms industry, and to Enron, and Enron's infiltration of
Then the New York Stock Exchange crashed, bankrupt airline companies appealed to the government for financial bailouts, and there was talk of circumventing patent laws in order to manufacture generic drugs to fight the anthrax scare (much more important, and urgent of course, than the production of generics to fight AIDS in Africa). Suddenly, it began to seem as though the twin myths of Free Speech and the Free Market might come crashing down alongside the
But of course that never happened. The myths live on.
There is however, a brighter side to the amount of energy and money that the establishment pours into the business of "managing" public opinion. It suggests a very real fear of public opinion. It suggests a persistent and valid worry that if people were to discover (and fully comprehend) the real nature of the things that are done in their name, they might act upon that knowledge. Powerful people know that ordinary people are not always reflexively ruthless and selfish. (When ordinary people weigh costs and benefits, something like an uneasy conscience could easily tip the scales.) For this reason, they must be guarded against reality, reared in a controlled climate, in an altered reality, like broiler chickens or pigs in a pen.
Those of us who have managed to escape this fate and are scratching about in the backyard, no longer believe everything we read in the papers and watch on TV. We put our ears to the ground and look for other ways of making sense of the world. We search for the untold story, the mentioned-in-passing military coup, the unreported genocide, the civil war in an African country written up in a one-column-inch story next to a full-page advertisement for lace underwear.
We don't always remember, and many don't even know, that this way of thinking, this easy acuity, this instinctive mistrust of the mass media, would at best be a political hunch and at worst a loose accusation, if it were not for the relentless and unswerving media analysis of one of the world's greatest minds. And this is only one of the ways in which Noam Chomsky has radically altered our understanding of the society in which we live. Or should I say, our understanding of the elaborate rules of the lunatic asylum in which we are all voluntary inmates?
Speaking about the September 11 attacks in
If people in the
Unfortunately, in these nationalistic times, words like "us" and "them" are used loosely. The line between citizens and the state is being deliberately and successfully blurred, not just by governments, but also by terrorists. The underlying logic of terrorist attacks, as well as "retaliatory" wars against governments that "support terrorism", is the same: both punish citizens for the actions of their governments.
(A brief digression: I realize that for Noam Chomsky, a
If I were asked to choose one of Noam Chomsky's major contributions to the world, it would be the fact that he has unmasked the ugly, manipulative, ruthless universe that exists behind that beautiful, sunny word "freedom". He has done this rationally and empirically. The mass of evidence he has marshaled to construct his case is formidable. Terrifying, actually. The starting premise of Chomsky's method is not ideological, but it is intensely political. He embarks on his course of inquiry with an anarchist's instinctive mistrust of power. He takes us on a tour through the bog of the
Chomsky shows us how phrases like "free speech", the "free market", and the "free world" have little, if anything, to do with freedom. He shows us that, among the myriad freedoms claimed by the
Attorney General John Ashcroft has declared that
Perhaps this belief in its own divinity also explains why the
When he announced the
Here is Chomsky, writing in the essay "The Manufacture of Consent," on the founding of the
During the Thanksgiving holiday a few weeks ago, I took a walk with some friends and family in a national park. We came across a gravestone, which had on it the following inscription: "Here lies an Indian woman, a Wampanoag, whose family and tribe gave of themselves and their land that this great nation might be born and grow."
Of course, it is not quite accurate to say that the indigenous population gave of themselves and their land for that noble purpose. Rather, they were slaughtered, decimated, and dispersed in the course of one of the greatest exercises in genocide in human history... which we celebrate each October when we honour Columbus â€” a notable mass murderer himself â€” on Columbus Day.
Hundreds of American citizens, well-meaning and decent people, troop by that gravestone regularly and read it, apparently without reaction; except, perhaps, a feeling of satisfaction that at last we are giving some due recognition to the sacrifices of the native peoples.... They might react differently if they were to visit Auschwitz or
How has the
In the best-selling version of popular myth as history,
The Second World War, we're told, was a "war for peace". The atomic bomb was a "weapon of peace". We're invited to believe that nuclear deterrence prevented World War III. (That was before President George Bush Jr. came up with the "pre-emptive strike doctrine". Was there an outbreak of peace after the Second World War? Certainly there was (relative) peace in Europe and
Since the Second World War, the
Put it all together, and it sounds very much as though there has been a World War III, and that the
Most of the essays in Chomsky's For Reasons of State are about
The war began in
For the past 22 years, I have been searching to find some reference in mainstream journalism or scholarship to an American invasion of South Vietnam in 1962 (or ever), or an American attack against South Vietnam, or American aggression in Indochina â€” without success. There is no such event in history. Rather, there is an American defence of
There is no such event in history!
In 1962, the U.S. Air Force began to bomb rural
Here's one observer from the time on the limitations of
And here's a firsthand account of what America's "machines" (Huntington called them "modernising instruments" and staff officers in the Pentagon called them "bomb-o-grams") can do. This is T.D. Allman flying over the Plain of Jars in
Even if the war in
A recent flight around the Plain of Jars revealed what less than three years of intensive American bombing can do to a rural area, even after its civilian population has been evacuated. In large areas, the primary tropical colour â€” bright green â€” has been replaced by an abstract pattern of black, and bright metallic colours. Much of the remaining foliage is stunted, dulled by defoliants.
Today, black is the dominant colour of the northern and eastern reaches of the Plain. Napalm is dropped regularly to burn off the grass and undergrowth that covers the Plains and fills its many narrow ravines. The fires seem to burn constantly, creating rectangles of black. During the flight, plumes of smoke could be seen rising from freshly bombed areas.
The main routes, coming into the Plain from communist-held territory, are bombed mercilessly, apparently on a non-stop basis. There, and along the rim of the Plain, the dominant colour is yellow. All vegetation has been destroyed. The craters are countless.... [T]he area has been bombed so repeatedly that the land resembles the pocked, churned desert in storm-hit areas of the North African desert.
Further to the southeast, Xieng Khouangville â€” once the most populous town in communist
Around the landing field at the base of King Kong, the main colours are yellow (from upturned soil) and black (from napalm), relieved by patches of bright red and blue: parachutes used to drop supplies.
[T]he last local inhabitants were being carted into air transports. Abandoned vegetable gardens that would never be harvested grew near abandoned houses with plates still on the tables and calendars on the walls.
(Never counted in the "costs" of war are the dead birds, the charred animals, the murdered fish, incinerated insects, poisoned water sources, destroyed vegetation. Rarely mentioned is the arrogance of the human race towards other living things with which it shares this planet. All these are forgotten in the fight for markets and ideologies. This arrogance will probably be the ultimate undoing of the human species.)
The centerpiece of For Reasons of State is an essay called "The Mentality of the Backroom Boys", in which Chomsky offers an extraordinarily supple, exhaustive analysis of the Pentagon Papers, which he says "provide documentary evidence of a conspiracy to use force in international affairs in violation of law". Here, too, Chomsky makes note of the fact that while the bombing of
The Pentagon Papers are mesmerizing, not as documentation of the history of the
Of course, the Pentagon Papers contain some moderate proposals, as well.
Strikes at population targets (per se) are likely not only to create a counterproductive wave of revulsion abroad and at home, but greatly to increase the risk of enlarging the war with
Layer by layer, Chomsky strips down the process of decision-making by U.S. government officials, to reveal at its core the pitiless heart of the American war machine, completely insulated from the realities of war, blinded by ideology, and willing to annihilate millions of human beings, civilians, soldiers, women, children, villages, whole cities, whole ecosystems â€” with scientifically honed methods of brutality.
Here's an American pilot talking about the joys of napalm:
We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow. The original product wasn't so hot â€” if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene â€” now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But then if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter [white phosphorous] so's to make it burn better. It'll even burn under water now. And just one drop is enough, it'll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.
So the lucky gooks were annihilated for their own good. Better Dead than Red.
Thanks to the seductive charms of
The only real lesson the
As a child growing up in the state of Kerala, in
As someone who grew up on the cusp of both American and Soviet propaganda (which more or less neutralised each other), when I first read Noam Chomsky, it occurred to me that his marshalling of evidence, the volume of it, the relentlessness of it, was a little â€” how shall I put it? â€” insane. Even a quarter of the evidence he had compiled would have been enough to convince me. I used to wonder why he needed to do so much work. But now I understand that the magnitude and intensity of Chomsky's work is a barometer of the magnitude, scope, and relentlessness of the propaganda machine that he's up against. He's like the wood-borer who lives inside the third rack of my bookshelf. Day and night, I hear his jaws crunching through the wood, grinding it to a fine dust. It's as though he disagrees with the literature and wants to destroy the very structure on which it rests. I call him Chompsky.
Being an American working in
Some years ago, in a poignant interview with James Peck, Chomsky spoke about his memory of the day
I remember that I literally couldn't talk to anybody. There was nobody. I just walked off by myself. I was at a summer camp at the time, and I walked off into the woods and stayed alone for a couple of hours when I heard about it. I could never talk to anyone about it and never understood anyone's reaction. I felt completely isolated.
That isolation produced one of the greatest, most radical public thinkers of our time. When the sun sets on the American empire, as it will, as it must, Noam Chomsky's work will survive.
It will point a cool, incriminating finger at a merciless, Machiavellian empire as cruel, self-righteous, and hypocritical as the ones it has replaced. (The only difference is that it is armed with technology that can visit the kind of devastation on the world that history has never known and the human race cannot begin to imagine.)
As a could've been gook, and who knows, perhaps a potential gook, hardly a day goes by when I don't find myself thinking â€” for one reason or another â€” "Chomsky Zindabad".
Arundhati Roy is the author of The God of Small Things.