Noam Chomsky is renowned for having revolutionised our understanding of language and mind, but he is mainly famous - or infamous - for his political activism and his devastating criticisms of successive US governments. The polarisation of opinion that he evokes is surprising, as his views are based on simple foundations to which all sides claim to subscribe. These foundations are the two moral truisms that we should apply the same standards to ourselves as to others, and that we are responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our own actions. Failure to adhere to these principles results in "double standards", where we use different criteria for our friends and our enemies. In fact, as Chomsky forcefully points out, there is a single standard at work: "subordination to power".
In these penetrating, wide-ranging and massively documented interviews, Chomsky repeatedly reveals the arrogance of power; the consistency, perhaps universality, of the perversion of democracy by those purportedly defending it; and the Orwellian newspeak that pervades government propaganda. The judgments may seem harsh, but consider the title "What we say goes". This is a quotation from George Bush Sr towards the end of the first Gulf War that reveals the overbearing pride of the American Government and its apologists, for whom the United Nations, the World Court and the International Criminal Court are "irrelevant". The target is America, but Chomsky cites Thucydides and Adam Smith to show that all concentrations of power at all periods of history have behaved in the same way, and all demand historical amnesia so that earlier atrocities can be forgotten. If exposed as crimes, our activities can then be viewed as aberrations or mistakes rather than as part of a consistent pattern.
The techniques of the powerful are indirect. In a totalitarian society, propaganda is used crudely to hammer home the party line. In a free society, things are more subtle: you "insinuate the party line as a presupposition" and then allow or even encourage discussion and dissent about the technical details. Iran is accused of interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq by supplying the insurgents with material used to kill Allied soldiers. There is then a debate about whether the explosives can really be traced back to Iran; if so, which parts of the Iranian hierarchy were in the know, and so on. What is carefully left unexpressed is the presupposition that we are not interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq: the US has the God-given right to do what it wishes anywhere in the world.
Chomsky draws an "unthinkable" parallel with a scenario in which Iran has acted in America as the US has in Venezuela: supporting an attempted military coup, providing financial aid to "support democracy" and so on. The reaction would be nuclear devastation for the "aggressor", a fate that Western militarism has already made the most serious threat facing the world. Somewhat surprisingly given the bleakness of his discussion, Chomsky retains his optimism and provides a number of suggestions about what can be done in self-defence. What is essential is to work together locally, for example fostering the power of labour unions, to transcend the limitations of isolated individuals.
So why the polarisation of opinion about Chomsky? People identify with their group, and reading that your revered leaders are ruthless hypocrites is painful and calls for action. Any such action would involve sacrificing both leisure and certain aspects of privilege and power. It's easier to deny the claims, accept the power structure and assume that we are uniquely right with a divine mission in the world.
Chomsky makes it very hard to indulge such fantasies.
What We Say Goes: Conversations on US Power in a Changing World
By Noam Chomsky
Published 7 February 2008