Loneliness Of Noam Chomsky
24 August, 2003
Sitting in my home
in New Delhi, watching an American TV news channel promote itself ("We
report. You decide."), I imagine Noam Chomsky's amused, chipped-tooth
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 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 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
the United States in particular 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 U.S. government institutions and the mass media all this is
public knowledge now.)
After the September
11, 2001, terrorist strikes in New York and Washington, the mainstream
media's blatant performance as the U.S. government's mouthpiece, its
display of vengeful patriotism, its willingness to publish Pentagon
press handouts as news, and its explicit censorship of dissenting opinion
became the butt of some pretty black humour in the rest of the world.
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 Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
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 New York and Washington, President George W.
Bush called the enemies of the United States "enemies of freedom".
"Americans are asking why do they hate us?" he said. "They
hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our
freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."
If people in the
United States want a real answer to that question (as opposed to the
ones in the Idiot's Guide to Anti-Americanism, that is: "Because
they're jealous of us," "Because they hate freedom,"
"Because they're losers," "Because we're good and they're
evil"), I'd say, read Chomsky. Read Chomsky on U.S. military interventions
in Indochina, Latin America, Iraq, Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan,
and the Middle East. If ordinary people in the United States read Chomsky,
perhaps their questions would be framed a little differently. Perhaps
it would be: "Why don't they hate us more than they do?" or
"Isn't it surprising that September 11 didn't happen earlier?"
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 realise that for Noam Chomsky, a U.S. citizen, to criticise his own
government is better manners than for someone like myself, an Indian
citizen, to criticise the U.S. government. I'm no patriot, and am fully
aware that venality, brutality, and hypocrisy are imprinted on the leaden
soul of every state. But when a country ceases to be merely a country
and becomes an empire, then the scale of operations changes dramatically.
So may I clarify that I speak as a subject of the U.S. empire? I speak
as a slave who presumes to criticise her king.)
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 marshalled 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 U.S. establishment, and leads us through the dizzying
maze of corridors that connects the government, big business, and the
business of managing public opinion.
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
U.S. government are the freedom to murder, annihilate, and dominate
other people. The freedom to finance and sponsor despots and dictators
across the world. The freedom to train, arm, and shelter terrorists.
The freedom to topple democratically elected governments. The freedom
to amass and use weapons of mass destruction chemical, biological,
and nuclear. The freedom to go to war against any country whose government
it disagrees with. And, most terrible of all, the freedom to commit
these crimes against humanity in the name of "justice", in
the name of "righteousness", in the name of "freedom".
John Ashcroft has declared that U.S. freedoms are "not the grant
of any government or document, but... our endowment from God".
So, basically, we're confronted with a country armed with a mandate
from heaven. Perhaps this explains why the U.S. government refuses to
judge itself by the same moral standards by which it judges others.
(Any attempt to do this is shouted down as "moral equivalence".)
Its technique is to position itself as the well-intentioned giant whose
good deeds are confounded in strange countries by their scheming natives,
whose markets it's trying to free, whose societies it's trying to modernise,
whose women it's trying to liberate, whose souls it's trying to save.
Perhaps this belief
in its own divinity also explains why the U.S. government has conferred
upon itself the right and freedom to murder and exterminate people "for
their own good".
When he announced
the U.S. air strikes against Afghanistan, President Bush Jr. said, "We're
a peaceful nation." He went on to say, "This is the calling
of the United States of America, the most free nation in the world,
a nation built on fundamental values, that rejects hate, rejects violence,
rejects murderers, rejects evil. And we will not tire."
The U.S. empire
rests on a grisly foundation: the massacre of millions of indigenous
people, the stealing of their lands, and following this, the kidnapping
and enslavement of millions of black people from Africa to work that
land. Thousands died on the seas while they were being shipped like
caged cattle between continents. "Stolen from Africa, brought to
America" Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier" contains
a whole universe of unspeakable sadness. It tells of the loss of dignity,
the loss of wilderness, the loss of freedom, the shattered pride of
a people. Genocide and slavery provide the social and economic underpinning
of the nation whose fundamental values reject hate, murderers, and evil.
Here is Chomsky,
writing in the essay "The Manufacture of Consent," on the
founding of the United States of America:
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 a notable mass murderer himself on
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 Dachau and find a gravestone reading:
"Here lies a woman, a Jew, whose family and people gave of themselves
and their possessions that this great nation might grow and prosper."
How has the United
States survived its terrible past and emerged smelling so sweet? Not
by owning up to it, not by making reparations, not by apologising to
black Americans or native Americans, and certainly not by changing its
ways (it exports its cruelties now). Like most other countries, the
United States has rewritten its history. But what sets the United States
apart from other countries, and puts it way ahead in the race, is that
it has enlisted the services of the most powerful, most successful publicity
firm in the world: Hollywood.
In the best-selling
version of popular myth as history, U.S. "goodness" peaked
during World War II (aka America's War Against Fascism). Lost in the
din of trumpet sound and angel song is the fact that when fascism was
in full stride in Europe, the U.S. government actually looked away.
When Hitler was carrying out his genocidal pogrom against Jews, U.S.
officials refused entry to Jewish refugees fleeing Germany. The United
States entered the war only after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.
Drowned out by the noisy hosannas is its most barbaric act, in fact
the single most savage act the world has ever witnessed: the dropping
of the atomic bomb on civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The war was nearly over. The hundreds of thousands of Japanese people
who were killed, the countless others who were crippled by cancers for
generations to come, were not a threat to world peace. They were civilians.
Just as the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings
were civilians. Just as the hundreds of thousands of people who died
in Iraq because of the U.S.-led sanctions were civilians. The bombing
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a cold, calculated experiment carried
out to demonstrate America's power. At the time, President Truman described
it as "the greatest thing in 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 America but does that count
as world peace? Not unless savage, proxy wars fought in lands where
the coloured races live (chinks, niggers, dinks, wogs, gooks) don't
count as wars at all.
Since the Second
World War, the United States has been at war with or has attacked, among
other countries, Korea, Guatemala, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada,
Libya, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Yugoslavia,
and Afghanistan. This list should also include the U.S. government's
covert operations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the coups it has
engineered, and the dictators it has armed and supported. It should
include Israel's U.S.-backed war on Lebanon, in which thousands were
killed. It should include the key role America has played in the conflict
in the Middle East, in which thousands have died fighting Israel's illegal
occupation of Palestinian territory. It should include America's role
in the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in which more than one
million people were killed. It should include the embargos and sanctions
that have led directly, and indirectly, to the death of hundreds of
thousands of people, most visibly in Iraq.
Put it all together,
and it sounds very much as though there has been a World War III, and
that the U.S. government was (or is) one of its chief protagonists.
Most of the essays
in Chomsky's For Reasons of State are about U.S. aggression in South
Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It was a war that lasted
more than 12 years. Fifty-eight thousand Americans and approximately
two million Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians lost their lives. The
U.S. deployed half a million ground troops, dropped more than six million
tons of bombs. And yet, though you wouldn't believe it if you watched
most Hollywood movies, America lost the war.
The war began in
South Vietnam and then spread to North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
After putting in place a client regime in Saigon, the U.S. government
invited itself in to fight a communist insurgency Vietcong guerillas
who had infiltrated rural regions of South Vietnam where villagers were
sheltering them. This was exactly the model that Russia replicated when,
in 1979, it invited itself into Afghanistan. Nobody in the "free
world" is in any doubt about the fact that Russia invaded Afghanistan.
After glasnost, even a Soviet foreign minister called the Soviet invasion
of Afghanistan "illegal and immoral". But there has been no
such introspection in the United States. In 1984, in a stunning revelation,
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 without success. There is no such event in history.
Rather, there is an American defence of South Vietnam against terrorists
supported from the outside (namely from Vietnam).
There is no such
event in history!
In 1962, the U.S.
Air Force began to bomb rural South Vietnam, where 80 per cent of the
population lived. The bombing lasted for more than a decade. Thousands
of people were killed. The idea was to bomb on a scale colossal enough
to induce panic migration from villages into cities, where people could
be held in refugee camps. Samuel Huntington referred to this as a process
of "urbanisation". (I learned about urbanisation when I was
in architecture school in India. Somehow I don't remember aerial bombing
being part of the syllabus.) Huntington famous today for his
essay "The Clash of Civilizations?" was at the time
Chairman of the Council on Vietnamese Studies of the Southeast Asia
Development Advisory Group. Chomsky quotes him describing the Vietcong
as "a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency
so long as the constituency continues to exist". Huntington went
on to advise "direct application of mechanical and conventional
power" in other words, to crush a people's war, eliminate
the people. (Or, perhaps, to update the thesis in order to prevent
a clash of civilizations, annihilate a civilisation.)
Here's one observer
from the time on the limitations of America's mechanical power: "The
problem is that American machines are not equal to the task of killing
communist soldiers except as part of a scorched-earth policy that destroys
everything else as well." That problem has been solved now. Not
with less destructive bombs, but with more imaginative language. There's
a more elegant way of saying "that destroys everything else as
well". The phrase is "collateral damage".
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 Laos.
Even if the war
in Laos ended tomorrow, the restoration of its ecological balance might
take several years. The reconstruction of the Plain's totally destroyed
towns and villages might take just as long. Even if this was done, the
Plain might long prove perilous to human habitation because of the hundreds
of thousands of unexploded bombs, mines and booby traps.
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
bright green 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 once the most populous town in communist Laos
lies empty, destroyed. To the north of the Plain, the little
resort of Khang Khay also has been destroyed.
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.)
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 North Vietnam is discussed at some length
in the Pentagon Papers, the invasion of South Vietnam barely merits
The Pentagon Papers
are mesmerising, not as documentation of the history of the U.S. war
in Indochina, but as insight into the minds of the men who planned and
executed it. It's fascinating to be privy to the ideas that were being
tossed around, the suggestions that were made, the proposals that were
put forward. In a section called "The Asian Mind the American
Mind", Chomsky examines the discussion of the mentality of the
enemy that "stoically accept[s] the destruction of wealth and the
loss of lives", whereas "We want life, happiness, wealth,
power", and, for us, "death and suffering are irrational choices
when alternatives exist". So, we learn that the Asian poor, presumably
because they cannot comprehend the meaning of happiness, wealth, and
power, invite America to carry this "strategic logic to its conclusion,
which is genocide". But, then "we" balk because "genocide
is a terrible burden to bear". (Eventually, of course, "we"
went ahead and committed genocide any way, and then pretended that it
never really happened.)
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 China and the Soviet Union. Destruction of locks
and dams, however if handled right might... offer promise.
It should be studied. Such destruction does not kill or drown people.
By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after time to widespread starvation
(more than a million?) unless food is provided which we could
offer to do "at the conference table".
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
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
if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys
started adding polystyrene 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
So the lucky gooks
were annihilated for their own good. Better Dead than Red.
Thanks to the seductive
charms of Hollywood and the irresistible appeal of America's mass media,
all these years later, the world views the war as an American story.
Indochina provided the lush, tropical backdrop against which the United
States played out its fantasies of violence, tested its latest technology,
furthered its ideology, examined its conscience, agonised over its moral
dilemmas, and dealt with its guilt (or pretended to). The Vietnamese,
the Cambodians, and Laotians were only script props. Nameless, faceless,
slit-eyed humanoids. They were just the people who died. Gooks.
The only real lesson
the U.S. government learned from its invasion of Indochina is how to
go to war without committing American troops and risking American lives.
So now we have wars waged with long-range cruise missiles, Black Hawks,
"bunker busters". Wars in which the "Allies" lose
more journalists than soldiers.
As a child growing
up in the state of Kerala, in South India where the first democratically
elected Communist government in the world came to power in 1959, the
year I was born I worried terribly about being a gook. Kerala
was only a few thousand miles west of Vietnam. We had jungles and rivers
and rice-fields, and communists, too. I kept imagining my mother, my
brother, and myself being blown out of the bushes by a grenade, or mowed
down, like the gooks in the movies, by an American marine with muscled
arms and chewing gum and a loud background score. In my dreams, I was
the burning girl in the famous photograph taken on the road from Trang
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 how shall I put it? 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 America, writing to convince Americans of his point of view
must really be like having to tunnel through hard wood. Chomsky is one
of a small band of individuals fighting a whole industry. And that makes
him not only brilliant, but heroic.
Some years ago,
in a poignant interview with James Peck, Chomsky spoke about his memory
of the day Hiroshima was bombed. He was 16 years old:
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 for one reason or another
is the author of The God of Small Things.