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The Loneliness Of Noam Chomsky

As a could've been gook, and who knows, perhaps a potential gook, hardly a day goes by when I don't findmyself thinking — for one reason or another — 'Chomsky Zindabad'.

The Loneliness Of Noam Chomsky
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"I will never apologise for the United States of America — I don't care what the facts are."

President George Bush Sr.

Sitting in my home in New Delhi, watching an American TV news channel promote itself ("We report. Youdecide."), I imagine Noam Chomsky's amused, chipped-tooth smile.

Everybody knows that authoritarian regimes, regardless of their ideology, use the mass media forpropaganda. 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, possiblymillions, of us that public opinion in "free market" democracies is manufactured just like any othermass 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 auctionedto the highest bidders. Neoliberal capitalism isn't just about the accumulation of capital (for some). It'salso about the accumulation of power (for some), the accumulation of freedom (for some). Conversely, for therest of the world, the people who are excluded from neoliberalism's governing body, it's about the erosion ofcapital, the erosion of power, the erosion of freedom. In the "free" market, freespeech 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 tomanufacture the kind of product, confect the kind of public opinion, that best suits their purpose. (News theycan 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 90per cent of Italian TV viewership," reports the Financial Times. What price free speech? Freespeech for whom? Admittedly, Berlusconi is an extreme example. In other democracies — the United States inparticular — media barons, powerful corporate lobbies, and government officials are imbricated in a moreelaborate, 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 ispublic knowledge now.)

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist strikes in New York and Washington, the mainstream media's blatantperformance as the U.S. government's mouthpiece, its display of vengeful patriotism, its willingness topublish Pentagon press handouts as news, and its explicit censorship of dissenting opinion became the butt ofsome pretty black humour in the rest of the world.

Then the New York Stock Exchange crashed, bankrupt airline companies appealed to the government forfinancial bailouts, and there was talk of circumventing patent laws in order to manufacture generic drugs tofight the anthrax scare (much more important, and urgent of course, than the production of generics tofight AIDS in Africa). Suddenly, it began to seem as though the twin myths of Free Speech and the Free Marketmight 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 thebusiness of "managing" public opinion. It suggests a very real fear of public opinion. Itsuggests a persistent and valid worry that if people were to discover (and fully comprehend) the real natureof the things that are done in their name, they might act upon that knowledge. Powerful people knowthat ordinary people are not always reflexively ruthless and selfish. (When ordinary people weigh costs andbenefits, something like an uneasy conscience could easily tip the scales.) For this reason, they must beguarded against reality, reared in a controlled climate, in an altered reality, like broiler chickens or pigsin a pen.

Those of us who have managed to escape this fate and are scratching about in the backyard, no longerbelieve everything we read in the papers and watch on TV. We put our ears to the ground and look for otherways of making sense of the world. We search for the untold story, the mentioned-in-passing military coup, theunreported genocide, the civil war in an African country written up in a one-column-inch story next to afull-page advertisement for lace underwear.

We don't always remember, and many don't even know, that this way of thinking, this easy acuity, thisinstinctive mistrust of the mass media, would at best be a political hunch and at worst a loose accusation, ifit were not for the relentless and unswerving media analysis of one of the world's greatest minds. And this isonly one of the ways in which Noam Chomsky has radically altered our understanding of the society inwhich we live. Or should I say, our understanding of the elaborate rules of the lunatic asylum in which we areall voluntary inmates?

Speaking about the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, President George W. Bush called theenemies of the United States "enemies of freedom". "Americans are asking why do they hateus?" he said. "They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedomto 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'sGuide to Anti-Americanism, that is: "Because they're jealous of us," "Because they hate freedom," "Becausethey're losers," "Because we're good and they're evil"), I'd say, read Chomsky. Read Chomsky onU.S. military interventions in Indochina, Latin America, Iraq, Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, andthe Middle East. If ordinary people in the United States read Chomsky, perhaps their questions would be frameda 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?"

Unfortunately, in these nationalistic times, words like "us" and "them" are usedloosely. The line between citizens and the state is being deliberately and successfully blurred, not just bygovernments, but also by terrorists. The underlying logic of terrorist attacks, as well as"retaliatory" wars against governments that "support terrorism", is the same: both punishcitizens for the actions of their governments.

(A brief digression: I realize that for Noam Chomsky, a U.S. citizen, to criticize his own government isbetter manners than for someone like myself, an Indian citizen, to criticize the U.S. government. I'm nopatriot, and am fully aware that venality, brutality, and hypocrisy are imprinted on the leaden soul of everystate. But when a country ceases to be merely a country and becomes an empire, then the scale of operationschanges dramatically. So may I clarify that I speak as a subject of the U.S. empire? I speak as a slave whopresumes to criticize her king.)

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If I were asked to choose one of Noam Chomsky's major contributions to the world, it would be thefact that he has unmasked the ugly, manipulative, ruthless universe that exists behind that beautiful, sunnyword "freedom". He has done this rationally and empirically. The mass of evidence he has marshaledto construct his case is formidable. Terrifying, actually. The starting premise of Chomsky's method is notideological, but it is intensely political. He embarks on his course of inquiry with an anarchist'sinstinctive mistrust of power. He takes us on a tour through the bog of the U.S. establishment, and leads usthrough the dizzying maze of corridors that connects the government, big business, and the business ofmanaging public opinion.

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Chomsky shows us how phrases like "free speech", the "free market", and the "freeworld" have little, if anything, to do with freedom. He shows us that, among the myriad freedoms claimedby the U.S. government are the freedom to murder, annihilate, and dominate other people. The freedom tofinance 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 massdestruction — chemical, biological, and nuclear. The freedom to go to war against any country whosegovernment it disagrees with. And, most terrible of all, the freedom to commit these crimes against humanityin the name of "justice", in the name of "righteousness", in the name of"freedom".

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Attorney General John Ashcroft has declared that U.S. freedoms are "not the grant of any government ordocument, but... our endowment from God". So, basically, we're confronted with a country armed with amandate from heaven. Perhaps this explains why the U.S. government refuses to judge itself by the same moralstandards by which it judges others. (Any attempt to do this is shouted down as "moralequivalence".) Its technique is to position itself as the well-intentioned giant whose good deeds areconfounded in strange countries by their scheming natives, whose markets it's trying to free, whose societiesit's trying to modernise, whose women it's trying to liberate, whose souls it's trying to save.

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Perhaps this belief in its own divinity also explains why the U.S. government has conferred upon itself theright 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 peacefulnation." He went on to say, "This is the calling of the United States of America, the most freenation in the world, a nation built on fundamental values, that rejects hate, rejects violence, rejectsmurderers, rejects evil. And we will not tire."

The U.S. empire rests on a grisly foundation: the massacre of millions of indigenous people, the stealingof their lands, and following this, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of black people from Africa towork 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 awhole universe of unspeakable sadness. It tells of the loss of dignity, the loss of wilderness, the loss offreedom, the shattered pride of a people. Genocide and slavery provide the social and economic underpinning ofthe nation whose fundamental values reject hate, murderers, and evil.

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Here is Chomsky, writing in the essay "The Manufacture of Consent," on the founding of the UnitedStates of America:

During the Thanksgiving holiday a few weeks ago, I took a walk with some friends and family in a nationalpark. 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 andgrow."

Of course, it is not quite accurate to say that the indigenous population gave of themselves and their landfor that noble purpose. Rather, they were slaughtered, decimated, and dispersed in the course of one of thegreatest exercises in genocide in human history... which we celebrate each October when we honour Columbus —a notable mass murderer himself — on Columbus Day.

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Hundreds of American citizens, well-meaning and decent people, troop by that gravestone regularly and readit, apparently without reaction; except, perhaps, a feeling of satisfaction that at last we are giving somedue recognition to the sacrifices of the native peoples.... They might react differently if they were to visitAuschwitz or Dachau and find a gravestone reading: "Here lies a woman, a Jew, whose family and peoplegave 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 bychanging its ways (it exports its cruelties now). Like most other countries, the United States hasrewritten its history. But what sets the United States apart from other countries, and puts it way ahead inthe race, is that it has enlisted the services of the most powerful, most successful publicity firm in theworld: Hollywood.

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In the best-selling version of popular myth as history, U.S. "goodness" peaked during World WarII (aka America's War Against Fascism). Lost in the din of trumpet sound and angel song is the factthat when fascism was in full stride in Europe, the U.S. government actually looked away. When Hitler wascarrying out his genocidal pogrom against Jews, U.S. officials refused entry to Jewish refugees fleeingGermany. The United States entered the war only after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Drowned out bythe 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 bycancers for generations to come, were not a threat to world peace. They were civilians. Just as thevictims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings were civilians. Just as the hundreds of thousands ofpeople who died in Iraq because of the U.S.-led sanctions were civilians. The bombing of Hiroshima andNagasaki was a cold, calculated experiment carried out to demonstrate America's power. At the time, PresidentTruman described it as "the greatest thing in history".

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The Second World War, we're told, was a "war for peace". The atomic bomb was a "weapon ofpeace". We're invited to believe that nuclear deterrence prevented World War III. (That was beforePresident George Bush Jr. came up with the "pre-emptive strike doctrine". Was there anoutbreak 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 raceslive (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 covertoperations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the coups it has engineered, and the dictators it has armed andsupported. It should include Israel's U.S.-backed war on Lebanon, in which thousands were killed. It shouldinclude the key role America has played in the conflict in the Middle East, in which thousands have diedfighting Israel's illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. It should include America's role in the civilwar in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in which more than one million people were killed. It should include theembargos and sanctions that have led directly, and indirectly, to the death of hundreds of thousands ofpeople, most visibly in Iraq.

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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 morethan 12 years. Fifty-eight thousand Americans and approximately two million Vietnamese, Cambodians, andLaotians lost their lives. The U.S. deployed half a million ground troops, dropped more than six million tonsof bombs. And yet, though you wouldn't believe it if you watched most Hollywood movies, America lost the war.

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The war began in South Vietnam and then spread to North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. After putting in placea client regime in Saigon, the U.S. government invited itself in to fight a communist insurgency — Vietcongguerillas who had infiltrated rural regions of South Vietnam where villagers were sheltering them. This wasexactly 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". Butthere has been no such introspection in the United States. In 1984, in a stunning revelation, Chomsky wrote:

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For the past 22 years, I have been searching to find some reference in mainstream journalism or scholarshipto an American invasion of South Vietnam in 1962 (or ever), or an American attack against South Vietnam, orAmerican aggression in Indochina — without success. There is no such event in history. Rather, there is anAmerican 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 scalecolossal enough to induce panic migration from villages into cities, where people could be held in refugeecamps. Samuel Huntington referred to this as a process of "urbanisation".

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