Hamish Hamilton, £18.99, 336pp. £17.09 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Hopes and Prospects, By Noam Chomsky
Friday 16 July 2010
Noam Chomsky is one of the most hysterically abused figures in the world today. Even his critics have to concede that his work in the field of linguistics – beginning to decode the structure of how language is formed in the human brain – makes him one of the most important intellectuals alive. But when he applies the same rigorous method to figuring out how power – especially the American government's – works, he is pepper-sprayed with smears. He is a self-hating Holocaust denier, a jihad-loving traitor, a Pol Pot-licking communist, and on and on.
If all you know of his work is the smears, then Hopes and Prospects will be a revelation. In his dry, understated way, he excavates the reality behind the Babel of 24/7 corporate news, and places long-buried truths on the table to examine. Every one is sourced to the leading academic journals, the best experts, the sharpest medical advice – yet each one is a shock if you rely on news brought to you by corporations and corrupt right-wing billionaires.
For example, he uncovers the story of why Haiti is so poor, and could be shaken to pieces by an earthquake that would have killed only a handful in California. It's a story of man-made earthquakes, one after another. The country was the first to rebel against slavery and to cast off the whip-hand – and was brutally punished by the French Empire. Every time it has begun to rise to its feet, it has been kicked back down, with the American Empire taking over to topple its elected leaders (the last was put on a plane at gunpoint in 2008) and stifle any moves towards development.
But who has heard about it? Who tries to hold our leaders accountable for it? Chomsky is trying to rescue crimes from the memory-hole. He explains that Ronald Reagan – the great hero of the US right – was a great champion of jihadism. It was Reagan who encouraged Pakistan simultaneously to become fundamentalist, and acquire nuclear weapons. Chomsky coolly condemns "the global jihad launched by Zia and Reagan," for geopolitical reasons, with no concern for the after-effects.
But Reagan remains unstained. Chomsky quotes the great American historian Francis Jennings, who noted that "In history, the man in the ruffled shirt and gold-coated waistcoat levitates above the blood he has ordered to be spilled by dirty-handed underlings." Instead, Chomsky says, history is too often ruled by Thucydides's maxim: "The strong do as they wish, while the poor suffer as they must."
It doesn't have to be this way. This is a book woven through with hope and awe at all the people who slip beyond imperial control and establish real democracy. Chomsky's strongest model – and the world's – is Bolivia's experiment with radical democracy. After 30 years of having neoliberalism forced on them by the West, including the cost of water pushed beyond their grasp, the Bolivian people elected the first indigenous leader since the European conquests. Since then, it has had the fastest fall in poverty and the most rapid growth in Latin America.
In his cool blizzard of facts and sources, the hot air of his critics seems to melt away. To pluck one example, the leftist-turned-neocon supporter Nick Cohen has accused Chomsky of being soft on jihadism (as well as of "not being bothered" by "the crimes of Adolf Hitler"). Yet Chomsky points out that an analysis of official data for the government-supported RAND corporation found that the invasion of Iraq caused a "seven-fold increase in jihadism." If you really hate jihadism, you have to figure out what reduces it, rather than engage in bluster. Chomsky supported the path that produces fewer jihadis, while Cohen supports the path that produces more.
Chomsky presents all this plainly, and a sly sense of humour. Describing the growing rebellions in Afghanistan, he notes: "People have the odd characteristic of objecting to the slaughter of family members and friends." When I was shamefully wrong about the war in Iraq, it was an email exchange with Chomsky – where he laid bare the best evidence about what was motivating the US government – that helped me figure out where I had erred.
Hopes and Prospects is a book that can do the same for many more people – a treasure-trove of truths that shouldn't be left buried in our sandpit of propaganda and lies.
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