Chomsky, Noam - Imperial Ambitions

Review :

An excellent little book, quickly read. Chomsky has been arguing the same points so routinely for so long that, even in these unrehearsed and lightly edited interviews, he is fluent in listing off the detailed evidence on which he builds his arguments. Indeed, because they are interview notes, they read fluently and effectively in a way that more laborious and more academic writing would not match.

Chomsk'y concern is that the USA is an imperfect democracy. "It has democratic institutions but they barely function... The genius of American politics has been to marginalise and isolate people." [p198]It operates for the benefit of a small elite, and of the corporations which the elite have successfully but quite illegitimately made into their selfish empires. Popular institutions that might enable true democratic influence,and especially trades unions, are repressed in the USA.

In order to pull off this stunt, it is essential to control the way people think and what they believe and the mechanisms for this were devised during the First World War, initially in Britain with the Ministry of Information, then in the U.S with the Committee on Public Information; these innovations were later built upon by the early gurus of public relations, not least Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann. A trip to Wikipedia to read more about Bernays really does repay the effort and reinforce what Chomsky has to say: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_...
and not least this line:
"Bernays felt that the public's democratic judgment was "not to be relied upon" and he feared that "they [the American public] could very easily vote for the wrong man or want the wrong thing, so that they had to be guided from above." This "guidance" was interpreted by" [his daughter] "Anne to mean that her father believed in a sort of "enlightened despotism" ideology"

It is quite important to understand the extent to which the methods of totalitarian government were developed in the western democracies as much as, and before, the more notorious cases of fascist and communist regimes. Chomsky does not pursue this point very far, though he does note that the Nazis modelled their ideas on Britain and the USA. This issue is developed in another book I reviewed this year, War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century by Domenico Losurdo. It is a hard idea to accept at first, so I certainly have needed to see it raised in quite a few different places for it to sink home.

The detailed accounts of events in this book, although certainly they belong to their time (2005), bear endless repetition, but the real value of Chomsky's work is to alert readers to the way in which political opinion is manipulated and political power abused. In a telling passage, he observes how easily the American (and the World's) public understood that "Chemical Ali," Iraq's Defence Minister, was prepared to persist in telling outright lies in the face of blatant counter evidence, yet the same behaviour by American and British Governments was allowed to pass with minimal serious challenge within those two great bastions of free speech. Asked how we might protect against being lied to, Chomsky suggests that we try using our common sense more. He makes repeated reference to the amazing claims that some tiny and unimportant little country (Florida under the Spanish, Haiti, Guatamala, Nicaragua, Cuba) has the power to endanger the most astonishing military and economic power on the planet. He points out the absurdity of believing that a country like Iraq would ever be allowed (not only by the USA, but by Israel, by Saudi Arabia) to enjoy democratic government. Such claims are just too incredible to be believed, yet they are the claims used to justify all sorts of American actions.

He is right to argue that it is terribly easy, in the comfortable conditions of our western democracies, for any citizen taking a little trouble to establish a better grasp on reality and there is no excuse for being so routinely seduced by propoganda. He is right to observe that the common people in other countries, supposedly less developed and less democratic, have absolutely no difficulty seeing that they are being lied to. But I think this also highlights the power of propaganda, the ability of the elite to manage popular opinion, and the extent to which people in a democracy will vote for politicians and policies that are utterly harmful to their own interests. It also highlights for me the poverty of leadership in opposition to those politicians and policies and the importance of Chomsky as a voice crying in the wilderness.


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