Sunday, June 1, 2014

Noam Chomsky

When I was growing up, I had little cause to be political about anything. I was a white Anglo-Saxon male living in prosperous suburbs, and my parents and grandparents had never been persecuted. Though my great-grandparents on my mother's side were more or less forced out of Turkey because they were Armenian, that was never discussed at home. My mother spent her life pretending not to be Armenian and identified herself as Greek. We had never seen a black person in England, and when we moved to the U.S. in 1957 my mother explained to us that if we saw one we shouldn't call him a "nigger," which was the first time I heard that word.

During the 1960's, the antiwar and civil rights movements seemed legitimate to me. I agreed with them in principle, but thought that since they were obviously right there wasn't much to say about them. I did not feel any of the "white guilt" that many well-off white American liberals felt, because I wasn't well-off or American. The absurdity of guilt-stricken American liberals became apparent to me when I arrived at college in 1968.

I recently saw an amateur documentary made by a college acquaintance in 1969. It features several other college acquaintances as they plan and execute a confrontation with the college president about the small number of black students on campus. It is painful to watch. They are naive and ideological, the black students want nothing to do with them, and the president squirms under pressure to take actions that he probably can't. Later on, when the U.S. invaded Cambodia in 1970, two students burned down the R.O.T.C. building and were caught because they burnt themselves in the process and went to the local hospital for treatment. In this sort of environment it was hard for me to take campus activism seriously. Even so, by the time I was a senior I had begun to see the college as a corporate entity that stayed afloat by preying on students who aren't substantively different from ordinary consumers. This led me to small acts of terrorism, but I wouldn't call them political.

Over the years my political awareness has increased somewhat, but I still have difficulty voting, because politics, politicians and political activists seem stupid to me. However, along the lines of insidious corporate activity, I began to think more about political brainwashing during the Gulf War (1990-1991). I was then living in Dixon, Illinois, Ronald Reagan's hometown. Up to that point I had thought of the Dixon natives as relaxed, likable and slightly agrarian; they were poorly-educated and unimaginative, but reasonable and pacifistic. I was surprised to learn, through their enthusiastic support of the war, that underneath they were conservative Republican war hawks. Further investigation showed that pretty much the entire state of Illinois is like that once you get outside of Chicago and college towns.

I have never read any of Noam Chomsky's books, but because he is widely considered to be one of the leading public intellectuals in the world, I've watched documentaries about him and seen him on TV. What interests me at the moment is that even though I'm not political and don't follow this stuff closely, I've generally come to the exact same conclusions that Chomsky reached decades ago on my own: governments and corporations manipulate the public in order for private entities to enrich themselves or secure their positions, and democracy is ignored in the process. Frequently, as a result, populations at home and abroad are criminally abused. In particular, Chomsky is highly critical of the actions of American presidents: "If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged." The funny thing is that he is not a fanatic and has ample facts and examples to back up everything he says.

One of the reasons why I'm discussing this is that it highlights points I've made earlier about conventional wisdom and conformity. Many important issues are swept under the rug by the media, and as a consequence few people think about them or react. Chomsky also makes criticisms of intellectuals similar to ones I've made. I am intrigued by the fact that he used to appear in the NYRB but no longer does. I wouldn't be surprised if he has been banned there because he calls out intellectual charlatans when he sees them: that is what they are at the NYRB. I might add that Chomsky is another classic "smart Jewish guy from Brooklyn," though he actually grew up in Philadelphia.

With the limited exposure I've had to Chomsky, there are only a couple of criticisms that I can think of. First, he is not an effective communicator. He is not concise, and therefore has little chance of winning over most people. He writes book after book and can talk for hour after hour on whatever topic he chooses, always in a low, unmodulated voice. Second, he identifies himself as a libertarian socialist or anarchist, neither of which I consider to be an adequate substitute for the current system of capitalism and nominal democracy. What kind of government can be against authority?

I'm not interested enough to explore Chomsky's political goals in detail, but from what I know they do not seem plausible. I suspect that he is an idealist regarding human nature, which is where I part company with him. The impression I have is that he thinks free speech and public awareness can create an environment in which authorities will be forced to work for the public good rather than for special interests. If you have read my earlier posts, you will know that I am far less sanguine about human nature. That is why I advocate an authoritarian system of governance that is immune to attempts at manipulation by individuals or special interests. I don't think that, given the nature of our species, a functional democracy is possible. Individual freedoms must be impartially curtailed according to a rational program. My ideal political party might be called the Zookeepers. How popular do you think that would be?

No comments:

Post a Comment