Noam Chomsky. The New York Times once called him "arguably the most important intellectual alive." According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, between 1980 and 1992 Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar, and the eighth most cited scholar overall (Wikipedia). In the field of linguistics, his works are considered to be some of the most significant contributions in the past century. His hierarchy of formal languages is even taught in my field, computer science, where it is an important part of automata theory. According to wikipedia, "he also helped spark the cognitive revolution in psychology." Chomsky is clearly a smart guy. But beyond academia, Chomsky is most well known for his political activism. Since the mid-60's, he has been a harsh critic of US foreign policy and he is considered to be one of the key intellectual figures in leftist American politics.
I have always admired Noam Chomsky, especially after seeing the 1992 documentary "Manufacturing Consent" about his life and politics, and I was looking forward to reading some of his work. This past weekend, on the drive to and from Columbia, I listened to the 12-hour audio book of Chomsky's most recent work: "Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy."
"Failed States" is a carefully articulated and well-researched critique of American policies both abroad and at home. It exposes American foreign policies for what they really are ... not idealistic crusades to "promote democracy around the world" but raw imperialist aggression designed to tilt the world in favor of American corporate interests at all costs. "Failed States" chronicles our complete disdain for all established international laws and standards, our efforts to topple legitimately elected democratic governments that might stand up to our exploitation in favor of brutal dictatorships, and our extensive military build-up that is creating a worldwide arms race - bringing the world closer and closer to nuclear oblivion. Add to all this to Chomsky's evidence that our government's domestic policies are radically different from public opinion, concerns of election fraud, and an electorate ill informed of candidate positions and you start to see the book's main argument - that the US can easily fit into our own definition of a "Failed State"
While I could talk about this book all day, I'm going to try and keep this post to a decent length so I'm going to limit myself to a few topics. First off, it's amazing the double standard (or "single standard" as Chomsky calls it - because it only applies to the US) we have with regard to international law. Think of an international treaty that relates to human rights, the environment, war... the Kyoto Protocols, the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, the UN Charter, the Geneva Convention, etc - in nearly every case you can think of the US has either not signed, vetoed or claimed that it doesn't apply. Ignoring these international laws allows us to pursue our illegal preemptive war in Iraq, our illegal human rights abuses in Guantanamo, and our military aid and support to brutal dictatorships. We are a rogue state that almost never honors international law while simultaneously criticizing other states (only when they disagree with our demands mind you) for violating these international laws. And the interesting thing - according to Chomsky's polling data - the majority of Americans agree with international opinion on most of these issues. According to Chomsky, we have a "democracy deficient" because public opinion is so vastly different from government policy.
Perhaps most interesting is that these policies have been consistent and continuous since the post-World War II period when we emerged as a major world power - regardless of political party. So while Republicans are clearly much worse about these things, Chomsky is not letting the Democrats off the hook. Apparently Clinton had a foreign policy that was just as, if not more, aggressive sounding than the Bush Doctrine. Because both Democrats and Republicans are competing for campaign money from the same source - wealthy corporations - neither party actually represents the interests of normal Americans. We don't live in a liberal democracy; we live in a system of corporate state capitalism. As Chomsky sees it - most modern politics is a distraction with voter confusion as the ultimate goal.
And to me this is one of the key things to take away here. This isn't just another partisan book slamming the Bush administration while giving a nice pat on the back to Democrats... it's a harsh eye-opener on what our government really stands for and does in the rest of the world. As hard as it is to believe, We are the world's greatest threat to peace! Millions of people suffer every day because of US policies. As a starting point for change, Chomsky offers us seven issues that have wide public support according to polls but are not supported by our government.
- Accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court
- Sign and carry forward the Kyoto protocols on global warming
- Let the United Nations take the lead in international crises
- Rely on diplomatic and economic measures rather than military ones in confronting terror
- Keep the traditional interpretation of the UN Charter
- Give up the security council veto and have decent respect for the opinion of mankind, even if power centers disagree
- Sharply reduce military spending and sharply increase social spending
Doesn't seem like it's too radical of a list is it? Then if we could just find a way to add some more political parties. Voters need more choice. Politics is far too complex for this binary, left-right political spectrum paradigm we are stuck in. But at any rate, if you ever get the chance to read some Chomsky - do it!