Books · Colonisation · Political · Whiteness & racism

Looking back and forward

Hopes and ProspectsHopes and Prospects by Noam Chomsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I read Chomsky, I always wonder, fearfully, who I will turn to for the truth when he retires. When I read
Manufacturing Consent
when I was about 18, I was utterly astonished. This isn’t the story I’ve been told, I thought. This doesn’t resemble the story I’ve been told in any way! Where did he find all this out? Reading Hopes and Prospects reminded me that he didn’t get it anywhere exotic – just from various press sources and ‘the internal [government] record’ which anyone could in theory access.

This revelation shows how the way media operates hides events in plain sight.
similarly exposed the failure of the media to reflect the public interest, with fake-balanced debates and selective under & over reporting. Chomsky is at pains to show though, that the public isn’t so much uninformed as ignored by government. Republicans and Democrats are both ‘significantly to the right’ of most of the electorate, according to surveys he quotes.

Similarly, while the US (and UK) public are told that populations in countries formerly colonised or currently cast as enemies hate ‘us’ and our ostensibly liberal democratic values, while a cursory examination of data shows that these values are regarded sympathetically and these populations just want them to actually be upheld in practice, instead of disingenously professed by powers that behave with indiscriminate aggression militarily, wreck indigenous political structures at all levels, and engage in highly protectionist economic practices for long enough to gain an unassailable position and then insist on ‘free trade’ and ‘a level playing field’. A first principle of ‘free trade’ is freedom of movement of labour, but US immigration restrictions are legendarily harsh, for instance.

I really wish I was good at big-picture thinking and could keep more of Chomsky’s arguments and evidence in my head. When I try to repeat them, I always sound unpersuasive, perhaps because I mix in too much of my own radical leanings. There’s virtually no ideology here at all. Chomsky doesn’t attempt to make a socialist, anarchist or whatever case to condemn the actions of the US, UK and Israeli administrations and the narrow concentrations of power (financial institutions and multinationals) that control them; he generally restricts himself to pointing out that their actions directly conflict with those precepts and the demands they impose on others. Upholding the rights of ordinary people to self determination and decent lives everywhere is the basic precept, too obvious to state.

Terms like “democracy promotion” and “globalization” have doctrinal meanings exactly opposite to their literal ones. When the US “promotes democracy” it actually suppresses populations, installs dictators et cetera, in order to ensure its economic interests are served by brutal exploitation, sweeping power and resources into the hands of local and international elites. States that uphold democratic values in the non-doctrinal sense, and divest from corporate exploitation are harassed and presented as authoritarian in the media – Chomsky uses the examples of Bolivia and Venezuela, where small anti-government protests (generally by minorities of wealthy citizens) are hugely amplified by global attention.

Chomsky does recap a little bit from his earlier books on the history of US behaviour in Latin America particularly under Reagan to make his point, but in general he passes on with phrases like ‘no need to mention what happened there’ (a wry mood and mildly satirizing use of doctrinal phrases elicited several exclamations of ‘HAH!’ from me throughout), the lectures in Latin America focus on more positive things happening of late: resistance to US hegemony, economic dominance and attempts to undermine democracy in the region.

I always enjoy Chomsky’s defence of Iran. Here he repeatedly mentions that as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, its right to develop non-weapons tech is enshrined in International law and protected from interference, yet it is continually harassed over any nuclear development, while non-signatory and US arms customer Israel can do as it likes. He explains why Iran would never use a nuclear weapon. However, seeking to acquire an arsenal makes perfect sense in Iran’s position: it’s demonstrably the only way to get the US off your back…

An important subject of the book is Obama, who arrived promising much, and has in Chomsky’s estimation delivered very little but more of the same old injustice when it comes to foreign policy, not least the increase of drone strikes. Headlines suggesting that he would be tough on Israel are belied by actions: the tradition of ignoring Palestinian offers of talks, respect of ceasefires, agreement to previous terms and treaties on the one hand, and Israeli international law and human rights violations on the other continues. Chomsky points out that the Israel and the US are not seeking a diplomatic solution at all (phrasing is instructive: political settlement is a ‘danger’ to be avoided), just trying to keep the ‘peace process’* in process long enough to annihilate any viable Palestinian territory.

*I think I’ve spotted another term which means its opposite in practice…

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