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Speak Up, Memory

In his new book, America’s pre-eminent dissenter Noam Chomsky does what he does best: dismantle the consensus and deceits of liberal democracy

Written by C. Rammanohar Reddy |
August 13, 2016 12:15:51 am
Who Rules the World, Who Rules the World review, Who Rules the World book review, Noam Chomsky, Noam Chomsky review, Noam Chomsky books, Noam Chomsky new book Noam Chomsky has been calling out the inequalities of the global order since 1967. (Source: Andrew Rusk/Wikicommons)

Title: Who Rules the World?
Author: Noam Chomsky
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Pages: 320
Price: Rs 699

For more than half a century, Noam Chomsky has been America’s pre-eminent dissenter. Ever since 1967, when he wrote the essay Responsibilities of the Intellectual at the height of the protests in the United States against the Vietnam War, Chomsky has been never shirked from questioning the state.

This collection of articles is a good introduction to Chomsky for a generation whose exposure to critical intellectual discussion is confined to Twitter’s 140 characters and sound bites by “experts” on TV. Chomsky draws on history, going back even to the Magna Carta to expose what he sees as the deceit and lies of liberal democracy. If there is a basic approach underlying his arguments, it is to strip us of “historical amnesia”, which “is a dangerous phenomenon not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity but also because it lays the ground work for crimes that still lie ahead” (p 43).

The method of making the reader shake off amnesia is familiar Chomsky: Compare similar events in the past and the present, and thereby show a difference in state response. One example: The world was horrified with a missile downing the Malaysian Airlines MH17 over the Ukraine in 2014, which resulted in the death of 298 people; the US, in particular, expressed outrage at alleged Russian complicity. But where was the outrage in 1980, when the Vincennes, a US guided missile cruiser, shot down Iran Air 665, a civilian aircraft operating in Iranian air space, with 290 people on board? There was no US government outrage at the time, with the commander of the Vincennes being recognised two years later, we are reminded, for “exceptionally meritorious conduct”. Some would contest the use of examples of “equivalence” (or the lack of it) across time and contexts to make a point. But in a world where some states exercise much greater power than others, there is an unequal influence states have on public opinion, and such examples do bring out the imbalance in power.

The global issues Chomsky discusses range from the Cuban crisis of 1962 to US involvement in central and south America to Palestine and Israel, and, of course, 9/11 and thereafter. In just three pages (pp 249-51), he lays bare the US role in destroying Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, resulting in, among other things, the emergence of ISIS. The realists, who today dominate the world of commentators on security, would dismiss what they will see as Chomsky’s unidimensional critique of the US. But you need a Chomsky to clear the fog and cut to the core.

We can complain that for a book published in 2016, there is not much of a discussion of the ISIS. The one problem is that the volume appears to be a collection of articles published elsewhere prior to 2015, with only a few pieces being apparently updated or freshly written. And because of that, there is the occasional repetition across chapters.

Chomsky does not answer the question, “Who rules the world?” Indeed, that there is no single entity ruling the world is one of his points. The US is described as the biggest terrorist state in the world. (For those who argue that US power is on the decline, Chomsky acknowledges the relative decline in US economic dominance, but correctly insists that American military dominance continues. ) There is also the point that it is no longer only states that exercise extreme power, so do global financial institutions and multinational corporations. At one point, Chomsky approvingly quotes a commentator describing global people’s movements as constituting the “Second Superpower”. The argument — based on strength of the global anti-Iraq War protests of 2003 — is not developed.)

It is only Chomsky who can make the fundamental point that when we speak of “security”, we should discuss the security of people, not states. A constant refrain in the collection it is that the world is on the edge of two forms of annihilation — by nuclear weapons and climate change. A number of frightening (and not so well-known) events that Chomsky recounts from the time of the Cuban crisis to the Reagan era tell us how lucky the world has been to escape complete destruction. The end of the Cold War has not reduced that danger. Climate change (discussed in relatively less detail) is the second danger that we refuse to acknowledge, the threat being much greater than acknowledged by official bodies. Both these extreme dangers tend to be ignored in most discussions of security.

An enormous amount of reading of both primary and secondary sources underlies Chomsky’s writings. The reader will yet find that the collection is not cluttered with footnotes; instead the end notes at the back of the book document the sources of many insights and gems.

Here are just two. In 1952, Stalin made a proposal that Germany could become one and elections be held in the unified country, provided the new Germany did not join a military alliance. The US rejected the proposal (p182). What may have been the consequences for world peace if the US had followed up on the Soviet proposal? The second one in these days of Islamophobia is of Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the US, saying that the newly independent US should be concerned about Germans entering the country because “they were too swarthy”. The American icons were not free from racism.

C. Rammanohar Reddy is a writer based in Hyderabad

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