In the name of Noam, how can we forget the past?

Hopes and Propects
Noam Chomsky
Hamish Hamilton; £18.99

IN THE aftermath of the G20 street battles, a newspaper columnist in Toronto let fly at the protesters. “I hope they get sued for the damage they’ve done,” he wrote, “and have to sell their entire Michael Moore DVD collections and their victim-affirming Noam Chomsky libraries.”

The comment summed up the capacity to polarise possessed by film producer and self-publicist Michael Moore, and by a man whose trade – linguistics – is rather more abstruse than movie-making. Noam Chomsky is one of those figures who attracts passionate fans and furious opponents in equal measure. Opponents of the professor regard his fans as mushy, illogical, conspiracy-theory-loving extreme liberals. His fans regard his opponents as dangerously powerful, uncaring, inhumane, irresponsible and coercive. To reveal a position, vis-à-vis Chomsky, is to invite immediate pejorative categorisation.

Now in his 80s, Chomsky grew up in a Philadelphian Jewish home where he developed the interest in linguistics that would define his career and see his thinking influence a wide range of disciplines, ranging from child development to computer language.

However, when he is described as “the most cited author in the world”, many of the public references make note of his political, rather than linguistic, writing.

Like Ivan Illich and Thomas Szasz, he was the darling of alternative thinkers in the 1970s and 1980s. Illich was the man who questioned health service provision, drawing attention to iatrogenic or hospital-acquired diseases long before they were recognised as a major factor in, and drain on, health management. Szasz was the doctor who – along with Laing and others – suggested that much madness was in fact a sane deviation from a crazy world. Chomsky was the man who expressed an unremitting scepticism regarding US foreign policy and the elite figures who developed and continue to develop it.

Hopes and Prospects – his latest collection – is based on a series of essays and talks, some of them delivered in Ireland, where the man the Guardian newspaper describes as “the closest thing in the English-speaking world to an intellectual superstar” has always had a substantial following.

The book is a sustained global SWAT analysis, setting out to examine the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of humanity as we enter the second decade of the 21st century.

The key threats, according to Chomsky, are, first and foremost, the challenge posed by the existence of nuclear weapons, closely followed by the danger of environmental catastrophe, which he sees as “no less a threat to survival”.

“A serious approach would surely move with dispatch toward conservation and renewable energy, along with dedication of substantial resources to technological innovations – harnessing solar energy,” he writes. “And beyond that, significant socioeconomic changes must be undertaken to reverse the effects of the huge state-corporate social engineering projects of the post-World War II period designed to create a system based on wasteful reliance on fossil fuels.”

Of course, within that last sentence is an assumption typical of Chomsky’s work, padded about with references to ancillary assumptions. What were these “huge state-corporate social engineering projects”? Where did they happen? Which state and which corporations were involved? And could any state/corporate project have set out, 50 years ago, to “create a system” based on fossil fuels? Clearly, oil and coal interests wanted to sell their wares. But did they have the prescience to create entire systems of commerce and governance designed to create a long-term dependence on such fuels, or was that dependence a consequence of the coming together of a series of unrelated factors?

This brings us to a key aspect of Chomsky’s work.

Fully to enjoy it requires that the reader treats any of his books as something close to a bulletin from a religious movement, demanding initial declaration of faith in the overarching principles. Those principles include a belief that capitalism and the great western powers are engaged in a sophisticated and sustained conspiracy against the rights of the developing world, motivated by the desire to buy raw materials on the cheap. They include a credo that, even at great moments of positive change, like the liberation of eastern Europe from Russian tyranny, the unchanging rule of the imperial culture of the west is to “focus laser-like on the crimes of enemies, and on our high-minded and courageous condemnation of their crimes”, while never examining our own consciences.

The reader who makes that almost religious commitment will find the blocks of thinking in this book falling satisfactorily into place, although that satisfaction comes at the price of generalised fear that the rich and powerful are out to “get” us. The reader who cannot make that commitment will find stretches of this book difficult, tedious and at times incredible in its portrayal of interlocking conspiracies between business and state interests.

Any reader of intellectual stamina will find the essays stimulating, tightly argued and supported by a substantial section of references and notes.

Chomsky lived through World War II, the Cold War, the Swinging Sixties, the boom years towards the end of the 20th century, the attacks of 9/11 and the global economic recession consequent on the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the domino effect it created. He has lived into a time when what Oprah Winfrey calls “living in the moment” has become a technological imperative: we spend much of our time noting, analysing and commenting on aspects of the present through email, Twitter and blogs. High visitor numbers to a multiplicity of breaking news sites underline our addiction to the present, and the astonished reaction to films dealing with, say, the Holocaust, (“did that really happen?”) underlines the commensurate weakening of connection with the past. That weakening of connection with the past, according to Chomsky, carries its own dangers for humanity.

“Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that lie ahead,” he concludes.


Wesley O’ Regan is the General Manager of Popscene in Voodoo Rooms, Cork city. Popscene opened last November and is Cork’s only themed bar that is dedicated to celebrating the best of the 80s and 90s.'ve Been Served: Wesley O'Regan, Popscene

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