Exemption politics

Power and Terror

by Noam Chomsky

(Jacana)

Terrorism of the weak against the powerful is not addressed without confronting the more extreme terrorism of the powerful against the weak.

This is the thesis of Power and Terror, a collection of post-September 11 talks and interviews in which Noam Chomsky focuses on the more imperial trends of United States foreign policy.

Two subsidiary themes substantiate this thesis.
The first is that of moral and political hypocrisy, particularly the idea that “the atrocities you commit somewhere else don’t exist”. What Chomsky dramatises here is that form of political explanation — so typical of current US politics — that automatically exempts one’s own interests from any real scrutiny.

A second theme, more baldly stated, is the contention that “there is … one simple way for the US to decrease very significantly the amount of terror in the world … to just stop supporting and participating in it”.

The spoken quality of Chomsky’s text is evident in a number of ways that would register more starkly were it principally a book of written words. He employs a didactic pattern of repetitions across the book, reiterating, for instance, that Israel is, to all intents and purposes, a US military base, the strongest and most reliable foothold of US power in the Middle East, “so integrated into the US military economy, it’s indistinguishable”. As opposed to his tighter scholarly prose, both patient and objective in the way it builds an argument out of painstakingly gathered empirical data, Chomsky makes frequent reference to the anecdotal evidence of his own experiences in the West Bank, Latin America and Turkey.

He also tends to slip into a rather loose polemical style, and along with it, an implicit moral fervour. In his important discussion of the worryingly high correlation between US foreign aid and torture he asks: “… How do you improve the investment climate in a Third World country? … [You] murder union organisers and peasant leaders … torture priests … massacre peasants … undermine social programmes and so on.”

Perhaps the point to be made here is that what counts as poor form in terms of political debate — loaded examples, employed in an almost dismissive manner — nonetheless makes for a powerful rhetoric of popular activism.

The text also smoothes out an apparent ideological contradiction. There is most definitely a massive media blackout on select “atrocities” of US foreign policy and military intervention; Chomsky drives this point home aggressively.

However, there is also a curious kind of transparency at work here, at least inasmuch as “the current US leadership is … quite frankly and openly committed to the use of violence to control the world”.

As the sole superpower, the US no longer needs recourse to any particularly sophisticated ideological treatment of historical events. The more contentious of these either fall out of history altogether — so much so that when such facts are confronted they gain a kind of incredulity or unintelligibility, after all, “what Americans are doing must be right and just, by definition, since it is done by Americans” — or they come to be represented as the polar opposite of what actually was the case, such as in the very notion of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”.

Another point of clarification: in response to the question, “What is the mechanism by which the government influences the media?”, Chomsky answers: “It doesn’t. The government has almost no influence over the media.”

Initially this seems surprising from a critic who has spent so much time detailing the awesome ideological force of the media as virtual propaganda machine. His subsequent retort supplies the connection: “The media are huge corporations that share the interests of the corporate sector that dominates the government.”

The paradox here being that there is, in fact, a kind of media freedom, at least from the direct controlling hand of the government, but not from the interests of capital, which exerts a determining influence over the government and media alike. What Chomsky provides us with here, in short, is an unusually important document of popular dissent.

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