Review: Noam Chomsky – “Because We Say So”

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Because We Say So by Noam Chomsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many of my favourite books cover many areas, especially where non-fiction is concerned. I wish this collection of essays and articles, all written by Noam Chomsky (except for the one where David Barsamian interviews Chomsky), were fiction, but it’s not.

This collection covers many areas, ranging from a short description of anarchy to Obama’s drone-wielding terrorist campaign, over climate change, into the more-than-apartheid campaign of Israel against Palestine. It’s a lot, but it’s so well written, and so thoroughly researched, that it’s impossible to withstand, even if one tried to.

From the introduction:

The commentaries presented in this book are a collection of columns penned between 2011 and 2014, distributed to the international press by the New York Times Syndicate, and widely published in newspapers abroad. Few, if any, are published on the op-ed pages of American papers, and U.S. military censors even banned distribution of an earlier collection of his commentaries, INTERVENTIONS.

That’s right. That book wasn’t allowed into the reading list at Guantánamo Bay.

Chomsky’s writing is, as always, simple and plain, even providing insight that extraterrestrials would find easy to get (not that we’re hard to crack as a species, despite our wont to deplete ourselves):

To gain perspective on what’s happening in the world, it’s sometimes useful to adopt the stance of intelligent extraterrestrial observers viewing the strange doings on Earth. They would be watching in wonder as the richest and most powerful country in world history now leads the lemmings cheerfully off the cliff.

Last month, the International Energy Agency (IEA), which was formed on the initiative of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1974, issued its latest report on rapidly increasing carbon emissions from fossil fuel use. The IEA estimated that if the world continues on its present course, the “carbon budget” will be exhausted by 2017. The budget is the quantity of emissions that can keep global warming at the 2 degrees Celsius level considered the limit of safety. IEA chief economist Fatih Birol said, “The door is closing . . . if we don’t change direction now on how we use energy, we will end up beyond what scientists tell us is the minimum (for safety). The door will be closed forever.”

Also last month, the U.S. Department of Energy reported the emissions figures for 2010. Emissions “jumped by the biggest amount on record,” the Associated Press reported, meaning that “levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst-case scenario” anticipated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007. John Reilly, co-director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) program on climate change, told the Associated Press that scientists have generally found the IPCC predictions to be too conservative—unlike the fringe of denialists who gain public attention. Reilly reported that the IPCC’s worst-case scenario was about in the middle of the MIT scientists’ estimates of likely outcomes.

[…]

The hypothetical extraterrestrial observers can be pardoned if they conclude that we seem to be infected by some kind of lethal insanity.

Chomsky’s “Anniversaries from ‘Unhistory'” is great, so much that it deserves a chapter of its own in this review. Instead, I will link to some highlights of mine, from that chapter: https://www.highly.co/hl/55ffa39b6c69…

Naturally, Chomsky delves into the concept of terrorism, what it actually means, not only the word, but how terrorism is defined by the UN, and how the USA continually deceive its population and the rest of the world on that note:

In three years we may—or may not—commemorate another event of great contemporary relevance: the 900th anniversary of the Magna Carta. This document is the foundation for what historian Margaret E. McGuiness, referring to the Nuremberg Trials, hailed as a “particularly American brand of legalism: punishment only for those who could be proved to be guilty through a fair trial with a panoply of procedural protections.”

The Great Charter declares that “no free man” shall be deprived of rights “except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.” The principles were later broadened to apply to men generally. They crossed the Atlantic and entered into the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, which declared that no “person” can be deprived of rights without due process and a speedy trial. The founders of course did not intend the term “person” to actually apply to all persons. Native Americans were not persons. Neither were those who were enslaved. Women were scarcely persons. However, let us keep to the core notion of presumption of innocence, which has been cast into the oblivion of unhistory.

A further step in undermining the principles of the Magna Carta was taken when President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which codifies Bush-Obama practice of indefinite detention without trial under military custody. Such treatment is now mandatory in the case of those accused of aiding enemy forces during the “war on terror,” or optional if those accused are American citizens.

[…]

Many other examples illuminate the concept of “terrorist.” One is Nelson Mandela, only removed from the terrorist list in 2008. Another was Saddam Hussein. In 1982 Iraq was removed from the list of terrorist-supporting states so that the Reagan administration could provide Hussein with aid after he invaded Iran. Accusation is capricious, without review or recourse, and commonly reflecting policy goals—in Mandela’s case, to justify President Reagan’s support for the apartheid state’s crimes in defending itself against one of the world’s “more notorious terrorist groups”: Mandela’s African National Congress. All better consigned to unhistory.

Chomsky’s tips are always interesting:

In his penetrating study IDEAL ILLUSIONS: HOW THE U.S. GOVERNMENT CO-OPTED HUMAN RIGHTS, international affairs scholar James Peck observes, “In the history of human rights, the worst atrocities are always committed by somebody else, never us”—whoever “us” is.

Also, his views on companies and corporations that go hand-in-hand with government seldom disappoint to shock:

Joining the Vietnamese appeal against Dow are the government of India, the Indian Olympic Association, and the survivors of the horrendous 1984 Bhopal gas leak, one of history’s worst industrial disasters, which killed thousands and injured more than half a million. Union Carbide, the corporation responsible for the disaster, was taken over by Dow, for whom the matter is of no slight concern. In February, Wikileaks revealed that Dow hired the U.S. private investigative agency Stratfor to monitor activists seeking compensation for the victims and prosecution of those responsible.

His words on Israel, on the perennial US support for Israel, are always clarifying:

The possibility that Iran might develop nuclear weapons arises in the electoral campaign. (The fact that Israel already has them does not.) Two positions are counterposed: Should the U.S. declare that it will attack if Iran reaches the capability to develop nuclear weapons, which dozens of countries enjoy? Or should Washington keep the “red line” more indefinite? The latter position is that of the White House; the former is demanded by Israeli hawks—and accepted by the U.S. Congress. The Senate just voted 90–1 to support the Israeli position.

His words on how the USA perceive Iran as “a major threat”, or, indeed, “the biggest threat”, are also crystal clear:

As numerous polls have shown, although citizens of Arab countries generally dislike Iran, they do not regard it as a very serious threat. Rather, they perceive the threat to be Israel and the United States; and many, sometimes considerable majorities, regard Iranian nuclear weapons as a counter to these threats.

[…]

PREROGATIVES OF POWER February 4, 2014

As the year 2013 drew to an end, the BBC reported on the results of the WIN/Gallup International poll on the question: “Which country do you think is the greatest threat to peace in the world today?” The United States was the champion by a substantial margin, winning three times the votes of second-place Pakistan. By contrast, the debate in American scholarly and media circles is about whether Iran can be contained, and whether the huge NSA surveillance system is needed to protect U.S. security. In view of the poll, it would seem that there are more pertinent questions: Can the United States be contained and other nations secured in the face of the U.S. threat?

And, on capitalism:

CAN CIVILIZATION SURVIVE CAPITALISM? March 4, 2013

There is “capitalism” and then there is “really existing capitalism.” The term “capitalism” is commonly used to refer to the U.S. economic system, with substantial state intervention ranging from subsidies for creative innovation to the “too-big-to-fail” government insurance policy for banks. The system is highly monopolized, further limiting reliance on the market, and increasingly so: In the past 20 years the share of profits of the 200 largest enterprises has risen sharply, reports scholar Robert W. McChesney in his new book, DIGITAL DISCONNECT.

His human insights and retellings of stories from Gaza are very touching:

While a showcase for the human capacity for violence, Gaza is also an inspiring exemplar of the demand for dignity. Ghada Ageel, a young woman who escaped from Gaza to Canada, writes about her 87-year-old refugee grandmother, still trapped in the Gaza prison. Before her grandmother’s expulsion from a now-destroyed village, “she owned a house, farms and land and she enjoyed honor, dignity and hope.” Amazingly, like Palestinians generally, the elderly woman hasn’t given up hope. “When I saw my grandmother in November 2012 she was unusually happy,” Ageel writes. “Surprised by her high spirits, I asked for an explanation. She looked me in the eye and, to my surprise, said that she was no longer worried about” her native village and the life of dignity that she has lost, for her irrevocably. The village, her grandmother told Ageel, “is in your heart, and I also know that you are not alone in your journey. Don’t be discouraged. We are getting there.”

A few words on Edward Snowden and people like Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning:

Washington has made clear that any country that refuses to extradite Snowden will face harsh punishment. The United States will “chase him to the ends of the earth,” Senator Lindsey Graham warned.

[…]

U.S. government spokespersons assured the world that Snowden will be granted the full protection of American law—referring to those same laws that have kept U.S. Army soldier Bradley Manning (who released a vast archive of U.S. military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks) in prison for three years, much of it in solitary confinement under humiliating conditions. Long gone is the archaic notion of a speedy trial before a jury of peers. On July 30 a military judge found Manning guilty of charges that could lead to a maximum sentence of 136 years. Like Snowden, Manning committed the crime of revealing to Americans—and others—what their government is doing. That is a severe breach of “security” in the operative meaning of the term, familiar to anyone who has pored over declassified documents. Typically “security” means security of government officials from the prying eyes of the public to whom they are answerable—in theory.

[…]

In an interview on German TV, Edward J. Snowden said that his “breaking point” was “seeing Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress” by denying the existence of a domestic spying program conducted by the National Security Agency. Snowden elaborated that “the public had a right to know about these programs. The public had a right to know that which the government is doing in its name, and that which the government is doing against the public.” The same could be justly said by Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and other courageous figures who acted on the same democratic principle. The government stance is quite different: The public doesn’t have the right to know because security thus is undermined—severely so, as officials assert.

There are several good reasons to be skeptical about such a response. The first is that it’s almost completely predictable: When a government’s act is exposed, the government reflexively pleads security. The predictable response therefore carries little information. A second reason for skepticism is the nature of the evidence presented. International relations scholar John Mearsheimer writes, “The Obama administration, not surprisingly, initially claimed that the NSA’s spying played a key role in thwarting 54 terrorist plots against the United States, implying it violated the Fourth Amendment for good reason. “This was a lie, however. General Keith Alexander, the NSA director, eventually admitted to Congress that he could claim only one success, and that involved catching a Somali immigrant and three cohorts living in San Diego who had sent $8,500 to a terrorist group in Somalia.”

His words on anarchy:

Anarchism is, famously, opposed to the state, while advocating “planned administration of things in the interest of the community,” in Rocker’s words; and beyond that, wide-ranging federations of self-governing communities and workplaces.

[…]

This broad tendency in human development seeks to identify structures of hierarchy, authority and domination that constrain human development, and then subject them to a very reasonable challenge: Justify yourself. If these structures can’t meet that challenge, they should be dismantled—and, anarchists believe, “refashioned from below,” as commentator Nathan Schneider observes.

On the current drone campaign:

For example, President Obama’s drone-driven global assassination program, by far the world’s greatest terrorist campaign, is also a terror-generating campaign. General Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan until he was relieved of duty, spoke of “insurgent math”: For every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. This concept of “innocent person” tells us how far we’ve progressed in the last 800 years, since the Magna Carta, which established the principle of presumption of innocence that was once thought to be the foundation of Anglo-American law.

I love how Chomsky displays the thoughts of major publications and how they follow the lead of their government:

Recently the NEW YORK TIMES reported the “anguish” of a federal judge who had to decide whether to allow the force-feeding of a Syrian prisoner who is on a hunger strike to protest his imprisonment. No “anguish” was expressed over the fact that he has been held without trial for 12 years in Guantánamo Bay military prison, one of many victims of the leader of the Free World who claims the right to hold prisoners without charges and to subject them to torture.

A bit more on companies/corporations vs the environment:

It is unfair to omit exercises of “soft power” and the role of the private sector. A good example is Chevron’s decision to abandon its widely touted renewable energy programs, because fossil fuels are far more profitable. Exxon Mobil in turn announced “that its laserlike focus on fossil fuels is a sound strategy, regardless of climate change,” BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK reports, “because the world needs vastly more energy and the likelihood of significant carbon reductions is ‘highly unlikely.’” It is therefore a mistake to remind readers daily of the Nuremberg judgment. Aggression is no longer the “supreme international crime.” It cannot compare with destruction of the lives of future generations to ensure bigger bonuses tomorrow.

Brilliant. Simple. Plain. Insightful. A must-read.

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