Jeremy Fox used to be a language teacher at UEA in Norwich. He now writes about current affairs and the ways in which global capitalism uses the media to keep us well behaved.
Noam Chomsky is well placed to represent a left-wing view of globalisation and the new world order. He is well known, a prolific writer of books, articles and letters, and makes many speeches, so information about his views is easy to find. In his research work, he is known as the Einstein of modern linguistics, and almost universally admired by his colleagues for his contribution to their work. But as a commentator on political and social affairs, he arouses mixed feelings. Many socialists admire him warmly and would agree with much of what he says and writes. But some middle-of-the-road Americans find it hard to accept the unremitting severity of his attacks on American government policy, especially foreign policy. The irritation felt by some is expressed in this quotation from the prestigious New York Times:
Arguably the most important intellectual alive, how can he write such nonsense about international affairs and foreign policy?
Another, similar viewpoint is expressed by a reader of the Los Angeles Times who wrote in 1988 that:
Noam Chomsky is a voice in the wilderness, but nobody listens. ...
From our point of view, however, the qualities that are most useful in a commentator on globalisation are more likely to include readability, expertise and common sense than unquestioning acceptance of US government policy.
For over 30 years, Chomsky has been denouncing US foreign policy, complaining noisily about the way the USA has treated so many Third World countries. To take a typical example, he lectured at the American University in Cairo in 1993 about the Cold War period, during which US operations included the overthrow of the conservative parliamentary regime in Iran in 1953, restoring the Shah and his brutal rule; the destruction of Guatemalas ten year democratic interlude, which placed in power a collection of mass murderers who would have won nods of approval from Himmler and Goering, with atrocities reaching their highest level in the 1980s, always with the backing or participation of the United States and its client states; and the establishment of a Latin-American style terror state in South Vietnam.
Chomsky is not alone in such attacks on US foreign policy. For example, Garry Wills noted the American tendency to dethrone elected leaders in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and substitute others that they have felt to be more suitable:
Over time, American leadership substituted for that of Muhammad Mossadeq in Iran, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam, Rafael Trujillo in The Dominican Republic, Salvador Allende in Chile, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Maurice Bishop in Grenada, and Manuel Noriega in Panama.
The idea of the US as a bully was reflected in the leading article in a British newspaper in March 1999. Referring to a trade dispute with the European Community about Caribbean bananas, the Independent newspaper recommended resisting the retaliatory tariffs imposed by the US on cashmere pullovers and possibly Concorde landing rights, commenting:
The behaviour of the United States is bullying, unconvincing, and illegal, and quite extraordinary for a nation which espouses the values of free trade and the rule of law.
In actual fact, as Chomsky often makes clear, America does not believe in free trade for itself at all, but only for non-Western countries. Free trade is imposed on the poor countries by the leaders of the world, whose industries and commerce have long been amply protected.
Chomsky is a dissident, but a scholarly one. An example is his work on global politics, World Orders, Old and New. This book of 342 pages contains something like 850 references to other books, articles, newspapers etc. Furthermore, if a mistake ever does slip into any of his publications, he makes sure it is corrected in later versions. Thus James McGilvray writes:
he constantly updates his discussion of issues and areas; his work on Israel is an example.
The work on the Middle East to which McGilvray is referring includes the original edition of Chomskys Fateful Triangle The United States, Israel and The Palestinians. This first came out in 1983, but was republished in an updated edition in 1999. (The later edition included 92 extra pages, plus notes, in three new chapters.) And of course Chomsky is well aware that, if his work were ever slipshod, he would soon be exposed by his detractors. In fact, he seems to see himself as a sort of guardian of truth and provider of accurate information. Indeed, Chomsky has specifically written:
What Im trying to do is simply provide the service to popular dissident movements and scattered individuals that any person who has the resources, the privilege, the training, etc. should perform, nothing beyond that.
Some may be tempted to idolise Chomsky, who is clearly a remarkable person. There is a nice vignette by Norman Mailer, dating back to 1967:
Later in the year, his cell mate during one night in jail, Norman Mailer, who had heard that Chomsky, though barely thirty, was considered a genius at MIT for his new contribution to linguistics, would portray him as a slim sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression, and an air of gentle but absolute moral integrity.
And Carlos Otero, editor of Chomskys Language and Politics, speaks of him in relation to the prophetic traditions of both the Enlightenment and recent Jewish writings. On a more everyday level, he is known to be kind to those who ask him for help, and normally answers inquiries with a minimum of delay, often within a few hours.
Whether he is writing about linguistics or commenting on global economics or American attacks on the Third World, his views are simply expressed, yet often startlingly original. He claims that
Im really not interested in persuading people, I dont want to and I try to make this point obvious. What Id like to do is to help people persuade themselves.