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Understanding Power: The Indispensible Chomsky Paperback – February 1, 2002

4.4 out of 5 stars 141 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Understanding Power is a wide-ranging collection of transcribed and previously unpublished discussions and seminars (from 1989 to 1999) with sociopolitical analyst Noam Chomsky.

The chapters, each covering discrete sessions with Chomsky, arrive in a question-and-answer format that at times becomes delightfully contentious. Chomsky holds forth on such disparate topics as American third-party politics, the stifling of true dissent, the illusion of a muscular media, heavy-handed American imperialism (from Southeast Asia to Mexico), a dysfunctional and self-destructing United States political left, the gilding of the Kennedy and Carter administrations, and the impotent state of labor unions.

The relatively accessibility of Understanding Power is a welcome balance to Chomsky's often formidable scholarly writings. This is a book best taken in doses: a sort of bedside reader. --H. O'Billovitch

From Library Journal

MIT-based Chomsky revolutionized linguistics in the late Fifties, but for nearly as long he has been better known as an energetic and constructive debunker of American establishment politics and behavior. However, the current Chomsky contributes nothing to the legacy he established decades ago. These two most recent productions do not reveal systematic efforts to sustain or develop any aspect of his prolifically expressed critique; indeed, they are not so much authored as collaged, with Chomsky's sanction, from talks, after-talk Q&As, and interviews with generally converted interlocutors. Understanding Power draws mainly on vintage utterances from the Nineties, and its most penetrating passage takes on, of all pressing matters, literary theory. Chomsky, who is relentless in condemning the media as incapable of any function other than converting the masses to elite desires, just as relentlessly samples mainstream reporting sources for instances of corporate and government ill doings. In trying to illustrate that he is not a crude conspiracy theorist, he conveys the opposite impression. The shorter 9-11 could not have been planned, of course, though it mostly consists of interviews conducted while the calendar still read September, suggesting both the urgency Chomsky felt to get his perspective on the record and his utter disinclination to reexamine any of his cemented opinions about world affairs. Chomsky condemns the attacks specifically and then suggests that the deaths are entirely the responsibility of capitalist globalization, which nonetheless he asserts is irrelevant to the September 11 actors. However, consistency is even less a priority for Chomsky than humility. Apparently, Chomsky believes that he has discovered the concept of blowback, not to mention imbalance in coverage of the perpetual Israeli-Palestinian murder-and-misery fetish. For him, a direct line runs from Reagan's mining of Nicaragua's harbors to the flying of commercial airliners into buildings. 9-11 is a worthwhile purchase for public libraries intent on demonstrating (or risking) balance; Understanding Power is not half as useful as Chomsky's earlier, authentic innovations in political literature, especially Manufacturing Consent (coauthored with Edward Herman). Libraries truly wishing to ensure representation of the most lucid nonconventional opinion should first check that their subscriptions to the Nation a proud carrier of Chomsky for 40 years are current. Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: The New Press; 9th edition (February 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565847032
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565847033
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (141 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #11,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I just bought this book and I am immensely pleased with it. I own other Chomsky books -- Manufacturing Consent, Fateful Triangle, and the short interview-based books from Common Courage Press, among others -- and I have to say that this is far and away my favorite of the lot. The more scholarly books, like Manufacturing Consent and The Fateful Triangle, are thick with documentation but rather dry -- this doesn't bother me personally, but it's difficult to introduce them to someone else. On the other hand, the more accessible works, What Uncle Sam Really Wants, for example, come off to the layperson as the radical ravings of a lunatic, and unless the reader already has similar sympathies or suspicions, they are far from persuasive. This is exacerbated by the fact that in these Chomsky offers little in the way of proof, and this is why I shy away from recommending these volumes to Chomsky newcomers; as Chomsky himself would say, he sounds like he's coming from Mars.
Understanding Power is a very welcome addition to the canon in large part because it addresses the aforementioned problems. For one, the questions he responds to aren't the softballs David Barsamian usually pitches him -- his interlocutors occasionally ask the very questions a skeptical or simply curious reader might be thinking to himself -- and his responses reflect this: they're less "crazy" and alien, and more thoughtful, informative, and generally convincing. A second reason Understanding Power deserves heaps of praise is the footnotes. ... The footnotes are incredible, absolutely incredible, and it's easy to see why they aren't included in the book. ...
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Format: Paperback
Many people are eager for a true alternative to the usual gang of talking heads (or shouting heads), pundits, etc, for commentary and analysis of political and social life. Noam Chomsky continues to offer such an alternative. However, people often find Chomsky's several dozen books on international affairs difficult to read; books of interviews with Chomsky tend to be much more popular than his own writings. The reason is simple: in the informal setting of an interview or the (often lengthy) question and answer periods that follow his talks Chomsky retains his remarkable ability to bring many topics together into a coherent response. He does this by drawing upon the same wealth of source material cited in his books, but the answers given in the casual setting flesh out Chomsky's keen sense of humor, his dedication to social justice and make for easier and even more interesting reading.
Carlos Otero realized this, about 15 years ago, and published "Language and Politics," an excellent book flawed only by the lack of an index or footnotes. Mitchell and Schoeffel, with "Understanding Power," have improved on Otero's book by providing an index and the much-requested and -needed footnotes. Everything in "Understanding Power" is well documented. So well documented that the notes are longer than the book itself! To handle this the editors have set up a web site especially for this book, where notes may be down-loaded (or read on-line) in either HTML or PDF format.
This book, almost all of which is in print for the first time, is at once a very accessible introduction to Chomsky's political thought as well as an excellent addition to the library of the most serious Chomsky critic or enthusiast.
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Format: Paperback
Required reading.
It is pretty much a given that Chomsky's ideas are compelling, whether you agee or not. The extraordinary value-add in this book is the editing job. It is obvious and gigantic. The authors have organized Chomsky's talks into logically flowing, highly documented, and parallel-structured snippets of one to three pages each - and there are a couple of hundred of them. Most of them open with an audience question, and a quick retort by Chomsky. This is followed by a key word: Look, Actually, or See, after which Chomsky goes into huge depth and detail, never straying from the focus. Again, the editing is what makes it all compelling, useful, and evenly paced. The amount of work that went into tearing apart years of talks, conversations and lectures, and then organizing them in complementary sections, making them fit a format that allows the reader to breeze through (well relatively breeze through) the densely packed insights of Noam Chomsky deserves some sort of award.
The footnotes are the most useful and detailed I have ever seen. They are a monumental standalone work in and of themselves. I only wish THEY were indexed like the book is - after all, there are 449 pages of them, compared to 401 pages in the book.
While Chomsky comes off as extraordinarily insightful, there are weaknesses - holes you could really exploit if you ever had the privilege of arguing with him. His knowledge of financial markets and foreign currency exchange, hedge funds and such is not only superficial, but sometimes just plain wrong. Sometimes he generalizes immense conclusions from a few superficial and specifically chosen facts that ignore the complexity of the situation.
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