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Reflections on Chomsky's Dissent

Kris Schnee

I was excited when I first saw the posters advertising Noam Chomsky's upcoming speech. I'd heard of him before, as the author of some brilliant work on linguistic theory. I was eager to hear him speak on these topics. But his speech's topic was "Pillars of World Order: Fifty Years of the U.N., World Bank, IMF, and Declaration of Rights." A friend explained to me that Chomsky doesn't publicly speak much about his main field of study these days. Still, a celebration of fifty years of "world order" sounded interesting, so I went.

At the lecture, I pushed through the crowds to a table selling some of Chomsky's books. There were several criticizing American foreign policy or the American economy, one about "thought control in democratic societies", and an aptly named biography called "Life of Dissent". Strangely, I saw no sign that MIT's Institute Professor of Linguistics studied linguistics at all. Next to that table was another table covered with non-Chomsky political tracts for sale, with an anarchical bent. There was an interesting bumper sticker on display telling me that, "If voting could do anything, it'd be illegal."

When I found the professor's speech on TV, he was talking about the global economy. He mentioned a recent meeting of the "G15" [sic] nations, sixteen semi-powerful countries trying to plan their own economic health and growth but, he said, being deliberately kept down by American investors working in concert to suppress market reforms. I was even more surprised when he discussed the economic class structure in many nations: a small, wealthy elite, a lower class of "disposable people," and a group between them which was "somewhere between survival and suffering" the strangest phrase I'd ever heard for a middle class. He then muttered that because "we're a more civilized society," we Americans don't treat our own "disposable people" the way other nations do "we just throw 'em in jail on various fraudulent [criminal charges] instead of sending out the death squads." I was so startled to hear this and write it down that I missed his analysis of "what the Cold War was really about." My guess is that it was not, for Chomsky, about defeating communism.

The idea that the United States encourages freedom and democracy throughout the world reminded Chomsky of "medieval and mythological dogma." He argued those who believe in American benevolence ignore the obvious facts. The facts, of course, were that America routinely acts in underhanded and even malevolent ways. Specifically, he says the U.S. government has tried to overthrow democratic elections in Third World nations because they chose to elect "parties of the poor" (a phrase he used repeatedly, probably as a euphemism for "communist parties"). Chomsky said the International Monetary Fund is also a tool for manipulating governments, and that President Clinton even personally orchestrated the overthrow of Indonesia's former President Suharto for disobeying IMF orders.

Routinely, Chomsky said, the U.S. disregards "international law" passed by the United Nations and ignores the decisions of the World Court. Somehow, these laws apply to us whether we have agreed to be bound by the U.N. or not. What does our defiance in foreign policy make us? Says Chomsky: "We are a violent, lawless, criminal rogue state."

There was some material about domestic politics as well. I found most interesting his analysis of the reason behind modern conservatives' attempts to reduce the power of the federal government. He argues since "the role of government" in society is really "the role of the people", any move to shrink the federal government is actually undemocratic, and the current attacks on our "era of big government" are little more than a corporate conspiracy.

I found Chomsky's positions so intriguing that I looked up more of his work online. I read through an interview titled "Expanding the Floor of the Cage." "There is a very committed effort," he argues in it, "to convert the U.S. into something which has the basic structure of a Third World society," with many "superfluous people." Whoever is behind it is using crime, making people worry about it specifically to make people "hate and fear one another" so that "they don't notice that something is wrong and do something about it."

I realized that I now know the origin of an old stereotype: the ivory-tower professor, a man who spits on the country which pays his salary, invents things on which he relies, and allows him to speak out without fear. But I wasn't ready to condemn him entirely. Despite his apparent view of America as the root of all evil, he is a valuable contributor to the ongoing national debate. It is worth thinking about problems with our foreign policy, for instance. If our country really is guilty of unscrupulous deeds throughout the world, we need people to publicize them, so that we can root out this corruption and wrongdoing. I respect Professor Chomsky for that, at least.

But then, what does he hope to accomplish with his work? Does he act out of civic duty? He declares: "The federal government... is fundamentally illegitimate..." A true patriot, then!

Noam Chomsky may be a brilliant linguist and will continue to improve our understanding of how we speak. But as for how he speaks, as for his strange brew of socialism and anarchy I think I'll stick to something more moderate.