Imperial Ambitions-Conversations on the Post 9-11 World

by Noam Chomsky

review by E.B.Klassen
So I lay in bed this morning finishing the latest Noam Chomsky book: Imperial Ambitions-Conversations on the Post 9-11 World. This is another in the series of books based around Chomsky’s conversations with David Barsamian, where the conversation is transcribed, edited by Chomsky, footnotes are added, and the whole is then published. I’ve read a number of books by NC over the last couple of years (what, a dozen or more?) and this one has to be the most angry one I’ve read. Which, considering that NC persistently takes the most neutral-sounding tones when saying the most outrageous things about the Amerikan Empire, is really saying something.
"The United States is basically what’s called a "failed state." It has formal democratic institutions, but they barely function."(page 198). This is just one of the casual comments that NC tosses off that really is the result of an amazing rejection of the cultural conditioning and propaganda that an Amerikan citizen is subjected to. It is clear that Amerika is a failed democracy when you are not an Amerikan citizen—in fact, NC suggests that it might be nice if Amerika could achieve the democratic advancement of Brazil, or maybe Haiti, as both countries have managed to elect leaders who are clearly not members of the ruling elite (Aristide in Haiti, and Lula in Brazil). That outside/foreign observers where in place to monitor the last presidential elections speaks volumes for the sad state of Amerikan democracy.
That Amerikan democracy has failed so badly, even with the unprecedented commitment to free speech and right of assembly that Amerikans have, is astonishing. Chomsky attributes much of this failure to the development of propaganda under such people as Walter Lippmann (credited with the phrase "manufacturing consent") and Edward Bernays (who said that "the more intelligent members of the community can direct the population through "the engineering of consent," which he considered "the very essence of the democratic process").
"It’s interesting to look back at the 1920s, when the public relations industry really began. This was the period of Taylorism in industry, when workers were being trained to become robots and every single motion was controlled and regulated. Taylorism created highly efficient industry, with human beings being turned into automata. The Bolsheviks were very impressed with Taylorism, too, and tried to duplicate it, as did others throughout the world. But the thought-control experts soon realized that you could not only what was called "on-job control" but also "off-job control." It’s a fine phrase. Off-job control means turning people into robots in every part of their lives by inducing a "philosophy of futility," focusing people on "the superficial things of life, like fashionable consumption." Let the people who are supposed to run the show do so without any interference from the mass of the population, who have no business in the public arena. And from that idea grew enormous industries, ranging from advertising to universities, all very consciously committed to the belief that you must control attitudes and opinions, because the people are otherwise just too dangerous.
Actually, there are good constitutional sources for this view of the public. The founding of the country [Amerika] was based on the Madisonian principle that the people are just too dangerous: power has to be in the hands of what Madison called "the wealth of the nation," people who respect property and its rights and are willing to "protect the minority of the opulent against the majority," which has to be fragmented somehow." (pp. 21-22)
All of which lends support to my feeling that democracy is not only in deep trouble, but is an ongoing and unfinished revolution in world affairs. Thus my support for the right of Quebecois to decide on separation. Not that I support Quebec separatism (in fact I figure that the leaders of the BQ and PQ are evil and cynical opportunists using the above techniques for their own ends at the expense of the citizenry of Quebec). But I do support the right of people to decide on how they shall be ruled. Hell, Rome reserved the right to elect a tyrant for a set term of office(even though it usually went very badly when they did...).
This is one of the greatest crimes of the Bush II administration; not their disdain for democracy—that has been bog standard for Amerika for at least the last century. It’s that they’ve gone completely rogue, destroying the international structures that were actually working to reduce conflict worldwide, that were actually increasing self-determination in wildly diverse populations about the globe. Chile is slowly managing to bring sociopathic monster Augusto Pinochet to trial—hopefully before he dies and the point becomes moot. Hugo Chávez respects the reactionary courts in his country and does not prosecute the military officers who participated in the Amerikan-backed coup against his democratically elected government. Even South Africa, where the ANC managed to most amazing transition of power with a minimum of violence and recrimination.
One can’t even imagine such a shift of power in Amerika. Or respect for the law like in Chile and Venezuela. Amerika, and this is mentioned in Imperial Ambitions, is a nation that is extremely susceptible to fear. And pretty much every time it’s a fear of a group or population upon whose neck the Amerikan boot is pretty firmly placed. The destroyed, militarily insignificant Iraq, Panama, Nicaragua, Grenada. Each of these in turn has been seen (and sold) as a terrific threat to Amerika, a dagger pointed at its heart. And it has never been true, but the Amerikan public buys it—or at least enough to allow the jackboots of the Amerikan military to be planted on foreign soil.
So what to do, what to do. The answers are fairly simple—and fairly complex. But it all boils down to organize. Locally into small affinity groups, unions, discussion circles. Nationally into demanding our political parties begin respecting the democratic will of the people (a tricky balancing act, admittedly. Too nationalistic and the air raid sirens will be going off in Canada next). And internationally to continue organizing structures of law that will hold all imperial ambitions in check. So, you know, not really anything much has to be done....

originally published in Under the Ozone Hole #18

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