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Noam Chomsky: The U.S. Continues to Be a Terrorist State

Noam Chomsky discusses his forthcoming book, the hypocrisy of neoliberalism and where he feels hopeful about democracy despite U.S. terrorism.

If Noam Chomsky’s critics have a common refrain, it is pointing to his habit of being far too hard on America’s motives and too easy on its opponents. The former, of course, is his métier. The latter criticism has limited (though a few important) instances. In fact, Chomsky’s central question is how do you punish the crook who owns the jailhouse, pays the police their salaries, and fails consistently to see his crimes as such? Or perhaps, how do you get a self-enamored hypocrite to reckon with his pathology? Certainly not by repeating the praise, or what Chomsky sometimes calls America’s “state religion” of self-worship. And despite this, in a very limited way, Chomsky does give credit where credit is due.

In his forthcoming book Hopes and Prospects , Chomsky admits that a black family in the White House is historic. But he credits not “America,” a “system of power” defined by “market interventions” in the economy that once tolerated, and even fought for, the right to own humans as slaves. Nor does he give much credit to “Brand Obama,” as he calls the phenomenon that elected our new president, insisting that the new president is “likely to ‘have more influence on boardrooms than any president since Ronald Reagan.’” In fact, Chomsky gives credit for the 2008 election, in a way, to himself and his ilk.

In an early manuscript of the book, Chomsky writes, “The two candidates in the Democratic primary were a woman and an African-American. That, too, was historic. It would have been unimaginable forty years ago. The fact that the country has become civilized enough to accept this outcome is a considerable tribute to the activism of the nineteen sixties and its aftermath, with lessons for the future.” As such, this small tome is Chomsky’s legacy book.

And high time. His landmark critique of B.F. Skinner that crippled behaviorism’s predominance in psychology and linguistics turns fifty this year. His first book on politics, American Power and the New Mandarins: Historical and Political Essays , turns forty. The Essential Chomsky , edited by Anthony Arnove, came out from the New Press last year, in time for Chomsky’s eightieth birthday. And Chomsky’s wife died of cancer last winter, which would make anyone take stock. Regularly voted into the “top public intellectual” polls various magazines frequently run, the linguist and foreign policy critic, said to be worth two million dollars, remains a polarizing figure.

What’s remarkable is how Chomsky’s criticism of the Vietnam war and America’s many interventions seem even more relevant today, prescient in their understanding of how American greed, dehumanization of others, cultural ignorance, and hypocrisy are rewritten as pragmatic, not moral, mistakes. In “The Remaking of History,” from Toward a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got There , he writes, “They may concede the stupidity of American policy, and even its savagery, but not the illegitimacy inherent in the entire enterprise.” He continues a page later, “One may criticize the intellectual failure of planners, their moral failures, and even the generalized and abstract ‘will to exercise domination’ to which they have regrettably but understandably succumbed. But the principle that the United States may exercise force to guarantee a certain global order that will be ‘open’ to transnational corporations—that is beyond the bounds of polite discourse.”

Yet Chomsky has been criticized for accuracy and balance, for the petty (citing statements made by an “embassy” rather than “ambassador”) and the heinous (apologist for Pol Pot; a distortion, he insists, of his views), but most commonly, it seems, for comparing U.S. behavior to Hitler’s. In Prospect Magazine , Oliver Kamm writes of Chomsky’s early political writings as going “beyond the standard left critique of U.S. imperialism to the belief that ‘what is needed [in the US] is a kind of denazification.’” “This diagnosis,” Kamm continues, “is central to Chomsky’s political output. While he does not depict the U.S. as an overtly repressive society—instead, it is a place where ‘money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print and marginalize dissent’—he does liken America’s conduct to that of Nazi Germany. In his newly published Imperial Ambitions , he maintains that ‘the pretenses for the invasion [of Iraq] are no more convincing than Hitler’s.’”