A Witness to Power’s Mendacity

A while back I reread David Barsamian’s first collection of interviews with Noam Chomsky, entitled Chronicles of Dissent.  Actually, I first heard the material starting in the mid-1980s, listening to Barsamian’s cassette tapes of interviews as I drove around Louisville and back and forth to Cincinnati and Chicago in  the often grim days of the second Reagan Administration. Since then, Chomsky’s readership has expanded considerably; even in his late eighties, the linguist still produces two or three books a year. I’ve lost count of the number of collaborative works he’s done with Barsamian.

Something I’ve found refreshing about Chomsky’s lectures and interviews is he speaks pretty much in plain English. There’s no academic jargon. And there’s no cheerleading for American Exceptionalism.  Here’s one terse example: “When the guys we don’t like do it, it’s terrorism. When the guys we do like do it, it’s retaliation.”  When ISIS beheads people, it’s barbarism. When Israel uses white phosphorus on people in Gaza, it’s self-defense.

The media play a key role in focusing attention in how we as US citizens and those of our allies suffer or are harmed. Here’s Chomsky commenting on an issue form the mid-80s : “There’s a big fuss and there should be, about American veterans who have suffered under Agent Orange. However, there’s a slight observation that might be made, and that is that the people of Vietnam suffered a thousand times as much, and we’re certainly not trying to help them, in fact we want to increase their suffering.” U.S. veterans finally came to be seen as “worthy” of care and consideration; what the U.S. did to Vietnam and its people is “unworthy” of U.S.  compassion, much less reparations.

I remember Mev saying that people she met in the Brazilian Base Christian Communities, some of whom had very little formal education, could run circles around Harvard professors when it came to explaining how the world really works. Chomsky observed, “you find a good deal more sophistication among people who learn about the world from their experience rather than those who learn about the world from the doctrinal framework that they are exposed to and that they are expected as part of their professional obligation to propagate.”

It is a common to hear people say that education is the way out of poverty and yet, education can be, in significant measure, indoctrination. In a Humanities class  I teach, I ask the students each early October how many of them have heard of Christopher Columbus. Almost all  have (exceptions being international students).   Then I ask how many of them know the name Bartolomé de las Casas. In the last several years, one student knew of the Spanish priest who denounced the conquerors of the “New World.”  In theory, institutions of higher learning would say that promoting “critical thinking” is paramount.  In practice, though, such critical thinking is going to come up against one or another kind of authority, as Chomsky explains,  “Any form of authority requires justification; it’s not self justified. And the justification can rarely be given. Sometimes you can give it. I think you can give an argument that you shouldn’t let a three-year old run across the street. That’s a form of authority that’s justifiable. But there aren’t many of them, and usually the effort to give a justification fails. And when we try to face it, we find that the authority is illegitimate. And any time you find a form of authority illegitimate, you ought to challenge it. It’s something that conflicts with human rights and liberties. And that goes on forever. You overcome one thing and discover the next.”

Former Czech dissident Vaclav Havel once wrote, “Glucksman says the role of the intellectual is to warn, to predict horrors, to be a Cassandra who tell us what is going on outside the walls of the city.  I share this notion…. I too think the intellectual should constantly disturb, should bear witness to the misery of the world, should be provocative by being independent, should rebel against all hidden and open pressure and manipulations, should be the chief doubter of systems, of power and its incantations, should be a witness to their mendacity.  For this very reason, an intellectual cannot fit into any role that might be assigned to him, nor can he ever be made to fit into any of the histories written by the victors.  An intellectual essentially doesn’t belong anywhere; he stands out as an irritant wherever he is; he does not fit into any pigeonhole completely.”  This is a pretty good description of what Chomsky’s been doing for the last fifty years. I’m grateful for David Barsamian’s  dedication in sharing Chomsky’s perspectives to more audiences throughout the U.S. and beyond.

With Mev, friends, and Noam Chomsky; GTU, Berkeley; April 1994

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