Saturday, February 4, 2012

Noam Chomsky’s How The World Works

Last night I finished off Noam Chomsky’s omnibus How The World Works, which is made up of four of his earlier books - What Uncle Sam Really Wants; The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many; Secrets, Lies and Democracy; and The Common Good. These four are made up of edited transcripts of radio interviews Chomsky did through the 80s and 90s, and the format works quite well - the questions are useful starting points, and Chomsky mostly just uses them as a springboard from which to make points, so they tend not to intrude too much.

As for the actual content? I cannot overstate how thoroughly brilliant this man is. I like to think I’m fairly well aware of the way things work but Chomsky has opened my eyes more than anyone else ever has - granted, I wasn’t completely wrong before, but it goes so much further than I ever realised. Chomsky details how the US interferes with foreign countries, how it uses propaganda, obfuscating language and outright lies to get away with it, how the media is complicit in much of this, and the ultimate goals towards which it is working. It’s fascinating to see how thoroughly imperialistic the US is - at least on the scale of colonial Britain, though their control is usually less direct.

There is some assumed knowledge that makes it a little inaccessible. For example, Chomsky repeatedly points out newsworthy events that were conspicuously absent from the Western media, but effectively assumes that anything that was reported in the media, the reader will be familiar with. It was possible from context and from vague knowledge of the history involved to understand what was going on, but since I was born in 1987 I wasn’t even conscious for most of the events he’s talking about. If you’re around my age and aren’t very familiar with South American geopolitics you will need Wikipedia on hand while reading, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

This aside, the book is very accessible. Chomsky has a wonderful way of explaining very complicated, very unfamiliar concepts in plain English that anyone can understand. You may find yourself resisting believing what he says at times, it’s so shocking, but this is really the only difficulty you should have with his arguments. I think the fact that it comes from interviews, and is therefore very conversational, helps this.

If you’re only going to read one, read What Uncle Sam Really Wants. But I really would urge anyone and everyone to read all of it - it is compelling and hugely important stuff. Chomsky says it best in the last paragraph of the book - “The future can be changed. But we can’t change things unless we begin to understand them.” This holds true for Americans and foreigners alike.

Oh, and since this was basically four books in one and I was getting quite behind on my 52 Books project, I’m totally counting this as four - which means I’m actually ahead! Woo!

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