How to describe Noam Chomsky? A founding figure in modern linguistics, Chomsky has also made major contributions to philosophy, history, media criticism and social thought. With the publication of Syntactic Structures in 1957, Chomsky’s insight that grammar is independent of meaning revolutionised the theoretical study of language. Yet today Chomsky is far better known as a dissident intellectual, a figure who despite being virtually barred from the mainstream media—The New York Review of Books, which published “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, his scathing critique of the academe’s perennial and eager subservience to power, in February 1967, and which sent him to report from North Vietnam and Laos three years later, hasn’t commissioned anything from him for the past forty years—has become probably the single best-known public intellectual on the planet. (In 2006, after Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez mentioned, during a speech at the United Nations, his regret at never having the chance to meet Chomsky before his death, The New York Times reported with some bemusement—but no embarrassment, despite its own role in a blackout that dated back to 1971—that Chomsky was “Alive, Actually, and Hungry for Debate”).
At 88, Chomsky is still hungry for debate. And, judging by Who Rules The World?, he remains eager for new audiences. His thesis is that although the United States continues not just to dominate the world, but to act as if it owns the planet, American power has actually been in decline since 1945. So long as the Cold War continued, America’s decline was masked by the even more rapid decay of Soviet communism. But if the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the high point of what Chomsky calls the “Muasher doctrine”—the pretence, described by the former Jordanian foreign minister Marwan Muasher, that “there is nothing wrong, everything is under control”—the years since have cruelly exposed the emptiness of American triumphalism, from Ronald Reagan’s bloody legacy in Central America to the wreckage of Bush pere et fils in the Middle East. From El Salvador to East Timor, from Guatemala to Gaza, Chomsky knows where the bodies are buried—and reminds us not only who buried them, but who paid the price.
Though best known for his scathing critiques of US foreign policy—and the pliant media who assist in manufacturing the consent that enables America’s depredations in the developing world—Chomsky has also, always, been attentive to the class war at home. But seldom have the connections between domestic decline, the shredding of the political system, and the off-shoring of manufacturing jobs been so clearly drawn—or so persuasively woven into a radical analysis of America’s actual role in the world. If you want to understand how the leadership of the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy has come down to a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump you could do a lot worse than begin with this book. Chomsky has perhaps been more profound, or more original, or more radical elsewhere, but he has never been more accessible—or more urgent.
Nor, if I can be a little bit parochial, has he ever been better for the Jews. Not just because Who Rules the World? contains a brief but brilliant history of the Oslo Accords, explaining why they happened, whose interests they served, and why they were doomed to fail—which ought to be welcomed by anyone who subscribes to the wisdom of the Yiddish proverb: “einredenish is ehrger vi a krenk” (delusion is worse than a sickness). But also because Chomsky here sets out with bracing clarity his view that while a “binational secular democracy” might be desirable in Israel/Palestine, “the only plausible” way to get there is by advocating “a staged process beginning with a two-state settlement”.
It sometimes shocks both critics and admirers to learn that Chomsky’s early work was based on the Hebrew language. It shouldn’t. Like Elijah’s critique of Ahab, Chomsky’s approach to Israel—and the United States—is rooted in his stubborn insistence on a single standard for justice. Some may (and indeed many do) call that self-hatred. I’d call it prophetic.
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Who Rules The World?
By Noam Chomsky