Just Say Noam

'An unputdownable page-turner of a read' - Hugo on NoamMe and m’main man Hugo are like that, but it turns out that everybody’s favourite democratically-elected Bolivarian strongman is not a man to be trusted when it comes to reading recommendations.

“It reads easily, it is a very good book”, Chavez told the UN concerning Noam Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival. A few days later, the Guardian reported that Chavez’s recommendation had caused sales of Chomsky’s book to rise sharply.

Unfortunately this news item coincided with a delay in a delivery I was expecting from Amazon, so finding myself short of reading matter, at a loose end in Ottakars, and with the money obviously burning a hole in my pocket, I picked up a copy of Chomsky’s book.

All I can say is that if Our Hugo thought it “reads easily”, then the Spanish translation must be masterful. The English version, by contrast, is an unreadable, hectoring rant from beginning to – well, I’d say “end”, but I’ve only managed to grind my way about 2/5ths of the way through it so far.

What’s particularly frustrating is that somewhere lurking inside this book there may be a good and persuasive book struggling to get out. US foreign policy since the second world war does have some pretty ugly aspects to it, not least in Latin America (which probably explains Chavez’s enjoyment of the book). This is a point recognised even by many neo-cons, whose “draining the swamp” strategy – whatever history’s verdict upon it might be – was partly motivated by an acknowledgement of the failure of the “but he’s our son of a bitch” approach.

And, talking of “our sons of bitches”, Chomsky makes some telling points about the way in which the US has subsequently claimed the credit for the overthrow of dictators that it had either supported almost to the bitter end (Ceausescu, Marcos, “Baby Doc” Duvalier) or whose worst crimes had been committed while still enjoying US support (Noriega, Saddam).

However, what this subject needs is something more along the lines of Elizabeth Kolbert’s book on climate change: a sober, calm, relentless litany of attested facts. Chomsky’s rhetoric, by contrast, is so overheated and extreme that one ends up feeling quite sympathetic towards the Reagan administration. Sifting the truth from the flailing, spittle-soaked invective is almost impossible. (Chomsky’s suggestion that the US enjoyed a unipolar hegemony even during the Cold War is a particular low.)

Roger Scruton probably nailed it when he said recently that:

Prof. Chomsky is an intelligent man. Not everything he says by way of criticizing his country is wrong. However, he is not valued for his truths but for his rage, which stokes the rage of his admirers. He feeds the self-righteousness of America’s enemies, who feed the self-righteousness of Prof. Chomsky. And in the ensuing blaze everything is sacrificed, including the constructive criticism that America so much needs, and that America – unlike its enemies, Prof. Chomsky included – is prepared to listen to.

If anyone can suggest where that “constructive criticism” might be found, I’d be glad to hear it. In the meantime, as I’m sure you needed no telling: don’t bother with Chomsky’s book.

Still, on the plus side: after a BBC radio report following Chavez’s UN speech, at least I now know how to pronounce “hegemony”.

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