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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008

What We Say Goes

Book Review

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Between the saber-rattling “liberalism” of Thomas Friedman, the gas-guzzling “conservatism” of Billy Kristol and the smug, self-righteousness of George W. Bush’s favorite atheist, Christopher Hitchens, intellectual discourse in the public sphere is in a sorry state nowadays. Noam Chomsky runs counter to the general decline in standards, just as he runs counter to nearly every received opinion on the morality of American and global politics.

Chomsky opens his latest book, What We Say Goes (Metropolitan Books), with fists flying. On page one of this series of interviews with award-winning journalist David Barsamian, he calls the United States “a leading outlaw state.” It’s the kind of remark that causes teeth to gnash at Fox News, whose anchors will gladly form a hanging party for anyone who questions America’s right to invade countries and have its way with the world. Chomsky never mentions Bill O’Reilly or any of Rupert Murdoch’s minions, reserving his media criticism for the liberal New York Times. It’s the Times, with its reasoned tone as the Sunday morning mouthpiece of the intelligentsia, which defines the worldview of Ivy League academia, the Council on Foreign Relations, the power elite. Let the know-nothings clank their beer cans in approval at O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone.” For Chomsky, the Times and its peers are more insidious for their role in establishing the paradigm that limits our ability to see the world around us.

This paradigm rests on the assumption that America has more rights in the international arena than other nations, and that American lives are valuable while those of others are counted for little. Chomsky cites many examples. In its editorials on Iraq, the Times failed to mention that the invasion of that country, under the circumstances set forth by the Bush administration, violated the U.N. Charter and international law.

When Americans die in a roadside bombing, it’s a headline and an outrage. When a U.S. missile kills dozens of Pakistani civilians by mistake, it’s the back page with no apology. As a Jew who once considered moving to a kibbutz, Chomsky is interesting when he turns to the unreflective Zionism of some American Jews and their devil’s alliance with Protestant fundamentalists when compared to the far livelier debate taking place inside Israel itself. In this country, Jimmy Carter was attacked for calling Israel’s Palestinian policy “apartheid”; Chomsky points out that one of Israel’s biggest newspapers, Haaretz, regularly applies the word in the same context.

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