The linguist speaks out. Noam Chomsky's essays
The Chomsky Reader, by Noam Chomsky, edited by James Peck. New York: Pantheon. 492 pp. $24.95. NOAM CHOMSKY, a professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is well known in academic circles for his scholarly work, first gained widespread public attention in the 1960s for his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Then in the mid-1970s, he helped expose the genocidal invasion of East Timor by the United States-backed government of Indonesia.
Chomsky speaks out regularly against United States policy in Central America and elsewhere. And he castigates the current tendency to view the Vietnam war - which he calls ``the American invasion of South Vietnam'' - as an unfortunate case of ``good intentions gone astray.''
Last summer, Chomsky generated fresh controversy.
In an article written for the respected journal Index on Censorship, he complained that American reporting of the Middle East was biased in favor of Israel. Chomsky's attack included a larger allegation: that American public opinion is manipulated through techniques of ``thought control'' - in his view at least as effective as outright censorship - and more insidious.
The publication of this article in a journal devoted to exposing censorship appeared, to many readers, to endow his allegations with undeserved credibility. Chomsky was criticized for equating - or seeming to equate - the plight of the dissident American with the brutal suppression of writers in countries like Poland, Chile, or Iran.
On the face of it, Chomsky's accusation seems little more than grandstanding. Yet, there is a certain degree of validity in his accusation, repeated throughout the articles collected in ``The Chomsky Reader'', that in many of the nation's most influential journals which shape and reflect public opinion - as well as in the corridors of power where policy is formulated - the range of discussion is narrowly limited.
Whether ``the manufacture of consensus'' in a free society can best be understood by comparisons with the censorship of authoritarian and totalitarian states or whether Chomsky's analogy merely clouds the issue is another question, one that obviously troubled many who wrote in to criticize his article.
The mere existence of ``The Chomsky Reader'' - complete with a panegyrical introduction and an interview by the admiring editor, published by a major New York house and filled with selections from his far from neglected previous work - hardly lends credence to allegations of thought control in America.
Chomsky argues that American foreign policy is based on the principle of assuring US access to the resources of underdeveloped countries. To make sure that American capital may flow freely into these countries, US policy, according to Chomsky, is to label any country attempting to limit American investments and to control its own economy as a communist menace to be stopped at any cost.
``Thought control,'' he says, comes with the need to deceive the public - and perhaps the policymakers themselves - into believing they are concerned with preserving democracy in the world and not just the opportunity for capital investments by multinational corporations.
Chomsky has no sympathy for the repressions of communist regimes, but he is not always evenhanded in his criticisms. He is quick to blame the US for its part in the Indonesian invasion in East Timor.
But he neglects to mention that the Soviets (who by all rights should have supported the Marxist regime of East Timor) sold out these people in an effort to woo Indonesia's support for the Soviet position on the Vietnam/Cambodian dispute.
He rightly calls attention to Israeli intransigence but is all too prepared to take Palestine Liberation Organization assurances at face value. His concern about the pro-Israel lobby seems unclouded by anxieties about the influence of pro-Arab pressures and the powerful oil lobby.
Indeed, he fails to place US support for Israel in the context of widespread hostility to Israel in the United Nations and much of the international ``community.''
``The Chomsky Reader'' offers a representative selection of his thought on topics from the role of the intellectual to America's role in the world. People who want to encounter his ideas firsthand to judge for themselves will find this a stimulating collection.
Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.