Pirates and Emperors, Old and New by Noam Chomsky
(Pluto Press, £12.99 p/b)
n our time political speech and writing are largely the
defence of the indefensible … Defenceless villages
are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into
the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, and the huts
set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.’’ (G.Orwell – Politics
and the English Language – emphasis in original.)
In essence Chomsky’s theme is much the same as Orwell’s
when he penned the above lines in 1946. To be sure the actors
have changed but the methodology has barely altered. At one
level Chomsky’s book is a examination of American foreign
policy with particular reference to the middle-east and central
America. First written in 1986 this new edition has been
updated to include the latest developments in the middle-east
and the events of the 11th September 2001.
With an almost painful clarity Chomsky lays bare the essentials
of America’s foreign policy goals: a policy of realpolitik
conducted with brutal intent. In central America, the United
States will tolerate no government, nationalist, catholic,
communist or otherwise, which is not completely subservient
to US interests. This has involved CIA-backed and funded
State or privatised terrorism by US proxies – e.g.
the ‘government’ of El Salvador or the contras
in Nicaragua – involving mass murder, incarceration,
torture, economic sabotage and the denial of elementary human
rights. The author describes an endless litany of crimes
against humanity which is as long as it is sickening, and
which has also been chronicled by various NGOs including
Oxfam and Amnesty International.
In the middle-east Israel commands almost uncritical support
of the United States. I say almost since the US sometimes
has to appear to be concerned about the excesses of Sharon
and the other zionist hawks. But in essence the project of
actually existing zionism – that is, settlement and
creeping annexation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the creation
of a Greater Israel – is being tacitly endorsed by
the American authorities. The key part of this creeping annexation
is the part played by the ‘peace process’.
far as Chomsky is concerned the ‘peace process’ is
complete bunk; a PR stunt to delude the world (and presumably
the Palestinians) that the US/Israel want a just settlement.
In fact a just settlement has been on offer for many years – UN
resolution 242 – which has been generally interpreted
(except by the US and Israel) as leading to the creation
of a Palestinian state on the West Bank with the capital
in East Jerusalem. Resolution 242 has been vetoed by the
US for many years. The Palestinians try to negotiate (what
else can they do!) whilst more settlements are built on what
was once Palestinian land; this is hardly negotiation in
At a second level Chomsky’s book is about the language
and lexicon of politics. The term ‘terrorism’ comes
in for some discussion. Of course the term is value-laden,
and refers to political violence of which ‘we’ disapprove.
Thus the Nicaraguan contras were not terrorists but ‘freedom-fighters’.
However, in 1985 a group of 120 doctors, nurses and other
health professionals returned from an investigation in Nicaragua
endorsed by the American Public Health Association and the
World Health Organization (WHO).
Their report back noted
how the freedom loving contras had reportedly routinely destroyed
clinics and hospitals, murdered health workers, looted pharmacies
(which led to acute shortages of medicines) and successfully
disrupted a polio vaccination campaign. (Boston Globe - 16/12/1985).
Moreover all of this terrorist violence against the population
of Nicaragua was orchestrated from Washington and Miami with
full government approval.
In a similar vein Israel does not commit terrorist acts
or atrocities. Of course when the history of Israel is taken
into account this is a quite ludicrous statement. The atrocities
and terrorist outrages that took place during the British
occupation as perpetrated by the Irgun Zvei Leumi, the Stern
Gang and the Hagannah tell a rather different story. It should
be noted also that many Israeli statesmen and luminaries
including Shamir, Dayan and Begin were in the leadership
of these organizations. But then power and success legitimates
violence. Yesterdays ‘terrorist’ is today’s
statesman, dedicated to peace. Thus when Israel engages in
political violence and murder, this is not terrorism as such:
no, such acts are ‘surgical’, ‘retaliatory’ or
now ‘pre-emptive’ strikes. This is precisely
the same language that the US and its current proxies (the
UK and Israel) are using to describe the forthcoming war
Chomsky reserves particular scorn for the media who seem
content to re-iterate the official versions of what is and
what is not going on in the world. This is not the role that
the media is supposed to play in functioning democratic societies;
it is in fact more akin to the role played by the media in
totalitarian societies. Of course there are dissenting voices
and opposing views, but these are of no account, being easily
marginalized and presenting no threat to the powers-that-be.
This is what the Frankfurt theorists once referred to as ‘repressive
tolerance’ and is not a unique discovery of Chomsky’s.
The corruption of language for purposes of realpolitik goals
may involve the loss of moral integrity on the part of the
believers. What is more disturbing, however, is the inability
of many of those trapped in the Newspeak paradigm to imagine
the legitimacy or indeed even the existence of any contrary
worldview. This indeed represents the triumph of language
and ideology over objective reality. Alas, this is a common
Chomsky’s book is a passionately written indictment
of US imperialism (that phrase may be old-fashioned but it
happens to be true) and is rich in journalistic detail. But
at the second level he is not really saying anything that
has not been said already by C Wright Mills, George Orwell,
the Frankfurt School, and, come to that Jonathan Swift and
Juvenal. Still, overall worth a read.