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The Chomsky/Vltchek Worldview


Hiroshima to Drone Warfare, published in 2013 by Pluto Press here in London, and consisting of a series of conversations between Chomsky and the Czech filmmaker, journalist, and author, Andre Vltchek, who is now a naturalized American citizen. Vltchek in an illuminating Preface describes his long and close friendship with Chomsky, and explains that these fascinating conversations took place over the course of two days, and was filmed with the intention of producing a documentary. The book is engaging throughout, with my only big complaint being about the misdirection of the title—there is virtually nothing said about either Hiroshima or drone warfare, but almost everything else politically imaginable!

public intellectuals, and even more by their deeply felt sympathy for all those being victimized as a result of the way in which the world is organized and Western hard power has been and is being deployed.

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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>While appearing to be on an equal footing throughout this dialogic text, Vltchek does acknowledge his reverential admiration for Chomsky, this extraordinary iconic American intellectual who has remained situated on the front lines of global critical debate for the past half century. In Vltchek’s words: “”The way I saw it, we were fighting for the same cause, for the right of self-determination and real freedom for all people around the world. And we were fighting against colonialism and fascism, in whichever form it came.” “For Noam, fighting injustice seemed to be as natural as breathing. For me, it became both a great honor and great adventure to work with him.” (ix) Vltchek believes that the lines of inspiration beneath a photo of the great English scholar/seer/activitst, Betrand Russell, which hangs ion the wall in Chomsky’s MIT office are also descriptive of what drives Chomsky to such heights: “”Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” (vi, xv).

Western imperialism. Vltchek expresses this shared understanding clearly: “After witnessing and analyzing numerous atrocious conflicts, invasions and wars on all continents, I became convinced that almost all of them were orchestrated or provoked by Western geopolitical and economic interests.” (ix). The extent and gravity of the accusations is expressed statistically by Vltchek: “Along with the 55 million or so people killed as the direct result of wars initiated by the West, pro-Western coups and other conflicts, hundreds of millions have died indirectly in absolute misery, and silently.” (1) Chomsky agrees, wondering about which is the worst crime that should be attributed to the West, positing the destruction of the 80-100 indigenous people living in the Western Hemisphere before the European settlers arrived, as one option. In reflecting upon this, he abruptly shifts direction by observing, “..we are moving toward what may in fact be the ultimate genocide—the destruction of the environment.”(2) Chomsky laments that despite the overwhelming evidence of this self-destructive momentum, the challenge continues to be largely ignored by the public and the government, even in the face of dire warnings from the scientific community.  The capitalist obsession with profits and capital accumulation, combined with psycho-political control over the dissemination of knowledge in even the most democratic of societies, makes it almost impossible to ‘see’ these threatening dimensions of social, economic, and political reality.

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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Without venturing onto the terrain of ‘Orientalism’ the conversations are sensitive to what Chomsky refers to as “intellectual and moral colonization” that reinforces patterns of “political and economic colonization.” In this regard, he goes on to observe that “The main achievement of hierarchy and oppression is to get the un-people to accept that it’s natural.”(17), that is, to induce passivity and resignation among the ranks of the victimized.  The moral consciousness of the perpetrators is also deliberately neutralized. When Chomsky inquires as to whether Europeans have “any consciousness of colonial history” Vltchek responds: “No, grotesquely there is very little consciousness.” He adds that such ignorance is “shameful and revealing”: “Europeans make sure that they remain ignorant of their horrid crimes, about the genocides they committed and are still involved in. What do they know about what their governments and companies were and are doing in DR Congo?” (20)
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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>But just as the devil resides in the details, so too do angels of perceptions many of whom inhabit the pages of this book, and a few can be briefly mentioned here. The conversations weave a fabric of awareness that shifts back and forth between lamenting inattention and denial to the exposure of occurrences and realities that are unfamiliar yet crucially revealing. Without extending this commentary too much further, let me note some of the areas of agreement between Chomsky and Vltchek that corrected or collided with my own understanding. First, the comparison between China and India in which China is praised almost without reservation and India is condemned almost without qualification, surprisingly close to the approach taken by that arch consevative V.S. Naipaul [See Naipaul’s India, A Wounded Civilization(1977)] Their essential argument is that India is exceptionally cruel in its cultural practices, and has done relatively little to alleviate poverty, while China has made extraordinary progress that is spread widely throughout the country. Both confirm, contrary to Western propaganda and consistent with what I also experienced during a visit a year ago, that young university students in China seem fearless, raising sensitive controversial issues in public venues. In effect, India gets too much credit in the West because it possesses the trappings of liberal democracy, while China’s achievements are downplayed because socialist values are mixed with predatory capitalist practices. My own love of India has blinded, or at least numbed me, to the worst of India, and has consistently thrilled me with its cultural vibrancy and rich heritage, which included Gandhi and his incredible mobilization of a militant nonviolent challenge to the then still mighty British Empire. 

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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>There is agreement among the authors that the heroes of the liberal establishment should be recast as villains. Two such exemplary individuals are Winston Churchill, reviled here for his criminal outlook toward African colonial peoples, and George Kennan, who is portrayed as a leading architect of the American global domination project put into operational form during the period of American ascendancy soon after World War II. Part of this exercise of demonization by Chomsky and Vltchek is to illustrate the mind games of liberal hegemonic ideology that treat such political luminaries as paragons of moral virtue. It continues the tradition of critical perception of the ruling elites that Chomsky so brilliantly set forth in American Power and The New Mandarins back in 1969.

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"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Such illustrative discussion just scratches the surface of these exceptionally perceptive conversations. It would be misleading to suggest that these two progressive interpreters of the whole world were in complete agreement. Chomsky is somewhat more tentative about developments in Turkey or in writing the obituary of the Arab Spring than is Vltchek who seems less nuanced in some of his commentary. Chomsky welcomes improvements and positive trends, while Vltchek believes that only structural change can make a sufficient difference to bring real hope to oppressed peoples.  

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>The book ends with Chomsky depicting two trajectories for the human future: either a continuation of ecological sleep leading to species suicide or an awakening to the ecological challenge, with accompanying improvements. (173) As Chomsky has aged, although far more gradually than is normal, he has somewhat mellowed, and seems less pessimistic and assured overall than when I first came to know him in the late 1960s. I would say that Chomsky’s maturity has endowed him wisdom that acts as a complement to his astonishing command over the specifics of the whole spectrum of political concerns. This substantive authoritativeness set him apart long ago as our foremost intellectual and most beloved commentator on the passing scene of world events, but now he has also become a ‘wise elder,’ and whose views of the world deserves the greatest respect from all of us.

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