Tim's Reviews > On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures

On Power and Ideology by Noam Chomsky
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's review
Mar 03, 2013

really liked it
bookshelves: politics, stanford, nicaragua, latin-america
Read in February, 2013

This book contains the transcripts of 5 lectures given at the Universidad Centroamerica (UCA) in Managua, Nicaragua in early 1986. The lectures outline Chomsky's views on U.S. foreign policy with a specific focus on Latin America and the then-ongoing contra war that the U.S. was waging against the Sandinista government.

In Chomsky's view, U.S. foreign policy is guided by the need to secure U.S. interests (primarily corporate business interests) rather than by the ideals of human rights and democracy that are typically the stated goals. This leads to consistent U.S. support for right-wing factions in other countries, even murderous ones, and to oppose left-wing movements, even peaceful democratically elected ones. Paraphrasing JFK, the U.S. prefers to support democracies, but will support "a Trujillo" (right-wing dictator) if that is what is needed to prevent "a Castro."

Chomsky marshalls an impressive level of evidence for his hypothesis -- skillfully deploying internal U.S. documents and letting the sordid history of U.S. 20th century involvement in Latin America speak for itself. It's hard to disagree with this thesis after learning the history of the Contra War in Nicaragua, or the civil war in El Salvador, or the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, or numerous other examples.

Having read a lot of Chomsky in my time (I took a fantastic class on him in college), my main gripe with him is his rhetorical style. One could quibble with his analysis and the way he bulldozes over wrinkles and complications, but his role as a counter-narrator is important and vital. More problematic is how he revels in making statements that are shockingly counter to mainstream U.S. political discourse, but then characterizing those statements as "obvious" and not deserving much in the way of supporting argumentation. More often than not this comes off as anti-pedagogical, and I can only imagine fuels his marginalization. If you're not already on board with his analysis he doesn't exactly lead you by the hand. Probably since he's been railing against the mainstream consensus for so many decades now it might be hard to muster the effort anymore. Over time he tends to repeat himself as well, such that one can almost predict what phrase he is going to use in advance.

Still, Chomsky is essential reading for understanding U.S. foreign policy, even if you don't necessarily buy into every facet of his analysis. At this point in my life I'm more interested in writers and thinkers who can communicate outside the choir, so I am always wishing that Chomsky would engage more with the mainstream and rather than simply dismissing that position. Still this volume of lectures is actually a pretty good, and brief, introduction to his thinking.

(In one of the Q&As included here there is an interesting moment as Chomsky smacks down the suggestion from a questioner that the USSR -- at that moment a Nicaraguan ally -- is better than the US. As hard as he is on the US, he brooks no suggestion that the Soviet Union was anything other than a brutal and repressive dictatorship.)

[First read this for a class in college, back in early 1997. Re-reading it now because... Managua!]
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