Clif's Reviews > The Essential Chomsky

The Essential Chomsky by Noam Chomsky
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's review
Dec 02, 2010

really liked it

Noam Chomsky is known for two things - his studies in linguistics and his stand on the workings of political power, specifically that of the United States in world affairs, but also in domestic affairs.

This book is a collection of his writings in both capacities over the years, starting in 1959 and ending in 2006.

Whatever the topic, he writes well. I was pleasantly surprised to find I could follow all but one of the articles on language. He proposes that humans have a mental organ for language. Though it doesn't stand out physically as organs such as the liver or the stomach do, it nonetheless is a specialized aspect of the brain that allows us as small children to pick up rapidly whatever particular language we hear spoken. He is the first to admit that knowledge of this function of the brain is not far along yet but the little that can be said about it is remarkable. He mentions the fact that a small child can become fluent in a language long before it can even begin to understand mathematics because of the possession of a universal grammar that will immediately adapt to any specific language.

Questions related to this are - how could such an inbuilt capacity for language evolve? Is spoken language like a virus which, though it has no physical form like a true virus, infects us? He also discusses the "mind-body" problem, that is, are the mind and body two distinct things with one physical and the other spiritual as was once thought, or different manifestations of the body? This gets into Newton's discoveries that ended the purely physical world of material contact (because it introduced the gravitational force). These fascinating thoughts prompted me to look for more of his thoughts on language. In other words, this book is a teaser.

On politics, Chomsky is a relentless critic of what I would call nationalistic nonsense - comforting lies that we are told and that our leaders tell themselves about our benevolence that disguise the real motivation for dominating the world. Chomsky asserts that the United States is no exception to the rule of empire that has long been established - that we as a nation are as careless and dismissive of the values we hold when it comes to our relations with other countries and the treatment of foreign peoples as any other world power in history.

What makes his argument so powerful is his careful recitation of facts. Far from expecting the reader to take him at his word, he provides the quotes, the documented incidents and the history of events that substantiate what he has to say. It's hard to disagree with him when he provides a quote from a president or politician that directly supports his thesis. I was continually amazed at his detail knowledge, not only of obscure publications but of moments in history that many of us would never go back to, as he does, for discovery of the origin of an idea.

In this book you will get a good idea of what drove disastrous American adventures from Vietnam to Iraq with some meaty material (news to me) on U.S. involvement in the slaughter conducted in East Timor by Indonesia. Along the way is quite a bit of material about the U.S. throwing its weight around in Central America. Chomsky makes a good case that we live in a world of platitudes, self-righteousness and hypocrisy that sacrifices countless lives abroad and the lives of our own soldiers in moves to secure the obedience and participation of the nations of the world in our own grand scheme. We have absolutely no reason for self satisfaction. It was foolish to believe that the elimination of the USSR would bring a more peaceful world. Power will have its way.

To Chomsky, the role of the intellectual is to do as he is doing - be vigilant and exacting in presenting the reality of what the nation does, in spite of the opprobrium it must bring. Intellectuals are the guardians of the truth, contradicting the inevitable spin given to us by our leaders. As he is the first to point out, intellectuals are more commonly fawning servants of the state if not forceful advocates of force, wielding power and justifying the exercise of it rather than respecting laws or rights. Think of the neo-cons in the Bush administration and you get the picture.

This book is a good read. There are no really long articles, but you have to pay attention to details because they come thick and fast. No dozing or multi-tasking allowed if you want to get anything from Professor Noam Chomsky.
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December 2, 2010 – Shelved
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