Aaron Gertler's Reviews > Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky

Understanding Power by Noam Chomsky
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it was amazing

"I never wanted to be a radical; it's just that when I started checking the footnotes I couldn't stop."

Statements about power that are often true:
* Power is brutal.
* People with power use it brutally.
* People who have been powerful for a long time have also been brutal for a long time.

Noam Chomsky writes about power, and the way it has been used (brutally) by the United States. He also writes about language, and how we settle into ways of using it that distort our perceptions. This is one of the best books I've read on either subject.

Even on topics that most authors treat as a tug-of-war, Chomsky is less likely to join one side or the other than he is to pull the rope sideways, or point out that it's been tied to a brick wall:

Some of you are journalists: try talking about the American "attack" on South Vietnam. Your editors will think you came from Mars or something, there was no such event in history. Of course, there was in real history.

His views are often straightforward, but rarely simple:

"I mean, it's a difficult judgment to try to figure out whether Nixon or Humphrey is going to end the Vietnam War sooner [in 1968], that's an extremely subtle judgment to make; I actually didn't vote on that one, because I figured Nixon probably would. I did vote against Reagan, because I thought the guys around Reagan were extremely dangerous-Reagan himself was irrelevant, but the people in his administration were real killers and torturers, and they were just making people suffer too much, so I thought that might make a difference. But these are usually not very easy judgments to make, in my opinion."

The book is mostly people asking Chomsky ideological questions and getting back practical answers. Is now the time for revolution? Well...

"[America's] depoliticized, cynical population could easily be mobilized by Jimmy Swaggart [a televangelist], or it could be organized by environmentalists. Mostly it just depends on who's willing to do the work."

Is capitalism racist? Well...

"Capitalism basically wants people to be interchangeable cogs, and differences among them, such as on the basis of race, usually are not functional. I mean, they may be functional for a period, like if you want a super-exploited workforce or something, but those situations are kind of anomalous. Over the long term, you can expect capitalism to be anti-racist, just because it's anti-human. And race is in fact a human characteristic-there's no reason why it should be a negative characteristic, but it is a human characteristic."

He isn't always right, but his "does this make sense?" filter is always on, and it catches a lot of potential mistakes before they happen. It also lets him cut through the Gordian Knot of tangled pro-America journalism which dominated the media landscape for several decades (and caused immeasurable damage during the Iraq War). To see someone with a similar mind take on our current politics, see William Arkin's resignation from NBC.

Anyway, back to the main review: Understanding Power was endlessly fascinating. I learned about bits of history I'd never heard before (like the story of Vladimir Danchev or the theory of "Diaperology"). I saw old bits of history in a new light (Watergate was a piddling violation of "American values" compared to FBI raids on the Socialist Workers Party; Bill Clinton helped to overthrow democracy in Haiti). And I came to appreciate the mind of the author, who in many ways is a consummate rationalist, always asking more questions and refusing to clap for the applause lights of any party. (I had never realized how deeply he held Marxism in contempt; shame on me for painting him with a broad brush.)

This isn't to say he's perfect, of course. I'll quote a passage from my notes, written minutes after I finished reading:

As a big thinker, he has big weaknesses; the one that first comes to mind is that he doesn't seem to see businesspeople as... human? He claims that people are very difficult to predict or understand, unless they are businesspeople, in which case they will murder their way to profits every time.

Understanding Power doesn't really understand capitalism; Chomsky may have a reasonable model of what it's like to be CEO of Lockheed Martin or United Fruit, but I saw no evidence in this book that he has any idea what it might be like to live inside the mind of Elon Musk or Joe Coloumbe. Also, after reading his thoughts on American libertarianism, I wished that I could find a time machine and arrange things so that he'd been forced to room with Bryan Caplan in college (they could have been such good friends, and Caplan may have corrected a few of Chomsky's silliest mistakes).

Still, the book's minor flaws barely dim its brilliance, and they certainly don't undermine its central point: The American government does not hate you, but it doesn't love you; you are made of atoms it can use for something else. And Americans have built-in blinders to stop them from recognizing this (we also have new blinders in the twenty-first century, but the old ones never slipped off). We have murdered and bombed and killed people at frightening rates, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not. We try to protect people, and we have good intentions, but we almost always put ourselves first.

...of course, other countries are much the same. To study power in global politics, one should study the United States, but had Chomsky been a Russian in an alternate universe where the Cold War went the other way, I think he'd be saying the same things about the USSR (though he may not have lived quite so long).

Anyway, I've rambled on long enough to create a Chomsky-style review. He's really smart and says a lot of true things that are easy to forget whether or not your politics are "mainstream". He is steadfastly pro-human and really seems to care when people get hurt. He has a coherent view of the world. He tells funny gossipy stories about George Will and other journalists acting ridiculous. He is worth reading.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
December 2, 2018 – Shelved

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