Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Propagandists and Anti-Propagandists

The most useful part (for me, anyway) of Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (Seven Stories Press, 2013), another book of interviews with Noam Chomsky, though by Laray Polk rather than Chomsky regular David Barsamian, is the appendices, which take up almost the last third of the book.  Appendix 1, for instance, is a declassified 1945 dialogue between two US Army brass who want to squelch reports from Japan about the effects of A-bomb radiation on survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima.  They're especially indignant because one of the sources is an American, not just the "Jap scientists" they can easily dismiss as "propagandists."  Appendix 4 is an open letter from a Marshallese magistrate to the US military doctor who'd been waltzing in irregularly to study the effects of radiation from nuclear testing on the islanders in 1970s.  "We've never really trusted you," says the writer.  "So we're going to invite doctors from hospitals in Hiroshima to examine us in a caring way" (105).  There's also material on the use of chemical weapons by Iraq in the early 1980s, and more I haven't gotten to yet. 

Readers unfamiliar with Chomsky's political writings could do worse than begin with this book, especially those with a special interest in the environment.  Since Chomsky is in his eighties now and has been concerned with politics as a dissident and writer for more than half a century, he provides a long view that shows the continuity in US policy and practice over that period.  For example:
It should be remembered that when he escalated the attack on South Vietnam fifty years ago from support for a murderous client state [installed by his predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower] to outright US aggression, President Kennedy authorized the use of chemical weapons to destroy ground cover and also food crops, a crime in itself, even apart from the dreadful scale and character of the consequences, with deformed fetuses to this day, several generations down the line in Saigon hospitals as a result of persistent genetic mutations [36].
This conversation took place before President Obama's manufactured indignation over the use of chemical weapons in Syria this fall, which nearly led to another war in the Middle East.  It's good to be reminded that the US' own record with chemical warfare would (if we applied our own standards to ourselves) require a "humanitarian intervention," or invasion, to clean up our act.

Chomsky also talks about the symbiosis between academia, the military, the government, and corporate interests in the post-WWII period, which fits with David F. Noble's account in Forces of Production.
The actual US economy since the colonies has relied quite substantially on government intervention.  This goes right back to the earliest days of independence, and for advanced industry in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  The American system of mass production, interchangeable parts, quality control, and so on -- which kind of astonished the world -- was largely designed in government armories.  The railroad system, which was the biggest capital investment and, of course, extremely significant for economic development and expansion, was managed by the Army Corps of Engineers.  It was too complicated for private business [56].
Later Polk quotes a right-wing Christian radio pundit who said that Christian voters "would love to see a false smarty pants decapitated [!] by a real intellectual... He [Newt Gingrich] would tear Obama's head off."  Chomsky comments:
When we look over the record of famous debates, we find that they are not "won" on the basis of serious argument, significant evidence, or intellectual values generally.  Rather, their outcome turns on Nixon's five o'clock shadow, Reagan's sugary smile, lines like "have you no shame" or "you're no Jack Kennedy," etc.  That's not surprising.  Debates are among the most irrational constructions that humans have developed.  Their rules are designed to undermine rational interchange.  A debater is not allowed to say, "That was a good point.  I'll have to rethink my views." ... I don't know who Richard Lund is, and if he regards Gingrich as a "real intellectual," I don't see much reason to explore further [68].
Here I part company with Chomsky somewhat.  I think he's using "debate" in a narrow, tendentious way, referring to public spectacles like the candidates' debates staged during the American presidential campaigns.  Maybe we need another word for those performances, because it's true, they have nothing to do with "serious argument, significant evidence, or intellectual values generally."  They're gladiatorial combat, political sports events for people who are watching to cheer on their team, not to learn anything.  But that's not all there is to debate, as Chomsky knows, being a fierce, even bloodthirsty debater himself, whether about politics or about linguistics.  I have the same difference with him over his use of the word "intellectual," which he uses to refer to paid functionaries of the state and of business, not people who are interested in working with ideas.  But as with so many terms, I'm not going to harp too much on terminology: it's not the words but what they refer to, and there I agree about the function of argument and the proper role of those interested in ideas and evidence.