Tuesday, May 31, 2005


A few days back, somebody found out I was a Noam Chomsky fan. The following allegation (in rough paraphrase) was made against me and like minded people:

How can I join the ranks of those thousands of Chomsky fanatics who keep rambling about the kinds of systems that feed them and support them, and still, never suggest practical solutions to the problems of the system? Most of these ramblings simply seem to be aimed at pointing out drawbacks of the capitalist system, as currently epitomized by the United States, without actually offering any alternative, realistic solutions. Surely this seems to be a case of sour grapes, or simply a case of subscribing to the trendy, minority point of view as a fashion statement.

I think the simple answer to these points has to do with recognizing the role of DISSENT in any system, which always serves as a sober and opposing bulwark to intentions gone astray. For example, in many of his books, Chomsky provides overwhelming evidence for the atrocities by rebels in Central America that the US apparently supported in the 1980s. Whether we believe him or not, first of all, what he says is at least partially correct. (If in doubt, look at the mammoth and painstaking list of references he provides in his major works, all of which surely cannot be false or biased). Secondly, consider what would have happened if he, or people like him, had NOT spoken against these acts at all. That would have given the Government free rein against committing even more blatantly rule-breaking immoral, acts. One simple truth at the basis of ANY political system is that “Power corrupts”, even in the most benevolent of systems. No matter how much freedom the Government gives its citizens, its first priority is to satisfy its own personal needs of wealth generation, status maintenance, and most importantly, going to almost any length possible to “maintain a presence” in its own country and the rest of the world, in whatever manifestation that may be deemed necessary. Even the most honorable and ‘good’ political leader of the United States, or any other country, will first and foremost put his country’s self-serving intentions before any humanitarian purpose. These intentions frequently may be at odds with what the citizens of that nation believe their leaders' intentions should be. The situation is similar to the presence of pharmaceutical companies. No matter how much they have helped humanity in the last one hundred years, their biggest priority is still to make money; everything else comes second to that priority. I think that once we understand these basic motives of Governments and corporations, future arguments are facilitated.
However, this is not as bad as it sounds, because many times, the execution of all other priorities in fact depends upon whether the first priority is followed or not. For example, many times, in order to produce life saving drugs, the pharmaceutical industry HAS to generate a lot of revenue. Similarly, in order to bring peace to the world, Governments sometimes HAVE to maintain a military presence which may look intimidating on the face of it. Wars sometimes have to be fought precisely in order to maintain peace, controversial as they may be.

The real problem is, because so much of the Government’s business is conducted in secrecy (and mostly rightly so), we can never know how much it is willing to compromise on the principles which its citizens think it should stand for. We don’t know whether it will put its interests before its citizens’ interests to an extent much more than what most of the population would approve of. And in fact we can’t know it. In such a case, the best ploy is to assume the WORST case scenario (which, not surprisingly, has turned out be an accurate assessment time and time again!). Assume that the Government would go to any appallingly selfish length to protect it’s own self-aggrandizing interests, and then protest accordingly. Even if your protests are extreme or unjustified, at least they blow up the whole affair and help to make a big deal out of it, so that everyone takes notice. Because of this simple effect, after this, because it knows that everyone will be watching, the Government would be more careful and abandon any plans of extreme and unscrupulous personal gains that it MAY have been planning to implement. If nothing of the sort was being orchestrated, well, then the protestors would be castigated, but it becomes a trivial matter because no evil plan was being hatched in the first place. What do these protestors do? They serve the obvious but extremely important purpose of PREVENTION. They prevent Governments from becoming totalitarian by blowing up issues that could possibly have been profitable to the Government, at the expense of its population. I think all of us have to realize this; that dissent in fact cannot, and rarely does, serve a CURATIVE function. Nobody thinks that writings by Chomsky et. al. would bring about the next American Revolution and overturn the whole capitalist system. I don’t think that people like him even convince others that capitalism is evil. But what they do, is simply serve the very important function of preventing certain evils that the Government may have engaged in, had they NOT dissented. They prevent a putative future catastrophe. In fact, why even go as far as Chomsky and other left-liberals/'libertarian socialists'/whatever label we want to attach to them? Even about democracy itself, Bertrand Russell said,

“The value of democracy is negative. It does not solve all our problems; all it does is prevent certain evils.”

A compelling statement. And it’s the same for libertarians, left-liberals, and even communists (unfortunately, I think the word has become as overused as the word ‘the’). I don’t believe for a moment that what they are saying is practicable or workable. But I would rather have them in my country than not have them, because they fulfill the invaluable function of the dissenter. They may not cure the system of its problems, but they sure prevent problems from getting out of hand through their exegeses, no matter how outrageous they may be. If there is no dissent at all it is very easy for political leaders to get completely corrupted. My point is, there’s no use always asking a left liberal about what point he is making. The very fact that he is making a point that is making you think/feel like strangling him, means that he is fulfilling his role as a dissenter. Too many times we get obsessed with the end itself, but as has been adequately said in the Gita (which also unfortunately has become a cliché), the MEANS to the end are very valuable, many times they are more valuable than the end, and sometimes they are the ONLY valuable thing around.

So that should hopefully answer my friend’s allegations. First, I am a Chomsky FAN, not a Chomsky FANATIC. I don’t believe in everything he says, and I think he stretches things too far many times. But, apart from the fact that some of his arguments do make a lot of sense, it’s better than keeping silent on matters. I remember how many of my relatives complain about how the American media tends to exaggerate every minor piece of news and rant about it till everyone finally becomes nauseatingly sick of it (For example; mother gives birth to Siamese twins, they need to be separated and one of them has to die to save the other- which one should it be??). But I maintain that this scenario is any day better than not reporting it at all.

Now, it’s easy to say, “Strike a golden mean”. But as the history of the world tells us, this is easier said than done. Many times, we only have the choice of choosing between two extremes. Paradoxically, at the same time, we also strive to strike the golden mean. The only way we can do this is if we have information about both extremes in the first place, and people like Chomsky epitomize this other extreme, which helps to prevent tipping the balance unilaterally to one side. It is highly commendable of a country like America, and to some extent, India, which allow this dissent; that is one of the hallmarks of a true democracy. What is really frustrating about India however, is the ‘unofficial’ suppression of dissent, which in some ways is worse than totalitarianism, because the citizens cannot even legitimately rebel against it through official channels. According to Chomsky, in the US, the same kind of suppression takes place through his famous ‘manufacture of consent’, in which the Government, along with corporations and the media, tries to mould and shape the unconscious opinions of dissenters through subtle propaganda, so that they will inevitably ‘convert’. That makes people like Chomsky even more important, because since this manipulation is subtle, few people would realize it. He rightly says that in a country where outright violence and totalitarian policies cannot be adopted against the citizens to bend their opinions, the Government will engage in thought control instead, which may seem quite benevolent. If, in the first place, we accept that ANY Government will always do this in some way or the other, then we will also naturally recognize the importance of people like Chomsky. Their whole function is preventive; whether it is curative becomes irrelevant, and I get the feeling that their most vociferous opponents don’t realize this fact, assuming that Chomsky’s function (and single-minded motive) in the first place is to save the country and the world from the cruel capitalists.

The bottom line? I think that paradoxically, a founding father of the symbol of capitalism himself would have been proud of Noam Chomsky, when he said it best:

“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance"- Thomas Jefferson


Blogger Sumedha said...

In Frank Capra's 'Mr. Smith goes to Washington', the concept of 'thought control' through mass media has been portrayed; back in 1939.
OTW, though, the movie isn't that special and it fudges the concept of a 'filibuster'.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Hirak said...

Chomsky also needs to be celebrated for his courage in taking on the US government.
I am currently reading 'Language and th e Mind' a series of interviews with Chomsky. Fascinating!
More on Chomsky when I finish.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Sumedha: InTEResting :)
Hirak: Of course, Chomsky has a lot of courage. Interestingly, the very administration he is criticizing so much has been most tolerant of him...I can't imagine how he may have fared in Russia or France. In a quite honest way, I surely have to praise the provision for freedom of speech in the US.
I remember breezing vanishingly fast through 'Language and Mind'...

3:45 PM  
Blogger Gaurav said...

My problem with Chomsky is that he often makes illogical arguments and presents half-truths. But I do appreciate what you say about the need for dissent.

One thing I admire about USA is how seriously they take their freedom, on a personal level. For us in India on the other hand, freedom seems to equate with sovereignty. There hasn't been a real "freedom" struggle, and freedom continues to be attacked in India, even officially, like the recent ban on depicting smoking in films.

9:49 AM  

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