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Year 501.

Year 501 by Noam Chomsky (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992); 331 pp; $30.00 cloth; $16.95 paper.

The recent Canadian documentary Manufacturing Consent provided fans of linguist, political philosopher, and media scourge Noam Chomsky with a special treat: the chance to see the man not only on television but on a shopping mall's multiscreen video wall chocks, block with George Bush and the mass-media crew. It wasn't so much a video gimmick as it was a statement about the feeble content of American political discourse. Internationally, Chomsky is one of that rare breed of intellects (others include Bertrand Russell and Andrei Sakharov) whose contributions to science and philosophy are matched by their social activism. But in Chomsky's native land, wattle-faced chowder, heads like John McLaughlin are provided with corporate,sponsored pulpits, and a genuinely original thinker is relegated to small-press collectives and local radio chats.

So seeing Chomsky on the video wall was an amusing glimpse of the way things ought to be; a world where dissidents of Chomsky's caliber get regular airtime while louts like Rush Limbaugh are more appropriately employed as roadkill- scrapers for our nation's scenic highways.

In many ways, Chomsky's recent Year 501 is his most ambitious book. Using the quincentennial of Columbus' expedition as a starting point, Chomsky outlines the last half, millennium as a period of European expansion and conquest, with horrifying results for those on the receiving end of things. According to Chomsky:

Centralized state power dedicated to private privilege and authority, and the rational and organized use of savage violence, are two of the enduring features of the European conquest. Others are the domestic colonization by which the poor subsidize the rich, and contempt for democracy and freedom.

In a nifty, ironic move, Chomsky launches Year 501 with Adam Smith's trenchant observations on the nature of power and commerce. Smith is common, ly invoked as a champion of unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism. But in the space of 30 pages, Chomsky restores Smith to his place among the great liberal thinkers who saw, in human labor and self-determination, the roots of a truly human society. Like Chomsky today, Smith opposed the alliance of state and commercial power to maintain a privileged elite at the expense of everyone else.

And for the next 300 pages, Chore, sky provides a sobering look at the historical consequences of this alliance. The nations of the Third World, rich in natural resources, have become vistas of unimaginable poverty and cruelty. The United States pats itself on the back for the failure of communism, but Chomsky looks at the wasteland left in our own backyard. His passages on U.S. government complicity in the pillage of Brazil, for example, describe the systematic destruction of popular solidarity organizalions in that nation, a crushing burden of debt to the West, and staggering levels of chronic malnutrition. Many children are so underfed that they have only 40 percent of the brain capacity for normal humans; worse still, homeless children in urban areas are systematically murdered by freelancing police officers. Chomsky rarely, if ever, dramatizes these situations; the mere recitation of these documentable facts is enough to provoke anguish. "We should not underestimate the scale of achievement," Chomsky writes acidly. "It took real talent to create a nightmare in a country as favorably and richly endowed as Brazil." Not just Brazil, either -Chomsky also discusses the United States' role in the ruin of Haiti, Chile, and Guatemala.

As is customary in Chomsky's books, there is also a detailed accounting of the hypocrisy and opportunism endemic to American political discourse. The crimes of official enemies are decried with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but our own overseas activities must not be restrained by any soft-headedness over "human rights." And when Chomsky outlines the emergence of Third World conditions in the United States, one realizes where the Columbian era may be bringing us.

If I have any criticism to make of Year 501, it's solely on a matter of style. A 1988 review in the Nation once noted that an impatient and hectoring tone has entered into Chomsky's writing over the years. Although he apparently disagrees with this assessment, I'm afraid it's evident in portions of Tear 501. But then, who can blame him? Cataloguing the lies and distortions in the New Tork Times year after year must be as frustrating as, say, debating evolution with a roomful of Pat Robertsons. (Some of us have heard the story about Chomsky's dentist, who once told Chomsky that his teeth showed signs of excessive grinding. Observation later revealed that Chomsky punished his molars during his morning reading of the Times.) One could unfairly liken Chomsky's efforts to uselessly banging one's fists against a brick wall, but that would miss the point-the brick wall shouldn't be there to begin with, a fact that Chomsky demands we recognize.

New readers might face one other problem in Tear 501, which is that Chomsky assumes in this book a certain level of familiarity with his other works. For example, he has already discussed the role of "ideological managers" in previous books, and in persuasive detail; but the phrase turns up with only brief and unhelpful general explanations in Tear 501. I would recommend the more accessible Manufacturing Consent or The Chomsky Reader as a primer before taking on the valuable-and imperative-Year 501.

The interviews with David Barsamian contained in Chronicles of Dissent might also serve as a useful "intro" to Chomsky. About the only fault I'd find with this book is that half of the pieces have been published before (in the massive Language and Politics anthology edited by Carlos Otero). The new material covers the Persian Gulf War, the invasion of Panama, and the "New World Order," which Chomsky describes as simply "more of the same" old world order-with a few crucial differences. For example, the United States no longer has the Soviet Union as a deterrent, and so is much less constrained in its use of military power.

Chronicles of Dissent reveals Choresky as a considerate, engaging lecturer who can nimbly untangle skeins of propaganda with simple common sense. Barsamian also provides a clearer sense of the man's egalitarianism. Chomsky has deep respect for the capabilities of "ordinary people"-a group we're encouraged to see as a mindless herd. Discussing his habit of listening to sports,talk radio, Chomsky says:

What's very striking is that the people who call in not only seem to know an awful lot, and judging by the reaction of the experts on the radio, they seem to talk like equals, but also they are perfectly free to give advice .... The people who are running the talk show [and] the experts that they have interact with the callers at a reasonable intellectual level.

Chomsky goes on to say:

On the other hand, people do not feel that they have the capacity to talk about affairs that affect their lives in international and domestic policy, and so on, and they don't. They don't have the information, they can't get the information. They are taught from childhood that they're not supposed to know about those things displayed in Chomsky's office. This is fitting, since Chomsky has admirably carried on in much the same tradition. As Alexander Cockburn writes: "People will go to a talk by Chomsky partly just to reassure themselves that they haven't gone mad; that they are right when they disbelieve what they read in the papers or watch on TV.... Chomsky has offered the assurance, the intellectual and moral authority, that there is another way of looking at things."

Brian Siano is a freelance writer and researcher living in Philadelphia. His col, umn "The Skeptical Eye" appears regularly in The Humanist. He can be contacted via e-mail at revpk@cellar. org.
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Author:Siano, Brian
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:The Way Things Ought to Be.
Next Article:Chronicles of Dissent: Interviews with Noam Chomsky.

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