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Hopes and Prospects, by Noam Chomsky
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OnTheIssues.org BOOK REVIEW #1:
The blurb on the back cover of this book calls this an "urgent new book." So we bought it urgently, and read it urgently, expecting some urgent insight into the Obama election and Obama's first couple of years. Instead of urgency, we found nearly 200 pages rehashing Chomsky's usual arguments, plus a few dozen pages of new material. The new material is good; the rehashed material is tedious.
Does anyone really care today about the policy implications of Wilsonian idealism? That's foreign policy as defined by President Wilson; you know, the one in power from 1913 through 1921. How is that "urgent"? Yet Chomsky has eight (count 'em! 8!) references to the topic in his index. Is the Monroe Doctrine urgent? Two index references -- not as history, but as policy, and how it relates to US relations with Latin America. Maybe Pres. Reagan (14 references) and Pres. Nixon (4 references) are relevant to current policy, but not Pres. Washington (yes, George Washington; 2 references; neither favorable).
If you can get past all that, Pres. Obama makes his first serious appearance on page 170. That's who this book is supposed to be about -- we assumed the title referred to Obama (as in, "How are the prospects for fulfilling the 'hope' that Obama promised?", but Chomsky does not elaborate). If the first 169 pages of this book were omitted, we might have liked it. So let's pretend the book starts on page 170, and we'll continue the review from there....
There's a giant graffiti on Rt. 2, the largest highway in my hometown of Cambridge, Mass., announcing, "OBAMA = BUSH". It was inscribed sometime shortly after Obama's inauguration, and I've been wondering since then what exactly it means. This book explains it. Obvious to any pundit, the graffiti artist has very high anti-globalization credentials, and less obviously, ascribes to Ralph Nader's and Noam Chomsky's world view. So I read this book with enthusiasm, expecting a detailed explanation.
"OBAMA = BUSH", in Chomsky's view, because Obama has extended several important Bush policies. The most relevant ones, in Chomsky's view, are all about foreign policy, and in particular Mideast policy. Chomsky's primary rationale for equating Obama with Bush is that Obama follows the same policies as Bush with regards to Israel and with regards to Iraq. I think both of those equations are simply wrong.
The sign on Rt 2, with the author being bewildered.
One can see the intense controversy in the equal/inequal sign.
Chomsky claims that Obama follows Bush's policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict by unquestioningly always siding with Israel. (See excerpts from p. 177, 187, 189, and 233). The American Jewish community disagrees wholeheartedly. They indeed saw Bush as unquestioningly supporting Israel, but they don't see Obama that way. Pundits like me listen closely to large groups like American Jews and how they vote -- traditionally they vote overwhelmingly Democratic, and are generally liberal except on issues regarding Israel. Their disagreement with Obama is profound enough that many American Jews are considering re-registering as Republicans, and the talk among the pundit class is whether American Jews can any longer be considered a reliable liberal voting bloc. It's just not the case that Obama's policies match Bush's on Israel, in the eyes of the most important constituency in America on this issue.
Chomsky also claims that Obama follows Bush's policy on the Iraq War, by supporting American interventionism overseas as a force for good. (See excerpts from p. 234 and 237). As you'll recall, the Iraq War was the primary reason Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the primaries (Hillary voted for Bush's Iraq War declaration; Obama spoke out against it). And the Iraq War was the primary reason Obama beat McCain in the general election (Obama said he'd end it; McCain said he supported Bush's surge and he'd keep troops there for decades). While many Obama supporters are disappointed that Obama has not withdrawn troops from Iraq faster, Obama is clearly following a different path than Bush (or McCain). It's just not the case that Obama's policies match Bush's on Iraq, either.
So what does Chomsky mean by his claims? Well, he does explain them, and this is the real explanation of "OBAMA = BUSH". According to Chomsky, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are well to the right of the American public. He cites "many studies" that show this is true (See excerpts, p. 207). In that context, that Obama is a right-leaning president, Bush is just an even-more-right-leaning president, and hence they are essentially equal.
I suspect Chomsky does not listen much to Talk Radio, but we listen constantly. An ongoing theme throughout 2010 is that Obama is a socialist, by which the radio hosts mean Obama is far-left-leaning. That is a core belief of the Tea Party movement: that Obama's policies on healthcare, immigration, and the economy lead America down the path to socialism. It's just not the case that Obama is to the right of the general American population.
If one were to observe France and Germany from the moon, the two countries would look very close and very similar. But on the ground, the Eiffel Tower is very far from the Brandenburg Gate, and the cultural gap between them is even wider than the geographical distance. Chomsky famously observes things from the big-picture perspective. Observing Obama and Bush from afar, they might seem similar; but up close on the ground, they are as different as crepes and sauerkraut.
This book is not Chomsky's best work. But it is his most recent, and his only book which discusses Obama. It's a must-read only if you need to burnish your anti-globalization street cred, or if you want to explain why some people believe that OBAMA = BUSH.
-- Jesse Gordon, OnTheIssues editor-in-chief, October 2010
OnTheIssues.org BOOK REVIEW #2:
In Hopes & Prospects, published in June 2010, Noam Chomsky explores the current challenges and prospects facing the United States and areas of the world subject to US influence, in particular Latin America and the Middle East. The “Hopes” reference in the title refers to reasons Chomsky finds for optimism. These are many fewer than the prospects for concern, but the hopes offered provide the reader with some insight into how the world may build a better future.
The book is divided into two sections. Part I (“Latin America”) focuses on relations between the US and Latin America. Part II (“North America”) discusses US domestic and international issues. A draw of the book is that it is the first of Chomsky's books to include a discussion of the Obama presidency.
Chapter One is entitled “Year 514: Globalization for Whom?” It's based on a lecture Professor Chomsky gave in Chile in 2006. “514” refers to the number of years since 1492, the year Columbus opened the way for European conquest of the Americas. I found this to be a useful historical anchor for current observations.
If the complaint is that some of the topics covered in Hopes & Prospects are repeated from other Chomsky works, consider that some of these topics bear repeating. The brief review of Haiti's status as one of the richest colonies in the world as of 1789 provides context to appreciating the role of the US and France in contributing to the country's current level of poverty. This historical context also helps illuminate current events, including the Haitian population's vulnerability to the 2010 earthquake.
Historical context, of course, is central to the manner in which Chomsky analyzes current events. He writes “Another pervasive principle is that those who hold the clubs can carry out their work effectively only with the benefit of self-induced blindness...That includes selective historical amnesia and a variety of devices to evade consequences of one's actions.” Plainly, to get at the reality of current events, we must be honest with past events, including ones that are uncomfortable and sometimes antithetical to the pervasive story our society and culture teach.
Throughout the book, I found that when Chomsky reached back to historical events, it mostly served to connect dots to the current events that form the premise of the book. This is true of the Haitian example cited above as it is for: connecting John Quincy Adam's conquest of Florida (on the premise of preventing runaway slaves and Native Americans from allying with Britain) to George W. Bush's doctrine of preemptive strike; connecting the “first 9/11” (the US backed coup in Chile on September 11, 1973) to 9/11 (2001); to connecting (or disconnecting perhaps) Adam Smith's observation that the “free circulation of labor” is a foundation stone of free trade, to the militarization of our Mexican border that accompanied NAFTA; and others.
Historical context also serves as antidote to the common mis-perception that things used to be better. In the opinion of this reviewer, embracing the “used to be better” myth results both in cutting ourselves off from the true root causes of problems, and in chasing solutions in corridors where they simply don't exist.
The first significant reference to the Obama administration comes in chapter 2 (“Latin America and U.S. Foreign Policy”). Here, Chomsky discusses Obama's acceptance of the 2009 Honduran elections under military rule, after the democratically elected president was removed via a coup. Chomsky quotes Obama's ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens, as praising the post-coup elections as “a great celebration of democracy.” A parallel can be drawn to George W. Bush's acceptance of the (eventually failed) 2002 coup in Venezuela.
In discussing Obama's Middle East policy, Chomsky refers to the “blank slate” style Obama uses in speeches, accusing Obama of using purposefully using ambiguous speech so that listeners can assign whatever meaning they prefer to his words. As an example, Chomsky cites Obama's 2009 Cairo speech where he references a “Palestinian state,” without any clarification of what he means by a Palestinian state. In condemning Israel settlements in Palestinian territory, Chomsky points out that Obama carefully uses the phrase “continued Israeli settlements.” A careful parsing suggests that Obama has no intention of condemning existing illegal settlements and Obama's actions bear out such a parsing.
Recalling that this book was written before the recent pro-democracy protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, Chomsky deserves credit for highlighting Obama's comments on Hosni Mubarak, in 2009, when Mr. Obama referred to Mubarak as a “force for stability and good” and said he didn't regard Mubarak as an authoritarian leader. Chomsky goes on to site a special report on Egypt in the Financial Times that revealed how US pressure on Egypt for political reform dramatically eased under Obama, and Mubarak's subsequent ramping up of efforts to brutally repress opposition.
On the domestic front, Chomsky calls into question Obama's first politcal appointment as President: the position of Chief of Staff, which was given to Rahm Emmanuel. Emmanuel was one of the strongest proponents of the Iraq War on the the Democratic side of the aisle. Further, in the 2008 election cycle Emmanuel was the top recipient of donations from hedge funds, private equity firms, and the financial industry. Obama meanwhile is on track to spend more on defense than any president since World War II and setting budget records with his bailout of the financial industry. Whether these are matters of coincidence or intended priority doesn't much matter.
While it's true that right wing media outlets, including some that pass as “mainstream,” continue to paint Obama as a leftist or communist or terrorist sympathizer, none of those accusations are borne out in reality. Today, more of the progressives who supported Obama in the 2008 elections are acknowledging that not only hasn't Obama lived up to their expectations, but that in fundamental ways – ways that effect the livelihood and economic condition of the common American as well as the humanitarian condition of people living in areas where we exert our influence – Obama's differences from Bush are more style than substance. Thus, the “Obama = Bush” meme has increased in prominence among progressive and libertarian thinkers, on liberal blogs, and even perhaps in Boston-area graffiti.
Has Chomsky's book “Hopes & Prospects” contributed to the “Obama = Bush” meme? Chomsky never uses the phrase “Obama = Bush” in his book, but he does provide evidence to those who might draw that conclusion. At the same time, Chomsky isn't ignorant of how Obama is painted in the right wing media. In interviews, he's talks about listening to conservative radio from time to time because it provides a window into how issues are framed for many Americans and how they in turn they view those issues. To take that framing however as a starting point for making a reality-based comparison of Bush and Obama policies, I feel would be a mistake.
So where's the hope? Chapter One presents the first hopeful point covered in the book when Chomsky discusses the work of the late Kenneth Hale, a colleague at MIT who has worked to revive languages lost due to the conquest of the Americas that followed Columbus. In the rest of the book, more space is given to hopeful prospects for Latin America than the United States or other areas of the world.
In Latin America, Chomsky observes that imperial control via economic strangulation and violence has decreased, while vibrant social organizations have increased in number and effectiveness. He also sees hope in strengthened connections between Latin American countries, allowing them to defend their collective interests while being less economically beholden to the US as compared to the past.
My frustration with the book is that it's left to the reader as to how to help right the wrongs observed and contribute to the positive developments hoped for. Reading about destructive economic policies, coups of democratically elected leaders, expanded wars, and the plight of the oppressed can leave one demoralized. I for one would like to hear “do this and it will help.” But that's neither Noam Chomsky's forte, nor his role. Our own creative energy is needed individually and collectively, and the solutions that creative energy produces will be more apt if they are based on the confronting the brutal facts as Chomsky forces us to do.
-- Billy Beren, OnTheIssues contributor, March 2011
Page last edited: Sep 03, 2011