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Politics and the English Language

Frank Lee finds Chomsky lays bare the brutal intent of US foreign policy.

Pirates and Emperors, Old and New by Noam Chomsky
(Pluto Press, £12.99 p/b)

In our time political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible … Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, and the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.’’ (G.Orwell – Politics and the English Language – emphasis in original.)

In essence Chomsky’s theme is much the same as Orwell’s when he penned the above lines in 1946. To be sure the actors have changed but the methodology has barely altered. At one level Chomsky’s book is a examination of American foreign policy with particular reference to the middle-east and central America. First written in 1986 this new edition has been updated to include the latest developments in the middle-east and the events of the 11th September 2001.

With an almost painful clarity Chomsky lays bare the essentials of America’s foreign policy goals: a policy of realpolitik conducted with brutal intent. In central America, the United States will tolerate no government, nationalist, catholic, communist or otherwise, which is not completely subservient to US interests. This has involved CIA-backed and funded State or privatised terrorism by US proxies – e.g. the ‘government’ of El Salvador or the contras in Nicaragua – involving mass murder, incarceration, torture, economic sabotage and the denial of elementary human rights. The author describes an endless litany of crimes against humanity which is as long as it is sickening, and which has also been chronicled by various NGOs including Oxfam and Amnesty International.

In the middle-east Israel commands almost uncritical support of the United States. I say almost since the US sometimes has to appear to be concerned about the excesses of Sharon and the other zionist hawks. But in essence the project of actually existing zionism – that is, settlement and creeping annexation of the West Bank, Gaza, and the creation of a Greater Israel – is being tacitly endorsed by the American authorities. The key part of this creeping annexation is the part played by the ‘peace process’.

As far as Chomsky is concerned the ‘peace process’ is complete bunk; a PR stunt to delude the world (and presumably the Palestinians) that the US/Israel want a just settlement. In fact a just settlement has been on offer for many years – UN resolution 242 – which has been generally interpreted (except by the US and Israel) as leading to the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank with the capital in East Jerusalem. Resolution 242 has been vetoed by the US for many years. The Palestinians try to negotiate (what else can they do!) whilst more settlements are built on what was once Palestinian land; this is hardly negotiation in good faith.

At a second level Chomsky’s book is about the language and lexicon of politics. The term ‘terrorism’ comes in for some discussion. Of course the term is value-laden, and refers to political violence of which ‘we’ disapprove. Thus the Nicaraguan contras were not terrorists but ‘freedom-fighters’. However, in 1985 a group of 120 doctors, nurses and other health professionals returned from an investigation in Nicaragua endorsed by the American Public Health Association and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Their report back noted how the freedom loving contras had reportedly routinely destroyed clinics and hospitals, murdered health workers, looted pharmacies (which led to acute shortages of medicines) and successfully disrupted a polio vaccination campaign. (Boston Globe - 16/12/1985). Moreover all of this terrorist violence against the population of Nicaragua was orchestrated from Washington and Miami with full government approval.

In a similar vein Israel does not commit terrorist acts or atrocities. Of course when the history of Israel is taken into account this is a quite ludicrous statement. The atrocities and terrorist outrages that took place during the British occupation as perpetrated by the Irgun Zvei Leumi, the Stern Gang and the Hagannah tell a rather different story. It should be noted also that many Israeli statesmen and luminaries including Shamir, Dayan and Begin were in the leadership of these organizations. But then power and success legitimates violence. Yesterdays ‘terrorist’ is today’s statesman, dedicated to peace. Thus when Israel engages in political violence and murder, this is not terrorism as such: no, such acts are ‘surgical’, ‘retaliatory’ or now ‘pre-emptive’ strikes. This is precisely the same language that the US and its current proxies (the UK and Israel) are using to describe the forthcoming war in Iraq.

Chomsky reserves particular scorn for the media who seem content to re-iterate the official versions of what is and what is not going on in the world. This is not the role that the media is supposed to play in functioning democratic societies; it is in fact more akin to the role played by the media in totalitarian societies. Of course there are dissenting voices and opposing views, but these are of no account, being easily marginalized and presenting no threat to the powers-that-be. This is what the Frankfurt theorists once referred to as ‘repressive tolerance’ and is not a unique discovery of Chomsky’s.

The corruption of language for purposes of realpolitik goals may involve the loss of moral integrity on the part of the believers. What is more disturbing, however, is the inability of many of those trapped in the Newspeak paradigm to imagine the legitimacy or indeed even the existence of any contrary worldview. This indeed represents the triumph of language and ideology over objective reality. Alas, this is a common enough phenomenon.

Chomsky’s book is a passionately written indictment of US imperialism (that phrase may be old-fashioned but it happens to be true) and is rich in journalistic detail. But at the second level he is not really saying anything that has not been said already by C Wright Mills, George Orwell, the Frankfurt School, and, come to that Jonathan Swift and Juvenal. Still, overall worth a read.