LWC Book Review ~ September 18, 2017
Requiem for the American Dream by Noam Chomsky
“The freedoms that we have were won by hard, painful, courageous popular struggle, but they’re there. We have that legacy - a legacy granted to us by the struggles of others.”
or six decades, Noam Chomsky has been a lion of the Left. His courage and outspokenness have drawn fire from political hacks in the media, and from Democrats and Republicans alike. Chomsky’s fearlessness has also won him millions of readers and supporters. This is true, even though he has been boycotted by major media outlets. Even when he used to appear on television, the environment was often childishly hostile. (Here is a link to a transcript of his exchange, which was originally broadcast on CBS, with William (“Say-you-love-America!”) Bennett, who jams his peevish baby-mode into high gear during this appearance.) This is what Chomsky was often treated to when he appeared at all on television or radio—marginalization by buffoonery.
Still, readers find his books.
This new book contains some of Chomsky’s arguments against authoritarianism, over the course of his long life. Long-time readers will recognize many points he has made in the past—Adam Smith’s “vile maxim,” David Hume’s observation that power always resides with the governed, Madison’s advocacy of the “opulent minority,” Walter Lippmann’s “manufacture of consent,” etc. This book, then, is a superb summary of Chomsky’s political writings.
“The essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private…”
Is he done now? He is, after all, approaching ninety. Chomsky seems to have lost little in the way of intellect, however, and he has recently married a much younger woman, Valeria, who holds the book’s copyright. So, who can say?
There are ten chapters, each setting forth a principle used by the Right in furtherance of aggrandizing power: Reduce Democracy, Shape Ideology, Run the Regulators, and so on. The simplicity of this book will be a treat for first-time readers. In each chapter, Chomsky writes on a subject, and this writing is followed by primary sources, printed on light green paper.
Reading this book, formatted this way, the reader is struck by an odd and delicious fact—when authors on the Right are speaking to one another and not trying befuddle the public, it is (nearly) impossible to tell their writing from Chomsky’s! Okay, here are a pair of quotes from Requiem:
1. “The essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private…Authority based on hierarchy, expertise, and wealth all…ran counter to the democratic and egalitarian temper of the times, and during the 1960’s, all three came under heavy attack.” [page 29]
2. “The public relations industry is a phenomenon that developed in the freest countries, in Britain and the United States, and the reason is pretty clear. A century ago it became clear that it was not going to be so easy to control the population by force.” [page 124]
And who did Madison think needed to be checked and balanced?...It was the ordinary American people...
Which one is Chomsky?
Not so easy to tell. Quote 1, as it happens, comes from a Trilateral Commission Report, whose conclusion was that the US had developed too much democracy. Chomsky would agree with the facts of the report, if not its conclusions, and that is the point: the facts are not in dispute! If Chomsky was talking privately at a cocktail party to a David Rockefeller-type, the two of them wouldn’t bother disputing the facts. This is what people need to know—the facts, by and large, are not in dispute.
There is some great stuff here on Madison. First, early on, Chomsky compares Madison with Aristotle - both men understood that an oligarchy is inherently unstable. “Madison’s solution was to reduce democracy…Aristotle’s solution was the opposite—what we would nowadays call a welfare state.” The welfare state, the genius idea of the mid-20th century, is actually a very old idea. It is deeply entrenched in the very stable western European countries, but is under attack here in America, where Madison’s thinking holds sway.
Second, we learn that James Madison, who in many ways was our most influential Founding Father, used the expression “balance and check” in his private notes to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. And who did Madison think needed to be checked and balanced? A distant angry king? A haughty American merchant class? An oligarchical Senate?
Nope. It was the ordinary American people, especially those who might feel inclined to do something about the insane disproportion of land ownership in America. This was the big fear of the oligarchs of the 1780’s, in England and in America, that huge landholders would be subject to so-called “agrarian laws.” The dreaded agrarian laws, if enacted, would break up huge landed estates, and distribute them more fairly. Great landholders, wrote Madison, should “balance and check the other.” By “the other,” Madison meant ordinary Americans. Madison’s conclusion was that the government “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” So, the country ran off its democratic rails before it even got started. Think about that, the next time you hear some jibber-jabber about ‘check and balance.’ The most important purpose of the government wasn’t to check and balance its different branches. It was to check you.
On the back cover is a black and white picture of Chomsky. He isn’t smiling. We’re steaming straight into peril - the weirdness and instability of our economy, the extreme dangers of climate change, the vast thickets of nuclear weapons around the globe, the hegemony of huge multinational corporations merged with our media, which keeps us blind and stupid.
Nonetheless, he is hopeful. It’s a realistic book, but not a gloomy one. Requiem is not about throwing in the towel. The book is aimed primarily at the young. “There is a change going on, mainly among young people, but that is where change usually starts. Where’s it gonna go? That’s really up to you.” One of the reasons why young people love him is that Chomsky, like Bernie, tells them the truth. The fix is in, but you don’t have to like it, and you shouldn’t accept it. Change will come, as it always has, from outside the system, from millions of small acts of courage and defiance.
What will you do?