Chomsky, Noam - Powers and Prospects

Review :


First published in 1996, "Powers and Prospects" appears to be a collection of talks that Chomsky gave while visiting Australia at the behest of the campaign against the Indonesian invasion and annexation of East Timor.

"Writers and Intellectual Responsibility" updates an earlier essay on the same subject. Chomskys point is that "[t]he responsibility of the writer as a moral agent is to try to bring the truth about matters of human significance to an audience that can do something about them." He draws as examples the atrocities that occurred in East Timor and Cambodia at almost the same time and of roughly similar dimensions relative to population. The contrast between media coverage and moral outrage regarding events in Cambodia, and the media black hole that the events in East Timor disappeared into, is doubly disgusting when one takes into account that the Indonesian dictator was a US ally, supplied with US aid and weaponry (and when congress cut that other Western countries took up the slack). It would have been possible for the U.S. and the West to have brought to a halt the atrocities in East Timor (as in fact happened in 1999 though nearly twenty-five years after Indonesia invaded). Instead Government and media outrage was focused on Cambodia, where leverage was approaching zero, and the culprits were ostensibly Communist.

"Goals and Visions" reflects on the need to be pragmatic about distinguishing goals from what is, more or less, immediately possible in a given context, and the need to have a vision regarding how a decent and fair society might function. "Democracy and Markets in the New World Order" is a cogent summary of post "Cold War" developments in the economic sphere. "The Middle East Settlement: Its Sources and Contours" is a summary of the early stages of the "peace" process, prescient in that Chomskys appreciation what was happening and of how it would evolve has been largely, and rather depressingly, confirmed by subsequent events. "The Great Powers and Human Rights: the Case of East Timor" and "East Timor and World Order", the last two essays in the collection, are directly relevant to the situation in East Timor, and describe events there within a global context.

Prefacing all the essays outlined above are two essays on Language and Linguistics that frankly appear out of place. I suspect there is a minimal amount of correlation between an interest in global affairs and linguistics; it is certainly not necessary. No doubt someone who reads it for the linguistics will end up doing some interesting and unexpected reading. The majority who will read this primarily for Chomskys analysis of global affairs, and whose knowledge of academic level linguistics is somewhat spartan, will find themselves scratching their heads. That small criticism to one side, there are a number of excellent essays in this collection, some of a very high standard and well worth reading.

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