Book Review

Imperial Ambitions by Noam Chomsky

Imperial Ambitions by Noam Chomsky

Imperial Ambitions: Conversations with Noam Chomsky on the Post 9/11 World is a useful collection of nine brief interviews between Chomsky's and his regular interviewer David Barsamian (Barsamian, of Alternative Radio, has been "working with him" for more than twenty years according to his very brief introduction; and see e.g. Class Warfare; Secrets, Lies and Democracy; The Common Good; Propaganda and the Public Mind etc). These conversations took place between March 2003 and February 2005 ("mostly conducted in Chomsky's office at MIT") and in them Chomsky and Barsamian discuss the usual: US foreign policy in a post-9/11 world; the 2004 US presidential campaign and election; the future of Social Security (in the US); the increasing threat of global warming; the dangers arising out of the war in/against Iraq; and the difficulties of developing an "ongoing, living, democratic culture" to counter such things. In addition, we get -- amongst many other titbits -- a brief glimpse into Chomsky's childhood, his relationship with his father, and his political education.

For those who have never read Chomsky the collection might act as a useful overview of his concerns and his way of thinking about the world. Certainly, it is a brisk read, and a very approachable book, and Chomsky has much to say that is both fascinating and insightful. He is always forthright and wonderfully clear. Indeed, "common sense" is regularly invoked by Chomsky as his sole theoretical technique (and the sole technique any of us need) for cutting through the lies and propaganda he argues that we are continually fed by governments and the corporate media: "Instead of repeating ideological fanaticism, dismantle it, try to find out the truth, and tell the truth. It's something any one of us can do."

It hardly needs saying that Chomsky is a formidable intellectual and a vital presence in political philosophy and on the Left. He is phenomenally well-read and able to back up his arguments with material from a hugely wide source of materials. The present is always situated in its historic context with Chomsky able to show that current brutalities and inanities are directly linked to past barbarity (Kosovo, Grenada, the Vietnam War, the Mexican War). He also shows throughout this collection that he has a fine line in dry and self-deprecating humour.

Regularly, critics gripe at him for criticising the country that has made him rich and allowed him the freedom to express himself so fulsomely in such a flood of publications. Chomsky is aware of his privileges and the freedoms that America offers him (and, indeed, is very warm about America here). But from this enviable position, criticism becomes a pressing obligation, not something to shy away from. This is something Chomsky understands full well, unlike those who wish his success and his privileges had bought his silence.

Inevitably, however, a brief book like this is also rather frustrating and occasionally quite repetitive. Many topics are passed over in a matter of a few sentences and interesting issues, thrown up in the course of the conversations, are either inadequately referenced (footnotes reference the article that Chomsky is citing, but do not contextualise or explain beyond that) or merely hang in the air. Whilst interviews like this are very readable, the unsystematic treatment of very knotted political issues in such a discursive fashion doesn't do the issues, or Chomsky, full justice. You keep hoping for a more substantive answer, but then realise this is not the book for that.

For those who enjoy Chomsky's voice, and value his presence, Imperial Ambitions is a nice enough addition to the collection. Whenever the "infuriating, indispensable dean of American dissidents" (Publishers Weekly) speaks you'll learn something. And peppered throughout these interviews are real gems: acute insights into the misuse of political power; frightening examples of historic precedent. Critics, however, are likely to find the conversations bluff and shallow. If so, I'd direct them away from this, and his other interview books, and towards any number of his other ("proper") titles.

-- Reviewed by Mark Thwaite on 02/10/2006

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0141026928
ISBN-13: 9780141026923
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publication Date: 01/06/2006
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 240

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