The Library Basement
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Tag Noam Chomsky

Readings for August 2011

August was a rather prodigious month of reading for me. At the beginning of the month I was on a leisurely vacation, which always helps. I got through a lot, but there are always more books.

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

If you want to read some straight-ahead sci-fi, Old Man's War is for you. Scalzi does an excellent job of mixing classical sci-fi elements with some unique contributions of his own. The novel is an engaging read, perfect for summer.

I did have some slightly different expectations about the significance of age in this story. Yes, the element of old age is integrated into the plot, but not into the theme in the way that I would have thought. But that is a problem with my expectations rather than with the book, so it is nonetheless Recommended.

All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day by Jim Forest

[][]In my readings surrounding Christian pacifism and anarchism I have heard much about Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement. So when I saw that this revised and expanded biography was being published, I asked for it for my birthday, and was happily rewarded. I fully noted the irony of me reading about the life of someone who had taken a vow of poverty while spending a week relaxing on a houseboat.

The biography does a good job focusing on Dorothy up until the founding of the Catholic Worker. After that point her life and that of the movement become so entwined that it would be difficult to tell the story of one without the other. Still Forest is able to continue with enough personal insight into his subject's life in between the developments in the Catholic Worker.

The story is inspirational and challenging. Of tangential interest to me was just how alive and well socialism was as a political movement in the earlier parts of the 20th century in the United States. But Dorothy was about the practicality of helping the poor and resisting state power rather than promoting ideology. This is, I think, why she is being considered for canonization. Recommended.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchet

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I had not read Good Omens until now. Luckily my vacation made this an easy mistake to rectify. The book is downright hilarious. Christian friends: grow a thick skin and learn to laugh, and you'll love it. Recommended.


I finished the August 2011 issues of Scientific American and Harper's this month. The most striking article came in the 9/11 remembrance genre: an account of the distortions of the justice system which have occurred in the wake of the attacks. If you care about American political ideals, Petra Bartosiewicz' article will make you mad.

Sharing Possessions by Luke T. Johnson

I knew I would be in for a treat when I found that renowned Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson had released a revision of his work of Christian ethics. It is a good thing for scholars to cross disciplines and bring their discoveries to bear on other concerns. Johnson I think does a splendid job in weakening the myth that the Bible teaches a normative posture toward possessions. Neither the Jerusalem commune of Acts nor the wealthy patrons of Corinth are the only way.

The author recommends the giving of alms as the go-to practice for Christians. Probably my biggest take-away from the book comes in how Johnson attacks state socialism not from political-ideological grounds, but from the standpoint of ideology: to measure equality qua possessions is to give possessions too great a place in determining the worth of people. If your idea of a just society is one in which every person has the exact same amount of stuff, you are unwittingly materialistic, as Johnson argues. Recommended.

Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky

[][]On September 20th, 2006, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez addressed the United Nations and commended to the nations a Noam Chomsky. This makes Hegemony or Survival very intriguing by default, and lead to big sales of the book.

I have yet to read a thorough criticism of a Chomsky book. I am sure they are out there somewhere. It could be useful since I sometimes get the feeling that Chomsky is pulling one over on his reader. The reliance on end notes and dismissing opponents objections with a casual wave of "does not deserve comment" seems like the tactics of a manipulator. Yet I have never found Chomsky's arguments nor evidence lacking, and he is compelling. My desire to doubt his work probably comes from the fact that his attestations and their implications make American patriotism incredibly uncomfortable.

This book is a bit hard to follow in its general scope, though it is quite understandable (if not dry) in the particulars. The basic theme is that the US is trying to dominate the world, and that for elite powers democracy (that is, the will of the people) is something which must be crushed when in opposition to official positions. I cannot really recommend this one Chomsky book over any other, but I think every American should read at least one of his books.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

Once again Sanderson delivers. Mistborn happens to be the first in a trilogy, and I am lucky enough to have the next two volumes on my shelf. And a fourth in the Mistborn universe is coming out this winter. Oh yes, and there's The Way of Kings. Good time to be a fantasy fan.

Do yourself a favor and read Mistborn. It's not particularly sophisticated literature, but it is a good story and a really fun read. Recommended.

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Towards a New Cold War

I'm in the midst of reading Noam Chomsky's Towards a New Cold War: U.S. Foreign Policy from Vietnam to Reagan (it was on discount at Powell's). It was originally published in 1982, so as a collection of current events essays, I can see why its not a big seller today. Still, with the advent of the Iraq War, it was republished in 2003, because Chomsky makes some very striking comments and predictions about the possibility of a United States war in the Persian Gulf. I'll point out a few passages which are apropos of today's situation.

First Chomsky deals extensively with Vietnam and its legacy. In the midst of discussing how politicians jumped on the anti-war bandwagon, he writes the following:

. . . consider the [December 10, 1977] issue of the New Republic . . . The lead editorial, entitled "The McCarthy Decade," is an ode to Eugene McCarthy, who "changed the landscape of American politics" when he challenged Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 presidential campaign. . . . McCarthy, [the New Republiceditors] argue, "has ensured that no President ever will feel again that he can carry on a war unaffected by the moral judgment of the people." [0]

My initial reaction to this was that it hasn't held up: Bush and Obama have both carried on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in spite of an outpouring of moral condemnation from the American people. But the more I think about that, the more I wonder how much outrage there really is. Yes, Obama ran on ending the Iraq war, but neither the Iraq nor Afghanistan conflicts have elicited nearly as much outrage from the American public as did Vietnam. So perhaps the President would feel constrained to end a war which was condemned by the public's moral judgment. Still, I am skeptical that this was a fundamental shift in American politics. It probably had to do more with the high degree of protest and civil unrest in the Vietnam era than it did with public moral judgment in and of itself.

Now regarding energy resources in the Persian Gulf, Chomsky writes,

With the doctrine that we are entitled to use of force to control the Gulf against an indigenous threat or to overcome a "prospective" imbalance of military power [with the Soviet Union] - in effect, a preemptive strike - . . . we reach the outer limits of great-power cynicism. [1]

The term "preemptive strike" of course became infamous in the context of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which I believe would qualify as "an indigenous threat" in this context. Shortly afterwards, Chomsky notes that potential drawbacks of operating in the Muslim world were known:

In the New Republic, J.B. Kelly writes that ". . . the Western nations have left themselves no alternative but to project their military power into the Gulf region." This may lead to "an upsurge of Moslem fanaticism against the West," Kelly observes, but "whether it will amount to more than a ritual outpouring of scurrility and the customary carnival of ruffianism is hard to say." [2]

Unfortunately we know how this is turning out. American military presence in the Persian Gulf region (including Saudi Arabia) since the Gulf War has been one of the top reasons cited by terrorists for their crimes.

I've enjoyed reading Towards a New Cold War so far. It offers a lot of insight into theĀ geopoliticsĀ of the 70s and 80s which just does not come through in history books. For instance, it seems clear to me after reading this that U.S. intervention in the Gulf region (especially the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars) was not merely the reaction of the nation to world events, but was the explicitly stated desire of some foreign policy wonks. I probably should not be surprised by that.

[0] Noam Chomsky, Towards a New Cold War. The New Press, 2003. pp. 83-84.

[1] Ibid., p. 235.

[2] Ibid., p. 241.