Everyone would agree that Noam Chomsky is an extraordinarily prolific writer. Beyond that, when we begin to evaluate his work, the controversies begin. I have no idea how many anthologies of his writings have been produced (a great many, I am sure). The Chomsky Reader was first published in 1987, so in some ways it is a bit dated. Other more recent anthologies of Chomsky’s political writings exist and may be better overviews of his thought. However, sadly, much of what The Chomsky Reader contains remains of much more than historical interest.
Personally, I believe that Noam Chomsky is a wonderful gift to those of us deeply concerned with applying our pacifist convictions to the real world. This book is a more than adequate starting place to get a sense of the way Chomsky cuts through American self-delusions about our military policies and our impact on the rest of the world. Chomsky’s reputation as a wild-eyed radical seems to rest on reactions by people who likely have read little of what he has actually written. If anything, Chomsky errs on the side of dispassion in his analyses. He is very factual in his discussions, and usually provides extensive documentation.
One of the major contributions this anthology makes today is to remind us that as noxious as the policies and practices of the present Republican administration might be, the policies and practices of earlier Democratic administrations have also wrought great destruction in the world (specifically, Chomsky discusses the Johnson and Carter administrations).
One element of Chomsky’s thought that impresses me a great deal is his rigorous use of moral convictions. Though the underpinnings of his moral rigor are not clearly revealed in this book, Chomsky has discussed in other contexts the influence of his Jewish up-bringing and the continued relevance for him of the witness of the biblical prophets he studied in Hebrew school.
One fruit of this moral rigor may be seen in Chomsky’s insistence that as Americans we have a powerful responsibility to hold ourselves to the same standards we use in evaluating other cultures (e.g., the “communists” during the Cold War and, he makes clear in more recent writings, the “terrorists” today). If we hold to objective moral criteria, we will reject injustice and oppression no matter who practices it–and we will especially take responsibility for stopping the unjust and oppressive practices of our own society.
Chomsky is often labeled as “anti-American,” clearly a slander that comes from those who want to avoid taking his analyses seriously. He is simply asking Americans to seek consistently to adhere to our stated values of equality and human rights.
In this collection, the essay I found most helpful was one he wrote in the mid-1980s comparing U.S. fighting in Vietnam and Central America: “Intervention in Vietnam and Central America: Parallels and Differences.” Again, reading this most helpful analysis would cure any opponents of current American practices of nostalgia for the old days when supposedly things weren’t so bad.
The other part of the book I want to draw attention is the section containing three essays under the rubric, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” These essays have a timeless quality that allows them, sadly, to remain as relevant to today as when they were first written.