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NewCityNet Chomsky At The Bit

By Ben Winters

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  There are certain writers who climb off the page as you read them, who enter your living room, pull up a chair and make themselves plainly known. When I read Truman Capote, Truman Capote is in my house: He is drinking something potent, dispensing Southern homilies and American insight and bumming cigarettes. Other authors may be great, but they don't radiate presence in the same way: I've read Tolstoy, but I don't feel that I've met him. I've met Mark Twain, and I've definitely met H.L. Mencken. I've met Allen Ginsburg, and, frankly, he gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Noam Chomsky is many things, but he is not a writer you meet. One could fly to Boston, seek him out in his offices at MIT (where he is Institute Professor of Linguistics) and give him a hey-how-are-ya, but in his work—wherein he is either discoursing on the modern science of language, which he practically invented, or describing in vivid and precise detail the workings of latter-day U.S. imperialism—his personality is nowhere to be found.

Chomsky's latest treatise is "The New Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo." Normally when a treatment of events comes out so hot on the heels of its subject, it is something like "Ricky Martin: Superstar." But "Lessons From Kosovo" is no puff piece; its argumentation is careful, precise and astonishingly well-annotated, considering the war ended a scant few months ago. In support of his charge that "the proclamations of the New Humanism are at best highly dubious," and that humanitarian concern for the Albanians was way low on the list of motives for NATO's air war against Serbia, Chomsky offers quotes after quote, footnote after footnote, and his own precise, analytical cross-sections of build-up, conflict and aftermath.

And he draws parallels—Chomsky loves to draw parallels. Again and again, he returns to Turkey, where "savage ethnic cleansing and other atrocities against the Kurds" have gone on for years, not just under our noses, but with the aid of U.S. guns and military training. Chomsky takes us to Turkey, to East Timor, to Colombia and to good old South Vietnam, all to show that eradicating man's inhumanity to man was the last thing anyone at the State Department was thinking of when the cluster bombs were being packed up. "Genuine cases of intervention undertaken with humanitarian intent," he points out, "are hard to find, though humanitarian pretensions are common."

"Lessons From Kosovo" is a feast of food for thought, full of radical ideas, pointed accusations about the workings of our democracy and unreported information from a war that most of us have already moved to the back burner. The problem is the author's stubborn absence of persona, which can make it tough going. Plowing through knee-high drifts of statistics and Pentagon quotes, I seize on anything that resembles a joke. Chomsky does have an elusive, bone-dry sarcasm that surfaces two or three times a chapter; he slyly describes the fall of the Berlin wall as "the event that at last released" the United States and the Soviet Union "from the... antagonisms that had hampered their dedication to justice, freedom and human rights generally."

You can imagine him at an MIT dinner party, cracking wise about Guatemala's Department of the Interior, and then looking around expectantly while everybody smiles politely or goes to get more punch.

"The New Military Humanism" is the kind of book you look up from every couple of paragraphs, blinking, in hopes that you'll get a phone call, or some other unavoidable distraction from the inarguably important work in front of you. The other Chomsky texts I check out from the library, in search of a better foothold—"Deterring Democracy," his post-Gulf War treatise, for example, or the essay collection "Towards a New Cold War"—are of the same cloth: Chomsky causes me distinct inner turmoil, what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. My earnest inner intellectual, desperate to grapple with the weighty facts being presented, is constantly assailed by a powerful urge to turn my attention to something more palatable, like watching "Ally McBeal" or playing "Jeopardy" online.

And Chomsky's genius is so toweringly evident that if he'd chosen to use his powers for evil (rather than for the very great good of relentlessly penetrating and explicating baffling complexities of world politics), we'd all have been dead a long time ago. Watchdog or attack dog, Chomsky is, in any case, possessed of sharp teeth; with unerring instincts, he tracks the history of Stratford, Connecticut, once "the site of the first major slaughter... to cleanse the Northeast region, the Pequot massacre of 1637," now the home to the helicopter plant manufacturing Comanches and Black Hawks for deployment overseas.

Alas, such evidences of powerful imagination are too few, and too far between; but perhaps there is simply no room in the grim military-industrial landscape for poetry. Yes, I wish Chomsky was more the poetic radical, more of a George Orwell and less of a Freidrich Engels, but the work he's doing—digging deeply into dauntingly tangled political affairs, and coming up time and again with gems of moral truth—is too important to be ignored as flavorless, or dismissed as burdensome.

If we ask our intellectuals to cut to the chase, to put a little more oomph in their dissidence, soon we'll be left with nothing but personality, with USA Today, with four-color pie charts and stories that never continue onto page two. And then, I'm sure Professor Chomsky would agree, we're well and truly fucked.

"The New Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo"
by Noam Chomsky (Common Courage Press) $15.95

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