Halfway through a book review

Avid readers of this site who have an eye for detail will have noticed that my "current reading" has been the same book for really rather a long time now. For once, this isn’t the result of laziness on my part in updating the sidebar, but is in fact due to the fact that I’m still ploughing my way through the book.

The book in question is Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky. You may recall that it was described as "devastating" by Tim Adams of the Observer on the back cover.

Now, I am able to present before the court several reasons why I’ve been chewing my way through this book at such a slow pace, having only reached page 150 of 237. Firstly, I started reading it in the days before we moved house, so time for reading was at something of a premium. Secondly, we have had Christmas and new kittens, both of which have provided distractions from the task at hand. And, thirdly, I took some time out to read Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem, which I got through in about three days, and found to be excellent.

But there are other reasons why I have taken so long to read Hegemony or Survival. Firstly, Chomsky’s presentation is, at best, an irritation. He has a tendency to place "quotations" liberally through each and every sentence, "not all of which" are accompanied by citations or references. At best, this makes the text "difficult to read" and "uneasy on the eye", breaking the flow of text across the line far too frequently to make the act of reading a pleasure. In fact, it is such a hindrance that it even gets in the way of "understanding" of the author’s meaning and intent, preventing a full and complete "assimilation" of the "facts" being presented to the reader.
(OK, I’ll stop now – I’m getting bored with typing all the "s. I think you get my point.)

Secondly, the quotations themselves are often so far removed from their context as to be meaningless to the reader. The quotation of one or two words from a source does not convey the meaning that was contained within the original source document or speech. Let me demonstrate – if I quote "Democrats […] won’t change anything" to you, you’d think that I was saying that the Democrats were pretty much useless in every respect. However, if you read the entire paragraph (in this previous post on grayblog), you’d see that the intended meaning was quite different. I’m not sure whether this is part of Chomsky’s writing style, or was something forced upon him by editors and publishers keen to produce a lightweight volume small enough to appeal to the average reader of paperbacks and not limited to more academic circles. Either way, it is a practice that undermines the validity of Chomsky’s arguments.

Thirdly, even when offering a lengthier quotation, Chomsky has a tendency to either omit or provide incomplete references and citations for his sources. As an example, this is from Chapter 6 – I read it this morning, and it irritated me no end:

The minister of state at the Foreign Office commented to his cabinet colleagues that Americans believe "that the United States stands for something in the world – something of which the world has need, something which the world is going to like, something, in the final analysis, which the world is going to take, whether it likes it or not."

(I could start on the fact that "Minister of State" and "Cabinet" should both be capitalized, but I’ll let it go.) A reference to the notes at the back of the book is offered, which provides the following reference:

Christopher Thorne, The Issue of War (Oxford, 1985), pp. 225, 211. For sources and general context, see my Deterring Democracy.

That is either laziness or the result of excessive pressure from an overzealous editor. Somehow I feel that the former is more likely than the latter. Either way, we have no idea which Minister of State made this statement, when, and in the context of what events. The quotation is rendered meaningless and does not support Chomsky’s argument.

And, fourthly, Chomsky’s tendency to take the discussion off at a tangent does not lend any weight to his arguments. To suddenly start talking about the American wars against the Native Americans when in the middle of a lengthy section on post-war US policy in Central America, particularly Nicaragua, seems odd at best. But then I was warned about that, as well as Chomsky’s habit of bending chronology to suit his argument (perhaps evidenced by my third point above, although we’ll probably never know), by Francis Wheen. And he often goes in circles and becomes self-contradictory too, but let’s not completely pull the man to pieces.

Strangely, though, I’m determined to see this book through to the end. I’m not convinced by a lot of Chomsky’s arguments, particularly when he tries to go beyond stating the obvious. He seems to attach an unreasonable amount of malicious aforethought to the political classes which, judging by the very few members of that class that I have met, they are rarely capable of (most not being capable of much thought at all). He also finds it unreasonable that politicians are motivated by senses of self-preservation or self-interest when the results of those motives conflict with his own ideas, yet applauds those same motives when the outcomes accord with his thoughts (e.g. Gerhard Schroeder refusing to support the Second Gulf War, which is not in any way surprising when he was so close to a general election; or the Turks not allowing US forces to use bases in their country when they have a large Kurdish community (oppressed or otherwise) who might use the opportunity to attempt to secede and form a Kurdish state with their Iraqi cousins).

But in spite of that, I want to explore his ideas and see if his book reaches some towering conclusion about the state of post-war US foreign policy. If I’m pleasantly (or otherwise) surprised, I’ll report back.