Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy

Cover of "Failed States: The Abuse of Pow...
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By Noam Chomsky; 2006; Holt Paperbacks.

I saw a coworker reading this book and asked to borrow it. I remember hearing about Noam Chomsky while I was in college. He has one of those names that some people yelled while others whispered. He was never on any of my reading lists. Noam is a professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT and has a long list of publishing credits beginning in the 1960s. A radical, some might say, Noam claims to be a conservative—following the dictionary definition. I’m all ears.

While Failed States discusses many important issues, Noam’s writing style, which employs frequent sarcasm and irony, was greatly distracting to me. Noam expects his readers to be thinking every word of the way and to already have a strong grasp of the subject matter, that of U.S. foreign policy from roughly 1776 to 2005.

As a concerned citizen, I found the premise of the book, that the United States is a failed state, worth examination. It’s certainly not anything I would ever hope for, but I think to solve a problem, you should be willing to think it over. What many in our country call the “liberal news media,” Noam calls the “elite news media.” It seems many of us are unhappy with the job done by the news media. I hate to be too critical of the media, of the individuals involved. I know it must be a hard and dangerous job for many. Perhaps, I tend to blame the owners of the media more than the people working in its ranks.

Noam is interested in rhetoric, as am I. He cites the rhetorical framework of John Quincy Adams that has been “inherited and elaborated on by successive generations of American statesmen…[It] rests on three pillars: the assumption of the unique moral virtue of the United States, the assertion of its mission to redeem the world, and the faith in the nation’s divinely ordained destiny.” I see this in every election, often in the place of any real discussion.

One of the many tantalizing points Noam brings up but provides little explanation about has to do with social security:

“According to official statistics, the ratio of working people to dependents (under twenty, over sixty-five) hit its lowest point in 1965 and is not expected to reach that level through the projected period (to 2080). The propaganda image is that the retirement of the ‘baby boomers’ is going to crash the system; as repeatedly pointed out, their retirement had already been financed by the Greenspan-led increase in payroll taxes in 1983. That aside, the boomers were once children, and had to be cared for then as well. And we find that during those years there was a sharp increase in spending for education and other childcare needs. There was no crisis. If American society was able to take care of boomers from ages zero to twenty, there can be no fundamental reason why a much richer society, with far higher output per worker, cannot take care of them from ages, sixty-five to ninety…no major crisis looms in the foreseeable future.”

While on the surface, this argument seems like a good one, I tend to think that taking care of a person in their later years is going to cost more than taking care of that person as a child, what with medical bills, nursing home costs, debts, etc. But who am I to say. I am just someone who is likely to need social security payments and who wants them, having paid into the system since my first job. Noam doesn’t bring it up, but I don’t understand why the rich would collect social security payments, being rich and all. But again, what do I know. It also seems to me that there are many major crises that potentially loom in our foreseeable future.

Noam ends with a suggestion that “facts, logic, and elementary moral principles should matter.” I think that’s fair. I can agree with that. It would be nice if we could put our egos aside and stop arguing. I don’t see it happening, but it would be nice.

I’m always disappointed when a book that focuses so heavily on gloom and doom ends on a positive note. I’m sorry, but the last paragraph is way too late to hint that there is still hope. Apparently, I should keep my chin up because there are so many ways I can become engaged in democracy aside from voting and attending the random demonstration. Noam has already banished any hope that my elected politicians will pay much attention to my emails, that I have an electoral system that’s fair and representative, or that without a substantial amount of money I can make an impact. So how? I’m too dim to know, and Noam, already retreating to his ivory tower, is not bothering to say.

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