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The Chomsky Reader by Noam Chomsky; edited by James Peck (Pantheon: $22.95; 486 pp.)

August 30, 1987|Steve Wasserman | Wasserman, former editor of New Republic Books, has recently been named publisher of Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

"There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about," remarked Oscar Wilde almost 100 years ago. Noam Chomsky, the famed MIT professor of linguistics and indefatigable critic of American power, probably would agree. For it has been Chomsky's singular fate to have been banished to the margins of political debate. His opinions have been deemed so kooky--and his personality so cranky--that his writings no longer appear in the forums (the New York Review of Books, for instance) in which he was once so welcome. Quite simply, Chomsky has become a pariah.

What pushed Chomsky beyond the pale was his repeated and spirited defense in the early 1980s of Robert Faurisson, a French professor of literature who insisted that the Holocaust was a lie invented by Western and Zionist propagandists. Chomsky who has made a specialty of disbelieving American and Israeli casualty figures was perhaps a sympathetic candidate for Faursisson's claptrap, for he wrote in a recent tract on terrorism (not included in "The Chomsky Reader") that Americans live within a "doctrinal system that far surpasses the achievements of totalitarian states in protecting the public against improper thoughts."

Chomsky claimed that he was merely defending Faurisson's right to free speech, not that he was endorsing the man's views. But Chomsky failed to see that he had done something more than to play Voltaire. By coming to Faurisson's aid, he had helped to confer an aura of legitimacy upon a man who might otherwise have been dismissed as a mere lunatic. What was puzzling about the affair was Chomsky's frequent insistence (elsewhere in his work) that people accept moral responsibility for the "predictable consequences" of their acts. In a world where the fires of fanaticism continue to glow, his defense of Faurisson was an act that can be said to have had "predictable consequences." It was an act so striking in its moral implications that one would have thought Chomsky would discuss it in any compendium of his political writings, if only to still his critics. But this collection drops the whole sorry affair down the memory hole.

The omission of any mention of the Faurisson affair diminishes the value of "The Chomsky Reader." Nevertheless, this book offers a large sampling of his political work from his early lecture-essay on the responsibilities of intellectuals (first published in 1966) to his recent broadsides against American meddling in Central America, all selected by Chomsky himself and edited by James Peck, a senior editor at Pantheon Books, whose hagiographic introduction claims that "In all American history no one's writings are more unsettling" than Chomsky's.

To read Chomsky is to enter a world inhabited only by the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are the powerless (the good), the powerful (the bad), and the intellectuals (the ugly). We live, Chomsky says, within a "system of indoctrination" so pervasive that few can penetrate the web of deceit and fraud. Intellectuals, whom Chomsky calls a "secular priesthood," are least able to perceive the truth about a system whose privileges they work so assiduously to ensure. "Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism," declares Chomsky. America is a "highly indoctrinated society where elementary truths are easily buried." We are accomplices in a "shameful and sordid history"--a history Chomsky excoriates at every turn.

Even so innocuous a holiday as Columbus Day is not immune from his blistering and humorless rage. Here's Chomsky on the slaughter of the American Indians: "One of the greatest exercises in genocide in human history . . . which we celebrate each October when we honor Columbus--a notable mass murderer himself. . . ."

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