Book Review

Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy (2017)

“The first step is developing an open and critical mind, taking the doctrines that are standard and questioning them. […] Anything you look at, every one of these things, you have to ask yourself: Is this true? A pretty good criterion is that if some doctrine is widely accepted without qualification, it’s probably flawed.”⁣

— Noam Chomsky, written by David Barsamian

This book is a written account of David Barsamian’s interviews with Noam Chomsky on a range of current world affairs: from the state surveillance, Middle East and ISIS, Israel and Palestine, the Trump presidency and American politics, to climate change. With his dry sense of humour and a sprinkle of childhood anecdotes, Chomsky identifies and explains the various discontents around the globe and the threats they pose to the world as we know it.⁣

I picked this book because it was on sale for A$10, and it was hands down the best 10 dollars I’ve ever spent! As a language/linguistics student of course I was familiar with Chomsky’s work on linguistics but this was the first book I’ve read particularly on his sociopolitical analyses. Chomsky is a genius in taking the simplest questions and answering it in a way that is both clear and complex.

While it may be easy to fall into pessimism with the weight of the world’s problems, Chomsky remains optimistic and calls for radical mass movements to create change. It’s a great and easy-to-read book that I would recommend for everyone who constantly strives to understand how the world works (—me!). In this crazy world, I’m thankful for the voice of reason that is Chomsky’s.⁣

Some of my favourite quotes:

  • On what sustains capitalism, despite it being “incapable of meeting human needs”:

“What sustains it are two tendencies. First, the inclination of those with enormous power to secure and maximize their power. That’s one tendency, The other is the passivity, hopelessness, or atomization of the people below who could force a change. […] 1970, beginning of a major backlash against the liberatory character of the 1960s. That huge backlash, which we’re still in the middle of, was the beginning of the neoliberal assault on the population of the world.” (p. 38)

  • On why the (white) working class voted for a party and presidential candidate whose policies are actually devastating for the working people:

“[…] the Republicans do have a rhetorical style that makes it sound as if they’re working for working people. That’s the rhetoric: ‘We’re here for you.’ That’s not true. But what is true is that the white working class feels that everyone is against them. Nothing has been offered to them by either political party.” (p. 153)

  • On the environmental crisis:

“[…] we are facing a severe environmental crisis. Every issue of a science journal that you read has more alarming discoveries about the threat confronting us and the imminence of it. It’s not hundreds of years away; it’s decades, maybe. And yet predatory capitalism is telling us to maximize the threat, to extract every drop of fossil fuel out of the ground. […] Major sectors of the corporate system — the Chamber of Commerce, energy corporations, and so on — openly announce that they are carrying out massive propaganda efforts to try to convince people that there is no climate change or that, if climate change does exist, it’s not anthropogenic.” (pp. 38-39)

  • On the “refugee crisis”: 

“Pope Francis put it pretty well. He said that migrants are not the cause of the crisis but the victims of the crisis. Why do we regard it as a crisis if, say, eight thousand miserable victims come to a rich, powerful country like Austria, with its eight million people? Other countries — much less wealthy ones — are accepting refugees. In Lebanon, perhaps 40 percent of the population is made up of refugees fleeing from one crime or another, recently from Iraq and Syria in particular. Some of the refugees date from 1948 and the expulsion of Palestinians at the time of the establishment of Israel. That’s Lebanon, a poor country which has not generated refugees itself. Jordan, too, has accepted an immense number of refugees. And Syria was accepting huge numbers before its implosion. But rich countries, which have not only the capacity to absorb refugees but also a significant responsibility for creating the conditions from which they’re fleeing, refugees to accept them.” (pp. 168-169)

  • On activism:

“When you’re an activist, you have to think about the people you’re trying to protect, not just make yourself feel good. That’s elementary. Not every action that makes you feel good is going to be helpful to the victims. Some might even be harmful. […] Some of the tactics can be effective and sensible, and important and helpful to the victims; some can be harmful. And you have to distinguish between them. […] If you can’t think about that, then don’t call yourself a committed activist. These are the things you have to keep in mind. What are the effects going to be?” (pp. 54-55)

My rating: 5/5.

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