on October 15, 2010
"The Essential Chomsky" is a collection of 25 pieces of writing from Noam Chomsky from the first piece, a critical review of "Verbal Behavior" by B. F. Skinner published in 1959 in the journal "Language" to Chomsky's afterword from "Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy" from 2006. Chomsky is best known in two areas, one being his career as a linguist, and the other for his outspoken liberal views in which he holds the United States and the West to the same standard which others hold the rest of the world, and there are examples of both contained in this collection edited by Anthony Arnove, who has also written on current affairs.
Arnove makes a good choice in starting with Chomsky's review of "Verbal Behavior"; because Chomsky's skillful dissecting of Skinner's work clearly demonstrates the way Chomsky's mind works as well as the thoroughness with which he examines every subject. It also is a good choice because one avoids any political bias when reading it. With his political pieces, of course such emotional attachments to one's position exist, and so it would be much more difficult to set a baseline with one of those pieces.
When looking at the political pieces, Chomsky uses the same logic and thorough examination tactics that he used in his review, and that he also brings to the other writings on linguistics, with varying levels of effectiveness. For example, his brief look at the war crimes committed by the Allies in World War II fails to work for me in some of key areas: he seems to ignore the fact that there are issues with almost all tactics used in war, and the inherent immorality of war; he fails to deal with the reality that
Germany and Japan were both trying to develop nuclear weapons and so there was a need to end the war before they were successful; he fails to deal with the reality that Japan was teaching their "civilians" to fight against the invaders, which then calls into question whether or not they would be considered "civilians" or "enemy combatants".
That being said, I believe he is right to discuss these issues, because tactics like firebombing, and using nuclear weapons should never go unquestioned, and while one may be able to justify some events, other events may be questionable. Dresden in particular is one event which has caused great debate over the years, and undoubtedly still will for some time to come.
Chomsky's more thorough look at Vietnam and events since then is far more devastating to the perception of the U.S. and the West than the discussion of World War II. Chomsky meticulously looks at the statements made by our leaders as to why we were involved in these conflicts, and systematically eliminates those which can be shown to be false, leaving behind a rather unappealing reality of what has motivated the U.S. government over the years. Of course, one has to read these sections carefully as well, but here Chomsky offers alternative behaviors which may have had a significant impact on the situation in the world today.
The linguistic sections are also quite good, but many of them are fairly advanced and in some cases require re-reading to fully comprehend the discussion. "Language and the Brain", for example, is a wonderful look at what is perhaps the most amazing function of the brain, i.e. the capacity to take a grammar and to utilize it unlimited ways to communicate with others. Even if you don't like Chomsky's very liberal views on politics, it is articles like this that make reading this book worthwhile.
Whether you are interested in his works on Linguistics, or those of a political nature, Chomsky is fairly consistent in providing a dispassionate discussion of the subject. Of course, his political views might irritate or even infuriate the reader at times, but he never relies on personal attacks or other cheap tactics and instead he stays focused on the subject under discussion. I have always enjoyed reading Chomsky, because he often challenges my views, and forces me to rethink my positions to make sure they have a solid rational foundation and are not built on emotion or personal biases.
This is a very good book, but of course as it provides a little bit on a large variety of subjects, it doesn't have the depth on any particular subject. Still, it does give the reader an indication of where to go for more with regards to the pieces provided, and then also includes a good bibliography of Chomsky's works.