I caught a bit of flak from a couple of readers for my article about Bill Hicks and his comparison to Noam Chomsky. But here’s the thing. I had nothing to do with this polemical sobriquet. In fact, it was Bill Hicks who described himself as such. And perhaps facetiously. So, do simmer down.
But it did get me thinking. And I couldn’t help but notice the few manifest thematic similarities in their work. Yes, Chomsky’s work is a lot more tenable and scholarly, considering he is a bit of a polymath (linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, logician, political commentator and more.) And yes, I know it is inequitable to compare a man with more than 60 years’ worth written material to a man with hardly 3-4 hours’ worth. But here we go anyway.
(Please note that I’m neither denigrating Chomsky’s vastly superior political acumen nor Hicks’ vastly superior comic virtuosity. This is merely an examination and illumination on their common political positions.)
What’s common between an 86 year old American linguist and a dead comedian?
Noam Chomsky’s path-breaking contributions to linguistics have influenced various fields of study from fundamental computer science to modern psychology. His penetrating critiques of political systems offer insight into the institutions that shape public thought. He believed it was the responsibility of intellectuals like him to …
“expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”
Bill Hicks, who was evidently influenced by Chomsky’s work, sure took this to heart. In 1993, when David Letterman refused to air his segment as he felt the routine was contentious, Hicks wrote a 32-page vociferous letter to the Guardian. In the letter, he notes:
“’The responsibility of the intellectual is to tell the truth and expose lies.’ While I do not consider myself an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination, his (Chomsky) quote, coincidentally is the same way my parents taught me how to live. So in honour of them, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing, the best way I can. Then I’ll see you all in heaven, were we can really share a great laugh together.”
A strong critic of America’s “corporate state capitalism”, the politically lucid Noam Chomsky theorised a form of peaceful anarchist society which is…
“…libertarian socialist or anarcho-syndicalist or communist anarchist, in the tradition of, say, Bakunin and Kropotkin and others. They had in mind a highly organized form of society, but a society that was organized on the basis of organic units, organic communities. And generally, they meant by that the workplace and the neighbourhood, and from those two basic units there could derive through federal arrangements a highly integrated kind of social organization which might be national or even international in scope. And these decisions could be made over a substantial range, but by delegates who are always part of the organic community from which they come, to which they return, and in which, in fact, they live.”
Although Hicks’ wasn’t politically coherent like Chomsky, it’s hard to clearly define his political views. You could say they were a political potpourri of anarchist, socialist and libertarian tendencies. While Chomsky, in his own words, is a “libertarian socialist.”
Both shrewd and insightful political commentators, they used different methods to critique American society. Their scathing rhetoric of American foreign policy, mass media and corporations are rather similar in nature, if not in tone.
The U.S. government
Both express a general distrust of their government. Chomsky believes that the U.S. had an Orwellian system in place well before English novelist, George Orwell wrote “1984”.
“Pointing to the massive amounts of propaganda spewed by government and institutions around the world, observers have called our era the age of Orwell. But the fact is that Orwell was a latecomer on the scene. As early as World War I, American historians offered themselves to President Woodrow Wilson to carry out a task they called “historical engineering,” by which they meant designing the facts of history so that they would serve state policy. In this instance, the U.S. government wanted to silence opposition to the war. This represents a version of Orwell’s 1984, even before Orwell was writing.”
Bill Hicks in a less descriptive but more colourful manner.
“All governments are lying cocksuckers.”
The American foreign policy
Chomsky lay bare the clear double standards of an American government that believed in promoting human rights and democratic freedoms and yet supported authoritarian states (Guatemala under Anastasio Somoza or Chile under Augusto Pinochet) with severe human rights violations. Over the last century, consider the number of armed interventions in countries and military assistance to coup d’etats in democratically elected regimes (The Contras against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the Iranian coup d’état).
Chomsky on Saddam Hussein’s potency and how the U.S. is responsible for the situation in Iraq:
“The world would be better off if he weren’t there, no doubt about that. Surely Iraqis would. But he can’t be anywhere near as dangerous as he was when the U.S. and Britain were supporting him, even providing him with dual-use technology that he could use for nuclear and chemical weapons development, as he presumably did. Ten years ago the Senate Banking Committee hearings revealed that the Bush administration was granting licenses for dual use technology and materials which were later utilized by the Iraq regime for nuclear missile and chemical purposes.”
Hicks on the U.S. involvement in the Gulf War:
“You know we armed Iraq. I wondered about that too, you know. During the Persian Gulf war, those intelligence reports would come out: “Iraq: incredible weapons – incredible weapons.” “How do you know that?” “Uh, well … we looked at the receipts. But as soon as that check clears, we’re goin’ in. What time’s the bank open? Eight? We’re going in at nine. We’re going in for God and country and democracy and here’s a foetus and he’s a Hitler. Whatever you fucking need, let’s go. Get motivated behind this, let’s go!”
The war on terrorism
Be it the Reagan administration in the 80s or today’s Obama administration, their supposed definition of “the evil scourge” that is terrorism doesn’t seem to apply to the United States. Even though they seem to be the biggest culprit of “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature (as defined in a US army manual).”
“The Obama administration is dedicated to increasing terrorism. In fact, it’s doing it all over the world. Obama, first of all, is running the biggest terrorist operation that exists, maybe in history. The drone assassination campaigns, which are just part of it… All of these operations, they are terror operations.”
He further adds:
“There are many terrorist states in the world, but the United States is unusual in that it is officially committed to international terrorism, and on a scale that puts its rivals to shame…The message is clear: no one has the right of self-defence against US terrorist attack. The US is a terrorist state by right. That is unchallengeable doctrine.”
Bill Hicks too points a flaw in America’s lopsided “war.”
“There never was a war…Well, a war is when two armies are fighting. So you can see, right there, there never was a war.”
The American media
Chomsky accused mainstream media of censorship and propaganda to promote the interests of corporations and the government. He describes how an elite group of powerful politicians and corporate honchos use Machiavellian means to control public opinion and perpetuate the extraordinary myth of freedom and liberty in a simulated democracy.
“The logic is clear — propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state and that’s wise and good because again the common interests elude the bewildered herd, they can’t figure them out. The public relations industry not only took this ideology on very explicitly but also acted on it, that’s a huge industry, spending hundreds of…by now probably on the order of a billion dollars a year on it or something and its commitment all along was to controlling the public mind.”
Bill Hicks too notes how the controlled media influences the country’s unwitting populace with its highly potent propaganda.
“Go back to bed, America. Your government has figured out how it all transpired. Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control again. Here. Here’s American Gladiators. Watch this, shut up. Go back to bed, America. Here is American Gladiators. Here is 56 channels of it! Watch these pituitary retards bang their fucking skulls together and congratulate you on living in the land of freedom. Here you go, America! You are free to do as we tell you! You are free to do what we tell you!”
The NSA surveillance scandal distinctly exemplified the media’s subservience to political and corporate power. Chomsky berates the government in this article in The Guardian, noting:
“Governments should not have this capacity. But governments will use whatever technology is available to them to combat their primary enemy – which is their own population…This is obviously something that should not be done. But it is a little difficult to be too surprised by it,” he said. “They [governments and corporations] take whatever is available, and in no time it is being used against us, the population. Governments are not representative. They have their own power, serving segments of the population that are dominant and rich.”
Just imagine Hicks’ outrage at this government infringement if he were alive. It would have made for one great rant.
Democrats and Republicans
In a speech at DW Global Media Forum, Bonn, Germany, Chomsky remarks:
“In the past, the United States has sometimes, kind of sardonically, been described as a one-party state: the business party with two factions called Democrats and Republicans. That’s no longer true. It’s still a one-party state, the business party. But it only has one faction. The faction is moderate Republicans, who are now called Democrats. There are virtually no moderate Republicans in what’s called the Republican Party and virtually no liberal Democrats in what’s called the Democratic [sic] Party.”
Bill Hicks, in his typical confrontational manner, jokes:
“I’ll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here. “I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs.” “I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking.” “Hey, wait a minute, there’s one guy holding out both puppets!” “Shut up! Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control. Here’s Love Connection. Watch this and get fat and stupid. By the way, keep drinking beer, you fucking morons.”
The Bush family
Neither Chomsky nor Hicks are particularly big fans of a dynasty that boasts one senator, two governors and two presidents (with another ambitious one in waiting).
Chomsky on the “reverse Robin-Hood” fiscal policies of George W Bush:
“The Bush administration do have moral values. Their moral values are very explicit: shine the boots of the rich and powerful, kick everyone else in the face, and let your grandchildren pay for it. That simple principle predicts almost everything that’s happening.”
Hicks on the equally war-happy father, George H. W. Bush:
“People often ask me where I stand politically. It’s not that I disagree with Bush’s economic policy or his foreign policy, it’s that I believe he was a child of Satan sent here to destroy the planet Earth. Little to the left.”
Freedom of speech
Chomsky and Hicks both fiercely opposed censorship while vigorously defending free speech. In his book Chomsky on Anarchism, he notes:
“With regard to freedom of speech there are basically two positions: you defend it vigorously for views you hate, or you reject it and prefer Stalinist/Fascist standards.”
When Hicks’s live television special Revelations was aired on British public-service television broadcaster Channel 4, an aggravated priest wrote a letter to Hicks deploring his “blasphemous” material. Just days before his death, Hicks wrote an awe-inspiring reply, a splendid vindication of the freedom of speech.
“Freedom of speech’ means you support the right of people to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with…While I’ve found many of the religious shows I’ve viewed over the years not to be to my liking, or in line with my own beliefs, I’ve never considered it my place to exert any greater type of censorship than changing the channel, or better yet — turning off the TV completely.”
Both Hicks and Chomsky really took to task the American political system and its pecking order. Hicks with his veritable black humour while Chomsky with his consistent criticism. Whether you agree with me or intend to start a debate on it is purely at your discretion.