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(en) India, Media, The loneliness of Noam Chomsky

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 26 Aug 2003 10:35:43 +0200 (CEST)

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After September 11, the mainstream media's blatant
performance as the U.S Government's propaganda machine
has only served to highlight the business of `managing' public
opinion. The resultant `mistrust of the mass media' would at
best be a political hunch or at worst a loose accusation, if it
were not for the relentless and unswerving media analysis of
one of the world's greatest minds. And this is only one of the
ways in which Noam Chomsky has radically altered our
understanding of the society in which we live. Rationally and
empirically, he has unmasked the ugly, manipulative, ruthless
American universe that exists behind the word `freedom', says
ARUNDHATI ROY, in an essay written as an introduction for
the new edition of Noam Chomsk


Noam chomsky

"I will never apologise for the United States of America — I
don't care what the facts are."
President George Bush Sr.

SITTING in my home in New Delhi, watching an American TV
news channel promote itself ("We report. You decide."), I
imagine Noam Chomsky's amused, chipped-tooth smile.

Everybody knows that authoritarian regimes, regardless of
their ideology, use the mass media for propaganda. But what
about democratically elected regimes in the "free world"?

Today, thanks to Noam Chomsky and his fellow media
analysts, it is almost axiomatic for thousands, possibly
millions, of us that public opinion in "free market" democracies
is manufactured just like any other mass market product —
soap, switches, or sliced bread. We know that while, legally
and constitutionally, speech may be free, the space in which
that freedom can be exercised has been snatched from us and
auctioned to the highest bidders. Neoliberal capitalism isn't
just about the accumulation of capital (for some). It's also
about the accumulation of power (for some), the accumulation
of freedom (for some). Conversely, for the rest of the world,
the people who are excluded from neoliberalism's governing
body, it's about the erosion of capital, the erosion of power, the
erosion of freedom. In the "free" market, free speech has
become a commodity like everything else — — justice,
human rights, drinking water, clean air. It's available only to
those who can afford it. And naturally, those who can afford it
use free speech to manufacture the kind of product, confect
the kind of public opinion, that best suits their purpose. (News
they can use.) Exactly how they do this has been the subject
of much of Noam Chomsky's political writing.


The U.S. 'empire' rests on a grisly foundation.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, for instance, has a
controlling interest in major Italian newspapers, magazines,
television channels, and publishing houses. "[T]he prime
minister in effect controls about 90 per cent of Italian TV
viewership," reports the Financial Times. What price free
speech? Free speech for whom? Admittedly, Berlusconi is an
extreme example. In other democracies — the United
States in particular — media barons, powerful corporate
lobbies, and government officials are imbricated in a more
elaborate, but less obvious, manner. (George Bush Jr.'s
connections to the oil lobby, to the arms industry, and to
Enron, and Enron's infiltration of U.S. government institutions
and the mass media — all this is public knowledge now.)

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist strikes in New York
and Washington, the mainstream media's blatant performance
as the U.S. government's mouthpiece, its display of vengeful
patriotism, its willingness to publish Pentagon press handouts
as news, and its explicit censorship of dissenting opinion
became the butt of some pretty black humour in the rest of the

Then the New York Stock Exchange crashed, bankrupt airline
companies appealed to the government for financial bailouts,
and there was talk of circumventing patent laws in order to
manufacture generic drugs to fight the anthrax scare (much
more important, and urgent of course, than the production of
generics to fight AIDS in Africa). Suddenly, it began to seem
as though the twin myths of Free Speech and the Free Market
might come crashing down alongside the Twin Towers of the
World Trade Center.

But of course that never happened. The myths live on.

There is however, a brighter side to the amount of energy and
money that the establishment pours into the business of
"managing" public opinion. It suggests a very real fear of
public opinion. It suggests a persistent and valid worry that if
people were to discover (and fully comprehend) the real nature
of the things that are done in their name, they might act upon
that knowledge. Powerful people know that ordinary people are
not always reflexively ruthless and selfish. (When ordinary
people weigh costs and benefits, something like an uneasy
conscience could easily tip the scales.) For this reason, they
must be guarded against reality, reared in a controlled climate,
in an altered reality, like broiler chickens or pigs in a pen.

Those of us who have managed to escape this fate and are
scratching about in the backyard, no longer believe everything
we read in the papers and watch on TV. We put our ears to the
ground and look for other ways of making sense of the world.
We search for the untold story, the mentioned-in-passing
military coup, the unreported genocide, the civil war in an
African country written up in a one-column-inch story next to a
full-page advertisement for lace underwear.

We don't always remember, and many don't even know, that
this way of thinking, this easy acuity, this instinctive mistrust
of the mass media, would at best be a political hunch and at
worst a loose accusation, if it were not for the relentless and
unswerving media analysis of one of the world's greatest
minds. And this is only one of the ways in which Noam
Chomsky has radically altered our understanding of the
society in which we live. Or should I say, our understanding of
the elaborate rules of the lunatic asylum in which we are all
voluntary inmates?

Speaking about the September 11 attacks in New York and
Washington, President George W. Bush called the enemies of
the United States "enemies of freedom". "Americans are
asking why do they hate us?" he said. "They hate our
freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our
freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."


If people in the United States want a real answer to that
question (as opposed to the ones in the Idiot's Guide to
Anti-Americanism, that is: "Because they're jealous of us,"
"Because they hate freedom," "Because they're losers,"
"Because we're good and they're evil"), I'd say, read Chomsky.
Read Chomsky on U.S. military interventions in Indochina,
Latin America, Iraq, Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia,
Afghanistan, and the Middle East. If ordinary people in the
United States read Chomsky, perhaps their questions would
be framed a little differently. Perhaps it would be: "Why don't
they hate us more than they do?" or "Isn't it surprising that
September 11 didn't happen earlier?"

Unfortunately, in these nationalistic times, words like "us" and
"them" are used loosely. The line between citizens and the
state is being deliberately and successfully blurred, not just by
governments, but also by terrorists. The underlying logic of
terrorist attacks, as well as "retaliatory" wars against
governments that "support terrorism", is the same: both punish
citizens for the actions of their governments.

(A brief digression: I realise that for Noam Chomsky, a U.S.
citizen, to criticise his own government is better manners than
for someone like myself, an Indian citizen, to criticise the U.S.
government. I'm no patriot, and am fully aware that venality,
brutality, and hypocrisy are imprinted on the leaden soul of
every state. But when a country ceases to be merely a country
and becomes an empire, then the scale of operations changes
dramatically. So may I clarify that I speak as a subject of the
U.S. empire? I speak as a slave who presumes to criticise her

If I were asked to choose one of Noam Chomsky's major
contributions to the world, it would be the fact that he has
unmasked the ugly, manipulative, ruthless universe that exists
behind that beautiful, sunny word "freedom". He has done this
rationally and empirically. The mass of evidence he has
marshalled to construct his case is formidable. Terrifying,
actually. The starting premise of Chomsky's method is not
ideological, but it is intensely political. He embarks on his
course of inquiry with an anarchist's instinctive mistrust of
power. He takes us on a tour through the bog of the U.S.
establishment, and leads us through the dizzying maze of
corridors that connects the government, big business, and the
business of managing public opinion.

Chomsky shows us how phrases like "free speech", the "free
market", and the "free world" have little, if anything, to do with
freedom. He shows us that, among the myriad freedoms
claimed by the U.S. government are the freedom to murder,
annihilate, and dominate other people. The freedom to finance
and sponsor despots and dictators across the world. The
freedom to train, arm, and shelter terrorists. The freedom to
topple democratically elected governments. The freedom to
amass and use weapons of mass destruction — chemical,
biological, and nuclear. The freedom to go to war against any
country whose government it disagrees with. And, most
terrible of all, the freedom to commit these crimes against
humanity in the name of "justice", in the name of
"righteousness", in the name of "freedom".

Attorney General John Ashcroft has declared that U.S.
freedoms are "not the grant of any government or document,
but... our endowment from God". So, basically, we're
confronted with a country armed with a mandate from heaven.
Perhaps this explains why the U.S. government refuses to
judge itself by the same moral standards by which it judges
others. (Any attempt to do this is shouted down as "moral
equivalence".) Its technique is to position itself as the
well-intentioned giant whose good deeds are confounded in
strange countries by their scheming natives, whose markets
it's trying to free, whose societies it's trying to modernise,
whose women it's trying to liberate, whose souls it's trying to

Perhaps this belief in its own divinity also explains why the
U.S. government has conferred upon itself the right and
freedom to murder and exterminate people "for their own

When he announced the U.S. air strikes against Afghanistan,
President Bush Jr. said, "We're a peaceful nation." He went on
to say, "This is the calling of the United States of America,
the most free nation in the world, a nation built on fundamental
values, that rejects hate, rejects violence, rejects murderers,
rejects evil. And we will not tire."


Indo-China ...the lush, tropical background for the U.S. "to
enact its fantasies of violence" ...

The U.S. empire rests on a grisly foundation: the massacre of
millions of indigenous people, the stealing of their lands, and
following this, the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of
black people from Africa to work that land. Thousands died on
the seas while they were being shipped like caged cattle
between continents. "Stolen from Africa, brought to America"
— Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier" contains a whole universe
of unspeakable sadness. It tells of the loss of dignity, the loss
of wilderness, the loss of freedom, the shattered pride of a
people. Genocide and slavery provide the social and economic
underpinning of the nation whose fundamental values reject
hate, murderers, and evil.

Here is Chomsky, writing in the essay "The Manufacture of
Consent," on the founding of the United States of America:

During the Thanksgiving holiday a few weeks ago, I took a
walk with some friends and family in a national park. We came
across a gravestone, which had on it the following inscription:
"Here lies an Indian woman, a Wampanoag, whose family and
tribe gave of themselves and their land that this great nation
might be born and grow."

Of course, it is not quite accurate to say that the indigenous
population gave of themselves and their land for that noble
purpose. Rather, they were slaughtered, decimated, and
dispersed in the course of one of the greatest exercises in
genocide in human history... which we celebrate each October
when we honour Columbus — a notable mass murderer
himself — on Columbus Day.

Hundreds of American citizens, well-meaning and decent
people, troop by that gravestone regularly and read it,
apparently without reaction; except, perhaps, a feeling of
satisfaction that at last we are giving some due recognition to
the sacrifices of the native peoples.... They might react
differently if they were to visit Auschwitz or Dachau and find
a gravestone reading: "Here lies a woman, a Jew, whose
family and people gave of themselves and their possessions
that this great nation might grow and prosper."

How has the United States survived its terrible past and
emerged smelling so sweet? Not by owning up to it, not by
making reparations, not by apologising to black Americans or
native Americans, and certainly not by changing its ways (it
exports its cruelties now). Like most other countries, the
United States has rewritten its history. But what sets the
United States apart from other countries, and puts it way
ahead in the race, is that it has enlisted the services of the
most powerful, most successful publicity firm in the world:


Iraq.. a new type of war waged with super weapons.

In the best-selling version of popular myth as history, U.S.
"goodness" peaked during World War II (aka America's War
Against Fascism). Lost in the din of trumpet sound and angel
song is the fact that when fascism was in full stride in Europe,
the U.S. government actually looked away. When Hitler was
carrying out his genocidal pogrom against Jews, U.S. officials
refused entry to Jewish refugees fleeing Germany. The United
States entered the war only after the Japanese bombed Pearl
Harbour. Drowned out by the noisy hosannas is its most
barbaric act, in fact the single most savage act the world has
ever witnessed: the dropping of the atomic bomb on civilian
populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war was nearly
over. The hundreds of thousands of Japanese people who were
killed, the countless others who were crippled by cancers for
generations to come, were not a threat to world peace. They
were civilians. Just as the victims of the World Trade Center
and Pentagon bombings were civilians. Just as the hundreds of
thousands of people who died in Iraq because of the U.S.-led
sanctions were civilians. The bombing of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki was a cold, calculated experiment carried out to
demonstrate America's power. At the time, President Truman
described it as "the greatest thing in history".

The Second World War, we're told, was a "war for peace". The
atomic bomb was a "weapon of peace". We're invited to
believe that nuclear deterrence prevented World War III.
(That was before President George Bush Jr. came up with the
"pre-emptive strike doctrine". Was there an outbreak of peace
after the Second World War? Certainly there was (relative)
peace in Europe and America — but does that count as
world peace? Not unless savage, proxy wars fought in lands
where the coloured races live (chinks, niggers, dinks, wogs,
gooks) don't count as wars at all.

Since the Second World War, the United States has been at
war with or has attacked, among other countries, Korea,
Guatemala, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada, Libya,
El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan,
Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan. This list should also include the
U.S. government's covert operations in Africa, Asia, and Latin
America, the coups it has engineered, and the dictators it has
armed and supported. It should include Israel's U.S.-backed
war on Lebanon, in which thousands were killed. It should
include the key role America has played in the conflict in the
Middle East, in which thousands have died fighting Israel's
illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. It should include
America's role in the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in
which more than one million people were killed. It should
include the embargos and sanctions that have led directly, and
indirectly, to the death of hundreds of thousands of people,
most visibly in Iraq.

Put it all together, and it sounds very much as though there
has been a World War III, and that the U.S. government was
(or is) one of its chief protagonists.

Most of the essays in Chomsky's For Reasons of State are
about U.S. aggression in South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos,
and Cambodia. It was a war that lasted more than 12 years.
Fifty-eight thousand Americans and approximately two million
Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians lost their lives. The
U.S. deployed half a million ground troops, dropped more than
six million tons of bombs. And yet, though you wouldn't believe
it if you watched most Hollywood movies, America lost the

The war began in South Vietnam and then spread to North
Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. After putting in place a client
regime in Saigon, the U.S. government invited itself in to fight
a communist insurgency — Vietcong guerillas who had
infiltrated rural regions of South Vietnam where villagers were
sheltering them. This was exactly the model that Russia
replicated when, in 1979, it invited itself into Afghanistan.
Nobody in the "free world" is in any doubt about the fact that
Russia invaded Afghanistan. After glasnost, even a Soviet
foreign minister called the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
"illegal and immoral". But there has been no such introspection
in the United States. In 1984, in a stunning revelation,
Chomsky wrote:

For the past 22 years, I have been searching to find some
reference in mainstream journalism or scholarship to an
American invasion of South Vietnam in 1962 (or ever), or an
American attack against South Vietnam, or American
aggression in Indochina — without success. There is no
such event in history. Rather, there is an American defence of
South Vietnam against terrorists supported from the outside
(namely from Vietnam).

There is no such event in history!

In 1962, the U.S. Air Force began to bomb rural South
Vietnam, where 80 per cent of the population lived. The
bombing lasted for more than a decade. Thousands of people
were killed. The idea was to bomb on a scale colossal enough
to induce panic migration from villages into cities, where
people could be held in refugee camps. Samuel Huntington
referred to this as a process of "urbanisation". (I learned about
urbanisation when I was in architecture school in India.
Somehow I don't remember aerial bombing being part of the
syllabus.) Huntington — famous today for his essay "The
Clash of Civilizations?"— was at the time Chairman of the
Council on Vietnamese Studies of the Southeast Asia
Development Advisory Group. Chomsky quotes him describing
the Vietcong as "a powerful force which cannot be dislodged
from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to
exist". Huntington went on to advise "direct application of
mechanical and conventional power"— in other words, to
crush a people's war, eliminate the people. (Or, perhaps, to
update the thesis — in order to prevent a clash of
civilizations, annihilate a civilisation.)

Here's one observer from the time on the limitations of
America's mechanical power: "The problem is that American
machines are not equal to the task of killing communist
soldiers except as part of a scorched-earth policy that
destroys everything else as well." That problem has been
solved now. Not with less destructive bombs, but with more
imaginative language. There's a more elegant way of saying
"that destroys everything else as well". The phrase is
"collateral damage".

And here's a firsthand account of what America's "machines"
(Huntington called them "modernising instruments" and staff
officers in the Pentagon called them "bomb-o-grams") can do.
This is T.D. Allman flying over the Plain of Jars in Laos.


Even if the war in Laos ended tomorrow, the restoration of its
ecological balance might take several years. The
reconstruction of the Plain's totally destroyed towns and
villages might take just as long. Even if this was done, the
Plain might long prove perilous to human habitation because of
the hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs, mines and
booby traps.

A recent flight around the Plain of Jars revealed what less
than three years of intensive American bombing can do to a
rural area, even after its civilian population has been
evacuated. In large areas, the primary tropical colour —
bright green — has been replaced by an abstract pattern of
black, and bright metallic colours. Much of the remaining
foliage is stunted, dulled by defoliants.

Today, black is the dominant colour of the northern and
eastern reaches of the Plain. Napalm is dropped regularly to
burn off the grass and undergrowth that covers the Plains and
fills its many narrow ravines. The fires seem to burn
constantly, creating rectangles of black. During the flight,
plumes of smoke could be seen rising from freshly bombed

The main routes, coming into the Plain from communist-held
territory, are bombed mercilessly, apparently on a non-stop
basis. There, and along the rim of the Plain, the dominant
colour is yellow. All vegetation has been destroyed. The
craters are countless.... [T]he area has been bombed so
repeatedly that the land resembles the pocked, churned desert
in storm-hit areas of the North African desert.

Further to the southeast, Xieng Khouangville — once the
most populous town in communist Laos — lies empty,
destroyed. To the north of the Plain, the little resort of Khang
Khay also has been destroyed.

Around the landing field at the base of King Kong, the main
colours are yellow (from upturned soil) and black (from
napalm), relieved by patches of bright red and blue: parachutes
used to drop supplies.

[T]he last local inhabitants were being carted into air
transports. Abandoned vegetable gardens that would never be
harvested grew near abandoned houses with plates still on the
tables and calendars on the walls.

(Never counted in the "costs" of war are the dead birds, the
charred animals, the murdered fish, incinerated insects,
poisoned water sources, destroyed vegetation. Rarely
mentioned is the arrogance of the human race towards other
living things with which it shares this planet. All these are
forgotten in the fight for markets and ideologies. This
arrogance will probably be the ultimate undoing of the human


"The Marines have landed" ... a call that echoed throughout
the Vietnam war.

The centrepiece of For Reasons of State is an essay called
"The Mentality of the Backroom Boys", in which Chomsky
offers an extraordinarily supple, exhaustive analysis of the
Pentagon Papers, which he says "provide documentary
evidence of a conspiracy to use force in international affairs in
violation of law". Here, too, Chomsky makes note of the fact
that while the bombing of North Vietnam is discussed at some
length in the Pentagon Papers, the invasion of South Vietnam
barely merits a mention.

The Pentagon Papers are mesmerising, not as documentation
of the history of the U.S. war in Indochina, but as insight into
the minds of the men who planned and executed it. It's
fascinating to be privy to the ideas that were being tossed
around, the suggestions that were made, the proposals that
were put forward. In a section called "The Asian Mind —
the American Mind", Chomsky examines the discussion of the
mentality of the enemy that "stoically accept[s] the
destruction of wealth and the loss of lives", whereas "We
want life, happiness, wealth, power", and, for us, "death and
suffering are irrational choices when alternatives exist". So,
we learn that the Asian poor, presumably because they cannot
comprehend the meaning of happiness, wealth, and power,
invite America to carry this "strategic logic to its conclusion,
which is genocide". But, then "we" balk because "genocide is
a terrible burden to bear". (Eventually, of course, "we" went
ahead and committed genocide any way, and then pretended
that it never really happened.)

Of course, the Pentagon Papers contain some moderate
proposals, as well.

Strikes at population targets (per se) are likely not only to
create a counterproductive wave of revulsion abroad and at
home, but greatly to increase the risk of enlarging the war with
China and the Soviet Union. Destruction of locks and dams,
however — if handled right — might... offer promise. It
should be studied. Such destruction does not kill or drown
people. By shallow-flooding the rice, it leads after time to
widespread starvation (more than a million?) unless food is
provided — which we could offer to do "at the conference

Layer by layer, Chomsky strips down the process of
decision-making by U.S. government officials, to reveal at its
core the pitiless heart of the American war machine,
completely insulated from the realities of war, blinded by
ideology, and willing to annihilate millions of human beings,
civilians, soldiers, women, children, villages, whole cities,
whole ecosystems — with scientifically honed methods of

Here's an American pilot talking about the joys of napalm:

We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow. The
original product wasn't so hot — if the gooks were quick
they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding
polystyrene — now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But then
if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they
started adding Willie Peter [white phosphorous] so's to make
it burn better. It'll even burn under water now. And just one
drop is enough, it'll keep on burning right down to the bone so
they die anyway from phosphorous poisoning.

So the lucky gooks were annihilated for their own good. Better
Dead than Red.


Noam Chomsky ... weaving his spell over Chennai in
November 2001. He spoke on "September 11 and its

Thanks to the seductive charms of Hollywood and the
irresistible appeal of America's mass media, all these years
later, the world views the war as an American story. Indochina
provided the lush, tropical backdrop against which the United
States played out its fantasies of violence, tested its latest
technology, furthered its ideology, examined its conscience,
agonised over its moral dilemmas, and dealt with its guilt (or
pretended to). The Vietnamese, the Cambodians, and Laotians
were only script props. Nameless, faceless, slit-eyed
humanoids. They were just the people who died. Gooks.

The only real lesson the U.S. government learned from its
invasion of Indochina is how to go to war without committing
American troops and risking American lives. So now we have
wars waged with long-range cruise missiles, Black Hawks,
"bunker busters". Wars in which the "Allies" lose more
journalists than soldiers.

As a child growing up in the state of Kerala, in South India
— where the first democratically elected Communist
government in the world came to power in 1959, the year I was
born — I worried terribly about being a gook. Kerala was
only a few thousand miles west of Vietnam. We had jungles
and rivers and rice-fields, and communists, too. I kept
imagining my mother, my brother, and myself being blown out
of the bushes by a grenade, or mowed down, like the gooks in
the movies, by an American marine with muscled arms and
chewing gum and a loud background score. In my dreams, I
was the burning girl in the famous photograph taken on the
road from Trang Bang.

As someone who grew up on the cusp of both American and
Soviet propaganda (which more or less neutralised each
other), when I first read Noam Chomsky, it occurred to me
that his marshalling of evidence, the volume of it, the
relentlessness of it, was a little — how shall I put it? —
insane. Even a quarter of the evidence he had compiled would
have been enough to convince me. I used to wonder why he
needed to do so much work. But now I understand that the
magnitude and intensity of Chomsky's work is a barometer of
the magnitude, scope, and relentlessness of the propaganda
machine that he's up against. He's like the wood-borer who
lives inside the third rack of my bookshelf. Day and night, I
hear his jaws crunching through the wood, grinding it to a fine
dust. It's as though he disagrees with the literature and wants
to destroy the very structure on which it rests. I call him

Being an American working in America, writing to convince
Americans of his point of view must really be like having to
tunnel through hard wood. Chomsky is one of a small band of
individuals fighting a whole industry. And that makes him not
only brilliant, but heroic.

Some years ago, in a poignant interview with James Peck,
Chomsky spoke about his memory of the day Hiroshima was
bombed. He was 16 years old:

I remember that I literally couldn't talk to anybody. There was
nobody. I just walked off by myself. I was at a summer camp
at the time, and I walked off into the woods and stayed alone
for a couple of hours when I heard about it. I could never talk
to anyone about it and never understood anyone's reaction. I
felt completely isolated.

That isolation produced one of the greatest, most radical
public thinkers of our time. When the sun sets on the
American empire, as it will, as it must, Noam Chomsky's work
will survive.

It will point a cool, incriminating finger at a merciless,
Machiavellian empire as cruel, self-righteous, and hypocritical
as the ones it has replaced. (The only difference is that it is
armed with technology that can visit the kind of devastation on
the world that history has never known and the human race
cannot begin to imagine.)

As a could've been gook, and who knows, perhaps a potential
gook, hardly a day goes by when I don't find myself thinking
— for one reason or another — "Chomsky Zindabad".

Arundhati Roy is the author of The God of Small Things.


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