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Apr 18, 2014
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A Warning From Noam Chomsky on the Threat of Elites
Posted on Jun 6, 2010
Chomsky’s explanation of the American system’s imperial mentality also illuminates a seeming mystery: How could decent people like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama commit so much evil? Our concept of evil is shaped by such paranoid psychotics as Hitler, Stalin and Mao, who all hated their victims and openly lusted for power. We do not yet understand that in today’s American system the problem we face is not so much inhumanity from the mad and evil as “ahumanity” from the sane and decent.
U.S. leaders have nothing against those they regularly kill and impoverish. On the contrary, they often exhibit compassion for them, as when Jimmy Carter supported human rights. But they are products of a system that is indifferent to the fate of the unpeople, whether in the shah’s Iran, Somoza’s Nicaragua, Suharto’s Indonesia or the many other dictatorial regimes that enjoyed President Carter’s support.
Chomsky denies the oft-heard charge that he is “anti-American,” noting his criticism of the crimes of many other nations’ leaders, and saying he focuses on U.S. leaders because, as a U.S. citizen, it is the government he can most affect; because it is the government that has done more harm than any other since 1945; and because the United States’ behavior today poses so much danger to human survival. He might also add that there are so many others eager to catalog the crimes of America’s enemies, yet relatively few Americans willing to document their own leaders’ misdeeds.
At the moment, Chomsky’s proposed solutions are politically unthinkable. As the American economy and polity continues to unravel and suffering mounts at home and abroad, however, a mass movement may arise that is capable of saving America and the world. If so, such a movement is likely to attempt solutions of the sort Chomsky proposes. Here are two out of a far larger number:
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The real choice, Chomsky makes clear, is not free enterprise versus statism, but state capitalism for (A) the few or (B) the many. The latter would include breaking up the banks, a focus on job creation and safety net expansion where needed, single-payer health insurance, higher taxes on the wealthy, far lower military spending, public members on corporate boards, greater employee workplace control and, above all, a new public-private partnership to see America become a leader in a clean energy economic revolution.
A Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone and Two-State Solution in the Middle East: Chomsky proposes that rather than continuing to engage in senseless fighting and confronting Iran over nuclear weapons, U.S., Israeli, Arab and Iranian interests would be far better served by the U.S. using its enormous military and economic clout to create a Mideast nuclear weapons-free zone that Iran says it is willing to accept, and a comprehensive and fair Israeli-Palestinian settlement including Hamas’ promised recognition of Israel and cessation of rocket attacks. A major benefit to the U.S. would be to reduce the threat of domestic terrorism. For only a comprehensive new policy that addresses the source of anti-U.S. hatred—U.S. war-making on civilians and support of corrupt and vicious local regimes—can reduce it.
Fifty years ago, Americans were told that the North Vietnamese communists were so evil that 55,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese had to die, and much of Vietnam had to be destroyed, in order to keep it “free.” But for 20 years now, despite the triumph of the communists, Vietnam has been a normal trading partner of the United States and poses no threat to its neighbors. Could the Middle East also be normalized were U.S. leaders to use their enormous power to promote peace rather than war? Maybe, maybe not. But it is obvious that the risks of trying to do so are far less than the present dangers of nuclear proliferation, chaos in nuclear-armed Pakistan, Israel-Iran military confrontation and increasing support for anti-American terrorism within the 1.2 billion-strong Muslim world.
That Chomsky’s sensible proposals are not seriously discussed is a measure of the ubiquity of U.S. elites’ imperial mentality in mid-2010. Chomsky suggests that John Quincy Adams’ fear of divine retribution to America for its cruelty to Native Americans is unfounded, and that “earthly judgment is nowhere in sight.” Much of his work, however, suggests otherwise. A U.S. elite imperial mentality that once threatened mainly unpeople is today threatening America itself.
The fundamental tension throughout Chomsky’s work is between his belief that organizing and popular movements offer hope of change and the overwhelming evidence he presents of elite power precluding such change. On the one hand, he writes that “Latin America, today, is the scene of some of the most exciting developments in the endless struggle for freedom and justice” as its nations improve their citizens’ lives by extricating themselves from the neoliberal regime and elect leaders responsible to mass movements from below rather than financing from wealthy minorities above.
But on the other hand, his description of the stranglehold elites hold over both domestic and foreign policy offers little near-term hope for the kind of systemic changes he believes are needed to save the species. It is true that postwar America has not before faced the kind of economic and imperial decline that now awaits it, and this may produce possibilities for systemic change. But they are nowhere yet in sight.
I recently sat with Chomsky, an intellectually uncompromising but personally kind, gentle and mild-mannered man, in his kitchen discussing such new U.S. elite horrors as the trend toward “1984”-like automated warfare, when it suddenly hit me.
What is it like, I found myself thinking, to know more than any other human being on Earth about the state-sponsored lies to which Americans are so constantly subjected? What is it like to so feel in your bones, hour after hour, day after day, the pain of millions of “unpeople” suffering hunger, poverty and death caused by U.S. elites who today also threaten both their own nation and all humanity? And what is it like, even though your writings are published, to have their lessons ignored by society at large, as the killing continues and U.S. war-making “on the vague frontiers whose whereabouts the average man can only guess at” has now become permanent?
“Noam,” I said, “I’ve just realized who you really represent to me. Do you remember how Winston Smith [the “1984” character] realized that his highest obligation to humanity and himself was just to try and remain sane, to somehow commit the truth to paper, and to hope against rational hope that somewhere, some time, future humans might come to understand and act on it? To me, at this point in time, you’re Winston Smith.”
I will never forget his reaction.
He just looked back at me.
And smiled sadly.
Fred Branfman, the editor of “Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War” (Harper & Row, 1972), exposed the U.S. secret air war in Laos while living there from 1967 to 1971 and went on to develop solar, educational and Information Age initiatives for California Gov. Jerry Brown and national policymakers.
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