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Millennial Visions and Selective Vision Part One


Noam Chomsky

The

new year opened with familiar refrains, amplified by the numerology: a chorus of

self-adulation, somber ruminations about the incomprehensible evil of our

enemies, and the usual recourse to selective amnesia to smooth the way. A few

illustrations follow, which may suggest the kind of evaluation that would have

appeared, were different values to prevail in the intellectual culture.

Let’s

begin with the familiar litany about the monsters we have confronted through the

century and finally slain, a ritual that at least has the merit of roots in

reality. Their awesome crimes are recorded in the newly-translated Black Book

of Communism by French scholar Stephane Courtois and others, the subject of

shocked reviews at the transition to the new millennium. The most serious, at

least of those I have seen, is by political philosopher Alan Ryan, a

distinguished academic scholar and social democratic commentator, in the year’s

first issue of the New York Times Book Review (Jan 2).

The

Black Book at last breaks "the silence over the horrors of

Communism," Ryan writes, "the silence of people who are simply baffled

by the spectacle of so much absolutely futile, pointless and inexplicable

suffering." The revelations of the book will doubtless come as a surprise

to those who have somehow managed to remain unaware of the stream of bitter

denunciations and detailed revelations of the "horrors of Communism"

that I have been reading since childhood, notably in the literature of the left

for the past 80 years, not to speak of the steady flow in media and journals,

film, libraries overflowing with books that range from fiction to scholarship…

– all unable to lift the veil of silence. But put that aside.

The

Black Book, Ryan writes, is in the style of a "recording

angel." It is a relentless "criminal indictment" for the murder

of 100 million people, "the body count of a colossal, wholly failed social,

economic, political and psychological experiment." The total evil,

unredeemed by even a hint of achievement anywhere, makes a mockery of "the

observation that you can’t make an omelet without broken eggs."

The

vision of our own magnificence alongside the incomprehensible monstrosity of the

enemy — the "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy" (John F. Kennedy)

dedicated to "total obliteration" of any shred of decency in the world

(Robert McNamara) — recapitulates in close detail the imagery of the past half

century (actually, well beyond, though friends and enemies rapidly shift, to the

present). Apart from a huge published literature and the commercial media, it is

captured vividly in the internal document NSC 68 of 1950, widely recognized as

the founding document of the Cold War but rarely quoted, perhaps out of

embarrassment at the frenzied and hysterical rhetoric of the respected statesmen

Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze; for a sample, see my Deterring Democracy, chap. 1.

The

picture has always been an extremely useful one. Renewed once again today, it

allows us to erase completely the entire record of hideous atrocities compiled

by "our side" in past years. After all, they count as nothing when

compared with the ultimate evil of the enemy. However grand the crime, it was

"necessary" to confront the forces of darkness, now finally recognized

for what they were. With only the faintest of regrets, we can therefore turn to

the fulfillment of our noble mission, though as New York Times correspondent

Michael Wines reminded us in the afterglow of the humanitarian triumph in

Kosovo, we must not overlook some "deeply sobering lessons": "the

deep ideological divide between an idealistic New World bent on ending

inhumanity and an Old World equally fatalistic about unending conflict."

The enemy was the incarnation of total evil, but even our friends have a long

way to go before they ascend to our dizzying heights. Nonetheless, we can march

forward, "clean of hands and pure of heart," as befits a Nation under

God. And crucially, we can dismiss with ridicule any foolish inquiry into the

institutional roots of the crimes of the state-corporate system, mere trivia

that in no way tarnish the image of Good versus Evil, and teach no lessons,

"deeply sobering" or not, about what lies ahead — a very convenient

posture, for reasons to obvious to elaborate.

Like

others, Ryan reasonably selects as Exhibit A of the criminal indictment the

Chinese famines of 1958-61, with a death toll of 25-40 million, he reports, a

sizeable chunk of the 100 million corpses the "recording angels"

attribute to "Communism" (whatever that is, but let us use the

conventional term). The terrible atrocity fully merits the harsh condemnation it

has received for many years, renewed here. It is, furthermore, proper to

attribute the famine to Communism. That conclusion was established most

authoritatively in the work of economist Amartya Sen, whose comparison of the

Chinese famine to the record of democratic India received particular attention

when he won the Nobel Prize a few years ago.

Writing

in the early 1980s, Sen observed that India had suffered no such famine. He

attributed the India-China difference to India’s "political system of

adversarial journalism and opposition," while in contrast, China’s

totalitarian regime suffered from "misinformation" that undercut a

serious response, and there was "little political pressure" from

opposition groups and an informed public (Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, Hunger

and Public Action, 1989; they estimate deaths at 16.5 to 29.5 million).

The

example stands as a dramatic "criminal indictment" of totalitarian

Communism, exactly as Ryan writes. But before closing the book on the indictment

we might want to turn to the other half of Sen’s India-China comparison, which

somehow never seems to surface despite the emphasis Sen placed on it. He

observes that India and China had "similarities that were quite

striking" when development planning began 50 years ago, including death

rates. "But there is little doubt that as far as morbidity, mortality and

longevity are concerned, China has a large and decisive lead over India"

(in education and other social indicators as well). He estimates the excess of

mortality in India over China to be close to 4 million a year: "India seems

to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China

put there in its years of shame," 1958-1961 (Dreze and Sen).

In

both cases, the outcomes have to do with the "ideological

predispositions" of the political systems: for China, relatively equitable

distribution of medical resources, including rural health services, and public

distribution of food, all lacking in India. This was before 1979, when "the

downward trend in mortality [in China] has been at least halted, and possibly

reversed," thanks to the market reforms instituted that year.

Overcoming

amnesia, suppose we now apply the methodology of the Black Book and its

reviewers to the full story, not just the doctrinally acceptable half. We

therefore conclude that in India the democratic capitalist

"experiment" since 1947 has caused more deaths than in the entire

history of the "colossal, wholly failed…experiment" of Communism

everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, tens of millions more

since, in India alone.

The

"criminal indictment" of the "democratic capitalist

experiment" becomes harsher still if we turn to its effects after the fall

of Communism: millions of corpses in Russia, to take one case, as Russia

followed the confident prescription of the World Bank that "Countries that

liberalize rapidly and extensively turn around more quickly [than those that do

not]," returning to something like what it had been before World War I, a

picture familiar throughout the "third world." But "you can’t

make an omelet without broken eggs," as Stalin would have said. The

indictment becomes far harsher if we consider these vast areas that remained

under Western tutelage, yielding a truly "colossal" record of

skeletons and "absolutely futile, pointless and inexplicable

suffering" (Ryan). The indictment takes on further force when we add to the

account the countries devastated by the direct assaults of Western power, and

its clients, during the same years. The record need not be reviewed here, though

it seems to be as unknown to respectable opinion as were the crimes of Communism

before the appearance of the Black Book.

The

authors of the Black Book, Ryan observes, did not shrink from confronting

the "great question": "the relative immorality of Communism and

Nazism." Although "the body count tips the scales against

Communism," Ryan concludes that Nazism nevertheless sinks to the lower

depths of immorality. Unasked is another "great question" posed by

"the body count," when ideologically serviceable amnesia is overcome.

To

make myself clear, I am not expressing my judgments; rather those that follow

from the principles that are employed to establish preferred truths — or that

would follow, if doctrinal filters could be removed.

On

the self-adulation, a virtual tidal wave this year — perhaps it is enough to

recall Mark Twain’s remark about one of the great military heroes of the mass

slaughter campaign in the Philippines that opened the glorious century behind

us: he is "satire incarnated"; no satirical rendition can "reach

perfection" because he "occupies that summit himself." The

reference reminds us of another aspect of our magnificence, apart from

efficiency in massacre and destruction and a capacity for self-glorification

that would drive any satirist to despair: our willingness to face up honestly to

our crimes, a tribute to the flourishing free market of ideas. The bitter

anti-imperialist essays of one of America’s leading writers were not suppressed,

as in totalitarian states; they are freely available to the general public, with

a delay of only some 90 years.

 

 

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