Chomsky replies about Avoiding American Crimes

In A recent post in the ZNet forum system Chomsky was asked to respond to a recent article by David Cortright in the Progressive. In Particular Chomsky was asked to respond to this paragraph

“We need to win the support of many of those who favored the war in
Afghanistan…. This means focusing on the dangers of war in Iraq
rather than dwelling on US misdeeds in the past. We should frame the
anti-war message in ways that appeal to mainstream audiences. We can
do this by emphasizing widely shared values and themes, such as
protecting the innocent, winning the campaign against terrorism,
cooperating with allies, and preventing the rise of anti-Americanism.
We should strive to ride the patriotic wave and offer forward-looking
solutions that uphold the best traditions of American democracy.” 

following is his response in The ZNet Forum System.. If you like what you see why not consider becoming a sustainer

 Reply from NC,

I’ve known Dave Cortright for some years, and respect him very much, and have heard similar views from others I respect.

Nevertheless, I disagree,radically.

To begin with, let’s see what’s at stake. The concrete proposals are to focus on “protecting the innocent, winning the campaign against terrorism, cooperating with allies, and preventing the rise of anti-Americanism. We should strive to ride the patriotic wave and offer forward-looking solutions that uphold the best traditions of American democracy.”

Let’s take them point by point.

On “protecting the innocent,” there will be no disagreement, except on everything that matters: how do we do it? And in asking how we do it, do we pretend that the institutions we are calling on to “protect the innocent” (like the White House, the Pentagon, the CIA, the energy corporations,….) have no institutional structure and no history, and can therefore be trusted, with a kind of religious faith, to do “the right thing”? Or do we try to understand these questions so that maybe we can make some sensible choices about “protecting the innocent”? No sensible person would accept the first choice. But if we accept the second, we are entering the domain that we are told to avoid. It is, therefore, hard
to find a sensible interpretation of the proposal.

Take the second point: winning the war against terrorism. Which terrorism? Let’s have a look at the lead recipients of US military aid: Israel, Egypt, Colombia, Turkey, and a little earlier El Salvador and other such attractive places. Does that tell us something about how to win the war against the most vicious form of terrorism, namely state terrorism directed internally? For example, by not massively contributing to it? But we are told to avoid that topic, which means, to keep away from the core questions of how to win the war against terrorism.

Suppose, however, we keep to the narrow form of terrorism that we are allowed to look at in accord with prevailing ideology, and this injunction: the
terrorism of enemies committed against us and our allies.

How do we win that war?

Everyone who is at all serious knows that one crucial element is to attend to the sources of the terrorism, and if there are legitimate grievances interwoven among them, as is almost always the case, to attend to those grievances — not only to reduce the likelihood of terrorism, but also because it is right to do so. This is understood by everyone who is serious about the topic. To take just one current case, the head of Israel’s General Security Services (1996-2000), Ami Ayalon, recently repeated publicly the truism that those who want to defeat Palestinian terrorism by force “want an unending war”; the only way to end it is by satisfying their legitimate demands for national self-determination in a viable independent state. If Israelis were to follow the advice we are considering, and not attend to their own past crimes, they would commit themselves to an unending war. The point generalizes.

What about “cooperating with allies”? Suppose our Turkish ally is carrying
out massive atrocities against its Kurdish population, as it was doing through the 1990s. The US did cooperate: by providing 80% of the arms in an escalating flow. Is that the advice? Suppose our European allies increase agricultural subsidies to prevent poor countries from exporting to them. Should we cooperate by doing the same? In fact, we should cooperate when it is right to do so, not otherwise, which leaves us where we were. The proposal has no content, and simply evades the important issues.

How about preventing the rise of anti-Americanism? What is “anti-Americanism”? If it is opposition to murderous and destructive US policies, should we prevent its rise? Or should we deal with the reasons — which means departing from the advice? If we want to understand the sources of what is mislabelled “anti-Americanism” — that is, opposition to specific US policies — should we follow the advice and refuse to investigate the topic, inquiring into those policies and what they led to? That is the advice we are being given. Surely it doesn’t make sense, as soon as it is spelled out.

The rest is just question-begging and we can ignore it.

If what is meant is that we should not respond to questions about how to deal with al-Qaeda by giving a lecture about the Pequot massacre, I quite agree, but so does everyone else.

The advice may sound constructive on the surface, but I’d suggest taking it apart and looking more closely. I think you’ll find it dissolves.

There are further considerations.

Let’s look back a little. During the Vietnam war, very similar arguments
were given. It was commonly argued that we shouldn’t tell the truth about the fact that the US attacked South Vietnam and expanded its aggression to the whole of Indochina, and we shouldn’t go into the reasons for the aggression and atrocities, or place the actions in the context of global planning, to try to make sense of them and explain them. We shouldn’t try to bring out the true nature of the war crimes and crimes against humanity. We should not take the position that the war was fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not a “mistake,” because if we did, we would alienate the American people — about 70% of whom regarded the war as “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not “a mistake,” by the late 60s — and still do, with minor fluctuations.

Rather, it was argued, we should concentrate on the cost, the “quagmire,” etc., thus separating ourselves from the population but appealing to the educated elites, who did overwhelmingly insist that the war began with ‘blundering efforts to do good” but by 1969 had become a “disaster” that was too costly to us, a quagmire that was harming our society and killing Americans, etc.; I’m quoting Anthony Lewis, at the extreme dovish/left end of the tolerable intellectual spectrum.

Who was upholding “the best traditions of American democracy”? Is it really true that “the best traditions of American democracy” are to suppress our crimes and praise ourselves for our magnificence, whatever the facts? And to suppress the reasons for what we have done, because it’s too unpleasant to face or hard for people not as smart as us to understand? That’s some conception of the best traditions of American democracy.

There’s a lesson there, I think, and it applies constantly. The advice that we should suppress what we believe and keep to so-called “pragmatic” concerns expresses real contempt for the general population. It amounts to holding that the general public are morally incompetent and stupid, so we must appeal to them in terms of simple ideas that they can understand — in fact, those that are held, commonly in educated elite circles. But is there any reason to suppose that the people we run into in the supermarket or gas station are any less capable of decency than we are? Or so stupid that they can’t understand what we can? Are we some kind of superior beings, who have to tone down what we believe because it is too lofty for ordinary people to understand?

Maybe the way one talks to kids in nursery school? I don’t see any other way to interpret these proposals, I’m afraid.

Even in the narrowest tactical terms the proposals are, I think, very far from the mark. There are always plenty of people who will keep to the version of “American democracy” that holds that we must avoid the truth about our past and present actions in the name of “patriotism.” We don’t have to waste our time joining them, and if we do, no one will listen anyway — or should listen, because we are choosing to be dishonest: that’s what the advice amounts to. We surely should talk about protecting the innocent, pay attention to others, etc. But that doesn’t mean suppressing the truth: rather, the opposite. It means telling the truth about our own crimes, not taking the coward’s way out and harping only on the crimes of others. Our own crimes are vastly more important for the simple reason
that we can do something about them, easily: stop committing them.

I don’t think it takes great genius to understand that. I think, in fact, it
takes a good education not to understand it.

We should do our best to understand and find out the truth about important matters, and we should be honest in approaching other people.

If we are not , they should disregard us.

One can doubtless contrive circumstances in which it is better to deceive, but there’s a heavy burden of proof to bear for anyone who counsels that — and putting in simple terms, that’s what the advice comes down to. I know of no way to meet that burden in this case. I think the opposite is true. Honesty is not only the right policy, but also the most effective one, apart from people who are so deeply indoctrinated that no headway will be made anyway.

Noam Chomsky

Leave a comment