A Warning From Noam Chomsky on the Threat of Elites
By Fred Branfman
June 08, 2010 "Truthdig" -- Noam Chomsky’s description of the dangers posed by U.S. elites’ “Imperial Mentality” was recently given a boost in credibility by a surprising source—Bill Clinton. As America’s economy, foreign policy and politics continue to unravel, it is clear that this mentality and the system it has created will produce an increasing number of victims in the years to come. Clinton startlingly testified to that effect on March 10 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:
Clinton is to be praised for being the first U.S. president to take personal responsibility for impoverishing an entire nation rather than ignoring his misdeeds or falsely blaming local U.S.-imposed regimes. But his confession also means that his embrace of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and NAFTA “neo-liberalization” destroyed the lives of many more millions well beyond Haiti, as U.S. support for heavily subsidized U.S. agribusiness damaged local agricultural economies throughout Latin America and beyond. This led to mass migration into urban slums and destitution, as well as increased emigration to the U.S.—which then led Clinton to militarize the border in 1994—and thus accelerated the “illegal immigration” issue that so poisons U.S. politics today.
Clinton might also have added that he and other U.S. leaders imposed such policies by force, installing military dictators and vicious police and paramilitary forces. Chomsky reports in “Hopes and Prospects” that in Haiti, semiofficial thugs empowered by a U.S.-supported coup murdered 8,000 people and raped 35,000 women in 2004 and 2005 alone, while a tiny local elite reaps most of the benefits from U.S. policies.
Clinton’s testimony reminded me of one of my visits with Chomsky, back in 1988, when, after talking for an hour or so, he smiled and said he had to stop to get back to writing about the children of Haiti.
I was struck both by his concern for forgotten Haitians and because his comment so recalled my experience with him in 1970 as he spent a week researching U.S. war-making in Laos. I had taken dozens of journalists, peace activists, diplomats, experts and others out to camps of refugees who had fled U.S. saturation bombing. Chomsky was one of only two who wept openly upon learning how these innocent villagers had seen their beloved grandmothers burned alive, their children slowly suffocated, their spouses cut to ribbons, during five years of merciless, pitiless and illegal U.S. bombing for which U.S. leaders would have been executed had international law protecting civilians in wartime been applied to their actions. It was obvious that he was above all driven by a deep feeling for the world’s victims, those he calls the “unpeople” in his new book. No U.S. policymakers I knew in Laos, nor the many I have met since, have shared such concerns.
Bill Clinton’s testimony also reminded me of the accuracy of Chomsky writings on Haiti—before, during and after Clinton’s reign—as summed up in “Hopes and Prospects”:
Clinton would have a cleaner conscience today had he listened to Chomsky then. Many more Americans may also benefit by heeding Chomsky today, as U.S. elites’ callousness toward unpeople abroad is now affecting increasing numbers of their fellow citizens back home. Nothing symbolizes this more than investment bankers tricking countless Americans out of their life savings by luring them into buying homes they could not afford that were then foreclosed on.
In doing so, Wall Streeters exhibited what Chomsky describes as a Western elite imperial mentality, dating back to 1491 (his first chapter is entitled “Year 514: Globalization for Whom?”). Only this time instead of impoverishing Haitians or Chileans, it was Americans who were afflicted by a “system” of “fuck the poor” (in the words of successful Wall Street trader Steve Eisman). [See Branfman’s review of “The Big Short” in Truthdig.]
The many Americans whose lives have been damaged by financiers’ single-minded focus on short-term profits at the expense of everyone else are only a harbinger of what is to come. Financial elites remain in charge, as evidenced by recent “financial reform” legislation that does not even reinstate the Glass-Steagall law separating investment and commercial banking. New York magazine has described how Obama officials blocked even inadequate reforms, let alone the stronger proposals from Nouriel Roubini, one of the few major economists to foresee the economic crash. Former International Monetary Fund chief economist Simon Johnson tells us “our banking structure remains—and the incentive and belief system that lies behind reckless risk-taking has only become more dangerous,” thus setting the stage for an even worse crash than that of 2008. And, as U.S. competitiveness continues to decline and it cannot afford its endless wars without drastically cutting social spending, countless more Americans will find themselves paying the price for U.S. elites’ imperial mentality.
This mentality described by Chomsky includes the following elements: (1) a single-minded focus on maximizing short-term elite economic and military interests; (2) a refusal to let other societies follow their own paths if perceived to conflict with these interests; (3) continual and massive violations of international law; (4) indifference to human life, particularly in the Third World; (5) massive violation of the U.S. Constitution, especially through the executive branch’s seizure of the power to wage unilateral and unaccountable war in every corner of the globe; (6) indifference to U.S. and international public opinion, which is often more progressive and humane than that of the elites; (7) a remarkable ability to “manufacture consent,” aided by the mass media and intellectuals, that has blinded most Americans to the truth of what their leaders actually do in their names.
To pick but one example of the dozens Chomsky provides: U.S. elite opinion unanimously celebrated the 1990 Nicaraguan election defeating the Sandinistas as a “victory for fair play,” to quote a March 10 New York Times Op-Ed article. But Chomsky reminds us of Time Magazine’s March 12 report on just what this “fair play” meant:
Wrecking a Third World country’s economy and savaging its civilians are such standard U.S. elite behavior that it is barely noticed, let alone criticized in the mass media or halls of Congress. Perhaps the most dramatic example of America’s imperial mentality, however, is the answer to the following question: Which nation’s leaders since 1945 have murdered, maimed, made homeless, tortured, assassinated and impoverished the largest number of civilians who were not its own citizens?
I have asked this question of Americans in every walk of life since I discovered the bombing of Laos in 1969. It’s a simple matter of fact, not involving judgments of right and wrong, and I remain astonished at how most answer “the Russians,” “the Chinese,” or just have no idea that their leaders have killed more noncitizen civilians than the rest of the world’s leaders combined since 1945.
The bodies of Indochinese and Iraqi civilians for which U.S. leaders bear responsibility would, if laid end to end, stretch from New York to California. These would include the huge proportion of civilians among the 3.4 million Vietnamese that Robert McNamara estimated were killed in Vietnam (over 90 percent by U.S. firepower), Laotian and Cambodian civilians felled by the largest per capita and most indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets in history, the 1 million to 1.5 million Iraqis estimated by the U.N.‘s Denis Halliday to have died from Clinton’s sanctions “designed,” in Halliday’s words, “to kill civilians, particularly children,” and the hundreds of thousands killed as a result of the Bush invasion. The total number of civilians killed, wounded, made homeless and impoverished by U.S. leaders or local regimes owing their power to U.S. guns and aid—in not only Indochina and Iraq but Mexico, El Salvador, Israel/Palestine, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Egypt, Iran, South Africa, Chile, East Timor, Haiti, Argentina, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, Jamaica, the Philippines and Indonesia—is in the tens of millions.
One can debate whether U.S. military action against Vietnamese communists, Nicaraguan Sandinistas, Saddam Hussein or the Taliban were or are warranted. But there can be no possible justification for waging war that winds up killing and impoverishing much of the civilian population, on whose behalf U.S. leaders claim to fight, in violation of the laws of war and elemental human decency. Nor can anyone who truly believes in democracy support allowing a handful of U.S. leaders to savage civilians abroad without even informing, let alone seeking permission of, Congress and the American people.
The incredible fact that U.S. leaders could inflict such carnage without their citizenry knowing is the single most dramatic example of another of Chomsky’s major themes: “manufactured consent,” produced by (1) constant iterations of U.S leaders’ idealism and desire to promote freedom, supported by the mass media (e.g. when Washington Post columnist David Ignatius called Paul Wolfowitz Bush’s “idealist-in-chief,” even as their invasion was laying waste to Iraq), (2) massive media coverage of the misdeeds of the latest U.S. opponents, and (3) ignoring our own, often far greater, crimes.
Most Americans were fully and appropriately made aware of Taliban assassinations of their opponents, for example. But there was no public discussion of guilt, let alone punishment for those responsible, when Gen. Stanley McChrystal implicitly admitted in the summer of 2009 that the U.S. military had been killing countless Afghan civilians for the previous eight years as a result of air and artillery fire aimed at population centers. Nor are most Americans aware that McChrystal was rewarded with his present post, being in charge of the Afghanistan war, for conducting five years of assassination and torture as head of the top-secret Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq.
Chomsky is especially concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general, and U.S.-Israel treatment of the people of Gaza in particular. He notes that Hamas is regularly attacked in the U.S. press, but there has not been comparable attention given to the U.S./Israeli decision to inflict daily collective punishment on the people of Gaza since they democratically elected Hamas in January 2006. He quotes Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1950, which states that “no protected person may be punished for an offence he or she had not personally committed” and reports how Israel, fully supported by U.S. leaders, continues to inflict precisely such punishment on the people of Gaza by destroying their economy, limiting their access to food and water, denying them health care, restricting their movement, and engaging in kidnapping, assassination and bombing—a program he calls “imposing massive suffering on the animals in the Gaza prison.”
Perhaps the most basic reason Americans should read Chomsky’s work today, therefore, is simply to understand the real world in which they live, that which is obscured by their leaders and the U.S. mass media. The purpose of “Newspeak” in the novel “1984” was to eliminate whole categories of thought. In our time, one such category is the fact that “U.S. leaders regularly and illegally kill enormous numbers of foreign innocent civilians.” The elimination of this thought-category in our cognitive framework understandably led President George W. Bush to explain 9/11 by saying “they hate our freedom”—a logical conclusion to someone ignorant of the trail of blood left by his predecessors. As Chomsky notes, however, “historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon ... because it lays the groundwork for crimes ahead” and, it should be noted, increased dangers of terrorism against Americans.
This increased threat of terrorism, which, Chomsky reports, citing the New American Foundation, has increased sevenfold because of the invasion of Iraq, is a second area in which Americans are today increasingly threatened by their leaders’ imperial mentality. As many experts noted in the wake of the Times Square bombing attempt, Barack Obama’s vast increase in drone strikes in Pakistan—and relaxing targeting rules to include “low-level fighters whose identities may not be known”—has further increased the danger of terrorist attacks in the U.S.
As the elites’ imperial mentality comes home, Americans are also increasingly threatened by climate change—produced by a system that statutorily requires elites to pursue short-term profit for their firms, even at the cost of destroying the biosphere their own children and grandchildren will depend on for life itself.
In today’s system, Chomsky explains, to “stay in the game,” CEOs must maximize their own short-term profits while treating the costs of doing so as “externalities” to be paid by the taxpayer. In the case of climate change, however, “externalities happen to be the fate of the species.” An imperial mentality which has primarily threatened the Third World in the past, in other words, has now become a threat to the survival of not only America but all civilization as we know it.
Chomsky thus argues that human survival requires changing the system, not merely periodically replacing those running it. His “Hopes and Prospects” covers President Obama’s first year in office and the many “hopes” that he has so profoundly disappointed because of a system that virtually requires “doublethink” of its leaders. Obama was undoubtedly as sincere when he spoke of “our fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution” at West Point on May 22 as he was six months earlier when he secretly approved Gen. David Petraeus’ proposal for a “broad expansion of clandestine military activity” worldwide that “does not require the president’s approval or regular reports to Congress.”
Obama also presumably holds two contradictory opinions when, as Chomsky reports, he continues Bush policies he so recently criticized and promised to change: extending executive power to indefinitely imprison people without trial, torture (though by allied rather than U.S. torturers), indiscriminate killing (particularly by escalating in northern Pakistan, as described in Truthdig, “Unintended Consequences in Nuclear Pakistan”), and supporting Israeli policies precluding a two-state solution. Chomsky also observes that Obama could not have been elected in the first place, given his greater need for campaign funds from above than fidelity to his voters below, had he not been prepared to continue these imperial policies.
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:
State capitalism for the many: The American Enterprise Institute’s chief declared in a May 23 Washington Post Op-Ed that “America faces a new culture war,” between “free enterprise” offering “rewards determined by market forces” and “European-style statism.” “Hopes and Prospects” explains at some length, however, why this formulation is absurd. America’s “free enterprise” system has always been based on massive government aid, from the Army building 19th century railroads, to the Pentagon’s post-World War II role in building the Internet and Silicon Valley, to today’s “rewards” to Wall Street and oil companies determined not by market forces, but those companies’ political clout. America has been practicing “state capitalism” since the founding of the Republic, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future no matter which party is in office.
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.