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Because We Say So

By Noam Chomsky

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Higher education is under attack not because it is failing, but because it is a potentially democratic public sphere. As such, conservatives and neoliberals often see it as a dangerous institution that reminds them of the rebellious legacy of the 1960s, when universities were the center of struggles over free speech, anti-racist and feminist pedagogies, and the anti-war movement. *

As Chomsky reminds us, caring about other people is a dangerous idea in America today and signals the ongoing drift of the United States from a struggling democracy to an increasingly consolidated authoritarian state.

We live at a time when the growing catastrophes that face Americans and the rest of the globe are increasingly matched by the accumulation of power by the rich and financial elite. Their fear of democracy is now strengthened by the financial, political and corporate elite’s intensive efforts to normalize their own power and silence those who hold them accountable.

In 2009 the energy industries, backed by business lobbies, launched major campaigns that cast doubt on the near-unanimous consensus of scientists on the severity of the threat of human-induced global warming.

One effect is that scarcely one-third of the U.S. population believes that there is a scientific consensus on the threat of global warming—far less than the global average, and radically inconsistent with the facts.

The IEA estimated that if the world continues on its present course, the “carbon budget” will be exhausted by 2017.

FINANCIAL TIMES devoted a full page to the optimistic expectations that the U.S. might become energy-independent for a century with new technology for extracting North American fossil fuels.The FINANCIAL TIMES said nothing about what kind of a world would emerge from these exciting prospects.

Energy is to burn; the global environment be damned.

Right now we are failing to commemorate an event of great human significance: the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s decision to launch the direct invasion of South Vietnam, soon to become the most extreme crime of aggression since World War II.

Official efforts at justifying the attacks were slim, and mostly fantasy.

A further step in undermining the principles of the Magna Carta was taken when President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which codifies Bush-Obama practice of indefinite detention without trial under military custody. Such treatment is now mandatory in the case of those accused of aiding enemy forces during the “war on terror,”

Public education is under attack around the world, and in response, student protests have recently been held in Britain, Canada, Chile, Taiwan and elsewhere.

Ralph Waldo Emerson observed that political leaders call for popular education because they fear that “This country is filling up with thousands and millions of voters, and you must educate them to keep them from our throats.” But educated the right way: Limit their perspectives and understanding, discourage free and independent thought, and train them for obedience.

The Trilateral Commission issued stern warnings in 1975 that there is too much democracy, in part due to the failures of the institutions responsible for “the indoctrination of the young.”

Since then, many measures have been taken to restore discipline. One is the crusade for privatization—placing control in reliable hands.

Tuition increases trap students into long-term debt and hence subordination to private power. Another device is the corporatization of the universities. The latter approach includes teaching to test and other mechanisms that destroy students’ interest and seek to fit them into a mold, easily controlled.

“In the history of human rights, the worst atrocities are always committed by somebody else, never us”—whoever “us” is.

From 1960 to “the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites.”

“dissidents are heroic,” but they can be “irritants to American diplomats who have important business to transact with countries that don’t share our values.”

It’s unnecessary to dwell on the extreme dangers posed by one central element of the destruction of the commons: the reliance on fossil fuels, which courts global disaster. Details may be debated, but there is little serious doubt that the problems are all too real and that the longer we delay in addressing them, the more awful will be the legacy left to generations to come.

After the ignominious collapse of the Copenhagen global climate change summit in 2009, Bolivia organized a People’s Summit with 35,000 participants from 140 countries. The summit called for very sharp reduction in emissions, and a Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth. That is a key demand of indigenous communities all over the world. The demand is ridiculed by sophisticated Westerners, but unless we can acquire some of the sensibility of the indigenous communities, they are likely to have the last laugh—a laugh of grim despair.

There are two issues of overwhelming significance, because the fate of the species is at stake: environmental disaster and nuclear war.

A new study from the Climate Vulnerability Monitor has found that “climate change caused by global warming is slowing down world economic output by 1.6 percent a year and will lead to a doubling of costs in the next two decades.”

Unlike Iran, Israel refuses to allow inspections or to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It has hundreds of nuclear weapons and advanced delivery systems, and a long record of violence, aggression and lawlessness, thanks to unremitting American support.

It hardly takes more than a day in Gaza to appreciate what it must be like to try to survive in the world’s largest open-air prison, where some 1.5 million people on a roughly 140-square-mile strip of land are subject to random terror and arbitrary punishment, with no purpose other than to humiliate and degrade.

Raji Sourani, the human-rights advocate, observes that “what has to be kept in mind is that the occupation and the absolute closure is an ongoing attack on the human dignity of the people in Gaza in particular and all Palestinians generally. It is systematic degradation, humiliation, isolation and fragmentation of the Palestinian people.”

A visitor to Gaza can’t help feeing disgust at the obscenity of the occupation, compounded with guilt, because it is within our power to bring the suffering to an end and allow the Samidin to enjoy the lives of peace and dignity they deserve.

So if you’re, say, the CEO of Walmart or Dell or Hewlett-Packard, you’re perfectly happy to have very cheap labor in China working under hideous conditions and with few environmental constraints. As long as China has what’s called economic growth, that’s fine.

Once we break out of the framework of national states as unified entities with no internal divisions within them, we can see that there is a global shift of power, but it’s from the global workforce to the owners of the world: transnational capital, global financial institutions.

There have been serious debates over the years about whether capitalism is compatible with democracy. If we keep to really existing capitalist democracy the question is effectively answered: They are radically incompatible. It seems to me unlikely that civilization can survive really existing capitalism and the sharply attenuated democracy that goes along with it. But could functioning democracy make a difference? *

Let’s keep to the most critical immediate problem that civilization faces: environmental catastrophe.

The fact that the public is influenced by science is deeply troubling to those who dominate the economy and state policy.

Within the system of really existing capitalist democracy it is of extreme importance that we become the stupid nation, not misled by science and rationality, in the interests of the short-term gains of the masters of the economy and political system, and damn the consequences. *

These commitments are deeply rooted in the fundamentalist market doctrines that are preached within really existing capitalist democracy, though observed in a highly selective manner, so as to sustain a powerful state that serves wealth and power.

In the future, historians (if there are any) will look back on this curious spectacle taking shape in the early 21st century. For the first time in human history, humans are facing the significant prospect of severe * calamity as a result of their actions—actions that are battering our prospects of decent survival.

The countries with large and influential indigenous populations are well in the lead in seeking to preserve the planet. The countries that have driven indigenous populations to extinction or extreme marginalization are racing toward destruction.

Throughout the world, indigenous societies are struggling to protect what they sometimes call “the rights of nature,” while the civilized and sophisticated scoff silliness.

This is all exactly the opposite of what rationality would predict—unless it is the skewed form of reason that passes through the filter of really existing capitalist democracy.

It is noteworthy that today the strongest support for Israel in the international arena comes from the United States, Canada and Australia, the so-called Anglosphere—settler-colonial societies based on extermination or expulsion of indigenous populations in favor of a higher race, and where such behavior is considered natural and praiseworthy. *

Surveying the terrible conflicts in the world, it’s clear that almost all are the residue of imperial crimes and the borders that the great powers drew in their own interests.

Some borders are eroding along with the cruel hatreds and conflicts they symbolize and inspire. The most dramatic case is Europe. *

The Syrian civil war has reignited the Sunni-Shiite conflict that was one of the most terrible consequences of the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq * .

Who owns the global atmosphere being polluted by the heat-trapping gases that have just passed an especially perilous threshold .

That the Earth now desperately needs defense from impending environmental catastrophe is surely obvious to any rational and literate person.

Whatever the world may think, U.S. actions are legitimate because we say so. The principle was enunciated by the eminent statesman Dean Acheson in 1962, when he instructed the American Society of International Law that no legal issue arises when the United States responds to a challenge to its “power, position, and prestige.”

Humans are social beings, and the kind of creature that a person becomes depends crucially on the social, cultural and institutional circumstances of his or her life. We are therefore led to inquire into the social arrangements that are conducive to people’s rights and welfare, and to fulfilling their just aspirations—in brief, the common good.

These range from very general principles, such as the truism that we should apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others (if not harsher ones), to more specific doctrines, such as a * dedication to promoting democracy and human rights, which is proclaimed almost universally, even by the worst monsters .

A good place to start is with John Stuart Mill’s classic ON LIBERTY. Its epigraph formulates “The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges: the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.”

Adam Smith acknowledges the power of what he calls the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind”: “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people.”

Classical liberalism shipwrecked on the shoals of capitalism, but its humanistic commitments and aspirations didn’t die.

This broad tendency in human development seeks to identify structures of hierarchy, authority and domination that constrain human development, and then subject them to a very reasonable challenge: Justify yourself.

It should be noted that the American brand of libertarianism differs sharply from the libertarian tradition, accepting and indeed advocating the subordination of working people to the masters of the economy, and the subjection of everyone to the restrictive discipline and destructive features of markets.

In the Brazilian rural workers movement, they speak of “widening the floors of the cage”

We can extend the image to think of the cage of state institutions as a protection from the savage beasts roaming outside: the predatory, state-supported capitalist institutions dedicated in principle to private gain, power and domination, with community and people’s interest at most a footnote, revered in rhetoric but dismissed in practice as a matter of principle and even law.

About 70 percent of the population, at the lower end of the wealth/income scale, has no influence on policy. The resulting system is not democracy but plutocracy.

A system in which liberty is enjoyed by the few, and security in its fullest sense is available only to the elite.

“power today resides in control of the means of production, exchange, publicity, transportation and communication. Whoever owns them rules the life of the country,” even if democratic forms remain. Until those institutions are in the hands of the public, politics will remain “the shadow cast on society by big business,”

The Founding Fathers of the United States were well aware of the hazards of democracy.

“the Constitution was intrinsically an aristocratic document designed to check the democratic tendencies of the period.” *

Jefferson distinguished between “aristocrats and democrats.” The aristocrats are “those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.” The democrats, in contrast, “identify with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interest.” *

Today the successors to Jefferson’s “aristocrats” might argue about who should play the guiding role: technocratic and policy-oriented intellectuals, or bankers and corporate executives.

A normal country would be concerned by how it is viewed in the world. Certainly that would be true of a country committed to “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” to quote the Founding Fathers. But the United States is far from a normal country.

The ability to ignore unwanted facts is one of the prerogatives of unchallenged power.

A current example is the laments about the escalating Sunni-Shiite conflict that is tearing apart the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria.

The prevailing theme of U.S. commentary is that this strife is the terrible consequence of the withdrawal of American force from the region.

The opposite is more nearly correct. The roots of the conflict within Islam are many and varied, but it cannot be seriously denied that the split was significantly exacerbated by the American- and British-led invasion of Iraq. And it cannot be too often repeated that aggression was defined at the Nuremberg Trials as “the supreme international crime,” differing from others in that it encompasses all the evil that follows, including the current catastrophe.

A leading principle of international relations theory is that the state’s highest priority is to ensure security.

The proposition seems plausible, almost self-evident, until we look more closely and ask: Security for whom? For the general population? For state power itself?

Security for state power is at the high extreme, as illustrated by the efforts that states exert to protect themselves from the scrutiny of their own populations. In an interview on German TV, Edward J. Snowden said that his “breaking point” was “seeing Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, directly lie under oath to Congress” by denying the existence of a domestic spying program conducted by the National Security Agency.

There is, of course, a sense in which security is threatened by public awareness—namely, security of state power from exposure.

Often the attempt to maintain secrecy is motivated by the need to guarantee the security of powerful domestic sectors. One persistent example is the mislabeled “free trade agreements”—mislabeled because they radically violate free trade principles and are substantially not about trade at all, but rather about investor rights. These instruments are regularly negotiated in secret.

They aren’t secret from the hundreds of corporate lobbyists and lawyers who are writing the detailed provisions, with an impact revealed by the few parts that have reached the public * with the U.S. Trade Representative’s office “representing corporate interests,” not those of the public, “The likelihood that what emerges from the coming talks will serve ordinary Americans’ interests is low; the outlook for ordinary citizens in other countries is even bleaker.”

In the case of nuclear weapons, at least we know in principle how to overcome the threat of apocalypse: Eliminate them. But another dire peril casts its shadow over any contemplation of the future—environmental disaster.

Today the United States is crowing about “100 years of energy independence” as the country becomes “the Saudi Arabia of the next century”—very likely the final century of human civilization if current policies persist.

The corporate sector is carrying out major propaganda campaigns to convince the public that climate change, if happening at all, does not result from human activity. *

What are the prospects for survival then? They are not bright. But the achievements of those who have struggled for centuries for greater freedom and justice leave a legacy that can be taken up and carried forward—and must be, and soon, if hopes for decent survival are to be sustained. And nothing can tell us more eloquently what kind of creatures we * are.

The received standard version is that the primary goal of policy is security and defense against enemies. The doctrine at once suggests a few questions: Security for whom, and defense against which enemies? The answers are highlighted dramatically by the Snowden revelations. Policy must assure the security of state authority and concentrations of domestic power and defend them from a frightening enemy: the domestic population, which can become a great danger if not controlled.

To defend state power and private economic power from the domestic enemy, those two entities must be concealed—while in sharp contrast, the enemy must be fully exposed to state authority. *

Edward Snowden has become the most wanted criminal in the world for failing to comprehend this essential maxim. In brief, there must be complete transparency for the population, but none for the powers that must defend themselves from this fearsome internal enemy.

It is therefore a mistake to remind readers daily of the Nuremberg judgment. Aggression is no longer the “supreme international crime.” It cannot compare with destruction of the lives of future generations to ensure bigger bonuses tomorrow.

One index of human impact is the extinction of species, now estimated to be at about the same rate as it was 65 million years ago when an asteroid hit the Earth. That is the presumed cause for the ending of the age of the dinosaurs, which opened the way for small mammals to proliferate, and ultimately modern humans. Today, it is humans who are the asteroid, condemning much of life to extinction. The IPCC report reaffirms that the “vast majority” of known fuel reserves must be left in the ground to avert intolerable risks to future generations. Meanwhile the major energy corporations make no secret of their goal of exploiting these reserves and discovering new ones.