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Recently I read On Western Terrorism: from Hiroshima to Drone Warfare, published in 2013 by Pluto Press here in London, consisting of a series of conversations between Chomsky and the Czech filmmaker, journalist, and author, Andre Vltchek, who is now a naturalized American citizen. Vltchek in an illuminating Preface describes his long and close friendship with Chomsky and explains that these fascinating conversations took place over the course of two days, filmed with the intention of producing a documentary. The book is engaging throughout, with my only big complaint being about the misdirection of the title—there is virtually nothing said about either Hiroshima or drone warfare, but almost everything else politically imaginable!
Vltchek, previously unknown to me, consistently and calmly held his own during the conversations, speaking with comparable authority and knowledge about an extraordinary assortment of topics that embraced the entire global scene, something few of us would have the nerve to attempt, much less manage with such verve, insight, and empathy. After finishing the book my immediate reaction was that ‘Chomsky knows everything’ and ‘Vltchek has been everywhere and done everything.’ Omniscience and omnipresence are not often encountered, being primary attributes commonly attributed by theologians to a monotheistic god! Leaving aside this hyperbole, one is stunned throughout by the quality of the deep knowledge and compassion exhibited by these two public intellectuals, and even more by their deeply felt sympathy for all those being victimized as a result of the way in which the world is organized and Western hard power has been and is being deployed.
The book left me with a sense of how much that even those of us who try to be progressive and informed leave untouched, huge happenings taking place in domains beyond the borders of our consciousness. It suggests that almost all of us are ignoring massive injustices because they receive such scant attention from mainstream media and our access to alternative sources is too restricted. And, maybe also, our capacity for the intake of severe injustice is limited for most of us. The book is well worth reading just to grasp this gap between what we care about and what is actually worth caring about. Somehow, part of what is so amazing about this exposure to the range of concerns that preoccupy Chomsky and Vltchek is the degree to which their knowledge and ethical sensitivity seems so comprehensive without ever appearing to be superficial. How do they find the time, perseverance, and energy? Of course, it helps to be blessed with high intelligence, clarity of spirit, astonishing retentive gifts, and a seeming refusal to sleep, rest, and recreate (which was among the traits I found so intimidating long ago in Noam’s Vietnam writing, my first encounters with his political thought, having earlier been awed by his revolutionary linguistics approach).
While appearing to be on an equal footing throughout this dialogic text, Vltchek does acknowledge his reverential admiration for Chomsky, this extraordinary iconic American intellectual who has remained situated on the front lines of global critical debate for the past half century. In Vltchek’s words: “The way I saw it, we were fighting for the same cause, for the right of self-determination and real freedom for all people around the world. And we were fighting against colonialism and fascism, in whichever form it came.” “For Noam, fighting injustice seemed to be as natural as breathing. For me, it became both a great honor and great adventure to work with him.” (ix) Vltchek believes that the lines of inspiration beneath a photo of the great English scholar/seer/activitst, Betrand Russell that hangs on the wall in Chomsky’s MIT office are also descriptive of what drives Chomsky to such heights: “Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.” (vi, xv).
Vltchek shares with Chomsky an outlook that interprets the world on the basis of a deep structure of moral and political indictment directed at Western imperialism. Vltchek expresses this shared understanding clearly: “After witnessing and analyzing numerous atrocious conflicts, invasions and wars on all continents, I became convinced that almost all of them were orchestrated or provoked by Western geopolitical and economic interests.” (ix) The extent and gravity of the accusations is expressed statistically by Vltchek: “Along with the 55 million or so people killed as the direct result of wars initiated by the West, pro-Western coups and other conflicts, hundreds of millions have died indirectly in absolute misery, and silently.” (1) Chomsky agrees, wondering about which is the worst crime that should be attributed to the West, positing the destruction of the 80-100 indigenous people living in the Western Hemisphere before the European settlers arrived, as one option. In reflecting upon this, he abruptly shifts direction by observing that “we are moving toward what may in fact be the ultimate genocide—the destruction of the environment.”(2) Chomsky laments that despite the overwhelming evidence of this self-destructive momentum, the challenge continues to be largely ignored by the public and the government, even in the face of dire warnings from the scientific community. The capitalist obsession with profits and capital accumulation, combined with psycho-political control over the dissemination of knowledge in even the most democratic of societies, makes it almost impossible to ‘see’ these threatening dimensions of social, economic, and political reality.
In a sense these conversations are an extended intellectual journey through the cartography of victimization brought about by Western colonial and post-colonial undertakings. Vltchek says early on “Colonialism continues but it appears that it is much more difficult for local people to point the finger and say exactly what is happening and who their enemies are.” (6) Chomsky responds, “Some of the worst atrocities in the world have been committed over the last few years in the Eastern Congo. Three to five million people have been killed.” Aside from the magnitude of such a catastrophe what is so startling is its relative invisibility. This process of horrifying violence and unawareness is deeply troubling to both Chomsky and Vltchek. Chomsky repeatedly, and tellingly, refers to such victims as ‘un-people,’ those in non-Western realms whose death and suffering barely register on Western consciousness unless there are self-interested geopolitical reasons in a particular context to take non-Western suffering seriously. Both of these authors also view such tragedies as outcomes of global corporate greed, the struggle for control of Africa’s abundant natural resources leading these private sector actors to fund factions and militias that are out front, doing the fighting and killing. The true culprits hide behind curtains of evasion to remain invisible to the public. The media is shockingly complicit by reporting only on what is in view, avoiding critical investigative journalism. Chomsky and Vltchek help us to realize that an array of powerful forces are using their wealth and influence to prevent us from seeing. We are allowed to see only as much as the gatekeepers of the public mind want us to see, and yet we are not relieved from using our capacities for sight. Reading Chomsky and Vltchek removes the scales from our eyes, at least temporarily, as they have managed to elude these gatekeepers, but at considerable risk, with a display of moral courage, civic responsibility, and extraordinary intellectual energy. I learn a lesson in civics from their vigilance: as citizens of constitutional democracies we retain the freedom, and hence possess a heavy responsibility to see for ourselves what is being done in our name, and not being content by becoming informed about distant victimizations, but learning to heed above all those that are proximate, and once we see what is nearby, we have a responsibility to act.
Without venturing onto the terrain of ‘Orientalism’ the conversations are sensitive to what Chomsky refers to as “intellectual and moral colonization” that reinforces patterns of “political and economic colonization.” In this regard, he goes on to observe that “The main achievement of hierarchy and oppression is to get the un-people to accept that it’s natural.”(17) That is, to induce passivity and resignation among the ranks of the victimized. The moral consciousness of the perpetrators is also deliberately neutralized. When Chomsky inquires as to whether Europeans have “any consciousness of colonial history”, Vltchek responds: “No, grotesquely there is very little consciousness.” He adds that such ignorance is “shameful and revealing”. “Europeans make sure that they remain ignorant of their horrid crimes, about the genocides they committed and are still involved in. What do they know about what their governments and companies were and are doing in DR Congo?” (20)
But just as the devil resides in the details, so, too, do angels of perceptions, many of whom inhabit the pages of this book, and a few can be briefly mentioned here. The conversations weave a fabric of awareness that shifts back and forth between lamenting inattention and denial to the exposure of occurrences and realities that are unfamiliar yet crucially revealing. Without extending this commentary too much further, let me note some of the areas of agreement between Chomsky and Vltchek that corrected or collided with my own understanding. First, the comparison between China and India in which China is praised almost without reservation and India is condemned almost without qualification, surprisingly close to the approach taken by that arch conservative V.S. Naipaul [See Naipaul’s India, A Wounded Civilization (1977)] Their essential argument is that India is exceptionally cruel in its cultural practices, and has done relatively little to alleviate poverty, while China has made extraordinary progress that is spread widely throughout the country. Both confirm, contrary to Western propaganda and consistent with what I also experienced during a visit a year ago, that young university students in China seem fearless, raising sensitive controversial issues in public venues. In effect, India gets too much credit in the West because it possesses the trappings of liberal democracy, while China’s achievements are downplayed because socialist values are mixed with predatory capitalist practices. My own love of India has blinded, or at least numbed me, to the worst of India, and has consistently thrilled me with its cultural vibrancy and rich heritage, which included Gandhi and his incredible mobilization of a militant nonviolent challenge to the then still mighty British Empire.
The two conversationalists agree that the most encouraging political moves in the world from a progressive perspective have been made in Latin America. There are political experiments, as in Bolivia and Venezuela, that express the energies of a socialist populism with original regional and national features, and there is an encouraging set of hemispheric moves to repudiate the main signs of a crippling past dependency on the United States. Chomsky and Vltchek point out that in Latin America, and Asia, the United States has supported vicious and repressive political forces so as to secure the wealth generating interests of corporate America, personified by what might be called ‘the United Fruit Syndrome,’ or more popularly, the perpetuation of ‘banana republics.’ A telling argument made in the book is that the military dictatorships in Latin America that the U.S. helped install and sustain in the 1970s and 1980s were far more oppressive and exploitative of their populations than were the Stalinist governments in control of East Europe during the Cold War decades.
There is agreement among the authors that the heroes of the liberal establishment should be recast as villains. Two such exemplary individuals are Winston Churchill, reviled here for his criminal outlook toward African colonial peoples, and George Kennan, who is portrayed as a leading architect of the American global domination project put into operational form during the period of American ascendancy soon after World War II. Part of this exercise of demonization by Chomsky and Vltchek is to illustrate the mind games of liberal hegemonic ideology that treat such political luminaries as paragons of moral virtue. It continues the tradition of critical perception of the ruling elites that Chomsky so brilliantly set forth in American Power and The New Mandarins back in 1969.
Chomsky and Vltchek both persuasively accord great significance to the almost forgotten Indonesian massacre of 1965 in which more than a million people were sacrificed in a massive bloodbath designed to clear the way for a neoliberal takeover of the wealth producing capacity of the country. The governments of the United States and Australia have much blood on their hands in encouraging this atrocity, and its aftermath that included genocidal incidents in East Timor. The authors are negative about Asia other than China, supposing that it has swallowed a huge dose of poisonous cool aid called ‘neoliberalism.’
Such illustrative discussion just scratches the surface of these exceptionally perceptive conversations. It would be misleading to suggest that these two progressive interpreters of the whole world were in complete agreement. Chomsky is somewhat more tentative about developments in Turkey or in writing the obituary of the Arab Spring than is Vltchek, who seems less nuanced in some of his commentary. Chomsky welcomes improvements and positive trends, while Vltchek believes that only structural change can make a sufficient difference to bring real hope to oppressed peoples.
In a similar vein, Chomsky seems more convinced than in the past that keeping hope alive is almost a duty expressive of solidarity with those currently victimized. More than before, Chomsky is articulate about his view that without the belief that positive change is possible, there will be no challenge mounted against an intolerable status quo.
The book ends with Chomsky depicting two trajectories for the human future: either a continuation of ecological sleep leading to species suicide or an awakening to the ecological challenge, with accompanying improvements. (173) As Chomsky has aged, although far more gradually than is normal, he has somewhat mellowed, and seems less pessimistic and assured overall than when I first came to know him in the late 1960s. I would say that Chomsky’s maturity has endowed him wisdom that acts as a complement to his astonishing command over the specifics of the whole spectrum of political concerns. This substantive authoritativeness set him apart long ago as our foremost intellectual and most beloved commentator on the passing scene of world events, but now he has also become a ‘wise elder,’ and whose views of the world deserves the greatest respect from all of us.