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||| Confronting the Empire |||
Noam Chomsky

||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] |||
We are meeting at a moment of world history that is in many ways unique – a moment that is ominous, but also full of hope.

The most powerful state in history has proclaimed, loud and clear, that it intends to rule the world by force, the dimension in which it reigns supreme. Apart from the conventional bow to noble intentions that is the standard (hence meaningless) accompaniment of coercion, its leaders are committed to pursuit of their “imperial ambition,” as it is frankly described in the leading journal of the foreign policy establishment – critically, an important matter. They have also declared that they will tolerate no competitors, now or in the future. They evidently believe that the means of violence in their hands are so extraordinary that they can dismiss with contempt anyone who stands in their way. There is good reason to believe that the war with Iraq is intended, in part, to teach the world some lessons about what lies ahead when the empire decides to strike a blow - -- though “war” is hardly the proper term, given the array of forces.

The doctrine is not entirely new, nor unique to the US, but it has never before been proclaimed with such brazen arrogance – at least not by anyone we would care to remember.

I am not going to try to answer the question posed for this meeting: How to confront the empire. The reason is that most of you know the answers as well or better than I do, through your own lives and work. The way to “confront the empire” is to create a different world, one that is not based on violence and subjugation, hate and fear. That is why we are here, and the WSF [World Social Forum, Porto Alegre, Brazil] offers hope that these are not idle dreams.

Yesterday I had the rare privilege of seeing some very inspiring work to achieve these goals, at the international gathering of the Via Campesina at a community of the MST, which I think is the most important and exciting popular movement in the world. With constructive local actions such as those of the MST, and international organization of the kind illustrated by the Via Campesina and the WSF, with sympathy and solidarity and mutual aid, there is real hope for a decent future.

I have also had some other recent experiences that give a vivid picture of what the world may be like if imperial violence is not limited and dismantled. Last month I was in southeastern Turkey, the scene of some of the worst atrocities of the grisly 1990s, still continuing: just a few hours ago we were informed of renewed atrocities by the army near Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of the Kurdish regions. Through the 1990s, millions of people were driven out of the devastated countryside, with tens of thousands killed and every imaginable form of barbaric torture. They try to survive in caves outside the walls of Diyarbakir, in condemned buildings in miserable slums in Istanbul, or wherever they can find refuge, barred from returning to their villages despite new legislation that theoretically permits return. 80% of the weapons came from the US. In the year 1997 alone, Clinton sent more arms to Turkey than in the entire Cold War period combined up to the onset of the state terror campaign – called “counterterror” by the perpetrators and their supporters, another convention. Turkey became the leading recipient of US arms as atrocities peaked (apart from Israel-Egypt, a separate category).

In 1999, Turkey relinquished this position to Colombia. The reason is that in Turkey, US-backed state terror had largely succeeded, while in Colombia it had not. Colombia had the worst human rights record in the Western hemisphere in the 1990s and was by far the leading recipient of US arms and military training, and now leads the world. It also leads the world by other measures, for example, murder of labor activists: more than half of those killed worldwide in the last decade were in Colombia. Close to one half-million people were driven from their land last year, a new record. The displaced population is now estimated at 2.7 million. Political killings have risen to 20 a day; 5 years ago it was half that.

I visited Cauca in southern Colombia, which had the worst human rights record in the country in 2001, quite an achievement. There I listened to hours of testimony by peasants who were driven from their lands by chemical warfare – called “fumigation” under the pretext of a US-run “drug war” that few take seriously and that would be obscene if that were the intent. Their lives and lands are destroyed, children are dying, they suffer from sickness and wounds. Peasant agriculture is based on a rich tradition of knowledge and experience gained over many centuries, in much of the world passed on from mother to daughter. Though a remarkable human achievement, it is very fragile, and can be destroyed forever in a single generation. Also being destroyed is some of the richest biodiversity in the world, similar to neighboring regions of Brazil. Campesinos, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians can join the millions in rotting slums and camps. With the people gone, multinationals can come in to strip the mountains for coal and to extract oil and other resources, and to convert what is left of the land to monocrop agroexport using laboratory-produced seeds in an environment shorn of its treasures and variety.

The scenes in Cauca and Southeastern Turkey are very different from the celebrations of the Via Campesina gathering at the MST community. But Turkey and Colombia are inspiring and hopeful in different ways, because of the courage and dedication of people struggling for justice and freedom, confronting the empire where it is killing and destroying.

These are some of the signs of the future if “imperial ambition” proceeds on its normal course, now to be accelerated by the grand strategy of global rule by force. None of this is inevitable, and among the good models for ending these crimes are the ones I mentioned: the MST, the Via Campesina, and the WSF.

At the WSF, the range of issues and problems under intense discussion is very broad, remarkably so, but I think we can identify two main themes. One is global justice and Life after Capitalism – or to put it more simply, life, because it is not so clear that the human species can survive very long under existing state capitalist institutions. The second theme is related: war and peace, and more specifically, the war in Iraq that Washington and London are desperately seeking to carry out, virtually alone.

Let’s start with some good news about these basic themes. As you know, there is also a conference of the World Economic Forum going on right now, in Davos. Here in Porto Alegre, the mood is hopeful, vigorous, exciting. In Davos, the New York Times tells us, “the mood has darkened.” For the “movers and shakers,” it is not “global party time” any more. In fact, the founder of the Forum has conceded defeat: “The power of corporations has completely disappeared,” he said. So we have won. There is nothing left for us to do but pick up the pieces -- not only to talk about a vision of the future that is just and humane, but to move on to create it.

Of course, we should not let the praise go to our heads. There are still a few difficulties ahead.

The main theme of the WEF is “Building Trust.” There is a reason for that. The “masters of the universe,” as they liked to call themselves in more exuberant days, know that they are in serious trouble. They recently released a poll showing that trust in leaders has severely declined. Only the leaders of NGOs had the trust of a clear majority, followed by UN and spiritual/religious leaders, then leaders of Western Europe and economic managers, below them corporate executives, and well below them, at the bottom, leaders of the US, with about 25% trust. That may well mean virtually no trust: when people are asked whether they trust leaders with power, they usually say “Yes,” out of habit.

It gets worse. A few days ago a poll in Canada found that over 1/3 of the population regard the US as the greatest threat to world peace. The US ranks more than twice as high as Iraq or North Korea, and far higher than al-Qaeda as well. A poll without careful controls, by Time magazine, found that over 80% of respondents in Europe regarded the US as the greatest threat to world peace, compared with less than 10% for Iraq or North Korea. Even if these numbers are wrong by some substantial factor, they are dramatic.

Without going on, the corporate leaders who paid $30,000 to attend the somber meetings in Davos have good reasons to take as their theme: “Building Trust.”

The coming war with Iraq is undoubtedly contributing to these interesting and important developments. Opposition to the war is completely without historical precedent. In Europe it is so high that Secretary of “Defense” Donald Rumsfeld dismissed Germany and France as just the “old Europe,” plainly of no concern because of their disobedience. The “vast numbers of other countries in Europe [are] with the United States,” he assured foreign journalists. These vast numbers are the “new Europe,” symbolized by Italy’s Berlusconi, soon to visit the White House, praying that he will be invited to be the third of the “three B’s”: Bush-Blair-Berlusconi – assuming that he can stay out of jail. Italy is on board, the White House tells us. It is apparently not a problem that over 80% of the public is opposed to the war, according to recent polls. That just shows that the people of Italy also belong to the “old Europe,” and can be sent to the ashcan of history along with France and Germany, and others who do not know their place.

Spain is hailed as another prominent member of the new Europe -- with 75% totally opposed to the war, according to an international Gallup poll. According to the leading foreign policy analyst of Newsweek, pretty much the same is true of the most hopeful part of the new Europe, the former Communist countries that are counted on (quite openly) to serve US interests and undermine Europe’s despised social market and welfare states. He reports that in Czechoslovakia, 2/3 of the population oppose participation in a war, while in Poland only ¼ would support a war even if the UN inspectors “prove that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction.” The Polish press reports 37% approval in this case, still extremely low, at the heart of the “new Europe.”

New Europe soon identified itself in an open letter in the Wall Street Journal: along with Italy, Spain, Poland and Czechoslovakia – the leaders, that is, not the people – it includes Denmark (with popular opinion on the war about the same as Germany, therefore “old Europe”), Portugal (53% opposed to war under any circumstances, 96% opposed to war by the US and its allies unilaterally), Britain (40% opposed to war under any circumstances, 90% opposed to war by the US and its allies unilaterally), and Hungary (no figures available).

In brief, the exciting “new Europe” consists of some leaders who are willing to defy their populations.

Old Europe reacted with some annoyance to Rumsfeld’s declaration that they are “problem” countries, not modern states. Their reaction was explained by thoughtful US commentators. Keeping just to the national press, we learn that “world-weary European allies” do not appreciate the “moral rectitude” of the President. The evidence for his “moral rectitude” is that “his advisors say the evangelical zeal” comes directly from the simple man who is dedicated to driving evil from the world. Since that is surely the most reliable and objective evidence that can be imagined, it would be improper to express slight skepticism, let alone to react as we would to similar performances by others. The cynical Europeans, we are told, misinterpret Bush’s purity of soul as “moral naiveté” – without a thought that the administration’s PR specialists might have a hand in creating imagery that will sell. We are informed further that there is a great divide between world-weary Europe and the “idealistic New World bent on ending inhumanity." That this is the driving purpose of the idealistic New World we also know for certain, because so our leaders proclaim. What more in the way of proof could one seek?

The rare mention of public opinion in the new Europe treats it as a problem of marketing; the product being sold is necessarily right and honorable, given its source. The willingness of the leaders of the new Europe to prefer Washington to their own populations “threatens to isolate the Germans and French,” who are exhibiting retrograde democratic tendencies, and shows that Germany and France cannot “say that they are speaking for Europe.” They are merely speaking for the people of old and new Europe, who – the same commentators acknowledge -- express “strong opposition” to the policies of the new Europe.

The official pronouncements and the reaction to them are illuminating. They demonstrate with some clarity the contempt for democracy that is rather typical, historically, among those who feel that they rule the world by right.

There are many other illustrations. When German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder dared to take the position of the overwhelming majority of voters in the last election, that was described as a shocking failure of leadership, a serious problem that Germany must overcome if it wants to be accepted in the civilized world. The problem lies with Germany, not elites of the Anglo-American democracies. Germany’s problem is that “the government lives in fear of the voters, and that is causing it to make mistake after mistake” – this from the spokesperson for the right-wing Christian Social Union party, who understands the real nature of democracy.

The case of Turkey is even more revealing. As throughout the region, Turks are very strongly opposed to the war – about 90% according to the most recent polls. And so far the government has irresponsibly paid some attention to the people who elected it. It has not bowed completely to the intense pressure and threats that Washington is exerting to compel it to heed the master’s voice. This reluctance of the elected government to follow orders from on high proves that its leaders are not true democrats. For those who may be too dull to comprehend these subtleties, they are explained by former Ambassador to Turkey Morton Abramowitz, now a distinguished senior statesman and commentator. Ten years ago, he explained, Turkey was governed by a real democrat, Turgut Ozal, who “overrode his countrymen’s pronounced preference to stay out of the Gulf war.” But democracy has declined in Turkey. The current leadership “is following the people,” revealing its lack of “democratic credentials.” “Regrettably,” he says, “for the US there is no Ozal around.” So it will be necessary to bring authentic democracy to Turkey by economic strangulation and other coercive means – regrettably, but that is demanded by what the elite press calls our “yearning for democracy.”

Brazil is witnessing another exercise of the real attitudes towards democracy among the masters of the universe. In the most free election in the hemisphere, a large majority voted for policies that are strongly opposed by international finance and investors, by the IMF and the US Treasury Department. In earlier years, that would have been the signal for a military coup installing a murderous National Security State, as in Brazil 40 years ago. Now that will not work; the populations of South and North have changed, and will not easily tolerate it. Furthermore, there are now simpler ways to undermine the will of the people, thanks to the neoliberal instruments that have been put in place: economic controls, capital flight, attacks on currency, privatization, and other devices that are well-designed to reduce the arena of popular choice. These, it is hoped, may compel the government to follow the dictates of what international economists call the “virtual parliament” of investors and lenders, who make the real decisions, coercing the population, an irrelevant nuisance according to the reigning principles of democracy.

When I was just about to leave for the airport I received another of the many inquiries from the press about why there is so little anti-war protest in the US. The impressions are instructive. In fact, protest in the US, as elsewhere, is also at levels that have no historical precedent. Not just demonstrations, teach-ins, and other public events. To take an example of a different kind, last week the Chicago City Council passed an anti-war resolution, 46-1, joining 50 other cities and towns. The same is true in other sectors, including those that are the most highly trusted, as the WEF learned to its dismay: NGOs and religious organizations and figures, with few exceptions. Several months ago the biggest university in the country passed a strong antiwar resolution – the University of Texas, right next door to George W’s ranch. And it’s easy to continue.

So why the widespread judgment among elites that the tradition of dissent and protest has died? Invariably, comparisons are drawn to Vietnam, a very revealing fact. We have just passed the 40th anniversary of the public announcement that the Kennedy administration was sending the US Air Force to bomb South Vietnam, also initiating plans to drive millions of people into concentration camps and chemical warfare programs to destroy food crops. There was no pretext of defense, except in the sense of official rhetoric: defense against the "internal aggression" of South Vietnamese in South Vietnam and their "assault from the inside" (President Kennedy and his UN Ambassador, Adlai Stevenson). Protest was non-existent. It did not reach any meaningful level for several years. By that time hundreds of thousands of US troops had joined the occupying army, densely-populated areas were being demolished by saturation bombing, and the aggression had spread to the rest of Indochina. Protest among elite intellectuals kept primarily to “pragmatic grounds”: the war was a “mistake” that was becoming too costly to the US. In sharp contrast, by the late 1960s the great majority of the public had come to oppose the war as “fundamentally wrong and immoral,” not “a mistake,” figures that hold steady until the present.

Today, in dramatic contrast to the 1960s, there is large-scale, committed, and principled popular protest all over the US before the war has been officially launched. That reflects a steady increase over these years in unwillingness to tolerate aggression and atrocities, one of many such changes, worldwide in fact. That’s part of the background for what is taking place in Porto Alegre, and part of the reason for the gloom in Davos.

The political leadership is well aware of these developments. When a new administration comes into office, it receives a review of the world situation compiled by the intelligence agencies. It is secret; we learn about these things many years later. But when Bush #1 came into office in 1989, a small part of the review was leaked, a passage concerned with “cases where the U.S. confronts much weaker enemies” – the only kind one would think of fighting. Intelligence analysts advised that in conflicts with “much weaker enemies” the US must win “decisively and rapidly,” or popular support will collapse. It’s not like the 1960s, when the population would tolerate a murderous and destructive war for years without visible protest. That’s no longer true. The activist movements of the past 40 years have had a significant civilizing effect. By now, the only way to attack a much weaker enemy is to construct a huge propaganda offensive depicting it as about to commit genocide, maybe even a threat to our very survival, then to celebrate a miraculous victory over the awesome foe, while chanting praises to the courageous leaders who came to the rescue just in time.

That is the current scenario in Iraq.

||| [part 1] ||| [part 2] |||

This article appeared in Wild Greens February issue. Wild Greens is an online resource of green, political and direct action articles.

Also available on Znet, 'A community of people committed to social change', which is an enormous library of online articles.
Noam Chomsky is one of America's most prominent political dissidents. A renowned professor of linguistics at MIT, he has authored over 30 political books dissecting such issues as U.S. interventionism in the developing world, the political economy of human rights and the propaganda role of corporate media.

Znet hosts a Noam Chomsky Archive. A brief biography is available at Noam Chomsky's MIT home page.

Happy War

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