Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Noam Chomsky, The Responsibility of Intellectuals (1966) // Apoorvanand - This false dawn: Modi regime’s obsession with the ‘new’ and ‘historic’

Noam ChomskyThe Responsibility of Intellectuals (1966)

IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious.

TWENTY-YEARS AGO, Dwight Macdonald published a series of articles in Politics on the responsibility of peoples and, specifically, the responsibility of intellectuals. I read them as an undergraduate, in the years just after the war, and had occasion to read them again a few months ago. They seem to me to have lost none of their power or persuasiveness. Macdonald is concerned with the question of war guilt. He asks the question: To what extent were the German or Japanese people responsible for the atrocities committed by their governments? And, quite properly, he turns the question back to us: To what extent are the British or American people responsible for the vicious terror bombings of civilians, perfected as a technique of warfare by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, surely among the most unspeakable crimes in history. To an undergraduate in 1945-46—to anyone whose political and moral consciousness had been formed by the horrors of the 1930s, by the war in Ethiopia, the Russian purge, the “China Incident,” the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi atrocities, the Western reaction to these events and, in part, complicity in them—these questions had particular significance and poignancy.

With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.

The issues that Macdonald raised are as pertinent today as they were twenty years ago. We can hardly avoid asking ourselves to what extent the American people bear responsibility for the savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population in Vietnam, still another atrocity in what Asians see as the “Vasco da Gama era” of world history. As for those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as this catastrophe slowly took shape over the past dozen years—on what page of history do we find our proper place? Only the most insensible can escape these questions. I want to return to them, later on, after a few scattered remarks about the responsibility of intellectuals and how, in practice, they go about meeting this responsibility in the mid-1960s.

IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious. Thus we have Martin Heidegger writing, in a pro-Hitler declaration of 1933, that “truth is the revelation of that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong in its action and knowledge”; it is only this kind of “truth” that one has a responsibility to speak. Americans tend to be more forthright. When Arthur Schlesinger was asked by The New York Times in November, 1965, to explain the contradiction between his published account of the Bay of Pigs incident and the story he had given the press at the time of the attack, he simply remarked that he had lied; and a few days later, he went on to compliment the Times for also having suppressed information on the planned invasion, in “the national interest,” as this term was defined by the group of arrogant and deluded men of whom Schlesinger gives such a flattering portrait in his recent account of the Kennedy Administration. It is of no particular interest that one man is quite happy to lie in behalf of a cause which he knows to be unjust; but it is significant that such events provoke so little response in the intellectual community—for example, no one has said that there is something strange in the offer of a major chair in the humanities to a historian who feels it to be his duty to persuade the world that an American-sponsored invasion of a nearby country is nothing of the sort. 

And what of the incredible sequence of lies on the part of our government and its spokesmen concerning such matters as negotiations in Vietnam? The facts are known to all who care to know. The press, foreign and domestic, has presented documentation to refute each falsehood as it appears. But the power of the government’s propaganda apparatus is such that the citizen who does not undertake a research project on the subject can hardly hope to confront government pronouncements with fact.[1]

The deceit and distortion surrounding the American invasion of Vietnam is by now so familiar that it has lost its power to shock. It is therefore useful to recall that although new levels of cynicism are constantly being reached, their clear antecedents were accepted at home with quiet toleration. It is a useful exercise to compare Government statements at the time of the invasion of Guatemala in 1954 with Eisenhower’s admission—to be more accurate, his boast—a decade later that American planes were sent “to help the invaders” (New York Times, October 14, 1965). Nor is it only in moments of crisis that duplicity is considered perfectly in order. “New Frontiersmen,” for example, have scarcely distinguished themselves by a passionate concern for historical accuracy, even when they are not being called upon to provide a “propaganda cover” for ongoing actions. For example, Arthur Schlesinger (New York Times, February 6, 1966) describes the bombing of North Vietnam and the massive escalation of military commitment in early 1965 as based on a “perfectly rational argument”:

so long as the Vietcong thought they were going to win the war, they obviously would not be interested in any kind of negotiated settlement.

The date is important. Had this statement been made six months earlier, one could attribute it to ignorance. But this statement appeared after the UN, North Vietnamese, and Soviet initiatives had been front-page news for months. It was already public knowledge that these initiatives had preceded the escalation of February 1965 and, in fact, continued for several weeks after the bombing began. Correspondents in Washington tried desperately to find some explanation for the startling deception that had been revealed. Chalmers Roberts, for example, wrote in the Boston Globe on November 19 with unconscious irony:

[late February, 1965] hardly seemed to Washington to be a propitious moment for negotiations [since] Mr. Johnson…had just ordered the first bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to bring Hanoi to a conference table where the bargaining chips on both sides would be more closely matched.

Coming at that moment, Schlesinger’s statement is less an example of deceit than of contempt—contempt for an audience that can be expected to tolerate such behavior with silence, if not approval.[2].. read more:  

Apoorvanand - This false dawn: Modi regime’s obsession with the ‘new’ and ‘historic’

“Pradhan mantri ke vision se suryast suryoday mein badal gaya hai, raat ho rahi hai lekin hum dekh rahe hain ek nayi subah (The prime minister’s vision has turned sunset into sunrise, night is falling but we are watching a new dawn)”

This is how Doordarshan chose to describe the advent of a new era under the leadership of a prime minister who continues to remain new even after two years in office. Pradhan mantri chairman and the sentence assumes a familiarity, at least for those who are steeped in the Stalinist or Maoist political culture. Everything in Maoist China had to be informed by the vision of the chairman or was worthless. Similarly, in the Soviet Union, for any idea to be valued it needed to bear the Stalin stamp.

The sheer obsession with the adjective “new” or “historic” also takes one back to the days of these two “greats” of history, who were red and not saffron. Stalin wanted to engineer the souls of his dear people to carve a “new man” and a new society out of them.

For a new to be created, the old has to be destroyed. The appeal for the new thus becomes the legitimiser of the death of the old. The only problem is that the old lingers on in many forms and threatens to sabotage the project of building the new. So, its residuals need to identified through a campaign and destroyed completely. The old is also made synonymous with the elite.

When Chairman Mao gave a call to the Chinese people, it was the youth he mainly addressed. The Cultural Revolution in China started on May 16 fifty years ago which, again in one of the ironies of history, is the date when a new “revolution” started in India two years back. Chairman Mao divided his people into two categories: One belonged the revolutionary masses and the other a part of the old privileged elite, remnants of the past, who needed to be weeded out. Mao called for a protracted revolution. It was called cultural as it sought to change the way people lived, their notion of relationships and transform them from individuals to soldiers of a great mission.

Such regimes confer the title of the real or true people on one set of the masses, who are then unleashed on the other who are termed enemies of the people or non-people. Mao’s cultural revolution or Stalin’s purge witnessed people voluntarily participating in not only eliminating the enemies but also creating them. Such non-people ranged from school teachers to entrepreneurs, doctors to cultural workers, scientists and researchers, homosexuals and Jews or simply “non-productive” people. Children reported on their parents and teachers and participated in their public humiliation and, in most cases, organised their killing.

The list of non-people officially sanctioned and promoted by the new regime of India is growing: “Terrorists”, “love jihadis”, “beefeaters”, “religious converters”, “infiltrators” and, finally, “anti-nationals” or “saboteurs”. A more neat division was suggested by the prime minister on May 26. “I can say there is development on one side and obstructionism on the other. The people will choose which side to choose, that I firmly believe,” he said. The trust in the intelligence of the people is touching.

The horrifyingly interesting part of the Cultural Revolution was it gave a sense of agency to people who were, in fact, conforming to the orders of the leader. Power was handed over to the ordinary masses who craved for it and which they exercised on the obstructionists or anti-nationals. People did not have the luxury of not choosing their side. Else, they became suspects.

The rush to join the officially sanctioned category of the people does not have anything to do with a particular ideology. Germans, Russians, Chinese, Americans, Israeli, have been complicit in the crimes their leaders unleashed on fellow beings. Even the persecuted offer themselves. They self-denounce and seek purification. The joy of disempowering your neighbour always pushes human goodness to a dark corner. It is revived only after the departure of the bully from the scene. 

The narratives of the red guards of the Cultural Revolution, or the veterans of the Vietnam war or Israeli combatants reveal the scale of moral devastation all of them have gone through. There are people, however, who are in the job of intellection, who can see through the game. They alert the people to the danger of loss of humanity. Maxim Gorky did it in the heyday of the Bolshevik Revolution when he condemned Lenin for turning the working masses into murderers and immoral morons. Lenin nudged off Gorky to Italy. Others were not so lucky. Ironically, Gorky later returned to the Soviet Union to work with Stalin. Denunciation of intellectualism and disinterested scholarship is thus one of the main features of such drives. Masses are pitted against intellectuals, who are portrayed as parasites who must be made to do real work.

The May 16 circular of Mao, which became the manifesto of the Cultural Revolution, said, “This concept which makes no class distinction on academic matters is also very wrong. The truth on academic questions, the truth of Marxism-Leninism, of Mao Zedong’s thought — which the proletariat has grasped — has already far surpassed and beaten the bourgeoisie. The formulation in the outline shows that its authors laud the so-called academic authorities of the bourgeoisie and try to boost their prestige, and that they hate and repress the militant newborn forces representative of the proletariat in academic circles.” There is nothing then that remains as scholarship or professionalism.

China is now the envy of the developed world. But it is a deeply wounded society. A witness of the Cultural Revolution says it turned the country into a moral wasteland. The memory of the sense of powerlessness of their victims gnaws at the hearts of the former red guards of the Chinese revolution. Will their lost humanity be ever restored? This question came to me when I read Professor Bandukwala in this newspaper and felt his sense of helplessness, when he says he forgives to hope. He knows it well that there is no one seeking forgiveness and, therefore, his offer has no value. But by doing so, he is desperately trying to claim the power of humanity for himself. It is a pathetic sight. How much time would Bandukwala’s tormentors need to realise that by making people like him powerless they were in fact robbing themselves of their humanity?

Such realisation on part of the tormentors is not easy, as journalist John Pilger tells us. He writes: “The breathtaking record of perfidy is so mutated in the public mind, wrote the late Harold Pinter, that it “never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. It didn’t matter…”. Pinter expressed a mock admiration for what he called “a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis”.

Let us examine ourselves: Are we in the spell of hypnosis?