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 A Set of Chomsky Posts
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All entered on June 8, 1999 
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Participating Commentary writers so far include Albert, Bernard, Bohmer, Bronski, Cagan, Carter, Chomsky, Dominick, Ehrenreich, Gonsalves, Hahnel, Mokhiber, Peters, Reinhart, Shah, Shalom, Weissman, Wise, and Zinn. These posts from Chomsky are indicative of his participation...


Teresa, on the (you're right) flat-out contradiction in the reporting of the indictment of Milosevic and associates.

There was one plain fact, and a government claim that was inconsistent with it. The plain fact was that the indictment was rushed through with unusual speed and relying on US/UK intelligence of a kind that had previously been withheld. The claim was from the Clinton Administration: that they were concerned that the speed and timing of the indictment might harm delicate negotiations. The fact was reported, but the claim also had to be upheld and defended. Ergo, contradiction.

There were some other facts too. The indictment happened to be issued just as Soviet envoy Chernomyrdin was due to visit Belgrade, to expedite negotiations, naturally severely compromising his mission, as widely reported. Furthermore, NATO picked the day of his announced visit and of the indictment to launch its heaviest air raids, with the same obvious effect.

All of this leaves two possibilities: (1) amazing coincidences and an administration verging on insanity; (2) a standard ploy when faced with negotiations, either by circumstances or by choice: wave a fist in the face of your opponents, in the hope that they'll back down.

There's a long record of (2). A dedicated search might come up with cases of (1), but they don't instantly come to mind.

As for who calls the shots at the Court, the prosecutor and the US government are adamant that the Court is completely independent and subject to no political pressure -- this, in the face of the open admission that unprecedented information was rushed to the prosecutor by the bombers with unprecedented speed, and instantly acted upon -- as distinct, say, from the perpetrators of the largest single previous ethnic cleansing operation in the Balkans war, the (US-backed) expulsion of Serbs from Krajina.

One can draw one's own conclusions.

One can also draw some conclusions about the whole process by taking note of the attitude of the US government to independent tribunals. There are two countries that have rejected World Court judgments: Iran and guess who. There is one country that has vetoed a Security Council resolution calling on all states to observe international law. The same country also strenuously opposed an international war crimes Court not restricted to designated enemies (as in this case). In the case brought by Yugoslavia against NATO members at the Hague, the Court decided that it had no jurisdiction with regard to the US, which had presented an airtight argument to prove that point. The US case, in toto, was that (1) the Court has jurisdiction only when all parties agree; (2) when the US signed the genocide convention (under which charges were brought) it added a reservation exempting itself from the convention. QED. It might be added that the same reservation is added to all treaties and enabling conventions for Human Rights. That tells us something about the august solemnity and dignity of the proceedings -- that is, if we wish to learn.

With regard to negotiations, the indictment perhaps steered them in directions favored by the US/UK. Hard to judge.

None of this relates to the UN, directly at least.

It's sometime argued that these trials are tainted by "victor's justice." They are, but so are their precedents, Nuremberg and (particularly) Tokyo. And in quite ugly ways.


Glenn Bassett, on several arguments regarding elite motives.

1. On the "threat of a good example," there is ample documentary evidence, not for every case of intervention and subversion, but for many. Also, it makes good sense: it's the authentic domino theory, and hardly unreasonable. The observation that the particular target offers no profits, etc., is irrelevant. Guatemala, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, Grenada,... could have disappeared off the map without a ripple in the US economy. But consider the impact of "the spread of the Castro idea of taking matters into one's own hands," in a continent where "The distribution of land and other forms of national wealth greatly favors the propertied classes...[and] The poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the example of the Cuban revolution, are now demanding opportunities for a decent living." These secret assessments of the incoming Kennedy administration are duplicated case after case. To ridicule them in the manner you cite is simply to assert, loud and clear: "I DON'T WANT TO UNDERSTAND."

Is it madness as your correspondent suggests? There is a way to evaluate that thesis. Madness leads to erratic behavior, which only by extraordinary accident has beneficial consequences for those who suffer from it. What have the consequences of policy choices been for US decision-makers and the institutions from which they come and to which they return?

Carpet bombing Cambodia was far from madness. It was quite rational slaughter. No time here to trace the history, but it goes back to US efforts in 1958 to overthrow the neutralist government of Cambodia and to install elements that would support US power in the region, part of a general subversion campaign throughout the region (notably Laos and Indonesia, and of course South Vietnam). Matters developed then in an ugly but rational course until the mass slaughter of the early '70s, part of the general effort to prevent a domino effect that might sweep across the region from Indochina, reaching even Indonesia -- which is why, retrospectively McGeorge Bundy observed that the US might have been wise to terminate its wars in Indochina after Indonesia had been immunized from infection by Suharto's bloody murders in 1965. If your correspondent thinks these things didn't happen, or that US elites were "mad" to carry them out (while gaining from them enormously), it would be interesting to hear the reasons.

Chomsky "tends to talk in a conspiratorial way about 'interests.' His one-size -fits-all thesis is not always very clear, and I think he ascribes more rationality to global imperialism - in both its financial and its political aspects - than it really has."

Can't comment on that, and don't regard it as "rational criticism," any more than comparable comments about anyone else, which amount to nothing more than random mudslinging. Do you perceive an argument there that could be addressed?

The comments about revolution and Nicaragua might be appropriate in response to what your correspondent aptly calls "twaddle." It's very easy to invent twaddle, to attribute it to some enemy ("the left," "the right," whatever), and then to refute it. It's harder to deal with the arguments and evidence that are actually presented. When that is done, the charges will be worth taking seriously.



Arun Varma, asking whether the village development projects I visited in India might have been rewarded/punished by the government for their votes.

Good question, but I don't know enough to judge. On Darjeeling, never came up, I'm afraid.


Willie Arnold, asks for comment on my "formal education" and its consequences, and on how one can attain "skills to learn and develop that would make one a powerful intellectual citizen."

My formal education was pretty informal. I went to a standard High School. Before that it was a Deweyite experimental school. In college and after I had no identifiable career or organized education. And came out with no particular professional credentials (and still don't have any, really). About how to attain skills, my own feeling is that they are mostly inside us, but like other talents they won't flourish without use, experiment, searching,... -- all things that any of us are capable of doing, though many unfortunately lack the opportunity. Beyond that, I don't know of any methods.



JR asks for more detail on "identifying the structure of power of an institution." What questions need to be asked? What can or cannot be deduced about countries, internal freedom, other things?

I'm afraid the question is far too broad to answer. To figure out how some institution works, you ask who makes decisions within it, and how they come to have that power as distinct from others. There are as many different kinds of answers as there are kinds of institutions. If you're thinking, say, of the US, you ask why decision-makers in the state executive tend to be from the few major law firms that cater to corporate interests rather than, say, carpenters or high school history teachers. You ask whether your decisions and those of General Electric have equal impact on how state decisions are made. And if not, why not. At a general level, the answers are not very hard to find. If one is interested in details, you have to look. There are many useful studies, e.g., Gabriel Kolko's "Wealth and Power in America," Thomas Ferguson's "Golden Rule," many others.



Christopher asks how much control the US has over NATO. Is the current war a NATO war or a US war? Is it true, as history classes teach, that "NATO was created to protect the little guy." Was it created "as a tool for the US to use to coerce."

One can't assign a number to the control over NATO by the US versus, say, Italy. But is there really a question? In the current war, did Italy pressure the US into it, or conversely? Would Rome's objections and Washington's be comparable in influence? As to the establishment of NATO, we know without question that it was a US initiative, US-directed and funded, and operating largely at US will. As for the goals, in a few sentences I could state an opinion, but to make a meaningful comment requires a lot more than a few sentences. If the goal was "to protect the little guy," can you think of cases were NATO has been employed to harm major corporate interests? How is it being used right now? Thus some of the worst ethnic cleansing and atrocities in the '90s have been taking place right within NATO itself? How has NATO reacted? By helping the little guys who are being driven out of their burned villages, tortured and burned to death,...? Or by increasing the flow of arms to the NATO army that is conducting these atrocities against its own population?

In general, to answer the question you have to look at actual history. Slogans are easy, but not helpful.


Milutin, on Kashmir and where the current escalation of fighting is leading, and what role/interest the US and other powerful countries have.

This is a bitter conflict that has been raging ever since the British partition of India. Both India and Pakistan lay claims to the territory, and there have been several major wars over it along with constant battles of the kind flaring up now. For many years the US was arming both sides (Robert McMahon wrote one of the standard studies). There was an entanglement in Cold War conflicts as the US backed Pakistan while India had a complex relation with both blocs. China has tended to back Pakistan and oppose India, often violently. Right now I assume that the major powers would like to see the issue resolved before it blows up the region -- and since they are nuclear powers, maybe more. Any kind of resolution will have to involve at least a significant measure of self-determination, but that looks like a remote prospect. It's ugly, and dangerous.


Lenny Abrahamson, notes a tension between two aspects of my "analysis of US/NATO motives in the Balkans": (1) turbulence in the Balkans (as distinct, say, from Sierra Leone) is a direct threat to US and European elite interests so that order must be restored; (2) Planners were well aware that a likely consequence of their actions would be "a huge increase in the number of refugees and so on," and the (surely anticipated) danger "of destabilizing neighboring countries." "Is it simply that the predictable escalation is viewed as an initial phase which must give way to the desired outcome if US/NATO policy continues to be brutally enforced" and that "the current policy would have the advantage of getting the elites the result they want while at the same time further weakening the UN and establishing NATO's credentials as the global strongman?"

That seems to me like a sound argument. Turbulence in the region is dangerous and has to be controlled, particularly if there is a threat that a dominant regional power will emerge that won't be easily controlled. One standard method is to support the strongest forces (in this case Serbia) in suppression -- e.g., the Turkish solution, right next door. That's ruled out: Turkey is a pliable client state, but Serbia, whatever one thinks of it, is one of the last islands of independence from US power within the region. The UN is ruled out because it is not under effective US control. NATO is preferable because, for obvious reasons, it is under heavy US control. The use of force is a natural choice for those who have a monopoly of force. True, the use of force is likely to lead to atrocities, refugee generation, destabilization elsewhere, but there's always plenty more in reserve and if necessary, a Carthaginian solution is possible too. And then there are the side benefits you mention, which are very real and supplemented by others, e.g., the one constantly stressed by Clinton, Blair, etc.: establishing the "credibility" of NATO (meaning not Italy, but the US and its attack dog). Any Mafia Don can explain what that means.

You're right that there is a possibility that the situation won't be contained, but that's presumably not considered very great, given the balance of forces.

I don't think it follows like a theorem of arithmetic, but it's not an irrational course of action for those who seek to control the global system, and have the means to do it.


Roderick Ward, on a gross error introduced by copy-editors into what was originally a Znet webpost (March 27) when an edited version was excerpted in Harper's -- the change of "possibly 10s of thousands killed" by Turkey in its US-backed ethnic cleansing operations of the '90s to "two million killed."

The journal was informed of the error, and is to run a correction in its next issue (and, presumably, on its website, but I haven't checked). I don't know what led a copy-editor to introduce that change. I rather suspect that the figure of "two million" is floating around in the back of consciousness from propaganda concocted in 1977 about the Khmer Rouge, often repeated since. But that's a guess. It was plainly highly improper. Copy editors are not supposed to change the content of an article when a final version has been agreed on between the editors and the author. This wasn't the only change, incidentally, and this is by no means the only journal where such things happen -- to this very article, for example, which has been published in many places around the world, sometimes very accurately (e.g., Le Monde diplomatique, not to be confused with Le Monde), sometimes with serious errors introduced.



Graeme Jones on an interview of mine on BBC which included words to the effect that "socialism is a vehicle for the purpose of furthering humanity's spiritual evolution."

Don't recall the interview, or the words, but it sounds as though I might have been quoting (maybe) Bertrand Russell or (maybe more likely) Rosa Luxemburg, one of those who spoke eloquently, and I think convincingly, about authentic socialism both requiring and contributing to a significant spiritual transformation -- meaning entirely different attitudes towards the nature of work, relations with other people, guiding values, and so on. Instead of asking me for "something succinct and definitive along these lines," I'd suggest a look at some of the classic works, like these. I could try, but others have done it already, and better.



Keith Kinion asks whether I still think, as in the 80s, that "the level of dissidence in the US was greater than it had ever been previously or prior to the Vietnam war."

I don't think I said (or at least shouldn't have said) that the level in the '80s was higher than ever, though it did exceed the 60s I think, for the reasons you cite (and plenty of others: in the 60s major mass movements like the feminist and environmental movements, for example, did not exist in anything like their subsequent form).

How about today? I think it is a period of regression in some ways, maybe reassessment, also fear. We've been through a period of some 20 years in which most people have to work harder just to maintain stagnating living standards, if that, and with a high level of insecurity about the future. That runs across a broad spectrum, from "unskilled workers" (an odd term for the majority of the workforce) to Phd's from the elite universities in physics and math. Those conditions have a disciplining effect. They could also have a revitalizing effect, and might, but that takes organization, and hope. And to deter that danger, there has been a massive and highly organized propaganda assault from infancy attempting to induce isolation, consumerism, a sense of personal identity that sees no value or hope in life or work or community, but only in satisfying what the public relations industry has called "fancied wants," artificially created and stimulated. How much effect this has is hard to measure, but it must be considerable.



Tim Dunlop asks a broad and narrow question. The broad one is so broad that I'd better quote: Have I developed further the idea that there is:

a tension/contradiction "between the rules of world order laid down in the U.N. Charter and the rights articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights"? More generally, isn't there always going to be a conflict between "universal rights" and the notion of national sovereignty? And how do we resolve this? By what criteria are we able to enshrine a particular set of values as universal? On one level this is an epistemological question but I'm more interested in how it works in actual practice. And won't any attempt to universalise values - through either a general theory of political practice or a set of rights - always run the risk marginalising alternate conceptions of "the good life"? How do we avoid this being simply a "might is right" regime of practice?

That's a task for many volumes, which no one knows enough to write. Even in the hard sciences questions of this scale and character can rarely be addressed in a serious way. There is no such thing as a "general theory of political practice," and while rights can be enunciated in a general way, they can't be reduced to an axiom system. No one can dream of seriously "enshrining a particular set of values as universal." We know far too little about extremely complex entities like human beings and societies -- or insects, for that matter. That doesn't mean that we abandon dealing with "actual practice" or stop trying to formulate as clearly as we can what principles we think are worth following. But that we'll find something between tensions and contradictions when we move to the level of abstraction of human rights and sovereignty (which also involves human rights, but in a different dimension) -- that's almost too obvious to merit specific notice.

I don't think there are interesting and informative answers at this level of generality and remoteness from serious understanding.

The narrow question is whether I "make a systematic effort to acknowledge errors of interpretation, fact or judgement."

That's not a practice in which individuals can engage, unless they reach some cosmic level of pomposity and self-importance. Of course, everyone makes errors of interpretation, fact or judgment." And any honest person will acknowledge and correct them when an opportunity arises: not by issuing "corrections" as an institution such as a newspaper should, or by calling a press conference, or by publishing a volume of acknowledged errors (as if anyone would be crazy enough to publish it), but in one's next article or book or talk. Goes on all the time, or at least ought to. One of the least edifying aspects of intellectual life is the letters columns in intellectual journals. An interesting exercise is to find some party to a controversy who isn't absolutely correct, by his/her own lights, and irately so.



Roderick Ward, on whether I think "the Chinese Embassy bombing was intentional."

Personally, I don't. It would have been pretty crazy.



Coady Buckley, on the volume "Collectivisations: L'Oeuvre constructive de la Rivolution espagnole," which I cited 30 years ago when writing on the Spanish Civil War.

That important volume was unavailable at the time, to my knowledge. I happened to have a copy that I'd picked up in an anarchist book store in the early '40s. Since then it's appeared in English, translated by Sam Dolgoff, called (I think) "Workers COllectives in Spain." I'm pretty sure it's also available in French and Spanish. Any of the good anarchist booksellers and stores would know.

The unpublished introduction by George Orwell to his book 'Animal Farm' I'v cited. It was published in the "Times Literary Supplement," Sept 15 1972, and it appears in the Everyman's edition of Animal Farm.