Gabriel Matthew Schivone
Chomsky, University Professor at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, founder of the modern science of linguistics
and political activist, is a powerhouse of anti-imperialist
activism in the United States today. The interview is republished
with the permission of
RESPONSIBILITY OF INTELLECTUALS
MATTHEW SCHIVONE: What makes students a natural audience to
speak to? And do you think it's worth 'speaking truth' to the
professional scholarship as well or differently? Are there any
short- or long-term possibilities here?
I'm always uneasy about the concept of "speaking truth,"
as if we somehow know the truth and only have to enlighten others
who have not risen to our elevated level. The search for truth
is a cooperative, unending endeavour. We can, and should, engage
in it to the extent we can and encourage others to do so as
well, seeking to free ourselves from constraints imposed by
coercive institutions, dogma, irrationality, excessive conformity
and lack of initiative and imagination, and numerous other obstacles.
for possibilities, they are limited only by will and choice.
are at a stage of their lives where these choices are most urgent
and compelling, and when they also enjoy unusual, if not unique,
freedom and opportunity to explore the choices available, to
evaluate them, and to pursue them.
In your view, what is it about the privileges within university
education and academic scholarship which, as you assert in some
of the things you've written, correlate with them a greater
responsibility for catastrophic atrocities such as the Vietnam
War or those in the Middle East in which the United States is
Well, there are really some moral truisms. One of them is that
opportunity confers responsibility. If you have very limited
opportunities, then you have limited responsibility for what
you do. If you have substantial opportunity you have greater
responsibility for what you do. I mean, that's kind of elementary,
I don't know how it can be discussed.
the people who we call 'intellectuals' are just those who happen
to have substantial opportunity. They have privilege, they have
resources, they have training. In our society, they have a high
degree of freedom-not a hundred percent, but quite a lot-and
that gives them a range of choices that they can pursue with
a fair degree of freedom, and that hence simply confers responsibility
for the predictable consequences of the choices they make.
I think it may do well for us to go over a bit the beginnings
and evolution of the ideological currents which now prevail
throughout modern social intellectual life in the U.S. Essentially,
from where may we trace the development of this strong coterie
of technical experts in the schools, and elsewhere, sometimes
having been referred to as a 'bought' or 'secular priesthood'?
Well, it really goes back to the latter-part of the nineteenth
century, when there was substantial discussion -- not just in
the United States but in Europe, too -- of what was then sometimes
called 'a new class' of scientific intellectuals. In that period
of time there was a level of knowledge and technical expertise
accumulating that allowed a kind of managerial class of educated,
trained people to have a greater share in decision-making and
planning. It was thought that they were a new class displacing
the aristocracy, the owners, political leaders and so on, and
they could have a larger role-and of course they liked that
of this group developed an ideology of technocratic planning.
In industry it was called 'scientific management'. It developed
in intellectual life with a concept of what was called a 'responsible
class' of technocratic, serious intellectuals who could solve
the world's problems rationally, and would have to be protected
from the 'vulgar masses' who might interfere with them. And
it goes right up until the present.
how realistic this is, is another question, but for the class
of technical intellectuals, it's a very attractive conception
that, 'We are the rational, intelligent people, and management
and decision-making should be in our hands.'
as I've pointed out in some of the things I've written, it's
very close to Bolshevism. And, in fact, if you put side-by-side,
say, statements by people like Robert McNamara and V.I. Lenin,
it's strikingly similar. In both cases there's a conception
of a vanguard of rational planners who know the direction that
society ought to go and can make efficient decisions, and have
to be allowed to do so without interference from, what one of
them, Walter Lippmann, called the 'meddlesome and ignorant outsiders,'
namely, the population, who just get in the way.
not an entirely new conception: it's just a new category of
people. Two hundred years ago you didn't have an easily identifiable
class of technical intellectuals, just generally educated people.
But as scientific and technical progress increased there were
people who felt they can appropriate it and become the proper
managers of the society, in every domain. That, as I said, goes
from scientific management in industry, to social and political
are periods in history, for example, during the Kennedy years,
when these ideas really flourished. There were, as they called
themselves, 'the best and the brightest.' The 'smart guys' who
could run everything if only they were allowed to; who could
do things scientifically without people getting in their way.
a pretty constant strain, and understandable. And it underlies
the fear and dislike of democracy that runs through elite culture
always, and very dramatically right now. It often correlates
closely with posturing about love of democracy. As any reader
of Orwell would expect, these two things tend to correlate.
The more you hate democracy, the more you talk about how wonderful
it is and how much you're dedicated to it. It's one of the clearer
expressions of the visceral fear and dislike of democracy, and
of allowing, again, going back to Lippmann, the 'ignorant and
meddlesome outsiders' to get in our way. They have to be distracted
and marginalized somehow while we can take care of the serious
that's the basic strain. And you find it all the time, but increasingly
in the modern period when, at least, claims to expertise become
somewhat more plausible. Whether they're authentic or not is,
again, a different question. But, the claims to expertise are
very striking. So, economists tell you, 'We know how to run
the economy'; the political scientists tell you, 'We know how
to run the world, and you keep out of it because you don't have
special knowledge and training.'
you look at it, the claims tend to erode pretty quickly. It's
not quantum physics; there is, at least, a pretence, and sometimes,
some justification for the claims. But what matters for human
life is, typically, well within the reach of the concerned person
who is willing to undertake some effort.
Given the, albeit, self-proclaimed notion that this new class
is entitled to decision-making, how close are they to actual
My feeling is that they're nowhere near as powerful as they
think they are. So, when, say, John Kenneth Galbraith wrote
about the technocratic elite which is taking over the running
of society-or when McNamara wrote about it, or others -- there's
a lot of illusion there. Meaning, they can gain positions of
authority and decision-making when they act in the interests
of those who really own and run the society. You can have people
that are just as competent, or more competent, and who have
conceptions of social and economic order that run counter to,
say, corporate power, and they're not going to be in the planning
sectors. So, to get into those planning sectors you first of
all have to conform to the interests of the real concentrations
again, there are a lot of illusions about this -- in the media,
too. Tom Wicker is a famous example, one of the 'left commentators'
of the New York Times. He would get very angry when
critics would tell him he's conforming to power interests and
that he's keeping within the doctrinal framework of the media,
which goes back to their corporate structure and so on. And
he would answer, very angrily-and correctly-that nobody tells
him what to say. He writes anything he wants -- which is absolutely
true. But if he wasn't writing the things he did he wouldn't
have a column in the New York Times.
the kind of thing that is very hard to perceive. People do not
want -- or often are not able-to perceive that they are conforming
to external authority. They feel themselves to be very free
-- and indeed they are-as long as they conform. But power lies
elsewhere. That's as old as history in the modern period. It's
often very explicit.
Smith, for example, discussing England, quite interestingly
pointed out that the merchants and manufacturers-the economic
forces of his day-are the 'principal architects of policy',
and they make sure that their own interests are 'most peculiarly
attended to', no matter how grievous the effect on others, including
the people in England. And that's a good principle of statecraft,
and social and economic planning, which runs pretty much to
the present. When you get people with management and decision
-- making skills, they can enter into that system and they can
make the actual decisions-within a framework that's set within
the real concentrations of power. And now it's not the merchants
and manufacturers of Adam Smith's day, it's the multinational
corporations, financial institutions, and so on. But, stray
too far beyond their concerns and you won't be the decision-maker.
not a mechanical phenomenon, but it's overwhelmingly true that
the people who make it to decision-making positions (that is,
what they think of as decision-making positions) are those who
conform to the basic framework of the people who fundamentally
own and run the society. That's why you have a certain choice
of technocratic managers and not some other choice of people
equally or better capable of carrying out policies but have
What about degrees of responsibility and shared burdens of guilt
on an individual level? What can we learn about how one views
oneself often in positions of power or authority?
You almost never find anyone, whether it's in a weapons plant,
or planning agency, or in corporate management, or almost anywhere,
who says, 'I'm really a bad guy, and I just want to do things
that benefit myself and my friends.' Almost invariably you get
noble rhetoric like: 'We're working for the benefit of the people.'
The corporate executive who is slaving for the benefit of the
workers and community; the friendly banker who just wants to
help everybody start their business; the political leader who's
trying to bring freedom and justice to the world-and they probably
all believe it. I'm not suggesting that they're lying. There's
an array of routine justifications for whatever you're doing.
And it's easy to believe them. It's very hard to look into the
mirror and say, 'Yeah, that guy looking at me is a vicious criminal.'
It's much easier to say, 'That guy looking at me is really very
benign, self-sacrificing, and he has to do these things because
it's for the benefit of everyone.'
you get respected moralists like Reinhold Niebuhr, who was once
called 'the theologian of the establishment.' And the reason
is because he presented a framework which, essentially, justified
just about anything they wanted to do. His thesis is dressed
up in long words and so on (it's what you do if you're an intellectual).
But what it came down to is that, 'Even if you try to do good,
evil's going to come out of it; that's the paradox of grace.'
And that's wonderful for war criminals. 'We try to do good but
evil necessarily comes out of it.' And it's influential. So,
I don't think that people in decision-making positions are lying
when they describe themselves as benevolent. Or people working
on more advanced nuclear weapons. Ask them what they're doing,
they'll say: 'We're trying to preserve the peace of the world.'
People who are devising military strategies that are massacring
people, they'll say, 'Well, that's the cost you have to pay
for freedom and justice,' and so on.
we don't take those sentiments seriously when we hear them from
enemies, say, from Stalinist commissars. They'll give you the
same answers. But, we don't take that seriously because they
can know what they're doing if they choose to. If they choose
not to, that's their choice. If they choose to believe self-satisfying
propaganda, that's their choice. But it doesn't change the moral
responsibility. We understand that perfectly well with regard
to others. It's very hard to apply the same reasoning to ourselves.
fact, one of the-maybe the most-elementary of moral principles
is that of universality, that is, If something's right for me,
it's right for you; if it's wrong for you, it's wrong for me.
Any moral code that is even worth looking at has that at its
core somehow. But that principle is overwhelmingly disregarded
all the time. If you want to run through examples we can easily
do it. Take, say, George W. Bush, since he happens to be president.
If you apply the standards that we applied to Nazi war criminals
at Nuremberg, he'd be hanged. Is it an even conceivable possibility?
It's not even discussable. Because we don't apply to ourselves
the principles we apply to others.
a lot of talk about 'terror' and how awful it is. Whose terror?
Our terror against them? I mean, is that considered reprehensible?
No, it's considered highly moral; it's considered self-defense.
Now, their terror against us, that's awful, and terrible.
to try to rise to the level of becoming a minimal moral agent,
and just enter in the domain of moral discourse is very difficult.
Because that means accepting the principle of universality.
And you can experiment for yourself and see how often that's
accepted, either in personal or political life. Very rarely.
What about criminal responsibility and intellectuals? Nuremberg
is an interesting precedent.
The Nuremberg case is a very interesting precedent. First of
all, the Nuremberg trials -- of all the tribunals that have
taken place, from then until today – is by far the most
serious. Nevertheless, it was very seriously flawed, and was
recognized as such. When Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor,
wrote about it, he recognized that it was flawed for a number
of fundamental reasons. For one thing, the Nazi war criminals
were being tried for crimes that had not yet been declared to
be crimes. So, it was ex post facto. 'We're now declaring
these things you did to be crimes.' That is already questionable.
the choice of what was considered a crime was based on a very
explicit criterion, namely, denial of the principle of universality.
In other words, something was called a crime at Nuremberg if
they did it and we didn't do it.
for example, the bombing of urban concentrations was not considered
a crime. The bombings of Tokyo, Dresden aren't crimes. Why?
Because we did them. So, therefore, it's not a crime. In fact,
Nazi war criminals who were charged were able to escape prosecution
when they could show that the Americans and the British did
the same thing they did. Admiral Doenitz, a submarine commander
who was involved in all kinds of war crimes, called in the defense
a high official in the British admiralty and, I think, Admiral
Nimitz from the United States, who testified that, 'Yeah, that's
the kind of thing we did.' And, therefore, they weren't sentenced
for these crimes. Doenitz was absolved. And that's the way it
ran through. Now, that's a very serious flaw. Nevertheless,
of all the tribunals, that's the most serious one.
Chief Justice Jackson, chief counsel for the prosecution, spoke
to the tribunal and explained to them the importance of what
they were doing, he said, to paraphrase, that: 'We are handing
these defendants a poisoned chalice, and if we ever sip from
it we must be subject to the same punishments, otherwise this
whole trial is a farce.' Well, you can look at the history from
then on, and we've sipped from the poisoned chalice many times,
but it's never been considered a crime. So, that means we are
saying that trial was a farce.
in Jackson's opening statement he claimed that the defense did
not wish to incriminate the whole German populace from whence
the defendants came, but only the "planners and designers"
of those crimes, "the inciters and leaders without whose
evil architecture the world would not have been for so long
scourged with the violence and lawlessness of this terrible
correct. And that's another principle which we flatly reject.
So, at Nuremberg, we weren't trying the people who threw Jews
into crematoria; we were trying the leaders. When we ever have
a trial for crimes it's of some low-level person-like a torturer
from Abu Ghraib -- not the people who were setting up the framework
from which they operate. And we certainly don't try political
leaders for the crime of aggression. That's out of the question.
The invasion of Iraq was about as clear-cut a case of aggression
than you can imagine. In fact, by the Nuremberg principles,
if you read them carefully, the U.S. war against Nicaragua was
a crime of aggression for which Ronald Reagan should have been
tried. But, it's inconceivable; you can't even mention it in
the West. And the reason is our radical denial of the most elementary
moral truisms. We just flatly reject them. We don't even think
we reject them, and that's even worse than rejecting them outright.
if we were able to say to ourselves, 'Look, we are totally immoral,
we don't accept elementary moral principles,' that would be
a kind of respectable position in a certain way. But, when we
sink to the level where we cannot even perceive that we're violating
elementary moral principles and international law, that's pretty
bad. But that's the nature of the intellectual culture -- not
just in the United States -- but in powerful societies everywhere.
You mentioned Doenitz escaping culpability for his crimes. Two
who didn't escape punishment and were among the most severely
punished at Nuremberg were Julius Streicher, an editor of a
major newspaper, and Dr. Wolfram Sievers of the Ahnenerbe Society's
Institute of Military Scientific Research, whose own crimes
were traced back to the University of Strasbourg. Not the typical
people prosecuted for international war crimes given their civilian
And there's a justification for that, namely, those defendants
could understand what they were doing. They could understand
the consequences of the work that they were carrying out. But,
of course, if we were to accept this awful principle of universality,
that would have a pretty long reach -- to journalists, university
Let me quote for you the mission statement of the Army Research
Office. This "premier extramural" research agency
of the Army is grounded upon "developing and exploiting
innovative advances to insure the Nation's technological superiority."
It executes this mission "through conduct of an aggressive
basic science research program on behalf of the Army so that
cutting-edge scientific discoveries and the general store of
scientific knowledge will be optimally used to develop and improve
weapons systems that establish land-force dominance."
This is a pentagon office, and they're doing their job. In our
system, the military is under civilian control. Civilians assign
a certain task to the military: their job is to obey, and carry
the role out, otherwise you quit. That's what it means to have
a military under civilian control. So, you can't really blame
them for their mission statement. They're doing what they're
told to do by the civilian authorities. The civilian authorities
are the culpable ones. If we don't like those policies (and
I don't, and you don't), then we go back to those civilians
who designed the framework and gave the orders.
can, as the Nuremberg precedents indicated, be charged with
obeying illegal orders, but that's often a stretch. If a person
is in a position of military command, they are sworn, in fact,
to obey civilian orders, even if they don't like them. If you
say they're really just criminal orders, then, yes, they can
reject them, and get into trouble and so on. But this is just
carrying out the function that they're ordered to carry out.
So, we go straight back to the civilian authority and then to
the general intellectual culture, which regards this as proper
and legitimate. And now we're back to universities, newspapers,
the centers of the doctrinal system.
GMS: It's just the forthright honesty of the mission statement
which is also very striking, I think.
Well, it's like going to an armoury and finding out they're
making better guns. That's what they're supposed to do. Their
orders are, 'Make this gun work better.' And, if they're honest,
they'll say, 'that's what we're doing; that's what the civilian
authorities told us to do.'
some point, people have to ask, 'Do I want to make a better
gun?' That's where the Nuremberg issues arise. But, you really
can't blame people very severely for carrying out the orders
that they're told to carry out when there's nothing in the culture
that tells them there's anything wrong with it. I mean, you
have to be kind of like a moral hero to perceive it, to break
out of the cultural framework and say, 'Look, what I'm doing
is wrong.' Like somebody who deserts from the army because they
think the war is wrong. That's not the place to assign guilt,
I think. Just as at Nuremberg. As I said, they didn't try the
SS guards who threw people into crematoria, at Nuremberg. They
might have been tried elsewhere, but not at Nuremberg.
But, in this case, the results of the ARO's mission statement
in harvesting scholarly work for better weapons design, it's
professors, scholars, researchers, scientific designers, etc.,
who have these choices to focus serious intellectual effort
and to be so used for such ends, and who aren't acting necessarily
from direct orders but are acting more out of freewill.
It's freewill, but don't forget that there's a general intellectual
culture that raises no objection to this.
take the Iraq war. There's libraries of material arguing about
the war, debating it, asking 'What should we do?' Now, try to
find a sentence somewhere that says that 'carrying out a war
of aggression is the supreme international crime, which differs
from other war crimes in that it encompasses all the evil that
follows' (paraphrasing from Nuremberg). Try to find that somewhere.
I mean, you can find it. I've written about it, and you can
find a couple other dozen people who have written about it in
the world. But is it part of the intellectual culture? Can you
find it in a newspaper, or in a journal; in Congress; any public
discourse; anything that's part of the general exchange of knowledge
and ideas? Do students study it in school? Do they have courses
where they teach students that 'to carry out a war of aggression
is the supreme international crime which encompasses all the
evil that follows?'
for example, if sectarian warfare is a horrible atrocity, as
it is, who's responsible? By the principles of Nuremberg, Bush,
Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rice -- they're responsible for
sectarian warfare because they carried out the supreme international
crime which encompasses all the evil that follows. Try and find
somebody who points that out. You can't. Because our dominant
intellectual culture accepts as legitimate our crushing anybody
take Iran. Both political parties -- and practically the whole
press -- accept it as legitimate and, in fact, honourable, that
'all options are on the table,' presumably including nuclear
weapons, to quote Hilary Clinton and everyone else. 'All options
are on the table' means we threaten war. Well, there's something
called the U.N. Charter, which outlaws 'the threat or use of
force' in international affairs. Does anybody care? Actually,
I saw one op-ed somewhere by Ray Takeyh, an Iran specialist
close to the government, who pointed out that threats are serious
violations of international law. But that's so rare that when
you find it it's like finding a diamond in a pile of hay or
something. It's not part of the culture. We're allowed to threaten
anyone we want, and to attack anyone we want. And, when a person
grows up and acts in a culture like that, they're culpable in
a sense, but the culpability is much broader.
just reading a couple days ago a review of a new book by Steven
Miles, a medical doctor and bio-ethicist, who ran through 35,000
pages of documents he got from the Freedom of Information Act
on the torture in Abu Ghraib. And the question that concerned
him is, 'What were the doctors doing during all of this?' All
through those torture sessions there were doctors, nurses, behavioural
scientists and others who were organizing them. What were they
doing when this torture was going on? Well, you go through the
detailed record and it turns out that they were designing and
improving it. Just like Nazi doctors.
Jay Lifton did a big study on Nazi doctors. He points out in
connection with the Nazi doctors that, in a way, it's not those
individual doctors who had the final guilt, it was a culture
and a society which accepted torture and criminal activities
as legitimate. The same is true with the tortures at Abu Ghraib.
I mean, just to focus on them as if they're somehow terrible
people is just a serious mistake. They're coming out of a culture
that regards this as legitimate. Maybe there are some excesses
you don't really do but torture in interrogation is considered
a big debate now on, 'Who's an enemy combatant?' a big technical
debate. Suppose we invade another country and we capture somebody
who's defending the country against our invasion: what do you
mean to call them an 'enemy combatant?' If some country invaded
the United States and let's say you were captured throwing a
rock at one of the soldiers, would it be legitimate to send
you to the equivalent of Guantanamo, and then have a debate
about whether you're a 'lawful' or 'unlawful' combatant? The
whole discussion is kind of, like, off in outer space somewhere.
But, in a culture which accepts that we own and rule the world,
it's reasonable. But, also, we should go back to the roots of
the intellectual or moral culture, not just to the individuals
There seems to be some very serious aberrations and defects
in our society and our level of culture. How, in your view,
might they be corrected and a new level of culture be established,
say, one in which torture isn't accepted? (After all, slavery
and child labour were each accepted for a long period of time
and now are not).
Your examples give the answer to the question, the only answer
that has ever been known. Slavery and child labour didn't become
unacceptable by magic. It took hard, dedicated, courageous work
by lots of people. The same is true of torture, which was once
I remember correctly, the renowned Norwegian criminologist Nils
Christie wrote somewhere that prisons began to proliferate in
Norway in the early 19th century. They weren't much needed before,
when the punishment for robbery could be driving a stake through
the hand of the accused. Now it's perhaps the most civilized
country on earth.
has been a gradual codification of constraints against torture,
and they have had some effect, though only limited, even before
the Bush regression to savagery. Alfred McCoy's work reviews
that ugly history. Still, there is improvement, and there can
be more if enough people are willing to undertake the efforts
that led to large-scale rejection of slavery and child labour
-- still far from complete.
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