Our Precious Freedoms

Three quotes for the day, courtesy Liberty Quotes.

“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either.”
— Mark Twain [Samuel Langhorne Clemens] (1835-1910)

“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
— Noam Chomsky (1928- ) American linguist and political writer, Source: Guardian, 23 November 1992

“I believe in my right to be wrong, and still more in my right to be right.”
— Owen Lattimore

Get out there, get it right. If change is coming, you are bringing it.

Chomsky on Anarchism

For folks with an open mind who want to know more about anarchism:


Noam Chomsky on Anarchism, Marxism & Hope for the Future


Noam Chomsky is widely known for his critique of U.S foreign policy, and for his work as a linguist. Less well known is his ongoing support for libertarian socialist objectives. In a special interview done for Red and Black Revolution, Chomsky gives his views on anarchism and marxism, and the prospects for socialism now. The interview was conducted in May 1995 by Kevin Doyle.

RBR: First off, Noam, for quite a time now you’ve been an advocate for the anarchist idea. Many people are familiar with the introduction you wrote in 1970 to Daniel Guerin’s Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, but more recently, for instance in the film Manufacturing Dissent, you took the opportunity to highlight again the potential of anarchism and the anarchist idea. What is it that attracts you to anarchism?

CHOMSKY: I was attracted to anarchism as a young teenager, as soon as I began to think about the world beyond a pretty narrow range, and haven’t seen much reason to revise those early attitudes since. I think it only makes sense to seek out and identify structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination in every aspect of life, and to challenge them; unless a justification for them can be given, they are illegitimate, and should be dismantled, to increase the scope of human freedom. That includes political power, ownership and management, relations among men and women, parents and children, our control over the fate of future generations (the basic moral imperative behind the environmental movement, in my view), and much else. Naturally this means

a challenge to the huge institutions of coercion and control: the state, the unaccountable private tyrannies that control most of the domestic and international economy, and so on. But not only these. That is what I have always understood to be the essence of anarchism: the conviction that the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and that it should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met. Sometimes the burden can be met.

If I’m taking a walk with my grandchildren and they dart out into a busy street, I will use not only authority but also physical coercion to stop them. The act should be challenged, but I think it can readily meet the challenge. And there are other cases; life is a complex affair, we understand very little about humans and society, and grand pronouncements are generally more a source of harm than of benefit. But the perspective is a valid one, I think, and can lead us quite a long way.

Beyond such generalities, we begin to look at cases, which is where the questions of human interest and concern arise.

Anarchist banner
RBR: It’s true to say that your ideas and critique are now more widely known than ever before. It should also be said that your views are widely respected. How do you think your support for anarchism is received in this context? In particular, I’m interested in the response you receive from people who are getting interested in politics for the first time and who may, perhaps, have come across your views. Are such people surprised by your support for anarchism? Are they interested?

CHOMSKY: The general intellectual culture, as you know, associates ‘anarchism’ with chaos, violence, bombs, disruption, and so on. So people are often surprised when I speak positively of anarchism and identify myself with leading traditions within it. But my impression is that among the general public, the basic ideas seem reasonable when the clouds are cleared away. Of course, when we turn to specific matters – say, the nature of families, or how an economy would work in a society that is more free and just – questions and controversy arise. But that is as it should be. Physics can’t really explain how water flows from the tap in your sink. When we turn to vastly more complex questions of human significance, understanding is very thin, and there is plenty of room for disagreement, experimentation, both intellectual and real-life exploration of possibilities, to help us learn more.

RBR: Perhaps, more than any other idea, anarchism has suffered from the problem of misrepresentation. Anarchism can mean many things to many people. Do you often find yourself having to explain what it is that you mean by anarchism? Does the misrepresentation of anarchism bother you?

CHOMSKY: All misrepresentation is a nuisance. Much of it can be traced back to structures of power that have an interest in preventing understanding, for pretty obvious reasons. It’s well to recall David Hume’s Principles of Government. He expressed surprise that people ever submitted to their rulers. He concluded that since Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. ‘Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. Hume was very astute – and incidentally, hardly a libertarian by the standards of the day. He surely underestimates the efficacy of force, but his observation seems to me basically correct, and important, particularly in the more free societies, where the art of controlling opinion is therefore far more refined. Misrepresentation and other forms of befuddlement are a natural concomitant.

So does misrepresentation bother me? Sure, but so does rotten weather. It will exist as long as concentrations of power engender a kind of commissar class to defend them. Since they are usually not very bright, or are bright enough to know that they’d better avoid the arena of fact and argument, they’ll turn to misrepresentation, vilification, and other devices that are available to those who know that they’ll be protected by the various means available to the powerful. We should understand why all this occurs, and unravel it as best we can. That’s part of the project of liberation – of ourselves and others, or more reasonably, of people working together to achieve these aims.

Sounds simple-minded, and it is. But I have yet to find much commentary on human life and society that is not simple-minded, when absurdity and self-serving posturing are cleared away.

RBR: How about in more established left-wing circles, where one might expect to find greater familiarity with what anarchism actually stands for? Do you encounter any surprise here at your views and support for anarchism?

read the whole piece? Please do so. Time with Chomsky is almost always time well spent.

More Notes on the Fragility of Empire

“Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the
American military-industrial establishment would have to go on, substantially
unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be
an unacceptable shock to the American economy.”
— George F. Kennan (1904-2005) US advisor, diplomat, political analyst, and Pulitzer-prize winning historian, Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study and former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. 1987

So Kennan understood clearly in 1987 that the American economy was built around military industry. The need for an enemy, the threat to the US economy from not standing in opposition to an enemy had become an end in itself. Americans and the world had learned to live with the threat of nuclear annihilation (the thermonuclear war variety, not the poor engineering variety demonstrated at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and most recently at Fukushima). We got desensitized to that “hard rain” threat over a couple of decades and all attempts to reduce nuclear weapons around the world have been effectively thwarted by the US failure to lead, to comply with our obligation to reduce our nuclear stockpile as an important part in the non-proliferation treaty. We continue to upgrade and adapt nuclear weapons for use in changing battlefield scenarios. Need an example? Look at depleted uranium ammunition. We have avoided the issue of safely disposing of the uranium tailing produced in enriched uranium processes by turning the waste material into a heavy projectile weapon that can be used to pierce armor, kill enemy combatants and coincidentally expose a population in foreign lands to a chemical agent. If these were exploded on American soil by some party I think they would be called a dirty bomb. But they are just armor piercing DU shells when we use them.

A “good” thing for the American economy, I suppose. Lots of profitable economic activity dedicated to enriching uranium and a win-win for the military industrial complex to be able to turn the waste material into another profit opportunity in du sales to the American war machine.

But where does it get us? Does it make us safe? I think our distance, our continental isolation, from the peoples we exploit economically and oppress culturally is the dominant factor in the American experience of security and stability. I believe that our choices to build economic stability on the rock of military weaponry makes us less safe. As empires have historically discovered, the price of maintaining a standing army capable of taking on all comers (and even all comers at the same moment) is the oppression and exploitation of foreign nations and peoples. The formula is not stable. Great Britain chose to step back from empire at the end of WWII. Was it a choice or had GB had been so depleted by its proximity to the war in Europe that its time at the top of pyramid was over? I am not sure about that question, but the long term outcome was the shift to GB as servant to American hegemony, a bit of role reversal for the two countries, notwithstanding some notable disagreements between the two nation-states including a fracas in 1776 and another in 1812.

Here’s another thought from Kennan, from an earlier date:

US State Department 1948, Review of Current Trends in U.S. Foreign Policy: …We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population… In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction. George Kennan, US State Department 1948

Clearly, Kennan was not just a sophisticated insider and observer of the American Empire, he was an architect or engineer in the construction of empire. If there is a section of hell reserved for the dogs of war George Kennan has earned his place there. But these things are beyond human knowing or understanding. A person like Mandela spends decades in jail and a guy like Kissinger has yet to be arrested. Justice in our time is a chimera, a roll of the dice, a happenstance, not a predictable outcome of any human process that I can identify.

The US and Obama had an opportunity to put our feet on a different path. The collapse of the Wall Street megabanks, the banksters (financial wizards with conscience comparable to Kennan’s) who have arisen to lead the military economy were momentarily vulnerable. Coincidentally, the climate, the planet itself is starting to respond to our species hubris in ways that will force change, but sadly, Obama played it safe and propped up the banksters and chose to double down on the military economy instead of committing resources to an employment program based on clean energy and energy independence. The door was open, a path away from military empire and back on industrial and environmental stability lay on the other side through that door. Obama is not a dumb guy. He must have recognized the opportunity, but he appears to be a really cautious guy who just could not take bold steps. An effective orator and ineffective politician. I was never sold on the guy, so I don’t have to deal with the betrayal factor, but I am certainly disappointed. My energy and passion are with candidates like Kucinich and Dean. Do these guys have a chance in the big money politics arena? David, meet Goliath. He’s the big guy with heavy armor. Good luck with that guy.

Well, Goliath sometimes loses. It’s historic when he does, it’s history when Goliath prevails as he most often does.

Alternet is running a piece by Noam Chomsky today. Noam continues to respond to the “Obama Kills Osama” story in the same way that I do, by wondering how the country has moved forward into the realm of lawless, rogue states with so little outcry.

Noam asks When Did America Completely Jettison the Rule of Law? It’s a good question.

So we move forward into the post-rapture-disappointment week with Obama wearing the armor of Goliath. Somehow we have to find a way to reach Goliath. To persuade Goliath that might does not make right. That is the real David versus Goliath battle. Persuade Goliath to lay down his arms.

Happy Monday to all!