Gustavo Barbosa on 16 Mar 2001 15:14:02 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Fwd: Reality and its Abuse (N.Chomsky)


1. Reality and its Abuse

Prominent among the high principles to which we are dedicated, alongside of
Democracy and the Market,
stands Human Rights, which became "the Soul of our foreign policy,"
fortuitously, just at the moment when
popular revulsion over monstrous crimes had become difficult to contain.

It is recognized, to be sure, that our service to the cause of humanity is
not entirely without flaw. By "granting
idealism a near exclusive hold on our foreign policy," we go too far, press
thinkers warn, quoting high-ranking
officials. This nobility puts us at a disadvantage in dealing with the
"fierce savages" of whom Justice Marshall
warned, a problem that has bedeviled Europe throughout its history of
"encounters." The Korean war raised
"serious questions as to how the soft, humanitarian West could compete with
such people" as the "ruthless"
Asian leaders, top Kennedy adviser Maxwell Taylor wrote. Taylor's
"uncomfortable thoughts about the future
of the West in Asia" were echoed by leading liberal critics of the Vietnam
war as it spiralled out of control.
The "Asian poor" used "the strategy of the weak," inviting us to carry our
"strategic logic to its conclusion,
which is genocide," but we are unwilling to "destroy
contradicting our own value system." Soft
humanitarians, we feel that "genocide is a terrible burden to bear" (William
Pfaff, Townsend Hoopes).
Strategic analyst Albert Wohlstetter explains that "the Vietnamese were able
to bear the costs imposed on
their subjects more easily than we could impose them." We are simply too
noble for this cruel world.

The dilemma we face has engaged the deepest thinkers. Hegel pondered "the
contempt of humanity
displayed by the Negroes" of Africa, "who allow themselves to be shot down
by thousands in war with
Europeans. Life has a value only when it has something valuable as its
object," a thought beyond the grasp of
these "mere things." Unable to comprehend our lofty values, the savages
confound us in our quest for justice
and virtue.1

The burdens of the righteous are not easy to bear.

There are ways to test the theses that are confidently proclaimed. Thus one
might look into the correlation
between US aid and the human rights climate. That was done by the leading
academic scholar on human
rights in Latin America, Lars Schoultz, who found that US aid "has tended to
flow disproportionately to Latin
American governments which torture their citizens, the hemisphere's
relatively egregious violators of
fundamental human rights." The flow of aid includes military aid, is not
correlated with need, and runs through
the Carter period, when at least some attention was given to human rights
concerns. A broader study by
Edward Herman found the same correlation worldwide. Herman carried out
another study that directs us to
the reasons. Aid is closely correlated with improvement in the investment
climate, a result commonly
achieved by murdering priests and union leaders, massacring peasants trying
to organize, blowing up the
independent press, and so on. We therefore find the secondary correlation
between aid and egregious
violation of human rights. These studies precede the Reagan years, when the
questions are not even worth

Another approach is to investigate the relation between the source of
atrocities and the reaction to them.
There is extensive work on that topic, again with sharp and consistent
results: the atrocities of official
enemies arouse great anguish and indignation, vast coverage, and often
shameless lying to portray them as
even worse than they are; the treatment is the opposite in all respects when
responsibility lies closer to home.
(Atrocities that do not bear on domestic power interests are generally
ignored.) Without comparable inquiry,
we know that exactly the same was true of Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany.
The importance of the finding
is greatly heightened by the fact, which commissars on all sides labor to
obscure, that on elementary moral
grounds, abuses cry out for attention insofar as we can do something about
them; primarily our own, and
those of our clients.

There have also been numerous case studies of the close match between policy
and Kennan's advice on
"unreal objectives such as human rights" when wealth and power are at

None of the facts have the slightest impact on the Higher Truths. But that
makes sense too. As in the case of
Democracy and the Market, the factual record merely deals with Hegel's
"negative, worthless existence," not
"God's plan" and "the pure light of this divine Idea." The point has
sometimes been made explicit by
contemporary scholars, notably Hans Morgenthau, a founder of the realist
school, who urged that to adduce
the factual record is "to confound the abuse of reality with reality
itself." Reality itself is the "transcendent
purpose" of the nation, which is indeed noble; the abuse of reality is the
irrelevant factual record.3

The record is misleading if it keeps to the support for horrendous
atrocities and fails to reveal the welcome
accorded them when they are seen to be in a good cause, a leading feature of
the 500-year conquest. The
reaction to the US-directed atrocities in Central America in the past decade
is one well-studied example. To
illustrate how firmly this pillar of the traditional culture is in place, it
would only be fitting to consider the
earliest Asian outpost of European colonialism, the Dutch East Indies,
during the era of US global

Noam Chomsky

Extract from "Human Rights: The Pragmatic Criterion" / Chapter Five of Year


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