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The Irony of American History 
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This is a very interesting post, and I was a little surprised to see Chomsky approach Neibuhr this way. Granted, I have only read a sliver of Neibuhr's work. Maybe Robert can say whether he sees any distortion of what Neibuhr said, as I do. If I'm not mistaken, The Prince is sometimes interpreted as what Machievelli thought rulers should do, rather than as a description of what applies if one wants to be successful in politics. In the same way, is Chomsky taking Neibuhr's analysis of what applies for his recommendation of how statecraft should be conducted? When Neibuhr says that the plans of those who with good intent to manage history inevitably come to ruin, he is not saying that it therefore doesn't matter, anyway, what leaders get up to. And I'd be surprised, from my reading of The Irony of American History, if he endorsed the view that we need to have an elite to do the thinking while keeping the masses mired in their illusions. I'd have preferred to see the supporting quotations form Neibuhr's work. He is not responsible for misuse of his thought that might have occurred in the Kennedy administration.



Mon Dec 22, 2008 8:23 pm
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DWill wrote:
This is a very interesting post, and I was a little surprised to see Chomsky approach Neibuhr this way. Granted, I have only read a sliver of Neibuhr's work. Maybe Robert can say whether he sees any distortion of what Neibuhr said, as I do. If I'm not mistaken, The Prince is sometimes interpreted as what Machievelli thought rulers should do, rather than as a description of what applies if one wants to be successful in politics. In the same way, is Chomsky taking Neibuhr's analysis of what applies for his recommendation of how statecraft should be conducted? When Neibuhr says that the plans of those who with good intent to manage history inevitably come to ruin, he is not saying that it therefore doesn't matter, anyway, what leaders get up to. And I'd be surprised, from my reading of The Irony of American History, if he endorsed the view that we need to have an elite to do the thinking while keeping the masses mired in their illusions. I'd have preferred to see the supporting quotations form Neibuhr's work. He is not responsible for misuse of his thought that might have occurred in the Kennedy administration.
I agree, and the same thought about Machiavelli came to my mind as I read the ideas about "manufacturing consent" and "necessary illusions." It also made me think of George Orwell's idea of the party and the proles in 1984. I am a fan of stability, and suspect that the derision of Niebuhr's links to the establishment may have something to do with this issue. If Niebuhr, and by extension Bacevich, is in some way 'a theologian of the establishment' that is not necessarily a totally bad thing. Bacevich may be able to 'speak truth to power' in a way not possible for Chomsky, as many people stopped listening to Chomsky long ago despite his occasional good ideas.

To add, Gramsci interpreted The Prince as a democratic text, exposing the behaviour of rulers to the people.



Mon Dec 22, 2008 8:42 pm
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Speaking truth to power is a precious Quaker notion, that Chomsky has some problems with, as the quotes below point out. I know this thread is about Bacevich, but I think Chomsky is an important lens from which to view Bacevich. So, please forgive my willingness to pile up the quotes...the two of you deserve better, but this is all the energy I have available for an otherwise very important book.

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Writers and Intellectual Responsibility: For much of my life, I've been closely involved with pacifist groups in direct action and resistance, and educational and organizing projects. We've spent days in jail together, and it is a freakish accident that they did not extend to many years, as we realistically expected 30 years ago (an interesting tale, but a different one). That creates bonds of loyalty and friendship, but also brings out some disagreements. So, my Quaker friends and colleagues in disrupting illegitimate authority adopt the slogan: "Speak truth to power." I strongly disagree. The audience is entirely wrong, and the effort hardly more than a form of self-indulgence. It is a waste of time and a pointless pursuit to speak truth to Henry Kissinger, or the CEO of General Motors, or others who exercise power in coercive institutions -- truths that they already know well enough, for the most part.

Again, a qualification is in order. Insofar as such people dissociate themselves from their institutional setting and become human beings, moral agents, then they join everyone else. But in their institutional roles, as people who wield power, they are hardly worth addressing, any more than the worst tyrants and criminals, who are also human beings, however terrible their actions.

To speak truth to power is not a particularly honorable vocation. One should seek out an audience that matters -- and furthermore (another important qualification), it should not be seen as an audience, but as a community of common concern in which one hopes to participate constructively. We should not be speaking /to, but with. That is second nature to any good teacher, and should be to any writer and intellectual as well.

Perhaps this is enough to suggest that even the question of choice of audience is not entirely trivial.



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Chomsky: I was listening to the National Public Radio tribute to David Halberstam the other day, and they had on Neil Sheehan, David Greenway, and others. They were talking correctly about these young reporters in Vietnam who with great courage stood up against power and told truth to power . Which is correct, but what truth did they tell to power? The truth they told to power was: "you're not winning the war." I listened through the hour and there were never any questions like: should you be fighting the war or should you be invading another country? The answer to that is not the kind of truth you tell to power.

In fact, it's rather similar to what critical journalists in the Soviet Union were saying in the 1980s. They were saying, "Yeah we're not winning the war in Afghanistan." From my point of view, that's not telling truth to power. Truth to power would be: why are you invading Afghanistan, what right do you have to commit crimes against peace and against humanity? But that question never came up. And the same is true in the discussion of Iraq. The question of whether it's legitimate to have a victory doesn't even arise. In fact, the current debate about Iraq reminds me very much of the dove/hawk debate over Vietnam.

Take, for example, Arthur Schlesinger, leading historian, Kennedy advisor, and so on. He was originally a strong supporter of the war during the Kennedy years. But by the mid-1960s, there was a mood spreading in the country generally, but also among the elites, that the war is not wise, it's harming us. Then he had a book that came out in 1966 called Bitter Heritage, which is very much like what's happening today. He was one of the extreme liberal critics of the war by then. He said, "We all pray that the hawks will be correct in thinking that sending more troops will bring us victory. And if they are, we'll be praising the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government in winning a victory in a land that they've left in wreck and ruin. But it doesn't look like it's going to work."

You can translate that almost verbatim into the liberal dove critique of the war today. There's no question about whether we are justified in invading another country. The only question is: is this tactic going to work, or is some other tactic going to work, or maybe no tactic and it's costing us too much. And those are the limits of the presidential debates, the congressional discussion, and the media discussion.

That's why you can have debates such as those going on now about whether Iran is interfering in Iraq. You can only have that debate on the assumption that the United States owns the world. You couldn't debate in 1943 whether the Allies were interfering in occupied France. It was conquered and occupied by a foreign power. Who can interfere in it? In fact, it's the right thing to do, interfering. Or, say, Russia's Afghanistan: is the United States interfering in Afghanistan while the Russians conquered it? You'd crack up in laughter if you heard that question.

Those are the limits of discussion here. That's part of the reason the outcomes of the debates are so inconclusive. The issues are not discussable.

First of all there is the issue of legitimacy. Invading Iraq was the kind of crime for which Nazi war criminals were hanged at Nuremberg. They were hanged, primarily, for crimes against peace, i.e. aggression, the supreme international crime. Von Ribbentrop, foreign minister, was hanged. One of the main charges was that he supported a preemptive war against Norway. It's kind of striking that at the end of the Nuremberg tribunal, the chief counsel for the prosecution Justice Robert Jackson, an American justice, made some pretty eloquent speeches about the nature of the tribunal. After the sentencing, he said, "We're handing the defendants a poisoned chalice and if we sip from it we must be subject to the same charges and sentencing or else we're just showing that the proceedings are a farce." So if they mean anything the principles have to apply to us.

Try to find a discussion of that anywhere, either in the case of Vietnam or in the case of Iraq, or any other aggression.


Quote:
Q: You've said that we as citizens should not speak truth to power but, instead, to people. Shouldn't we do both, speak more on this subject?

This is the reference to about the only thing on which I find I disagree with my Quaker friends. On every practical activity I usually agree with them, but I do disagree with them about their slogan, speaking truth to power. First of all, power already knows the truth. They don't have to hear it from us, so it's largely a waste of time. Furthermore, it's the wrong audience. You have to speak truth to the people who will dismantle and overthrow and constrain power. Furthermore, I don't like the phrase "speak truth to." We don't know the truth, at least I don't.

We should join with the kind of people who are willing to commit themselves to overthrow power, and listen to them. They often know a lot more than we do. And join with them to carry out the right kinds of activities. Should you also speak truth to power? If you feel like it, but I don't see a lot of point. I'm not interested in telling the people around Bush what they already know.


Quote:
Ramachandran: If you had to rewrite "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" today, what would you say?

Chomsky: In retrospect, it seems to me there were unclarities and omissions. One has to do with the category of intellectuals. Who are they? Suppose that we take the term "intellectual" to refer to people who think seriously about issues of general human concern, seek and evaluate evidence, and try to articulate their judgments and conclusions clearly and honestly. Then some of the most impressive intellectuals I have known had little formal education, and many of those who are granted great respect as leading intellectuals do not deserve the name. If we adopt this conception, there is no special "responsibility of intellectuals" other than the responsibility of people generally to act with integrity and decency, but there is a responsibility of all of us to work for a society in which everyone is encouraged and helped to become an intellectual, in this sense.

Those who have privilege, training, access to resources and other advantages do have special responsibilities. One formula is that their responsibility is "to speak truth to power". Among those who adopt this stand, there are people I greatly respect and admire. But although I often agree with them in practice, I don't agree with the principle. One reason is that none of us can claim to have The Truth. We have our judgments and conclusions, and maybe good reasons for them. But these are at best tentative, and it is important to make that clear, particularly in cultures in which technical knowledge and training are accorded considerable prestige - sometimes warranted, sometimes not. It is important to make clear the limits of our knowledge and understanding, and not to exploit prestige and authority as a weapon of domination and control. So the idea of "speaking truth" is already flawed. Furthermore, to the extent that we think we have some grasp of the truth about matters of significance, why should our audience be "power"? Is it important to convince the king, or to enlighten his subjects? Or better, not to "enlighten" the subjects but to join with them in a common effort to gain better understanding, and to use it to dismantle illegitimate authority and expand the domains of freedom and justice? The task, then, is not to "speak truth" to the king, or even to the king's subjects, but to learn from them, to contribute what we can, and to participate with them in common struggle for values we discover and uphold. It seems to me that those are the directions in which responsibilities of intellectuals should be sought
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Tue Dec 23, 2008 12:50 am
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Poor old Noam is rather a sad case. He seems more interested in analysis than change, given his apparent support for epistemological relativism in his rejection of the idea of truth. This truth and power idea actually has a longer pedigree than the Quakers, notably in this vignette from Jesus in his trial at John 18:37.

Quote:
for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
"What is truth?" Pilate asked.



Tue Dec 23, 2008 6:59 pm
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I don't see epistemological relativism in anything that Chomsky says in these quotes, nor is there is any rejection of the idea of truth...nor do I see any resignation to just analysis, abstaining from change. And, in truth, Jesus' conversation with Pilate is hardly a philosophical interrogation of first principles or epistemological veracity...actually, I think the Jesus and Pilate conversations in the Gospels capture precisely what Chomsky is getting at:

Quote:
Matthew 27: 11-14 Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?"
"Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied.
When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, "Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?" But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge-to the great amazement of the governor.


Quote:
Mark 15: 1-5: Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.
"Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate.
"Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied.
The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, "Aren't you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of." But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.


Quote:
Luke 23: 1-4 Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. 2And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king."
So Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?"
"Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied.
Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no basis for a charge against this man."


Quote:
John 18: 33-37 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?"

"Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?"

"Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?"

Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place."

"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.

Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."


The synoptics agree: Pilate asks if Jesus is King of the Jews and Jesus answers "Yes, it is as you say."

You would think "speaking truth to power" would involve a bit more...something like, "I am King and you are a fraud...this entire imperial enterprise and its facade of power and domination...all of it a sham...just as these so called "Jews" are a joke and blemish on God's torah and promise of justice...neither you nor their council can deliver peace...you are mistaken to think you know the truth about power or the power of truth...your trials and whips and crosses establish injustice, deny peace and enforce lies wherever they go..."

Pilate even offers Jesus a chance to confront the lies made against him...and, instead of speaking truth to power, Jesus stays silent- to the amazement of Pilate.

John's Gospel comes closest to "speaking truth to power", but, as in the synoptics, Jesus does not confront Pilate with the injustice, lies and perversion of power that makes his empire possible...the Jews are held accountable, but not the Romans.

Speaking truth to power, in the very least, is an effort to hold power accountable: exposing its lies and abuses and how these deceptions are necessary in maintaining dominance.

Jesus, as the Gospels show, does not engage in this behavior...rather, like Chomsky, he speaks truth to an audience for which it makes a difference: the masses of peasants, fishermen, and other relatively powerless Jews living under Roman imperial occupation.



Tue Dec 23, 2008 10:41 pm
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I was looking primarily at Chomsky's comment "none of us can claim to have The Truth. We have our judgments and conclusions, and maybe good reasons for them. But these are at best tentative, and it is important to make that clear, ... So the idea of "speaking truth" is already flawed."

The difference with Jesus is precisely that Jesus did claim to have The Truth, and this faith inspired him firstly to confront the religious authorities in Israel, and then to see that his path was taking him necessarily to crucifixion. His judgement was that his message of truth would be better served by maintaining total integrity in going to the cross than in running away. He had already spoken truth to power by the time he came before Pilate, and his condensed statement about coming into the world in order to bear witness to truth summarised his mission. The path of the cross was an act of speaking truth to power, all the more potent for its silent symbolic intensity.

I agree with Chomsky if he is just saying that cultural relativism is necessary as a way of recognising the value of human diversity, but his quote above seems to me, and perhaps I am being unfair to him, to cross over into an epistemological relativism with his statement that our judgements are at best tentative. Some judgements are absolutely justified, so being tentative means we lack confidence in our views. Of course, many claims about truth have proven to be false, but that does not invalidate all such claims. Chomsky is displaying the modern secular prejudice against faith, grounded in the observation that faith is often wrong. It just seems that he excludes the possibility that faith can be correct, and its corrolary that faith is necessary to achieve change.



Wed Dec 24, 2008 1:03 am
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Robert Tulip wrote:
I agree with Chomsky if he is just saying that cultural relativism is necessary as a way of recognising the value of human diversity, but his quote above seems to me, and perhaps I am being unfair to him, to cross over into an epistemological relativism with his statement that our judgements are at best tentative. Some judgements are absolutely justified, so being tentative means we lack confidence in our views. Of course, many claims about truth have proven to be false, but that does not invalidate all such claims. Chomsky is displaying the modern secular prejudice against faith, grounded in the observation that faith is often wrong. It just seems that he excludes the possibility that faith can be correct, and its corrolary that faith is necessary to achieve change.

It appears to me that Chomsky veers toward "epistemological relativism" only to discredit the basis of the Quaker "speaking truth to power" that DH brought up. He doesn't really believe in this relativism, or else why would he hold such strong and "faithful" convictions of the immorality of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, among other strongly held views. I'm sure he sees his judgments as "absolutely justified" and this conviction has enabled him to have the career that he's had as a radical critic.

I don't think he's seriously making a statement about faith, because faith isn't even often involved directly in political matters, shouldn't be, and doesn't need to be. Faith can be argued for as a necessary element to have in the background. I wouldn't personally agree, but the argument can be made. Faith in some generic sense is often a problem, as you recognize. The fact that it is "faith" confers no advantage. The problem isn't just that faith should never be advanced as part and parcel of political objectives; it's also that faith is often self-serving and does not reflect God's way at all.

This brings us to Niebuhr in The Irony of American History. Niebuhr describes "faiths" that actually issue from human motives and desires. In the case of the American faith called exceptionalism (though by Bacevich, not Niebuhr), God is said to be behind this. In the case of the political faith called marxist-communism, God is nowhere present, but Niebuhr believes this ideology to be no less a religion. Obviously Niebuhr is no relativist when it comes to faith. It is just that for him the basis of faith has to be belief in a judge (not in the endtimes sense) who is also equivalent to providence. Humans possess the ability to grasp this truth of God's existence, but they do not have any ability to grasp truths about their own existence that would require them to transcend their limitations as creatures, which would be God-like. This is why Niebuhr is so hard on attempts to manage history. The forces involved are not understood by anyone and are certainly not controllable by anyone. This misunderstanding leads to idolatries of various kinds.



Thu Dec 25, 2008 9:25 am
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