Chomsky, professor of linguistics at MIT, has been affiliated with CEIMSA since
its origins at
Priorities and Prospects
A few years ago, one of the great figures of contemporary biology, Ernst Mayr, published some reflections on the likelihood of success in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.1 He considered the prospects very low. His reasoning had to do with the adaptive value of what we call "higher intelligence," meaning the particular human form of intellectual organization. Mayr estimated the number of species since the origin of life at about fifty billion, only one of which "achieved the kind of intelligence needed to establish a civilization." It did so very recently, perhaps 100,000 years ago. It is generally assumed that only one small breeding group survived, of which we are all descendants.
Mayr speculated that the human form of intellectual organization may not be favored by selection. The history of life on Earth, he wrote, refutes the claim that "it is better to be smart than to be stupid," at least judging by biological success: beetles and bacteria, for example, are vastly more successful than humans in terms of survival. He also made the rather somber observation that "the average life expectancy of a species is about 100,000 years."
We are entering a period of human history that may provide an answer to the question of whether it is better to be smart than stupid. The most hopeful prospect is that the question will not be answered: if it receives a definite answer, that answer can only be that humans were a kind of "biological error, using their allotted 100,000 years to destroy themselves and, in the process, much else.
The species has surely developed the capacity to do just that, and a hypothetical extraterrestrial observer might well conclude that humans have demonstrated that capacity throughout their history, dramatically in the past few hundred years, with an assault on the environment that sustains life, on the diversity of more complex organisms, and with cold and calculated savagery, on each other as well.
The year 2003 opened with many indications that
concerns about human survival are all too realistic. To mention just a few
examples, in the early fall of 2002 it was learned that a possibly terminal
nuclear war was barely avoided forty years earlier. Immediately after this
startling discovery, the Bush administration blocked UN efforts to ban the
militarization of space, a serious threat to survival. The administration also
terminated international negotiations to prevent biological warfare and moved
to ensure the inevitability of an attack on
Aid organizations with extensive experience in
In September 2002 the Bush administration announced
its National Security Strategy, which declared the right to resort to force to
eliminate any perceived challenge to
President Bush and his associates also persisted in
undermining international efforts to reduce threats to the environment that are
recognized to be severe, with pretexts that barely concealed their devotion to
narrow sectors of private power. The administration's Climate Change Science
Program (CCSP), wrote Science magazine
editor Donald Kennedy, is a travesty that "included no recommendations
for emission limitation or other forms of mitigation," contenting itself
with "voluntary reduction targets, which, even if met, would allow US
emission rates to continue to grow at around 14% per decade." The CCSP did
not even consider the likelihood, suggested by "a growing body of
evidence," that the short-term warming changes it ignores "will
trigger an abrupt nonlinear process," producing dramatic temperature
changes that could carry extreme risks for the
By October 2002 it was becoming hard to ignore the
fact that the world was "more concerned about the unbridled use of American
power than ... about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein," and "as
intent on limiting the giant's power as ,.. in taking
away the despot's weapons."3
World concerns mounted in the months that followed, as the giant made Clear its intent to attack
By early 2003, studies revealed that fear of the
Though Bush planners are at an extreme end of the
traditional US Policy spectrum, their programs and doctrines have many precursors,
Let us try to unravel some of the many strands that enter into this complex tapestry, focusing attention on the world power that proclaims global hegemony. Its actions and guiding doctrines must be a primary concern for everyone on the planet, particularly, of course, for Americans. Many enjoy unusual advantages and freedom, hence the ability to shape the future, and should face with care the responsibilities that are the immediate corollary of such privilege.
Those who want to face their responsibilities with a genuine commitment to democracy and freedom -even to decent survival- should recognize the barriers that stand in the way. In violent states these are not concealed. In more democratic societies barriers are more subtle. While methods differ sharply from more brutal to more free societies, the goals are in many ways similar: to ensure that the "great beast," as Alexander Hamilton called the people, does not stray from its proper confines.
Controlling the general population has always been a
dominant concern of power and privilege, particularly since the first modern
democratic revolution in seventeenth-century
As president, Woodrow Wilson himself did not shrink
from severely repressive policies even within the
The "responsible men" who are the proper decision-makers, Lippmann continued, must "live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd." These "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders" are to be "spectators," not "participants." The herd does have a "function": to trample periodically in support of one or another element of the leadership class in an election. Unstated is that the responsible men gain that status not by virtue of any special talent or knowledge but by willing subordination to the systems of actual power and loyalty to their operative principles-crucially, that basic decisions over social and economic life are to be kept within institutions with top-down authoritarian control, while the participation of the beast is to be limited to a diminished public arena.
Just how diminished the public arena should be is a matter of debate. Neoliberal initiatives of the past thirty years have been designed to restrict it, leaving basic decision-making within largely unaccountable private tyrannies, linked closely to one another and to a few powerful states. Democracy can then survive, but in sharply reduced form. The Reagan-Bush sectors have taken an extreme position in this regard, but the policy spectrum is fairly narrow. Some argue that it scarcely exists at all, mocking the pundits who "actually make a living contrasting the finer points of the sitcoms on NBC with those broadcast on CBS" during election campaigns: "Through tacit agreement the two major parties approach the contest for the presidency [as] political kabuki [in which] the players know their roles and everyone sticks to the script," "striking poses" that cannot be taken seriously.7
If the public escapes its marginalization and passivity, we face a "crisis of democracy" that must be overcome, liberal intellectuals explain, in part through measures to discipline the institutions responsible for "the indoctrination of the young"-schools, universities, churches, and the like-and perhaps even through government control of the media, if self-censorship does not suffice.8
these views, contemporary intellectuals are drawing on good constitutional
sources. James Madison held that power must be delegated to "the wealth of
the nation," "the more capable set of men," who understand that
the role of government is "to protect the minority of the opulent against
the majority." Precapitalist in his worldview,
that control of opinion is the foundation of government, from the most
despotic to the most free, goes back at least to David Hume, but a
qualification should be added. It is far more important in the more free
societies, where obedience cannot be maintained by the lash. It is only natural
that the modern institutions of thought control-frankly called propaganda
before the word became unfashionable because of totalitarian
associations-should have originated in the most free Societies.
domestic control become Particularly Severe when the governing authorities
carry out policies that are opposed by the general population. in those cases, the political leadership may be tempted to
follow the path of the Reagan administration, which established an Office of
Public Diplomacy to manufacture consent for its murderous Policies in
enemy at home often has to be controlled by intensive Propaganda, beyond the
borders more direct means are available. The leaders of the current Bush
administration -mostly recycled from more reactionary sectors of the
Bush-Reagan I administrations- provided Sufficiently clear illustrations during
their earlier stints in office. When the traditional regime of violence and
repression was challenged by the Church and other miscreants in the Central
American domains of
other Central American countries targeted by the Reaganite
"war on terror," forces equipped and trained by the
mid-1980s, the US-backed state terrorist campaigns had created societies
"affected by terror and panic . . . collective intimidation and
generalized fear," in the words of a leading Church-based Salvadoran human
rights organization: the population had “internalized acceptance”
of "the daily and frequent use of violent means" and "the frequent
appearance of tortured bodies." Returning from a brief visit to his
terrorist commanders had achieved their goals, the consequences were reviewed
at a conference in San Salvador of Jesuits and lay associates, who had more
than enough personal experience to draw on, quite apart from what they had
observed through the grisly decade of the 1980s. The conference concluded that
it does not suffice to focus on the terror alone. it is no less important
"to explore... what weight the culture of terror has had in domesticating
the expectations of the majority," preventing them from considering
"alternatives to the demands of the powerful."13 Not only in
Destroying hope is a critically important project. And when it is achieved, formal democracy is allowed -even preferred, if only for public-relations purposes. In more honest circles, much of this is conceded. Of course, it is understood much more profoundly by the beasts in men's shapes who endure the consequences of challenging the imperatives of stability and order.
These are all matters that the second superpower, world public opinion, should make every effort to understand if it hopes to escape the containment to which it is subjected and to take seriously the ideals of justice and freedom that come easily to the lips but are harder to defend and advance.
1. Mayr, Bioastronomy News 7, no.3 (1995).
2. Donald Kennedy, Science 299,
3. Howard LaFranchi,
Christian Science Monitor,
5. For sources on Wilsonian idealism and the seventeenth century, see my Deterring
Democracy (Verso, 1991; extended edition, Hill & Wang, 1992), chapter 12, and my
Profit over People (Seven Stories, 1999), chapter 2. For a more extensive discussion and
scholarly sources, see my "Consent without Consent,"
Review 44, no.4 (1996). Minor changes (punctuation, etc.) are introduced here for ease of
6. Cited by David Foglesong,
7. Andrew Bacevich, American Empire (Harvard, 2003), pp. 200ff.
8. M. J. Crozier,
S. P. Huntington, and J. Watanuki, The
Crisis of Democracy (
University, 1975), report to the Trilateral Commission.
9. Randal Marlin, Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion (Broadview, 2002).
10. For a discussion of this vast disinformation campaign, see my Culture of Terrorism
(South End, 1988) and Necessary Illusions (South End, 1989), which draw particularly
on the important but mostly neglected
expose's by Alfonso Chardy
and later official sources.
11. On the narrow limits of permitted discussion, see my Necessary Illusions. For case
studies over a wider range, see Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent (Pantheon, 1988; updated edition 2002).
12. Latin American Documentation (LADOC), Torture
13. Juan Hernandez Pico, Envio