“The reasons for my concern”

Noam Chomsky

Response to Celia Jakubowicz, in C. P. Otero (ed.), Language and Politics, Black Rose, 1988, pp. 369-72
(letter dated June 13, 1983)

The main reasons for my concern with U.S. foreign policy are that I find it, in general, horrifying, and that I think that it is possible for me to do something to modify it, at least to mitigate some of its most dangerous and destructive aspects. In the concrete circumstances of my own society, where I live and work, there are various ways to do this: speaking, writing, organizing, demonstrating, resisting, and others. Over the years, I’ve been engaged in a variety of such activities.

The foreign policy of other states is also in general horrifying — roughly speaking, states are violent to the extent that they have the power to act in the interests of those with domestic power — but there is not very much that I can do about it. It is, for example, easy enough for an American intellectual to write critical analyses of the behavior of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe (or in supporting the Argentine generals), but such efforts have little if any effect in modifying or reversing the actions of the U.S.S.R. Rather, such efforts, which are naturally much welcomed by those who dominate the ideological institutions here, may serve to contribute to the violence of the American state, by reinforcing the images of Soviet brutality (often accurate) that are used to frighten Americans into conformity and obedience. I do not suggest that this is a reason to avoid critical analysis of the U.S.S.R.; in fact, I have often written on the foreign policy of the Soviet state. Nor would I criticize someone who devotes much, even all his work to this task. But we should understand that the moral value of this work is at best very slight, where the moral value of an action is judged in terms of its human consequences. In fact, rather delicate judgments sometimes arise, for people who are committed to decent moral values. Suppose, for example, that some German intellectual chose in 1943 to write articles on terrible things done by Britain, or the U.S., or the Jews. What he wrote might be correct, but we would not be very much impressed.

The same comments hold for a Soviet intellectual who devotes himself to a critical analysis of U.S. atrocities in Southeast Asia or Central America (or to the American support for the Argentine generals). What he says may be correct; its significance, for people being bombed or terrorized or tortured within the domains of American power and influence is negligible, possibly even negative. These are truisms, constantly denied by intellectual servants of state power who, for obvious reasons, pretend not to understand them and typically criticize those who act in accordance with decent moral principles as having a “double standard” or worse.

I try to concentrate my political activities — writing included — in areas where there is some moral significance to these activities, hence primarily in areas where people I can reach may act to change policies that are abhorrent, dangerous and destructive. Of course there are other factors that influence my choices, facts about my personal history, etc., which are of no interest here. One can have many reasons for engaging in political action. If the reasons are to help suffering people, to avert threats or catastrophes, and so on, then the criteria are fairly clear. For an American intellectual, these criteria dictate a prime concern for policies undertaken and pursued here, whether in the international or domestic arenas.

In some intellectual circles, it is considered naive or foolish to be guided by moral principles. About this form of idiocy, I will have nothing to say.

I should emphasize that I have tried to follow these criteria (qualified by matters of personal interest and personal history) in all of the areas of political action in which I have been engaged. Writing has been only one part of this and and in fact a rather small part. I do a vast amount of speaking, and for many years was engaged in direct action of one sort or another (demonstrations, resistance, etc.)

Here questions of tactical judgment arise. In the current situation here, there are a number of contributions that intellectuals can make to the struggle for peace and justice…. One is to serve as a “resource,” to provide information and analysis. American intellectuals are highly privileged. They have the kind of training, facilities, access to information and opportunity to organize and control their own work that enable them to make a very significant contribution to people who are trying to escape the confines of indoctrination and to understand something about the real world in which they live; in particular to people who may be willing to act to change this world. For the same reasons, they can be active and effective as organizers. Furthermore, by virtue of their privilege, intellectuals are often “visible.” They can exploit their privilege in valuable and important ways. For example, if actions of civil disobedience are undertaken by people who do not enjoy the privilege that is very unequally distributed in a class society, they are likely to be neglected, or crushed by force. If people who enjoy such privilege play a visible role in such actions, the danger of state violence is considerably lessened (in the U.S., not everywhere), and the effectiveness of the action may also be enhanced.

These are quite substantive issues, which constantly arise in all forms of political action. People make different decisions, based on their tactical judgments and personal preference, as to how to distribute their commitments and actions among the various possibilities that the society allows. Some of my closest friends have chosen to dedicate themselves almost completely to organizing and direct action. I’ve chosen a somewhat different mixture, and it has varied at different times. In the 1960s, for example, I was much more involved in direct action on both foreign policy and domestic issues than I am today, the reasons being a different judgment as to how I can most effectively use my energy, my talents, and my privilege.

The reasons I have devoted most of my writing and direct political action — though not all of it — to problems of foreign policy are several. In part, it reflects a judgment as to relative importance: the impact of U.S. foreign policy on millions of people throughout the world is enormous, and furthermore these policies substantially increase the probability of superpower conflict and global catastrophe. In part, it reflects my feeling that while many people here do excellent and important work concerning crucial domestic issues, very few concerned themselves in the same way and with the same depth of commitment to foreign policy issues. In part, I suppose, it reflects personal factors which, again, are of little interest here.

In the domain of foreign policy, I have tried to focus my energies in areas that are not only significant, by the criteria just mentioned, but also relatively ignored…. Putting it a bit crudely, it is best to tell people that which they least want to hear, to take up the least popular causes, other things being equal. These are, of course, transitory and sometimes personal judgments….