Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.
Amidst seemingly endless stacks of books, papers, and journals is a poster containing the above quote, penned by Bertrand Russell, on a wall of the office of world-renowned linguist and political dissident, Noam Chomsky.
“Wow, I never knew he was so deep,” comments a redditor, reacting to this peculiar fact about Chomsky’s office space.
Indeed, Chomsky never was the armchair intellectual that many criticize; in fact, pervading his writings and lectures are not just cogent arguments about the state of politics worldwide, but there is also a deep sense of compassion for those suffering at the hands of tyrannical forces.
It’s easy to wax theoretical and philosophical and, as a result, forget the fact that real people are suffering and being slaughtered mercilessly because of policies drawn up and pursued by violent states around the world.
And the media makes this fact far easier to forget: They display the crimes of our official enemies with great horror (horror which is justified, of course), but they never dare to play on the evening news footage of the wreckage caused by the bombings of Iraq, for example, or President Obama’s drone program.
George Orwell recognized this trend long before the farce that is the mainstream media today; nothing has changed but the medium through which the official propaganda is dispensed.
Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage – torture, the use of hostages, forced labor, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians – which does not change its moral color when it is committed by ‘our’ side.
Atrocities are not atrocities anymore, depending upon who carries them out.
When ISIS burns an innocent victim alive, the world is outraged, and rightfully so.
But when the United States launches a drone missile which assassinates someone “suspected” of terrorism, while also killing or maiming innocents, there is virtually no reaction in the mainstream American media.
Orwell continues on this point:
The fact that the latter crimes are carried out with modern technology while the former is done by way of bronze-age savagery makes no difference: They are both atrocities, they should both be condemned.
The media, of course, works to convince us that all actions committed by the United States are noble and well-intentioned by definition, thus limiting the condemnation of our atrocities.
We are told that the bombing of civilians is simply an unfortunate consequence of a grand scheme of liberation of a people, or democracy, or freedom.
But, if one looks closely enough, it is clear that this is a baseless and empty justification. Chomsky points out that,
Wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism.
Every nation is convinced that what their side does is correct; everyone professes noble intentions. Because they are to be expected, claims of noble intent are worthless.
It comes down to whether or not we accept a basic moral truism: We must apply to ourselves the same standards which we impose on others. If we condemn their atrocities, we must also be prepared turn the mirror upon ourselves, upon our own atrocities.
If we are unwilling to do so, we will forever be viewed as hypocrites (at best), unable to recognize our murderous actions around the world, and thus unable to do anything about them.
…if an action is right (or wrong) for others, it is right (or wrong) for us. Those who do not rise to the minimal moral level of applying to themselves the standards they apply to others—more stringent ones, in fact—plainly cannot be taken seriously when they speak of appropriateness of response; or of right and wrong, good and evil.
Speaking of the United States’ sponsor of death squads, military coups, and overall torment in Latin America throughout the 1900’s, Chomsky emphasizes the most important point of all his writings and talks criticizing the powers of the world: We must, if we are to manufacture change, pay vigilant attention to the cries of our victims.
We must understand their suffering, we must internalize it, and we must fight for change in all ways possible.
…the main point we ought to bear in mind: The real victims of the policies we conduct in Latin America, and in much of the rest of the world, the real victims are the millions of brutalized, tortured people throughout much of the Third World.
Now, we have a very highly effective ideological system, and it prevents us from seeing any of this.
Our institutions protect us from all of this, except very sporadically and in a very misleading way, as if they were isolated phenomena or some sort of odd consequences of our unique benevolence…This is a very important topic, rarely studied, just as the main drift of American history is rarely studied…If we had the honesty, and the moral courage, we would not let a day pass without listening to the cries of the victims.
And by that I mean we would turn on the radio in the morning and, as we wake up, we would hear, let’s say, a report from Chiché province in Guatemala, where a couple of refugees who straggled out can tell the story of how the Guatemalan army drove all of the population in the village into the town center, then took the men out, beheaded them, then raped and killed all the women, took the children, took them out to the near river, and bashed their heads against the rocks.
That’s what we’d hear in the morning. Then, later in the day, we’d listen to the huge flood of reports from refugees from Amnesty International, from Survival International, from Americas Watch, from all the mainstream human rights organizations, which have just poured out an immense flow of horrors on this subject.
But we very successfully manage to insulate ourselves from all of this. This whole grim reality is something we don’t hear about. We’re insulated; we can be happy and cheerful.
By so doing, we sink to a level of moral depravity that really has very few counterparts in the modern world, and we also help to fan the flames that, sooner or later, will engulf us as well.
The world is a brutal place, and this is easy to forget while being bombarded with reality television and the endless celebrity gossip so important to rich, Western societies.
Some may feel that action is futile, that the world is too brutal, that we can’t make a difference. But history says otherwise.
Action works. Speaking out, utilizing the privilege that we have, works. It may take time, it may take significant effort, but it works.
Wars have been brought to a screeching halt, military action has been prevented, policies have been rethought, lives have been saved due to civil disobedience, moral courage, and persistence.
But, in order to take action, we cannot avoid the reality of this world, and how horrible the suffering truly is, and how much of it is caused by the great Western powers. We can’t forget about the consequences of our actions around the world, or the consequences of our inaction here, at home. Chomsky elaborates a bit:
It makes sense to work towards a better world, but it doesn’t make any sense to have illusions about what the real world is.