Noam Chomsky on Pakistan

The following is taken from a 2002 interview of Noam Chomsky by Mashhood Rizvi. We are posting this excerpt in order to start a discussion around Professor Chomsky’s point that citizens have a moral responsibility to address the problems of their own country and not simply study the faults of others. We are particularly interested in his final sentence – “We ultimately have to take our fate into our own hands, not wait for salvation from somewhere else. It won’t come.”

During your visit to Pakistan many who approached you were hoping to hear ready–made solutions to all the problems Pakistan is faced with. However, you seemed to be pressing them to think hard and think critically about the problems as well as the possible solutions. You held yourself responsible for taking certain measures and actions regarding the role of your country (US) and expected others to do the same. Is it true?

Chomsky: It is definitely true. It is perhaps the most elementary of moral truisms, that we are responsible for the anticipated consequences of our own action, or inaction. It may be fine to study the crimes of Genghis Khan, but there is no moral value to condemning them; we can’t do anything about them. There is not much I can do – in fact, virtually nothing – about the very serious problems internal to Pakistan. I’d like to learn about them, and to understand them as best as I can. And I don’t refrain from saying what I think.

(a) Why is a moral value not attached to condemning the crimes of Genghis Khan? Don’t you think that along with studying his crimes, it is equally important to continue to condemn them so that anybody who commits similar atrocities does not get away with it.

(b) Also, as far as the existing imperial powers of the world are concerned, I think I am more than justified to condemn them, as their crimes are directly causing my people/country so much pain and suffering. The rise and rule of corporations in the West in so many ways is linked to Pakistan’s economy vis–à–vis the poverty of our nation; therefore, I think that it must be condemned by Pakistanis.

Chomsky: I am basing my remarks on what seems to me a moral truism: the moral evaluation of what we do depends on the anticipated consequences – in the cases we are discussing, human consequences. If I publish a paper here reviewing and condemning the crimes of Genghis Khan, the human consequences are approximately zero; I’m joining in universal condemnation, and adding another pea to the mountain certainly doesn’t help his victims, or anyone else for that matter.

Suppose in some part of the world, say Mongolia, his crimes were being suppressed or praised or even used as a model for current actions. Then it would be of great moral value to condemning his crimes there, because of the human consequences. Take your other example: condemnation in Pakistan of the impact of US corporate and state power in Pakistan. There is great moral value to condemn that in ways that affect the exercise of that power, which means mostly here, in the US. For Pakistanis, if the condemnations have no effect on the exercise of that power, then in that respect the moral value is slight; if they have an effect in raising the level of understanding of Pakistanis, to enable them to act more constructively, then the moral value could be great. In all cases, we are back to anticipated human consequences.

Let’s take a concrete case. For intellectuals in Russia in the Communist days, condemnation of US crimes had little if any moral value; in fact, it might have had negative value, in serving to buttress the oppressive and brutal Soviet system. In contrast, when Eastern European dissidents condemned the crimes of their own states and society, it had great moral value. That much everyone takes for granted: everyone, that is, outside the Soviet commissar class. Much the same holds in the West, point by point, except with much more force, because the costs of honest dissidence are so immeasurably less. And exactly as we would expect, these utterly trivial points are almost incomprehensible to Western intellectuals, when applied to them, though readily understood when applied to official enemies.

That’s why, for example, I was critical of Pakistan’s policies concerning Kashmir when speaking in Pakistan, and of India’s policies there when speaking in India. But I cannot – and no one else should – have a great deal of confidence in what I say as a concerned outsider. And there isn’t much that I can do about the very severe problems. In contrast, there is a great deal I can do about problems within the US, and about policy decisions of systems of power there. And for just that reason, that’s my primary responsibility.

Of course, it is not quite that simple. Outsiders can sometimes have useful advice and influence, and should try to use such opportunities. Nonetheless, the moral truism remains just that: a truism.

Quite apart from moral truisms, it is generally a mistake to expect outsiders to have valuable advice as to how to deal with one’s problems. That requires intimate knowledge and understanding. It’s sheer arrogance for those who lack that knowledge and understanding to offer solutions. And it makes little sense to wait for rescue from outside. That’s often just a way to evade responsibility.

Again, one shouldn’t exaggerate. Sympathy and support from friends is of enormous importance in personal life, and solidarity and mutual aid are of comparable importance over a broader sphere, including international affairs. Nonetheless, we ultimately have to take our fate into our own hands, not wait for salvation from somewhere else. It won’t come.

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