Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix V Segment 32/33
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Throughout, I have been keeping largely to the liberal side of the spectrum, which tends to endorse at least the abstract right of freedom of expression, and to the more subtle -- though very effective -- measures of control of thought and expression that result from the normal workings of the sociopolitical system. But as American history to the present shows with great clarity, there is a persistent strain of opposition to the entire concept of freedom of speech and association. We see this clearly in the experience of the World Wars and the postwar repressions, the wave of political firings in the universities to try to hold back the challenge to elite authority that arose in the 1960s, the FBI COINTELPRO operations that peaked during the liberal administrations of the 1960s and the quite limited concern evoked when they were exposed during the furor over Watergate, and much else. We see it again in the vulgar jingoist rhetoric of the Bush presidential campaign of 1988 (the demand that the state should force children to pledge allegiance to the flag, for example, vigorously endorsed by many opponents of freedom in the mainstream), in the significant impact of religious fundamentalism, and other noteworthy phenomena.
There also continue to be those who are not satisfied with the kind of popular vigilantism sponsored by the government during World War I, and who want the state itself to register and identify those thoughts that it is impermissible to think. It is important to bear in mind that they are by no means regarded as quasi-fascist extremists. To illustrate, I will review only one interesting recent example.
Consider historian Guenter Lewy, whose concept of the writing of moral-historical tracts, highly praised as "sophisticated and profound," is misrepresentation of documents, uncritical regurgitation of government claims, and dismissal of annoying facts that contradict them, and whose concept of morality is such as to legitimate virtually any atrocity against civilians once the state has issued its commands.195 Writing on the "basic ground rules" required for the marketplace of ideas to function properly, he assures the reader of his support for freedom of speech and free exchange of ideas, and then outlines just how these values are to be understood. His basic conception is that because of the threat of subversion, the inadequacy of private vigilantism, and the limits imposed upon the state authorities, the state must find novel means to protect the public from contamination by subversives and to "energize the democratic forces." Without the intrusion of the state to keep the marketplace fair and the contest equal, he holds, the "democratic forces" of the mainstream lack the means to "counteract falsehoods propagated by extremist groups" and their "deception."196
The problems that trouble Lewy arose as state and popular vigilantism declined by the late 1950s. The country "completely lost interest in the issue of communist subversion," Congress "called for abandoning the term `subversion'," and "Attorney General Edward H. Levi confined the domestic intelligence function of the FBI to activities that involve a violation of federal law." It is doubtful, he warns, that the FBI "is keeping adequate track of [groups other than the Communist Party] that act directly or indirectly under the direction of Cuba, Nicaragua, Communist China, or other hostile states" (quoting "a well-informed student of the subject").
Since the 1960s, Lewy continues, "the United States has had to cope with the New Left," a broad category in his account, and apparently not part of the United States; "the United States" is implicitly identified with the state authorities who have to "cope with" improper thoughts and must have the means to do so.
Resolutely addressing the problems posed by the tolerance and naive liberalism of the post-McCarthy era, the state must take action against "the ever-changing scene of loosely organized groups" that constitute the New Left. These organizations, Lewy asserts, have a "hidden agenda" which "makes them subversive and therefore unacceptable." "Rather than acknowledge their espousal of Cuban-style Communism or their solidarity with Marxist-Leninists in Central America, New Left groups pretend to defend peace and justice and talk of a progressive social and economic order. Some speak of using a Marxist paradigm though in fact they are fully committed to Communism (or Marxism-Leninism, the currently fashionable term that appears to sound more benign)." Open espousal of Marxism- Leninism is "unacceptable" in a democratic society, even "subversive," and those who conceal this "hidden agenda" are even more dangerous. It may be, he concedes, that some New Leftists "act from a deep alienation more than from allegiance to communism, but this is irrelevant from the viewpoint of surveillance" by the state authorities. That these subversives might have some motives other than hidden allegiance to Communism or psychic disorders is plainly inconceivable. Presumably, then, New Leftists who condemn Marxist-Leninist theory and practice in a manner far more serious and searching than will be found in Lewy's pronouncements must be laboring to conceal their "hidden agenda."
Such techniques of Straussian interpretation, discerning hidden agendas whatever actual texts may say, is a most useful device for the guardians of authority and propriety. These methods provide an automatic "proof" for virtually any desired conclusion. If the conclusion is unsupported by any textual evidence, or even directly refuted by the texts, that merely shows that the authors are even worse criminals, not merely pursuing their evil ways but attempting to conceal them by pretense and cunning. We must not be misled by the trickery of these sly dogs, readily unravelled by the mind of the commissar. By Lewy's logic, it would be child's play to demonstrate that he and his publishers are agents of the Third Reich, working to reverse its unfortunate defeat.
Some of these subversives, Lewy continues, are virtual foreign agents. He quotes sociologist James Q. Wilson on the "maddeningly difficult" problem of determining which "dissident groups" fall into this category; when, for example, should it include someone "who travels to a foreign country to receive training, or who accepts foreign money to cover the expenses of his organization, or who secretly collaborates, without pay, with foreign powers in the pursuit of their policy objectives?" The tasks of the commissar are indeed daunting. One doubts, incidentally, that Lewy and Wilson have in mind the more obvious cases that fall within their paranoid constructions, American Zionists, for example.
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195 See the review of his America in Vietnam reprinted in Towards a New Cold War (co-authored with Edward Herman).
196 Lewy, "Does America Need a Verfassungsschutzbericht?," Orbis, Fall 1987.