Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Donald: A 21st Century Sancho Panza

The United Kingdom voted to Brexit, and the United States chose Donald Trump to be president, and both of these events, as well as other popular uprisings, have been interpreted as a global rejection of the era of neoliberal politics and economics. The election of Donald Trump has the added feature of marking the rise of an uncouth outsider, a hillbilly from Long Island. The shocking event seems to be a sort of cosmic riddle or zen koan in which a vulgar buffoon is both wrong about much but right about a little, in ways that have confounded all observers. Some see his victory as an absolutely repulsive development, yet millions of people love him, while others have had to reluctantly admit that he is the broken clock that is correct twice a day, or there is method in his madness, or he is the Schrödinger's cat of politics: simultaneously brilliant and dumb, blunt and sharp, the lesser evil and the greater evil.
I propose here that an overlooked comparison is that he resembles Sancho Panza in the classic novel by Cervantes, Don Quixote. A major element of this famous story consists of Sancho’s constant hope of being rewarded with a governorship after his long, faithful service to his master, the deranged but brilliant Don Quixote. Throughout the novel, the deluded pair speak about the dream of having lands to rule over while they engage in many lengthy discussions about the art of governance.
Don Quixote is the fictional errant knight created by Miguel de Cervantes in two works of fiction, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha Part 1 (1605) and Part 2 (1615). Spain had just spent a century plundering the silver of the new world, but the galleon trade had corrupted the nobility, caused global financial chaos, and ultimately weakened the Spanish empire. Carlos Fuentes described it as “a country that has conquered and plundered and built a New World in the Americas and returns, exhausted.”[1]
Don Quixote is a late middle-aged estate owner who, having read too many romantic tales of chivalric knights, seeks greater meaning in life by setting off on a life of adventure and daring-do with his servant and sidekick, Sancho Panza. As the road story unfolds, Don Quixote must see every mundane encounter through a lens of delusion in order to make it meet his expectation of adventure and his need to do good. Imagination must test reality, or reality must test imagination.
Part 1 was a literary success that Cervantes added to ten years later with Part 2, and with these he gave the Western canon some of its earliest meta-fiction before there was a word for it (Shakespeare’s play within the play appeared in the same decade). In the contemporary era, we know that real gangsters watch the fictional Silvio from the television drama The Sopranos doing an imitation of Al Pacino from the fictional movie The Godfather Part 3. Before all this, in the early seventeenth century, Cervantes had his hero in Part 2 living in a world in which everyone he meets has read Part 1, and his celebrity as the foolish, errant knight is what leads him to be invited by real aristocrats to a real castle for their mocking amusement and his humiliation.
In this castle, Don Quixote is finally living the dream, but it is here that he eventually becomes aware that only his previous make-believe at a country inn, which he imagined was a castle, has lived up to his ideals. Life with true aristocrats has shown him their treachery. After all, the noble baron turns out to be a greater fake than the deluded knight. It is revealed by his servants that he is hopelessly in debt to the rising merchant class. As Don Quixote wakes up from his illusions, the aristocrats are disillusioned as well, for they have been slow to realize that they needed Don Quixote more than he needed them. He possessed something essential that they lacked in themselves. As the reviewer Richard Eder put it, “Seeking to toy with him, they are toyed with, just as readers have been ever since.”[2] As a child who grew up on American television in the 1960s, when I read Don Quixote, I could finally see the influences behind The Beverly Hillbillies, a rags-to-riches tale of mutual satire between country bumpkins and elites.

In a review of the English translation by Edith Grossman, the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote:

The illusion comes crashing down. Books are no longer the grand, imaginative truth that moved Don Quixote through perils without end. So the windmills were not giants. So the armies were only flocks of sheep. So reality is shabby, gray, unarmed... What can Don Quixote do but return home, get into bed, recover his reason and peacefully die? The “impossible dream” is over. No wonder that Dostoyevsky, in his diary, calls Don Quixote “the saddest book ever written.” For it is, he adds, “the story of disillusionment.” That Edith Grossman has brought all these levels—and many more—to contemporary life is a major literary achievement. For to read Don Quixote, in an increasingly Manichaean world of simplistic Good versus Evil and inquisitorial dogmas, becomes one of the healthiest experiences a modern, democratic citizen can undertake.[3]

   Don Quixote’s sidekick, Sancho Panza, is the fool when his master is wise, and wise when his master is the fool. Throughout the story he often forgets, or pretends to forget, that his master is mad, and he goes along with his delusions, imagining that when Don Quixote prevails, he himself will be rewarded with a fiefdom (an insula, or island) in Africa that will provide him with an endless bounty of wine, gems and young maidens. Later in the story, the duke and duchess create an elaborate prank in which Sancho is told they have made him the governor of one of their territories. After ten days of living through this prank, which he never catches onto, he learns that power comes with a price a price too steep to pay, and he jumps at the chance to return to his humble home. Meanwhile, everyone who has toyed with him is in awe of the wisdom with which the presumed fool has governed.
   Carlos Fuentes said in his review of Grossman’s translation, “Don Quixote has so many levels of significance that I can set foot on only a couple of them.” I leave it to readers to add their own ideas about what the great tale means in this age when the American empire is, like Spain in the 17th century, straining to deal with the disillusionment that comes after a century of ruling the world.
Although the discussions about the art of governing are treated lightly by the characters in the novel, they have been taken seriously by scholars as reflections of political philosophy in the 16th and 17th centuries. In one of the notes in the English translation, Edith Grossman stated:

Don Quixote’s advice to Sancho is one of the most famous passages in the novel. Martin de Riquer notes the difficulty of determining Cervantes’ exact sources, although he states that the general influence of Erasmus is evident, and he also cites a handful of books on good government, both classical and Renaissance, available in Spanish at the time. Whatever the sources, Don Quixote’s remarks to the future governor are clearly the polar opposite of Machiavelli’s counsel to the prince.[4]

The excerpts below illustrate some obvious resemblances to the rhetoric, conservative politics, and personality of Donald Trump, although we might conclude that Sancho comes across in the end as more humane, thanks to his enduring attachment to his humble roots. Nonetheless, Sancho's autocratic and conservative tendencies are plain to see. Beyond these comparisons, the conversations in the story include much sage advice that we wish Donald Trump would take to heart because they describe, as Edith Grossman noted above, a humanistic alternative to Machiavelli.
The contemporary situation also resembles Sancho’s because it seems that the American elites who exhibited such tragic hubris in 2016 were also toying with the Donald and ended up being toyed with themselves, just like the duke and duchess in Cervantes’ novel. It also seems clear that Donald’s reign will be short like that of Sancho, who soon tired of his governorship and longed to return to his simple life. There is reason to suspect that the Donald may have been set up in his station, at first because he was supposed to lose, but then later perhaps in order to play at being king for a while so the ruling class could withdraw for a spell to regroup and avoid the ruinous consequences of their time in power. This presidency is either a deliberate man-made prank or a cosmic prank for all to contemplate. It could be that Trump is set to be the fall guy for an overdue economic shock and period of chaos that would have come with or without him. The similarities end there, of course, because there is nothing of a pretend kingdom in a situation in which the man “playing governor” has access to the nuclear codes, but Cervantes’ words nonetheless shed some interesting light on these strange days in Washington.

Excerpts from Don Quixote concerning Sancho Panza’s brief governorship of Insula Barataria

Don Quixote’s advice to Sancho upon assuming the duties of his governorship:

You… find yourself rewarded with all your desires. Others bribe, importune, solicit, are early risers, plead, persist, and do not achieve what they long for, and another comes along and without knowing how or why finds himself with the office and position that many others strove for; and here the saying certainly applies and is appropriate: aspirations are ruled by good and bad fortune. You, who in my opinion are undoubtedly a dolt, and who, without rising early or staying up late or making any effort whatsoever, with nothing more than the breath of knight errantry that has touched you, without further ado find yourself governor of an insula as if it were no consequence. I say all this, O Sancho, so that you do not attribute the kindness you have received to your own merits, but give thanks to heaven for disposing matters so sweetly, and then to the greatness that lies in the profession of knight errantry.

… offices and great responsibilities are nothing more than a deep gulf of confusions… you must look at who you are and make an effort to know yourself, which is the most difficult knowledge one can imagine. When you know yourself, you will not puff yourself up like the frog who wanted to be the equal of the ox.

… those who are not of noble origin should bring to the gravity of the position they hold a gentle-mildness which, guided by prudence, may save them from the malicious gossip that no station in life can escape.

If you bring your wife with you (because it is not a good idea for those who attend to governing for a long time to be without their own spouses), teach her, instruct her, and smooth away her natural roughness, because everything a wise governor acquires can be lost and wasted by a crude and foolish wife.

Never be guided by arbitrariness in law, which tends to have a good deal of influence on ignorant men who take pride in being clever. Let the tears of the poor find in you more compassion, but not more justice, than the briefs of the wealthy. Try to discover the truth in all the promises and gifts or the rich man, as well as in the poor man’s sobs and entreaties. When there can and should be a place for impartiality, do not bring the entire rigor of the law to bear on the offender, for the reputation of the harsh judge is not better than that of the compassionate one. If you happen to bend the staff of justice, let it be with the weight not of a gift but of mercy.

Do not be blinded by your own passion in another’s trial, for most of the time the mistakes you make cannot be remedied, and if they can, it will be to the detriment of your good name and even your fortune. If a beautiful woman comes to you to plead for justice, turn your eyes from her tears and your ears from her sobs, and consider without haste the substance of what she is asking if you do not want your reason to be drowned in her weeping and your goodness in her sighs. If you must punish a man with deeds, do not abuse him with words, for the pain of punishment is enough for the unfortunate man without the addition of malicious speech. Consider the culprit who falls under your jurisdiction as a fallen man subject to the conditions of our depraved nature, and to the extent that you can, without doing injury to the opposing party, show him compassion and clemency, because although all the attributes of God are equal, in our view mercy is more brilliant and splendid than justice.

If you follow these precepts and rules, Sancho, your days will be long, your fame eternal, your rewards overflowing, your joy indescribable. (p. 729)

Sancho to Don Quixote: I’ll have no lack of ability to govern it, and if I do, I’ve heard it said that there are men in the world who farm the estates of gentlemen, who pay them so much each year to manage everything, and the gentleman sits with his feet up, enjoying the rent they pay him and not worrying about anything else, and that’s what I’ll do.

Don Quixote’s reply: That’s fine as far as enjoying the rent is concerned, but the administration of justice has to be tended to by the owner of the estate, and this is where ability and good judgment come in, and in particular a real intention to do what is right, for if this is lacking in the beginning, the middle and the end will always be wrong.

Sancho: I have as much soul as any other man, and as much body as the biggest of them, and I’ll be as much king of my estate as any other is of his; and this being true, I’ll do what I want, and doing what I want, I’ll do what I like, and doing what I’ll like, I’ll be happy, and when a man is happy he doesn’t wish for anything else, and not wishing for anything else, that’ll be the end of it, so bring on my estate, and God willing we’ll see, as one blind man said to the other. (p. 431)

They [Don Quixote and two friends] began to discuss what is called reason of state and ways of governing, correcting this abuse and condemning that one, reforming one custom and eliminating another, each one of the three becoming a new legislator… and they so transformed the nation that it seemed as if they had placed it in the forge and taken out a new one. (p. 460)

A friend advising Sancho: those who govern insulas have to know grammar at the very least… offices can alter behavior, and it might be that when you are governor you won’t know the mother who bore you. (p. 477, 488)

Don Quixote: … at times his [Sancho’s] simpleness is so clever that deciding if he is simple or clever is a cause of no small pleasure; his slyness condemns him for a rogue, and his thoughtlessness confirms him as a simpleton; he doubts everything, and he believes everything; when I think that he is about to plunge headlong into foolishness, he comes out with perceptions that raise him to the skies… by dint of long experience we know that neither great ability nor great learning is needed to be a governor, for there are in the world at least a hundred who barely know how to read, and who govern in a grand manner; the essential point is that they have good intentions and the desire to always do the right thing, for they will never lack someone to guide and counsel them in what they must do. (674)

Sancho to the Duchess: I believe my master, Don Quixote, is completely crazy, even though sometimes he says things that in my opinion, and in the opinion of everybody who hears him, are so intelligent and well-reasoned that Satan himself couldn’t say them better; but even so, truly and without any scruples, it’s clear to me that he’s a fool.

The Duchess’ reply: … Since Don Quixote of La Mancha is a madman, a fool and a simpleton, and Sancho Panza his squire knows this and still serves him, and believes his hollow promises, there can be no doubt that he is more of a madman and a dimwit than his master; and this being the case, and it is, it will not be to your credit, Senora Duchess [speaking to herself in the third person], if you give this Sancho Panza an insula to govern, because if a man cannot govern himself, how will he govern others?

Sancho’s reply: … if I were a clever man, I would have left my master days ago. But this is my fate and this is my misfortune; I can’t help it; I have to follow him: we’re from the same village, I’ve eaten his bread, I love him dearly, he’s a grateful man… I’m faithful; and so it’s impossible for anything to separate us except the man with the pick and shovel. (678)

Sancho: As for governing them well, there’s no need to charge me with it, because I am charitable by nature and have compassion for the poor; and if he kneads and bakes, you can’t steal his cakes, by my faith, they won’t throw me any crooked dice; I’m an old dog and understand every here, boy, and I know how to wake up at the right time, and I don’t allow cobwebs in front of my eyes, because I know if the shoe fits: I say this because with me good men will have my hand and a place in my house, and bad men won’t get a foot or permission to enter. And it seems to me that in this business of governorships it’s all a matter of starting, and it may be that after two weeks of being a governor I’ll be licking my lips over work and know more about it than working in the fields, which is what I’ve grown up doing. (680)

Sancho: After I came down from the sky, and after I looked at the earth from that great height and saw how small it was, the burning desire I had to be governor cooled a little; where’s the greatness in ruling a mustard seed, or the dignity and pride in governing half a dozen men the size of hazel nuts? … Let’s have the insula, and I’ll do my best to be a good governor that in spite of rogues and rascals I’ll go to heaven; it isn’t greed that makes me want to leave my hut or rise to better things, but a desire I have to try it and see what it tastes like to be a governor.

The Duke: If you try it once… you’ll long to eat it again, because it is a very sweet thing to give orders and be obeyed.

Sancho: I imagine it is good to command, even if it is only a herd of cattle. (p. 729)

He [Don Quixote] spoke nonsense only with regard to chivalry, and in other conversations he demonstrated a clear and confident understanding, so that his actions constantly belied his judgment, and his judgment belied his actions; but in this matter of the additional advice he gave to Sancho, he showed that he possessed great cleverness and revealed to a very high degree both his intelligence and his madness. (p. 732)

Sancho: Let them make fun of me and speak ill of me: they’ll come for wool and go home shorn; and when God loves you, your house knows it; and the rich man’s folly passes for good judgment in the world; and since that’s what I’ll be, being a governor and a very generous one, which is what I plan to be, nobody will notice any faults in me. No, just be like honey and the flies will go after you; you’re only worth as much as you have, my grandmother used to say; and you can’t get revenge on a well-established man… Nobody should take on his governor or the person in authority because he’ll come out of it hurt. (p. 735)

Don Quixote: … this plump little body of yours is nothing but a sack filled with proverbs and guile. (p. 736)

Don Quixote on how Sancho governed:

… one can deduce that those who govern, even if they are fools, are occasionally guided by God in their judgments (p. 750)

… serious offices and responsibilities either strengthen the mind or make it torpid. (p. 773)

Sancho: It is my intention to clear this insula of all kinds of filth, as well as people who are vagrants, idlers and sluggards, because I want you to know, my friends, that shiftless, lazy people are to the nation what drones are to the hive: they eat the honey that the worker bees produce. I intend to favor those who labor, maintain the privileges of the gentry, reward the virtuous, and, above all, respect religion and honor the clergy. What do you think of this, my friends? Have I just said something or am I racking my brains for nothing?

His advisor’s response: Your grace has said so much… that I am amazed to see a man as unlettered as your grace, who, I believe, has no letters at all, saying so many things full of wisdom and good counsel, far beyond what was expected of your grace’s intelligence by those who sent us here and by those who came here with you. Every day we see new things in the world: deceptions become the truth, and deceivers find themselves deceived. (p. 774)

Don Quixote’s letter of advice to Sancho Panza during his governorship:

They tell me that you govern as if you were a man, and that you are a man as if you were an animal, so humbly to you behave.

Many times it is proper and necessary, because of the authority of one’s position, to contravene the humility of one’s heart, because the admirable qualities in the person who holds high office ought to conform to the demands of the office, not the measures to which his humble state inclines him.

To win the good will of the people you govern, you must do two things, among others: one is to be civil to everyone… and the other is to attempt to provide them with the necessities of life, for there is nothing that troubles the heart of the poor more than hunger and need.

Do not issue many edicts, and if you do, try to make them good ones, and, above all, ones that are carried out and obeyed; for edicts that are not carried out are as good as non-existent, and they let it be known that the prince who had the intelligence and authority to issue them did not have the courage to enforce them; laws that intimidate but are not enforced become like that log that was king of the frogs; at first it frightened them, but in time they came to despise it and climbed upon it.

Be a father to virtues and a step-father to vices. Do not always be severe, or always mild, but choose the middle way between those two extremes; this is the object of wisdom. Visit the prisons, the slaughterhouses, and the market squares, for the presence of the governor in these places is of great importance: it consoles the prisoners, who can hope for quick release; it frightens the butchers, who then make their weights honest; it terrifies the market women, and for the same reason. Do not show yourself to be, even if you are—which I do not believe—a greedy man, a womanizer, or a glutton, because if people and those you deal with learn your specific inclination, that is where they will attack until they throw you down to the depths of perdition.

Look at and examine, consider and review the advice and precepts I gave you in writing before you left for your governorship, and you will see that you can find in them, if you follow them, something to help you bear the trials and difficulties that governors constantly encounter… The person who is grateful to those who have granted him benefits indicates that he will also be grateful to God. (p. 793)

Sancho’s letter of reply to Don Quixote:

I’m dying of despair because I thought I’d come to this governorship and have hot food and cold drinks, and please my body with linen sheets and featherbeds, but I’ve come to do penance, like a hermit, and since I’m not doing it willingly, I think the devil will take me in the end…. may God free your grace from the evil intentions of enchanters, and take me from this governorship safe and sound, which I doubt, because… I don’t think I’ll get away with more than my life. (p. 795)

At the entry to the insula there was a bridge, and each man who crossed was asked a question. If his answer was found to be a lie, he would be hung on the gallows on the other side of the bridge. One day a man came and declared, “I will be hung on those gallows over there.” Sancho was asked to administer justice in this case and solve the paradox created by the man’s statement. His answer:

...since the reasons for condemning him or sparing him are balanced perfectly, they should let him pass freely, for doing good is always more praiseworthy than doing evil. (p. 792)

He [Sancho] created and appointed a bailiff for the poor, not to persecute them but to examine them to see if they really were poor, because in the shadow of feigned cripples and false wounds come the strong arms of thieves and very healthy drunkards. In short, he ordained things so good that to this day they are obeyed in that village… (p. 797)

Those who had deceived him [Sancho] regretted having taken the joke so far. (p. 807)

Sancho: Let me return to my old liberty; let me go and find my past life, so that I can come back from this present death. I was not born to be a governor. (p. 807)

Before the governorship could do away with me, I decided to do away with the governorship. (822)


[1] Carlos Fuentes, “‘Tilt,’ a review Edith Grossman’s English translation of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes,” New York Times, November 2, 2003.
[2] Richard Eder, “Beholding Windmills and Wisdom From a New Vantage,” New York Times, Books of the Times, November 14, 2003.
[3] Fuentes op. cit.
[4] Edith Grossman, Don Quixote: A New Translation (Harper Collins, 2003).

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Military Humanism: Heart of Neoliberal Darkness

There are some silver linings in the American political crisis that began in earnest on January 20, 2017. More Americans, as well as other inhabitants of this planet, are looking beyond domestic politics and identity politics and grasping that the crisis has its roots in the role America has played in the world in the modern era. One could go back to the founding of the American colonies to find evidence of when the errant path was chosen, but there were pivotal moments in every era since then that shed light on how America took successive steps deeper into the quagmires that come with being an imperial power.
One of these pivotal times was in the late 1990s when America and NATO promoted the concept of “humanitarian intervention” and “right to protect” as a rationale for ensuring that the post-Soviet world would adhere to Western forms of economic and military domination. This policy may have been propelled partially by what was understood to be a failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The standard narrative tells that President Clinton was tragically “distracted” during that time by a sexual dalliance, and thus the delay in recognizing the genocide and responding quickly could have been prevented if the West had just been more attentive to its destined role to maintain order and use its military strength to prevent atrocities. This narrative conveniently overlooks the roles played by France and the United States in arming both sides of the Rwandan conflict in previous years as they vied for influence in Central Africa. An intervention against France, the United States, or both of them a couple of years earlier could have prevented the genocide, but even today the role of the France-American/British conflict for dominance in the region is rarely mentioned as a causal factor.[1] [2] Thus the false narrative of Rwanda begat another about the former Yugoslavia. As the decade of wars ground on, the US and NATO formulated a conception of who the bad guys were and decided to intervene.
These actions did much to create the problems of the present. “Humanitarian” intervention became a bad habit, as evidenced in the subsequent aggressions against Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, among other smaller actions in dozens of countries. The attack on Serbia also inflamed tensions with Russia which had a history of cultural and political ties to Serbia.
Boris Yeltsin had been the West’s obedient poodle during the 1990s, going along with all the reforms that impoverished Russians while opening up the country to be exploited by domestic oligarchs and the global free market.
At the time of 1996 elections, Yeltsin was less popular than Stalin, but with a mix of election fraud, and American financial support and election interference (in the form of American campaign consultants and PR experts), he was able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. However, when the West intervened in Serbia he finally understood the perfidy of who they had been dealing with. And the natural question was, “Are we next?” By the end of 1998, hope for financial reforms was finally crushed by the massive “ruble crisis” which had bankrupted Russia and left it so unstable that there were serious worries that it would go through a second shock of disintegration, echoing the collapse of the Soviet Union eight years earlier. Yeltsin was sick and brain-muddled from years of alcoholism, but he must have understood that the country needed a different kind of leader who would take the country on a more independent path.
While the US and NATO countries now all decry Putin’s authoritarian rule, they fail to realize that modern Russia was made in the USA during the Yeltsin years. Clinton backed Yeltsin when Yeltsin brought out tanks to fire on the parliament that was about to impeach him. Just try to imagine, now as Trump’s political support is evaporating and he is threatened with impeachment, that he would find a few generals to back him in a coup against Congress, and then he would bring out heavy artillery to fire on the congressmen who were heavily armed and locked inside the Capitol building. Imagine he succeeded and rewarded the loyal generals with powerful posts in the new government—a government which was bestowed with a new constitution that concentrated more power in the executive branch. Imagine all of this was supported and financed by Russia, both at the time and three years later when Trump was desperate to get re-elected. This scenario happened in Russia in the 1990s with American support. After Yeltsin consolidated his power, Clinton backed him again when he enriched the oligarchs further to steal the 1996 election.[3]
After all this, when the hopes for a vibrant democracy had been extinguished, Yeltsin chose his successor, Vladimir Putin. In spite of the deficiencies of Russian democracy, Putin never needed American help in getting re-elected. He was never, like Yeltsin, less popular than Stalin. To some extent his victories are due to the deficiencies of democracy in Russia, but one reason for the lack of democracy is that the government is determined to crack down on any party or organization that takes assistance from foreigner entities. Can you imagine that? After the experiences of the 1990s, they don’t like foreigners meddling in their elections. Yet in spite of constant interference, Putin won elections and managed to stop communists and extreme nationalists from coming to power. In spite of American fantasies that a neoliberal, pro-Western party could be elected, the only viable rivals are more extremely anti-American than Putin.[4] Putin’s biggest sin in American eyes was that he was sober, intelligent and competent enough to have reigned in the oligarchs, improved tax collection, stopped further disintegration of the country, and improved the lives of Russians.[5] These are, no doubt, the very reasons he is vilified in the West. Russians all know the score now: they love us when we are weak, hate us when we are strong.
All of this history underscores the importance of understanding the 1990s as the time when the neoliberal world order and faith in humanitarian intervention became firmly established. The interview below between Serbian journalist Danilo Mandic and Noam Chomsky covers in detail the propaganda campaign that preceded the bombing of Serbia in 1999. At the time of the interview, in 2006, well before the attacks on Libya and Syria, Chomsky pointed out, “You cannot find anywhere in the mainstream a suggestion that it is wrong to invade another country, that if you have invaded another country, you have to pay reparations, you have to withdraw and the leadership has to be punished.” 

I found a transcript of this interview on another website, cleaned up several errors and created an improved English subtitle file for the video, which should compensate for the degraded audio quality.

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Danilo Mandic
RTS (Radio Televizija Srbije) Online, April 25, 2006

Danilo Mandic: Professor Noam Chomsky, in your, if I am not mistaken, first TV media appearance for Serbian media, thank you very much for being with us.

Noam Chomsky: I am glad to be with you. 

Danilo Mandic: Professor Noam Chomsky, in your, if I am not mistaken, first TV media appearance for Serbian media, thank you very much for being with us.

Noam Chomsky: I am glad to be with you.

DM: Last month marked the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the bombing of Yugoslavia. Why did NATO wage that war? Or I should say why did the United States wage that war?

NC: Actually, we have for the first time a very authoritative comment on that from the highest level of the Clinton administration, which is something that one could have surmised before, but now it is asserted. This is from Strobe Talbott who was in charge of the Pentagon/State Department intelligence Joint Committee on the diplomacy during the whole affair including the bombing, so that’s the very top of Clinton administration. He just wrote the forward to a book by his Director of Communications, John Norris, and in the forward he says if you really want to understand what the thinking was of the top of Clinton administration this is the book you should read. Take a look at John Norris’s book and what he says is that the real purpose of the war had nothing to do with concern for Kosovar Albanians. It was because Serbia was not carrying out the required social and economic reforms, meaning it was the last corner of Europe which had not subordinated itself to the US-run neoliberal programs, so therefore it had to be eliminated. That’s from the highest level. Again, we could have guessed it, but I’ve never seen it said before: that it wasn’t because of the Kosovo Albanians, that we know.

And this is a point of religious fanaticism in the West. You can’t talk about it, for interesting reasons having to do with Western culture, but there is just overwhelming documentation, impeccable documentation: two big compilations of the State Department trying to justify the war, the OSCE records, NATO records, KIM Monitor records, a long British Parliamentary inquiry which led into it. They all showed the same thing–and sort of what we knew. It was an ugly place. There were atrocities there.

DM: Given this clear documentary record, I want to ask you about the elite intellectual opinion, what you call in the United States and in the West in general, because reviewing it, you would get the impression–you would be forgiven for imagining that every critic of the NATO intervention was one of two things: either a “Milosevic sympathizer” or someone who doesn’t care about genocide. What does this mean?

NC: First of all that’s a common feature of intellectual culture. One good U.S. critic, Harold Rosenberg, once described intellectuals as the “herd of independent minds.” They think they are very independent, but they stampede in a herd, which is true. When there is a party line, you have to adhere to it, and the party line is systematic. The party line is subordination to state power and to state violence.

Now you are allowed to criticize it, but on very narrow grounds. You can criticize it because it is not working, or for some mistake or benign intentions that went astray or something, like you see right now in the Iraq war, a ton of debate about the Iraq war, but take a look at it–it’s very similar to the debate in Pravda during the invasion of Afghanistan. Actually, I brought this up to a Polish reporter recently and I asked him if he had been reading Pravda. He just laughed and said yeah it’s the same. Now you read Pravda in the 1980s, it’s: “The travail of the Russian soldiers. Too many are getting killed, and now there are these terrorists who prevent us from bringing justice and peace to the Afghans. We of course did not invade them. We intervened to help them at the request of the legitimate government. The terrorists are preventing us from doing all the good things we wanted to do etc.” I have read Japanese counter-insurgency documents from the Second World War, from the 1930s–it was the same: “…We're trying to bring them an earthly paradise, but the Chinese bandits are preventing it.” In fact, I don’t know of any exception in history.” If you go back to British imperialism it's the same. Even people of the highest moral integrity like John Stewart Mill were talking about how we have to intervene in India and conquer India because the barbarians can’t control themselves. There are atrocities. We are to bring them the benefits of British rule and civilization and so on.

Now in the United States it’s the same. Now take the bombing of Kosovo. That was a critically important event for American intellectuals and the reason had to do with what was going on during the 1990s. And the 90s are for the West, not just the U.S. France and England were worse. It's probably the low point in intellectual history for the West, I think. It was like a comic strip mimicking a satire of Stalinism, literally. You take a look at The New York Times, the French press, the British press. It was all full of talk about how there is a “normative revolution” that has swept through the West, for the first time in history, a state, namely the United States, “the leader of the free world,” is acting from “pure altruism.” Clinton’s policy has entered into a “noble phase,” with a “saintly glow,” and on and on. I am quoting from the liberals.

DM: Now, this particular humanitarian charade was...

NC: That’s pre Kosovo.

DM: Right. And it was specific in a sense because it was based on the claim that it was preventing genocide. Let me just read something that you said in an interview around the time of the bombing. You said, “the term ‘genocide’ as applied to Kosovo is an insult to the victims of Hitler. In fact, it’s revisionist to an extreme.” What did you mean by that?

NC: First of all let me just fix the timing. The things you've been quoting are from the late 90s. Before Kosovo. Now, they needed some event to justify this massive self-adulation, OK? Along came Kosovo, fortunately, and so now they had to “stop genocide.” What was the genocide in Kosovo? We know from the Western documentation what it was. In the year prior to the bombing, according to just the Western sources, about 2,000 people were killed. The killings were distributed. A lot of them were coming, in fact, according to the British government (which was the most hawkish element of the alliance)… up until January 1999, the majority of the killings were by the KLA guerillas who were coming in, as they said, to try to incite a harsh Serbian response, which they got, in order to appeal to Western humanitarians to bomb. We know from the Western records that nothing changed between January and March. In fact up until March 20th they indicate nothing. March 20th they indicate an increase in KLA attacks. But, though it was ugly, by international standards it was almost invisible unfortunately, and it was very distributed. If the British are correct, the majority [of attacks] was coming from the KLA guerillas.

DM: And as it later turned out, the KLA was also receiving financial and military support.

NC: They were being supported by CIA in those months. And to call that genocide is really to insult the victims of the holocaust.  Western intellectuals were praising themselves for their magnificent humanitarianism, while much worse atrocities were going on right across the border, in Turkey. That’s inside NATO, not at the borders of NATO. They were saying, “How can we allow this at the borders of NATO,” but how about inside NATO where Turkey had driven probably several million Kurds out of their homes, destroyed about 3,500 villages, laid waste the whole place, every conceivable form of torture and massacre you can imagine, killed nobody knows how many people. We don’t count our victims, tens of thousands of people. How were they able to do that? The reason is because they were getting 80% of their arms from Clinton, and as the atrocities increased, the arms flow increased. In fact, in one single year, 1997, Clinton sent more arms to Turkey than in the entire Cold War period combined! Up until the counter-insurgency. That was not reported in the West. You do not report your own crimes. That’s critical.

And right in the midst of all of this: “How can we tolerate a couple of thousand people being killed in Kosovo, mixed guerillas and...? In fact, the 50th Anniversary of NATO took place right in the middle of all of this. And there were lamentations about what was going on right across NATO’s border. Not a word about the much worse things going on inside NATO’s borders, thanks to the massive flow of arms from the United States. Now that’s only one case.

Comparable things were going on all over with the US and Britain supporting them, much worse, but you had to focus on this. That was the topic for “the herd of independent minds.” It played a crucial role in their self-image because they had been going through a period of praising themselves for their magnificence in their “normative revolution” and their “noble phase,” and so on and so forth, so it was a godsend, and therefore you couldn’t ask any questions about it.

Incidentally, the same happened in the earlier phase of the Balkan wars. It was awful, and so on and so forth. However, if you look at the coverage... For example, there was one famous incident which just completely reshaped the Western opinion, and that was the photograph of the thin man behind the barbed wire.

DM: A fraudulent photograph.

NC: You remember. The thin man behind the barbed wire. So that was Auschwitz and “we can’t have Auschwitz again.” The intellectuals went crazy and the French were posturing on television and doing the usual antics. Well, it was investigated, and carefully investigated.  In fact, it was investigated by the leading Western specialist on the topic, Philip Knightly, who is a highly-respected media analyst and his specialty is photo journalism. He’s probably the most famous Western and most respected Western analyst in this. He did a detailed analysis of it. And he determined that it was probably the reporters who were behind the barbed wire, and the place was ugly, but it was a refugee camp. People could leave if they wanted, and near the thin man was a fat man, and so on. Well, there was one tiny newspaper in England, probably three people, called LM, which ran a critique of this, and the British (who haven’t the slightest concept of freedom of speech), ran this total fraud... A major corporation, ITN, a big media corporation, had publicized these, so the corporation sued the tiny newspaper for libel.

Now the British libel laws are absolutely atrocious. The person accused has to prove that what he’s reporting was not done with malice, and he can’t prove that. So, and, in fact, when you have a huge corporation with batteries of lawyers and so on carrying out a suit against the three people in an office, who probably don’t have the pocket-money, it’s obvious what is going to happen, especially under these grotesque libel laws. So yes, the little newspaper couldn’t prove it wasn’t done out of malice. They were put out of business. There was just euphoria in the left liberal British press. After they had put the newspaper out of business, under this utterly grotesque legal case of the British laws, the left liberal newspapers, like The Guardian, were just in a state of euphoria about this wonderful achievement. They had managed to destroy a tiny newspaper because it questioned some image that they had presented and they were very proud of themselves for it, which was probably misunderstood or misinterpreted.

Well, Philip Knightly, wrote a very harsh critique of the British media for behaving in this way, and tried to teach them an elementary lesson about freedom of speech. He also added that probably the photograph was misinterpreted. He couldn’t get it published. Well, that’s when Kosovo came along. It was the same thing— that you cannot tell the truth about it.

I’ve gone through a ton of reporting on this, and almost invariably they inverted the chronology. There were atrocities, but after the bombing. The way it’s presented is: the atrocities took place, and then we had to bomb to prevent genocide— just inverted.

DM: Let me ask you about the conduct of the actual war. You mentioned The Guardian. It’s interesting because you yourself had recently had an unpleasant experience where The Guardian misquoted you.. over Srebrenica. It misquoted you to make it appear as if you were questioning the Srebrenica massacre. But let me bring you back to the conduct of the actual war. That was another... ... the 1999 bombing.  The bombing, which was also overlooked, or selectively covered by the Western media in general. Now, Amnesty International, among others, reported that “NATO committed serious violations of the rules of war during its campaign,” numerous human rights groups concur and document various war crimes. One of them had its anniversary two days ago, when the Radio Television Serbia was bombed, the national television, its headquarters, killing sixteen people. First of all, why were these crimes completely unreported, and secondly, are there any prospects for there being any responsibility taken for these crimes?

NC: I’d say the crimes were reported but they were cheered. It’s not that they were unknown. The bombing of the radio station: yes, it was reported, and the TV station, but it’s fine because the TV station was described as a propaganda outlet, so therefore we have the right to bomb it. That happens all the time. It just happened last year, in November 2004. One of the worst war crimes in Iraq was the invasion of Fallujah. That's one thing, but there was worse. The invasion of Fallujah was kind of similar to Srebrenica, if you look, but... They invaded Fallujah. The first thing the invading troops did, U.S. troops, was to take over the general hospital and throw the patients on the floor. They were taken out their beds, put on the floor, hands tied behind their backs, doctors thrown on the floor, hands behind their backs. There was a picture of it on the front page of The New York Times. They said it was wonderful.

DM: The Geneva Convention forbids hospitals to be...

NC: It was a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, and George Bush should be facing the death penalty for that, even under the U.S. law. But it was presented with no mention of the Geneva Conventions, and it was presented as a wonderful thing because the Fallujah general hospital was a “propaganda center,” namely it was releasing casualty figures, so therefore it was correct to carry out a massive war crime.

Well, the bombing of the TV station was presented the same way. In fact, as I’m sure you recall, there was an offer from NATO that they wouldn't bomb it, if they agreed to broadcast six hours of NATO propaganda. Well, this is considered quite right. How can it be dealt with? A group of international lawyers did appeal to the International Tribunal on Yugoslavia. They presented a brief, saying they should look into NATO war crimes. What they cited was reports from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and admissions by the NATO command. That was what they presented, the.... I think it was Karla Del Ponte at the time. She said she would not look at it, in violation of the laws of the tribunal, because she “had faith in NATO.” And that was the answer. Well, something else interesting happened after that: Yugoslavia did bring a case to the World Court...

DM: .... which also rejected it.

NC: The Court accepted it, and in fact it deliberated for a couple of years. It may still be being deliberated, but what is interesting is that the U.S. excused itself from the case and the Court accepted the excuse. Why? Because Yugoslavia had mentioned the Genocide Convention and the U.S. did sign the Genocide Convention, after forty years. It ratified it, but it ratified it with a reservation, saying “inapplicable to the United States.” So in other words, the United States is entitled to commit genocide, therefore, and that was the case that the U.S. Justice Department of President Clinton brought to the World Court and the Court had to agree. If a country does not accept World Court jurisdiction, it has to be excluded, so the U.S. was excluded from the trial, on the grounds that it grants itself the right to commit genocide. Do you think this was reported here?

DM: The World Court, though, excused itself from hearing the case trying the illegality of the war, on the grounds that Yugoslavia was not a full member of the United Nations at the time when the case was brought to the...

NC: For several years they were deliberating but that’s the sequence. Does any of this get reported? You can ask your friends at Princeton. Ask the faculty. They sort of probably remember the bombing, the capture of the General Hospital in Fallujah, but was there any comment saying that was a war crime?

DM: What struck me was that you compared the Srebrenica massacre with the Fallujah invasion. Why is that?

NC: Because there are similarities. In the case of Srebrenica, women and children were trucked out and then came, the massacre. In the case of Fallujah, the women and children were ordered out. They weren’t trucked out. They were ordered out, but the men weren’t allowed to leave, and then came the attack. In fact, it turned out that the roads out were blocked. Well, not all things. It’s not the same story, but that part is similar.

I actually mentioned that a couple of times. Storms of protest, hysteria. Incidentally this Guardian affair–part of it which was total fraud, on the part of the editors, not the reporter. They blamed it on the reporter, but it was the editors. One of the things that they were infuriated about was that she asked me about the thin man behind the barbed wire, “Isn’t that a horrible atrocity?” I said, “Well, it’s not certain that it was correct.” OK, that led to the hysteria. That’s when Philip Knightly tried to intervene to present once again his analysis, and once again his critique of the media, but couldn’t. He is a very prominent, prestigious person. You just cannot break ranks. That’s not tolerated. We are lucky. We don't have censorship. It’s a free society, but the self-censorship is overwhelming.

Actually, Orwell once wrote about this, in something that nobody has read. Everyone has read Animal Farm and almost nobody has read the introduction to Animal Farm…

DM: Unpublished.

NC: It came out in his unpublished papers, thirty years later. In it what he said is, Animal Farm is a satire of a totalitarian state, but he said free England is not very different. In free England, unpopular ideas can be suppressed without the use of force, and he gave examples. It’s very similar here. And it does not matter how extreme they are. The Iraq invasion is a perfect example. You cannot find anywhere in the mainstream a suggestion that it is wrong to invade another country, that if you have invaded another country, you have to pay reparations, you have to withdraw and the leadership has to be punished. I don’t know if you ever read the Nuremberg Judgments, but after the Nuremberg Judgments, Justice Jackson, Chief of Council for the Prosecution, U.S. Justice, made very, very eloquent statements. He said we are sentencing these people to death for the crimes which they committed. They are crimes which are punishable when anybody commits them, including when we commit them. We have to live up to that. He said we are handing the defendants a poisoned chalice, and if we sip from this poisoned chalice, we must be treated the same way. One can’t be more explicit!

They also defined aggression. Aggression was defined in terms which just apply absolutely and without exception, not only to the invasion of Iraq but to all sorts of other invasions, in Vietnam and many others. Actually, even the terrorist war against Nicaragua technically falls under the crime of aggression as defined in Nuremberg.

DM: Does the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia?

NC: Yes. And that’s not even questioned. In fact, there was a so-called, Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Kosovo bombing led by a very respected South African jurist–Justice Goldstone–and they concluded that the bombing was, in their words “illegal but legitimate.” Illegal makes it a war crime, but they said it was legitimate because it was necessary to stop genocide. And then comes the usual inversion of the history. Actually, Justice Goldstone, who is a respectable person, later recognized that the atrocities came after the bombing, and that they were, furthermore, the anticipated consequences of the bombing. He did recognize that in a lecture, a Morgenthau Lecture in New York a couple of years ago. He said, “Well, nevertheless we can take some comfort in the fact that Serbia was planning it anyway,” and the proof that they were planning it is—guess what–“Operation Horseshoe,” a probable intelligence fabrication that was publicized after the bombing. So even if it was true, it wouldn’t matter. And furthermore, even if that was true, it was a contingency plan. Israel has a contingency plans to drive all the Palestinians out of the West Bank if there is a conflict, so does that mean that Iran has the right to bomb Israel? The U.S. has contingency plans to invade Canada. OK, so does that mean that everybody has a right to bomb the United States? That’s the last straw of justification on the part of a respectable person. But for the “herd of independent minds” it just doesn't matter. The bombing was because of their “high values,” and our “nobility” and was to stop genocide. If you say anything else, a torrent of vilification and abuse comes.

But it’s not just on this issue. It’s on every issue. So try to bring up the idea... Take, say, the Vietnam War. A lot of time has passed, a huge amount of scholarship, tons of documentation. The US blew up the country...

DM: Let me just interrupt. I’m sorry, we won’t have time to go into that. I want to ask you about some of the present developments that are being used again to fabricate a lot of these issues. Slobodan Milosevic died last month. What is the significance of his death in your view?

NC: Milosevic was... he committed many crimes, not a nice person, terrible person, but the charges against him would never have held up. He was originally indicted on the Kosovo charges. The indictment was issued right in the middle of bombing, which already nullifies it. They admittedly used British and U.S. intelligence right in the middle of bombing. You can’t possibly take it seriously. However, if you look at the indictment, it was for crimes committed after the bombing. There was one exception: Racak. Let’s even grant that the claims are true. Let’s put that aside. So, there was one exception. No evidence that he was involved or it took place, but almost the entire indictment was for after the bombing. How are those charges going to stand up unless you put Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the dock alongside him? Then they realized that it was a weak case, so they added the early Balkan wars. OK, a lot of horrible things happened there. But the worst crime, the one for which they were really going to charge him for genocide, was Srebrenica. Now, there is a little problem with that: namely there was an extensive, detailed inquiry into it by the Dutch Government, which was the responsible government. There were Dutch forces there. That’s a big hundreds-of-pages inquiry, and their conclusion is that Milosevic did not know anything about that, and that when it was discovered in Belgrade, they were horrified. Well, suppose that had entered into the testimony.

DM: Does this mean that you are a “Milosevic sympathizer”?

NC: No, he was terrible. In fact he should have been thrown out. In fact, he probably would have been thrown out in the early 90s, if the Albanians had voted. It was pretty close. He did all sorts of terrible things, but it wasn’t a totalitarian state. There were elections. There was an opposition. There were a lot of rotten things, but there are rotten things everywhere, and I certainly wouldn’t want to have dinner with him or talk to him. And yes, he deserves to be tried for crimes, but this trial was never going to hold up, if it was even semi-honest. It was a farce. In fact, they were lucky that he died.

DM: In what sense?

NC: Because they didn't have to go through with the trial. Now they can build up an image about how he would have been convicted as another Hitler, had he lived. But now they don’t have to do it.

DM: I just want to bring you back to the bombing of the RTS. Some have argued that this particular act of NATO’s in 1999 set precedents for targeting of media by the United States afterward–notably in Afghanistan and Iraq–that it set a precedent for legitimizing media houses and labeling them as propaganda in order to bomb them in U.S. invasions. Do you make any connection there?

NC: Well, the chronology is correct, but I don’t think they need excuses. The point is: you bomb anybody you want to. Let’s take 1998, so it was before. Now in 1998, here’s another thing you’re not allowed to say in the United States or the West. It leads to hysteria, but I’ll say it. In 1998, Clinton bombed the major pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, OK? That was the plant that was producing most of the pharmaceuticals and veterinary medicines for a poor African country that’s under embargo. They can’t replace them. What’s that going to do? Obviously, it's going to kill unknown numbers of people. In fact, the U.S. barred an investigation by the UN, so we don’t know, and of course you don’t want to investigate your own crimes, but there was some evidence. So the German Ambassador to Sudan, who is a fellow at Harvard University, wrote an article in Harvard International Review in which he estimated the casualties in the tens of thousands of deaths. The Near East Foundation, a very respectable foundation, their regional director had done field work in Sudan, did a study. He came out with the same conclusions: probably tens of thousands of dead. Right after the bombing, within weeks, Human Rights Watch issued a warning that there was going to be a humanitarian catastrophe and gave examples of aid workers being pulled out from areas where people were dying at a vast rate and so on. You cannot mention this. Any mention of this brings the same hysteria as criticizing the bombing of the TV station. So it’s unmentionable. It is a Western crime and therefore it was legitimate.

Let’s just suppose that Al Qaeda blew up half the pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S., or England, or Israel, or any country in which "people" lived, "human beings," not "ants," "people." Fine. Can you imagine the reaction? We’d probably have a nuclear war, but when we do it to a poor African country, it didn’t happen! Not discussed. In fact, the only issue that is discussed. There is discussion. It is whether the intelligence was correct when it claimed that it was also producing chemical weapons. That is the only question. If you mention anything else, the usual hysteria, and tirades.

Western intellectual culture is extremely disciplined, and rigid. You cannot go beyond fixed bounds. It’s not censored. It’s all voluntary, but it’s true, and, incidentally, not every society is like this. In fact, the Third World countries are different. So take, say, Turkey, half Third World. In Turkey, the intellectuals, the leading intellectuals, best-known writers, academics, journalists, artists. They not only protest atrocities like the Kurdish massacres, but they protest them constantly, but they are also constantly carrying out civil disobedience against them. I’ve also participated with them sometimes. And they will publish banned writings which they report and present to the Prosecutor’s Office, demanding to be prosecuted. That’s not a joke. Sometimes they are sent to prison. That’s no joke. There’s nothing like that in the West. Inconceivable. When I am in Western Europe and I hear them telling me Turkey isn't civilized enough to enter the European Union, I burst out laughing! It’s the other way around.

DM: You mentioned the democratic movements in various countries. There was, of course a promising democratic movement in Serbia before and, of course, during the bombing. And people like Wesley Clark had claimed that this bombing would be of benefit to the anti-Milosevic forces, when it, of course, turned out to be a disaster. Was this a sincere evaluation on behalf of NATO?

NC: Well, I can’t look into their minds. When you commit a crime it is extremely easy to find a justification for it. That’s true of personal life. It’s true of international affairs. So yes, maybe they believed it. I think there’s convincing evidence that the Japanese fascists believed that they were doing good when they carried out their war. John Stewart Mill surely believed he was being honorable and noble when he was calling for the conquest of India right after some of the worst atrocities, which he didn’t mention. You can easily believe you are noble. To me it’s obvious that it was going to harm the democratic movement. I wrote about it, and I couldn’t get much information, but it was obvious that it was going to happen. It is happening right now in Iran. There is a democratic movement in Iran. They are pleading with the United States not to maintain a harsh embargo, certainly not to attack. It is harming them, and it strengthens the most reactionary violent elements in the society, of course.

DM: Let me ask you one final question about the future. Negotiations over Kosovo’s final status are under way right now. The United States is backing Agim Ceku, who was someone involved in ethnic cleansing not only in...

NC: He was a war criminal himself. What about the Krajina expulsion, which he was...

DM: First of all, what do you see as an appropriate, realistic solution for the final status of Kosovo, and how does that differ from what the United States is now promoting?

NC: My feeling has been for a long time that the only realistic solution is one which in fact was offered by the president of Serbia, I think, back round 1993, namely some kind of partition, with the Serbian—by now very there are very few Serbs left, but with what were the Serbian areas being part of Serbia, and the rest being what they call “independent,” which means they’ll join Albania. I didn’t see any other feasible solution ten years ago. I still don't see any other.

DM: Shall we wrap up? Professor Chomsky, thank you very much.


[1] Chris McGreal, “France’s Shame?The Guardian, January 11, 2007.
[2] Therese LeClerc, “Who is responsible for the genocide in Rwanda?World Socialist Website, April 29, 1998.
[4] Stephen Cohen, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War (Columbia University Press, 2011), 186-187.
[5] Catherine Brown, “Deconstructing Russophobia,” June 6, 2014.
[6] Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo (Pluto Press, 1999).