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Privilege and Responsibility

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Section: Accounts Topics: chomsky

November 10, 2003

Privilege and Responsibility

[The following is an excerpt from an interview with Noam Chomsky that aired on Radio Havana.]

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Bernie Dwyer: It’s really a pleasure to welcome you to Cuba on your first visit here. Our telephone interview last August swept rapidly across the Internet which is indicative of the interest people have in what you have to say even after so many years of critical political commentary. What motivates you to continue keeping in touch with what is going on in the world and offer analysis, commentary and possible solutions to world problems?

Noam Chomsky: It seems to me the opposite question is the one that ought to be asked. There is a moral truism about this that is as elementary as anything can be: privilege confers responsibility and the people who are called intellectuals, for no particularly good reason, happen to be privileged.

We have education, training, resources, opportunities and in a country like the United States, virtually no repression, it's an unusually free country by comparative standards, so we just have that much more responsibility than people who lack those opportunities, like most people in other countries including those under the boot of the United States, and most people in our own country. After that it's just a matter of choice. Do you observe moral truisms or don't you?

If you do, these are the kind of things that you naturally and automatically do and it doesn't merit any credit or applause or anything else, it's just being a human being and using the opportunities that you have.

Bernie Dwyer: The slogan from the World Social Forum which you attended at Porto Alegre in Brazil earlier this year was that a better world is possible. Is that part of what motivates you? Do you honestly think that a better world is possible?

Noam Chomsky: Possible, certainly. Attainable, that's another question. And that goes back to the first question: if people are willing to undertake their responsibilities seriously, then a better world is very possible. Unfortunately, there is probably an almost inverse correlation between opportunity and dedication and commitment.

So rather typically, it's the people that live under repression and deprivation and face serious penalties and lack privilege who are working hard to build a better world. Those who have the opportunity and every opportunity in front of them, every kind of privilege, quite typically throughout history tend to be subordinate to power.

Actually, it's not a particular observation of mine. The founder and leading figure in modern international relations theory, Hans Morganthau - a much respected scholar - once harshly condemned what he called our conformist subservience to those in power. He was referring to the intellectual classes in the United States and the West generally. And it's a comment that is reasonably accurate and goes back through recorded history: the respected intellectuals in virtually every society are those who are distinguished by their conformist subservience to those in power. Others who take elementary human responsibilities seriously tend to suffer overwhelmingly in one form of repression or another.

So if you were in Czechoslovakia under the Soviet Union, you might end up in jail. If you were in El Salvador in the same years, you would get your brains blown out. Well, those are just the different kinds of repression that appear in different kinds of societies. And in a country like the United States, or Western industrial societies, the punishment - such as it is - is marginalization or vitriolic attacks or something like that, but nothing that even merits comment when compared with most of the rest of the world.

And this is pretty close to a cultural universal. There are some exceptions but it's commonly true.

In fact one of the reasons that we believe that a better world is possible is because we have a better world. The world is a lot better than it was not very long ago. Maybe not in every respect - there is more aggression - but in many respects. We know how it got better. It didn't get better by some gift from the gods or the powerful or some benevolent dictator, it got better because people struggled to make it better and typically, those who were suffering most.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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