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Sunday, Apr. 20, 2003 at 7:30 PM
Noam Chomsky and Kanzaburo Oe exchange on current affairs.
An exchange on current affairs
Originally appeared in World Literature Today, Spring 2002, Volume 76, Issue 2, pp. 29-35
by Oe Kenzaburo and Noam Chomsky
The following exchange of letters first appeared in Japanese in mid-June and mid-July in the Tokyo daily The Asahi Shimbun. English versions followed within a few days in special editions of The Asahi Shimbun and the International Herald Tribune. Professor Chomsky's letter was printed in two parts, which have now been recombined and placed between Oe's initial letter and later response. Both Oe letters were translated by Hisaaki Yamanouchi. The three letters are reprinted here, without textual alteration, through the kind permission of The Asahi Shimbun and through the valuable mediation of WLT associate contributing editor Yoshiko Fukushima of the University of Oklahoma.
Dear Professor Noam Chomsky:
It was a great pleasure to be in your company at the degree ceremony of Harvard last year on that memorable day when the breeze was sweeping over the tall trees. We were seated next to each other on a temporary platform. I passed on to you a message written in the margin of the ceremony program: a recollection of the day when language came to matter to me for the first time in my life. I meant to express my deep and long-standing respect for your achievements as the leading linguist in the world. In the middle of the ongoing ceremony I thought I could not otherwise convey what I wanted to say with my limited command of spoken English. It was about an episode from childhood. For some reason, instead of attending classes at school, I often went to the woods to spend my time there with an illustrated botanical encyclopedia for reference. In those days my mother used to tell me that children of the new generation should learn the words of those of the older generation who had died before they came of age, and should live on their behalf; and that just one single child could not do this.
After I had come back to Japan, I sent you the English version of my report on Okinawa, which I had visited before going to Harvard. I did so because while writing my report, I kept reminding myself of your famous remark: "Literature can heighten your imagination and insight and understanding, but it surely doesn't provide the evidence that you need to draw conclusions and substantiate conclusions." I wished to write something that would be useful for some practical purposes.
You rewarded me with a very meaningful reply. It was about an episode from your childhood. You heard about what had happened in Hiroshima while you were participating in a summer camp in the mountains near Philadelphia. You could not bear a celebration for the bombing of Hiroshima. You went into the woods and sat there till the evening just on your own.
In your reply you wrote that despite the ominous tone of my conclusion to my report on Okinawa, you could sense the spirit of hope in what I had written.
I feel as if I were writing, with your permission, a sequel to the episode I jotted down in the margin of the program, having confirmed, with my sense of unified and coherent identity, what I was like in my childhood, and feeling that I am living on its extension.
The ominous notes about Okinawa are still ringing deep in my heart. Further, whenever I think of the people I met in Okinawa, I cannot help driving myself toward finding a positive outlook in my basic framework of thought.
Last March a meeting was held between the new American president and the then prime minister of Japan, who had already gone out of favor with the people of Japan and had already been forsaken by the leading members of the political party in power.
The concern of the mass media in Tokyo focused on the American government's advice to the Japanese government that it take steps to revive the nation's economy. It seemed to me that there emerged from this what you had identified and criticized as "neoliberalism" - an ambition on the part of the rich and powerful to control the world politically and economically.
However, to me there seemed to be an even more vitally important aspect of the matter. I detected in it the signs of crushing in no time the wishes of the Okinawans, whether young or old, who have been living outside the sphere of economic development conducted by the policies of the Japanese government and have been resisting the destruction of the environment and the consolidation of military bases to be brought in.
I foresee the grim future of Okinawa, hearing its governor say repeatedly that the magma underlying there might burst forth at any moment, and hearing also the intellectuals, regardless of their standpoints, speak unanimously of the possibility of a "blowup."
It is obvious that the only possible breakthrough for avoiding the bursting of the magma underlying the sentiment of the common people in Okinawa would be nothing but to devise plans initially for reducing the military bases that have existed there over the past half century and eventually for removing them totally in the near future.
However, concerning the governor of Okinawa's claim to limit to fifteen years the use of the new substitute air force base to be moved from the densely populated area, U.S. President George W. Bush declared that it would be "difficult" and that "limiting the period for the use (of the new substitute air force base) must be considered in view of the international situation." It is inconceivable that the government of Japan will have the will and wisdom to resist it.
In analogy to a rogue, in the sense of an unlawful bully, the term "rogue state" is used with reference to Iraq, for instance. You have reversed the use of it in criticizing the domination of the world in the post-Cold War period by the United States and the NATO countries as rogue states in another sense. In aligning herself with its new military strategy in the Pacific region of the giant rogue state, in the sense of the term in which you use it, Japan is to become a "mini-rogue state."
If I am asked what counterplans I might have against it, I am afraid that I can propose nothing concrete in the capacity of a novelist as defined in your remarks quoted at the beginning of my letter. I only wish that the situation would never happen in which the people of Okinawa would be driven to the extremity where their magma could not but burst and they would eventually go through the miseries such as happened in Kosovo and East Timor.
If things went that way, my discourse would be utter nonsense - already I seem to hear such words of derision directed against me. All the same I am writing to you because I wish to encourage the young Japanese at least to express opinions against the main current of the time.
I am writing out of my wish, for instance, to link up the young Japanese with those young Okinawans who are fighting their lone battle by trying to maintain their economic independence in the sea where the new substitute air force base is going to be constructed.
At present a new - actually old and revived - nationalism is being brought overtly into the education system in this country, partly overlapped with the vague expectation of economic resuscitation. I will of course take actions against it. I am deeply worried, however, that the young Japanese seem to lack personal integrity and coherence with which they should resist even if they had to fight a lone battle.
I am writing to you in the hope that I will act as an intermediary and make them read your letter of reply. With profound respect and gratitude,
Yours sincerely, Kenzaburo Oe
Dear Kenzaburo Oe,
We exchanged some childhood experiences, very meaningful for each of us. It is curious that some of the central threads of our very different lives have kept to parallel paths. The deep concerns you eloquently express for the crushing of the wishes of the Okinawans by foreign force, American and Japanese, are echoed in the anguish, which scarcely leaves me for a moment, over the fate of the victims of the systems of violence and oppression that have their roots in my own country. Among them are people struggling to free their own lands from the curse of steady bombardment in the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico, used by the U.S. Navy as a bombing range as part of the extensive militarization of the territory that the U.S. conquered a century ago and has kept as a dependency since.
But that is only a small fragment of a shameful record of destruction, terror, repression and needless suffering. Its immensity and horror far escape my capacities of expression. These are captured better, for me at least, in small things: like the sad eyes of a young Timorese girl that have stared at me for thirty years as I sit down at my desk, knowing that despite great efforts over all of these years, I have been utterly unable to save her and her family from a brutal fate in one of the worst atrocities of the late twentieth century - and tragically, one that will be erased from history.
The perpetrators in Washington and London are so powerful that their crimes cannot even be subjected to examination, and they can easily deflect any call for the massive reparations they owe to the victims - yet another ugly chapter of the dismal record of privileged intellectuals, who bear prime responsibility for these disgraceful consequences.
Even in my own limited experience, those sad eyes stare at me from too many searing memories: in refugee camps in Laos, the miserable slums of Haiti at the peak of the terror, the ruins of Central America where street children try to survive, devastated villages and refugee camps in the Israeli occupied territories, the hideous slums of Bombay and Cape Town, and much more and to tell the truth, in torture chambers called "prisons" in my own country and shocking urban areas not too many miles from where I live.
Okinawa, Timor, Laos ... each in its own way is a microcosm of the forces that lend much weight to the "ominous tone" of the conclusion of your report. And at the same time, each reinforces the "positive outlook" and "spirit of hope" that you derive from your immersion in the struggles of the people of Okinawa. To mention only one case, the extraordinary courage shown by the Timorese in the face of monstrous crimes is one of the most extraordinary achievements of the human spirit known to me. And only one. I cannot tell you how many times personal experiences have called to mind Rousseau's withering contempt for his civilized countrymen who "do nothing but boast incessantly of the peace and repose they enjoy in their chains."
Those who "reason about freedom" while enjoying "peace and repose in their chains" of self-serving dogma are always happy to raise their voices in eloquent protest against the crimes of others, and feel much pride in doing so. It is the merest truism, however, that moral responsibility begins with looking in the mirror. And it is, regrettably, a historical truism that that elementary fact can easily be kept remote from consciousness in circles of privilege and power. Japan has its own gruesome record to acknowledge and confront, not only in words of regret but in efforts, inevitably far too limited, to mitigate at least some of the awful consequences. Privileged Westerners have a vastly heavier burden to bear, and the inability even to consider the terrible facts, let alone do something about them, can only recall Rousseau's lament.
Consider Africa, now facing one of the worst demographic catastrophes of human history, the likely deaths of tens of millions of people from AIDS, malaria and other diseases in the next few years. The cost of preventing this indescribable catastrophe is estimated at billion to billion annually, a sum so trivial for the wealthy countries that they would scarcely notice its disappearance. With great fanfare and acclaim, the Bush administration recently offered an insulting and contemptuous donation of 0 million, less than a statistical error in the budget. Others have done even less. It is dramatic and revealing that no one is calling for reparations rather than aid. But everyone knows that Europe primarily, the United States secondarily, virtually destroyed Africa over hundreds of years of conquest, plunder, slavery and depredation. Any educated person can easily discover that when U.S. planners were assigning each part of the world its "function" after World War II, they expressed their lack of interest in Africa and offered it to Europe to "exploit" for its own reconstruction. And those boasting of their peace and repose can also easily learn that leading historians of Africa believe that the circumstances of West Africa 150 years ago were not unlike those of Japan, though their histories followed a very different course, as West Africa was subjected to European conquest while Japan was the only part of "the South" that was able to resist it, and the only part that was able to develop, hardly a mere coincidence. A call for huge reparations would be only the barest minimum of moral integrity. It is not voiced, and can scarcely even be imagined in a deeply corrupt moral and intellectual culture, boasting incessantly of the peace and repose it enjoys in its doctrinal chains.
We should never allow ourselves to forget the past. But we should also not forget Thomas Jefferson's admonition that "the Earth belongs to the living." There is a long and arduous road to follow before the beneficiaries of past crimes are willing to look at themselves in the mirror with some minimal degree of honesty. But that is only the tiniest first step. Reparations for the victims are another, still pitifully far from realization, even awareness. But it is only then that the real problems arise: How can we address the awesome problems of injustice and oppression and suffering that deface contemporary civilization? And beyond that, how can we act to prevent the self-destruction of the species? - unfortunately, far from a frivolous question.
Current policies of the richest and most powerful elements of global society increase the likelihood of global catastrophe. The two most prominent illustrations are the programs of militarization of space, of which the misnamed "missile defense program" is a component, and steps toward undermining even meager efforts to mitigate serious environmental crises.
The world's most powerful state is in the lead in this race to catastrophe - with eyes open; the basic facts are not obscure. And others are not far behind. More ominously still, these choices are not mere individual caprice. They are rooted in fundamental institutional structures of state capitalist society.
The bipartisan U.S. commitment to expand the arms race into space derives in part from the crucial role of the state in providing the dynamism for advanced industrial development - a core component of the economy, primarily since World War II. And it derives in part from the intention declared quite frankly on the cover of the May 2000 publication of the U.S. Space Command Vision for 2020: "dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect U.S. interests and investment," just as in earlier years "nations built navies to protect and enhance their commercial interests."
And those who criticize the Bush administration's dismantling of the Kyoto accord should recognize the validity of the defense of this march toward destruction. First, it merely acknowledges the unwillingness of the powerful to pay more than lip service to such fine words. But more important, these destructive measures should be welcomed by those who hail the miracle of markets. What are the neoclassical markets we are taught to revere? Ideally, they are institutional structures in which the participants are "rational wealth maximizers," whose interests are valued, and compensated, in proportion to their "votes": what they bring to the market, wealth or labor, primarily. In principle, the interests of those with no "votes" are valued at zero in a well-functioning ideal market. Our grandchildren, for example, who do not enter the market as wealth maximizers and have no way to express their needs within the system. So it is only proper and rational to maximize wealth in the short term, completely disregarding the consequences for future generations - a kind of "rationality" that a sane observer might call "pathological lunacy," but that is a comment about institutions, not individuals.
True, in any sane market system, the self-destructive tendencies will be mitigated by social controls. But it is precisely these institutional controls that are being undermined, with dedicated determination, in the social policies of the past twenty years, misnamed "neoliberal": They are hardly "new" and would shock the founders of classical liberalism. These policies are consciously designed to undermine democratic control and participation. The primary modality is to reduce the public arena and to transfer decision-making to the hands of the unaccountable private tyrannies of the corporate world, the international institutions it dominates, and the few powerful states that are its "tools and tyrants," in the words of James Madison's memorable warning of the possible fate of the democratic experiment he had helped to design -- a warning realized far beyond his worst nightmares.
The "neoliberal" policies have harmed economic growth and welfare where they have been applied, but the most dangerous thrust is the attack on democracy and freedom. This is intolerable in itself; democracy and freedom are intrinsic values, not instrumental ones. But it is also a dagger in the heart of potential constraints on a drive toward destruction that has deep roots in powerful institutions. I hate to produce such superficial commentary. Every sentence that precedes should, by rights, be expanded into a substantial essay. In the absence of such amplification, there is little reason for a sensible reader to believe a word of what I have just said. There is every reason, however, for those who care about the victims of suffering and oppression today, and the fate of future generations, to explore for themselves to determine whether these mere hints provide some guidelines for the discovery of important truths about the social and moral universe in which we live.
Sincerely, Noam Chomsky
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