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Ethics and Politics - or just talking into the winds. Chomsky's proposals - Part II

The Conference in Heraklion, Crete, 24 – 28 May, 2006 promises to be a stream of radical criticism of politics and thereby give the Humanist tradition a much needed breathing space. On Wednesday, 24.5 Noam Chomsky will hold the Inaugural Keynote address on the topic “Imminent Crisis, Paths towards Solutions”

By any stretch of the imagination

By any stretch of the imagination the conference promises at first sight to be highly interesting. But if the debate remains merely academic, thereby deducing moral judgments according to what is known in Western Society, the risk is high that the very concept of politics will be distorted. This will be the case if the speakers remain aloof from reality and fail to confront the full consequence of living in a world without any real morality to speak of. This is because politics has been replaced by war. If that is not perceived, the conference will risk just talking into the winds.

The crisis of the West reflects itself no longer just in the silence of intellectuals. Rather they have like V. Haval endorsed the war in Iraq and thereby left the ethical dimension needed to uphold life without any basis of articulation inside Western institutions.

Philosophy has suffered already for a long time under the absence of challenging minds as were once Thomas Kuhn to Karl Popper and the latter to Adorno while the philosopher of the Negative Dialectic engaged himself especially in writing some ethical codes for intellectuals in ‘Minima Moralia’. It is doubtful if today anyone could attain that at philosophical level. This has some very specific reasons.

The fact that war has replaced politics is crucial if the crisis of Western Society is to be understood. It is not just a crisis of politics or of ethics. Nor is war just an extension of politics with other means, as is often thought but which underlines just another misconception of politics. More accurate would be to say war replaces diplomacy or war as the case of bombing of Kosovo shows the defeat of diplomacy. A measure of politics in the proper sense of meaning has been the promise made by everyone in Europe after 1945 that the promise ‘never again war’ should not be broken. It was already when Adenauer in agreement with the Four Powers was able to set up the ‘Bundeswehr’ and with it start a return of Germany to world level engagement as underlined today by German troops fighting in Afghanistan and German secret agents supplying the US military with target information at the outbreak of the war in Iraq March 2003.

Once war rules, there vanishes any governmental responsibilities. Politics is then no longer being enacted upon to ensure that through various measures and acts of implementation a sound policy augments in opening up a path of development in which all people can participate. Instead military strategic thinking dominates before public debate and political accountability. The importance that this loss of politics is made into the prime question of the conference cannot be stressed enough.

In short, if the overall topic is to make any sense at all, then in seeking individually and together some answers to the crucial question not only if politics can be reclaimed from a world permanently at war, but if yes, then how must such politics be shaped, if it is to fulfill the ethical dimension of man? Politics as outcome of active dialogue and deliberation requires always practical wisdom and more so attentive minds as to the problems outside the institutions, including that of sciences and philosophies taught at universities. Practical thoughts have to be brought to bear upon human reality if problems connected with waging war are to be resolved.

How important this is has just been shown by the most recent report of amnesty international (23.May 2006). The report says it quite plainly that the ‘war against terrorism’ has corroded human rights.

There prevails in the world a rawness of conduct not really seen until now at such global scale. Terror is not new but the loss of civil conduct which goes with it.

The assassination that ignited First World War can be called an act of terror. Then during the Second World War the bombing of civilians to weaken the other side with first the rockets of Hitler in the famous Blitzkrieg upon London and other UK cities, then the final act of endless bombings of Dresden and more so the dropping of Atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki underlined war was no longer between soldiers and armies but engulfed everyone regardless of age, race, gender, occupation, etc. War as indiscriminate violence is in reality terror. It had been merely masked by illusionary claims of military strategists that fire power would only be directed against the ‘enemy’. Still, in the absence of any real enemy, first a production of enemy pictures had to be started, then some useful scapegoat to be found as excuse for the war machine to start rolling and then for want of real targets it is again the civilians who suffer. In Iraq since March 2003 more than 30 000 civilians have lost their lives, countless more maimed and still others haunted by traumas and fears. Still no one has the civil courage to halt this nonsense.

In philosophy the relationship to violence and terror was debated. For instance, Sartre after Second World War pressed for a long time for such political actions which did not exclude use of violence. He even endorsed the Communist Party until he realized his blindness once Hungary was invaded 1956 and the struggle for freedom there squashed by tanks. But compared to how the West remained largely silent in face of what Pinochet did in Chile after seizing power in a bloody coup killing Allende in the process, there is one thing that amazes. While philosophers like Sartre were chided, many expressed that they preferred Pinochet’s method of clamping down as a way to revive the economy even if countless were tortured and killed. To them revival of the economy meant according to the Friedman model doing away with the Keynesian policy and therefore of a state which would feel responsible for the unemployed. To them their choice for Pinochet’s kind of Fascism meant only following orders but remaining free in private life; by comparison they feared Communism as they perceived this ideology as a wish to change man also from within, hence touch upon that sanctuary of private life.

As if this does not show already what George Steiner calls the ‘paradox’ of Western Culture, namely how is it possible to enjoy music by Schubert during the evening at home and then go out the next day to kill others in concentration camps, then this perturbing passing over of ethical questions shows itself in how choices are reduced to the lesser one of two evils as if ‘on the one hand, but on the other…’ It has been used as method till today to somehow by-pass obvious contradictions between private and public life.

But coming back to the philosophical debate around Sartre but not only, it was one between individual versus mass assassination as if by definition it was possible to distinguish Left Wing from Right Wing violence. In either case it was thought violence and therefore killing of someone else for political reasons was somehow justifiable.

The problem is that no matter who commits it, violence is violence and the killing of innocent civilians a sign of cowardice, to say the least. There can be no justification, no rationalization of violence or of war. The demand upon intellectuals is, therefore, to find a way out of conflicts and disputes before everything is polarized into impossible choices.

More over one side becoming violent does not justify a violent response of the other. At least in philosophy it has been the demand to bring about a civilized world. One indicator of such a world would be to put behind the need to revenge. Hegel tried to supersede revenge with his concept of law. It would allow the state to step in-between the conflicting parties so that justice would be upheld by not the one who suffered the damage by inflicting pain upon the other as form of punishment and retaliation, but rather the state would enact on behalf of the victim the punishment. All this is said well aware that this superseding of revenge in the ‘rule of the law’ does not prevent the danger of an entire state seeking revenge as was the case of the US administration after 9/11.

Still, the question remains but how to end a vicious cycle of violence as demonstrated almost daily in the Middle East with either the Israelis or Palestinians apparently unable to find a way out of this dilemma created by the absence of civil conduct and no other moral argument upheld but religious claims for the holy land versus the land of our ancestors. Obviously land use and the claims that go with it has become a deadly threat for both sides.

Politics based on non violent actions has been disputed already before war replaced politics completely. The most often posed question, as if wanting to statue an example has been but what would one do in case of Hitler? Are there cases where non violent actions fail and a response in kind the only way to answer threat of existence?

Here then it would be important if the conference could provide at least some framework of reflections to take these and other questions further. With Noam Chomsky starting, there might be a chance that various kinds of threats are clarified and with it possible choices for responses brought to the attention of the participants of the conference. As indicated already by the abstract of his paper made available before the start, Chomsky considers it crucial that these threats are retranslated into ‘challenges’ and then resolved on the basis of universal standards that apply to all and everyone. Once that is accepted then some paths towards solutions can be mapped and even tried out. In that sense he speaks about the democratic deficit which needs to be mitigated and about the ethical crisis in need to overcome.


Noam Chomsky

Institute Professor, Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA

“Selection of crises that demand urgent attention is a subjective matter, but there are several choices that cannot be overlooked, because they are literally matters of survival. One, urgent and imminent, is the threat of nuclear war. It receives far too little attention, apart from strategic analysts, who are deeply concerned that the risks of "an Armageddon of our own making" are intolerably high and increasing. A second crisis, less imminent but inexorable, is environmental catastrophe. A third crucial issue is that state policies are regularly enhancing these serious threats to decent survival. The responsibilities are shared, but are roughly proportional to power, with the US government well in the lead. The government, not the population. The gap between public opinion and public policy is vast, which points to another crisis, a growing democratic deficit in the US and much of the world, as social and economic policies undermine the functioning of formal democratic institutions. Alongside of such historical phenomena there is a related ethical crisis among intellectual elites, not new, but now of extreme significance: a rejection of elementary moral principles, notably the principle of universality, which requires that we apply to ourselves the standards we demand of others. All are interrelated. All pose challenges that can be delayed only with great risk, some imminent, some imposing very serious burdens on future generations. All can be addressed, in some cases by means that are simple to outline but difficult to implement, at least until the democratic deficit is mitigated and the ethical crisis overcome.”

Hatto Fischer

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