THE RESPONSIBILITY OF INTELLECTUALS
AMALYA BABAYAN
Associate professor, PhD at the Department of Diplomatic Service and Communication of the Faculty of International Relation of YSU
 








Twenty years ago, Dwight Macdonald published a series of articles in Politics of the responsibilities of peoples, and specifically of intellectuals. I read them as an undergraduate, in the years just after the war, and had occasion to read them again a few months ago. They seem to me to have lost none of their power or persuasiveness, Macdonald is concerned with the question of war guilt. To what extent were the German or the Japanese people responsible for the atrocities committed by their governments? And, quite properly, he turns the question back to us: To what extent are the British or American people responsible for the vicious terror bombing of civilians, perfected as a technique of warfare by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, surely among the most unspeakable crimes in history? […]

With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misinterpretation, ideology, and class interests through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls "responsibility of peoples”, given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy. […]

The deceit and distortion surrounding the American invasion of Vietnam are by now so familiar that they have lost their power to shock. It is therefore well to recall that although new levels of cynicism are constantly being reached, their clear antecedents were accepted at home with quiet toleration. It is a useful exercise to compare government statements at the time of the invasion of Guatemala in 1954 with Eisenhower’s admission - to be accurate, his boast – a decade later that American planes were sent "to help the invaders”. Nor is it only in moments of crisis that duplicity is considered perfectly in order.[…]

If it is the responsibility of the intellectual to insist upon the truth, it is also his duty to see events in their historical perspective. Thus one must applaud the insistence of the Secretary of State on the importance of historical analogies, the Munich analogy, for example. As Munich showed, a powerful and aggressive nation with a fanatic belief in its manifest destiny will regard each victory, each extension of its power and authority, as a prelude to the next step. The matter was very well put by Adlai Stevenson when he spoke of "the old, old route whereby expansion powers push at more and more doors, believing they will open, until, at the ultimate door, resistance is unavoidable and major war breaks out”. […]

Quite often, the statements of sincere and devoted technical experts give surprising insight into the intellectual attitudes that lie in the background of the latest savagery. Consider, for example, the following comment by economist Richard Lindholm, in 1959, expressing his frustration over the failure of economic developement in "free Vietnam”: "…the use of American aid is determined by how the Vietnamese use their incomes and their savings. The fact that a large portion of the Vietnamese imports financed with American aid are either consumer goods or raw materials used rather directly to meet consumer demands is an indication that the Vietnamese people desire these goods, for they have shown their desire by their willingness to use their piasters to purchase them”.

In short, the Vietnamese people desire Buicks and air conditioners, rather than sugar-refining equipment or road-building machinery, as they have shown by their behaviour in a free market. And however much we may deplore their free choice, we must allow people to have their way.[…]

Let me finally return to Macdonald and the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who bursts into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. "Why should they? What have I done?” he asked. Macdoland concludes: "Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.” The question "What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read, each day, of fresh atrocities in Vietnam – as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.
THE FOREIGN SERVICE
769 reads | 16.01.2014
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