The spectacle of human beings acting out mindless violence through pack behavior instills more terror in the heart than perhaps any other event in the natural world. State-directed violence, capable of wielding today’s deadliest technology, especially evokes nightmarish thoughts about apocalyptic ends. But science has not worked overtime to find a satisfactory explanation for collective madness and, not surprisingly, has not produced one. Literature and the visual arts have done their best to pick up the slack. William Golding articulated our fear of human wilding in Lord of the Flies. George Orwell gave the psychology an overt political spin in Animal Farm, as did C.S. Lewis from a Christian perspective in That Hideous Strength. Inspiration runs the gamut from highbrow to lowbrow. George Romero’s film Night of the Living Dead belongs to the genre, for example, and is notable for having transformed a primordial terror into an image so alien it can be laughed away. In reality, though, this fear won’t go away. It can’t, because we all feel a subtle pull of unaccountable madness. And life demands of us, some more than others, a relentless struggle to explain these elemental experiences for which language apparently has not–yet–acquired the proper constructs.
Noam Chomsky’s book The New Military Humanism: Lessons From Kosovo, ably demonstrates how far we’ve come and, inadvertently, suggests how far there is to go. Chomsky contends that almost everything you have read or heard or seen on television about Kosovo has been a partial truth or outright falsehood. For a general readership such an assertion would seem like fiction, as if Animal Farm were actually our controlled society. And Chomsky goes further, asserting that after NATO’s war for Kosovo the malicious use of American power has become, more than ever before, the dominant fact of international politics. He writes, “It could be argued, rather plausibly, that further demolition of the rules of world order is by now of no significance, as in the late 1930s. The contempt of the world’s leading power for the framework of world order has become so extreme that there is little left to discuss.” The scope and audacity of Chomsky’s critique stagger the imagination. To call it radical practically misses the point. On the one hand we have the established media, the respectable community of foreign affairs analysts, the government–and on the other, Noam Chomsky. Assuming he is right, or even partly right, a question begs to be asked: How is it possible for things to be so out of kilter? Alternatively, what sets Chomsky’s critique apart from common conspiracy theories?
Chomsky rather sensibly assembles a thick file of facts, carefully documented in endnotes, to buttress his assertions. He weaves these into a highly persuasive big picture of media and government shenanigans. So far, so good. But clearly he is not writing for those who are not already interested in his ideas. He meanders, he repeats himself, he overindulges his sarcastic streak and he doesn’t organize his arguments, at least not so you’d notice; Chomsky needed an editor to impose more discipline. The reader might imagine herself scouring a beach with a metal detector looking for nuggets–of which there are plenty. And when it comes to the “How is this possible?” question, Chomsky assumes the reader’s more than casual familiarity with his voluminous past writings, in particular Manufacturing Consent (co-written with Edward Herman). In any case, he completely ignores the magnitude of the problem. Marxists, or anarcho-syndicalists–which may describe Chomsky’s political leanings–or other Old Left activists may shrug this question off, thinking it answered a thousand times before. Others are left with a vague and ultimately quite unsatisfying impression that somehow it is simultaneously in all these individuals’ (reporters, editors, producers, publishers, experts, government officials, military officers, etc.) self-interest to deceive the world while behaving badly.
What’s missing is a novelist’s eye and ear for individual moral dilemmas that have aggregated onto a grand scale, because what Chomsky has gotten ahold of, perhaps without realizing it, is the question of evil. Individually, the people Chomsky criticizes, or many of them, are not only acting out of self-interest but also know that they are doing something wrong. Lying to the public is wrong, their small, insistent voices of conscience tell them. Arbitrarily killing innocent people is wrong. Hatemongering in an attempt to vilify an entire people (the Serbs) is wrong. When reporters or analysts or government officials do these things, they also must work to suppress their voice of conscience. Evil, in other words, doesn’t need horns and a tail, just a bureaucratically structured environment that helps convince people of their false selves. Some notion of morality, or whatever you wish to call it, must enter the equation; otherwise Chomsky’s masterly descriptions of group psychology gone haywire don’t provide any exit. No morality, no choice, no redemption. No reform. We will all be stuck living in Animal Farm forever!