Noam Chomsky - Stefan Kubiak
email@example.com - - - - - - firstname.lastname@example.org
23 January - 11 April 1996
Stefan Kubiak is a student at the Foreign Language Teacher Training College in Bialystok.
Correspondence was published in electronic form at http://ettc.uwb.edu.pl/strony/students/chomsky.html with the consent of both authors.
Tue, 23 Jan 1996
Dear Mr. Kubiak,
Apologies for the delay in getting back to you. I've been lecturing in India for several weeks, and just found your message.
I'm afraid I don't recall the discussion with Ernest Skalski that was the basis for the article you read -- which is not very surprising; there are several of these every week, and I lose track. Interested to hear your reactions to it.
Your comment that Poles have been used to considering everything that comes from the West as "the best," which as far as I know generalizes to the rest of Eastern Europe, raises a question that has puzzled and intrigued me for some time. Poland, of course, was oppressed by Russian tyranny, as were the other countries and the people of Russia itself. But only on rare occasions, such as the invasion of Hungary, did that oppression begin to approach what the US has done routinely to Latin America (to pick only one example) during the same period (and to Central America and the Caribbean, long before). Take, say, the treatment of dissidents.
In Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in Soviet domains they had a hard time. But they didn't expect anything like the fate of the leading Jesuit intellectuals who had their brains blown out by elite military forces armed, trained, and directed by the US -- and many others like them. One Polish priest was murdered by the Polish police. During the 1980s, there were over a hundred religious martyrs murdered -- often after brutal torture and rape -- by US-run forces in Central America, including an Archbishop, four American nuns working with the poor, etc. And hundreds of thousands of peasants, working people, and others were murdered, often with extreme brutality, during the same decade, while four countries were devastated to the extent that they may not recover.
But though Latin Americans suffered far more, their reactions where far less self-centered. Central American Jesuits, for example, have been very critical of US power, but that has not led them to be uncritical of Soviet power. On the contrary, they have been highly critical of Soviet tyranny and brutality, and have always expressed great compassion, sympathy, and support for dissidents in Eastern Europe whose oppression, while real, didn't come close to what they were suffering. Having worked with oppressed people through much of the world, and read a good deal of what they write, I know that pattern holds throughout the world, with one exception: East Europe.
Merely to give one example, take Vaclav Havel, who indeed suffered under Soviet oppression. In November 1989, six leading Jesuit intellectuals were brutally murdered in El Salvador by elite forces fresh from their US training, the same ones who had murdered Archbishop Romero and had compiled a monstrous record of atrocities that has no remote counterpart in the Eastern European satellites. A few weeks later, Havel came to the US and gave a talk at the US Congress, where he had nothing to say about the fate of his fellow-dissidents under US rule, which is surprising enough, but furthermore, went on to laud the US as "the defender of freedom" -- an outrageous comment, in the light of the facts. It is exactly as if some Jesuit intellectual in Central America who had been oppressed were to have gone to Russia to laud Russia as "the defender of freedom" before the Supreme Soviet -- something that would have been utterly unthinkable.
Havel is not an evil man. Rather, he adopts a perspective that seems pervasive in Eastern Europe, and unique to it, at least in my experience: the sense that their own suffering has unique significance, and that everything about the superpower which, for completely cynical reasons, opposed their enemy is therefore "the best." That is something I've never understood, though I think one can think of some reasons for it: East Europeans dissidents, for example, were unique in the world in that their plight was the focus of great attention by the world's most powerful states and institutions, and by the intellectual classes in the wealthy countries. To illustrate with the same example, just about every minor speech that Havel delivers is featured in Western intellectual journals and treated with great respect, and generally the writings and courageous actions of East European dissidents are very well known. But the very thoughtful and eloquent writings of Central American Jesuits and other highly principled dissidents within the regions of Western power, and their far more courageous actions in the light of the punishment they faced, are completely unknown, as are even their names.
These facts are dramatically obvious, and a terrible indictment of Western intellectual culture and its moral corruption, since on the most elementary moral grounds the opposite should have been the case: for any human being, it is the crimes for which he shares responsibility that should be the primary focus of his attention, not those of others. And it may be that this has had its effect on the sole dissident intellectuals in the world who had the support and sometimes protection of powerful forces.
In any event, the facts seem clear, and merit explanation -- also some reflection, I should think.
I'd be delighted to hear from you, both to learn more about what is happening in Poland, and to try to answer any questions you might have. In some cases, questions might relate to things I've written about, in which case I'll be glad to send material, if you wish.
27 Jan 96
Thank you for your message of 23 January. I am very glad to receive such interesting load of your opinions.
First of all, I would like to respond to your statement that you cannot understand the Eastern Europeans' attitude towards the US,since the latter conduct cynic policy in South and Central America. I think it is quite understandable. Havel or Walesa are not the saints. They are ordinary people who led their nations in extraordinary way toward freedom. There were two powers who supported them in their efforts: Vatican (morally), and the US (morally and materially as well). Do you expect that someone whom a thief saved the life, will criticize his saviour. What is more, we still need material help from America and other western countries. Of course, Havel could express the problem without offending his American hosts, but it is too complex psychological problem of our leaders to simply accuse them of bad will. I mean the politicians of small countries are do not feel to have any moral rights to criticise their benefactors.
The next problem is that of differences between the situation in South America and in Eastern Europe. We all live in the mental world of stereotypes and it is impossible to free from them. Our picture of ourselves was shaped during a thousand years of history. The political systems changed but the geographical position of Poland did not. We were always between the Germans, who looked down on us, and wanted to subdue our country, and the Russian, who represented the barbarian Asiatic mentality, and who always made attempts to destroy our (Western by Roman Catholicism)culture. During the 19th century our nation had to find some ways to survive. The Russians and the Germans wanted to denationalize the Poles. Our idol was France at that time, regardless if she was a republic or Napoleonic empire. We needed the good stereotype. We still need it, so you can observe temporal love to America. To tell the truth, it is going to its hard times, because people are disappointed at their hopes for further material aid. They are disappointed to democracy (nobody is responsible for anything), and to market economy as well. They expressed their feelings electing an ex-communist Aleksander Kwasniewski the president.
If you want to understand our attitude towards the West in the 1980s, you should know something about the life in our countries under the communist rule. The communists never were brave enough to admit that they simply loved to have power. They wanted to be admired and loved by people. They represented false ideology, and many of them believed they acted for people's good. The communist party was a mixture of cynic pragmatists, gangsters, fanatics and servilistic intellectuals. I remember we were educated to believe that the Soviet Union is the richest country in the world, people there and in other satellites, have the highest standard of life, and the economic difficulties were always "temporal". The reality was different. One could buy literally nothing at the shop, save some products which quality was terrible. People had money, there were not any unemployment, but if one wanted to gain (yes, "gain", not simply buy), something good, one had to deal with the black market. It was very hard to get a passport, so when someone managed eventually to the West, he brought the news about the paradise on the earth. Moreover, we realised that the communists told lies. Of course, their propaganda promptly used the information about corruption, racism, and American policy in South America to show us the hell of the western life. We began simply to deny everything they told us on TV. We did not believe them in cases we knew the truth, so we got used not to believe them in any cases. Another stereotype, nothing else.
What we know about South America is that there always were "pronunciamentos". One junta was running another. People love to thing by stereotypes. We accustomed to think about Latino-Americans as about the people of no democratic traditions, and no national definition. Moreover, they live so far away. I realise such thinking is inhuman, but this is the world of stereotypes. The Jesuits are people of strong faith. You, dear Professor are a great scholar and philosopher. You both can afford thinking above the dirty practice, and you can have very positive influence on the politicians, but do not be surprise when they turn out to be ordinary, weak and sinful people, who are not clever enough to manage to connect their activity and morality. In South America cruel regimes kill people in the name of their own desire of power. The situation is rather clear, fighting them is fighting the Evil itself. The US do not help in this struggle, on the contrary, they often support the murderers. That is true, but I believe that thanks to you and other people who think in the same way, it will be possible to improve the situation. Nobody will shut your mouth. In the communist countries it would have been impossible, you would have been not only arrested but blamed of being a spy, racist, nazist or of whatever they liked to accuse you of. They did not have to kill too many people. We were afraid enough to be ruled without too much oppression. I belong to the last generation, whom the communists tried to "wash brains" and make to believe in socialism and the Great Brother. They failed, but they succeeded in one point. Many of us still need a Great Brother, but not the old one. It is very difficult to live safely without a Great Brother.
Excuse me, for bothering you so long. I have just wanted to express my opinion that the problem does not lies in politics, or economics, but in psychology. I wonder what you think about it. To tell the truth we do not know our motivation in most of cases, especially when we have to act quickly. The psychologists are still not able to explain it satisfactorily. I think the future will belong to them.
I do not want to take your precious time any longer. Please if possible share your views with me. I would like to ask you some questions concerning the languages relativity, because as I wrote I had not been able to read any of your books. I would like to write about it next time.
Thu, 01 Feb 1996
Dear Mr. Kubiak,
I don't want to harp on the matter, but I really would urge that you rethink your interpretation of the attitude of East European intellectuals -- or to be more accurate, East European dissidents: I am not concerned here with the great number who justified or supported the violence and repression of their own states, as most intellectuals have done throughout history, and as is the norm in the West with only a rare fringe of exceptions, contrary to much self-serving pretence -- facts easily demonstrated, in fact documented in thousands of pages of material, if you are interested.
No one expects dissidents to be "saints," to borrow your word. But what does require reflection and explanation is the radical difference between East European dissidents and their counterparts everywhere else in the world, something that is dramatically obvious to anyone who has been involved in human rights issues worldwide, as I have for many years. I never wrote about this during the period of Soviet rule (and have scarcely done so since), because it would be improper to criticize people who suffer oppression no matter how badly they behave. But the unique character of East European dissidents cannot be dismissed merely by noting that they are not saints.
Closer to the explanation is your observation that they were supported by the US and the Vatican, unlike dissidents elsewhere, who were supported by no one with any power or influence. But that is a great understatement: they were given massive support and attention by the entire Western world, quite unprecedented support, vastly greater than the support given to people within Western domains who were suffering far worse oppression and were defending freedom and justice with far greater courage. The disparity is so extraordinary that the very word "dissident" in Western languages refers to East Europeans; no one, except those few who have extricated themselves from the Western propaganda system, even uses the word "dissident" for people like the Central American Jesuit intellectuals who were assassinated in November 1989 by elite forces armed and trained by the US. And while every word of East European dissidents is widely publicized, hailed, and treasured, try to find even a reference to the very important and courageous writings of Fr. Ellacuria and his associates, or other Central American dissidents who had to flee from slaughter or were simply tortured and killed by US-run forces. For example, Fr. Cesar Jerez, the Jesuit provincial for Central America, who had to flee his native Guatemala when the US-run mass murderers threatened to kill all the Jesuits, going to El Salvador where he was the closest associate of Archbishop Romero, fleeing to Nicaragua after the Archbishop was murdered by the same US-run terrorist forces. One of the reasons why Nicaragua was so hated in the US and by its Western allies is that it became a refuge for people fleeing from US terror, much as Paris had become a refuge for people fleeing from Hitler and Stalin in the 1930s. People who were far from being Communists or even particularly "left": writers, priests, human rights activists, democratic political figures, and others.
They fled to Nicaragua because there was no other place in the region where they could be safe from US terror. Try to find a word about this in the Western literature. And I can go on and on.
The fact is that dissidents in the Soviet satellites (or in the USSR itself, post-Stalin) were uniquely privileged among dissident intellectuals around the world in several respects: first, they received overwhelmingly greater attention and support; second, their suffering and oppression, though real and terrible, was not comparable to that of many of their counterparts elsewhere, a fact dramatically obvious in Latin America, where the US has ruled with a heavy hand. That incidentally continues as we communicate right now. Take Colombia, hailed here as a great democracy. It has one independent political party. Since it was formed about 10 years ago, 2500 of its leading activists have been murdered, most of them by the military and the paramilitary forces associated with them; that includes several presidential candidates, mayors, and others, The murderers receive half of all US military aid and training in the hemisphere -- on the pretext of a "drug war" which is taken seriously by absolutely no one with the slightest familiarity with the topic. You can learn all about it in the regular extensive reports of the very same international human rights monitors (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch) that recorded the repression in Eastern Europe, though there are the usual two differences: (1) no one pays attention in this case, while their reports about Eastern Europe aroused huge (and proper) outrage; (2) the repression in Eastern Europe did not begin to compare with what is faced daily in this highly-praised democracy.
I incidentally do not exempt myself from this dramatic disparity.
Thus I took personal initiatives in the case of Eastern European dissidents -- several of whom were finally released to go the West in part as a result of these efforts -- that far exceed anything I did for dissidents in US domains who were suffering much worse oppression. I don't say that with pride. Rather, it simply reflects the great ease of opposing repression in Eastern Europe as compared with the enormous difficulty of even discussing much worse repression when its roots are in domestic power. There is nothing historically unique about this -- we can trace it back to classical Greece and the Bible. But we do no one any service by denying very clear and plain facts.
Turning now to the reaction of East European dissidents, as compared with those elsewhere, the distinctions are equally dramatic. Of course, these are generalizations; one will find exceptions. But the differences are so extreme that the generalizations are valid to a very substantial -- indeed overwhelming -- degree.
Though this is minor, let me just mention some personal experience. As noted, apart from joining in the usual regular protests and condemnations, and writing very harsh critiques of Bolshevik tyranny from my very first political writings to the present, I took far greater personal initiatives in the case of several East European dissidents (two Russian, one Czech) than I did in any case elsewhere. Two of these people, incidentally, hold views that I regard as utterly atrocious on almost every topic, a fact I never mentioned of course. They did make it to the West, where they were able to find good academic positions. Of course, I never had a note thanking me for any of these efforts, nor did I want or expect any such thanks. But the situation elsewhere is dramatic. Even for simply signing petitions, I have been personally thanked, repeatedly, by people suffering far worse oppression than these three (whose oppression, incidentally, amounted to discrimination against them in the academic world of a kind not unusual here). The reason is not that they are bad people. Rather, Eastern Europeans generally take it for granted that, naturally, everyone must dedicate all efforts and concern to them; no one else matters. That is a radical difference from other areas, including those where oppression is far worse. Again, this is a generalization; there are exceptions. But it is a generalization of more than a little validity.
Let's take again Vaclav Havel, whom we have discussed. When he came to the US in February 1990, no one expected him to deliver a ringing indictment of US terrorism and aggression in the US Congress; or even to mention US foreign policy; that was not my point, and I quite agree with you that he had no obligation to do anything of the sort. In fact, it would have been acceptable morally for him not even to mention the fact that six of his counterparts in El Salvador had just had their brains blown out by troops armed and trained by the people he was addressing in Congress; not very admirable, but understandable. However, nothing required him to grovel before the murderers, praising the murderers of leading Central American dissidents as "the defenders of freedom."
Let's imagine that Fr. Ellacuria had gone to speak in Moscow and had discussed the terrible record of atrocities against Central American intellectuals -- and hundreds of thousands of murdered peasants, union leaders, students, priests,... -- going on to praise Russia as "the defender of freedom." That would have been outrageous, despite the fact that he and his colleagues suffered far worse oppression and terror than anyone did in Czechoslovakia under the grim Soviet tyranny. It would not only have been outrageous, but utterly unthinkable. Like dissidents I know about and have been privileged to be associated with throughout the world, the Central American Jesuit intellectuals expressed great sympathy and compassion for their counterparts (actually, much more privileged counterparts) in Eastern Europe, and harshly condemned Soviet tyranny and oppression. That was most definitely NOT reciprocated, as you can readily determine, even by those who did not sink to Havel's level, praising the killers as "defenders of freedom."
What is true of Havel generalizes to people who do not have the excuse (which, in my view, is not much of an excuse) of representing a small country that had recently won its freedom. Namely, writers, academics, and many others. Furthermore, it continues to be true long after they have won their freedom, and when they are in the West, facing no oppression, only vast acclaim. One finds no counterpart to such behaviour on the part of intellectuals elsewhere in the world, with of course some exceptions: namely, the most loyal and craven Stalinists, who did behave in that manner.
These matters, I think, require reflection.
Your historical remarks are interesting, but I do not think that they are pertinent. Latin American intellectuals have a history of hundreds of years of oppression, first in the colonial period, more recently mostly by the US. The same is true of Africa, which suffered far more under European rule than Eastern Europe did -- with the exception of Hitler and Stalin, who did compare with standard European behaviour, for example, the behaviour of King Leopold of Belgium, who murdered 10 million people in 20 years in his Congo possessions while greatly enriching himself and Belgium, a feat that is impressive even by 20th century standards (and that has virtually disappeared from history, since the murder was carried out by the wrong hands). And the same is surely true of the native American population of the US, who were reduced from perhaps 8-10 million to 200,000 by 1900. But nevertheless, they do not rush to Moscow to praise "the defenders of freedom" or write other shameful nonsense about the marvels that the Soviet tyrants brought to the world within their reach.
Furthermore, even if we were to accept what you say about Poland and Czechoslavakia, it plainly does not hold of Russia itself. But the Russian dissidents are exactly the same. Again, I never said a word about this at the time, for the reasons already mentioned, and haven't since. But simply have a look at what Russian dissidents (Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, etc.) were saying about the West and those who were suffering its terror and violence. Not very pretty, and quite unlike the compassionate and honourable behaviour of people suffering far worse oppression within US and other western domains. There were a few exceptions, like Grigorenko, but they were rare indeed.
I know about life under Leninism-Stalinism very well, and also know that educated Russians and East Europeans knew that the ridiculous lies promulgated by the leadership were an utter absurdity. It is perfectly understandable that they should have denied anything that they heard on Soviet TV, though not what they heard over BBC and other foreign radio, to which a large majority of the population was listening by the 1970s, according to government-funded studies at Russian Research centres in the US. I met enough Eastern Europeans (including Russians) over the years to know first-hand that they had a reasonable awareness of what was happening in the world. And the awe and love of US power, particularly on the part of the apparatchiks, was something of a joke. I can give you some examples if you like, from international meetings, where the Communist representatives trying to manipulate everything behind the scenes were working feverishly to tone down criticisms of their friends in Washington (particularly Nixon, who they greatly admired) that were proposed by groups of women from conservative American churches. It was quite comical to watch, and pretty standard.
East Europeans certainly had more than enough information to be aware, if they chose, that in South America it wasn't just "one junta running another," with "no democratic tradition." They had more than enough information to know about the massive US role in undermining democracy, instituting terror and atrocities, causing massive starvation and disease, in regions rich in resources and potential, the source of much of Europe's wealth. These were, after all, educated people, with plenty of resources available, even under Soviet tyranny. If they chose to prefer self-serving stereotypes, that simply reinforces my point. Elsewhere, independent minds did not, even under far worse oppression.
You are quite right that here in the US I am far more free than dissidents in the USSR. But that is not the comparison I am making. Rather, I am comparing the dissidents in the Soviet domains to those in US domains. That difference is dramatic, and requires an explanation.
The far greater freedom in the West that you mention is important with regard to a different topic than the one we have been discussing. That freedom, which is very real, confers far greater responsibility on Western intellectuals. Therefore, their moral depravity is vastly worse than anything that you and I are now discussing. As amply documented, Western intellectuals are immersed in the kind of state worship and denial of atrocities and repression that compares to some of the worst Stalinist commissars, and that is morally far more disgusting, since at least the latter could plead fear, while Westerners cannot. But that is a different -- and very important -- matter.
As for the reasons for the dramatic differences between Eastern European intellectuals and others suffering violence and oppression, I think you make a good point in attributing it in part to the effects of Soviet tyranny, and its inculcation of faith in power. It may be that this shameful and disastrous system of tyranny also succeeded in undermining the intellectual integrity and independence even of its dissidents. But I suspect that the major reason for the difference is the one I mentioned earlier: dissidents in the USSR and East Europe were unique in that they received enormous respect and support from outside (for cynical reasons, for the most part, as we can see by comparing how the same people reacted to atrocities for which they and their governments were responsible). And this vast and unprecedented support and attention probably helped contribute to their sense that somehow their status was unique.
Whatever the reasons, the phenomenon is real, and I think merits reflection. I don't expect Western intellectuals to undertake this task. If they did, they would have to expose their own depravity -- that is, the fact that while professing great anguish over the fate of East European dissidents, they did not lift a finger to stop the far worse oppression of dissidents within US domains as they could have very easily done. Or even to refer to it: again, compare the familiarity of Western intellectuals with the writings of East European dissidents, on the one hand, and Central American Jesuits, on the other; or any other reasonable comparison you want to make. And the last thing that intellectuals are going to do is to expose themselves. For that conclusion, history provides more than enough evidence, to our shame.
I'd be happy to turn to questions of language and relativity, if you like. Frankly, although I think the matters I've been mentioning are of supreme importance, I do not expect them to be understood or discussed by Western intellectuals, who are much too subordinated to power in general, and far too lacking in intellectual independence, to undertake such inquiry. As to whether Eastern Europeans will some day have the intellectual courage to face these matters honestly, I have no idea, nor do I expect to write about it and discuss it. My tasks are primarily where my responsibility lies: at home. That is a moral truism if anything is.
6 Feb 96
Thank you for your answer to some of my doubts. Now I think I has understood some of your points. Nevertheless, I would like to precise the subject we are talking about. Your criticism is directed towards the Eastern European dissidents, whom you consider equal to intellectuals. Certainly, many of them are not intellectuals. In Poland, for instance, our chief dissident, Lech Walesa, who in 1991 became a president, has never claimed to be an intellectual. He is a simple worker with a great talent of a leader, and political instinct. He is not an educated man so people voted for a communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, who can express his thoughts in nice pseudo-intellectual words. Polish intellectuals (if they can be so called) are a small group, mostly in one of our parties:the Union of Freedom, and because of their typical for intellectuals hesitation, this party becomes less and less popular. As far as I understand your point of view, you would see intellectuals, or so-called dissidents, as persons who express their opinions from the position of God the Father, from the position of universal morality. Furthermore, they should teach the mankind about this morality. In general, I can agree with you. People all over the world need someone who will take a role of the ancient prophets. On the other hand, when one of those intellectuals becomes a politician, unfortunately he must often resign from the role of a heaven-sent teacher, responsible for all the world and its inhabitants. First of all, he is responsible for his own nation, because he was democratically elected by the people of his country. Peoples opinion in this case cannot be disdained. I'll give you an example. When Tadeusz Mazowiecki (the first non-communist prime minister in Poland)after his prime ministerial office, became a representative of the UN in Bosnia, my father (a worker) said: "What is he going there for? We have enough our own problems." My father's opinion was not unique among the people. They cannot understand that we should be active in international affairs. The politicians have to consider such opinions. Otherwise, they could speak to nobody.
You said that Havel's speech in the US Congress, was as if Central American Jesuits had come to communist Moscow and praised the Russians for being "defenders of freedom". I must say that this comparison entirely does not suit to the reality. First, Havel, being a politician rather than an intellectual dissident, wanted to build democracy in his country, so he turned to the USA as to the democratic power which really helped him and other Eastern-European politicians to overthrow the communism. It is quite understandable. And now imagine the situation when Jesuits turn for help to the power which had never helped any priests, in whose political doctrine there is fighting not only the Church but religion in general. Catholic priests knew very well that they have nothing to look for in Moscow, as well as Havel knew that there was much to look for in Washington.
We both understand that democratic countries rarely were "exporters" of democracy. Ancient Athens or revolutionary France were condemned by their allies, because they acted in the name of their own citizens' interest. The only lesson the politicians can derive from those examples is to convince the superpowers that it is their good business to support democracy, because counting on their good will or sense of morality will probably fail.
To be understood better I would like to explain what I mean speaking about "democratic tradition". To me, a country with such a tradition has in its history rather long period when it was ruled democratically, or with some elements which led to democracy (parliament for example.) If you write about two hundred years of fights for freedom, it does not indicate that the South Americans can manage with democracy. Lech Walesa in Poland was a genius as a union leader, a man of political struggle. As a president of the republic he seemed not to know what to do and how to behave in particular situations. He could not respect the situation, that his own friends had different opinions. Thanks God, when he failed the election, he did not make a revolution. Fortunately, he understands the rules of democracy. I cannot imagine such situation in South America or in Africa. There if someone recognize himself to be a "saviour of the nation" will never give up his position to someone who is from the entirely opposite political "gang". We have got examples of some South American "dissidents" who had searched help in Moscow. I mean Fidel Castro. Of course, Battista was really an American tool for ruling Cuba. But compare life in Havana at that time and now. What is the alternative for South America? Everybody will answer: democracy. But it is difficult to trust people, whose mentality has not grown to democracy. One may arrest all the bosses of the Mafia in Sicily, but what is the use of it, if there will appear a young boy, stronger and cleverer than his friends, who will require "respect" from them? This way of thinking has been being made for hundreds of years. Two hundred years of fighting for freedom means nothing in this context. By the way, to us, Europeans, two hundred years is too short time to talk about any tradition.
Gustave le Bon in his "Psychology of the Crowd" wrote that nations could change their forms of government but they would always return to the system they had been used to. He wrote it at the end of the 19th century, but in many cases it turned out to be true. For the Poles, Russia was always the country which wanted to destroy us as a nation. During the period of partitions of Poland, they simply wanted us to speak Russian, to confess the Orthodoxy, to be Russians altogether. After the revolution, Russia changed the political system, but was still an empire with strong will to subdue her neighbours. Stalin's idol was not Marx, Engels or even Lenin, but Ivan the Terrible. His descendants were less cruel, but they were still tzars. For the Poles, Russia is a danger. After the World War II, the West left us to the disposition of the Soviets. I must admit that socialist ideas were quite popular among Polish workers, but first of all, people considered this sort of socialism as another face of Russian occupation. Imperial thinking in Russia can be observed even today. Russia has totally NO democratic tradition, and I am afraid, their present democrats are as "imperial" as Bolshevics or tsarist nobles. Let's take Solzhenitsyn. When asked about his opinion on the Chechnya massacres, he answered that people required to much from him, when they wanted him to express his point in every case. From his earlier speeches it is clear that the great intellectual is an imperial Russian nationalist.
Yesterday I wrote a fragment of an interesting book by Tina Rosenberg,"The Haunted Land:Facing Europe's Ghosts after Communism", New York 1995, Random House. I think she understands problems of Eastern Europe very well. She is a journalist. Previously, she worked in South America and had written "Cain's Children". I would like to read those books, and I will when they are available in Poland. You'll have no trouble to get them and read. I think Rosenberg is more objective than I am. From the fragment I read I can hope it is a very good piece of knowledge of Europe. She underlines a very important item, that in Eastern Europe the communist system was murderous, and after the death of Stalin, even people involved in the machinery of the regime, could recognize themselves to be honest. In South America there are governments of murderers.
Dear Professor, I do not want us to vie with each other in atrocities in communism and South American dictatorships. I agree with you when you condemn the government of you country for its policy in South America. We praise your country because the US helped us, regardless their reasons. Thanks God, Poland was "on the US's way" to overcoming their communist competitors. During the whole 19th century nobody helped Poland in her fight for independence. The only politician who did anything with my country was Napoleon Bonaparte. Many contemporary politicians and intellectuals realized that he just needed Polish boys to his army. He established the Duchy of Warsaw (not Poland), a little country entirely controlled by the French, but the official language was Polish, and it was enough to believe in him as in our saviour. In the World War I, the western countries saw an interest in establishing independent Poland. Jozef Pilsudski, who had created some Polish troops beside the Austro-Hungarian army, was by some politicians considered a traitor. (Austria and Germany were partners of Russia in partition of Poland.) In 1916 he refused to take an oath on the faith to the German kaiser, and was arrested by his allies. Thanks to that fact he could be recognized by France, Britain and the US, as a leader of independent Poland. We respect the memory of Pilsudski, because he eventually created our independence. The West needed a country between themselves and Bolshevik Russia. France needed an ally behind Germany. It is understandable, that they thought about their business, but the effect was independent Poland. During the World War II the West left us alone twice. They did not help us in 1939, and in 1945. As to 1939, they could stop Hitler effectively, but they did not. In 1945 I can understand them, they could not risk another war for Poland. The basic manual of politicians is not the Bible, but "Il Principe" by Machiavelli.
In my opinion, the only method you, and your supporters may undertake to stop atrocities in South America, is to convince your politicians that it is much better business for the US to support democracy and freedom in this region than to maintain murderous juntas. If you only protest from the position of an intellectual, no one will pay attention to your voice. Unfortunately, no country is "on the way" to manage his own business in South America, to help its countries to establish democracy. There is no political power to do anything against the US. But I believe that the US government is convincible sufficiently, so that someone wise and experienced would persuade it the moral policy.
Dear Professor, I am sorry for bothering you so long. Please forgive me my insolence in this moment. I would like to know how many languages you know, and how you had learned them. Your name is famous among any philologists, but I would like to tell my students about you. I teach in secondary school history and English. I believe that one of the most important points of my job should be motivation of my students. In my opinion it will very good when they can hear about such a famous person as you are. They do not like school, and foreign languages frighten them most. I would like to encourage them by positive examples. You are the best. Thank you once again, dear Professor, I am waiting for your interesting remarks. I always share of them with my friends. They usually cause a "brainstorm".
Wed, 14 Feb 1996
Dear Mr. Kubiak,
Apologies for the delay. I'm utterly swamped with mail and e-mail these days, and can't keep up with the deluge. Most long letters I just cannot try to answer. But I have a special interest in this correspondence, and therefore will try to keep up with it as best I can.
I'd like to follow your suggestion and try to focus the subject of discussion more precisely. But that may require some work. I think it is becoming clearer as we proceed that we are beginning from very different assumptions. As a result, we have not yet been able to identify even the areas of disagreement, let alone to try to resolve them, though I suspect that if we can begin to communicate, we may find that we are not that far apart on fundamental issues or even matters of fact. At least, we should be able to identify the areas of disagreement, I hope also to reduce or maybe eliminate them.
The simplest way to proceed, I think, is by my taking up the points you raise in your letter, in order.
Walesa. You've mentioned him several times, but I haven't. The reason is that I didn't want to bring in an extraneous issue. Now that you raise it yet again, I'll comment.
I realize that in Europe, and even more so in Eastern Europe, a rather sharp distinction is made between "intellectuals" and "simple workers" (I borrow your terms). As you put it, Walesa is not an "intellectual," just a "simple worker."
That distinction means much less in the US, and to me, it means essentially nothing: in fact, I think it is a remnant of deeply authoritarian attitudes that ought to be overcome. One of the things I very much like about the United States is that "intellectuals" aren't taken very seriously, unlike Europe. That is one aspect of the general levelling of class differences in the domain of personal life (not in other domains, of course) that I find a very attractive feature of American culture and society. In Europe and elsewhere, I'm constantly annoyed by the deference that is shown to privileged people, intellectuals in particular. And I'm often appalled by the way they act, and by their expectations as to how they should be treated. Here, I've rarely felt so embarrassed as when accompanying Eastern European visitors to dinner -- professors (often nice people), apparatchiks, specialists on America who I presume came from the KGB or something like it (most of them somewhere to the right of the Republican party and fawning with adoration about the US and its policies, particularly their most disgusting features), and the like. The way they treated waiters, for example, simply made one's flesh crawl. The same is true of Europe rather generally, though it rarely reaches this level (unless one moves to the more comic extremes of the British aristocracy, and then there's a bit of self parody involved, so it isn't quite so bad). One aspect of all of this is the distinction between "intellectual" and "simple worker."
To make the matter more concrete, yesterday I spent much of the day at a seminar at Harvard with a group of "simple workers": trade unionists who have a 10-week session there. It's a regular event. I've been doing it for years, often for lengthy follow-up sessions and private meetings. Most the participants are from the US, but there are others from around the world, sometimes (not this year) Eastern Europe. I don't know much about Walesa, but don't see why he should be any different.
At yesterday's meeting, I opened with the same kind of talk I'll be giving tomorrow evening at Brandeis University under the auspices of the graduate department of political science. Or just about anywhere else. There are some differences. People with different lives and backgrounds tend to have somewhat different immediate concerns, for many reasons; and more educated people tend to be more deeply indoctrinated, particularly those who would be called "intellectuals," and hence are typically engaged in some form of doctrinal management, as part of what might be called "a commissar class." But there aren't any broad differences, at least in my experience since childhood, outside of some faculty clubs in elite universities and literary salons in New York, and the like.
I didn't mention Walesa because I didn't want to go into this. Whether he deserves the title "intellectual" more or less than Havel is an individual matter, having nothing to do with what the two of them do. I've certainly known "simple workers" who merit the term much more than distinguished writers whom I've known. Many of the people called "intellectuals" do mostly clerical work, or parrot what they've been told. Many of the people called "workers" are independent-minded, thoughtful, and very knowledgeable. True, "intellectuals" tend to be far more privileged, so they are more likely to use big words and literary references. But that's not relevant.
I'm sure Poles react to Walesa and Kwasniewski exactly as you say; it's what I would have expected, knowing nothing about this specific matter. For the same reason, when I was asked by European intellectuals to sign joint statements with Jean-Paul Sartre, it was front-page news in Paris and ignored here, quite right. The reason is that people here are more sane (in my opinion) than Paris intellectuals. The first time I was arrested here, in civil disobedience against the Vietnam war, there were front-page headlines in Paris reading "Chomsky en danger." Here, there was no mention anywhere, even in the local paper. That's precisely the right reaction: I was arrested, so were 1000 other people whose names no one had ever heard of. What's the difference? Answer, none.
It is, in my opinion, a defect of societies that have yet to shed feudalistic characteristics that the distinctions are taken seriously. Here, fortunately, they are taken much less seriously, and I don't make them at all, except when I have to adapt to conventional usage to be understood.
When I use the term "dissident intellectual," I mean a person who thinks independently (hence an intellectual) and rejects the doctrines favoured by the powerful (hence a dissident). Maybe the person is a steel worker, maybe he writes plays or teaches French literature at Harvard. That's not to the point. I omitted mention of Walesa simply so as to bypass these matters, which I know are understood very differently in Europe, even more so in Eastern Europe.
You interpret me as seeing "intellectuals, or so-called dissidents, as persons who express their opinions from the position of God the Father, from the position of universal morality," people who should "teach mankind about this morality." You add that you "agree with me." But you do not. I reject the view you are attributing to me -- totally, completely, as adamantly as I can. I do recognize the view that you think I am expressing. But to my mind, it falls in the domain of games played by "respectable intellectuals" for careerist or other reasons, usually in the service of external power. I have nothing to do with it. I condemn it and regard it as shameful.
I don't know any more about "universal morality" than the trade unionists I was talking to yesterday, nor did it ever occur to them that I did or that I thought I did. And neither they nor I regard it as our task (or anyone else's) to "teach mankind about this morality." I hope you don't mind my being frank, but I'm sure they would react to the words of yours that I just quoted about as I do, though anyone familiar with European intellectual culture, and in particular the form it has taken in Eastern Europe, understands where the thoughts are coming from.
You say that "people all over the world need someone who will take the role of the ancient prophets." Two comments. First, the factual assumptions that underlie it are dramatically false, and false in ways that I would like to suggest merit some reflection. Second, I disagree strongly with the intended thought.
You are expressing a standard Leninist line, echoed in virtually the same words by the mainstream of 20th century Western intellectuals -- something I've documented at length, if you are interested -- and pretty much the position of the Grand Inquisitor. But before getting to that, let me recall the facts about the "ancient prophets," which I'm sure you know as well as I.
Those called "prophets" in the Bible are more or less what are called "intellectuals" these days. They presented geopolitical analyses and other commentary on public affairs, and also expressed their views about moral issues. Since what we are reading is a rendition of societies of several millennia ago, they all claimed to be speaking in the name of one or another god. The prophet-intellectuals came in the two familiar varieties: roughly commissars and dissidents. As always, the commissars were greatly honoured and privileged; they are the ones that people listened to, the Bible tells us. Centuries later, they were called "false prophets." The dissidents are those who centuries later were called "prophets"; they are the ones to whom you are referring as the "ancient prophets." They were reviled, imprisoned, driven into the desert; virtually no one listened to them. Furthermore, the man who was in my opinion the greatest of the prophets stressed that he was NOT an intellectual (not a "prophet or the son of a prophet," in the terminology of the day), but rather a simple farmer. It's worth pondering the actual words of the persecuted and reviled dissidents, and there is also much to learn about the history that the Biblical account records. It's been relived over and over again through the ages, most recently in the USSR and its satellites and in Western elite culture, in surprisingly similar ways.
The facts about the "ancient prophets" matter illustrate exactly my points. The version of history you presuppose, which is precisely the opposite of what the Bible clearly and unambiguously records, reflects the assumptions of the Grand Inquisitor (Lenin, Wilsonian liberals, etc.): that people need commissars to lead them, perhaps speaking for one or another god (the Bible is polytheistic), perhaps for the Central Committee, perhaps for the corporate boardroom, perhaps pure careerists, perhaps hoping to gain state power by exploiting popular struggle (Leninism, naturally a doctrine of great appeal to "radical intellectuals").
Precisely what people do NOT need is a "prophet" in the sense in which you are misusing the term. They can think very well for themselves, thank you, and there is no one smart enough to teach them the principles of "universal morality"; certainly "intellectuals" have nothing to preach about these topics, no more than the simple farmer who was not a prophet or the son of a prophet.
It seems that we are in different universes here, I'm afraid, which may be one reason why we are not communicating too well. I completely reject the assumptions that you are taking for granted throughout, and that you identify as the area of our agreement.
I hope at least it is clear that we disagree precisely where you thought we were agreeing, and maybe in fundamental ways. Just on grounds of logic, all of this has to be cleared up before we can even hope to communicate about these important matters.
The idea that "politicians" or "intellectuals" are concerned with international affairs while workers are not may well be true of your personal experience; I'll take your word on that. My experience is completely different, and the reading and study that I have done suggests to me that my experience is far from unique or even unusual.
My father came from a tiny village in the Ukraine and on arriving here worked in a sweatshop. My mother's background was similar. Both were very much interested in international affairs; my father's interest goes back to the Shtetl, where he taught himself Russian in part for that reason (a terrible heresy in the society in which he grew up, run by totalitarian Rabbis with the power of the Czar behind them). My relatives here were mostly working class. Many had little formal education. The one who influenced me more than anyone in my life never got beyond fourth grade. They were first-generation immigrants -- seamstresses, labourers, etc. -- mostly unemployed when I was growing up during the depression. Some managed to make it through school and had become school teachers. Some were involved in petty commerce. I've yet to find a milieu that reaches anything like their level of intellectual ferment, excitement, and engagement: Stekel's most recent disagreement with Freud, what was really happening in the Spanish Civil War, the latest performance of the Budapest String quartet, contemporary avant-garde literature, etc.
Another person who I met in my early 20s and whose work I found pretty impressive was a tool and die maker who had little formal education: Paul Mattick, one of the most important writers of the group that was around Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, Karl Korsch, and other left Marxists (radically anti-Leninist, of course). I didn't agree with a lot of what Mattick said, particularly about the importance of Marx (about which I've always been sceptical). But as an intellectual he surely ranked well above what I was reading in intellectual journals (including the left) or hearing among the distinguished Cambridge intelligentsia. I suspect he and his circle are unknown in Poland. If so, that illustrate the stultifying effect of the Leninist and Western propaganda systems.
You say that politicians are interested in international affairs, not working people. That's news to me. I've known many people in Congress and government -- and in distinguished faculties of international affairs. Their interest and knowledge is often extremely narrow, and they are often remarkably ignorant: McNamara and Kissinger are two dramatic examples, which I have discussed in print. Many of them focus like a laser on some minute area of professional work, understanding nothing a millimetre to right or left. I've documented a lot of this, and can add a great deal more from experience. I've found far higher levels of just plain factual knowledge, let alone understanding, in churches in Kansas or working class areas in Detroit than in many a faculty club, and certainly more than in congressional offices, where one expects -- and finds -- very little knowledge and less understanding, at least from the man sitting behind the desk and producing the oratory. Off in the background there are often young people (legislative assistants) who do the actual thinking and writing, and they are sometimes quite good. The same is true incidentally in the most distinguished news rooms, as one quickly discovers on the briefest exposure.
You turn next to Havel. You point out that his coming to speak before Congress is not quite analogous to the (hypothetical) case of Fr. Ellacuria coming to speak at the Supreme Soviet, because Havel was a politician seeking support from the US and Central American Jesuits were not in a comparable position. You are correct. No analogy is precise, or it wouldn't be an identity, not an analogy. But the analogy I drew was quite accurate for the point I was making, in my opinion.
But we need not tarry on that. Let's pick an analogy that overcomes your objection. Suppose that the Stalinist system still survived and that Aristide or Mandela were to go to Moscow to praise the bloody murderers there as "defenders of freedom," in the hope of getting some support -- support they desperately need. To make the analogy closer, suppose Aristide or Mandela were to do this a few weeks after security forces armed and trained by the Kremlin had blown out the brains of six leading Polish intellectuals -- a pea on the mountain of the atrocities that they were trained, armed, and guided to carry out by the Kremlin. How would you react to this (hypothetical) performance on the part of Aristide or Mandela? Why don't you react exactly the same way to the (quite actual) performance by Havel? It seems to me a fair question.
I'll mention again something I've probably already told you. I've never discussed Havel's behaviour in print. More exactly, I did mention his address to Congress, but without bringing up the shocking and shameful context, specifically, the events he knew had just taken place in El Salvador. Rather, I mentioned his remarks only in discussion of the reaction of enlightened left-liberal opinion to them, a reaction that falls far below Havel in the level of its depravity, for reasons I presume are obvious. Thus in the hypothetical analogue, the most slavish commissars in Russia would doubtless have praised Aristide or Mandela effusively, in the same terms used by left-liberal opinion in the US in worshipping Havel for having lauded the "defenders of freedom" who had once again murdered the leading dissidents in their client states. I don't know how to put it any more clearly. If this does not appal you, we really do live in different moral universes.
You go on to make some remarks about "democratic tradition" and about South America "managing with democracy" which, I'm afraid, I simply do not comprehend. I therefore cannot comment. What you say about Parliaments and democracy is particularly surprising, and I doubt that you mean what your letter said. In any event, surely parliaments are no indication of democracy, contrary to what you assert. Russia had a parliament, even a beautiful democratic Constitution. Similarly, after Woodrow Wilson's Marines invaded Haiti and violently disbanded its Parliament because it refused to accept a US-written Constitution that allowed US investors to buy up Haiti's land, the idealistic Wilson insisted that the Marines run elections to install a new Parliament. So they did: under the guns of the Marines, 5% of the population voted for a new Parliament, which in turn voted for Wilson's new Constitution by 99.98%. So Haiti was a democracy with a Parliament and a wonderful Constitution, by the criteria you are suggesting (which are, incidentally, accepted as valid in this case by George Kennan, leading Harvard specialists in international affairs, etc.).
In any event, what you say in this paragraph I certainly do not accept if I read it literally, and I don't know how to read it in any other way.
You say that Fidel Castro is a "dissident" who searched for help in Moscow. That is indeed the way the matter is described in US-Soviet propaganda -- which were quite similar, incidentally, not only in this case. The facts are a bit different.
Castro was more or less a traditional Latin American caudillo but of the populist type (not entirely unlike Torrijos, for example).
He had no ties to Russia, and was anti-Communist. But he was independent, and the US would never tolerate that in Cuba for reasons that go back to the 1820s, when they were articulated with great clarity by Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and others; I'll suggest sources if the facts aren't familiar. Within a few months after his taking power in Jan. 1959, planes based in Florida were bombing Cuba. In March 1960, the Eisenhower administration made the formal decision (in secret) to overthrow the government of Cuba. At that time, its own evidence, we now know, was that Castro was an independent authoritarian who had the overwhelming support of the population, that he was anti-Communist, and that there were no Russians in sight. The US then invaded Cuba, and when the invasion failed, launched the world's most intense campaign of international terrorism, with horrendous effects, as well as a tight embargo, which Cuba could no more survive than Latvia could have survived an embargo and huge terrorist attack by the USSR. No one was willing to defy the monster, and at that point Castro turned to Moscow for support, which it lent him for perfectly cynical reasons. How significant this tie to Moscow was to US power we can easily determine: first, note what happened before the ties were established; second, note what happened after they were broken. QED.
To describe this as a "dissident" turning to Moscow for support is a little thin, to put it mildly. And note that it has not the slightest resemblance to Havel's behaviour in 1990.
You say that life in Cuba is worse today than it was under Batista. That's a remarkable statement. Try to find any reputable source on Cuba, however extreme its mimicry of the Stalinist commissars, that would accept that judgment. The basic facts are readily available and not controversial, and quite different from the vulgar propaganda that you seem to be relying on.
Despite the extraordinary attack by the US, which has escalated since the collapse of the USSR, quality of life standards in Cuba (health, life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality, etc.) are barely below the level of the US and Canada, and far higher than the rest of the hemisphere (Costa Rica, for instructive reasons that I've written about, is an exception). That is even more remarkable in the light of the fact that none of the other countries had been subjected to 35 years of brutal attack by the master of the hemisphere. Of course, if we pay attention only to the top few percent in wealth, then your conclusions are correct.
The rich sectors in Haiti, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, etc., are far better off than people are in Cuba. If we deign to look at roughly 80-90% of the population, the conclusions are radically different. The large majority of people in these countries could scarcely dream of the conditions of Cuba. Furthermore, that is not only well known, but it is one major reason for the fanatic hatred of Cuba on the part of US elites, who have always regarded Cuba as a "virus" that might "infect others" by the dread demonstration effect, to borrow Henry Kissinger's words when he was justifying the overthrow of Chilean democracy by a gang of neo-Nazi murderers and torturers.
I'm a bit surprised, and suggest that you have a look at the facts, which are not in dispute.
Your scepticism about Latin American democracy is equally curious. Chile had a long and vibrant democratic tradition until it was overthrown by a US-backed military coup, because the US will tolerate democracy in its sphere only if the results come out "the right way." That's incidentally fairly explicit; I've given plenty of documentation, if you are interested. Guatemala had ten years of quite successful democracy, until it was overthrown by a US-run military coup -- in this case, with really horrendous consequences, which persist. Costa Rica has long been as democratic as any European country. I can proceed. Again, I'd suggest that you look at the facts, not just at propaganda, and certainly not Gustave le Bon.
On Solzhenitsyn, I would again suggest that you look at the facts. True, he was willing to fight courageously for himself and his friends, abandoning his Stalinist commitments when he too became a victim. And he did some work that is interesting and important. But his hatred of freedom and democracy, and his shameful moral views, were so outlandish that in the US -- where he had been venerated because of his attacks on the official enemy -- he was bitterly condemned and then utterly disregarded as an embarrassment. I doubt that anyone here even heard what he said about Chechnya, and few would have cared.
You asked about Tina Rosenberg. She is indeed a good journalist, and her work on Latin America is in general useful and honest. I'm not sure what question you are asking about her, so cannot respond.
You say you do not want us to compete "in atrocities in communism and South American dictatorships." If you think that is what we are doing, you have misread the earlier correspondence. I'd suggest that you have another look, and I think that will be clear.
You say that you praise the US because the US helped you. That's your privilege. I doubt that Mandela would say that he praises the USSR because it helped him (as sometimes it did, for cynical reasons). For reasons as cynical as those that led the West to support you, the USSR supported the democratically-elected government of Nicaragua (that term will probably surprise you, but if so, you can overcome the surprise by looking at the facts, specifically, the conclusions of strongly anti-Sandinista Latin American and European democrats and others who observed the 1984 election). But my good friend Father Cesar Jerez would never praise Russia for helping him (as it did) in the way you praise the US for helping you.
To explain, let me give you a little background, suppressed by the commissar culture, and not to be permitted into official history. But true, and instructive about the reality that Eastern Europeans typically do not want to look at.
Fr. Jerez was a Guatemalan, an important figure in the Catholic Church: he was Jesuit Provincial for Central America. He fled Guatemala when the US-run state terrorists threatened to murder all the Jesuits. He went to El Salvador, where he was the right-hand man of Archbishop Romero, and the actual author of an important letter which is suppressed here in the mainstream, but is well known to the kinds of people I was talking about before, say in churches in Kansas: not "intellectuals" but people who care about truth and justice. It was a letter sent by the Archbishop to President Carter, pleading with him to stop sending military aid to the junta, because it would be used to slaughter people fighting for their elementary human rights. Carter of course sent the aid, and the Vatican immediately called Fr. Jerez to Rome, having been instantly informed by the US that it must put an end to the doings of this "troublesome priest." He went to Rome, saw the head of the Jesuit order, and had an audience with the Pope, who, despite his shameful role in support of terror and oppression in Latin America, at least in this case did not specifically order him to stop his cooperation with the Archbishop. Romero was murdered a few days later by US-supported state terrorists, and Jerez fled to Nicaragua, which in those years was the refuge for human rights activists, writers, priests, democratic political figures, etc.; it was rather like Paris in the '30s, then a place of refuge for anti-fascists and anti-Stalinists. Fr. Jerez did not support the Sandinistas, but he agreed with the World Court (and Latin American opinion apart from the superrich and ultra-jingoist right) that Washington's "unlawful use of force" (as the World Court termed it) -- i.e., aggression -- must be instantly terminated (it was escalated at once by congressional liberals). Fr. Jerez was surely glad that the cynical thugs in the Kremlin were helping Nicaragua survive the US attack. But he would NEVER, NEVER have dreamt of uttering the words you use.
Again, I would suggest that these matters merit some reflection.
Your advice to me reflects a failure to understand how democracy works. A democracy is not ruled by "politicians," and one does not implore them to do nice things. What one does is engage oneself with people -- in churches in Kansas, in working class areas of Detroit, everywhere -- who want to educate themselves and others, and to organize to compel the politicians to do nice things, or replace them by others who will do so. That's elementary, or should be.
I'm sorry if this sounds harsh. I don't mean it to be. I think there are reasons why decent honourable people in Eastern Europe think and act in ways that are so radically different from their counterparts elsewhere, including those I have mentioned and many others like them. The main reason, I think, is that dissidents in Eastern Europe were uniquely privileged. I am not referring to the fact -- and fact it is -- that in the post-Stalin period their travail, though shameful and terrible, was nothing like what was endured by their counterparts in Central America, Africa, and many other places. Rather, I am referring to the fact that they were the only dissidents anywhere who had the overwhelming support of the most powerful forces in the world, and of their articulate intellectuals as well as their general populations. For the governments and articulate intellectuals, this was pure cynicism for the most part, as easily demonstrated.
But the support was real, overwhelming, and without any remote analogue. One result is that Eastern Europeans developed a very distorted picture of themselves and of the rest of the world. I'm sure that is what accounts for the difference between Havel and his counterparts in US domains. And as you know far better than I, I'm taking Havel merely as an illustration; the phenomenon is far more general, and exceptions are remarkably few.
Turning to the matter of languages, I know English, of course, and happen to know Hebrew because I grew up with it, was intensely interested in the language and culture and everything associated with them, and sustained the interest. But that has virtually nothing to do with my work in linguistics (though it did, 50 years ago). Other languages I know only from reading; a casual acquaintance. Thus I can read French, which I never studied, but can't use the language. I did happen to study Arabic for several years, 50 years ago, when I toyed with going to live in what was then Palestine, later Israel. But that was independent of any concern for linguistics.
The basic answer to your question is that I don't know any languages, apart from my native language. I know a fair amount about languages, but that's from reading work done on those languages. My knowledge of languages is more or less like the kind of knowledge that many biologists have about plants and animals. There are plenty of fine biologists, Nobel prize winners for example, who might not be able to tell a lion from a tiger.
As in the other areas of our discussion, the analogies shouldn't be pressed too far, but the basic point holds.
I absolutely agree with you about motivating students. That's about 99% of teaching, in my opinion (based on experience from teaching children as I worked my way through college, to teaching advanced graduate courses today).
Much enjoy thinking through what you have to say, and I hope we can clear away misunderstandings and reach what I expect is a common core of basic beliefs and attitudes.
26 Feb 96 19:23:29
Thank you very much for your last message. It was a big material to think about. Thank you for that.
First of all I must apologize for my language mistakes. I has recently checked my messages to you and I realized that I had made a lot of them. Please, forgive me. I use any while between my classes at the college to come to our computer lab and to write a few words to you, but unfortunately I usually have to hurry to another classes before I check my text. That is the same reason that I do not look for the best phrases to express my thoughts, and try to write as much as possible at once. Please forgive me.
Thank you for the painful but very helpful lesson. I really had to rethink some of my points. And in this moment it occurred to me that I can afford changing my mind or look at some problems from different positions, when many of politicians cannot. It is horrible that societies are so understanding. Everyone should learn everyday, and there is no shame to make the mistake, it is corrected. In the world of democracy when someone becomes an expert after the hard studies of his/her office, it is time for him to go, the society do not want him any more.
I would like to know what for you democracy is. You wrote that parliamentarism does not indicate democracy at all. Of course you are right, but what should democracy be? We realize that indirect democracy like that in ancient Athens is impossible nowadays. On the other hand many politicians repeat that nobody has ever invented anything better than democracy. To many of them it becomes a status quo, and nothing can be done to improve the situation. In Eastern Europe after the first years of democracy the euphoria for the system has weakened. People in 80s were fighting not only for democracy but for personal material prosperity as well. We have got democracy, but we are far from being rich. This is the main reason why people are disappointed with democracy, so they voted for the communist. Democracy is a system in which everybody is quarrelling with everybody, nobody is responsible for anything, and political elites enrich themselves at the cost of "a simple worker" (it's not mine, I've heard this expression several times from the workers.) There is still a stereotype of the working-class and its opposition or enemy. Why in Eastern Europe we make such distinction between workers and educated people. To tell the truth in our daily life we did not. But in discussions there appears the problem of this distinction from time to time. I shall try to explain it to you. I do not want to begin with the Polish tradition of 10% of the nobles in 17th century.(To compare in France there were 2%)The stupid custom of recognising oneself something better than the others is very old. But let's take the history of the 20th century. You mentioned your parents. I must say that the situation is entirely different from that before the Second World War. My mother's grandfather was an illiterate. He was a peasant in the very small village. Everyday he wanted his sons (who attended to school) to read him a newspaper. When he was over sixty he taught himself to read and was able to get to his beloved news himself. His son (my grandfather) was a peasant too. Apart from his usual work, he was active in the Young Farmers' Organization. They conducted a library, organized self-educating circles etc. And now a Polish village during the period of "worker- peasant alliance",which was the "leading force" in society: The only entertainment was drinking vodka. I could observe that situation myself. Nobody was interested in raising his qualifications. Young people were not able to achieve something attractive but on the other hand they weren't afraid of hunger of poverty. My father's father:he was a worker in Lodz. He was a fan of history so my aunt could inherit quite a big collection of historic books. He wanted her to educate. Before the war it was almost impossible for the worker's daughter, the fee was too high. There was a "worker's university" in Lodz led by the socialists (not communists, because they were interested in overthrowing the state and in becoming a part of the USSR). Unfortunately the war broke out. After the war my aunt could study history as she dreamt of. All her life she felt to be a communist, and I do not find it strange. My father did not study too much, and became a forester, and then a worker in the power station. Let's have a look at Lodz or any other Polish city today. I have many friends from my primary school, with whom I keep contact. Most of them are workers. You could hardly find a book in their houses. A newspaper is bought once a week, mainly for TV programme for the next week. Sometimes I can hear confession that they had always been dreaming of not having to learn any longer. They really are not mentally handicapped, on the contrary, some of them were very intelligent. The communism killed the survival instinct, and ambition too. Today, when I am a teacher(I am a historian, as my aunt was), I can observe my students, and it is plain to me that their future life depends not so much on their knowledge but their ambition supported by hard work. Unfortunately, most of my students do not believe in possibilities of success, and do not even try to do something with their future. They do not know anything about both home and foreign affairs although they think to do so. They repeat the opinions of their frustrated parents who themselves do not understand much. Statistic researches have shown recently, that only 20% of adults in the Polish countryside understand TV news. My friends are still my friends and neighbours, but there are some subjects I do not discuss with them, because the communism convinced them that a worker must be right, and simultaneously discouraged them from education. The communism provided free education for everybody, but most of the people did not want to take the opportunity, and I do not think that we should still flatter the present working class.
You criticized me for attributing you with ideas which you do not share with me. I mean that statement about the ancient prophets. I thought about the prophets of the Bible of course. I did not want to write that the world needs the teachers in the leninist meaning of the word. Of course we do not need ideologists to "know better". But when you, or other person (I try not to use the word "intellectual") criticise a politician for doing something wrong, you simply take a part of a biblical prophet. I did not mean those official prophets gathered around the Temple and connected with priests and monarchy. The greatest of them acted against them. They performed in the name of God (or gods if you prefer that), but it was simply the same sense of morality, that we all have. I believe so. I think that we all have an innate sense of morality or a sort of "moral logic", but upbringing and wrong education may destroy it. So there must always be people who clearly remind everybody of the simplest rules of common life, and I think you are one of them when you say to the Eastern European politicians:"It is not all right, gentlemen. There is much to be improved all over the world, and you shouldn't call a tyrant "defensor of democracy"". I think we both have the same moral universe, but I always try to understand the motives of the others. I can understand politicians, but it does not indicate that I praise them or share their opinions.
Dear Professor, there were many other items in your letter, I would like to refer to. Unfortunately, my next classes are coming, and I have to finish. I must admit with a shame that I am far from being expert on South America affairs, and thank you for the lesson. I would like to ask you about your educational way. What schools did you attend, when did you begin to be interested in linguistics, and what was your way to your theory like. If possible write something about your work now please. I wonder what kind of meeting with the workers was that you mentioned. I am looking forward to your next message.
Thu, 29 Feb 1996
Dear Mr. Kubiak,
Afraid I'm in a pretty big rush, but don't want to let your message disappear into the huge pit of to-be-answered. Quick comments.
I wasn't aware of any language mistakes or other problems. I'm sure there are plenty in my messages, also always in a rush, like yours, no chance even to proofread or edit.
What's democracy? A long story, too long to go into here. There are many dimensions: it's not a yes-or-no affair. In general, a society is democratic to the extent that the population can enter in a meaningful way into the design and management of public affairs. In totalitarian states of the fascist-Communist type (not much difference, in my opinion), the options for such participation vary from near zero to a lot more, depending on details of social organization (which vary). In terror states of the type the US has run for a long time in its region, there is a formal right of participation, as long as you don't mind being murdered. So El Salvador in 1980 had complete freedom of press; it's only that of the two journals that were not entirely supportive of the US-run regime, one was blown up by the security forces and the editor driven out of the country under death threat, and the other closed when the editor and journalists were found hacked to death in a ditch. This was not considered interference with freedom of the press here, and indeed was scarcely reported. Similarly, Colombia is described by Bill Clinton and the press and even scholarship as a vibrant democracy, which even has had an independent political party for a few years; true, 2500 of its activists have been murdered, mainly by the security forces and their paramilitary associates, including presidential candidates, mayors, etc. -- a small fraction of the human toll. But that doesn't interfere with democracy, so there is no complaint when the US directs half its military aid in the hemisphere to the security forces, to preserve democracy.
In my view, there is virtually no democracy in such circumstances, even if there is a formal right to vote, and the same is true in societies in which most of the population is traumatized or impoverished or marginalized. Take the US, with very stable democratic institutions. Over 80% of the population feel that the democratic system doesn't function for "the people": the government serves "the few" and the "special interests." Are they wrong? Not really.
Suppose that decisions over investment, production, commerce, etc., are in the hands of unaccountable private tyrannies. Is the system democratic? According to accepted dogma today in the US, the answer is that it is. According to mainstream American social thinkers like John Dewey, who devoted most of his work to problems of democracy, the answer is definitely no. The independent working class press in the US last century also took that for granted, without ever having heard of radical intellectuals (luckily for them). These would be truisms in free societies, in my opinion.
I've written a lot about these topics, as have others. There's a fine book called "Democracy" by my colleagues and friends Joshua Cohen (well-known political philosopher) and Joel Rogers (professor of law and sociology), published by Penguin. I think they have a lot to say, though it's not quite what I would say, not surprisingly.
I was much interested to read your account of Polish life (about which I know much too little, I'm afraid). Perhaps I wasn't clear when I wrote about my own parents. Remember that they were Jewish. My father lived in a tiny village in the Ukraine, and the family was quite poor (I told you what happened when he got here); similarly, my mother's family. But they were not peasants. They had peasants doing their dirty work for them. I doubt that you would have found a Jewish woman cleaning the house of a Ukrainian involved in petty commerce and the like; the contrary was common. My grandfather lived here for about 50 years, in a completely Jewish ghetto in Baltimore. Never learned a word of English. I often had the feeling he was still in the Ukraine, and was wondering why the peasants here were black.
On the prophets, I don't think we are disagreeing, at least if I now understand you (sorry if I didn't before). The point that I think should be stressed is that the model of the prophets and false prophets has been repeated in one or another form throughout recorded history. It tends to be forgotten now that the prophets were despised and punished, the false prophets revered and rewarded -- and as I mentioned, one of the greatest of the prophets emphasized that he was not a prophet (i.e., an intellectual in our terms) but an ordinary working person. That's something found through history too, right in this area from the early industrial revolution, in fact, and well into my childhood. It's taken a lot of effort to turn working people into creatures "as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be," as Adam Smith put it (from memory, but something like that) in his sharp critique of division of labor and warning that the government must act to prevent it from working its mischief in any civilized society.
True, there are lots of differences among societies, but this is an important strain, now mostly obliterated.
I'm not sure what meeting with workers I mentioned. If it was in January, it was a meeting with younger trade union activists who come here for a 10-week seminar, at the Harvard business school. It is a program that was designed 60 years ago to tame and "civilize" the work force (socialization is a major commitment of the elite universities), but in the past few years the program has for various reasons become a really lively center of working class education and militancy. I go there regularly, and it's always fascinating. Or maybe I was referring to something else; I don't recall. Sorry.
On my own background, it was very strange. As a child, my interests were mostly political (a mixture of anti-Bolshevik mostly anarchist left and what was then called Zionism and is now called "anti-Zionism" -- a long story in itself). I might well have dropped out of college at about age 17, mainly out of boredom, when I happened to meet Zellig Harris through political connections of this type. He was the leading linguist in the country, and a pretty remarkable person, who influenced a lot of young people, including me. In ways too long to recount, I ended up back in college, doing graduate work in several scattered fields but with no undergraduate or real professional training; I still don't have any. Technically, I have a phd (from Harris at U. of Pennsylvania), but it was a sort of private affair -- I was doing my own work, which no one even looked at, and which had essentially no home in the academic world, and was almost entirely unpublishable (the 1000-page book I was writing, mainly for myself and a few friends, was published in part 20 years later, mainly for historical interest). I got to MIT because I was unemployable, having no credentials, and this is a science-based university, where they didn't care. I was hired in an electronics laboratory (I can hardly tell a radio from an electric toaster), on a project that I said I wouldn't work on because I thought it was ridiculous (machine translation). Luckily for me, the director of the lab, a well-known scientist-engineer who was later Kennedy's science adviser, thought the work I was doing looked intriguing, so I was hired anyway, and stayed, mainly because I like the atmosphere so much.
A few years later a colleague-friend and I were able to start a graduate linguistics program. I also taught some of the earliest philosophy courses here, and was able to help get a graduate philosophy program started. Meanwhile work developed in all sorts of directions.
That's a very brief outline. Don't know if you want the (very big) gaps filled in, but could try sometime if you like.
9 Mar 96
Thank you for your message of February 29. As usual, getting to know your opinions and learning more about you is very interesting and useful for my future work.
First of all, I would like to share with you my impression on a play I have recently seen in our local theatre. It was written by Edward Redlinski, who had spent about six years in New York. The play is based on his book "Szczuropolacy"("Rat-Poles"), and its title is "The miracle in Greenpoint". The author expressed his total disappointment at America and Americans' way of life. I suspect he exaggerated much, because he chose some extreme examples of the Poles who tried to survive in the jungle of the New York Polish ghetto and simultaneously informed their families in Poland about their great successes. The play shows, in my opinion, another stereotype of America, this time the stereotype of Edward Redlinski: country where everything is evaluated by its price in dollars, people do not believe in anything but dollar and so on. Some of my friends were living in America for some years and most of them still consider the US as the most wonderful country in the world. Despite all those discrepancies between descriptions of America, there are some noticeable observations in the play. Redlinski states that a great many Poles are in deep love with America. That is partly true. I personally was fascinated by American freedom of the units and her democracy, in my opinion in those days, a perfect system. To tell the truth in a way I am still fascinated by the phenomenon of your country. I'll return to this topic. Another very true Redlinski's observation is that Poles are on the way to lose their identity by accepting American patterns of behaviour, business and customs. One of the heroes of his play says: "We've already got America in Poland but a little worse." Yes, we've got MacDonald's, Disney (Disney is rather all right if we compare his films with entirely stupid "Superman","Batman" or any others psychopathic "-men"), jeans etc. That is not so tragic, because those things were known in Poland even during the communists'rule. But why the most awful drunkard's den is called now in English "Drink Bar", why the smallest shop with candies is called in English "Shop" or "Store"? Of course we may count on foreign tourists, but if you come to such a "shop", nobody will understand you, because they do not know English. The conclusion is that it is not America what came to Poland. It is the most horrible part of Greenpoint. Mentality of some groups of my countrymen changed tragically. Thinking with categories of profit wins more and more people. In Lodz for example people are as neurotic as Poles in Greenpoint. In Bialystok there is still more traditional approach to life - family, religion and patriotism in old fashion. But the invasion of pseudo-americanism is plainly seen even here. The tragedy of "The Miracle in Greenpoint" is in the fact that the only man who stands against the prostitution of teenage girl, whose "manager" is her own father, is a narrow-minded greedy catholic fanatic, who had dreamt that Madonna had promised him ten million dollars of the LOTTO award. It must be connected with the whole precess of Polish overthrowing communism in 1989.
When we wanted communism to collapse, the most of the nation acted unanimously against the Polish United Workers'Party. After the victory the anticommunist opposition divided itself into small parties. They become each other's enemies, and they entirely disdained the post-communists, who stayed more or less(rather more) united. The latter won the parliamentarian election in 1993 and presidential election in 1995. What can be noticed is that during those six years of democracy people did not understand what "Solidarity" fought for. Lech Walesa as far as I remember was speaking about "the possibilities for industrious and ambitious people", he did not promise everything for everybody, as the Left parties are used to doing in any country. The catholic fundamentalists hoped the country would be ruled by strict religious values.(By the way, those values are indeed universal, and most of the people would like to live according to them, but they could not agree with the role which the catholic politicians claimed to play, the role of the guards of morality.) The liberals wanted the free market economy, but simultaneously they began to believe in everything the western economists and businessmen would "teach" us. As a result, a lot of our production plants belong to the western capital, because our politicians promptly sold them as quickly as they could. I do not know if they took bribes, I want to believe that not. Today, the former "Solidarity" is divided between the numerous Right parties (tradition, religion and horribly Left economic program - "religious ideal communism"), Trade Union "Solidarity", mostly friendly to the parties mentioned above, and Union of Liberty, a center party of liberals and democrats. The latter are not homogeneous, there are socialist and people of views similar to those of American Republicans. There is one Left party derived from "Solidarity", small Union of Labour. And on the Left wing strong and dangerous post-communists, who promise working people much, have a program very similar to that of our liberals (free market), and who apparently want to keep power centralised, so they disturb in works on increasing self-government institutions. They cannot fulfil their promises to the workers, teachers etc, because our country is too poor, but what everyone can plainly observe the biggest "capitalists", businessmen, entrepreneurs etc. are the prominent members of their party. What is more tragic, people can see that, but they prefer the communist capitalist to the groups of neurotic fanatics who constantly are in argue with each other. What I could observe, most of the people will express their love to democracy and freedom, but to tell the truth they would prefer to live like cows - to be milked from time to time, but at the same time to have someone to feed them. Lack of the sense of responsibility and American desire for success make them weak tools in hands of cynic politicians.
I personally believe that we have to start working on democracy at school, and I'll do my best to reform Polish educational system, which provides students with a lot of useless knowledge, not giving them very necessary skills and sense of social cooperation. This is a problem which interests me much, and if you would like to know something about it I'll describe that system.
Returning briefly to America. You know, whatever one says about America, it could be true. To someone America is a crib of modern democracy, to another she is a country of tough hard working people, to anybody else she is a country of murderers of the Indians and exterminators from Vietnam,to some people she is full of cunning businessmen, to the others she is a country of the best trade unions, to me she is a country of splendid universities, courageous journalists, and Noam Chomsky. There are million faces of America, so it is nothing strange that people love her, but accepting all her features, denying one's own identity is very dangerous.
Dear Professor, I would like to know if you would be interested in visiting Poland. I talk to my friends and lecturers about our correspondence, and we would be very happy to receive you in our college. It is affiliated with the Bialystok Branch of the University of Warsaw. Our branch has ambition to become an independent university soon. It would be a great honour to us to have such aguest as you are. Please, write what you think about it.
I have got a lot of questions to you, but unfortunately I must leavethe computer lab for the class of British Phonetics. Waiting for the message from you, I stay
12 Mar 1996 10:29:01 EST
I wonder if you would mind, at this point, if I revert to the American habits that come naturally to me and drop formalities.
Your letter was most interesting. I'm having it run off hard copy so I can think about it some more. Quick reaction.
Like your friends, I actually consider the US to be "the most wonderful country in the world." When I go anywhere else, I'm appalled by many things: the deep internalization of class differences, the lack of intellectual independence or respect for freedom of expression, and much else. Take England, pretty much like the US. I've spent a lot of time there, and simply cannot get used to the fact that since I'm a RESPECTED INTELLECTUAL with a big salary, I'm treated with deference and respect. It's not easy for me to talk on equal terms in England to the taxi driver or the TV cameraman or the waiter or the guy fixing the water pipes. In the US, it's taken for granted. That's a wonderful thing. During the sixties, I was always amused when I co-signed some silly pronouncement with Jean Paul Sartre. In France, it was a headline in Le Monde. Here, it wouldn't even be reported, because there is no interest in the fact that two intellectuals said something -- an attitude I greatly admire. The first time I was arrested here for civil disobedience, in a protest against the Vietnam war, there was a headline in the French press ("Chomsky en Danger"). The Boston press didn't mention it, correctly, because several hundred other people were arrested too, who merit attention no less than I do. I can continue, but these are among the really fine things about this country, not appreciated elsewhere.
I should say that all of this is much less true of the privileged educated elites -- the people in the Harvard Faculty Club, or at the New York literary soirees, or the editorial offices or corporate suites. They are just as comical and ridiculous as their European counterparts. But fortunately, most people here regard them as ridiculous -- as they are -- unlike Europe or most of the third world, where such people are taken quite seriously.
So Redlinski is right not only about many Poles, but even about some people whose parents fled from the Ukraine, and who remain, like their parents, "in deep love with America" -- not the way its commissar class portrays it, but as it really is.
It's far from a "perfect system." In fact, the socioeconomic system is a scandalous catastrophe. But there are a lot of very good things here that I have yet to find in most other corners of the world. Though I've found them in some places, I should add. For example, I was in India a few weeks ago, and was able to take off a day in the West Bengal countryside, the site of peasant struggles in the post-independence period, and horrifying repression during the Indira Gandhi years (the '70s). The outcome has been some very impressive levels of self-government in rural villages, something unique in India, and hard to duplicate anywhere in the world. The attitudes and behaviour of poor peasants towards authority and privilege was very heartening to see, as well as the overcoming of caste and tribal differences, the role of women, the enthusiastic engagement of people in running their own affairs. The poverty is terrible by Western standards, but they have a lot to teach us. Poles would do far better to look there for models, or to the slums of Haiti, or many other places I know of from personal experience. And privileged Americans should be looking to such places too, if they were interested in learning what democracy and freedom are about. Not too likely.
As for your observation that it is "the horrible part" of America that is being mimicked abroad, that's entirely true. But also understandable. The people who are doing the selling are the worst and most depraved segment of American society, and the most privileged and powerful, not by coincidence.
On Polish liberals wanting "the free market economy" and believing "everything the western economists and businessmen would `teach' us." It is true that professional economists, like other educated people, may well believe the "free market" drivel they produce. But the business world has always known better. Like all other developed countries, from England to the East Asian NICs, the US has never been willing to submit privileged sectors to market discipline. That's for the poor at home and the third world. The business classes have always demanded, and obtained, protection and massive subsidy from a powerful nanny state. That continues today, without change. If Polish liberals prefer to believe the rhetoric rather than looking at the facts, that simply shows how little they have advanced from the days when many of them believed what they read in Pravda.
I'd be interested to hear more about your ideas on reforming Polish education. An important task, everywhere.
As for visiting Poland, I'd like to very much. I've never been in Eastern Europe. Applied for a visa once, in Czechoslovakia (1968), but was turned down, not surprisingly. Visiting totalitarian societies has never had any appeal for me. Now, of course, it's very different, and I'd like to work it out. Problem is that demands are awfully heavy, and I'm scheduled years in advance, almost without a break. But it's something I'd very much like to do, before too long. I've had many invitations, but always from professionals who want me to talk about my more technical work. I like to do that, but not only that. I never go anywhere unless I can spend time on problems of human concern, not just those I find intellectually fascinating.
16 Mar 96
Thank you very much for your last message. It is a great honour for me to come to the less formal way of communicating. In Poland relationship between scholars and students are almost always very formal. What is more noticeable, the less quality as a professional one represents the more respect he require. Moreover, they cannot understand that informal behaviour does not imply less respect. It is connected with the system ruling our education. I would like to change it entirely, but I will need allies to be successful.
The Polish teachers are often proud that when a Polish schoolchild emigrates to the US, he/she is much better at math or geography than his/her American mates. The teachers consider then Polish syllabus far more better than American one. They seem not to notice that the only thing which is more demanding is the very ambitious syllabus, but the results of the most of students are pitiable. I teach in the secondary school, but previously I used to work in primary schools. What I can say is that Polish school try to teach very large piece of material, but nobody can give a reasonable answer for what. Young people cannot develop their personalities because they simply have not got time for their interests. The most of their time is devoted to the subjects they hate. Furthermore, they realise very well that half of that knowledge will never have even chance to be used. Motivation in Polish school is close to zero. On the other hand when someone turns attention of society to that problem, is considered as one who wants to bring up a generation of illiterates. Polish parents are mostly conservative and always stand their own old teachers as examples of true educational virtue, though they used to hate them when they were students. Thus if a teacher tries to be "too" democratic, the parents alarm the school principle.
Nobody knows what the targets of Polish school are. Much of knowledge, almost no skills, and a state of alienation of education. I borrowed the term "alienation" from Marx (his "alienation of labour") and Feuerbach ("alienation of religion"), but I think it is the best word to describe the problem. In my opinion, since the time when children stopped being educated by their parents in hunting, crafts and agriculture, and the institution of school appeared, mankind have been observing the process of alienation of education, which more or less has been loosing its contact with reality. Of course it depended on historical period, country and culture. In Poland the situation is tragical. When I wrote an article and sent it to "Gazeta Wyborcza" (I think the best newspaper in Poland), they answered that they published only Famous People's opinion. I do not belong to those who can be easy offended, because the problem is too serious to give up. I thanked them for accelerating me towards becoming a Famous Person. The next day they published an article of Dr Samson, the psychologist. He criticised the teachers in such a rude way that it was embarrassing to read. Moreover, he did not suggest any solution of the problem. In Poland we have the greatest number of the critics, criticising is our national custom, but it results with nothing. Everybody love to pretend to do something, nobody takes responsibility.
The universities in Poland are ridiculous equally. It is difficult to find a scholar who is courageous enough to publish his original idea. If the "scientific work" is not full of footnotes(they can occupy more than half a page), in which the author recalls other "scientific authorities", his book or article will be considered as worthless. Horror. The same stupid opinions are repeated over and over again. It is very difficult to achieve the doctor degree before one's thirties. If one wants to become a professor, he must wait till he is about fifty or sixty. I hope the situation will soon change, but many of us would like it to be changed immediately, because we do not have time to waste.
Well, I have criticised "the critics", but I have not written anything about my ideas of improvement of the Polish educational system. If it does not bother you, I'll write it in my next message. I have to go downstairs to my class.
It is fantastic to hear that you are interested in visiting Poland. I talked to my lecturers about it. My teacher of psychology received that news enthusiastically. She said that the Department of Psychology would be interested in your visit very much. What is important, it is a rich enough department, which can be a sponsor of our invitation. You know, I am afraid they will expect you to give one lecture, my teachers of English would be happy to listen to your lecture on linguistics, but I think it will be enough. The rest of your time you could spend visiting interesting places in Poland. I can assure you, there is much to see. The suggestion of the university people is that you come during the academic year (October-May), and the best would be if you come to us from somewhere in Europe. They say our branch cannot afford the ticket from America. But I think everything can be done all right for both you and our university. Please, if you find some spare time, write to me, and tell me what the date would be the most convenient to you to visit us.
04 Apr 1996
Don't know what was the matter with the MIT computer. Anyway, your message did get through, though I just got it. I've been away, speaking. Usual routine.
It was most interesting to hear what you had to say about Polish education. Incidentally, I don't recall off-hand about the word itself, but I'm sure that the concept of alienation was not original with Marx. It was common in the intellectual circles in of French-German Romanticism in which he grew up, and is explicit in von Humboldt, at least.
It's pretty common to criticism the US educational system as shallow, and it surely has its faults, many of them. But I've never agreed with much of the criticism. At the college level particularly, the American system seems to me far and away the best one I've found anywhere. And at earlier levels, the fat that attention is given to allowing children to develop their personal interests, skills (including social skills), and so on, has always seemed to me basically a good feature, actually one that should be emphasized far more (I was lucky myself in that I was at an experimental progressive Deweyite school from 18 months -- my parents both worked -- to age 12; the best educational experience I've ever had, or seen). What you describe about Polish universities in particular seems to me rather like the European norm, though it has been changing some, I suppose: the Professor a tyrant whom one obeys, etc. Many of the problems you mention are found here too, though much more in the humanities and social sciences than in the natural sciences, at least in my experience. Not that natural scientists have better genes. It's simply that you can't be part of the game unless you keep pretty honest (deceit will be quickly exposed, generally), and innovative and creative, and students, at least at the better universities, aren't really "taught" the sciences -- it's more like picking up a craft in an apprenticeship relation, with the students expected to challenge, disprove, and innovate. Very different from other areas, even here, more so elsewhere. One of the reasons I've never thought of leaving MIT, to tell you the truth. In fact, one of the achievements of my which friend Morris Halle and I are most proud is that the field of linguistics, insofar as it grew from here, has retained those characteristics elsewhere, including large parts of the world.
About visiting, I really would like to do so, though it won't be easy to arrange. But I should say that I almost never go anywhere unless I combine "professional" and "political" talks -- using the conventional categories, which I don't like much myself. About the only exception is Japan, the only country I know, outside of dictatorships (where I don't go), where very few educated people, including students, seem interested in much beyond very specific technical concerns. And where, incidentally, the educational system has characteristics of the kind you describe, sometimes in a kind of caricature. It's often reminded me of some very interesting work done by a group of the most outstanding Japanese economists, published about 10 years ago, in which they reviewed, in several volumes, their postwar economic development. They'd all been trained in the West, and were of course being given all sorts of expert advice (sometimes orders) under the US occupation and afterwards. But as they report it, they decided not to follow the prescriptions of US classical economics, but rather a different model of state-guided development, borrowing in part from their own tradition, but in part from the Marxist-Bolshevik model -- with the difference that they would be honest and efficient, not corrupt gangsters. It's not totally false.
11 Apr 96
Thank you very much for your last message. I hope everything is all right with the servers. We were talking about education in Poland. Recently has the communist minister of education been criticised in my country for doing nothing for the field he's responsible for. He answered that the best way for the opposition to introduce what they want is to win the next election. The arrogance of people in charge is horrible. Our present minister of education used to be known as a chief Marxist theoretician during the communist period. I remember his books when I studied history. We were obliged to read some extracts from his pseudo- sociological elaborates. His presence at the ministerial post is like a return of the mythological monster. Most of people in Poland don't take it so seriously as I do, because they simply are not interested in the problems of education.
I personally believe that the system of alienated education can be eliminated by wiser motivating. Now the only motivation a teacher can provide his student with is fear. I can observe my students how stressed they are, when I require the basic knowledge of history. The problem is that I am controlled too, so I have to realize the national syllabus, although it is far too large and useless. My lessons often look like "The Hotline News", because I try to tell the students everything within 45 minutes. They can't make notes, and unfortunately they can't use their manuals, because I have no time to explain them how to use the manual or any written text effectively. I myself learned to read effectively as late as my last year of my university period. And I don't mean "mind-mapping" or other so popular American methods of fast reading. I simply taught myself to select the most important things and to go through the material from general information to detailed. Nothing new, but if someone had told me about it earlier, he would have spared me a lot of stress. I want to do that to my students but I simply don't have time, because I must give them FACTS. Of course I exaggerate because I take a risk and devote some of my time for teaching them some skills, but it is not a solution. A solution is a structural change of educational system.
What I always discuss with my friends-teachers is the problem of discipline in the class. Sometimes I can't understand that they seem to think about the discipline as about a goal for itself, not as about a mean to achieving a goal. They unconsciously want to make young people constantly obedient, so after finishing school such a graduate is still helpless, naive and he/she looks for someone"wiser" to manage him/her. Nothing strange that so called "people of success" didn't used to be good students. They were independent instead.
Well, I don't have much time, but I'd like to share with you the impression the movie "Underground" made on me. I don't know if you have seen this picture by Emir Kusturica. I saw that film three days ago and I can't stop thinking about it. It made me think about the mechanism of human hatred, of forgetting the basic human norms, and the causes of those. I'm thinking of all those stupid events which seemingly means nothing, and actually may cause big catastrophes. I hope people will learn to use psychology to prevent themselves from using violence. By the way, I wonder what your opinion about the US forces intervention is. I know you were against the Americans in Vietnam, I know your opinion about the role of the US government in South America, but what do you think about the necessity of intervention in such places as former Yugoslavia. Should the strongest powers let people in Rwanda or Kurdystan murder and be slaughtered?
What is your opinion? Please write about it. After the Kusturica's film I'm starving for various opinions about it.
Please, if possible write when your timetable let you to come to Poland. I realise you are busy, but if you can tell me when approximately you'll be free enough to visit my country. I can assure you there is much to see here.
I'm waiting for your answer.
15 May 1996
Neither offended, nor bored. Just overwhelmed. I'm racing madly trying to keep up with a very intense hour-by-hour schedule, and correspondence has fallen into a pit. I'll be in touch as soon as I extricate myself, in a few weeks, I hope.
Rights of the superpowers to intervene? Why the superpowers? Thus in Bosnia, there was one country that was willing to intervene, and could have done so: Iran. No one took it seriously, me included, because there is no reason to believe that their intervention would be "humanitarian" in any sense, or helpful. Is the record of the superpowers better than that of Iran, in this regard? Fact is that the category of "humanitarian intervention" is singularly empty. When we consider the reasons, which are pretty clear, the question takes on a different light.
One has to ask, in each case, what would be the consequences of direct military intervention, which is bound to be for completely cynical reasons, as throughout history; I can't think of an exception. Sometimes cynical acts are still justifiable. Thus one might argue that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978-9 -- which probably is the best candidate for "humanitarian intervention" -- was justified, because it terminated Pol Pot's atrocities; and, predictably, led to huge outrage in the West and severe punishment of Vietnam for this crime. To be sure, their motives weren't humanitarian; they are like everyone else in that respect. But the cynicism of the reaction is pretty spectacular.
Take the cases you mention. In Chechnya intervention is not an option, unless we want to face nuclear war. It's like asking whether Russia should have intervened when US-run terrorist forces were killing tens of thousands of people in Central America in the '80s: certainly not. What about Palestine? The major problem there precise IS great power intervention: namely, the US refusal for 25 years to permit any diplomatic settlement, and its insistence on ramming through its own extreme rejectionist program, as it has now done. I've written about this, if you are interested. What about Bosnia? It's interesting that no serious proposal for Western military intervention was ever put forth (and the one offer that was made, Iran, was never considered). I think it's easy to see why. The US is now proceeding to implement the effective partition of Bosnia that has been at the core of European-US policy all along, but in a way that will kick out the Europeans after they were faced with the dirty work, so that the US can restore something like the status quo ante, with as Croatian (quasi-fascist) client state and, Washington hopes, the same with Serbia.
A lot more to say about all the cases, but this seems to me the essence. In general, before considering the abstract "right of intervention," we should pay careful attention to sociopolitical and historical realities -- at least, if we are concerned with the fate of the victims.