The Silence of the Intellectuals

Image: Nguyễn Thanh Ngọc


The apology for fascism is made in the name of democracy; the apology of war, in the name of peace

“Each people walked the streets of Europe with a small torch in their hand; and now, behold the fire” (Jean Jaurès, July 25, 1914, six days before being assassinated by a militaristic fanatic).

Intellectuals do not have a monopoly on culture, values ​​or truth, much less a monopoly on what should be understood by any of these “domains of the spirit”, as it used to be said. But neither can they refuse to denounce what, in their opinion, they consider to be destructive of culture, values ​​and truth, especially when this destruction supposedly takes place in the name of culture, values ​​and truth. Intellectuals cannot stop themselves from greeting the sun before daybreak, but they also cannot stop warning that too many clouds can cloud the sky before night falls and prevent one from enjoying the clarity of the day.

We are witnessing in Europe the alarming (re)emergence of two destructive realities of the “domains of the spirit”: the destruction of democracy, with the growth of extreme right-wing political forces; and the destruction of peace, with the naturalization of war. Any of these destructions are legitimized by the values ​​they aim to destroy: the apology for fascism is made in the name of democracy; the apology of war, in the name of peace.

All of this is possible because the political initiative and media presence are being handed over to right-wing or far-right conservative forces. Social protection measures for the population to feel concretely (in the family budget and in social coexistence) that democracy is better than dictatorship are increasingly scarce due to the costs of the war in Ukraine and the fact that economic sanctions against the enemy (at the moment 14.081 sanctions), which were supposed to harm the enemy, are in fact harming the citizens of European countries that have allied with the US. Otherwise, how could one explain that, according to IMF data, the Russian economy will grow more than the European economy?

The destruction of peace and democracy generally takes place through the unequal and parallel constitution of two circles of authorized freedoms, that is, freedoms of expression and action embraced by media and political power. The circle of authorized freedoms for progressive positions that defend peace and democracy is getting smaller and smaller, while the circle of authorized freedoms for conservative positions that defend war and fascist polarization does not cease to grow. Progressive commentators are increasingly absent from the mainstream media, while conservatives each week deliver full pages of appalling mediocrity.

Let's look at some of the main symptoms of this vast ongoing process.

(1) The information war over the Russia-Ukraine conflict has so taken hold of published opinion that even commentators with some conservative common sense submit to it with loathsome subservience. One example among many others from European corporate media: in the weekly commentary of a Portuguese television channel (SIC, January 29, 2023), a well-known commentator, generally a common-sense person within the conservative camp, said more or less this: “Ukraine has to win the war because, if not, Russia will invade other countries of the Europe".

More or less what American viewers hear every day from Rachel Maddow on Channel Television. MSNBC. Where does this nonsense come from if not the excessive consumption of misinformation? They will have forgotten that post-Soviet Russia wanted to join NATO and the EU and was rejected, and that NATO's expansion on Russia's borders, against what was promised to Gorbachev, may constitute a legitimate defensive concern on the part of from Russia, even though the invasion of Ukraine is illegal, as I insisted on condemning it from the first hour? Don't they know that it was the US and UK that boycotted the first peace talks shortly after the war started? And if, by hypothesis, Zelensky wanted to open negotiations with Putin, do you think he would only be stopped by the Ukrainian extreme right? Would the US or England allow negotiations?

Have commentators not thought for a moment that a nuclear power, faced with the eventuality of defeat in conventional warfare, might resort to nuclear weapons, and that this might cause a nuclear catastrophe? And do they not realize that in the war in Ukraine two nationalisms (Ukrainian and Russian) are being exploited in order to subject Europe to total dependence on the USA and stop the expansion of China, the country with which the USA is truly at war? That Ukraine today is a prefiguration of what Taiwan will be tomorrow? Interestingly, in this ventriloquist vertigo of propaganda, details are never given about what Russia's defeat means. Lead to Putin's ouster? The balkanization of Russia?

(2) Surreptitiously, the anti-communist ideology that dominated the western world until the 1990s is being recycled to foment anti-Russian hatred to the point of hysteria, even though it is known that Putin is an autocratic leader, a friend of the right and the European extreme right. Russian artists, musicians and athletes are banned, courses on Russian culture and literature, as European as French, are eliminated. In the first international meeting of the PEN club after the First World War, held in May 1923, the participation of German writers was prohibited, as part of the strategy of humiliating Germany in the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. The only dissenting voice was that of Romain Rolland, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915. He, who had written so much against the war, and specifically against the war crimes of the Germans, had the courage to affirm, “in the name of intellectual universalism”: “I do not subject my thought to fluctuations tyrannical and demented views of politics”.

(3). Democracy is being so emptied of content that it can be instrumentally defended by those who use it to destroy it, while those who serve democracy to strengthen it against fascism are considered radical leftists. At the international level, the western chorus was unanimous in celebrating the events of Kiev's Maidan square in 2014, where today's war finally began. Despite the fact that the flags of Nazi organizations were clearly visible at the protests, despite the fact that popular fury was directed against a president, Victor Yanukovych, who was democratically elected, despite the fact that wiretapping revealed that the US neoconservative, Victoria Nuland, had named who would assume power in the event of victory, including that of an American citizen, Natalie Jaresko, who would later be named the new Minister of Finance… from Ukraine, despite all this, these events, which were a well-orchestrated coup to remove a pro-Russian president and turning Ukraine into a US protectorate were celebrated across the West as a vibrant victory for democracy. And none of this was even as absurd as the fact that a Venezuelan opposition deputy, Juan Guaidó, proclaimed himself interim president of Venezuela in a square in Caracas in 2019, and that was enough for the US and many EU countries (including Portugal) recognized him as such. In December 2022, it was the Venezuelan opposition itself that put an end to this farce.

(4) The duality of criteria for judging what is happening in the world assumes aberrant proportions and is exercised almost automatically to strengthen war apologists, stigmatize leftist parties and normalize fascists. The examples are so many that it is difficult to select them. I give some examples. At national and international level. In Portugal, the disorderly and insulting behavior of deputies from the far-right Chega party in parliament is very similar to the behavior of deputies from the Nazi party in Portugal. Reichstag since their entry into the German parliament in the early 1920s. There were attempts to stop them, but the political initiative belonged to them and economic conditions favored them. In May 1933, they already promoted the first book burning in Berlin.

How long will the Portuguese wait? On the other hand, also in Portugal, a process is underway to overthrow the government of the Socialist Party (PS) that won the last elections with an absolute majority. Following a global right-wing lead much patronized by US counterinsurgency institutions, leftist governments that cannot be overthrown by soft coups must be worn down by accusations of corruption, forcing them to grapple with issues of governance and the urgency to they cannot govern strategically. In Portugal, apparently, there is only corruption in the Socialist Party, which won the last elections with an absolute majority. For the hegemonic conservative media, all socialist government ministers, until proven otherwise, are corrupt. It is not difficult to find similar examples in other countries.

At the international level, I mention two glaring examples. It is now practically agreed that the explosion of the Nordstream gas pipelines, in September 2022, was the work of the USA (as, incidentally, had been promised by Joe Biden), with the possible collaboration of allies. Such a case should be promptly investigated by an independent international commission. What seems clear is that the aggrieved party, Russia, had no interest in destroying an infrastructure that could be rendered useless simply by turning off the taps. Finally, on February 8th, the respected American journalist Seymour Hersh revealed with conclusive information that it was the US who had in fact planned the sabotage of the Nordstream 1 and Nordstream 2 gas pipelines.

If so, we are facing a serious crime that configures an act of State terrorism. If it was the USA that committed this sabotage, it was a criminal act by a NATO country against another NATO country, since Germany held part of the capital of the gas pipelines. If not for the US, the accusation is so serious that journalist Seymour Hersh should have been immediately prosecuted, which has not happened to date. It should be in the utmost interest of the US, the state that claims to be the champion of global democracy, to find out what happened. Was this the only way to force Germany to join the war against Russia? Was the sabotage of the gas pipelines intended to put an end to the policy of greater energy autonomy for Europe from the US initiated by Willy Brandt? With energy expensive and businesses shut down, was this not an effective way to put a brake on the EU's economic engine? Who benefits from it? Has the unfair sacrifice imposed on German families of spending the winter without reasonable heating included in the calculation? The deepest silence weighs on this terrorist act.

The second example. The violence of Israel's colonial occupation of Palestine intensifies. Since the beginning of the year, Israel has killed 35 Palestinians; on the 26th of january he made a RAID in the Jenin refugee camp on the West Bank and killed ten more people, including two children. A day later, a Palestinian youth killed seven people outside the synagogue of an Israeli settlement in the illegally occupied eastern section of Jerusalem. Violence exists on both sides, but the disproportion is brutal, and many acts of terrorism by the State of Israel (sometimes committed with impunity by settlers or by soldiers in the checkpoints) are not even reported. There are no Western media envoys to report on what is happening in the occupied territories, where the most violence takes place.

We have no searing images of suffering and death on the Palestinian side (except for stealth cellphone footage). The international community and the Arab world say nothing. Despite the immense disproportion of war means, there is no movement to send effective war equipment to Palestine, contrary to what is being done to Ukraine. Why is the Ukrainians' resistance fair and the Palestinians' not? Europe, the continent where the holocaust of the Jews took place, is at the remote origin of the crimes committed against Palestine, but today it shows an odious complicity with Israel.

The European Union is currently struggling to create a court to try war crimes. But, hypocritically, only the crimes committed by Russia. As in the years leading up to World War I, appeals to Europeanism (Pan-Europe, as it was then called) are increasingly appeals to war and rhetoric to cover up the unjust suffering and loss of well-being that is being imposed on the European peoples without their having been consulted on the necessity or desirability of war.

Why the silence of the intellectuals?

In the face of all this, perhaps the most incomprehensible silence is that of intellectuals. Incomprehensible, because intellectuals claim at every step to have a clairvoyance superior to that of ordinary mortals. We know from historical experience that in the periods immediately preceding the outbreak of wars, all politicians said they were against war, while at the same time contributing to its occurrence by their actions. Silence is pure complicity with warlords. There are no resounding statements by well-known intellectuals for peace or for “independence of spirit” and in defense of democracy. When the First World War began, three imperialisms were present: Russian, English and German. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that the most aggressive, or at least the most expansionist, was German imperialism.

Intriguingly, at that time, no major German intellectuals were heard speaking out against the war. There were, on the contrary, many demonstrating stridently in favor of the war. The case of Thomas Mann deserves reflection. In November 1914, he published an article in Neue Rundschau entitled "Gedanken im Kriege” (“Thoughts in time of war”) in which he defended war as an act of Culture (ie Germany, as he himself would add) against civilization. For him, the Kultur was sublimation of the demonic (“die Sublimierung des Dämonischen”) and was above morals, reason and science. And he concluded “The law is the friend of the weak, it would like to level the world; but war gives rise to strength” (“Das Gesetz ist der Freund des Schwachen, möchte gern die Welt verflachen, aber der Krieg lasst die Kraft erscheinen”). According to Mann, Culture and militarism were brothers. In 1919, she published the book Reflections of a non-political man in which he defended the Kaiser's policy and argued that democracy was an anti-German idea. Fortunately for humanity, Thomas Mann would later change his mind and become one of the great critics of Nazism. On the Russian side, on the contrary, the voices of intellectuals against Russian imperialism, from Kropotkin to Tolstoy, from Dostoyevsky to Gorky, have always been very audible.

Today, US imperialism, Russian imperialism and Chinese imperialism face each other. There is also the pathological case of the United Kingdom which, despite its abysmal decline both socially and politically, has not yet realized that it lost its empire a long time ago. I am against all imperialisms and I admit that in the future Russian imperialism or Chinese imperialism may be the most dangerous, but I have no doubt that at the moment the most dangerous imperialism is US imperialism. It has an advantage in two domains, military and financial. None of this guarantees the longevity of this imperialism. Incidentally, I have argued that it is in decline, using sources from North American institutions (for example, the National Intelligence Council), but decadence itself may be one of the factors that explains today's greater danger.

From the first moment, I condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but from that moment I pointed out that there was a strong provocation by the US for this to happen with the aim of weakening Russia and stopping China. The dynamics of US imperialism seem unstoppable, always fueled by the belief that the destruction it provokes, feeds or incites will occur far from its borders protected by two vast oceans. The USA, therefore, has a total disregard for the interests of other peoples. The US says it always intervenes for the sake of democracy and only leaves destruction and dictatorship or chaos in its wake.

The most recent and perhaps most extreme manifestation of this ideology can be read in the latest book by the neoconservative Robert Kagan (married to the well-known neoconservative and current Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs of the United States, Victoria Nuland), The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941 (Alfred Knopf). The central idea of ​​this book is that the USA is a unique country in the world in its desire to make people happier, freer and richer, fighting against corruption and tyranny wherever they exist. They are so wonderfully powerful that they would have avoided the Second World War if they had intervened militarily and financially in time to force Germany, Italy, Japan, France and Great Britain to follow the new world order dictated by the USA. All US interventions abroad have been altruistic, for the good of the intervened peoples. According to Kagan, since the first military interventions abroad – the Spanish-American War of 1898 (with the purpose of dominating Cuba, from then until today), and the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 (against the self-determination of the Philippines and resulting in more than 200 deaths) – the US has always intervened for altruistic purposes and for the good of the people.

This monument to hypocrisy and the erasure of inconvenient truths does not even consider the tragic reality of indigenous peoples and the black population of the USA subjected to the most violent extermination and discrimination at the time of these supposedly liberating interventions abroad. The historical record reveals the cruelty of this mystification. Interventions were invariably dictated by US geopolitical and economic interests, in which, incidentally, the US is no exception. On the contrary, this has always been the case for all empires (see Napoleon's and Hitler's invasion of Russia).

The historical record shows that the prevalence of imperial interests led many times to eliminate aspirations of self-determination, freedom and democracy and to support bloodthirsty dictators that resulted in devastation and death, the Banana War in Nicaragua (1912) and support for the Cuban dictator Fulgêncio Baptista and the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, to the coup in Chile against the democratically elected president Salvador Allende (1973); from the coup d'état in Iran against the democratically elected President Mohammad Mossaddegh (1953) to the coup d'état in Guatemala against Jacobo Arbenz, democratically elected (1954); from the invasion of Vietnam to combat the communist threat (1965) to the invasion of Afghanistan (2001), supposedly to defend against the terrorists (who weren't Afghans) who attacked the Twin Towers in New York, after having supported the mujahideen against the Soviet-backed communist government; from the invasion of Iraq in 20 to eliminate Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction (which did not exist), to the intervention in Syria to defend rebels who in their majority were (and are) radical Islamists; from the intervention, through NATO, in the Balkans without UN authorization (2003) to the destruction of Libya (1995).

There were always “benevolent reasons” for these interventions, which always had local accomplices and allies. What will remain of martyred Ukraine when the war is over (all wars eventually end)? What situation will the other European countries, above all Germany and France, be in, still dominated today by the false idea that the Marshall Plan was the expression of selfless philanthropy from the USA, to which they owe infinite gratitude and unconditional solidarity? How will Russia look? What balance is it possible to make beyond the death and destruction that war always causes? Why is there no strong movement in Europe for a just and lasting peace? Despite the fact that the war is being fought in Europe, are Europeans waiting for an anti-war movement to emerge in the US to join the movement with a good conscience and without risk of being considered friends of Putin, if not communists?

These are some of the questions that intellectuals have an obligation to answer. Why would they be silent? Will there still be intellectuals, or is what remains a poor clergy?

*Boaventura de Sousa Santos is full professor at the Faculty of Economics at the University of Coimbra. Author, among other books, of The end of the cognitive empire (authentic).

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