Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Wages of Ignorance

Dith Pran, a professional photojournalist, died recently. He had worked for The New York Times during the Cambodian Civil War, and was left behind as Westerners escaped soon after the Khmer Rouge took power there in April, 1975. His best friend there was the Times reporter Sydney Schanberg, whose story of Dith Pran's harrowing ordeal under and escape from the Khmer Rouge was the basis of the compelling film "The Killing Fields." The excerpt below is from one of Mr. Schanberg’s last dispatches, headlined “Communist Rule is at Least Uncertain; Napalm is Not; Indochina without Americans: For Most a Better Life:”

Many people have asked, over the long years of the Indochina war what the consequences of American withdrawal from this peninsula will be.

Secretary of Defense Schlesinger has said flatly—and Secretary of State obliquely—that Indochina is of no significant strategic ‘or political importance to American interests. Its only importance, they have said, is in whether the rest of the world will interpret an American withdrawal from the region as a failure of Washington’s credibility in failing to honor commitments.

But these concepts mean nothing to the ordinary people of Indochina and it is difficult to imagine how their lives could be anything but better with the Americans gone. For the American presence. meant war to them, not paternal colonialism. The Americans brought them planes and Napalm and B-52 raids, not schools and roads and medical programs.

This is not to say that the Communist-backed governments which will replace the American clients can be expected to be benevolent. Already in Cambodia, there is evidence in the areas held by the Communist-led Cambodian insurgents that life is hard and inflexible, everything that Cambodians are not.

The insurgents have committed several village massacres In their present offensive, and the Americans have predicted a “bloodbath” when the rebels take over. On the other hand, Government troops who recently emerged from a besieged provincial town southwest of Phnom Penh reported matter of factly that they had cooked and eaten the bodies of dead insurgents when they ran short of food and that they had grown to enjoy it.

Wars nourish brutality and sadism, and sometimes certain people are executed by the victors but it would be tendentious to forecast such abnormal behavior as a national policy under a Communist government once the war is over.

Cambodia, being a country blessed with rich agricultural land and a relatively small population, can be revived without any major reconstruction program as would be necessary in an industrialized nation. In South Vietnam the Mekong Delta can feed the population if the fighting stops and the land can be tilled.

At my university the faculty having been having a discussion about whether there are two few conservative professors on campus, and if so whether education is “biased,” and even mere left-wing indoctrination. I argued these were not really the key issues; the ignorance of graduates was. A politically tilted faculty produces a politically tilted curriculum, often perhaps (though certainly not always) without malevolent intent. It produces people who think that Stalin killed a couple of thousand people tops, that the natural mission of government is to solve problems rather than be paralyzed by ideological fights, or that Martin Luther King, Jr. (for all his undeniable achievements and bravery) is the primary figure in American history.

Depriving people, intentionally or not, of some sorts of knowledge is a way to produce a polity unlikely to choose wisely. For Mr. Schanberg to write that “it would be tendentious to forecast such abnormal behavior as a national policy under a Communist government once the war is over” required a special sort of ignorance, to wit ignorance of the near-universal laws of how totalitarian governments, including and perhaps especially communist ones, behaved after they took power. They killed their enemies, real or asserted, with gusto. They killed, and killed, and killed again, and even then were constantly on the paranoid watch for yet more enemies. They killed from Russia to Ukraine to China to Cuba.

An educated person knows his history. He knows the philosophical assumptions and historical opening act to the drama he is currently not just witnessing but, in a democratic society, being asked to evaluate and make sense of. I am in college classrooms all the time, and I appreciate that it is unrealistic, given the demands faced by many of our young, to demand that they know fully why Locke and Rousseau matter, where totalitarianism comes from, why liberty is so fragile. But that is no excuse not to try.



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