Noam Chomsky Defines The Real Responsibility of Intellectuals: “To Speak the Truth and to Expose Lies” (1967)

Image by Andrew Rusk, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

The nov­el medi­um of social media—and the nov­el use of Twit­ter as the offi­cial PR plat­form for pub­lic figures—allows not only for end­less amounts of noise and dis­in­for­ma­tion to per­me­ate our news­feeds; it also allows read­ers the oppor­tu­ni­ty to refute state­ments in real time. Whether cor­rec­tions reg­is­ter or sim­ply get drowned in the sea of infor­ma­tion is per­haps a ques­tion for a 21st cen­tu­ry Mar­shall McLuhan to pon­der.

Anoth­er promi­nent the­o­rist of old­er forms of media, Noam Chom­sky, might also have an opin­ion on the mat­ter. In his 1988 book Man­u­fac­tur­ing Con­sent, writ­ten with Edward Her­man, Chom­sky details the ways in which gov­ern­ments and media col­lude to delib­er­ate­ly mis­lead the pub­lic and social­ly engi­neer sup­port for wars that kill mil­lions and enrich a hand­ful of prof­i­teers.

More­over, in mass media com­mu­ni­ca­tions, those wars, inva­sions, “police actions,” regime changes, etc. get con­ve­nient­ly erased from his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry by pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als who serve the inter­ests of state pow­er. In one recent exam­ple on the social medi­um of record, Twit­ter, Richard N. Haas, Pres­i­dent of the Coun­cil on For­eign Rela­tions, expressed dis­may about the dis­turbing­ly cozy state of affairs between the U.S. Admin­is­tra­tion and Putin’s Rus­sia by claim­ing that “Inter­na­tion­al order for 4 cen­turies has been based on non-inter­fer­ence in the inter­na­tion­al affairs of oth­ers and respect for sov­er­eign­ty.”

One recent cri­tique of for­eign pol­i­cy bod­ies like CFR would beg to dif­fer, as would the his­to­ry of hun­dreds of years of colo­nial­ism. In a very Chom­sky-like rejoin­der to Haas, jour­nal­ist Nick Turse wrote, “This might be news to Iraqis and Afghans and Libyans and Yeme­nis and Viet­namese and Cam­bo­di­ans and Lao­tians and Kore­ans and Ira­ni­ans and Guatemalans and Chileans and Nicaraguans and Mex­i­cans and Cubans and Domini­cans and Haitians and Fil­ipinos and Con­golese and Rus­sians and….”

Gen­uine con­cerns about Russ­ian elec­tion tam­per­ing notwith­stand­ing, the list of U.S. inter­ven­tions in the “affairs of oth­ers” could go on and on. Haas’ ini­tial state­ment offers an almost per­fect exam­ple of what Chom­sky iden­ti­fied in anoth­er essay, “The Respon­si­bil­i­ty of Intel­lec­tu­als,” as not only a “lack of con­cern for truth” but also “a real or feigned naiveté about Amer­i­can actions that reach­es star­tling pro­por­tions.”

“It is the respon­si­bil­i­ty of intel­lec­tu­als to speak the truth and to expose lies,” wrote Chom­sky in his 1967 essay. “This, at least, may seem enough of a tru­ism to pass over with­out com­ment. Not so, how­ev­er. For the mod­ern intel­lec­tu­al, it is not at all obvi­ous.” Chom­sky pro­ceeds from the pro-Nazi state­ments of Mar­tin Hei­deg­ger to the dis­tor­tions and out­right false­hoods issued rou­tine­ly by such thinkers and shapers of for­eign pol­i­cy as Arthur Schlesinger, econ­o­mist Walt Ros­tow, and Hen­ry Kissinger in their defense of the dis­as­trous Viet­nam War.

The back­ground for all of these fig­ures’ dis­tor­tions of fact, Chom­sky argues, is the per­pet­u­al pre­sump­tion of inno­cence on the part of the U.S., a fea­ture of the doc­trine of excep­tion­al­ism under which “it is an arti­cle of faith that Amer­i­can motives are pure, and not sub­ject to analy­sis.” We have seen this arti­cle of faith invoked in hagiogra­phies of past Admin­is­tra­tions whose domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al crimes are con­ve­nient­ly for­got­ten in order to turn them into foils, stock fig­ures for an order to which many would like to return. (As one for­mer Pres­i­den­tial can­di­date put it, “Amer­i­ca is great, because Amer­i­ca is good.”)

Chom­sky would include the rhetor­i­cal appeal to a nobler past in the cat­e­go­ry of “impe­ri­al­ist apologia”—a pre­sump­tion of inno­cence that “becomes increas­ing­ly dis­taste­ful as the pow­er it serves grows more dom­i­nant in world affairs, and more capa­ble, there­fore, of the uncon­strained vicious­ness that the mass media present to us each day.”

We are hard­ly the first pow­er in his­to­ry to com­bine mate­r­i­al inter­ests, great tech­no­log­i­cal capac­i­ty, and an utter dis­re­gard for the suf­fer­ing and mis­ery of the low­er orders. The long tra­di­tion of naiveté and self-right­eous­ness that dis­fig­ures our intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry, how­ev­er, must serve as a warn­ing to the third world, if such a warn­ing is need­ed, as to how our protes­ta­tions of sin­cer­i­ty and benign intent are to be inter­pret­ed.

For those who well recall the events of even fif­teen years ago, when the U.S. gov­ern­ment, with the aid of a com­pli­ant press, lied its way into the sec­ond Iraq war, con­don­ing tor­ture and the “extra­or­di­nary ren­di­tion” of sup­posed hos­tiles to black sites in the name of lib­er­at­ing the Iraqi peo­ple, Chomsky’s Viet­nam-era cri­tiques may sound just as fresh as they did in the mid-six­ties. Are we already in dan­ger of mis­re­mem­ber­ing that recent his­to­ry? “When we con­sid­er the respon­si­bil­i­ty of intel­lec­tu­als,” Chom­sky writes, the issue at hand is not sole­ly indi­vid­ual moral­i­ty; “our basic con­cern must be their role in the cre­ation and analy­sis of ide­ol­o­gy.”

What are the ide­o­log­i­cal fea­tures of U.S. self-under­stand­ing that allow it to recre­ate past errors again and again, then deny that his­to­ry and sink again into com­pla­cen­cy, per­pet­u­at­ing crimes against human­i­ty from the Cam­bo­di­an bomb­ings and My Lai mas­sacre, to the grotesque scenes at Abu Ghraib and the drone bomb­ings of hos­pi­tals and wed­dings, to sup­port­ing mass killings in Yemen and mur­der of unarmed Pales­tin­ian pro­tes­tors, to the kid­nap­ping and caging of chil­dren at the Mex­i­can bor­der?

The cur­rent rul­ing par­ty in the U.S. presents an exis­ten­tial threat, Chom­sky recent­ly opined, on a world his­tor­i­cal scale, dis­play­ing “a lev­el of crim­i­nal­i­ty that is almost hard to find words to describe.” It is the respon­si­bil­i­ty of intel­lec­tu­als, Chom­sky argues in his essay—including jour­nal­ists, aca­d­e­mics, and pol­i­cy mak­ers and shapers—to tell the truth about events past and present, no mat­ter how incon­ve­nient those truths may be.

Read Chomsky’s full essay, “The Respon­si­bil­i­ty of Intel­lec­tu­als,” at The New York Review of Books.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Explains the Best Way for Ordi­nary Peo­ple to Make Change in the World, Even When It Seems Daunt­ing

5 Ani­ma­tions Intro­duce the Media The­o­ry of Noam Chom­sky, Roland Barthes, Mar­shall McLuhan, Edward Said & Stu­art Hall

Noam Chom­sky Defines What It Means to Be a Tru­ly Edu­cat­ed Per­son

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (10) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (10)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Gerald says:

    There are many things wrong with this post, but the over­ar­ch­ing one seems to be this: the author fails to dis­tin­guish between the per­fect and the good. There sim­ply is no such thing as the for­mer, and it is absurd to judge any nation (or any­one) by that stan­dard. But, as a polit­i­cal enti­ty, the U.S. clear­ly has been a great — if not the great­est — force for good for human­i­ty in the World. It is no mere coin­ci­dence that mil­lions from around the world have risked every­thing to get here. And that, I believe, is the real (as opposed to the Chom­sky) truth.

  • Dan says:

    Ger­ald, I would like to rec­om­mend a book. A Peo­ple’s His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States by Howard Zinn.

  • Romano says:

    Ger­ald: And I would like to rec­om­mend yet three more books: “The Col­or of Law” by Richard Roth­stein. “The Gun­ning of Amer­i­ca” by Pamela Haag. And “The Pecu­liar Insti­tu­tion”. Can’t remem­ber the author right now.These are good reads. I wel­come you to dis­cov­er an Amer­i­ca you have yet to know.

  • Roger says:

    Ger­alds com­ment makes the bold and fact-free claim on the “great­est force for good” in the world.

    The only thing that might pos­si­bly fit Ger­alds claim, since the close of WWII, might be the pas­sage of the Fed­er­al Clean Air and Water Acts by the Nixon admin­is­tra­tion, those acts cer­tain­ly were for the greater good of the world.

  • Gerald says:

    Dan, thanks for the book rec­om­men­da­tion, but I think I actu­al­ly did one bet­ter by tak­ing his course in col­lege. I am fair­ly well-acquaint­ed his posi­tions (and oth­ers of his lean­ing) but, time and again, when I probed them in greater depth, I found them to be quite mis­lead­ing.

    But more impor­tant, I believe Zinn had the same prob­lem that this post suf­fers from: choos­ing to focus exclu­sive­ly on the per­ceived sins of the U.S., while ignor­ing the over­whelm­ing pos­i­tives. We usu­al­ly con­sid­er It to be an ugly trait when an indi­vid­ual obsess­es about the flaws in oth­er­wise good peo­ple, and I think the same con­cept applies to those who have the good for­tune to live in a moral nation which pro­vides its cit­i­zens with so much free­dom, oppor­tu­ni­ty, and abun­dance.

  • Josh Jones says:

    You object to dis­sent on the grounds of deco­rum? I find this way of think­ing per­verse. If you under­stand the his­to­ry of this coun­try, as you say you do, you know that its free­doms were only ever meant for a select few and were only expand­ed because peo­ple “obsessed” over the nation’s flaws and fought tooth and nail to wrest “free­dom, oppor­tu­ni­ty, and abun­dance” from a rul­ing class who would deny them, and con­tin­ue to do so. The end of slav­ery? Thank abo­li­tion­ists who refused to accept the bru­tal sta­tus quo. Eight hour work day? Week­ends? Work­place safe­ty? Min­i­mum wage laws? Thank anar­chists, social­ists, and trade union­ists who refused to work six­teen hours/7 days a week in hor­ren­dous con­di­tions for pit­tance. Wom­en’s rights? Thank suf­frag­ists and fem­i­nists. Civ­il rights? Vot­ing rights? Thank black activists and allies who marched, boy­cotted, and were beat­en and killed. Envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions? Thank activists who refused to let their air and water be poi­soned. All of these are free­doms the pow­er­ful would strip away, are active­ly attempt­ing to do so all the time, and suc­ceed­ing in many places. The source of the coun­try’s moral­i­ty is in its dis­senters, in those who have strug­gled, fought, and died for rights that were nev­er grant­ed them. It does not come from this exe­crable atti­tude that mas­sive amounts of struc­tur­al and impe­r­i­al vio­lence, racism, and pover­ty are just fine because I’ve got mine.

  • Gerald says:

    Josh Jones:

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I think you may have missed my point. I am all in favor of dis­sent and do so myself on many things (includ­ing those min­i­mum wage laws you men­tioned that strip cit­i­zens of their per­son­al free­dom to con­tract in a man­ner that suits their indi­vid­ual cir­cum­stances). Like you, I think those who have protest­ed and helped to rec­ti­fy injus­tices in the U.S., such as slav­ery, Jim Crow, and wom­en’s vot­ing rights, are entire­ly laud­able. My objec­tion is to the mali­cious slan­der by a few — and I assume you do not count your­self among them — that the U.S. is a nation best char­ac­ter­ized by “mas­sive amounts of struc­tur­al and impe­r­i­al vio­lence, racism, and pover­ty”.

  • Josh Jones says:

    And you’ve missed the point of the post, which is not “mali­cious slan­der” but telling uncom­fort­able truths over com­fort­ing fic­tions of good­ness and inno­cence.

  • Robert Forbes says:

    The truth, just like he spoke the truth about Cam­bo­dia.


    Chom­sky des­bar­ran­ca una vez mas ya que “decir la ver­dad y denun­ciar las men­ti­ras” no puede ser monop­o­lio de los int­elec­tuales sino que debe ser respon­s­abil­i­dad y camino de todos los seres humanos.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.