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.

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

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  • 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.

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