“The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (February 23rd 1967) is an essay Noam Chomsky wrote 50 years ago at the height of the Vietnam War. It is the essay that made him a public intellectual in the US and not just an MIT linguist. It laid out the course of action he has followed ever since, speaking out against US imperialism.
“It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.”
“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us.”
Most citizens do not have the time or training to do it:
“The facts are known to all who care to know. The press, foreign and domestic, has presented documentation to refute each falsehood as it appears. But the power of the government’s propaganda apparatus is such that the citizen who does not undertake a research project on the subject can hardly hope to confront government pronouncements with fact.”
But US thinkers were not speaking truth to power. Instead they became the handmaidens of imperialism, people like Henry Kissinger, Arthur Schlesinger, and Irving Kristol.
They dismissed those who spoke out against the war as “hysterical”, “emotional”, “sentimental”, as not being “responsible”, as being out of touch with the highest circles of government thinking – the very thinking that led to ideas like “free bombing zones” where the US military gave itself permission to kill anything that moved.
US intellectuals prided themselves on being realistic, on knowing how the world works, and yet seem to believe stuff like:
- US innocence: US motives are pure, unlike every other powerful country in recorded history.
- US paternalism: The US knows best, so much so that it is all right for it to use force to get its way, even if it means destroying countries.
This hypocritical moralism goes back to at least the 1840s when Christian missionaries saw the destruction of China in the Opium Wars as an act of mercy by their god.
Chomsky on US innocence:
“No one would be disturbed by an analysis of the political behavior of the Russians, French, or Tanzanians questioning their motives and interpreting their actions by the long-range interests concealed behind their official rhetoric. But it is an article of faith that American motives are pure, and not subject to analysis.”
“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.”
– Abagond, 2017.
- “The Responsibility of the Intellectual” – read the whole essay (about 24 pages long)
- Noam Chomsky
- White Liberals
- White paternalism
- Letter from Birmingham Jail