“When we consider the responsibility of intellectuals, our basic concern must be their role in the creation and analysis of ideology." - Noam Chomsky
An intellectual with studies ranging from linguistics and philosophy to history and philosophy, Noam Chomsky was a great critic of the American military campaign in Vietnam and the consequences of the imperialistic politics. In the essay “The responsibility of intellectuals”, published in February of 1967, Chomsky bases himself in the previous work of Dwight Macdonald to think this subject under the specificities of the Vietnam War.
Chomsky starts affirming a concept that to him, should be obvious. And as we still see today, there are moments where even what’s is obvious can be put in danger due to general passivity and the intellectual dishonesty of those in power:
“It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. 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.
The deceit and distortion surrounding the American invasion of Vietnam is by now so familiar that it has lost its power to shock. It is therefore useful to recall that although new levels of cynicism are constantly being reached, their clear antecedents were accepted at home with quiet toleration. “
Due to public cynicism and apathy the critics are divided as rational or hysterics, a category that has a lot to say about the role attributed to the intellectual in a society:
“The “hysterical critics” are to be identified, apparently, by their irrational refusal to accept one fundamental political axiom, namely that the United States has the right to extend its power and control without limit, insofar as is feasible. Responsible criticism does not challenge this assumption, but argues, rather, that we probably can’t “get away with it” at this particular time and place.”
In this scenario, the sharpest critics are silenced while some discourses are legitimated by a rise of the authority under the appeal of the specialist:
“Should decisions be left to “experts” with Washington contacts—even if we assume that they command the necessary knowledge and principles to make the “best” decision, will they invariably do so? And, a logically prior question, is “expertise” applicable—that is, is there a body of theory and of relevant information, not in the public domain, that can be applied to the analysis of foreign policy or that demonstrates the correctness of present actions in some way that psychologists, mathematicians, chemists, and philosophers are incapable of comprehending?
Responsible, nonideological experts will give advice on tactical questions; irresponsible, “ideological types” will “harangue” about principle and trouble themselves over moral issues and human rights, or over the traditional problems of man and society, concerning which “social and behavioral science” has nothing to offer beyond trivialities. Obviously, these emotional, ideological types are irrational, since, being well-off and having power in their grasp, they shouldn’t worry about such matters. “
Being an technician serving the State, we have the intellectual incapable of seeing the structure under which he lives and when he affirms his position he is also nodding to the very society he should be analyzing in order to criticize:
“When we consider the responsibility of intellectuals, our basic concern must be their role in the creation and analysis of ideology.
we might say that the Welfare State technician finds justification for his special and prominent social status in his “science,” specifically, in the claim that social science can support a technology of social tinkering on a domestic or international scale. He then takes a further step, ascribing in a familiar way a universal validity to what is in fact a class interest: he argues that the special conditions on which his claim to power and authority are based are, in fact, the only general conditions by which modern society can be saved; that social tinkering within a Welfare State framework must replace the commitment to the “total ideologies” of the past, ideologies which were concerned with a transformation of society.”
This way Chomsky brings the intellectual closer to the role of a dissident and skeptic so his actions can be conscious not only of himself but also of the society he’s part of:
“Quite often, the statements of sincere and devoted technical experts give surprising insight into the intellectual attitudes that lie in the background of the latest savagery.
Let me finally return to Dwight Macdonald and the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who burst into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. “Why should they? What have I done?” he asked. Macdonald concludes: “Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.” The question, “What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities in Vietnam—as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.”
“The responsibility of intellectuals” was the essay that gave Noam Chomsky a political projection and this short work was later developed in his book “American power and the new mandarins”. Sadly, his words are still much needed and, as Roland Barthes essay on the specialized critics, an advertence we should not dismiss.