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Today’s intellectuals: too obedient?

Fred Inglis on the obligation of academics to speak truth to power

Lecturer with dog's head photo pasted over face

Source: Getty montage

There is a British crisis of national wealth, a crisis of public ethics and also of identity, of the answers required to the great existential questions: ‘Who am I? How shall I live a decent life? Should I obey my government?’

The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Noam Chomsky’s classic essay, is now approaching its 50th anniversary. His mighty polemic was written as his country, the US, moved deeper and deeper into national and international crisis. The tonnage of high explosive dropped on Vietnam finally exceeded the entire total of Allied bombs dropped on Europe during the Second World War. The American nation’s response to this horrifying display of brute power was a combustible mixture of more-or‑less approving indifference and, especially in the universities, passionate dissent, ardent opposition and, on the part of some thousands of young men awaiting conscription, the criminal, high-minded and public burning of draft cards.

Chomsky was completely on their side. He joined the famous march on the Pentagon in 1967 and – as elderly academics perhaps now recall with a faint reheating of once-radical blood vessels – was arrested and charged with Norman Mailer while demonstrating alongside Robert Lowell, Father Berrigan and Dr Spock. At the same time as this enactment of his public duty, Chomsky, the leading theoretical linguist in the world, was writing an astounding sequence of lengthy essays, each mustering the requisite and copious machinery of bibliographic reference that the most exacting scholar could demand, variously detailing the policies of the official elite in the Pentagon and the White House as they sought, in the happily chosen phrase of the day, “to bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age”, a policy more or less fulfilled by Richard Nixon.

In unforgettable prose and with a memorably disdainful manner, Chomsky named countless fellow scholars as time-serving and bien pensant stooges of political power and deathly ideology. He blew apart the vacuous claims to objectivity as the dominant principle of liberal scholarship, and warned the world, with reckless candour, of “the long tradition of naivety and self-righteousness that disfigures our intellectual history”. “The cult of the expert”, he went on, “is both self-serving…and fraudulent”, and in a precept just as necessary and piercing to a minor researcher in healthcare as to Big Dog authors of best-selling modern history, he wrote “it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies”.

Chomsky was addressing a national crisis, for sure, one in which the young citizens who were then students could be drafted to fight in a hideous, needless war. He named, in the best tradition of truth-telling scholarship, the public officials pursuing the aggression, all of them men and many of them past and future academics – Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, Arthur Schlesinger, Henry Kissinger – for lying, for heedless cruelty, for sheer damnable incompetence. For a present-day British scholar of whatever discipline to go back to these pages – to American Power and the New Mandarins, to At War with Asia, to For Reasons of State – is to be summoned sharply to bear witness to one’s very life principles.

There is presently, for sure, no British national urgency to match the Vietnamese war, which the US fought with such atrocity from the arrival of its first 15,000 “advisers” in 1963 to the moment at which its last-minute helicopters took off from the embassy roof as the North Vietnamese entered Saigon in 1975. There is, however, and quite unmistakably, a British crisis of national wealth that is certain to last as long and to match it for severity and quotidian immediacy, a crisis of public ethics and also of identity, of the answers required to the great existential questions: “Who am I? What is it to be a citizen of this country? How shall I live a decent life? Should I be a patriot? Should I obey my government?”

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Readers' comments (11)

  • It has been said that once you give up your "NO" it is hard or impossible to get it back. Academics have given up control over admissions and other administrative functions in exchange for "academic freedom". They gave up "academic freedom" when they defaulted to the use of scholarly journals and third party evaluations via "publish/perish" as the defacto vehicle for promotion and tenure.

    Though the "work" is white collar" one wonders whether there is a difference between academics and slaves picking cotton or cutting sugar cane. One is reminded of the white mice in the laboratory where one says to the other "we have those folk in the white coats trained; we just jump on this wheel and they feed us. Unfortunately, like the Christmas goose on the day before the holiday, there is no feed coming as usual.

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  • Fanis Missirlis

    ...hence, do we wish to be "academic" slaves or free thinkers?
    I would abolish slavery in the university to enable academic work to flourish.
    It is never too late to start saying "No" where it is due and to affirm what is worthy of acceptance...

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  • The university is not a groundswell of ideas, a factory of ideas, an example of high minded thought, it is a business. Only references in allowed journals count towards its ratings. What utter nonsense is this. It is thought control on grand scale, and not one of the paid up pussy cats lapping at its milk would put one step out of place. Shame. Where then is the true arena for critical thinking? Certainly not a sanitised university of today.

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  • The university is no longer the place where there is the hub of critical thought. It is all big buildings and lecturers who can hardly speak English let alone teach English or teach English Law. How about the vet from Africa unable to teach students how to treat cattle in this country. Its madness the real teaching then takes place outside the university, so what is the relevance of the university in its present form. If there was true critical thought in a University staff would have the expertise to deal with matters inside this country. Right now they don't. Critical analysis is the real understanding of an issue, there is no substitute for experience of that issue it cannot be synthetically replicated, and the inner fire to bring change as a result of that acquired knowledge comes only from home.

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  • Its a breath of fresh air to read an article like this. I am proud to say I have performed my act of resistance by writing two books about inequality and neoliberal domination. However, I am now forced to return to less aspirational (and upsetting) research in order to ensure the rent is paid in the next few years.

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  • To D.M,
    Pray, tell us, what is the connection between your imaginary vet from Africa with the piece? This to me seems like a subtle racist attack that is meant to incite rather than contribute to discussion. Not only do we have to contend with 'oppressive' university managers, we also have to contend with bigot academics! No wonder we are downbeat about the trade!

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  • "Chomsky was completely on their side."

    What choice did he have? He'd long-ago chosen not to serve in his nation's military, never to serve anything bigger than himself. He'd rendered himself unable, even in the face of another Holocaust, to vote to send one other human being to do what he himself wouldn't do.

    "The collective labours of the university could do worse than begin work with Chomsky."

    The question is whether they could do better. I suggest that, conflicted and so out of touch as to be unable to do justice to a 2,000-year-old tome called "The Republic," the "collective labors" would do well to "begin" by prostrating themselves before the youngest, latest-to-enlist member of their nation's military.

    What kind of "linguist," over and over again, tramples on his own nation's fallen, in his zeal to minister to the fallen of the other side.

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  • Richard Waugaman, M.D.

    Although I doubt this is the sort of example Fred Inglis had in mind, it does indeed involve a censored attempt to speak truth to power—namely, the Shakespeare scholars who misuse their power to suppress evidence that they may have the wrong man.

    A U.S. Shakespeare scholar seems to have staged something of an academic coup, taking over the editorship of an Italian Shakespeare journal, and insisting that articles by me and others that were already accepted be removed from the forthcoming issue. His reason? My article presents several lines of evidence casting doubt on the traditional authorship theory.

    The article, and my correspondence with the new editor, may be found on my Georgetown faculty website.

    Richard M. Waugaman, M.D.
    Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Faculty Expert on Shakespeare for Media Contacts,
    Georgetown University

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  • I would have found this article more convincing had it not begun by praise for Noam Chomsky, whose approach to academic ethics is to me part of the problem rather than part of the solution. It seems to me that nearly all today's academics share his position and adopt the view that it is necessary for scholars to be "committed", and not only that, to be committed to a particular type of leftish politics somewhat resembling Mr Chomsky's, if less radical. They nearly all share the same "progressive" views and will seldom venture to disagree with them. I suspect that this is not the kind of conformity to which Mr Inglis intends to object in this article.

    I am more inclined to agree with Julian Benda's Trahison des clercs (1927), which argued that the "engagement" and "commitment" of the intellectual classes was having a poisonous effect on political and military debate. It is possible to be a dispassionate critic, even an outspoken and severe critic, of false or tendentious ideas and ideologies, without committing oneself to a particular side. It is, in fact, the real responsibility of the intellectuals.

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  • Not all Today `s intellectuals are obedient they want to speak or write truth boldly but there are rare medium where they can express their thoughts boldly.Most newspapers are international call girls they sale their consciousness to politicians and capitalists .I am living in India here all newspaper s owner are capitalists ,they never tolerated criticism on them.My experiences of online newspaper is also very bad they never publish any comments against their self interest.We are living in commercial era here everything salable .Another great difficulty for truth telling public only lesson those words which show them illusion ,if you told them truth they stone you.This is universal truth.You want support of people make them fool if you tell them truth they stone you.

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