Today’s intellectuals: too obedient?

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

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Lecturer with dog's head photo pasted over face

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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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