The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Part I

Transcript of Z Video DVD The Chomsky Sessions One: The Responsibility of Intellectuals, an interview with Noam Chomsky and Michael Albert (http://www.zcomm.org/zstore/products/114). See part II here.

Years ago you wrote an article, or an essay, called The Responsibility of Intellectuals [1967]. So what is an intellectual?

It's not a term I use very much, but it's a term that's used. It refers to people who have sufficient privilege and opportunity so that they're able to speak about affairs of human interest and concern and do it with a degree of prestige and authority which may or may not be warranted. And, they are called intellectuals. So, a physicist working in a lab is not called an intellectual, but if he happens to give a talk on, you know, nuclear proliferation, yeah, then he's an intellectual. A literary critic who writes about English poets in the late nineteenth century is not an intellectual, but if he happens to discuss, you know, cultural changes that are developing in the modern world, well, OK then he is an intellectual. If, say, a shoemaker happens to have a very insightful commentary on international affairs or domestic affairs or human relations, he's usually not called an intellectual. But it's not a very meaningful term.

Nevertheless, what's an intellectual's responsibility, the focus of your essay?

We start with the fact that the people designated as intellectuals have privileges. Otherwise, they wouldn't enter into that category. They have a degree of authority, prestige, justified or not. And these characteristics confer responsibility. Privilege yields opportunity. Prestige, deserved or not, yields a degree of credibility. The more opportunity and credibility you have, the more responsibility you have.

But, what's the nature of the responsibility? In other words, if we say that an intellectual is failing to meet her responsibility, what does that mean?

Well, we can start with some elementary moral principles that any decent human being ought to accept, and, in fact, most people will say they accept. So, for example, one elementary truism is that we should apply to ourselves the same standards we apply to others, if not more rigid standards. In fact, there should be more rigid standards. So one responsibility of intellectuals is to look at the facts of past and current history, look at the actions of, say, our enemies and the way we've treated them and look at ourselves and the way we've treated ourselves, and then ask whether we are meeting that elementary moral condition. And that arises all the time. So, for example, there happens to be an inquiry going on in England where they're investigating Tony Blair, Jack Straw and others for the background of their involvement in the invasion of Iraq. There's no such inquiry in the United States. In the United States, people with power and privilege are immune from any inquiry and discussion. That's part of the prerogatives of imperial power. But there is one in England. Well, it's elementary that Blair was involved in direct aggression. Lawyers will try to work their way out of that conclusion, but that's their job. Look at the definition of aggression in, say, the Nuremberg proceedings, the General Assembly and so on. The invasion of Iraq is a textbook case.

Well, there's a way to deal with aggression when it's enemies who carry it out. In fact, that's what the Nuremberg tribunal was about. It's the gold standard for how to deal with the crimes of aggression, that was the major crime charged at Nuremberg. There were other crimes, but… so, for example, the German foreign minister, Von Ribbentrop, was hanged. One of the major charges was that he was involved in a preemptive war. The Germans invaded Norway. And, he was foreign minister, so, of course, he's involved. They invaded Norway because they knew, in fact, it was not a secret that Britain was planning to use a base in Norway to attack Germany. So, this falls under what's called preemptive war. You carry out military aggression to stop an impending attack on yourself. And he was hanged. Well, OK, let's take Colin Powell.

Before we go into this – 'cause this will come up later – I just want to stay with the intellectuals for a second. To make it more concrete, can you give some examples of people who you think do fulfill the responsibility of intellectuals. And what makes you say that about that particular person.

Well, let's take Howard Zinn who died recently. Or Eqbal Ahmed who died a couple of years earlier or Edward Said who died shortly before Eqbal. Eqbal and Howard were close friends and interacted constantly. So they're a kind of category, if you like, of prominent intellectuals, scholars, activists. Their lives and their work were intimately intertwined, and they dedicated a large part of their lives and their work to pursuing elementary moral truisms. I could run through them, but that's what they did. So, OK, that's responsible intellectuals.

OK, maybe a way to see it is, some intellectuals, but not journalists, 'cause we'll get to journalism in a minute, who fail miserably. Who have the prestige, who have the access, who have all the characteristics which you described as associated with being an intellectual, but who don't meet their responsibility, violate it routinely.

It's, they're, I mean…

I know there are a lot.

(Laughs). You want to start from A. We'll go on for the rest of the day! It's virtually everyone. Uniform.

Just give us a few specific examples where you give the person and the instance.

OK. A couple of years ago the New York Times published some released tapes, Nixon tapes. There was a big battle about it, Henry Kissinger didn't want them released, I think there was a court trial, finally they were released. If you look through the tapes, most of the discussion was mostly gossip, you know, nasty things Nixon said about somebody or anti-semitic remarks or something. But there was one sentence that appeared in the article which, as far as I could see, elicited no comment at all. Except for me and a couple of other people. It was a point where they were talking about the bombing of Cambodia. And Nixon kind of was ranting on about Cambodia and he told Kissinger, his loyal servant, that he wanted him to relay orders to the Pentagon about bombing Cambodia. And Kissinger obediently did so. His words were something like this, to the military: anything that flies against anything that moves. Now, if you look through the archival record of all states it's going be hard to find a call for genocide that's so clear and explicit. And, it wasn't just words, because it happened.

A few years ago, two leading Cambodia scholars, Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, published an article in Canada in which they discussed documents that had been released during the Clinton years about the bombing of Cambodia. And it turns out that it was known that the bombing was extremely intense, that was known right away. It turns out it was five times as high as what had been reported. The bombing of rural Cambodia was greater than the total allied bombing in all theaters during World War II. And as they point out, the effect of the bombing was to turn the Khmer Rouge from a kind of a marginal guerrilla group that nobody knew anything about to a mass army of what they called enraged peasants who wanted to take revenge for this monstrous atrocity. Well, we know what happened later. OK, so how did intellectuals react to this? It's easy to check. The Kiernan-Owen article, as far as I'm aware, appeared once in the United States. Namely on Znet. I've never seen any other mention of it. As far as I know it appeared nowhere in England. And I doubt if it appeared anywhere else. It has never received any comment that I've seen. The Kissinger remark disappeared. There was no comment on it when it was published, in fact, it was kind of like a side remark in the article. And if you check the record you'll find the same.

Actually, I've brought all of this up repeatedly in talks to respectable audiences, you know, the Royal Institute of Philosophy in England, which is deeply concerned with issues of moral philosophy, comparable groups here, specialists on Cambodia and journals which posture, heroically, about the terrible crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Nobody can hear the words. I mean, it's as if you're talking to a filter that cuts out certain words and phrases. Now, the Kissinger remarks happened to be approximately at the time when the international tribunal was trying Milosevic. And, he died before the judgment, but they were having a really hard time putting together much of a case. We could go through the details of that, they're interesting. But they were having a pretty hard time. It was mostly…

As compared to the trivial ease with which they could put together a case against…

Suppose they had found a statement from Milosevic, saying: "anything that flies against anything that moves". It would have been euphoria all over the world, the Western world, he'd immediately be tried, you know, executed, we'd talk about how noble we are and so on and so forth. OK, now this is virtually a hundred percent of intellectuals I'm talking about.

Why would all those people behave in such a way? How could they possibly have the mental capacity to see the truth and not see the truth. It must be the small number of people who are confused, not the large number of people. How do you answer that?

Actually, Orwell had a word for it. He called it double-think. Double-think is the capacity to hold two contradictory ideas in mind and believe them both. It's practically a defining characteristic of intellectual history. I'm not talking about the United States. As far as I know this is close to a historical universal. I find very few exceptions. Furthermore, it goes back to the earliest recorded history. Furthermore, every person who asks this question knows the answer. All they have to do is look at themselves. How many people have failed to go through an experience like, for example, when you're six years old and your little brother takes a toy and you want the toy and your mother's not looking, and you're bigger than he is, so you grab the toy. And then the kid starts yelling and your mother comes in and she starts censuring you for taking the toy, and how do you answer? Do you say, yeah I took the toy because I wanted it and he is smaller than me? Or, do you say: look, he didn't want the toy anyway and, besides, it was mine and he really stole it from me, so I was right. Can you know anybody who hasn't gone through such experiences in their life?

And you give the second answer, not the first one.

Yeah. So we all know the answer to the question. There are ways, easy ways, to rationalize whatever happens in a usually complicated world, so as to protect yourself. Furthermore, the fact that intellectuals act like this is close to tautology. You don't become a respected intellectual unless you do this kind of thing. Not, you know, like Kissinger, just servility to the master, but because you internalize it. Just take a look at history. I mean, there are people who don't do it. A small portion. Are they praised? Are they honored? I mean, they're usually treated very badly. It depends on the nature of the society. They can be thrown out of their jobs. In a civilized society like ours, they just get vilified and defamed. In a U.S. possession, like, say, El Salvador they get their brains blown out. And nobody here even cares about it or knows about it. In, say, post-Stalin Soviet Union they got sent to prison or exiled.

Let's just take that last example. In November 1989, the Berlin wall fell. And quickly the Soviet Union collapsed. It was a major event in world history. And there was a huge commemoration of it on the twentieth anniversary. What was written about it is mostly accurate and very revealing. It was heralded as a triumph, quoting Vaclav Havel, one of the heroes, a triumph of love and non-violence. Love and non-violence overcame the Soviet Union and it collapsed. And, that's the lesson we learned. In fact, there's a generation of people who call themselves the Niners. Their consciousness was formed in November 1989 and they're dedicated to love and non-violence, Obama is picked as the leader and so on. So, that's what we learned in November 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Well, one week after the fall of the Berlin wall, something else happened. An elite Salvadoran battalion, which had just come from several months of training at the John F. Kennedy Special Forces School in Fort Bragg, and in fact a couple of days later had a special group of, I think a couple of dozen special forces sent to El Salvador to beef up their training. This is the top battalion in the Salvadoran army, the pride of the U.S. run Salvadoran army. Right after that, they broke into the university, they murdered six leading Salvadoran intellectuals, Jesuit priests, also their housekeeper and her daughter. In November 2009 a report was published in the Spanish press, easily accessible to anyone, in the Spanish press, presenting the actual document that ordered the assassination. Signed, as had been suspected, but not proven, signed by the chief of staff and the top officials in the Salvadoran army, all so close to the Pentagon and the U.S. embassy that you can barely find a ray of light between them. Of course, it was never published here, and never published in England and so on. So, all of that happened in 1989. That's love and non-violence.

Now, it's not just the killing of the Jesuit intellectuals. The killing of the Jesuit intellectuals closed off a decade of monstrous atrocities. In El Salvador maybe 70,000 people killed, you know, another hundred thousand in Guatemala, who knows how many in Nicaragua. All organized right in Washington. Massive terrorist war. The decade in El Salvador… plenty of religious martyrs. In fact, the decade started with the assassination of an archbishop reading mass, by the same hands. So, it's not a small event. Furthermore, that understates it. There's a huge event that took place. It has to do with the history of the Catholic church.

The church in the early centuries was radical pacifist. That's why Christians were persecuted. In the fourth century, the radical pacifist church was changed. The emperor Constantine took it over and turned it into the church of the Roman Empire. So the cross, which had been a symbol of the suffering of the poor, was on the shield of the Roman Empire. Well, from the fourth century until almost today the church was the church of the rich and the persecutors. In 1962, Pope John XXIII changed it. He called Vatican II, big conference, and adopted what was called the preferential option for the poor. It's from the Gospels. And that lead to a movement, particularly in Latin America where priests, nuns, laypeople and others started bringing the message of the Gospels to poor peasants. And try to get them to think about their horrifying conditions under U.S.-dominated tyrannies and try to organize to do something about it.

Well, the U.S. didn't wait long. Immediately, it reacted. John F. Kennedy organized a military coup in Brazil, one of the main centers. The coup took place right after the assassination, it was all set up by him and Robert Kennedy. That established the first of the neo-Nazi style national security states in Latin America. They had torture, massacres and so on. And Brazil's a big country, so the dominoes started to fall. And country after country fell under a plague of repression that had no parallel since the conquistadors. Uruguay, Chile, Allende, finally ended up with Argentina, maybe the worst killers of them all, Reagan's favorites. It finally spread to Central America in the 1980’s, then came these hideous terrorist wars. Throughout, a large part of it was a war against the church. And we know who was responsible, because they take pride in it. So, the School of the Americas, now renamed, which trains Latin American killers. If you take a look at its talking points, advertising points, it takes credit for the fact, as it says, that the U.S. Army helped defeat liberation theology. That is helped destroy the church. The church of the gospels. That's not a small event in history. It's a rather significant event in history. And it was effectively terminated by the massacre in November 1989. Of course not totally, there are residues, you never kill ideas completely. Is that a major event? Well, take a look and see how much commentary there was on it. I can give you a hundred percent of the commentary.

Next to zero.

Let's take here in Boston where we are. I know of one discussion of it in Boston. At Boston College, the Jesuit University, where in fact I was one of the speakers, but one of the speakers was Jon Sobrino. He's the one surviving Jesuit. He came up to give a talk. A very good talk. What he pointed out, and stressed, was that murdering the Jesuit intellectuals was terrible enough, but much worse was murdering their housekeeper and her daughter, who as he put it are the symbols of the crucified populations of U.S. domains. How many comments were there on that?

Well, there actually was a comment. The hero of Eastern Europe, Vaclav Havel, came to the United States shortly after the murder of his Jesuit colleagues in El Salvador, and he gave a speech to a joint session of Congress. And he got a rousing standing ovation for calling the United States the defender of freedom. Commentators were totally euphoric, including the left. So, you know, the Washington Post had editorials about "why can't we have amazing intellectuals like this who tell us that we're the defender of freedom" right after having slaughtered his counterparts in El Salvador, plus everything that had come before. Anthony Lewis, you know, way out at the far left of imaginable criticism gushed about how we were in a romantic age, it's hard to believe, a romantic age, and so on and so forth. OK, does any of this enter history? Can it even be comprehended? In fact, I've tried to talk about it. Blank wall. Or else fury. Usually fury. And reactions are, you know, you're justifying atrocities. You're justifying Stalin, you know.

So the picture is, even in the face of incredible barbarism, over extended periods of time, individuals who are intellectuals, meaning they've accrued this respect and these tools and these resources and so on, for purposes of advancing their own career, and they're being taken seriously, and they're being appreciated sort of habitually, almost reflexively, follow the party line.

There are people who don't.

And then there are some who…

And, in fact, it starts very early. It starts from childhood.

What's the difference? Of course you can take the two sets of people and you can say, OK, this one said this and this one said this and that's the difference. But there might be also a difference in their value system or in their personality or in something that explains why somebody ends up over here and somebody over here, which matters to people who are about to go to journalism school or about to go to college and want to be here and not here.

I mean, that's a question for their mothers and their psychologists, psychiatrists and so on. They vary. And we know they vary because we know all these people. And, yeah, there are all kind of different reasons. Whether it's a six-year-old kid stealing a toy from his brother or Anthony Lewis talking about a romantic age when we've just carried out a mass slaughter or… they vary, all kinds of reasons. And, it's maybe of interest to their family and friends, but it's of no general interest. What's of general interest is the way the system works. And it works starting very early.

I could give exact examples, but I'll just talk about it generally. I mean, suppose a kid in, say, third grade decides that what the teacher is saying is ridiculous and he's not going to do it. Well, what happens is he is classified as a behavior problem. If some other kid sitting next to him says: yeah, of course what the teacher's saying is ridiculous, but I'm going to do it, he is a nice kid and he goes on. And it sort of goes on from there.

There are filtering systems like this all the way. If you're on a university faculty and you get letters of recommendation for, you know, students who want to apply or faculty members who are looking for a job, there's some standard terminology that you get used to. Great guy, brilliant, wonderful, but he lacks collegiality, you know, or he's hard to get along with or something like that. What that usually means he is a political radical or something like that. It's even understandable. I mean, you want your department to be collegial. You want people to be nice to each other. You don't want somebody in the department getting up and saying: look, you're a war criminal! And showing it, and demonstrating it, that's not nice, it doesn't feel good. So you sort of keep these people away, you've had a little experience with this yourself.

They're very effective filtering systems that lead to certain outcomes. It's quite interesting for people like Ed Herman or me or others who do critical analysis of the press, journalists and commentators are infuriated. They say: nobody tells me what to write. Which is absolutely true. But if they didn't already know what to write they wouldn't be there.

Transcribed by Anton G. 


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