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Noam Chomsky and the Public Intellectual in Turbulent Times

Posted on May 12, 2014

Photo by Andrew Rusk (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout

(Page 3)

At the same time, Chomsky is an ardent defender of the poor, those populations considered disposable, the excluded, and those marginalized by class, race, gender and other ideologies and structural relations considered dangerous to tyrants both at home and abroad. There is no privileged, singularly oppressed group in Chomsky’s work. He is capacious in making visible and interrogating oppression in its multiple forms, regardless of where it exists. Yet, while Chomsky has his critics, ranging from notables such as Sheldon Wolin and Martha Nussbaum to a host of less-informed interlocutors, he rarely shies away from a reasoned debate, often elevating such exchanges to a new level of understanding, and in some cases, embarrassment for his opponents. Some of his more illustrious and infamous debaters have included Michel Foucault, William Buckley, Jr., John Silber, Christopher Hitchens and Alan Dershowitz. At the same time, he has refused, in spite of the occasional and most hateful and insipid of attacks, to mimic such tactics in responding to his less civil denigrators. Some of Chomsky’s detractors have accused him of being too strident, not theoretical enough, or more recently, not understanding the true nature of ideology. These criticisms seem empty and baseless to me and appear irrelevant considering the impact Chomsky’s work has had on a younger generation, including many in the Occupy Movement, in calling into question the reckless mechanizations and dynamics of politics, power and policies of the United States government and other authoritarian regimes.

It is important to note that I am not suggesting that Chomsky is somehow an iconic figure who inhabits an intellectual version of celebrity culture. On the contrary, he deplores such a role and is an enormously humble and self-effacing human being. What I am suggesting is that, in an age when the models for political leadership and civic responsibility are put forth in American society for young people and others to learn from, they are largely drawn from the ranks of a criminal, if not egregiously anti-democratic, class of elite financers and the rich. Chomsky offers a crucial, though often unacknowledged, standard for how to be engaged with the world in ways in which issues of commitment and courage are tied to considerations of justice and struggle and not merely to the accumulation of capital, regardless of the social costs. His decisive influence on a range of fields, extending from linguistic theory to theories of the state and education, have not only opened up new modes of inquiry but also give gravitas to the political impulse that underscores such contributions.  The point here is neither to idolize nor demonize Chomsky - the two modalities that often mark reactions to his work. Rather, the issue is to articulate the ways in which Chomsky as a public intellectual gives meaning to the disposition and characteristics that need to be in place for such critical work: a historical consciousness, civic courage, sacrifice, incisiveness, thoughtfulness, rigor, compassion, political interventions, the willingness to be a moral witness and the ability to listen to others.

As a public intellectual, Chomsky offers academics a way to be both scholars and critical citizens, and calls upon them to use their talents and resources to promote public values, defend the common good and connect education to social change. He strongly rejects the notion that academics are merely servants of the state and that students are nothing more than enterprising consumers. The role of academics as public intellectuals has a long history in Chomsky’s work and is inextricably connected to defending the university as a public good and democratic public sphere. Chomsky made this clear in a talk he gave at the Modern Language Association in 2000 when he insisted that:

[U]niversities face a constant struggle to maintain their integrity, and their fundamental social role in a healthy society, in the face of external pressures. The problems are heightened with the expansion of private power in every domain, in the course of the state-corporate social engineering projects of the past several decades . . . To defend their integrity and proper commitments is an honorable and difficult task in itself, but our sights should be set higher than that. Particularly in the societies that are more privileged, many choices are available, including fundamental institutional change, if that is the right way to proceed, and surely including scholarship that contributes to, and draws from, the never-ending popular struggles for freedom and justice.


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Higher education is under attack not because it is failing, but because it is a potentially democratic public sphere. As such, conservatives and neoliberals often see it as a dangerous institution that reminds them of the rebellious legacy of the ‘60s, when universities were the center of struggles over free speech, anti-racist and feminist pedagogies, and the anti-war movement. Higher education has become a target for right-wing ideologues and the corporate elite because it is capable of teaching students how to think critically, and it offers the promise of new modes of solidarity to students outside of the exchange value proffered by neoliberal instrumentalism and the reduction of education to forms of training. Chomsky extends the democratic legacy of higher education by insisting that universities and faculty should press the claims for economic and social justice. He also argues more specifically that while higher education should be revered for its commitment to disinterested truth and reason, it also has a crucial role to play in its opposition to the permanent warfare state, the war on the poor, the squelching of dissent by the surveillance state, the increasing violence waged against students, and the rise of an authoritarian state engaged in targeted assassination, drone warfare and the destruction of the environment.  Part of that role is to create an informed and reflective democratic citizenry engaged in the struggle for social justice and equality. Standing for truth is only one role the university can assume, and it is not enough. It must also fulfill its role of being attentive to the needs of young people by safeguarding their interests while educating them to exercise their capacities to fulfill their social, political, economic and ethical responsibilities to others, to broader publics, and the wider global social order.  As Chomsky reminds us, caring about other people is a dangerous idea in America today and signals the transformation of the United States from a struggling democracy to a full-fledged authoritarian state.

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