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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 4)

Given the intensive attack that is currently being waged against higher education, Chomsky’s defense of the latter as a democratic public sphere and his insistence on the responsibility of intellectuals - be they academics, students, artists, educators, or cultural workers, to name only a few - takes on a new urgency.  Public intellectuals can play a crucial political role in not only translating private issues into public concerns, but also offering up a discourse of interrogation and possibility, one that understands the new historical configuration in which we find ourselves when power is separated from politics, demanding not only a new consideration of the relationship between politics and power but also what it means to think otherwise in order to act otherwise.  Chomsky is an important public intellectual because he has become a model for what it means to put a premium on social and economic justice, display a willingness to raise disquieting questions, make power accountable, defend democratic values, take political risks and exhibit the moral courage necessary to address important social issues as part of an ongoing public conversation.

This is not an easy task at a time when many academics have removed themselves from engaging larger social issues and are all too willing to accommodate those in power, functioning as either entertainers or stenographers.  Too many academics have become either uncritical servants of corporate interests, rendered invisible, if not irrelevant, behind a firewall of professional jargon, or have been reduced to a subaltern class of adjunct and part-time labor, with little time to think critically or address larger social issues.  Consequently, they either no longer feel the need to communicate with a broader public, address important social problems, or they are deprived of the conditions that enable them to write, think and function as public and engaged intellectuals. This is particularly troubling in an aspiring democracy where intellectuals above all should take seriously the notion that if democracy is to mean anything, it “requires its citizens to risk something, to test the limits of the acceptable.” This is particularly egregious when, for many academics, their working conditions no longer support their role as scholars and public intellectuals.

Noam Chomsky not only represents the antithesis of intellectual accommodation, he actually exemplifies a new kind of intellectual, one reminiscent of rigorous theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and Michele Foucault, on the one hand, and C. Wright Mills, on the other, all of whom refused, as Mills put it, the role of “a sociological book-keeper, ” preferring instead to be “mutinous and utopian” rather than “go the way of the literary faddist and the technician of cultural chic.” Like C. Wright Mills, Chomsky addresses pressing social issues and painstakingly looks at how they are lived through the experiences of people who are often deeply affected, yet disappeared from such narratives.  His work on political economy, regimes of authoritarianism, cultural domination, and global youth resistance is in my mind a pioneering work that examines the mechanisms of politics, and collective struggles globally, within a larger matrix of economics, power, history and culture.

Chomsky is not content to focus on the perpetrators of global crime and the new forms of authoritarianism they are spreading in different ways across the globe, he also focuses on those who are now considered disposable, those who have been written out of the discourse of what he considers a tortured democracy, as a force for collective resistance capable of employing new modes of agency and struggle.  Whether he is talking about war, education, militarization or the media, there is always a sense of commitment, civic courage and a call for resistance in his work that is breathtaking and always moving. His interventions are always political, and yet he manages to avoid the easy mantle of dogmatism or a kind of humiliating clownish performance we see among some alleged leftist intellectuals. Like C. Wright Mills, he has revived the sociological imagination, connecting the totality and the historically specific, a broader passion for the promise of democracy, and a complex rendering of the historical narratives of those who are often marginalized and excluded. There is also a refusal to shield the powerful from moral and political critique.  Chomsky has become a signpost for an emerging generation of intellectuals who are not only willing to defend the institutions, public spheres and formative cultures that make democracy possible, but also address those anti-democratic forces working diligently to dismantle the conditions that make an aspiring democracy meaningful.


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We live at a time when the growing catastrophes that face Americans and the rest of the globe are increasingly matched by the accumulation of power by the rich and financial elite. Their fear of democracy is now strengthened by the financial, political, and corporate elite’s intensive efforts to normalize their own power and silence those who hold them accountable. For many, we live in a time of utter despair. But resistance is not only possible, it may be more necessary now than at any other time in America’s past, given the current dismantling of civil rights, democratic institutions, the war on women, labor unions, and the poor - all accompanied by the rise of a neoliberal regime that views democracy as an excess, if not dangerous, and an obstacle to implementing its ideological and political goals.  What Noam Chomsky has been telling us for over 50 years is that resistance demands a combination of hope, vision, courage, and a willingness to make power accountable, all the while connecting with the desires, aspirations, and dreams of those who suffer under the apparatuses of regimes of violence, misery, fear and terror.  He has also reminded us again and again through numerous historical examples that public memory contains the flashpoints for remembering that such struggles are always collective and not merely a matter of individual resistance. There are always gaps in the work we do as intellectuals, and in Chomsky’s case, there is more to be said as Archon Fung points out regarding the role that public intellectuals can play in shaping “the democratic character of public policy,” work with “popular movements and organizations in their efforts to advance justice and democracy,” and while refusing to succumb to reformist practices, “join citizens - and sometimes governments - to construct a world that is more just and democratic.”

He may be one of the few public intellectuals left of an older generation who offers a rare glimpse into what it means to widen the scope of the meaning of political and intellectual inquiry - an intellectual who rethinks in a critical fashion the educative nature of politics within the changed and totalizing conditions of a neoliberal global assault on all vestiges of democracy. He not only trades in ideas that defy scholastic disciplines and intellectual boundaries, he also makes clear that it is crucial to hold ideas accountable for the practices they legitimate and produce, while at the same time refusing to limit critical ideas to simply modes of critique. In this instance, ideas not only challenge the normalizing discourses and representations of commonsense and the power inequities they legitimate, but also open up the possibilities inherent in a discourse that moves beyond the given and points to new ways of thinking and acting about freedom, civic courage, social responsibility, and justice from the standpoint of radical democratic ideals. 

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