U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Chomsky’s [43-year-old] Challenge To Public Intellectuals

As with my last post, I offer another inspirational prompt on the topic of public intellectuals in relation to this fall’s USIH conference.

Wisconsin Public Radio’s regular program, To The Best of Our Knowledge, hosted Noam Chomsky on June 20, 2010 to discuss his 1967 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.”

Published on February 23 of that year, as a special supplement to the New York Review of Books, Chomsky used the context of the escalating Vietnam War as an opportunity to lambaste the “the cult of the experts” and challenge intellectuals “to speak the truth and to expose lies.” In addition, he added, “If it is the responsibility of the intellectual to insist upon the truth, it is also his duty to see events in their historical perspective.”

For perceived breaches in the public’s trust, Chomsky directed his wrath first at the actions of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Walt Rostow, and the “New Frontiersmen” in general. But he also touched on misguided or irresponsible statements made in the public sphere by Irving Kristol, McGeorge Bundy, David N. Rowe, Daniel Bell, and others.

Here’s a link to the NPR program. The Chomsky interview occurs during segment one—the 0:00-17:00 minute portion of the show.

Is Chomsky’s essay still relevant? Or does the context of Vietnam War negate its effectiveness—rendering it meaningless to today’s reader? Does the public today think of intellectuals in terms of truth and lies? Or are public intellectuals just another form of ‘infotainment’ to today’s reading public? Do we only expect irony and/or skepticism from our public intellectuals? – TL

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Interesting questions. On the one hand, the proliferation of pundits has made them all less effective and less influential. The anti-intellectualism of the general public devalues the role that public intellectuals play. At the same time, Chomsky’s point about the responsibility of intellectuals remains true. Intellectuals need to be held to a high standard and need to hold themselves to a high standard. The Shirley Sherrod incident is an example of irresponsible behavior by a person entrusted with the position of public intellectual (and shows the remaining power of the public intellectual). This incident makes all public intellectuals look bad as the media continues to pretend that this is just something pundits all do.
    Most academics have decided that the media world is too unattractive to engage and distance themselves. The effect of which is that many of our public intellectuals are not really intellectuals, do not apply the standards of academia to their statements, and fulfill the public expectation that pundits are merely driven by politics or profit.
    If academics return to the role of public intellectuals (and do so responsibly) punditry might once again have meaning.

  2. agreed, for the most part. also, though, the ‘cult of expertise’ that he is so concerned to discredit–does this still exist any longer?

    Chomsky is distinguishing between the expert and the intellectual, and arguing that it is the duty of the latter to check the former in a public forum. but all we have now is shadowy and amateurish bureaucracy, checked by a public sphere that is so large and poly-vocal, so continuously engaged in the task of uncovering the truth, that it is sometimes quite difficult to adjudicate between truths. i’m not sure this sort of information overload is the same problem as ‘infotainment.’ from a different angle, i think it’s comparable to what the recent WaPo expose says is the massive overgrowth of the intelligence agency.

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