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Democracy inaction

In ‘Ideas Matter’ lecture, Noam Chomsky criticizes fellow intellectuals for their conformity.
Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky
Photo: Donna Coveney

More than four decades after he first critiqued fellow intellectuals for their political caution, Noam Chomsky renewed his call for activism among scholars, lamenting what he sees as their continued passivity during a lecture delivered at MIT on Thursday.

At a time marked by environmental and economic crises, as well as what Chomsky described as multiple foreign-policy failures by the United States, he thinks scholars and experts too easily accept the country’s current direction.

On the issue of climate change, “what’s happening today is utterly shocking,” said Chomsky, adding, “we’re the richest, most powerful country in human history, and we’re destroying the possibility of a decent future existence. It’s no small thing.”  

Far too often, Chomsky asserted, intellectuals in the United States overlook the inconsistencies of their own country’s policies. The United States, he argued, should be leading the effort against climate change, and should be more consistent in its efforts to promote democracy throughout the world.  

“You should hold yourselves to the same standards that you apply to others,” Chomsky said. However, he said, most intellectuals apply this “principle of universality” in an irregular manner: It “is almost universally approved in words, and it’s almost universally rejected in practice, without any sense of contradiction.”

The ‘wild men in the wings’

Chomsky’s lecture, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the 21st Century,” was fashioned as an update to a prominent 1967 essay he wrote for the New York Review of Books, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” about scholars and the Vietnam War.

Chomsky revolutionized linguistics in the 1950s with his idea of generative grammar, which holds that people have an innate, universal capacity for language acquisition. He first rose to prominence as a political activist in opposition to the conflict in Vietnam. Since then he has written dozens of books critiquing U.S. foreign policy.

The talk was the first event of the academic year in MIT’s “Ideas Matter” lecture series, a forum sponsored by MIT’s Department of Political Science and The Boston Review, which is published at MIT. A crowd of at least 500 attended, consisting of about 300 in Wong Auditorium and another 200 or more watching a video feed in an overflow room.

In his remarks, Chomsky asserted that intellectuals currently fall into the same groups that they’ve occupied for more than a century, with most scholars and experts adopting politically safe, seemingly “responsible” views, rather than pursuing an alternate responsibility: challenging conventional wisdom.

This paradigm, Chomsky said, was established during France’s Dreyfus Affair, in the 1890s, when the term “intellectual” first became common currency. When the military officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused of treason, most public figures assumed his guilt; a smaller group, led by novelist Emile Zola, defended Dreyfus and successfully proved his innocence.

Despite the success of Dreyfus’ defenders, on issue after issue since then, Chomsky asserted, the same pattern has occurred: The “responsible” intellectuals adopt establishmentarian positions, while a smaller group of people such as himself are largely dismissed as “wild men in the wings.”

Democracy in the Middle East?

Many of Chomsky’s remarks concerned prospects for the expansion of democracy in the Middle East, and the American relationship to the region. “The official line is that we promote democracy,” Chomsky said. However, in practice, he argued, the United States “supports democracy if and only if it conforms to strategic and economic interests.”

Instead, Chomsky said, policymakers and intellectuals should “support democracy even if we don’t support the outcomes.”

Noting that his lecture was occurring soon after the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Chomsky called those attacks a “horrendous atrocity.” However, he asserted, Americans have become desensitized to the death toll caused by the Iraq War as well as that stemming from U.S.-allied dictators of years past, such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. Chomsky also warned that policies such as using drones to conduct warfare in the tribal regions along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border could prove counterproductive to international stability in the long run.

During a question-and-answer session after his talk, when asked by audience members what steps they could take to change the world, Chomsky suggested that activists have many practical options in front of them.

“There are a lot of things that could be done that would make a huge difference, within the framework of existing institutions,” Chomsky said, citing global anti-poverty efforts as an area where improvements are both morally desirable and realistic.

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