Jackie Walker. ‘I don’t want no peace’, a black, Jewish activist’s take on the responsibility of intellectuals
Professor Chomsky’s 1967 essay, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, was written in the context of the ongoing American invasion of Vietnam. American post Second World War optimism was dissolving as stories of defeat, American use of chemical warfare and scenes of drug hazed GIs on the rampage overlapped with televised, home grown footage of white barbarity against fellow black citizens. For people of colour, always excluded from the dream of America, this ‘fall from grace’ was simply another encounter with the truth as they lived it; an America built on genocide, enslavement and oppression.
Today, while Trump’s presidential campaign suggested a desire for decreased US involvement overseas, his rhetoric implies an America unwilling to accept limitations to its power, with calls for a fight to the finish with Isis and assurances of increased support for Israel. While this time round the bogey-man is Muslims rather than Communists, there’s a whiff of McCarthyism to Trump’s policies, a move that sounds a warning for all who campaign for a better world.
The overriding demand for justice Peter Tosh speaks of, or rather sings of, strikes against strategies of the Establishment that appear to valourise peace and quietude while enforcing a violent and destructive status quo.
Chomsky’s assertion that intellectuals have a responsibility to speak truth remains a potent call to arms today. Of course, intellectuals are not a homogenous group. Many promote, or turn a blind eye to the oppressions of the Establishment – after all, bolstering the status quo can bring huge rewards, and control over university academics, with austerity cuts and job insecurity, has increased
While I share Jewish heritage with, I believe, others on this panel, it is my black voice that speaks in this session. So while I occupy this intellectual space for this moment, as a black woman I inhabit a markedly different set of realities. No post-war uplift has raised blacks from ghetto to power. Historical injustices against blacks remain barely acknowledged, let alone commemorated; it is with trepidation people of colour raise their head above the parapet to speak truth to power on any issue, even those that relate to their own history and experience.
In Britain, black academics lack the numbers to be significant. The best universities and schools are mostly closed to us. People of colour remain excluded in all spheres of life, except in popular culture, sport and in prisons. Divorced from the structures of power, even the concept of ‘the intellectual’ needs fundamental rethinking if it is not to be practically meaningless for blacks.
However, while separation from power is a particular problem for black intellectuals, it’s a problem shared among all who seek global transformations. To effect fundamental change we must break through the isolation that separates us from the forces which can change the world – the mass of the people.
Kriszta Szendroi. Value-system and Intensity – A tribute to the late Tanya Reinhart
This paper will be concerned with two things: the idea of a universal value-system, and intensity. I will first recall an intellectual journey that two Hungarian thinkers, Lajos Szabó and Béla Tábor, undertook in 1937 in their essay entitled The Indictment of the spirit, which was translated by István Cziegler into English for this occasion. In parallel with the arguments proposed by Noam Chomsky in his ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’, this journey will reveal that the failure of intellectuals to uphold truth is a systematic failure. It is systematic not only in the sense that it is wide spread, but also in that it is self-preserving.
Our next stop must then be introspective: do we intellectuals conduct ourselves within our own fields in such a way that we first ‘establish a universal scale of values [...] and let all our actions fall somewhere on that scale in a way which always realizes the highest possible grade of the scale’? Their answer – 80 years ago – was a resounding no. I will illustrate with various examples that the situation has certainly not changed for the better. At a time when we deplore the devaluation of experts and expertise, we must take their words very seriously. But what is this ‘universal set of values’ and why do we need them? Truth indeed must be one of them, and, I would argue, others must be added. A system of values, as opposed to a single value, allows for measurement, or a scale. We can, and must measure values, and we can and must measure our actions in relation to those values. Our value system must be hierarchically organised, and complex enough to be an effective measure of our actions in the technological age.
From matters of the head to matters of the heart. A person I loved very dearly died exactly 10 years ago. Her life was an intense, burning flame. I will try and convey to you this intensity by telling you about her, about the person I met, because as Martin Buber said, ‘All real living is meeting’. I will tell you what I have learnt from her about life, about linguistics, and about the world.
My conclusion will be that truth has no chance without intensity. We must be torch-bearers. There can be no separate matters of the head and matters of the heart.
Milan Rai. The Propaganda Model and the British Nuclear Weapons Debate
According to the Chomsky-Herman Propaganda Model, the mainstream media in industrial democracies limit freedom of expression by restricting the spectrum of thinkable thought, and by effectively suppressing uncomfortable facts. A clear example is given by the debate around nuclear weapons in Britain in the postwar period. The mainstream public debate has been framed as a contest over the morality of nuclear ‘deterrence’. ‘Deterrence’ has been defined in this debate as promising nuclear retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack on the homeland.
This framing of the debate makes it unthinkable that ‘nuclear deterrence’ could be aggressive rather than defensive, that it could be aimed at nuclear weapon states who have not used their nuclear weapons – or non-nuclear weapon states, and that ‘deterrence’ could have little or nothing to do with defence of the homeland. When we investigate the policy debate within the foreign policy establishment and the record of nuclear deployments, we find that British nuclear deterrence has indeed been aggressive rather than defensive, that it was been aimed at non-nuclear weapon states as well as nuclear weapon states that have not used nuclear weapons, and that homeland security has been secondary at best in driving British nuclear policy.
All these facts have been obscured by public discussion and mainstream media reporting of nuclear weapons. The very fierceness of the British nuclear debate has tended to strengthen the fundamental assumptions that the state means well and acts defensively.
Chris Knight. Speaking truth to power – from within the heart of the Empire
For fifty years, Noam Chomsky has been speaking truth to power not from a safe distance – anyone can do that – but from right up close and personal. The intellectuals responsible for what Chomsky in the 1960s rightly described as war crimes in Vietnam were in many cases academics and scientists conducting research as part of his own professional milieu at MIT.
How ironic that the world’s best-known anti-militarist dissident, tirelessly calling the military and their apologists to account, should be none other than the prominent linguist who has spent his working life in a research institute heavily involved in weapons design.
How easy can it have been? How precisely do you work alongside military scientists while maintaining your anti-militarist principles? Chomsky himself claims that MIT was an easy place in which to work. No pressures from anyone, no difficult choices to make. On that account, preserving moral integrity was always straightforward, requiring no special ingenuity or courage.
It is this claim that I find so hard to believe. Chomsky is surely being too modest. If you check the historical record, it turns out that during the Vietnam War, the dilemmas became painful enough for him to consider resigning. Here is Chomsky in his own words, written in March 1967 and published in The New York Review of Books:
‘I have given a good bit of thought to … resigning from MIT, which is more than any other university associated with the Department of Defense . . . I think that its involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible. One should, I feel, resist this subversion in every possible way.’
This surely suggests that the pressures on Chomsky were immense. Reconciling his continued employment with his conscience would require correspondingly immense ingenuity, tenacity and courage. To my mind, this makes Chomsky’s steadfastness in speaking truth to power all the more impressive and remarkable.
Craig Murray. The Abdication of Responsibility
Chomsky sets out a hard test at the end of his essay. He quotes Dwight Macdonald: ‘Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.’
I intend, as myself a whistleblower who paid the price with his career and livelihood, to claim that right. I take this as license to be freely condemnatory in what follows!
After a brief period in the 60’s and 70’s when progress appeared to be made in western societies in personal freedoms, in social mobility and reduction of wealth inequality, things have now regressed. In the 70’s it was still possible to subscribe in essence to the Whig historical theory of Progress, and indeed I did so.
We now live in darkened times. The surveillance state has become all-pervasive. Obama’s persecution of whistleblowers should give pause to the many who seen to think intolerance was invented by Trump. The imperialist projection of American power has widened in scope and ambition since Chomsky wrote.
It is worth noting the clear-eyed recognition in Chomsky’s work that the Soviet Union was also a rival empire. Even while deploring irrational Russophobia and the continual threat posture of encirclement – which Chomsky also notes in its essay – I always find it is worth reminding people that Russia itself still is an empire. Much of its current land – and I mean Russia itself not the former Soviet Republics - was acquired in the nineteenth century by imperial conquest precisely contemporary with British acquisitions in India or indeed the westward expansion of the USA. These territories are majority muslim. Russian imperialism really is a thing.
Chomsky’s essay refers to academics with influence in the public sphere, and I suspect in general that influence has reduced. But we must also mark that the scope of atmospheric freedom has declined significantly in the last few decades.
Universities are now expected to function as corporations. The bottom line has become all-important, and the notion of a democratic self-governing community has vanished after an onslaught of macho corporate governance culture, including the ludicrously high levels of remuneration for executives such a culture involves. Furthermore, the value of universities is frequently defined by government in terms of the commercially viable knowledge it can pass to the corporate sector, or the well-conditioned corporate labour it can churn out. Tenure is shrinking. Funding has become short term and dependent on continual measurement of research outputs, putting the funders in de facto academic and intellectual control.
I am afraid I suspect that the junior faculty organising 1967 teach-ins to which Chomsky refers would have their careers substantially damaged today. Indeed I suspect a young Chomsky would be instructed to give up other interests and devote himself solely to a narrow definition of linguistics.
As a historian I enjoyed Chomsky’s castigation of some of that profession. It caused me to reflect on the ‘historians’ whose views on public policy are sought in the UK and who are called up by the media as commentators. Andrew Roberts, David Starkey, Niall Fergusson. All are on any analysis well to the right of the political spectrum. Fergusson has made a career or regurgitating the nonsense which Chomsky derided in his essay.
Indeed, it is impossible now to imagine that the public intellectuals the BBC admired 50 years ago, such as Bertrand Russell and AJP Taylor, would ever be given significant air time now. Support for nuclear disarmament or the nationalisation of major industries would put them way beyond the window of permitted thought. The vicious media assault upon Jeremy Corbyn shows the reaction to even the mildest radicalism.
This process of narrowing of permitted political thought is long term. In 1880, Gladstone, campaigning in an election that brought him to power for his second term as Prime Minister, stated in terms in a major speech that Afghans fighting British troops were justified in doing so because Britain had invaded their country.
‘If they resist, would you not do the same’? Gladstone asked. It is a simple moral test. But who can doubt that in the UK or the US today, to say that anybody fighting ‘our’ troops might be justified would bring a unanimous hellstorm of media condemnation combining false patriotism with militarism?
Still less is there interest in the media in exposing the truth and holding the government to account. In the UK recently, the Attorney General gave a speech in defence of the UK’s drone policy, the assassination ofpeople, including British nationals, abroad. This execution without a hearing is based on several criteria, he reassured us. His speech was repeated slavishly in the British media. In fact, The Guardian newspaper simply republished the government press release absolutely verbatim, and stuck a reporter’s byline at the top.
The media have no interest in a critical appraisal of the process by which the British government regularly executes without trial. Yet in fact it is extremely interesting.
The genesis of the policy lay in the appointment of Daniel Bethlehem as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Chief Legal Adviser. Jack Straw made the appointment, and for the first time ever it was external, and not from the Foreign Office’s own large team of renowned international lawyers. The reason for that is not in dispute. Every single one of the FCO’s Legal Advisers had advised the invasion of Iraq was illegal, and Straw wished to find a new head of the department more in tune with the neo-conservative world view.
He went to extremes. He appointed Daniel Bethlehem, the legal ‘expert’ who provided the legal advice to Benjamin Netanyahu on the ‘legality’ of building the great wall hemming in the Palestinians from their land and water resources. Bethlehem was an enthusiastic proponent of the invasion of Iraq. He was also the most enthusiastic proponent in the world of drone strikes.
Bethlehem provided an opinion on the legality of drone strikes which is, to say the least, controversial. To give one example, Bethlehem accepts that established principles of international law dictate that lethal force may only be used to prevent an attack which is ‘imminent’. Bethlehem argues that for an attack to be ‘imminent’ does not require it to be ‘soon’. Indeed you can kill to avert an ‘imminent attack’ even if you have no information when and where it will be. You can instead rely on your target’s ‘pattern of behaviour’, i.e. if he has attacked before, it is reasonable to assume he will attack again and that such an attack is ‘imminent.’
There is a much deeper problem that the evidence against the target is often extremely dubious. Yet even allowing the evidence to be perfect, how for the state to kill in such circumstances is not death penalty without trial for past crimes, rather than frustration of another ‘imminent’ one, is beyond me.
You would think that background would make an interesting story. Yet the entire ‘serious’ British media published the government line, without a single journalist, not one, writing about Daniel Bethlehem’s controversial past, how he got the FCO job, or the fact that his proposed definition of ‘imminent’ has been widely rejected by the international law community.
The public knows none of this. They just know drone strikes are keeping us safe from deadly attack by terrorists, because the government says so, and nobody has attempted to give them other information.
50 years on, I think we can say that, as a general rule, the responsibility of intellectuals to tell the truth has been well and truly abdicated. More than ever is truth telling at odds with careers prospects, and most ‘intellectuals’ care a great deal more about their career than about the truth.