Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual

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Daniel Falcone: This month, a wide number of sources are reporting on Noam Chomsky in the celebration of his 90th birthday. What was your introduction to Noam Chomsky’s work? What initial work brought you into contact with Chomsky?

Richard Falk: Actually, my first awareness of Noam Chomsky was in the late 1950s while I was teaching at Ohio State University. I had a smart linguist friend who told me about the revolutionary work of a young scholar at MIT who was completely transforming the field by the work he had done while still a graduate student on ‘structural linguistics’ and ‘generative grammar.’ As I remember our conversation nothing was mentioned about Chomsky’s politics.

Later on in the early 1960s I continued to hear of Chomsky as the great linguist, but also about Chomsky as the militant anti-Vietnam War activist. We met in the mid-1960s as a result of common interests. We were both deeply involved in opposing escalations of American involvement in Vietnam, and indeed to any involvement at all. At that point Chomsky was strongly supporting draft resistance in addition to speaking at anti-war events. I was mainly engaged during the 1960s in academic debates and teach-ins devoted to questions on the legality of the American role in Vietnam, and after 1965, often focused on the decision by the Lyndon Johnson presidency to extend the war to North Vietnam.

We interacted quite frequently in this decade, and stayed at each other’s homes in Lexington and Princeton when we spoke in the other’s venue. I remember Chomsky insisting in response to an invitation from the Princeton Philosophy Department that he would only give the series of lectures on linguistics that were requested if they would also arrange parallel formats for him to speak on his political concerns. He apparently frequently made such a condition, and because he was a star attraction, it was almost always accepted.

I found the Princeton lectures on theoretical tensions within the field of linguistics to be not only abstruse, but also quite memorable from a performance perspective. The first of Chomsky’s linguistic lectures was held in one of the largest auditoriums at Princeton. Before Noam was introduced the hall was filled to capacity in excited anticipation of being enlightened by whatever Chomsky’s had to say. Chomsky’s style and delivery were highly technical, presupposed a fairly sophisticated understanding of the complex issues at stake, and was way above the head of 90% of the audience, including myself.

By the end of the lecture there were less than 25 people left in the huge hall. What impressed me was Chomsky’s seemingly indifference to this reaction, which was underscored by his failure to alter his style in the next two lectures. It is hardly surprising that the second and third lecture were attended by only a small coterie of graduate students and faculty with strong linguistic backgrounds.

When he gave his talk on political issues, the style was quite different. His presentation was meant to reach people with little prior knowledge. His interpretations were supported by abundant evidence – fact-based, carefully and clearly reasoned, and were even spiced by humor of a wry and satiric nature. Chomsky was personally engaged, clearly wanting to persuade the audience to adopt his viewpoint. Again a large hall was overflowing, but this time no one left.

The response was enthusiastic, appreciative, and I came away with the sense those attending felt that just by being there they had partaken of an historic experience. It was also an audience that drew heavily from the community as well as the university, and had far fewer faculty members than did the linguistic talks. I was struck by Chomsky’s confident, calm manner, his wide knowledge, and his insistence on speaking truth to power even if his truths were not widely endorsed in mainstream settings.

My only reservation from the perspective of frequently being a member of Chomsky’s audience was his unwillingness to acknowledge even slight differences of opinion, much less admit error. I felt this to be a weakness. This left a few of us sometimes feeling that his presentation would have been more effective if it left more room for doubts and divergent opinions. It seemed more of a style than reflecting a fixed ideology. Off camera, Noam was always gentle and non-dogmatic, but while performing I found his demeanor to be leonine.

Daniel Falcone: Scholar Henry Giroux once told me that he thought Chomsky was “a national treasure.” How is Chomsky a national treasure in your view?

Richard Falk: I share this strong expression of appreciation for Chomsky’s many contributions to enlightened and critical thought. Such contributions are essential if the vitality of a democratic society is to be sustained through dark times, such as at present. To quibble a bit, I would prefer to identify Noam even more grandly as ‘a global treasure.’

Noam’s worldwide following has identified him as a global beacon of truth and conscience who can be trusted, whatever the issue, to express his views with honesty, through the medium of reasoned analysis, and on the basis of a dazzling familiarity with a wide range of evidence supporting his conclusions. He conveys a sense of having read and remembering everything ever written on the topic he happens to be addressing on any particular occasion.

There are many other highly intelligent and progressive persons in the world, but few if any, who have the professional record of world class scholarship and the astonishingly wide range of knowledge about subjects that embrace concerns that cover the waterfront. Chomsky is always worth listening to whatever the topic, whether it happens to be the philosophical foundations of knowledge and existence or the specifics of atrocities taking place throughout the world.

He is a treasure because of this rare mix of qualities: a trustworthy character, comprehensive knowledge, mastery over the logic of argument and reasoned analysis, a speaking style that is measured and never relies on shouting to make a point. Chomsky has a special form of gravitas that I have never before encountered, and helps account for the attitudes of reverence that many persons from all corners of the globe feel in his presence.

Daniel Falcone: What ideas and activities of Chomsky have influenced you the most over the years?

Richard Falk: I have been particularly influenced by Noam’s extraordinary perseverance, his spectacular display of intellectuality, his willingness to enter domains where angels fear to tread, and above all by his insistence on following the evidence wherever it might lead. Noam, in this sense, is one of the great moral voices of all time, guided by a sense of justice and decency, and possessed of a skilled deconstructive voice that dismisses much conventional wisdom with a flip of his rhetorical wrist.

On a more doctrinal level, I have found Chomsky’s thought particularly valuably deployed in his authoritative depiction of how ‘indoctrination in a free society’ works. This is not a simple matter.  I would express Chomsky’s line of critique by a more concrete phrase, ‘how the New York Times misleads, especially with regard to the Middle East.’ Chomsky can be devastating when showing how the liberal mainstream distorts reality by its selective engagement with the fact and norms at stake, never more so than in relation to Israel/Palestine over the decades or by the liberal acceptance of the structures of militarism and predatory capitalism without a whimper. Like the monkeys who see and hear no evil, so it is with most liberals.

I am aware that Chomsky’s views on Israel/Palestine have given rise to some fierce criticism, and not just from Zionists. Chomsky has been steadfastly supportive of a two-state solution that he has, although perhaps not so clearly recently, insisted as only viable solution that would allow the two peoples to live in a sustainable peace. In my understanding of Chomsky’s recent reflections on these issues, he seems to be saying that an Israeli version of a one-state solution is coming into being, and that a series of internal and international developments now make it impractical to achieve any kind of acceptable form of a Palestinian state in the foreseeable future.

Despite disagreements I never observed Noam or Edward expressing anything [but] sentiments of respect or admiration for the work and commitment of the other.

Chomsky has also been criticized for failing to support BDS or coercive nonviolence as a tactic of the global solidarity movement. I am not sure what the deep roots of this reluctance, although I do know that his family background was one of left Zionism, which he felt that Israel as a state and Zionism as a movement and project had seriously betrayed.

I also found Noam’s critique of what he called ‘military humanism’ as a pushback to those who favored the Kosovo intervention to be challenging and almost persuasive as a refutation of the case for humanitarian intervention in the pre-war context of 1999.

Chomsky argued that the moral rhetoric of those calling for intervention was chosen to hide the real reasons for recourse to a non-defensive war, which were strategic and amoral. These true motivations for the proposed war, according to Chomsky, had to do with extending the life of NATO in the post-Cold War world and making sure that the Russians were not given a pretext for establishing a presence in the Balkans. He rested his argument on the moral inconsistencies and hypocrisy of American foreign policy, pointing to the sustained indifference of the West toward the Kurdish plight in Turkey.

Noam opposed this mixing of humanitarianism with militarism while taking a lifelong interest in depicting severe abuses of human rights. There were many settings in which Noam stood up for the human rights of vulnerable and abused peoples, including individuals. Chomsky also made a series of fine scholarly contributions along these lines in collaboration with Edward S. Herman.

Daniel Falcone: How do the leading intellectual figures of the past one hundred years compare with Chomsky?’

Richard Falk: I have no real awareness of Chomsky’s own views beyond his sense that Bertrand Russell was an admirable figure, perhaps a role model, and at least warranted a large picture in Noam’s MIT office. I think Russell is an appropriate antecedent figure to capture the core reality of Chomsky, despite the obvious fact that these two extraordinary men were so different in class and ethnic backgrounds. Such differences were superficial compared to their similarities: exceptional scholarly achievement, belief in Enlightenment ideals, values, and practices, and moral engagement in ways that challenged both conventional wisdom and the consensus affirmed by the governing political class and the official policies in each of their respective countries.

For me the closest parallels to Chomsky are Jean-Paul Sartre and Edward Said. More than others, it was this threesome that made us understand the role and contributions to be known as ‘the public intellectual.’ Each took risks in their work and acted with courage and moral clarity within the political context within which they lived gave full attention to the historical moment. Each took sides that accorded with their view of moral engagement with the struggles of their time, and each stood unconditionally behind their beliefs even if it meant standing alone.

Sartre rejected the Nobel Prize and broke with Camus over the Algerian War. Said rejected the PLO’s willingness to trust Washington, resigned from the PNC, and refused from the outset to support the betrayal of Palestinian goals and rights as set forth in the 1993 Oslo Framework of Principles. Chomsky broke with the Zionist world, especially after the Israeli victory in the 1967 War, and abstractly supported the academic freedom of a notorious Holocaust denier in France, the British born historian Robert Faurisson. When questioned about this, Chomsky provocatively responded that Faurisson’s research was no worse than that of many of his MIT colleagues.

Each of these three confronted the world around them with undiminished passion, and never wasted their energy offering apologies or setting forth self-justifications. In a last interview Sartre was asked, what was the greatest regret in his life? I found Sartre’s response suggestive–he had not gone far enough in the articulation of his radical views, a response that Chomsky might also have made, and Said also. In effect, rather than backing down or feeling he might have been more moderate, he opts for the clarity of belief and action.

If I look around at the next generation, I take note of many passionate and strong voices, but none that achieves the scale, scope, gravitas, and impact of these three. More than ever we need such exceptional voices for guidance and for inspiration. We are living in a moment of unprecedented bioethical crisis that Chomsky has come to acknowledge and discuss in his recent interviews and writings. Even in these years approaching 90 Noam’s voice is loud and clear, and always worthy of heeding. He has impressively broadened his interests to engage the more general challenges facing humanity, and given less attention to the flawed nature of American foreign policy.

Daniel Falcone: How has the left changed over the course of Chomsky’s career in your view or have you noticed changes in his work over time?

Richard Falk: This is a difficult question for me as I am not sure that I am familiar enough with Chomsky’s engagement with the left at the various stages of his long life. He is certainly what one might call ‘a radical progressive,’ but he is also clearly uncomfortable with the organized left and never was an apologist for the Soviet Union. Although familiar with Marxist literature and socialist thought, his writing and commentary was not directed at theoretical issues that were so often debated in European leftist thinking. My impression is that Chomsky endorsed socialist values within a framework of philosophical anarchism— that is, characterized by deep suspicion directed toward all embodiments of statist authority.

Chomsky’s writing and preoccupations have consistently been responsive to historical circumstances. There is no political issue that is outside his domain, although to my knowledge he has never commented extensively on cultural issues in the manner with which Said wrote about opera or Sartre about literature. Two years ago Chomsky and I took part in a workshop on the dangers of nuclearism, along with Daniel Ellsberg, and I was struck by Noam’s unexpectedly hopeful contributions to the discussions. He argued that there were and are, many missed opportunities that might have addressed the dangers posed by nuclear weapons in a different manner than the paths chosen by policymakers and leaders. He wanted us to believe that the geopolitics of power is not the only game in town, and that civil society engagements on behalf of what we believe is worthwhile, necessary, and not foreclosed.

My sense of Chomsky’s leftism is that of someone who is incredibly attentive to the calls of conscience, and devotes extraordinary energy to the changing situational challenges, but thinks and acts by himself without taking part in any kind of collective process. At present, this tendency has led Chomsky both to decry Trump and Trumpism, and to worry about a fascist drift in world political behavior, but also to grasp the ecological and ethical menace of unregulated global capitalism. In my terminology, Chomsky is an exemplary ‘citizen pilgrim,’ responding as an individual to the injustices of today with an abiding hope for a better tomorrow.

I did feel at one stage that Chomsky was too ready to concede the future, at least in Vietnam, to those who dominated hard power capabilities. If my memory is correct, Noam was convinced that the U.S. would prevail in Vietnam because of the battlefield imbalances, and thus underestimated the depth of the Vietnamese national movement of resistance. He also downplayed the reversibility of the intervention, not fully appreciating that if the costs became too high for enough Americans the leaders in Washington would bring the war to an end even if it meant an embarrassing defeat. In a sense, such assessments arise from a certain kind of realism that underlies Chomsky’s analysis, reflecting his fidelity to the facts as he comprehends them and his readiness to disregard his most ardent preferences when his reading of the facts of a complex political situation points to an outcome that is contrary to his wishes.

At the same time, Chomsky is ready to stand in solidarity with any dedicated person willing to act unlawfully so as to reveal the lies and distortions relied upon by governments, including in liberal societies. He stood by Dan Ellsberg after he released the Pentagon Papers, refusing to testify before the Boston Grand Jury, thereby risking a prison sentence. In retrospect, Ellsberg committed the perfect ‘crime’ from a Chomskyan worldview, defying the state so as to expose realities cynically hidden from the citizenry, heightened by the context of an unlawful war.

I should add that Chomsky’s positive attitude toward my work was related to his respect for international law as legitimating dissent and nonviolent opposition to the militarist characteristics of American foreign policy. He favored a foreign policy that complied with international law and showed respect for the UN and its Charter.

Daniel Falcone: What is to account for Chomsky’s ability to reach such large amounts of people for so long? What do you find most interesting about him?

Richard Falk: You touch upon one of Chomsky’s most distinctive qualities, his influence and popularity throughout the world. I think that two features in his demeanor and approach help us understand this global reach.

First, Chomsky’s analysis is accessible to an audience, whether sophisticated or not. His grasp of the facts, and coherent interpretations of wrongdoings in high places, communicates an understanding of the world surrounding us.

Secondly, his style and life experience epitomizes authenticity. You may disagree with Chomsky, but it is impossible to doubt his sincerity and dedication to truth telling. Those who are dissatisfied with the status quo find in Chomsky a lucid accounting of what is wrong and why in a manner that generates trust and stimulates action.

My only reservation is a tendency by Chomsky sometimes to overlook ambiguity and uncertainty, and countervailing lines of thought. Perhaps, my discomfort reflects my own background, especially law school training that made me aware, perhaps too aware, that there are at least two sides to any contested position.

Without the ambiguity of the law, lawyers would have no role and no livelihood. For me the challenge has always been to acknowledge this epistemological fuzziness while making ethically driven choices that can produce seemingly one-sided political commitments. More concretely, how can I acknowledge the existence of an Israeli narrative yet firmly side with the Palestinian struggle for their basic rights. My own answer to this seeming dilemma is to make such choices ‘by taking suffering seriously,’ which almost always means identifying with the vulnerable and exploited.

Maybe I end up close to the moral clarity associated with Chomsky, Sartre, and Said, but do so more circuitously because of my continuing subservience to the way lawyers are taught to think.

Daniel Falcone: Are there positions and perspectives that you are surprised that Chomsky holds?  Do you have many Chomsky books in your study and which of those has influenced you’re foreign policy perspectives in particular?

Richard Falk: I have a shelf full of Chomsky books, and try to keep up with his synoptic capacity to encompass all that is worth thinking about. The range and persistence of his productivity is nothing short of astounding. Few prophets in all of history have been as endowed with such mental resilience and physical longevity!

As far as direct influence is concerned I would mention two areas. I learned from Chomsky’s acute critique of the practices of liberalism, and the essential importance of grasping the sources of human suffering that cannot be understood without engaging in structural analysis. The fatal intellectual flaw of liberalism is to opt for incremental policy changes while taking the underlying hegemonic structures of power and economic forces for granted.

Chomsky has helped me understand why I am not a liberal. In this sense, it helps explain why I was outraged by the way the Democratic Party subverted the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders, while promoting that of Hillary Clinton. Sanders was [seen as] unacceptable [to the DNC], and [incidentally] not consistently radical in his outlook, and he seemed to threaten the verities of Goldman Sachs and the ethos of neoliberalism.

And secondly, I learned from Chomsky the importance of not compromising when it came to matters of principle even if it requires swimming against the tide. I found Chomsky’s strong early criticisms of how the Zionist project was being enacted in Israel, and the American complicity, not only persuasive, but as a challenge to me to stop hiding in the shadows. I think Chomsky’s moral posture has been as influential as his substantive views. Standing up for truth, rejecting the liberal consensus, and always being in solidarity with those struggling against injustice have been the insignia of Noam Chomsky’s most illustrious career and life.

And it would be wrong not to mention Chomsky’s sense of the responsibility of an intellectual to engage in dialogue. Over the years I have encountered many ‘ordinary’ persons who have written to Noam after hearing him speak or reading his books, and have been amazed by receiving detailed and respectful responses, and a readiness to continue the correspondence. It takes energy and time to be so available, but it also expresses a commitment to the seriousness of ideas and likeminded communication, and the value of what amounts to informal education. Again, I have tried to follow this path set by Noam, trailing behind, but grateful for the grandeur of his example.

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years.

Daniel Falcone is an activist, educator and journalist in New York City. Follow his work at: @DanielFalcone7


Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Daniel Falcone is a PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY and is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He also teaches humanities at the school of the UN and resides in Queens.