The Responsibility of the Intellectuals-Is It Still a Thing?

Photograph Source: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra from Paris, France – Le penseur de la Porte de l’Enfer (musée Rodin) – CC BY 2.0

Fifty-five years ago, Noam Chomsky, then a young professor at MIT, wrote an essay that was eventually published in the New York Review of Books. Titled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” Chomsky wrote his missive in reaction to the unfolding exercise in mass murder in the nation of Vietnam. His anger at what the US military and political establishment were engaged in in the villages and cities of Vietnam and the quiet and apathetic manner with which his fellow academics accepted it convinced him to write the piece. In it, he addressed the growing awareness by many in the United States that Washington’s intentions in Vietnam were not honorable or even what Washington claimed they were. Instead, the war on the Vietnamese people was both immoral and against the very principles of democracy US politicians, journalists, generals and too many academics and other Americans use to defend often horrific deeds.

I will quote directly from Chomsky’s article: “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.” He went on to note that while this should be obvious, the truth was that in US academia, it was not. The unfortunate truth is that Chomsky’s observation rings even truer today. It is neither obvious or expected in the twenty-first century that a faculty member in any discipline at any college or university in the United States will speak the truth or expose the lies with which our political, military and economic institutions conduct their business. Indeed, as we watch the right-wing elites in this country attack education and intensify their various campaigns to stifle freedoms on campuses and in the public sphere, the sounds of protest from individual academics or any organized group of academics are so faint as to be nonexistent in the greater world.

I have worked in academic and public libraries since I returned to college in 1987 at the age of 32 and needed part-time work. I mention this because it helps to explain my familiarity with US academia since then. In 1987 Ronald Reagan was the president and was carrying on an illegal war against the people of Nicaragua while supporting other wars on the people in Nicaragua’s neighbors El Salvador and Honduras. They were brutal and bloody wars. The movement against this manifestation of US imperial policy included hundreds of university and college faculty, not to mention thousands of students and citizens. Even the 1991 invasion of Iraq by US forces under the direction of George HW Bush met with determined and broad protest that included tens of thousands of US residents from academia and elsewhere.

In September 2001, the events now known as 9-11 occurred. Within weeks, if not days, an effort was underway in Congress to use those events as an excuse to stifle dissent and intimidate those who resisted that effort and the ongoing inhumane policies of Washington and its supporting acts on Wall Street. The primary element in this effort was known as the PATRIOT Act. After George HW Bush’s son decided to attack Afghanistan in a contrived fit of rage and macho bluster, roundups of Muslims and others from the countries of the Middle East and Central Asia were underway. Faculty and students were present at the protests and other actions opposing the war and the roundups. I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t clearly state that it was students—undergraduates and high schoolers—that led the way in those actions. This would be the case again in 2002 and 2003 as Washington prepared to attack Iraq. That truth would exist well into the US occupation of Iraq and the subsequent armed conflict that defined the period.

Too many universities, meanwhile, were either cooperating with the newly created authoritarian entity called the Department of Homeland Security in the roundups or discussing doing so. The timidity of the men and women running these powerful institutions was at the least embarrassing and, in actuality, repulsive. It became quite clear to me that their allegiance to an imperial state which depended on its vampirish military and police forces to instill fear and rain death in order to maintain hegemony outweighed any commitment these individuals running academia had to their students, much less humanity. The silence of most of the nation’s faculty indicated their concerns about offending those powers outweighed their concern for their students and humanity, as well.

In the two decades since that autumn, we have seen a few more wars, the never ending abuse of immigrants—including their detention in concentration camps and the separation of children from their parents, two economic depressions in which the response of the elites in both mainstream political parties has been to bail out the financial industry and the corporations while intensifying evictions, raising prices, exacerbating economic inequality and giving billionaires inconceivable tax cuts. In addition, the rise of a neofascist movement encouraged by well-heeled ultra-right wing foundations and individuals helped put an authoritarian ruler in the White House. This latter event saw the ongoing privatization and destruction of social services, education and health care intensify exponentially. As if to magnify the ongoing destruction of the post-World War Two society in the pursuit of greater and greater profit, an ongoing pandemic continues to disrupt and even ravage lives across the nation and the world. Underlying and on top of it all is the rapidly declining biosphere we exist in. Wars of empire are always on the horizon.

It is true that the nature of the university in the United States has changed. Tenured faculty are a shrinking species in faculty dining rooms and classrooms around the country. Undergraduate populations are shrinking and the cost of any kind of secondary education (other than community colleges) is both ridiculous and even larcenous. This truth is related, directly and indirectly, to the changes in government funding to those institutions, especially the land-grant schools. In order to make up the loss of funding, student fees have gone through the roof and adjunct professors are hired en masse. In addition, research and even teaching positions are funded more and more frequently by private corporations and specific government entities. Like always, many of the latter are associated with the Pentagon and other parts of the war-making segment of the US government.

Nonetheless, the situation described in the previous paragraph is no excuse for the silence of the intellectuals. Unless, that is, they have all been bought by the very same people and institutions (profit-seeking and otherwise) that own most of our politicians, media representatives, and church leaders. It is not enough to sit and wait quietly until this goes away; it won’t go away. Nor is it enough to vote or even to campaign for progressive candidates. It is not enough to attend conferences and write papers discussing the problem. One should not be bound by their financial uncertainty or the fear of repercussions—financial or otherwise. Unless those with the access to the data, the freedom to address the issues, and the ability to do so eloquently step out of their disintegrating ivory towers and do so, today’s students will have no future, much less a reason to pretend that there could be one other than the dystopia they understand is approaching. God help their children and grandchildren.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: