From Q and A
(1:48:35) Man: Professor Chomsky, I just want to take you back to the beginning of your talk about your 1967 book about responsibility of intellectuals. I just want to ask you that other people have followed up talk about this topic. Edward Said talked about responsibility of intellectuals on his BBC (…). He pointed out speaking truth to power. I remember reading subsequently, you kind of give qualification that it is a waste of time: speaking truth to power. I just want you to comment on your difference between Said on this topic.
In addition to that, I’d like---embedded in your assumption of responsibility of intellectual, you said that in a democratic society, there is much less constraint for the intellectual class to expose lies that government do in the name of the nation, the population and so on. Is this unique to the United States? Taking you back to your George Orwell’s problem you were formulating around the 70s, was Orwell looking at this intellectual class in the same way? Or even back to Jonathan Swift, looking at the relationship between England and Ireland and all the writers who were writing about the English role in Ireland, is this some revolution as we have been moving? I’m combinating the thing in the Iraq war, where this fact is constrained, is changing in our time? The intellectual can actually be more responsible and answer your question?
NC: Well, Edward Said is an old and close friend of mine. I actually doubt that we disagree about this. The question is what you mean by the phrase "speaking truth to power." I mean if you take it literally, it doesn’t make any sense. I mean what’s the point of speaking truth to McGeorge Bundy or Henry Kissinger? I mean they all know the truth. They don’t want to hear from us. We have nothing to tell them.
So, speaking truth to power is a total waste of time. What isn’t a waste of time is trying to tell truth about power. That makes sense.
But then, what you do is engaging with the general population and trying to become involved...and you don’t speak truth to them either, after all. Who the hell am I? Why should I tell the truth to the population? What you try to do is what a good teacher does. You try to encourage people to figure out themselves and then do something about it.
So, what we should be doing is engaging with other people to try to get, use whatever, you know, good fortune you have, maybe privilege, resources, training, whatever they may be, to help them try to figure out truth by themselves. That makes sense and get them to overthrow the power. Not to talk truth to… (applause)
The more freedom and privilege you have, the more opportunity you have. OK, that’s just elementary. The more opportunity you have, the more responsibility you have. OK. And responsibility to do something, make use of the privilege and freedom you enjoy. We do enjoy an enormous amount of freedom and privilege. It was never given to us by the powerful. It was fought for by the powerless. And they won it. And they achieved it. You got to defend it. You got to use that legacy to go on.
But the fact of the matter is that people like us are uniquely free from oppression. I mean a lot of people complain about it but a kind of repression that exists in places like this, the United States, is miniscule as compared to what happens elsewhere in the world.
I mean, take say US colonies. Here’s something interesting about ourselves.
We just passed the 25th anniversary of the assassination of the Archbishop of El Salvador (Oscar Arnulfo Romero), who was known as “the voice for the voiceless.” He was trying to speak for the poor. He was killed by forces that we armed and trained. That set off the beginning of the decade of monstrous atrocities in El Salvador, run by the guys now in office, which ended symbolically in 1989 by the murder of six leading intellectuals, Jesuit intellectuals, priests.
They had their heads blown off by elite military forces armed and trained and directed by the United States, who had already compiled record of killing tens and thousands of usual victims: peasants, working people and so on.
How much commemoration was there in Cambridge of the 25th anniversary of the assassination of the Archbishop and the 15th anniversary of the murder of the six leading Latin American intellectuals? In fact, who in Cambridge can even tell their names, let alone have read anything they wrote?
(They were Ignacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, Arnando Lopez, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Juan Ramon Moreno and Julia Elba Ramos.)
Now, do a small thought experiment. Imagine something like this happened in Czechoslovakia.
So, in 1980, the Archbishop was assassinated by Russian-backed forces and in 1989 Vaclav Havel and a half dozen of his associates had their heads blown off by elite Czech forces armed and trained by the Russians. Would we know about it? You bet. Would there be commemoration? I mean you’d be screaming to the heavens. In fact, we could have a nuclear war because we were so outraged by what they did.
But when we do it, it’s gone.
To my knowledge, there was no commemoration on any of this in Cambridge. There was in Boston but not in Cambridge. There was in a church downtown Boston. But you know, that's part of the difference of the elites who are protected from knowledge and understanding that is a large part of what education is about and people who don’t have those advantages of being defended from the truth and being indoctrinated.
OK, that tells you something about the intellectuals. The Jesuit intellectuals were murdered in El Salvador at our hands and the Archbishop, the same. They were not speaking truth to power. They were trying to help people understand what was happening to them and do something about it. So, they got their heads were blown off.
That’s not going to happen to us. The same is true in quite a few other countries in the world where intellectuals do not simply serve power and support violence and terror but actually protest against it. Sometimes they, very bravely, face real serious oppression, assassination, for example, or torture and prisons. I mean in fact, if we don’t do it, it’s just criminal.
To answer your other question, there’s nothing new about that. I mean the history of intellectuals is written by intellectuals almost by definition. So, therefore it sounds pretty.
You know, like if you had a history of taxi drivers written by taxi drivers, that would sound pretty too. But you have to ask yourself, can we believe the history of themselves written by intellectuals?
Well, in order to answer that question, you have to look at the facts. Turns out facts are quite different. Overwhelmingly, intellectuals have been servants of power. There is always some kind of fringe of dissidents. That goes back as far as you want. Furthermore, we all know it. We may not notice it, but we all know it.