The role of the public intellectual in society is a discussion one would hardly hear these days. For those unfamiliar with the term, Alice Gregory of the New York Times provides the following definition:
“A public intellectual is someone whose opinions help to set the moral and aesthetic standards of her time; she draws fault lines, explains the stakes of present-day conflicts, interrogates collective intuitions. But more specifically and more strangely – a public intellectual is someone who articulates alliances between seemingly disparate cultural and political opinions.”
Some have lamented the decline of this supposed class of individuals, which includes among its ranks America’s founding fathers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Baldwin, and the like. Others go as far as to decry the age of anti-intellectualism the nation is moving into, citing the lack of such great minds today as evidence. At its core, any contemporary debate surrounding public intellectuals – how to become one, what exactly they influence, and how they reflect the intellectual health of a society – can be said to boil down to a growing concern for the sociopolitical climate America is cultivating. As Mitchell explains succinctly in her article on the state of America’s public intellectuals, “if we look back at our history, public intellectuals always emerged when our country was sharply divided.” The very existence of this title implies a certain reliance on leaders who are so ‘elected’, if you will, by a public who values their independent thought. Controversies emerge over the vocalization of these thoughts, but such discourse should be encouraged, especially, many have argued, in the wake of the 2016 election that saw the consequences of “echo chambers” and “confirmation bias”. If dialogue, too, is becoming increasingly specialized, then the appeal of the public intellectual is clear – it is time that someone addresses significant matters in a way that synthesizes. But the question remains – does America really want or need to hear them?
As one of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the century, Noam Chomsky provides an interesting case study for the evolution of public intellectualism in the American eye. Hailed by the New Yorker as “one of the finest minds of the 20th century” and the New York Times as “arguably one of the most important intellectuals alive,” his participation in the political sphere became active during the time of the Vietnam War, which he was vehemently opposed to. Since then, his work has been most recently referenced in the “Read Chomsky” graffiti movement during the Iraq War, but has otherwise drifted largely out-of-sight of the upcoming generation who struggle to name figures like Elon Musk and Tavi Gevinson as possible public intellectuals today.
Chomsky, who is currently 89 years old and recently retired from his role as Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, still writes, teaches, as well as gives speeches and interviews. Though he rose to prominence in the field of linguistics for his theories of universal grammar and the Chomsky hierarchy, his political opinions are more commonly sought after, with his latest work rooted in understanding politics. He is a self-proclaimed anarchist and, I would argue, libertarian socialist. In a review of his book Hegemony or Survival, The Guardian describes his writing as “not designed for the intellectually faint-hearted.” In particular, Chomsky himself tends to be “caricatured as supplying more reality, and more guilt, than many of us care to handle.” His opinions have been criticized for being too “anti-American,” which is also precisely the reason that I find his role to be an interesting one, for what does it mean to be American? Perhaps he absorbs definitions of this identity too straightforwardly into his anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist worldview, as he says himself about the veneer of American ‘innocence’:
“…it is an article of faith that American motives are pure, and not subject to analysis. Although it is nothing new in American intellectual history – or, for that matter, in the general history of imperialist apologia – this innocence becomes increasingly distasteful as the power it serves grows more dominant in world affairs, and more capable, therefore, of the unconstrained viciousness that the mass media present to us each day. We are hardly the first power in history to combine material interests, great technological capacity, and an utter disregard for the suffering and misery of the lower orders. The long tradition of naivete and self-righteousness that disfigures our intellectual history, however, must serve as a warning to the third world, if such a warning is needed, as to how our protestations of sincerity and benign intent are to be interpreted.”
Surely, his condemnation of U.S. foreign policy as advancing its global hegemony is difficult for most Americans to swallow, even those on the left. However, his worldview presents an interesting challenge in defining the American identity if it was not to include a capitalist way of life nor an imperialist global agenda, and if the fundamental way in which democracy is now implemented is forced to change. Furthermore, the question of the public intellectual here becomes a question of the American people – why should one want to listen to Chomsky’s opinion in the first place, and can he even help us decide where we’re headed?
In particular, an emotional Salon article bashes Chomsky for being “the leader of a secular religious cult – as the ayatollah of anti-American hate.” Certainly, some of his stronger-willed statements can come across as proclamations, such as the phrase “brainwashing under freedom” that he uses in reference to the press under an inherently undemocratic political system. However, the roots of anarchic thinking are not as far removed from American history as Chomsky’s critics might imagine.
Borne out of liberalist thought, the foundations of anarchism are derived from Enlightenment ideals. The oft-quoted John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty applies here:
“The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges: the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.”
This humanistic aspiration is echoed in the words of Rudolf Rocker, a 20th-century anarchist activist, who called for “the free unhindered unfolding of all the individual and social forces in life.” In this manner, anarchism can be considered a branch of political thought that belongs to the broader category of libertarian socialism. Its premise is simple: “…identify structures of hierarchy, authority and domination that constrain human development, and then subject them to a very reasonable challenge: Justify yourself. If these structures can’t meet that challenge, they should be dismantled – and, anarchists, believe, “refashioned from below.”” One would be hard-pressed to find any believer in democracy who should want to argue against such a truism. Problems tend to arise during discussions of execution. Where the neoliberalist has fostered a deep-seated suspicion in Americans against their own government, the anarchist opposes business-run government to protect society from “concentrated private capital.”
Looking at the history of political activism in America, anarchism encompasses a large part of the civil rights, feminist, and human rights movements. Unsurprisingly, there is much discord amongst those who try to define this approach as a specific ideology – hence, the divide between American and European libertarianism, the confusion about how libertarianism relates to conservatism, and so on. But interestingly, many ‘innately American qualities’ can be traced to libertarian ideas, namely “skepticism about power and about government, individualism, the idea that we’re all equal under the law, free enterprise, (and) getting ahead in the world through your own hard work.” I want to emphasize that skepticism does not equate to disdain of any kind, but is merely a way of thinking that can help to propel change.
Chomsky’s criticisms of American government, in essence, point out a contradiction that has existed since the founding of the nation. There currently exists a “democratic deficit” fueled by a government that produces what he considers to be “business-run state policies”, but the deficit itself speaks to a fundamental difference in thought – does democracy exist through the state or through capitalism? In true anarchist fashion, Chomsky observes that not only can democracy not exist with capitalism, but that because the United States now functions as a plutocracy, wherein influence increases with wealth, the government has become essentially undemocratic, leaving the majority of its people disenfranchised. Speaking on a basic level of consumer choice, Chomsky elaborates that “if I want to get home from work, the market offers me a choice between a Ford and a Toyota, but not between a car and a subway. That is a social decision, and in a democratic society, would be the decision of an organized public.” Strikingly, he even goes as far as to speak of a “class-conscious, dedicated business class” that has facilitated the demonization of government as part of business propaganda –
“For example, in a democracy the day when you pay your taxes…would be a day of celebration, because you’re getting together to provide resources for the programs you decided on. In the United States, it’s a day of mourning because this alien force – the government – is coming to rob you of your hard-earned money.”
This could be considered radical critique, or at least outside of the political structure of strictly Democratic or Republican thinking (whatever this is to mean now). A different question remains for another time – are individualism and democracy compatible? But to return to our original question: what, then, is the function of this critique? Chomsky himself has written rather extensively on the responsibility of public intellectuals. According to him, public intellectuals play an important role in the “creation and analysis of ideology,” and whose responsibility is therefore to “speak the truth and to expose lies.”
It is crucial, at this point, to distinguish between the responsibilities of the public intellectual and that of the activist. If the public’s concern has now turned increasingly towards examining the intellectual health of our society, then the answer must also include civic action, growing political awareness and a willingness to pursue solutions outside of an established system. On his own, Chomsky might have shunted taxes, participated in demonstrations, and tried to enact influence in Washington. However, arguably, his best effort has been in educating others – not by swaying them to his advantage but by instilling a greater capacity for critical thought. Stephen Mack states it most clearly in his article on the supposed decline of public intellectuals: holding firmly onto the idea of a class of public intellectuals only reinforces the myth that there exists such an aristocracy of experts. I argue that this class is itself inherently undemocratic. The public intellectual is not a title to be bestowed and is, perhaps, not even a role that generates much interest today. By no means is this a symptom of anti-intellectualism.
On the contrary, if the public intellectual is responsible for practicing criticism to better benefit society, then it also goes to say that such is “the obligation of every citizen in a democracy.” Above all, even in the issue of a “democratic deficit,” the American sense of self appears to be defined, first and foremost, by a move towards democracy. How that move should look like differs substantially between parties, leaders, thinkers, and citizens. It would be too neat to wrap up a discussion on the purpose of opinion by celebrating the very fact that opinions exist in the first place, but in the case of America and especially of America today, it does at least make sense that the influence of opinion is being spread out amongst the people.