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The Responsibility of Intellectuals”: An Exchange

The following private correspondence took place after the publication of Noam Chomsky’s essay in the February 23 issue of The New York Review:

Dear Professor Chomsky,

I write to express my admiration for your lucid and compelling essay in the New York Review of Books. This piece will mean a great deal to all who share your worry and to many who are now beginning to learn how vital that worry is to our survival as a humane community.

But I write also to ask what your next paragraph would be? The mendacities which surround us need exposure. But what then? You rightly say that we are all responsible; you rightly hint that our future status may be no better than that of the acquiescent intellectual under Nazism. But what action do you urge or even suggest? Will Noam Chomsky announce that he will stop teaching at MIT or anywhere in this country so long as torture and napalm go on? Will Noam Chomsky emigrate for a time, say to Churchill College, Cambridge, where we would, I daresay, be proud and fortunate to receive him? Will he help his students escape to Canada or Mexico (as Jeanson helped his students leave France during the Algerian crisis)? Will he even resign from a university very largely implicated in the kind of “strategic studies” he so rightly scorns? The intellectual is responsible. What then shall he do?

I do not ask in order to make a debater’s point. But in deep personal perplexity. Perhaps we are in a very complex trap. The present Administration and Congress do appear to represent the duly expressed views of a majority of our fellow-citizens. We are committed to the full rights and power of that expression. Not one Congressman has been elected on a true anti-war platform. We feel with anguish that we know better, that an elite of conscience and insight must be heard. But how, and in what politically active form? If we cannot act politically, or only very slightly, what then can we do personally, now, in our professional and private lives? How can we help subvert the ugly, inhumane coexistence of a brilliant intellectual and artistic culture with a simultaneous Vietnam policy which many of us find self-defeating and abhorrent?

Does your essay not stop almost at the point where it ought to begin?

George Steiner

Schweitzer Program in the Humanities

New York University

Noam Chomsky replies:

Dear Mr. Steiner,

Thanks very much for your letter. I not only appreciate what you said, but also agree without essential reservations with the criticism that you voice. I do feel that the crucial question, unanswered in the article, is what the next paragraph should say. I’ve thought a good deal about this, without having reached any satisfying conclusions. I’ve tried various things—harassing congressmen, “lobbying” in Washington, lecturing at town forums, working with student groups in preparation of public protests, demonstrations, teach-ins, etc., in all of the ways that many others have adopted as well. The only respect in which I have personally gone any further is in refusal to pay half of my income tax last year, and again, this year. My own feeling is that one should refuse to participate in any activity that implements American aggression—thus tax refusal, draft refusal, avoidance of work that can be used by the agencies of militarism and repression, all seem to me essential. I can’t suggest a general formula. Detailed decisions have to be matters of personal judgment and conscience. I feel uncomfortable about suggesting draft refusal publicly, since it is a rather cheap proposal from someone of my age. But I think that tax refusal is an important gesture, both because it symbolizes a refusal to make a voluntary contribution to the war machine and also because it indicates a willingness, which should, I think, be indicated, to take illegal measures to oppose an indecent government. I have given a good bit of thought to the specific suggestions that you put forth as well, leaving the country or resigning from MIT, which is, more than any other university, associated with activities of the department of “defense.” One of my colleagues, Patrick Wall, is leaving MIT and the country, in large part for just the reasons you give, and I think that as an Englishman he is entirely justified in doing so.

Perhaps this is a rationalization, but my own conclusion is that it is, for the present, not improper for an anti-war American intellectual to stay here and oppose the government, in as outspoken a way as he can, inside the country, and within the universities that have accepted a large measure of complicity in war and repression. Thus I spend a good deal of my time on a course which, among other things, deals directly with material similar to that in the NYR article, and specifically, with the responsibilities of scientists and intelligentsia in a situation like that of today. It seems to me particularly crucial to raise these questions with the MIT student body, because of their potential influence and role in decision making. I have no particular illusions about any success that may be achieved along these lines, but as far as I can see, the actions that are most meaningful are educational activities of this sort and personal refusal to participate in any way in implementing the warlike activities of the government. I think that what little impact someone like myself can possibly have would be lost by leaving the country. As to MIT, I think that its involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible. One should, I feel, resist this subversion of the university in every possible way. The many students and faculty members who are devoting themselves to this effort are fulfilling an important responsibility, whatever the hope of success may be.

I am well aware that the limits of possible protest have not been reached. After all, thirty years ago many men found it quite possible to join international brigades to fight against the army of their own country. One can think of many further actions now that might be undertaken—say, going to North Vietnam as a hostage against further bombing. I don’t think that this is at all silly. Perhaps it may be lack of courage and conviction that prevents me and others from doing things of this sort. I hope it is clear that I am by no means taking any sort of self-righteous attitude to all of this. I meant it quite sincerely in the article, when I referred to the page of history on which we find our proper place, those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as this catastrophe developed and who continue, today, to look away and to restrict our protest.

Noam Chomsky

Cambridge, Massachusetts

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