Why Britain Lacks a Noam Chomsky

By Kealey, Terence | The Independent (London, England), September 13, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Why Britain Lacks a Noam Chomsky

Kealey, Terence, The Independent (London, England)


The Research Assessment Exercise is killing British universities as centres of public thought. Once, British universities fostered some of the most important public intellectuals in the world, but today British academics are rarely known outside their disciplines.

The most influential living intellectual in the world is Noam Chomsky; in 2005, the readers of the British magazine Prospect voted him precisely that. Chomsky is an American: how did he achieve his eminence?

Chomsky was originally a researcher, and his theory of "universal grammar", which argues that humans are born with innate language skills, has helped remould linguistics, psychology and its associated branches of philosophy. According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index, Chomsky was cited more often than any living scholar between 1980 and 1992.

He made the leap from brilliant researcher to public intellectual exactly 40 years ago, in 1967, when he published his essay "The Responsibility of Intellectuals" in the New York Review of Books. That responsibility, Chomsky wrote, is to "expose the lies of government". Chomsky places that responsibility on his fellow academics because we are "a privileged minority... [with] the leisure, the facilities, and the training, to seek the truth hidden behind a veil of distortion and class misrepresentation, ideology and class interest".

Over the past 40 years, Chomsky has campaigned against American foreign policy, but it has been primarily as an academic that he has made his impact, showing by careful scholarship that American foreign policy is institutionally dishonest. Because of ideology and class interest, Washington lied when it overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, it lied over the Bay of Pigs, it lied over Guatemala, it lied over Chile, it lied over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and it is still lying over Iraq.

When Chomsky first exposed the institutional lying of Foggy Bottom, people were disbelieving, but today most people know that everything George Bush says is untrue, including "and" and "but". That raising of collective consciousness owes more to Chomsky than to any other person.

But it also owes much to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where Chomsky has worked since 1955. MIT's support for Chomsky has been solid: even when it was receiving 80 per cent of its research income from the Department of Defense, Chomsky could launch his jeremiads without internal criticism.

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