Recently, Naom Chomsky, MIT Professor of Linguistics and arguably America’s foremost public intellectual, gave an interview to Al Jazeera on the social (ir)responsibility of American academics and intellectuals. Chomsky, 84, has been raising hell for over four decades, getting into the faces of the powerful and mighty and whipping them with the truth. He recently excoriated President Obama as lacking a “moral center” for using drone warfare to “run a global assassination campaign”. Chomsky has been called a “left winger”, a “radical activist” and even a “communist”, and has been on the receiving end of a few distasteful epithets. But the firebrand octogenarian is undeterred and as strong, as plain-spoken and outspoken as ever. He remains a relentless critic of capitalism, neoliberalism, globalization, warfare, corruption, repression, abuse and misuse of power and human rights violations in America and abroad. Along the way, he has continued his scholarly pursuits in linguistics.
In his Al Jazeera interview, “Noam Chomsky: The Responsibility of Privilege”, Chomsky chafed at the social irresponsibility of American intellectuals and denounced the greedy and rapacious elites for using their power to disempower ordinary people, confuse and render them intellectually inert, servile and defenseless.
Al Jazeera: Is it the responsibility of academics and other intellectuals to be engaged politically?
Chomsky: Or every other human being. Responsibility is basically measured by opportunity. If you are a poor person living in the slums and have to work 60 hours a week to put bread on the table, your degree of responsibility is less than if you have a degree of privilege.
Al Jazeera: If you have privilege, are you more obligated to give back?
Chomsky: Yes. The more privilege you have, the more opportunity you have. The more opportunity you have, the more responsibility you have. It is elementary.
Al Jazeera: So why don’t we see that in the U.S.? There has been so much talk about people getting richer, many, many more people are getting poorer, and yet the rich are seemingly resistant to giving more of their time, more of their wealth and talent?
Chomsky: For the most part, that’s why they are rich. If you dedicate your life to enriching yourself and those are your values and you don’t care what happens to anyone else, then you won’t care what happens to anyone else. It is self-selecting. It is also institutional. In its extreme pathological form, it’s Ayn Rand’s ideology: “I don’t care about anybody else. I am just interested in benefitting myself and that is just and noble.”
George Ayittey, the noted Ghanaian economist and one of Africa’s foremost public intellectuals, has long been chagrined by the social irresponsibility of Africa’s best and brightest. He argued that Africa’s intellectual class is in bed with those who have built “vampire states” to suck billions of dollars out of the pockets of their impoverished people to line their own pockets. In 1996, he told African intellectuals exactly what he thought of them: “Hordes of politicians, lecturers, professionals, lawyers, and doctors sell themselves off into prostitution and voluntary bondage to serve the dictates of military vagabonds with half their intelligence. And time and time again, after being raped, abused, and defiled, they are tossed out like rubbish — or worse. Yet more intellectual prostitutes stampede to take their places…” Ouch! Ouch!
So why don’t we see more Ethiopian intellectuals engaged in politics? Are they merely following in the footsteps of their American counterparts? Could they be followers of Ayn Rand’s ideology: “I don’t care about anybody else. I am just interested in benefitting myself and that is just and noble.” Could Ayittey’s mordant criticism apply to Ethiopian intellectuals?
In a June 2010 commentary, I asked: “Where have the Ethiopian intellectuals gone?” I had no answer at the time, nor do I have one now; but I was, and still am, bewildered and puzzled by their conspicuous absence from the public square and the cyber square. Their absence reminded me of “the Greek philosopher Diogenes who used to walk the streets of ancient Athens carrying a lamp in broad daylight. When amused bystanders asked him about his apparently strange behavior, he would tell them that he was looking for an honest man. Like Diogenes, one may be tempted to walk the hallowed grounds of Western academia, search the cloistered spaces of the arts and scientific professions worldwide and even traverse the untamed frontiers of cyberspace with torchlight in hand looking for Ethiopian intellectuals.” They are nowhere to be found. They seem to be shrouded in a cloak of invisibility.
Truth be told, I was once a member of that invisible empire of Ethiopian intelligentsia– disengaged, silent and deaf-mute. I was forced to uncloak myself when Meles Zenawi’s troops slaughtered 196 unarmed demonstrators, and shot and wounded nearly 800 more in the streets after the 2005 election in Ethiopia. I suppose there comes a time in a man’s or a woman’s life when s/he has to step out of the shadows of sheltered anonymity and silence, remove the veil of smug indifference and proclaim outrage at tyranny and crimes against humanity.
But there are tens of thousands of Ethiopian intellectuals who have chosen, made a conscious decision, to take a vow of silence and inhabit the subterranean recesses of anonymity. When they see elections stolen in broad daylight, they become afflicted by temporary blindness. When they hear innocent people being arrested and convicted in kangaroo courts, they become stone deaf. When they witness religious liberties trashed and the people crying out for freedom, they don’t try to stand with them or by them; they assuage their own consciences through a ritual of private grumbling, moaning and groaning. Above all, they have made a virtue of silence. They live a life of silent anonymity.
It is rather difficult to understand. Could it be that they are silent because they believe silence is golden? That is to say, if you want to be given the gold, stay silent? Do they not know “oppression can only survive through silence”? Could they be thinking that their silence is a manifestation of their contempt against those they consider ignorant and barbaric? Is it not true that “the cruelest lies are often told in silence” and the cruelest acts overlooked in silence? Is their silence a practical expression of Ayn Rand’s ideology: “I don’t care about anybody else. I am just interested in benefitting myself and that is just and noble.”
But silence is not golden; silence is a silent killer. Pastor Martin Niemöller expressed his silent outrage over the silence of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power:
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. admonished, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
The Social Responsibility of Ethiopian Intellectuals?
It is said that the voice of the people is the voice of God (vox populi, vox dei). But silence is no way to communicate with oppressed people. The intellectual is to privileged to think, to speak, to imagine, to create, to understand and to envision. But silence is never the privilege of the intellectual. Silence is one of the few privileges of the oppressed, the persecuted and the victimized. Silence is the ultimate survival technique of the weak, the powerless and defenseless.
The intellectual has the moral responsibility to speak up for the silenced. S/he does not have the privilege to stand by idly and shake her head in dismay or mumble complaints under one’s breath. Those who have been privileged to study, to think, to write, to innovate and to create have the duty to give back to the people, particularly those people who have been dispossessed not only of material things but also their human dignity.
The silent Ethiopian intellectuals are missing the point. It is a privilege, not a burden, to be a voice for the downtrodden. It is a distinct honor to be the voice of the voiceless. It is a priceless gift to speak truth to power on behalf of the powerless.
The silent intellectual — without a sense of moral commitment or obligation to something other than the pursuit of happiness through greed or without some sacrifice of personal interest — is merely a well programmed robot of higher education. Nietzsche once remarked that all higher education is “to turn men into machines”; they did not have robots in his day.
I believe the intellectual has the responsibility not only to make a moral commitment but also to act on them. In other words, when one commits oneself to a cause, one must accept the fact that the pursuit and fulfillment of that cause will involve a measure of sacrifice of one’s self-interest. Many Ethiopian intellectuals have professed moral commitment to human rights but they are not willing to speak, write or do anything meaningful about exposing human rights abuses or defending against abuses of power. Some are timid, others are downright fearful. So they speak and sing in the language of silence.
In 1967, Chomsky wrote, “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions… It is the responsibility of the intellectual to insist upon the truth” and not to “tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.” It seems to me that Ethiopian intellectuals must shoulder the same burden. It is their responsibility to challenge not only those in power but also each other. It is their responsibility to critically think about issues and problems facing Ethiopian society and to offer and imagine better alternatives and braver futures. It is their highest moral duty to fight tyranny with the power of ideas. History shows that an idea whose time has come cannot be defeated; it cannot be stopped.
The Internet has been the great equalizer in the struggle between the practitioners of tyranny and champions of liberty. The Internet helped end the winter of discontent for millions of disenfranchised peoples in the Middle East and ushered in a glorious summer which continues to simmer. Mubarak, Ben Ali, Gadhaffi, Gbagbo and many others were simply no match for the ideas of freedom that had penetrated deep into the psyches of their citizens. Despite the complete monopoly over the press, telecommunication services and electronic radio and satellite jamming technology obtained at great cost, the tyrants in Ethiopia have not been able to censor the truth or filter out ideas they do not like from wafting into the ears, heart and mind of any Ethiopian interested in alternative perspectives. But Ethiopian intellectuals have not been able to take full advantage of this ubiquitous medium. As a result, the Internet is used by the younger generation mostly to seek cheap thrills and entertainment and conduct mindless chatter on social media.
Ethiopian intellectuals have the responsibility to be the vanguard of social, political and scientific change. They must use this burgeoning medium to provide real education to the young people and as a forum for serious discussion of the major issues facing the country. The real struggle against tyranny is for the hearts and minds of the young people (70 percent of Ethiopia’s population), and the irresistible weapons in this struggle are not guns and tanks but new and creative ideas. Until Ethiopian society, its economy and politics become knowledge- and ideas-based and its intellectuals play a guiding role in the process, that country will have great difficulty escaping from the clutches of a benighted dictatorship.
Ethiopia’s intellectuals should focus their energies and invest their efforts on Ethiopia’s young people (the Cheetah Generation). They should pitch new ideas to the younger generation; plant and cultivate the seeds of critical thinking in thier minds; promote free thinking and inquiry; encourage them to always be skeptical of not just authority but also themselves; preach against hatred, herd mentality and groupthink; give young people the intellectual tools they need to examine themselves and their beliefs; encourage them to change their minds when confronted by contradictory evidence; help them look at old problems in a new way; teach them (after learning it themselves) to admit mistakes when they are wrong, apologize and ask forgiveness; urge them to speak the truth, defend what is right and stand for human rights. They should inspire them to be all they can be.
The examples the intellectuals are setting today are disappointing and discouraging, to put it charitably. The message they telegraph to the younger generation is unmistakable: When confronted by abusers of power, be a conformist and remain silent. When faced with the arrogance of power, be submissive and obedient. When you can ask questions, seal your lips. When faced with the truth, turn a blind eye and deaf ears. When the opportunity for free thinking is available, be dogmatic, doctrinaire and obdurate. When you can speak truth to power, forever hold your peace.
In my June 2010 commentary, I urged Ethiopian intellectuals to act in solidarity with the oppressed. Since I wrote that piece, the silence of Ethiopian intellectuals has been deafening. I wish I could close this commentary with a more heartening message; but restating the last paragraph of that commentary still captures my disappointments and hopes:
As intellectuals, we are often disconnected from the reality of ordinary life just like the dictators who live in a bubble. But we will remain on the right track if we follow Gandhi’s teaching: ‘Recall the face of the poorest and the most helpless man you have seen and ask yourself whether the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he be able to gain anything by it? Will it restore to him a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to Swaraj (independence) or self-rule for the hungry and spiritually starved millions of your countrymen? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.’ Let us always ask ourselves whether our actions (and words) will help restore to the poorest and most helpless Ethiopians a control over their own life and destiny.
As I point an index finger at others, I am painfully aware that three fingers are pointing at me. So be it. I believe I know ‘where all the Ethiopian intellectuals have gone’. Most of them are standing silently with eyes wide shut in every corner of the globe. But wherever they may be, I hasten to warn them that they will eventually have to face the ‘Ayittey Dilemma’ alone: Choose to stand up for Ethiopia, or lie down with the dictators who rape, abuse and defile her.
To whom much is given, much is expected.
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: