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The Progressive Economics Forum

Wilbur Schramm and Noam Chomsky Meet Harold Innis

That’s the actual title of a recent book (2015) by Robert E. Babe, who has a doctorate in economics and is professor of Information and Media Studies at the University of Western Ontario. The sub-title is Media, Power, and Democracy.

Harold Innis you know. If you don’t, get with the required reading. Noam Chomsky everybody knows. So who is Wilbur Schramm?

He’s the founder of Communication Studies in the U.S., which is your ordinary flourishing discipline, behavioral, quantitative, instant conventional wisdom, wholly helpful to power. In contrast is Innis as founder, with Marshall McLuhan, in Canada, of media studies,  with tell-all titles like Empire and Communications, Bias of Communication, Changing Concepts of Time, and during his transition from studies of Canadian staples to media studies, Political Economy of the Modern State. Not behavioral. Not quantitative. Created paradigm of Canadian Political Economy — which eventually morphed into the New Canadian Political Economy. Dissenting wisdom, as it became increasingly critical of power, and dismissed and ignored by established power.

As for Chomsky, he and Innis are of a kind. That is the convincing case made by Babe in this book. You’ll learn more than you did about each of them and just might decide to emulate them more as activist scholars, particularly if university-based.

Chomsky, immortal, speaks truth to power endlessly. He’s co-author of Manufacturing Consent, of how the mass media can create consensus to do very wrong things. Chomsky, while maintaining his reputation for innovation in linguistic studies, has been extraordinarily active politically, demonstrating and speaking publicly from his opposition to the War in Vietnam, to civil rights in America, to the Iraq war, to today, where he is still speaking out and writing at 89.

Both Innis and Chomsky are motivated by circumstances. Neither was inclined to seek the quiet comfort of the ivory tower. Innis was affected by and responding to the First World War (in which he participated), the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Second World War, the atomic bomb, the beginning of the Cold War, the Korean war, and, throughout to Canada’s willing shift from the British to the American empire, the militarism of which Innis deplored. He was, however, not politically active outside the university and attacked those who were, notably CCFers, while insisting on their freedom of speech. All and all, a persistent intellectual radicalism

Chomsky, in his condemnation of American militarism and imperialism, has likewise strongly condemned those intellectuals who served power.

Babe thinks that Innis and Chomsky have in common a mistrust of elites and of power. We know from today’s populist politics how important that sentiment is. Both attacked power from the protection of a university base — which few academics do. Both were critical of what Galbraith, the Canadian-American professor, called the conventional wisdom. In my view that is the surest sign of their greatness as public intellectuals.

Enjoy and share:

Comments

Comment from Purple Library Guy
Time: February 5, 2019, 7:28 pm

So where do Wilbur Schramm and his Communication Studies fit into all this? Just a contrast or is there more going on?

Comment from mel watkins
Time: February 6, 2019, 11:17 am

There is indeed more going on. Schramm is the founder of the mainstream paradigm on communication which has spread into Canada. The Innis stream on the other hand hardly exists in the US.

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