[5 May 2005]
Linguist, cultural critic, role model for frustrated Leftist academics everywhere, Noam Chomsky is also a walking primer on how to be a public intellectual. With over 30 books and numerous linguistic theory innovations to his name, the MIT professor has been consistently and astonishingly productive. Noam Chomsky: Rebel Without a Pause calls him “one of the world’s leading voices of dissent.” And the documentary captures Chomsky at a particularly important historical moment, post-9/11, as events lead up to the Iraq war. It’s a time when Chomsky’s incisive critiques of U.S. foreign policy seem especially urgent.
Director Will Pascoe’s written statement about the film (included in the DVD extras) asks the obvious question: why another Chomsky documentary? His first answer is that Chomsky’s political ideas still don’t get enough circulation. Secondly, he wants to understand why Chomsky is still at it in his mid-70s. Pascoe writes that he made “a documentary that explores the issues of the world, but also gets to the heart of what drives a famous intellectual at a time when most of his contemporaries are silent.” The fact that Chomsky still relentlessly tours the world, speaking and writing articles, engaging in political activism and academic research, is a testament to his stamina, commitment, and courage.
The documentary succeeds on the first count. Extended clips of Chomsky speaking to packed auditoriums or classrooms provide a forum for his thinking, spread over an hour and 15 minutes (plus an additional 40 minutes of a press conference included in the DVD extras). Pascoe and crew followed him for a week in November 2002 during a lecture tour in Canada. But it is hard to shrink Chomsky’s ideas to fit this format. The chopped-up lecture bits (marked by titles like “9/11” and “Mass Media and Control”) serve more as introduction than explanation.
Luckily, hearing Chomsky speak is a moving experience (this despite the fact that he sees himself as “a boring speaker and I like it that way… People are interested in the issues, and they’re interested in the issues because they’re important.” Apparently, it’s also exciting being him: the camera shows his point of view, looking out on a sea of rapt faces, students on the edge of their seats, as he slams the U.S. government for censuring other people’s terrorist acts but not their own. He decries the privatization of the public sphere. He excoriates the politics of fear. And he explains how it all works.
But we don’t know how he works. Chomsky has long resisted hagiography and the cult of personality. The film’s intercut interviews offer few insights into his character and choices (wife Carol recalls that they’ve known each other since they were five-year-old students at the Philadelphia Hebrew school Chomsky’s father ran). Instead, the documentary interrogates the very idea of Chomskyness. Graeme McQueen, a professor of Religion Studies at McMaster University, notes that while Chomsky has long been famous, people now treat him even more “like a rock star” because “he was right” about conditions leading up to 9/11. Another professor notes that Chomsky made it onto a 1993 list of the Top 10 arts and humanities authorities. At number eight, after Freud and before Hegel, he joined other luminaries: Marx, Lenin, Shakespeare, Aristotle, the Bible, Plato, and Cicero. Way to go, Noam!
Partly inspired by the recent publication of Chomsky’s book, 9-11, the movie features interviewees who are hungry for alternative analyses of geopolitics and power, apart from mainstream media. The documentary also deftly encapsulates Chomsky’s critiques of the mass media. He recalls his censorship by NPR and PBS, and summarizes the last 150 years of media history in England and the U.S., arguing that “pressure on the national media has an effect.” Yes, advertising and the public relations industry since World War I have worked to control mass media and thereby people’s attitudes (note the process of “manufacturing consent” Chomsky has so famously dissected). But he sees chances for resistance, particularly through the Internet and alternative media. In a typically stinging assessment, he argues, “The advertising is there for a purpose. It’s to turn people into creatures whose only concern in life is to max out their five credit cards and not pay attention to what’s going on in the world and to let the rich and powerful guys do what they want without interference.”
Rebel Without a Pause illuminates Chomsky’s intelligence and remarkable memory (he reads some six newspapers daily). He synthesizes materials others don’t have access to or don’t have time to figure out. He argues that academics have the training and the resources to analyze world events critically. That he does it so beautifully might yet inspire others to do so as well.