Fading to Grey: Noam Chomsky

You have to feel sorry for Midge ‘Ultravox’ Ure. In 1984 he co-wrote and produced the charity song “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, one of the fastest and biggest selling singles of all-time. There was, however, a problem: Ure had New Romantic leanings and had been known to sport a pencil moustache. Pop stardom can come in a fop shirt but rock canonisation cannot be bestowed upon someone who has embraced flamboyant period clothing.

This is where Bob Geldof, Ure’s other half, steps in. Knighted for his efforts with Band Aid and then Live Aid, Sir Bob’s image fitted well with that of the anti-establishment rock ‘n’ roll rebel with a message. Bedraggled, declamatory, and unafraid to financially bankrupt himself to better the plight of others, it was inevitable that the media would elevate Geldof to sainthood, just in time for the second coming of Bono. To this day Ure has been left to feel the eternal squire, only able to dream of shining armour.

Although Geldof’s band, The Boomtown Rats, had New Wave tendencies, these were balanced out by a DIY punk ethos perhaps brought about by Geldof’s melodic frailties. Coupled with the occasional socially conscious lyric, this gave the group a sense of credibility. As Geldof was singing about the tragedy of bored youths turning to violence, Ultravox were philosophising about “freezing breath on a window pane.” Oh Vienna, what does it all mean? Compared to Sir Bob’s pragmatic “Give us the f***ing money” verbal mugging, perhaps Ure’s problem is that he will always carry the load of plaintive wispiness that was the want of New Romantic manifestations. Or so I thought.

Recently I watched John Junkerman’s documentary Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in our Times. The film is a series of extracts from interviews and lectures given by the veteran intellectual, which surprisingly left me with the song “Fade to Grey” running through my head:

One man on a lonely platform

One case sitting by his side

Two eyes staring cold and silent

Show fear as he turns to hide


Feel the rain like an English summer

Hear the notes from a distant song

Stepping out from a backdrop poster

Wishing life wouldn’t be so long

Devenir gris

Aaah, we fade to grey (fade to grey)

Needless to say, after an hour and 20 minutes worth of social and political analysis, I did not expect to end up thinking about Ure’s 1980 Anglo-French outing with the group Visage. With the fan-base that he has, Chomsky could not be described as a man on a lonely platform, his eyes are mischievous and do not stare cold and silent, and he is not known for hiding from fear. Perhaps he does try to teach us to step out from the backdrop poster of our world put up by the ruling classes, the “investors” as Chomsky likes to call them. But then I remembered a couple of quotes that appear during the film’s opening sequence. The first was from The Japan Times: “No place for gray in Noam Chomsky’s black and white world.” As this particular quote echoed back to me after the film it left me wondering whether it was an accusation or a compliment.

Although the second quote I remembered could be construed as sarcastic, I believe that The San Francisco Examiner meant to be flattering: “Not about to fade away at the age of 73.” There are other title cards that are clearly laudatory, but one from the New Statesman is quite damning: “Chomsky’s anti-Americanism is just plain wrong.” These mix and match citations may simply be a documentary maker’s attempt at impartiality. There is this odd moment, though, when the final title card segues into the opening shot of a big sign at the door of an auditorium declaring: “Chomsky: Sold Out.” This is an academic that can pull in the crowds and apart from such names as Jacques Derrida and Terry Eagleton, celebrity academics with serious intellectual baggage are far and few between.

The job of public intellectuals is to “keep the population from knowing things that they shouldn’t know.” In other words, their role is to protect the government against its own people.

Subsequently we are treated to images of lecture-goers buying Chomsky merchandising. Whether or not Junkerman intended the irony here is unclear and it didn’t help me make up my mind about the quote from The Japan Times. Initially it sounds like an accusation, even an insult if you consider George W. Bush’s ‘you’re either with us or against us’ approach to global politics and Chomsky’s left-wing stance. It makes Chomsky sound uncompromising. This, however, is where things become fuzzy. Surely what you want from a social commentator is strong opinion. Being uncompromising in the face of bigotry, for instance, can only be a good thing.

If I allow the song to soundtrack my analysis – I do this as an academic and therefore at my own peril – I would be left feeling that grey is the hue of the void and that the passive action of fading implies that resistance is futile. This, as I’m sure you realise, is not positive. Ure, however, had his English lyrics translated into French to give more body to the track. Devenir gris is a translation that does what translations should not do because, to my mind, it betters the original. The verb devenir, in its more neutral manifestation simply means ‘to become’, reflecting to some extent the idea of fading. But it also has philosophical implications that denote the transformation of things through time, or if you prefer, the different stages beings go through to become what they will become in the future. This then bolsters the notion of fading, implying forward movement, progression, even evolution. Pessimism, here, becomes tempered by optimism.

At this juncture you may accuse me of being somewhat trite with regards to the intellectual might that is Noam Chomsky. This is not my intention. Bono may have called Chomsky “the Elvis of Academia” and the beginning to Junkerman’s film may parallel the stadium rocker’s commercial significance, but I suffered through too many lectures on generative grammar to take the man lightly.

Power and Terror left me understanding that Chomsky’s analyses of world events are built upon the elementary notion of precise redefinition of signifying codes, of received ideas, of media conceits. The New York Times said that his “political writings are maddeningly simple-minded”, I would argue that they are merely straightforward. When you have such an effortless encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary politics it makes it easier to uncomplicate things. This is a scientist who likes to strip things down to the bare nuts and bolts. It is this systematic application of lab technician method, this unrelenting appliance of logic to obtain the basic building blocks for definition that may, indeed, give Chomsky a black and white appearance. Chomsky responds to the lump accusation of oversimplification and America-bashing by pointing out that the US is acting like every other imperial power. But because it is the biggest, it is the most violent. This doesn’t seem to be anti-Americanism but anti-hegemony.

Chomsky’s ultimate aim, however, is to put things back together again, to return us to a grey environment but now thickened by his ‘maddeningly simple-mindedness’. In my limited way, this is what I attempted to do earlier on with the notion of ‘fading’. Through this kind of fundamental semantic manipulation, things invariably appear slightly different, our shade of grey has been altered, our devenir has changed.

What Power and Terror focuses on is our devenir immediately in the wake of 9-11. The film begins with Chomsky telling us that following the atrocities repressive governments all over the world – including those old heavy-weight sluggers the US and Russia – used this moment of fear to pursue their own agendas. Chomsky argues that although these aggressive programmes went against public opinion, a sense of false patriotism was translated into notions of loyalty and subordination.

This may recall Jurgen Habermas and his ideas on the legitimisation of crises. Habermas suggests that successive governments focus on dealing with crises rather than fundamental issues. Moreover, the solutions put forward contain within themselves the propensity for further crises enabling the powers that be to carry on governing in allopathic fashion, declaring that they have cured the malaise when they have only dealt with the symptoms. For Chomsky it would appear that bombing the Middle East or Chechnya do not address the fundamental issues that lie at the root of the original terrorist atrocities, they are not “efforts to understand the grievances that lie behind such crimes and to address the problems” (I’m quoting here from Chomsky’s 9-11). They do, however, answer a ‘patriotic’ call for revenge. But the cure contains the possibility of more crises, violence begets violence, we enter a phase of escalation (such as Bush’s surge strategy earlier this year), and so the cycle continues. But as both Chomsky and Habermas remind us: this is nothing new.

Sitting in his office at MIT, Chomsky tries to place the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in an historical perspective and picks up on themes expressed in the interview he gave to the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto and that forms the first chapter of 9-11. In typical Chomskian fashion, he begins by deconstructing the atrocities to see if there is anything fundamentally new here. This leads him to conclude that this is exactly the way imperial powers have been behaving for many centuries. Therefore, what makes this an historic event is not the shock value of the scale but the fact that the victim was an imperial power. An atrocity only happens to us, it cannot be perpetrated by us.

At the height of their empire, imperial powers often feel immune to such threats because they perceive themselves as benevolent parents, fatherlands and motherlands. “There’s good reason why we should be in favour of American hegemony,” Chomsky ironises, “the reason is that history has a natural course and the United States represents the realisation of history’s purpose.” He goes on to remind us that intellectuals that believe in this type of idea are simply repeating what such luminaries as John Stuart Mills declared at the height of the British Empire. In front of an audience at University College Berkeley, Chomsky recalls The Wall Street Journal “trying to find out the answer to George Bush’s plaintive question ‘Why do they hate us when we are so good?’.”

Chomsky is humorous. His humour is dry and forms an integral part of his greying process. We laugh as we might when feeling intellectually superior to something nakedly obvious. We find ourselves smirking along with the Berkeley crowd again when Chomsky, in his laconic style, recounts 1958 records concerning President Eisenhower and his observation that there was a campaign of hatred against the United States in the Middle East. This was because the US was perceived as supporting brutal regimes and stopping democratisation in order to protect its oil interests in the region. The report concludes that it was difficult to counter this perception because it was accurate.

Through use of extensive archival data, Chomsky reconstructs the past and attempts to alter our perspective on current events. His humour appears to help reinforce his apparent bias. But before we get carried away with our comfortable education and join a ‘Chomsky changed my life’ seminar, Chomsky offers a damning observation: the fact that Western intellectuals do not comment on such things as the US participation in the repression of Kurds by Turkey in the ’90s is “a really impressive testimonial to the discipline of educated people.” Perhaps this ties in with another conclusion that the job of public intellectuals is to “keep the population from knowing things that they shouldn’t know.” In other words, their role is to protect the government against its own people.

It isn’t all doom and gloom. The humour is a window into Chomsky’s optimism. According to Chomsky, there is progress because as governments and investors act in their own interests, the people proact in the name of a civil society. From the Civil Rights movement to the very idea of Noam Chomsky, America is continually becoming more civilised. Freedom of speech coupled with the Freedom of Information Act compare well with other countries and, as Chomsky points out, there are “tendencies in high places that try to eliminate the freedoms that exist but we shouldn’t overlook the fact that they exist.”

According to Chomsky, there is progress because as governments and investors act in their own interests, the people proact in the name of a civil society.

For Chomsky it would appear then that the 9-11 atrocities have also had a civilising effect. The US population has for a long time been introverted, uncaring of the outside world. But the attacks were a wake up call which has led to more openness, sometimes even dissidence and activism, what Chomsky calls healthy phenomena.

What I found most interesting about this film were the instances when Chomsky would answer audience members that came up to him after his lectures. Adopting more of a teacher’s demeanour, he can be quite short to questions he himself finds to be simplistic. Someone asks him if he is concerned by CNN and MSNBC becoming mouthpieces for the US military and Chomsky responds by interrupting and stating that they are much less so than before. He repeats himself: “it’s not that they’re becoming, they always were and it’s less so than it used to be.”

I find myself agreeing with him here. Accusing CNN of being an agent for the US government would simply pander to cliché and a misconception of how news agencies function. People often believe that the deontological drive of the media should be objectivity, and yet we tend to buy our newspapers according to the opinions they express. The increasingly blank nature of CNN reporting is due, of all things, to a desire to appear balanced.

Chomsky goes on to remind his questioner that he was invited onto MSNBC for a discussion programme in November 2001 for the first time. The media is in a phase of opening up. Someone else asks him to explain the mechanism by which the government influences the media to control public opinion. This is met with a furrowed brow and the answer “It doesn’t.” Chomsky makes an analogy:

Suppose somebody asked ‘How does the government convince General Motors to try to increase profit?’ It doesn’t make any sense. The media are huge corporations which share the interests of the corporate sector that dominates the government.

When questioned about capitalism, Chomsky borrows from Ghandi and suggests that it might be a good idea. But the state intervenes to stop capitalist institutions from being created so as to protect themselves from the ravages of the market. If I understand Chomsky correctly from the DVD’s bonuses, if there was capitalism as Adam Smith might have intended it, then free trade would be defined by free movement of labour. This, according to Chomsky, has regressed and, therefore, globalisation has declined. This may seem paradoxical if we consider the development of such associations as the European Union, but if we look closely at migration from Eastern Europe it is perhaps not ‘free’ as Smith would have understood it. Chomsky concludes that there is nothing special about state capitalism: “it does what it does.” There’s optimism for all the anti-consumerists out there.

Watching Power and Terror and seeing how much of Chomsky’s analytical method seemed concerned with the precise classification of terms, I felt sure this was a linguist’s interest in semantics. From his comments on such expressions as ‘the war on terror’ to the notion of the hypocrite to the Quaker slogan ‘speaking truth to power’, Chomsky takes pleasure in the act of perpetual definition.

He unravels the phrase ‘axis of evil’ by first suggesting that the term ‘evil’ refers to the monsters that inhabit the world of children’s literature. He wonders if in fact Bush’s speech writers didn’t plagiarise Indian epics perhaps in the hope of portraying Bush as Vishnu the perfect man who will drive evil from the world.

Chomsky goes on to remind us that the idea of an ‘axis’ refers back to the Nazis, Italy and Japan. This repositions the term, establishing its inappropriateness: Iraq and Iran were at war for 20 years, and North Korea is an isolated and easy target chosen, Chomsky hypothesises, to deflect the idea that US policy is targeting the Muslim world.

Unfortunately for me, feeling sure around Chomsky is a risky position to be in. Though language is one of the few areas where one can explore central human capacities, Chomsky states that his study in linguistics has had zero effect on his analyses of world events. This is probably the answer of a man tired after a long day of lectures. In the more relaxed setting of his office he is more expansive and suggests “David Hume two hundred and fifty years ago pointed out that the foundation of morals must be what we nowadays call generative grammar.” For Hume our actions are free but they are linked to a cause or motive, hence the implication of morality. Our actions are not, however, constrained and this allows us to be imaginative, spontaneous, creative, etc.

Whether it be Hume’s principles of morals or generative grammar there is, as Chomsky succinctly puts it “a set of principles we are capable of applying in novel situations.” But he is left to conclude that the link between his work in linguistics and his social commentary is spiritual rather than deductive. Interestingly, however, Chomsky’s reference to Hume indicates something that is blindingly obvious but that took me a while to realise: it aligns Chomsky with the school of neo-skepticism.

Chomsky lists a number of endangered species: democracy, human rights, socio-economic development. The prime endangered species he stresses are human beings themselves. The curve of destruction and that of civilisation seem locked in an unending race. Whichever one rises the fastest is what will determine the survival of the species and Chomsky concludes “that question is pretty much in the hands of people like you.” Chomsky passing on to a new generation or passing the buck? A bit of both, perhaps.

No matter what you think of Chomsky, you cannot doubt his commitment. By his own admission his activism has been all-consuming. But Power and Terror led me to ask why we should trust Chomsky’s understanding of things more than anyone else’s. Ultimately a collage of extended soundbites, it would be difficult to come up with an answer after watching Junkerman’s film.

Although I don’t always agree with the ideas of Chomsky, I agree with the idea of Chomsky.

The cut and paste effect of the film sometimes leaves us with the impression that Chomsky lists off atrocities perpetrated by imperial powers which, interesting as they may be, don’t necessarily move the argument forward. One such case is Chomsky’s reference to the Nuremburg trials. Chomsky tells us that during the trials a crime was defined as a war crime if it was perpetrated by the Germans and not by the Allied Forces. Therefore, the bombing of the dykes in Holland by the Germans is a war crime because at the time we didn’t do anything similar.

But, Chomsky continues, the bombing of the dams in North Korea by the United States a few years later was described with pride. Of course, I immediately recognise the hypocrisy that Chomsky is pointing to. But I am also left wondering if things aren’t more complicated than Chomsky makes them out to be. Is he, indeed, maddeningly simple-minded or can things be so limpid?

It would also be difficult to come up with an answer after reading 9-11, again because it is made up of edited interviews with frustratingly short answers. Ultimately what Chomsky is, or perhaps what he has become, is not a pessimist or an optimist, but a cynic. And I mean this in a positive way. Borrowing from Chomsky borrowing from The New York Times borrowing undoubtedly from Nietzsche (on more than one occasion during the film Chomsky refers to plagiarism, another notion the linguist appears to enjoy toying with), Chomsky has peered into the abyss of the future with the eye of a true skeptic. And being the intellectual he is I am sure that he has revelled in the abyss staring back at him in an equally skeptical manner.

Perhaps it is jealousy, perhaps it is because some of his followers appear like born again Christians drunk on the easy enlightenment of evangelical rants, I am at times untrustworthy of Chomsky’s effortlessness. Although I don’t always agree with the ideas of Chomsky, I agree with the idea of Chomsky. If you will allow me to fade to grey in this manner.

RATING 5 / 10