From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Dir: Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar
This is a rather wasted film about the ideas and life of Noam Chomsky. Nearly three hours long and apparently based upon 115 hours of footage, we have to sit through countless shots of cameras zooming in on Chomsky’s opening remarks at universities and media studios across the globe. Coupled with a publisher’s quip, repeated several times, that Chomsky is probably the greatest intellectual in the world, the filmmaker’s cumbersome preoccupation with the man makes the exploration of his ideas on camera particularly frustrating.
Chomsky’s political ideas are rooted in the anarcho-syndicalist or libertarian socialist tradition which had strong currency in the 1960s. In their different ways, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the 1968 Paris student leader, and Abbie Hoffman, the American ‘yippie’ anti-war protester, were amongst its followers.
It is to Chomsky’s credit that, as his stature has grown in the past 30 years, he has held on to these ideas. Yet what makes Chomsky particularly unusual is that he developed his political views, not as a radicalising student, but as an established scholar of linguistics. The film tells us too little about this. We learn about his controversial view that the human ability to communicate is genetically based and that there is an underlying ‘common’ language. We also hear of Chomsky’s fascinating belief that the immense untapped creativity of ordinary people can be discerned from their everyday conversations with each other. But here the connection between Chomsky the radical linguist and would-be revolutionary tails off.
Chomsky is best known for his outstanding investigations into the way the US media manipulates public opinion at home to justify domination abroad, especially in the Third World. He has defiantly used his academic status to publicly put his research at the disposal of movements struggling against the oppression of US power all over the world. This is obviously a key theme for a film and it should have come into its own.
In fairness, it nearly does. It very effectively counterposes the American media’s exposure of Pol Pot’s genocide in Cambodia with its silence over US backing for Indonesia’s genocide in East Timor, which occurred more or less at the same time. And yet here too a question is left unanswered. An American journalist successfully takes up Chomsky’s challenge to expose US complicity with genocide in East Timor.
The wall of silence is broken. But what does this tell us about Chomsky’s theory of total media domination? His critics on camera tell us that it proves he is wrong. And there the matter is left.
There is a long history of radical intellectuals and radical individualism on the left in America. The very best of them like Chomsky have made a magnificent contribution to the struggle against capitalism. But their failure to give their hatred of the system theoretical underpinning can leave them floundering.
Something absolutely appalling happened to Chomsky. For reasons which the film does not make clear, he allows himself to be drawn into a defence, on the principle of ‘free speech’, of Robert Faurisson, the French neo-Nazi historian and Holocaust revisionist. Faurisson’s publisher leapt upon Chomsky’s comments and used them as an introduction to Faurisson’s book.
Actually he provides the only way to deal with these new Nazi ‘historians’ in the film. He says, ‘Even to enter debate about the Holocaust happening is to lose one’s humanity.’ Surely the same principle applies to giving the ‘democratic right’ to others to enter debate or publicise Faurisson’s views.
Last updated: 25 February 2017/p>