Selling Noam Chomsky short

Thursday, Jan 23 2003

IF YOU ARE ALREADY A FAN OF Noam Chomsky, John Junkerman's new documentary, Power and Terror, offers an industrial-strength dose of the views and opinions of the septuagenarian political activist and MIT linguistics professor, rightfully described as America's leading dissident. But I'd hesitate to call this a movie, or even a film. Consisting only of a series of patched-together clips from Chomsky's public speeches following 9/11, interspersed with one interview shot in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, offices, the 74-minute doc plays more like a disjointed radio show with pictures.

It's a shame, really — and more than just in terms of its stylistic failings. Chomsky's rapier-sharp intelligence, his curmudgeonly wit, his goofy charisma — not to mention his considerable political acumen — are all but lost in this sometimes-lugubrious hodgepodge. The excerpts take way too much knowledge for granted, historical context is egregiously absent, and Chomsky holds forth on the complexities of the world totally unchallenged. His pronouncements would have 10 times more impact if the filmmakers had pitted him against some worthy challenger from the right — or, even better, from the left.

Chomsky, nevertheless, serves up his usual piercing review of American history, gleefully puncturing the myths, hypocrisies and shibboleths that undergird so many of our national narratives. His anarchist disdain for any and all who hold state power is a bracing antidote to the servility that infects so much of the contemporary media. But there are moments when Chomsky — as smart as the guy is — runs off the rails. Asserting that the U.S. is "one of the worst terrorist states in the world" comes across as simplistic hyperbole. (Compare the multifold sins of the U.S. with the Soviet gulag, the millions wiped out in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the more recent butcheries in the Balkans and Rwanda, and the American record comes out decidedly mixed.) Indeed, Chomsky's oft-repeated quip — again in reference to the U.S. — that the "easiest way to stop terrorism is to stop participating in it" evades reality by drawing a moral symmetry between the perpetrators of 9/11 and its victims. Yes, the U.S. is guilty of imperial aggression in numerous parts of the globe, but the 19 hijackers of September 11 didn't represent the wretched of the Earth. They were, rather, highly educated upper-middle-class religious fanatics in the employ of a Saudi billionaire, and they would have hated the U.S. even more if it were closer to being the sort of socialist society Chomsky advocates.

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IN ONE PARTICULARLY OFF-THE-wall moment, Chomsky argues that while we mourn the 3,000 who died in the twin towers, we pay no attention to the roughly equivalent number of civilians who perished when — he says — the U.S. bombed the Panamanian neighborhood of Chorillo during the American invasion of 1989. I was in that neighborhood mere days after it was razed, and Chomsky is just plain wrong: It wasn't bombed. It burned down after a firefight between U.S. and Panamanian troops. And as reprehensible as the U.S. invasion was, Panama's own human-rights commission claims that a total of maybe 400 people -- soldiers and civilians — died during the entire conflict.

But such nuances matter little to most people who will go to see this movie, and it's a pity. Noam Chomsky is clearly a humble and honest man, ready to debate and argue his ideas — which, like any other human being's, are fallible. The power of his intellect and message are poorly served when pigeonholed by the hagiography of some of his supporters.

POWER AND TERROR: Noam Chomsky in Our Times | Directed by JOHN JUNKERMAN Produced by TETSUJIRO YAMAGAMI Released by First Run Features | At the Nuar

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