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Dismissed by the right and deified by the left, Noam Chomsky is indeed a very unpolitical fellow, as stated in one of the quotes that are peppered through Power and Terror. Refusing to relate the facts as he sees them with anything but direct bluntness, he shows the virtues and the limits of opposing official policy with reasoned dissent. A very plain-wrap tour through some major issues that simply records parts of his public lectures, Power and Terror doesn't attempt to amplify or corroborate Chomsky's claims with documentary material, as did Manufacturing Consent, the previous Chomsky film treatise.
Critics unfairly judged Power and Terror for not being cinematic; it's simply a record of several Noam Chomsky lectures. Chomsky comes off as a college professor should - he's unassuming and loathe to present himself as a 'charisma package' touting his ideas. He'd rather his words and ideas speak for themselves. He's not only not a politician (he wants nothing for himself, a stance we find suspicious in America), he's not selling anything except his ideas.
I personally find Chomsky's ideas to be a breath of fresh air in today's oppressive media onslaught; I think he's a patriot, well knowing that just waving the flag for Noam can be its own trap. There's a smug leftist comfort of feeling intellectually superior to whatever know-nothing barbarians are in control of the country at any given moment. I hear some exasperation with Chomsky because his relentless criticism of the United States of America makes liberals nervous as well. I don't know if that sentiment stems from his actual messages, or from the fact that his no-nonsense talk just isn't likely to make much headway in a national dialogue crowded with hysteria, ignorance and opportunism. Chomsky, happily, doesn't seem to be affected by the country's emotional doubts and moods.
In his lectures, Chomsky not only applauds our nation but says that the climate for dissent and intellectual freedom has improved since the 1960s, when it took five years for the anti-Vietnam war movement to gain momentum. Protest now has a legitimacy that it lacked back then, when police departments would allow roughnecks to pelt women and children marchers with cans and tomatoes. He doesn't direct anyone to become an activist, and says as much to an eager attendee who asks him for guidance - he's a professor simply stating his views, not a politician or a rabble-rouser. He's also not a satirist or a public jester. His criticism of right wing targets are sometimes witty, but they are the remarks of a public speaker whose aim is to inform, not inflame.
Power and Terror is not much as a film. The editing is basic, but reasonably effective, and the text quotes over black that regularly break in seem intrusive. Pieces of the docu were shot in Chomsky's MIT office, and clearly are cooperative attempts by the filmmaker and the professor to fill-in missing opinions to round out subjects. It's Chomsky's show all the way, not a 'rounded' discussion of the issues he raises. 2
Chomsky's messages are never going to find favor with conservatives. He insists upon using historical facts instead of fairy tales to back up his assertions. His characterization of America as 'insular' and unconcerned with the rest of the world - ('American think everything of importance happens here') never goes so far as to claim that we are villains and the rest of the world are innocent victims. But his accusations cut deep when he describes current American 'diplomacy' as thinly veiled threats and gangster tactics - reporting that an Arab delegate was told bluntly by our State Department to keep in line, because an Operation Desert Storm can be redirected at his country at any time.
Chomsky's analysis of why America will install an oil-friendly regime in Iraq as undemocratic as Hussein's dictatorship, also makes sound, simple sense. His critics brand him as 'simplistic', when in actuality he refuses to be hypocritical. Perhaps politicians who are selling something naturally mistrust college professors, so-called sheltered academics who can stick to simple facts instead of dealing with the 'un-simplistic' realities. Chomsky is very happy to applaud the U.S. as a place where his dissident voice can be heard without fear of jailing or assassination ... a situation that could change. It could happen here. 1
First Run Features' DVD of Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times is a well-engineered presentation of a film shot on video. The lighting and audio in the lectures is good, and a shrewd use of a multi-camera setup pays off in the cramped after-speech moments when the professor patiently fields questions and signs books.
Chomsky devotees will like the extra lecture clips, which allow him to directly address his opinions on subjects like Iraq and Globalization. The film was apparently produced in Japan, and there are some interesting Japanese vocals on the soundtrack. Just for the record, Chomsky's criticism of the colonial terrorism of the past, does not omit Japan's role in the 1930s and '40s.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times rates:
1. I became furious the other day, when a news channel presented a story
about cybercriminal hackers being arrested for breaking into corporate websites, and replacing or
altering main pages with anti-establishment slogans, etc., sort of a web-based harassing graffiti
nuisance. The corporate representative who was proudly hawking a company that roots out these
crooks, coined the word 'Hacktivism', combining Hacker, with Activism. The word is a particularly
venal marketing ploy to associate Activism (which is simply political organizing and information
spreading) with crime. Being 'liberal' already carries the false stigma of wanting to kill babies and
spare mass murderers, hating America and disbelieving in God - this Hacktivism word subtly demonizes the act of
being politically active, and seeks to make expressing an opinion shameful, akin to a crime. Apparently the
only citizen activity acceptable these days is to blindly consume, passively approve, and
2. Viewers looking for a 'rounded' dialogue between Chomsky and
representatives of the status quo are directed to the extras on the
Manufacturing Consent disc, where
the professor is silenced by bullying 'debating' foes who interrupt, insult and heckle him.
3. This informative footnote on a footnote comes from Eric Meyer, 4/11/03:
The word "hacktivism" refers to hacking for political reasons, such as protesting globalization or denouncing governments by breaking into a system and replacing the home page, login screen, or whatever. See the paper Ethics of Hacktivism, published 12 January 2001. The term is even older than that, although I'm not certain of its origins. The references at the end of the paper may point to better information on the topic, one of which uses the word "hacktivism" in its title and is dated 1998. There are some good examples of hacktivism in the ethics paper, but the way, even if one doesn't run down the references (as I did not).
Believe me, I know what you're saying about being a liberal carrying a false stigma these days, let alone the rough waters that dissent can create. But I also don't think it serves us to read more into the dialogue than may be there. It may be that the guy you saw was using the word in the sinister manner you suggest, and there's always the danger that the word will mutate into the meaning you assigned it. Language does that-- something Chomsky knows all too well. Thanks as always for your great reviews and personal take on everything!
(please feel free to publish this if you wish, as you did my comments about Danger: Diabolik!) Eric A. Meyer
Thanks, Eric ... for disabusing me of yet another notion. I still bridle at the idea of hijacking
words for 1984 - like political purposes. Soon someone will link 'free speech' with some
word for 'traitor' or 'idiot' and start a subtle shift of doubt as to the merits of free speech.
But you and I won't have to worry about it - we'll be in thoughtcrime prison for possessing videos
of a movie about a Terrorist blowing up tax offices - Danger: Diabolik! Thanks, Glenn