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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Noam Chomsky - Distorted Morality
Noam Chomsky - Distorted Morality
Koch Entertainment // Unrated // March 25, 2003
List Price: $7.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 30, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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Distorted Morality: America's War on Terror? is a 55 minute lecture by outspoken political scholar Noam Chomsky on the subject of terrorism, recorded on February 6th, 2002 at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The basis of the discussion is that "the war on terror", despite the frequency of the use of that phrase in the popular press, is a logical impossibility. A 1984 U.S. Army manual provides as reasonable a definition of terrorism as any, stating that it is "the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature". Chomsky agrees with the definition, but he believes that violence is not justified in retaliation for or in pre-emption of even the worst atrocities. A more accurate way to describe how America looks at terrorism is "terror that 'they' carry out against 'us'", claiming that nothing else passes through the filter. Chomsky spends the bulk of the discussion under two assumptions. First, the government must be given the benefit of the doubt in all situations. Second, we mast take seriously the pronouncements of leadership. Chomsky's theses are that we (and by 'we', he doesn't mean America as a non-corporeal, abstract entity, but the actual individuals that reside in the country) are all total hypocrites on any issue related to terrorism, and that the first thesis is so obvious that it takes a concerted effort to miss it.

Chomsky applies the Army's definition to the nation's actions in the Middle East and Central America from the era of state-sponsored terrorism in the 1980s to present. Two examples he points to are a car bombing outside of a mosque in Beirut killed eighty and wounded over two-hundred more in 1985, as well as the indescribable atrocities inflicted upon villagers in Southern Lebanon as part of Israel's "Iron Fist" operations. Both, he states, are clear instances of international terrorism, and both were sponsored by the United States. He goes onto mention America's opposition to a U.N. resolution condemning terrorism, based on the language in the following article:
Nothing in this Definition, and in particular article 3, could in any way prejudice the right to self-determination, freedom and independence, as derived from the Charter, of peoples forcibly deprived of that right and referred to in the Declaration on Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, particularly peoples under colonial and racist regimes or other forms of alien domination: nor the right of these peoples to struggle to that end and to seek and receive support, in accordance with the principles of the Charter and in conformity with the above-mentioned Declaration.

America and Israel provided the only dissenting votes, 153 to 2 with a single abstention. Each pointed to that single offending paragraph as their primary reason for doing so. The United States opposed the "racist regimes" language because the U.S. had identified the African National Congress as a terrorist organization for their struggles against Apartheid in our ally of South Africa, and Israel disagreed with the note about "foreign occupation" since that conflicted with their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Chomsky lumps Israel in as part of the United States' terrorist network, which he states also consists of Argentina, Britain, and Taiwan, contributing to the U.S.' preference for ruling by force rather than by law. Chomsky provides a series of underreported examples of Clinton and Bush enhancing international terrorism, and how the United States' terrorist actions in Nicaragua were responsible for considerably more bloodshed than the events of September 11th. On the subject of 9/11, Chomsky also claims that the United States' response ought to be construed as terrorism. Bush announced to the Afghan people that he would continue bombing the country until the individuals responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center were turned over, refusing to provide any evidence as well as refusing to negotiate transfer and extradition. It wasn't until weeks later that the first mention was made of deposing the Taliban as a war aim, which Chomsky states only further supports what he sees as the United States' unofficial definition of terrorism -- "if we're doing it, it doesn't count."

As ought to be evident from even a casual glance of the description above, Noam Chomsky takes extreme, unpopular stances in Distorted Morality, much in the same way he has on foreign policy for the past few decades. For this very reason, I found his discussion to be very engaging, despite the fact that I am about as apolitical as they come. Agree or disagree with him, Chomsky speaks with the courage of his convictions, and he doesn't water down his views to be as inoffensive and middle-road as possible to appeal to a mass audience. At the same time, it's also clear that Chomsky's aim isn't to rile people to up to keep his name in the press and his books on best-seller lists. Intelligent and sincere in his beliefs, Chomsky kept my attention in an iron grip for the duration of the lecture. I don't consider myself informed enough to be able to speak at length about his points, positive or negative, but I was intrigued enough that I started researching some of the topics discussed before sitting down to pen this review.

Viewers with a passion for politics ought to glean something from Distorted Morality, even if it just inspires a heated debate with others on a discussion forum of some sort. Its release on DVD includes some decent supplemental material, particularly an excellent collection of footage from a pair of question-and-answer sessions.

Video: Distorted Morality was shot on low-resolution, consumer-grade video at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The look is plain and utilitarian, limited to a single camera on a tripod which is clumsily manipulated for infrequent zooms and pans. This isn't to Distorted Morality's detriment; I rather doubt a multi-camera setup with dollies and cranes or whatever would've made for a significantly more engaging experience. Needless to say, Distorted Morality isn't going to unseat anyone's choice for a reference-quality showcase for their home theater, but the presentation does the job adequately.

Audio: The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (448Kbps) is similarly limited in scope, but still achieves the desired effect. Aside from some music contributed by the Weakerthans and Christopher Anderson that plays over the opening titles and end credits, the audio is, of course, just Noam Chomsky speaking. He remains clear and discernable throughout the discussion, and the slight amount of background noise isn't intrusive enough to distract.

Distorted Morality also includes subtitles in English and Chinese (CN and HK), and closed captions have not been provided.

Supplements: The featured extra on this DVD is a compilation of question and answer sessions culled from appearances at Harvard and MIT. Chomsky fields the following questions, all of which are related to the topics covered in Distorted Morality:
  1. Why do you blame America for the situation in Afghanistan? (6:20)
  2. What is the role of oil in the current situation, and what do you think the chances of us living for another year are? (4:22)
  3. Why does militarization not play a role in the current situation? (1:25)
  4. How do you suggest we bring the people responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center to justice? (5:12)
  5. Is President Bush serious in his desire to help secure a Palestinian state? (5:09)
  6. Are the definitions of terrorism and peace adequate, or are they now too vacuous? (2:16)
  7. America was involved in the process of creating international laws and institutions. What should America do, therefore, if it, at times, disagrees with the rulings of such institutions? (0:44)
  8. Should we be rallying the American government to stop its current plans and actions? (0:38)
  9. Can you offer us some perspective on the American war against drugs in Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia? What is your opinion on guerilla group violence in those countries? (11:10)
  10. Why is the American war on terror not serving the greater good? (5:08)
  11. What is your opinion on President Bush's 2002 State of the Union address? Why do you think he singled out certain states? (6:24)
  12. Do you believe that in order to change the domestic situation there will need to be a domestic insurrection? (7:45)
  13. Do you believe that there is suppression of the dissident movement in America? (5:11)
  14. What do scholars achieve by covering up the truth? (2:40)
  15. What publications do you believe to be good sources of foreign news? (1:48)

The questions themselves are not heard, only displayed as text on-screen before Chomsky provides his response. Also, the lack of a 'Play All' feature comes as a mild disappointment, requiring navigation and button presses for each and every question. The Q&A is full-frame and features Dolby Digital 2.0 audio (128Kbps). No subtitles or closed captions have been provided.

Rounding out the supplements on this DVD are a series of text-based extras, including a three-page biography, a detailed bibliography of his political books from 1969 through 2002, and a detailed Curriculum vitae.

Distorted Morality features a set of static 4x3 menus, and the featured lecture at Harvard has been divided into nineteen chapters.

Conclusion: Despite my unfortunate apathy towards politics in general, I greatly enjoyed Distorted Morality from beginning to end. Noam Chomsky's points are delivered in such a way that I'd imagine even his most fervent detractors will find this DVD worth watching, as his lecture is almost certain to prompt extensive discussion and debate. Boasting a list price of $7.98 and widely available shipped for under $10 online, Distorted Morality is Recommended.
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