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Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times

Worlds apart

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For lots of people, Noam Chomsky is an intellectual rock star. The new documentary Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times shows fans cornering the chart-topping critic of U.S. foreign policy for photos and autographs. At one gig, the 74-year-old draws more than 3,000 people -- ticket sales for which plenty of bands would hock their Stratocasters.

Of course, 40 years as probably your country's leading voice of dissent earns that kind of attention. So savor the irony that this adulatory portrait of Chomsky at the mike, though shot in Berkeley, Cambridge and Palo Alto, was produced in Japan, as the film's credits and its puzzling soundtrack of Japanese rock songs both attest.

Chomsky, for the uninitiated, is the groundbreaking linguist who in the early 1960s, spurred primarily by the Vietnam War, dove headlong into political activism. While remaining on the front lines of linguistics from his post at M.I.T., he became an indefatigable watchdog of America's role in the world, writing prolifically (American Power and the New Mandarins, Manufacturing Consent) and speaking tirelessly.

Power and Terror tracks him during the spring of 2002, after his small book 9/11 became a best-seller. From the podium, Chomsky points out that what's new isn't terrorism, but its target -- that the U.S. has long been perfectly comfortable with supporting atrocities and atrocious leaders in other countries. Thus, "The phrase 'the war on terrorism' should always be used in quotes, because there can't possibly be a war on terrorism," he says. "It is impossible. The reason is, it is led by one of the worst terrorist states in the world." Excoriating, in his notably soft-spoken way, the "false patriotism" of loyalty and subordination, Chomsky suggests a simple way for the United States to stop terrorism: "Stop participating in it."

I don't imagine Chomsky speaks at too many state fairs. His audiences are sympathetic; when he sums up mainstream bewilderment about global anti-Americanism as "Why do they hate us when we're so good?" he draws a big, knowing laugh. The film's director, American-born Tokyoite John Junkerman, inserts quotes indicating that Chomsky is censured as well as idolized ("maddeningly simple-minded," quoth The New York Times). But the film is essentially Chomsky-vision: True believers can tune in for a fix, and anyone who doesn't already know what he has to say can catch a 72-minute primer.

And that's good. Maybe even great. Because while Chomsky the author might sell like hotcakes, the TV, radio, newspapers and magazines where most people get their news have been nearly Chomsky-free in these crucial times, as indeed they've been shy of any progressive, dissenting voices at all. Those inclined to agree with him, it seems, agree more than ever, while everyone else's inattention keeps him outside the same mainstream that failed to share his concern about U.S.-backed genocide in East Timor, American-sponsored atrocities in Latin America, and U.S.-armed repression in Turkey. The loudest voices in today's corporate media unanimously and unquestioningly backed Bush's invasion of Iraq. Providing a platform such as Power and Terror -- a title borrowed from another recent Chomsky book -- for independent voices that are even halfway credible counts as a public service, and Chomsky is something more than halfway credible.

But while handing Chomsky a megaphone is a worthy end in itself, the film falls short in other ways. True, through his talks and a sit-down interview it illuminates some basic nuances of his analysis. He isn't "anti-American" -- only critical of the American Empire's abuse of power, which powerfully echoes any empire's. And as someone who recalls the early (pre-1965) years of Vietnam protests -- when demonstrations were small and demonstrators suffered bodily attacks -- Chomsky acknowledges that U.S. society has seen "constant improvement" over four decades. Even as dissenters, he says, "We have every opportunity available to us."

But Junkerman's attitude is close to that of one Chomsky fan seen here, who gushes, "I agree with everything you say" (the sort of ditto-head reaction that one hopes would irk the fiercely independent-minded Chomsky more than gratify him). Give Chomsky a platform, sure -- but also challenge him a little, interrogate his ideas.

What, for instance, might constitute a just military intervention (something Chomsky doesn't seem to believe exists)? How do his anarcho-collectivist ideals (also never mentioned) pervade his thinking? What does he think about drawing bigger crowds in other countries than at home? Why does he discount the role of motive (other than economic interest) in politics, as discussed at fascinating length in Larissa MacFarquhar's Chomsky profile in the March 31 New Yorker?

Similarly, Junkerman lets Chomsky glibly dismiss the suggestion that his linguistics work is in any way linked to his political worldview; MacFarquhar's piece shows how deeply linked they are. Junkerman's attention is so rapt he neglects opportunities to deepen our understanding of this monumental figure, leaving us with a rather flatly one-sided portrait of the man and his ideas, one that's surely inferior to reading one of his books.

Yet there's still that: Maybe Junkerman's Power and Terror will lead some to Chomsky's, and to his other books as well. And perhaps others will draw the conclusion Chomsky did in the Vietnam era, when he first became aware of how his country behaved overseas: "It was just impossible not to become involved."

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