If you’ve spent time on a college campus, you’ll have heard the name Noam Chomsky uttered in reverent tones. “It gets embarrassing,” said the man himself. “I can’t walk across the Berkeley campus — literally — without twenty people coming up and asking me to sign something.” And when you don’t hear him spoken of reverently, you’ll hear him spoken of damningly. For decades, heated arguments have erupted over this MIT linguist with opinions on politics, capitalism, and the media. Chomsky mentioned his aggressive student fans in an exchange on Manufacturing Consent, the 1992 documentary that bolstered his reputation all across the world. Now you can watch it for free on YouTube and view him through the eyes of filmmakers Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick, who would have to be either die-hard fans or pitiless detractors to follow him around so extensively.
Spoiler alert: they’re die-hard fans. Manufacturing Consent curates instances of Chomsky going from interview to interview, debate to debate, forum to forum, making sharp-sounding points about the relationship between business elites and the media and what it does, in his view, to make democracy malfunction. A later section of the film laments the lack of airtime granted Chomsky by high-profile programs, from Nightline on up, but we do see him make what look like exhaustingly extensive rounds on more marginal media venues: Dutch television, local NPR affiliates, public access’ TV Dinner, something called American Focus Student Radio. Chomsky delivers his most persuasive idea — to me, anyway — when he explains his peculiar media profile: major national and international networks work in such short forms that they won’t even invite speakers who deal in nuance, as opposed to warmed-over sound bites, in the first place. Hey, I could’ve told you that; it’s why I haven’t owned a TV in a while.
But does Chomsky deal in nuance? Do his political, economic, and media critiques merit all the campus adulation? Has his brave willingness to speak truth to power relegated him to the sidelines? Does “anarcho-syndicalism,” his preferred social order, represent the way of the future? I couldn’t begin to tell you. Oscillating between high-toned sternness and calming avuncularity, Chomsky does exude a certain low-key academic charm, but could it drive me to purchase his collected works and take him on as my own private philosopher-king? One also catches the occasional aside from certain respected thinkers suggesting that Chomsky plays fast and loose with the facts, relying on his formidable speaking and writing abilities to distract from his worldview’s willful distortions, but that hasn’t made me long to see him discredited. Wherever you stand on the ideological spectrum, you’ll find a great deal of fascination and instruction in examining a figure who inspires as much vehemence as Chomsky does. I can think of no two luminaries with fan bases less compatible than he and the economist Milton Friedman, but both of them inspire an enormous curiosity over same question: how on Earth does he get ‘em so riled up?
By Colin Marshall, www.openculture.com
- Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.