DVD Review Of Noam Chomsky: Rebel Without A Pause
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/20/06
Despite having known people who are either great fans of Noam Chomsky, or think he’s a tired relic from the 1960s, I really had no opinion of the man, save that I knew he gained fame as a linguist, although I could not elucidate any of his theories, and that he was a liberal socialist with Marxist leanings. So, stumbling across the DVD of the 2003 documentary Noam Chomsky: Rebel Without A Pause, in a used video store, a film which followed him on a 2002 book tour for his book 9-11, I decided to get it, just so I could have a little bit of knowledge about the man the next time a person, pro or con, spoke of him. While glad I got the film, my initial reaction to this dull and ill edited hagiography was, so what’s all the fuss about?
For a man with so many degrees, lauded as ‘the most important intellectual alive’, by the New York Times, according to the DVD’s case, there sure was not alot there, intellectually speaking. I know I would chew him up and spit him out in a debate, and I wouldn’t even want to watch what a William F. Buckley could do to him. Granted, the whole film was seemingly about Chomsky seeing conspiracies everywhere, and having glazed eyed coeds nod in bewildering approval of the most inane and outrageous things he’d say, rather than being on linguistics, so maybe that’s the reason he came off so badly. But, again, if he is a linguist, and tops in his field, why in the world would anyone care what he has to say on anything outside his field of expertise? I am a great writer and poet, but does that qualify me to speak on who was the greater sculptor, Rodin or Michelangelo? No, it’s outside my area of expertise. Granted, I could do better than your average person, but that’s not the point. Similarly, no one cares what famed paleontologist Jack Horner nor noted evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins think about the National Football League, nor the history of the Dutch East India Trading Company. Chomsky is clearly an intelligent man, or at least one with a memory able to store many facts, but this does not equate one with being able to properly use those facts; i.e.- he lacks sorely in wisdom. Of course, no one nowadays expects wisdom from effete intellectual types, and Chomsky seems to be amongst the most effete going.
First off, for a linguist, he is really a terrible speaker- repeat, terrible. He mumbles, is laconic in a way that would make Perry Como seem Mr. Excitement, by comparison, and repetitive and condescending in a way that would make Robert Bly proud. He is also wont to fall back on rafts of clichés and stereotypes when describing any situation. While he makes some good points about American capitalism and its excesses, and its historical neglect as an area of inquiry by other intellectuals, the fact is he gives no real counter-proposal to anything other than for people to organize, as if ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ were still cogent. Well, it is, but not in the super-simplistic way Chomsky views the world. It’s as if he was stuck in a pre-Vietnam time capsule, and thawed out for a new generation of pseudo-intellectual poseurs to idolize. On issue after issue he shows that he knows very little of the real world, that of working class men and women who struggle daily, even as he jets around the world to champion the oppressed- unless they are oppressed by tyrants he supports. All this, despite the film’s many apologists’ claims on how well read the man is. Nick Griffin, a supposed professor, claims Chomsky’s linguistic expertise makes him an expert on all things. Huh? All I saw was an old man who was quite uninformed on many topics, despite how much he may have read; one who, with a straight face, predicts that Saddam would send a band of nuclear terrorists into New York if we attack Iraq, and tacitly approves of such. I guess boredom with linguistics allows one to fantasize, and it shows, because all he does is pontificate on subject after subject, as if they were all his specialty. Another acolyte, in fact, praises him for this tack, stating it takes some unspecified form of courage to have Chomsky’s contempt for disciplinary boundaries. So, I assume if I decide to tour the country speaking of Cajun cooking, it’s also a courageous act? Perhaps if a dentist attempts to perform a coronary bypass on Chomsky he’ll regain some respect for expertise.
And what exactly is he a rebel from? This is not made clear. Perhaps because Chomsky moans that he is shut out of, and censored by, PBS and NPR whenever he appears there? Yet I have no doubt that he could get massive audiences, if not always asskissy to him, on cable tv. And that seems to be his real beef, that he is not given the amount of uncritical and fawning respect he feels he’s due, the stuff this film tries to make up for. He seems to want an insulated audience that never asks him challenging questions. Not once did I hear a non-softball question tossed his way- not in the 73 minute main film nor in the 38 minutes of even more dull pontificating included as an ‘extra’. This extra also contains Chomsky wrongly predicting that Bush needed the war in Iraq to be over before 2004 or he’d lose the election. In his own way, Chomsky is as out of touch with the real world as his nemesis, George W. Bush, is. Yet, watching this film only shows me an old man who has not grown an iota since the Cuban Missile Crisis- not personally, not intellectually, and certainly not emotionally. As such, he is so like others in Academia that it’s almost funny to hear him whine of their shortcomings, simply because they are not as stunted as he apparently is. Yet, his is very much the overwhelming majority in Academia, so he’s taking no personal nor professional risks in his career by ‘speaking out’, and it’s hardly a rebellious thing to do. He also seems to have made a great deal of money as a ‘professional dissenter’, for he seems to have a Michael Jackson sized entourage wherever he goes. Certainly a mere linguist could not have such a brocaded posse. This fact, however, explains why he branched out into the role as all purpose wise man- it pays better!
Even worse are his acolytes, who seem to further insulate the man from reality, by fostering delusions that Chomsky is a target for Zionist assassins. What little I knew of Chomsky before watching this film, this much I knew: he was generally considered a has been, and pretty much irrelevant intellectually, since the fall of the Soviet Empire. The film is so poorly structured, and without a narrative thread, that it’s difficult to separate all of the jumble. His wife, Carol, as example, apparently gave one interview, which was chopped up and dropped wherever in the film. She seems a nice enough woman, but wholly out of her element answering anything but the most basic questions about their life. The lone interesting thing she says is that 9/11 was a great thing for the Chomskys, for he has reaped a great deal of money in speaking fees since then.
Not surprisingly, this sort of film gives almost no biographical background. It’s assumed that all viewers must know all the plaudits this ‘great man’ bears. Chomsky is rarely interviewed one on one. Stylistically, there are no camera movements, no interesting edits, nor any signature touches, and most of the film is disjunct rambles by Chomsky, videotaped huzzahs of Chomsky declaiming on this or that, and slack-jawed and awed students looking at him as if he were immaterial, that is when dimwitted coeds are not asking barely audible and ridiculously simplistic questions to him. This is really poor filmmaking by director and editor Will Pascoe, who in the DVD’s Filmmaker Statement, shows he’s yet another uncritical acolyte of Chomsky’s. Other than that, one of the surest signs that this is not an objective documentary, but mere agitprop, and a vanity piece of agitprop, at that, is that not a single time is Chomsky shown struggling with an answer. He seems to be a font of knowledge that has no bounds.
Given that much of this dreck was filmed during Chomsky’s lectures at McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada, prior to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, much of what Chomsky says seems as remote as things from the Vietnam War era. Yes, he makes some good points, here and there, on American media complicity before the war, but he follows them up with sheer lunacy, for he seems to not realize that most conspiracies are ad hoc, and not fully plotted out cabals. As example, he claims that the advertising industry is a cabal that mercilessly controls the populace, but says not a word about the zombied populace that lets itself be so controlled. Similarly, he claims Trilateralists run the world and that people’s fear of crime is yet another cabal’s result. Of course, that claim so fully explains away rape crisis centers, and all that wasted time and money district attorneys’ offices consume. He also makes the absurd claim that Cuba has been the victim of terrorism for decades, when Castro and company were great sponsors of it, in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, until the Soviet Union fell. I can only guess that the UFO conspiracists are just waiting for Chomsky to proclaim that gray aliens have set up species-mixing impregnation centers up in Idaho.
In his simpleminded world without grays, Chomsky is frighteningly as dense as the members of Bushco, whom he reviles, are; even more so since they lay no claim to being intellectuals. In short, Chomsky is a man living in the past, in over his head on most issues, and out of his depth intellectually. Near this film’s end he warns, ‘Be cautious when you hear about intellectuals being fighters for justice,’ yet one can only laugh, as the man seemingly has never met a revolutionary person nor idea that he didn’t like, no matter how barbarous their crimes, and anti-intellectual their posit. Please, pause before you waste your time and money on this silly, and already irrelevant, DVD.
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