He is a world-renowned scholar who has thoroughly revolutionized the field of linguistics since the appearance of his first book, Syntactic Structures, in 1957. And for the past 30 years, Noam Chomsky has also been engaged in another, less esoteric, revolution—an attempt to shatter the image of the United States as a benevolent international policeman making the world safe for democracy. At 64, Chomsky, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, continues to decry American foreign policy and what he insists is the collusion between the U.S. government and the media. His newly published 42nd book, Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Black Rose, 332 pages, $19.95), offers a savage critique of the new world order that former president George Bush hailed during his 1991 war against Iraq—and whose roots Chomsky traces to the European-led colonization of the world that began five centuries ago. But despite his prolific, provocative output, Chomsky the dissident is almost as lowprofile as Chomsky the linguist. Dismissed by many mainstream commentators for his iconoclastic views, he is confined to the margins of public debate in his own country.
In Canada, however,
Chomsky enjoys increasing cult status. His books usually sell a respectable 5,000 copies, on average, with the demand growing. Meanwhile, in 1990,
Toronto playwrights Daniel Brooks and Guillermo Verdecchia created The Noam Chomsky Lectures, a critically acclaimed, award-winning stage work inspired by the American thinker.
And since the fall, a new 168-minute Canadian documentary, Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, has played to often sold-out houses across the country. The CBC is currently negotiating with the film-makers about airing the documentary on Newsworld or, in an abridged version, on the main network. Manufacturing Consent, which has won major awards at festivals
from Chicago to Sydney, Australia, and which has been bought by networks in 12 countries, recently opened in the United States.
Five years in the making, the documentary took Peter Wintonick and Mark Achbar, partners in the Montreal film company Necessary Illusions, to 23 cities in seven countries in their quest to chronicle the ideas of the much travelled Chomsky. Leisurely paced and often playfully presented, Manufacturing Consent (named after a 1989 book co-written by Chomsky and finance professor Edward S. Herman) provides an insightful and accessible look at the ideas of a man who is both pedagogue and demagogue. The film deals primarily with Chomsky’s analysis of the American media, particularly The New York Times. Employing neither a narrator nor face-to-face interviews with Chomsky, the film-makers allow the scholar’s ideas to unfold in a series of public speeches, radio and TV interviews, as well as debates with conservative and liberal opponents. In all of those forums, Chomsky repeatedly, and often quite persuasively, drives home a central point: that in American society the role of the mass media, overwhelmingly controlled by large corporations, is to manufacture the majority’s consent for the continuing rule of the rich and the powerful.
Since becoming politically active as a major participant in the antiwar movement protesting U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Chomsky has long argued that what he calls “the agenda-setting media” define the parameters of public debate on issues of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Major newspapers and network broadcasts, he says, choose which topics are covered, frame issues in certain ways and ensure that dissenting viewpoints rarely receive space. ‘They determine, they select, they control, they restrict,” Chomsky tells a local cable TV reporter from Rochester, N.Y., in one of the documentary’s early scenes.
Chief among Chomsky’s targets has been one of the most reputable of media organs, The New York Times, a newspaper that he characterizes—sometimes too strenuously—as utterly biased in favor of the American elite. In particular, says Chomsky, the Times unfailingly portrays the United States as a defender of freedom and democracy abroad—even when the evidence indicates the opposite. “The Times is a company that sells readers—in this case, very privileged readers, to advertisers,”
Chomsky told Maclean’s.
“Despite all the claims of objectivity, it is the product of a situation in which the advertisers, the newspaper itself and the readers are all in agreement that the system works—and that it should be vigorously defended.”
Manufacturing Consent invokes Chomsky’s comparison of the Times’ coverage of two conflicts that unfolded in Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s: the Indonesian massacre of thousands of civilians on the island of East Timor, just north of Australia, and the genocide perpetrated by Cambodia’s Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge. At the time, Chomsky points out in the film,
Indonesia was a U.S. ally and East Timor was home to extensive oil reserves, strategic U.S.-controlled submarine lanes—and a burgeoning democratic movement demanding greater local control of the island’s resources. The Khmer Rouge and its Communist leader, Pol Pot, by contrast, were on Washington’s list of official enemies.
According to Chomsky, at the same time that the United States voiced outrage about Pol Pot at the United Nations, it was providing 90 per cent of the arms Indonesia was using to destroy the democratic ground swell in East Timor. And the Times, he quite convincingly demonstrates, faithfully mirrored Washington’s double standard. Between 1975 and 1979, the newspaper devoted 70 column-inches to the East Timor conflict. Coverage of the Cambodian conflict took up 1,175 inches.
Clearly aware that his theories have the ring of the politically paranoid, Chomsky has
long backed himself up with such facts and figures—numbers that at times threaten to drown the documentary in a pool of mindnumbing statistics. To counter that, Wintonick and Achbar employ both a dark sense of humor and a deft hand at storytelling. In one scene, they pose as scalpel-wielding surgeons to imitate editors from the Times who, in one case, cut all indications of U.S. com-
plicity from a story about East Timor that they had reprinted from The Times of London. The two doctors then toss the offending paragraphs into a pan marked “not fit to print”—a reference to the American newspaper’s motto, “All the news that’s fit to print.”
One person who has made a point of not seeing Manufacturing Consent is Chomsky himself. “I hate to hear myself on tape and watch myself on screen,” said the soft-spoken author, talking by phone from his home in Lexington, just north of Boston. “All I can think about is how I could have put things more clearly, how I should have done things differently.” Married to Carol Chomsky, also a linguist, and the father of three children, Chomsky continues to maintain a busy schedule of teaching linguistics and doing research at MIT and, in his spare time, writing or lecturing (three or four times a week) about American foreign policy.
Born in Philadelphia in 1928, Chomsky developed a political consciousness relatively early. His parents, William and Elsie, were Hebrew scholars who had immigrated to the United States from Ukraine. As a 10-year-old student at an experimental progressive school, Chomsky wrote an editorial for a school newspaper defending the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War. Later, while working on his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, he developed his groundbreaking linguistic theories, which essentially arise from his belief that certain basic structures of human language are innate, not learned.
As a dissident, Chomsky first became prominent during the Vietnam War through his articles and speeches denouncing American involvement, and by helping to create the antiwar organization Resist. Since then, he has continually hammered away at U.S. interventions around the world, earning many enemies. One clip included in the documentary
shows Jeff Greenfield, then producer of the ABC network’s current affairs program Nightline, defending his program’s failure ever to use Chomsky as a commentator. “His notions about the limits of debate in this country,” Greenfield says in a 1987 interview, “are absolutely wacko.” Author Tom Wolfe calmly describes Chomsky’s ideas as “the old cabal theory, that somewhere there’s a room . . . with a bunch of capitalists sitting around and they pull the strings.” Arch-Republican William F. Buckley, host of the ABC series Firing Line, sinks to threatening his left-wing guest. With a patently fake smile pasted on his face, Buckley tells Chomsky that he will “smash you in the God-damned face” if the scholar loses his temper.
In response, Chomsky says that it is not arch-conservatives who worry him the most—or who pose the greatest threat to freedom and democracy. “It is the sane and reasonable and tolerant people,” he calmly tells Buckley, “who share a very serious burden of guilt.” Indeed, although he spends considerable effort defending his belief that the media are largely to blame for apathy and ignorance, Chomsky refuses simply to forgive those who uncritically consume what the media produce. “People,” he says in the documentary, “are allowing themselves to be deluded and manipulated by the system.” Chomsky says that he is troubled by the right’s growth in prominence over the past 20 years. “It’s at the point where not only can’t anybody identify themselves as a socialist, they can’t even say they’re liberal,” he told Maclean’s. “Even [President Bill] Clinton couldn’t call himself a liberal if he wanted to get elected. When you reach a degree of ideological takeover where being a liberal is a curse word, you know that’s really a huge achievement of power for the right.”
Despite his often grim perspective on the state of the world, and his generally pessimistic pronouncements in Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky’s conclusions are not entirely bleak. In the closing pages of Year 501, he points to the lukewarm nature of last year’s celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s maiden voyage. That lack of enthusiasm, he says, indicates a widespread skepticism about the legacy of European and American imperialism. “Had the quincentennial of the old world order fallen in 1962, it would have been celebrated once again as the liberation of the hemisphere,” he writes. “In 1992, that was impossible.” Commenting on that outlook, he told Maclean’s: “I don’t spend a lot of time writing upbeat messages—I spend time on what’s awful and what ought to be changed. That doesn’t mean I don’t have hope.” Sighing, he paused, and added, “The juggernaut still goes on, but you can throw a lot of sand in its gears.”
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