Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times

*** (A must-see)

Directed by John Junkerman.

As a work of cinema, John Junkerman’s documentary about Noam Chomsky doesn’t set the world on fire. The film is a prosaic compilation of interview footage of the linguist and political analyst in his office at MIT intercut with footage of him speaking in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and the Bronx last spring. He’s also shown chatting with students about U.S. foreign policy, the “war on terrorism,” and representations of both in the American media. Unlike Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992), a Canadian film that’s well over twice as long, Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times doesn’t try to offer a comprehensive portrait of its subject or a wide-ranging survey of his thought. Yet Power and Terror kept me interested for its full 74 minutes with a series of surprises. Here are four I found especially noteworthy:

(1) It’s a Japanese film–beginning and ending with and frequently accompanied by Japanese pop songs, all by Kiyoshura Imawano. (None of the songs are subtitled, though English words pop up in the lyrics intermittently.) Junkerman–an American filmmaker based in Tokyo and working with a Japanese producer and mainly Japanese crew–has focused on Japanese subjects in four of his previous half-dozen documentaries. Here the most obvious Japanese angle is an emphasis on Chomsky’s critique of the imperialist excesses of Japan, principally its cruel treatment of the Chinese. More subtle and yet more crucial is that although the on-screen audiences are American, the film addresses its American viewers as members of a global community. I can’t even imagine a member of the Bush team speaking to us in this fashion. The film offers a small taste of the sort of discourse that’s been going on lately outside the U.S.–and not only in Japan.

Junkerman declares in the film’s press book that in the early aftermath of 9/11 he was “startled to hear that some 95 percent of Americans–and 100 percent of opinion makers–had taken up the call to arms.” As a member of the dissenting 5 percent, he writes, “I felt lonely and disheartened. Had we learned nothing from 15 years of fighting a delusionary war in Vietnam? Did no one stop to question whether military force was the answer to terror?”

I share Junkerman’s sentiments, though I wonder whether the prowar consensus he describes isn’t more apparent than real. Surely the statistics he quotes are as questionable as the numbers generated by Hollywood test-marketers, whose polling methods privilege knee-jerk consumption patterns over taste, loaded questions over open-ended inquiry, and fleeting impulses over long-term convictions. (When Peter Bart, the editor of Variety, recently vented his disdain for American movie critics who develop their own, idiosyncratic ten-best lists instead of conforming to the orthodoxies and complacencies of the studios and the Oscars, it reminded me a little of Bush telling the world, “You’re either with us or against us.”)

A more genuine consensus created in the wake of 9/11 is a global one that rejects American military unilateralism. The degree to which Bush has inadvertently strengthened this sense of community outside America is made palpable, and one of the film’s most precious gifts is its invitation to Americans to join this company.

(2) Power and Terror is not the America-bashing exercise one might expect when the subject is Chomsky. In part that’s because Chomsky’s views have been more often parodied than understood–thanks in no small measure to the efforts of neoconservative critics like Norman Podhoretz and Christopher Hitchens. Here Chomsky emphasizes that imperialist powers all tend to behave in the same way, that back when the British Empire was the one on top it was no better than ours is now (his criticism of Winston Churchill is especially withering). Chomsky also takes pains to note that, for all its hypocrisy, all its slogans about the “war on terrorism” and the “axis of evil,” the Bush administration is actually far more upfront about its intentions than the intellectuals who try to rationalize its policies.

(3) The film opens with a flurry of short printed quotations about Chomsky, one of which comes from the New York Times: “Arguably the most important intellectual alive… his political writings are maddeningly simple-minded.” Initially I laughed at this as a prime example of Times doublethink, but on further reflection I realized that it’s absolutely correct. But why should we value intellectuals in proportion to the abstruseness and complexity of their ideas? Chomsky’s simplicity is really lucidity; it has nothing to do with naivete and everything to do with expediency. Chomsky cuts to the chase.

(4) The biggest surprise of all is Chomsky’s cheerfulness. His affability isn’t a mask but a sign of genuine optimism. For an American like me, who first discovered the depth, degree, and longevity of American brutality against people in South America and the Middle East through Chomsky, his work can be depressing and upsetting–especially if one accepts the received wisdom that there’s been no operative political opposition to imperialist brutality in this country since the 60s. Patiently and persuasively, Chomsky explains that appearances can be deceiving in these matters–that opposition to the war in Vietnam didn’t become effective until well into the 70s, and that feminism and environmentalism didn’t truly register until well after that. With our nation poised to initiate an invasion that would likely, according to UN estimates, cause a half-million casualties, this is no time for whistling contentedly. Still, Chomsky’s observations offer real grounds for hope that as feelings of membership in the world community spread in America, effective political opposition to military unilateralism and the concomitant slaughter of innocent civilians will grow.

At 74, Chomsky has kept abreast of concerns other intellectuals have chosen to ignore for half a century. He has no interest in downplaying the damage that we are capable of inflicting. But neither does he want to minimize the forces of dissent in this country. Most of his colleagues deem these countercurrents to be ineffectual or even invisible, but Chomsky sees them as growing steadily in power and size. And because some of us are only beginning to pick up on the damage, it’s about time we got better acquainted with the opposition. Power and Terror is a good place to start.