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Case Number 06802

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Noam Chomsky: Rebel Without A Pause

Docurama // 2003 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // May 16th, 2005

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All Rise...

Judge Russell Engebretson's English teacher once called him a rebel without a clause.

The Charge

Noam Chomsky is the most-cited living author in the world.

Opening Statement

Noam Chomsky, linguistics professor at MIT and activist since the 1950s, is the indispensable intellectual for viewers who prefer their politics served straight up. His arguments are densely packed with easily verified facts and are as adamantine as granite, much to the chagrin of his rightist critics (and no small number of liberals), who do their best to ignore, smear, or simply lock him out of the public arena of debate.

Facts of the Case

Most of this collection of Chomsky's lectures and discussions was filmed on location in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on November 2002. It begins with a brief interview with his wife and tour manager, Dr. Carol Chomsky, who says they have known one another since the age of five, when they both attended the same Hebrew school. Carol's interview segues to Noam Chomsky addressing a large university audience.

Most of the film is footage of Chomsky offering his views on subjects such as Iraq, mass media and control, and 9-11. Sometimes he is lecturing before very large audiences, and other times in a classroom setting, occasionally fielding questions from the audience.

Brief interviews with several people are scattered throughout the film, the bulk of them in the last fifteen minutes. There are short interviews with Andy Bone of the Bertrand Russell Research Center, Tracey Higgins (an employee of Bryan Prince Bookseller), Carol Chomsky, philosophy professor Nick Griffin, and a couple of others.

The Evidence

In the first lecture of the film, Chomsky modestly says to the audience, "if I had the capacity to be a good speaker, which I don't, I wouldn't use it. I'm a boring speaker and I like it that way…I doubt that people are attracted to whatever the persona is…People are interested in the issues, and they're interested in the issues because they are important." True to his word, Chomsky is not an eloquent orator, though he is a better speaker than he claims. Chomsky is riveting because what he says is plainly spoken and compelling, and he treats his audience like a group of intelligent adults, which is a rarity in today's media world of smirking pundits and ranting hate mongers.

The tired, meaningless accusation of anti-Americanism is constantly leveled at Chomsky from the right (is anyone accused of anti-Canadianism or anti-Australianism?), but he says that Americans have an enormous amount of freedom. He compares the rights of U.S. citizens to the rights of citizens in countries like China or Singapore, where people can be jailed—even executed—for speaking out against their government leaders. He also points out that those freedoms were not a gift to us from the government but were achieved by our predecessors, who struggled to win those freedoms.

One of Chomsky's major themes is how government uses fear (of terrorists, dictators, communists, and so forth) to break down solidarity and sympathy among its citizenry. Chomsky talks about the big effort to privatize Social Security as, financially speaking, ridiculous. He says the point of privatization is that "Social Security is based on an unacceptable principle, namely that you should care if the disabled widow across town survives; and you're not supposed to care about that…but whether you have enough pairs of shoes, cars, or video games, or whatever it is." He also says another advantage to privatizing Social Security is that "it has the brilliant consequence of turning working people against their own interest; because, if your pension is tied up in stocks, you want to make sure that those stocks go up. And the way those stocks go up is by cutting wages, reducing working conditions, sending jobs to Chinese sweatshops, and so on. So as a working person, you have to be committed to undermining your own interest. For reasons like that, you want to privatize Social Security, privatize schools, and water, and everything else; and also make people afraid of each other. These are ways of controlling people, and fear is one of them."

Though Chomsky is American, he is better known outside his native country because he is virtually blacklisted by the U.S. corporate media. Reviews of his books are rarely seen in large-circulation newspapers or magazines (even for his recent bestseller 9-11). He is all but banned from television; if conservatives mention him at all, it is with phrases such as "beyond the pale" or "outside the mainstream." Yet he is in the top ten list of most-quoted authors, deceased or living; he fills lecture halls around the world in New Zealand, England, Ireland, Canada, and other countries, and is greatly respected by many intellectuals and scholars the world over. He has become better known in the last few years—approaching rock star status according to Carol Chomsky—but rejects the role of figurehead. He greatly dislikes the cult of personality, and exhorts Americans not to depend on leaders for direction, but to be activists.

Noam Chomsky does not cajole the listener; he presents his arguments—a distillation of copious reading—with disarming candor. According to his wife, Chomsky reads six newspapers daily, subscribes to 80 journals, and spends a great amount of his time reading and researching. He pursues a life of activism despite poisonous threats from various right-wing groups, and maintains a touring schedule that would exhaust most men half his age. He could have chosen to live a more relaxed and anonymous life as a respected linguistics professor, but chose the path of political activism. I am grateful for the choice he made.

Director Will Pascoe has created a good, workmanlike introduction to Chomsky and his political theories. It's a talking-head type of documentary, very low on flash factor. A more thorough and creative, though much older, introduction to Chomsky is Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.

There is nothing serious to complain about concerning the sound, which is clear, or video transfer, which is fine for a documentary. The one extra feature of note is a delightful 33 minutes of additional commentary from Chomsky. There is also what appears to be a complete catalog of Docurama titles, with a few trailers included.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Sadly, the filmmakers chose a quote from rocker Bono (rebel without a clue) of the group U2 for the title of their film. Bono has been drifting to the right for years; a far better choice would have been a quotation from a genuine rock-and-roll political activist like Steve Earle.

Closing Statement

I recommend this DVD as an introduction to anyone who is new to Chomsky. For those who are acquainted with his writings or previous films, this may be too much of a rehash; however, the interviews with his wife are worth viewing. I believe it is the first interview of Carol Chomsky ever presented on a Noam Chomsky video. Newcomers should watch this title and then read at least a couple of his books for an in-depth understanding of, among other things, how media and the public relations industry, owned by the elite, attempt to shape our opinions and control our lives.

The Verdict

The accused is acquitted of all charges; long may he lecture.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 80
Audio: 85
Extras: 70
Story: 95
Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Docurama
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• Additional Footage
• Director's Statement
• Crew Biographies
• About Docurama
• Trailers


• IMDb
• Noam Chomsky Official Site

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