"If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-
war American president would have been hanged."
Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent
Let the quote sink in. Can there be any more powerful proof of the word – and concept of – 'context'? It's the B (and A) side of "...one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." But then if 'context' is everything then that statement, if true, is a little misleading. Times change. The context of 1945, just after the holocaust, is significantly different – or perceived to be significantly different – to the context of 1992 (when the film Manufacturing Consent was released). Perhaps it's even 'different' in a more damning way in 2009. This is something I imagine the 'star' of the film, Noam Chomsky, would not only agree with but he would also provide me with countless sources of undeniable proof – in context. I was appalled by what I read just after September the 11th, 2001 in an effort to understand the context of the attack. Previously, I'd grasped only a vague and hazy notion of US foreign policy (oil was the only word I knew on the subject) and diving into the work of John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Al Franken and Michael Moore, I began to learn what America's government and mass media actually did (unless the writers were lying too) to keep its citizens in gasoline, fast food and Twinkies and most importantly, what was needed to keep them hopelessly uninformed. Just linking the unlinked Saddam Hussein with the 9/11 attackers in an attempt to curry public favour for invasion exposed one of the lowest and despicable PR tricks from the unmissed Bush administration.
It's all on the public record. This is information that is available but it takes some serious research, journalistic doggedness and academic effort to unearth it. This isn't a job for Google. Who'll pay anyone these days to do that? No media corporation is ever going to tear off the hand that feeds it. More likely it will lick it enthusiastically. Please don't think I'm unaware of the fact that the US is not the only country with dirty tricks to hide. I live in one with a not too spotless record of innocence on the world stage Hell, in terms of power and world influence, Britain used to be 'America' and was much worse in the colonial days. The UK is maxima culpa too. It's just that now, the US is the world's most powerful country and therefore the one under most scrutiny and it should be held more accountable than lesser players. When the big dog barks, lives change, move forward or are lost all over the world and the truth behind any given political move is often obfuscated by party expediency and long term self interest
When the afore mentioned and award winning journalist, John Pilger began to interview a US senator a few years ago, he started with the fact that the US has 'gone to war' or 'intervened militarily' seventy two times since WWII. The senator was shocked, accused the Australian journalist and writer of making up these absurd figures and terminated the interview. If the US's own senators have no grasp of what America gets up to behind closed borders, then what hope is there of curbing this destructive and self-serving behaviour from the outside? You don't get to be top dog by rolling over for a tummy tickle. But this dog has fleas and one of the most celebrated and reviled is Noam Chomsky. Please be aware that something quite profound might happen to you after viewing this DVD, Manufacturing Consent. You may start looking at everything in a slightly different way and there is very little wrong with that potential outcome. Watching 'normal' TV last night left me in a state of some agitation because I was aware of how profoundly I was being sedated – and I was stone cold sober. And this is largely due to the close scrutiny of the twin pack DVD, one that chronicles the tireless efforts of one man over many decades to eke out nuggets of gold in an ocean of sludge.
To turn around an oft-quoted Bill Hicks line – Linguist, American intellectual and US foreign policy critic, Noam Chomsky, is Bill Hicks without the dick jokes. At the vanguard of American self-criticism is a man whose intellectual credentials are irreproachable. If he were any more squeaky clean and well informed he'd be unbearably sanctimonious. Physically, he's the cloned twin of Woody Allen injected with a soupcon of Judd Hirsch DNA. For some inexplicable reason, he turns up perfectly well fitting jeans when at work and seems prepared for a flood. But it's the flood of information that threatens to swamp the man's office. Noam Chomsky, seems to be one of the few who puts his head willingly above the ramparts stating what seems to be 'the obvious' – but it patently isn't – to a great many of his fellow Americans. His message is simple to encapsulate.
According to Chomsky, the US government and media corporations suppress unfavourable information to stop most of the American people from questioning motives and darker truths. The benign idea behind this (if one could hope to exist) is that ordinary people do not understand how democracy works and could not hope to participate in the process so those who own things put themselves in charge. Patronising doesn't begin to cover that. The only positive flip side to this insane arrogance is that of a patient being in charge of a doctor's diagnosis. That's insane but because of relative power, an uneducated father has the last word on the fate of his dying offspring over the scores of years of training of his doctors and nurses. Or there's the sausage... Don't ask what's in it or you'll never enjoy it... Apathetic and subdued and frightened is exactly what Bush and his cabal wanted in a population. It would be nice if this changes over the next four years. Also Chomsky is condemned by the right for his continued assertion that the US is the world's leading and most powerful terrorist state. Them's fighting words and we'll get to the brawl in a few minutes.
I used to agree with the notion that if enough people accuse you of being drunk then it's time to lie down. Now, I'm not so sure. If enough Christians tell me to accept Jesus Christ as my saviour, I'd ask them to leave by way of procreation and if I'm feeling particularly generous, I stuff Dawkins' The God Delusion into their hands with the cheery words "Well, you people have been giving me reading material for decades now. Please have some of mine." With enough weight of the soporific effect of mass media and the 'dumbing down' of the culture, it's hard not to just lie down and be depoliticized by it all, a sort of hands in the air cry of "Well, what am I supposed to do about it?" When I started reading Chomsky's work, a great deal seemed to be, taken with the tiniest mote of common sense, both true and starkly revealing. I accept that this could be because what he wrote corresponded very neatly with my liberal leanings. He's an easy and powerful magnet for liberals with active consciences. Spotlessly and tirelessly moral, Chomsky represents the voice of reason with a large caveat as brought up by Sam Harris in his own excellently argued and vitally necessary book, The End Of Faith.
What he seems to lack, according to Harris, resides in his 'faulty' ethics vault. It's hard to stand categorically with either man on this issue for reasons I'll get to in a moment. By stating that by its own definition, the United States of America is the leading terrorist state in the world today, Chomsky's garnered a few critics. No... You think? So what is terrorism?
As From U.S. Code Title 22, Ch.38, Para. 2656f(d)
(2) the term "terrorism" means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;
Got that? Killing civilians basically. Has the US ever been guilty of killing civilians? Of course. But here's where author Sam Harris puts his ethical oar in. Regardless of its awning like covering of the red soaked and the dead, 'collateral damage' is a fact of warfare but this damage is not intentional. That, ethically, is the crucial difference. The 'good' guys care about killing only the 'bad' guys and show genuine remorse when innocents get in the way. If this were a debate, I'm sure Chomsky would jump in here with about fifty examples of civilian massacres by American troops. I am not condoning the violence in the first instance by accepting this sad fact of death. But, apparently, the 'bad' guys go out of their way to kill innocents and will use human shields to deter the softer-minded opposing armies. This is terrorism. The insurgents (gosh, another synonym, how much more friendly and noble than terrorists) have a very big enemy to engage so don't fire only to disarm him. Spurred on by absurd ancient beliefs, taking out civilians is seen as a religious duty.
It is a crucial difference (to Harris) and the only time I've had to step back from Chomsky's pronouncements and wonder if that's what Chomsky actually accepts, ethically speaking. Of course I'm being almost mindlessly simplistic but I hope that's the essence, the DNA of the debate. But the outstanding list of American aggression in other countries for political and practical ends is enough of a monstrous tsunami to conclude that while Harris's argument has merit, it doesn't turn Chomsky's entire position into an easily assailable one. Ethically, there is a debate to be had but I'm sure Harris' position (based from a reading of Chomsky's '9/11' collection of interview transcripts) may be weakened by Chomsky's database-like quick-witted mind. Perhaps I'm being naïve but I did find a quote from Chomsky's '9/11' that straddles both Harris' and Chomsky's ethical position. I quote:
"By "distorted accounts" perhaps, Walzer has in mind occasional references to the statement by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright over national TV when she was asked about the estimates of half a million deaths of Iraqi children as a result of the sanctions regime. She recognized that such consequences were a "hard choice" for her administration but said "we think the price is worth it.""
Half a million. The superpower good guys kill 'by mistake' in surgical strikes and in putting sanctions in place, who knows what the exact costs are. Hugely regrettable but "worth it"... Please understand I'm being as straightforward as I can be (given my own biases). But then again, there's context to consider. Where Mr. Chomsky shines brightest is by reassuring the world that not all Americans are breathtakingly indifferent to world affairs. There is an intellectual elite (I detest that word because of elitist connotations, things ordinary people won't 'get'), a group of high profile Americans who are serving democracy by promoting activism and opening people's eyes to the dark side of the most powerful force on this planet. Not all Americans are self serving, gas guzzlers, uncaring of their government's behaviour. The problem is that most are (as in any society) and it's that huge, politically apathetic percentage to whom Chomsky is trying to break through.
In presenting a well informed and piercing, intellectual cry from the darkness of the underbelly of US policy, Chomsky distributes his spine-straight morality with calm assurance and an almost zen-like debating style. Helping spread the word is Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick's effective and shocking film, Manufacturing Consent. This is, in effect, an intellectual's banquet. Based on the 1988 book of the same name, the film is no mere character study (its subtitle is "Noam Chomsky and the Media"). It's a gattling gun of ideas.
How you take the bullets is another story. Nick Davies, in his superb and terrifying book 'Flat Earth News', stuns us with the fact that about 70% of newspaper stories in the UK are now barely rewritten public relations statements. Why? No journalist has time to make follow up calls or to investigate the 'facts'. So in they go. 70%... This supports Chomsky's primary thesis terrifyingly well. Where Davies and Chomsky part is that the former believes there is no 'great conspiracy' in Rupert Murdoch's messages getting through to the brainwashed punters. It's just business. If Murdock could make more money with 'The Times' suddenly turning left, he'd turn it left. Where Chomsky sees power flowing from the top, Davies sees money flowing from the bottom. I urge you to read 'Flat Earth News'. It's got one of those "I don't believe that's true!" moments on every page.
The movie is constructed from hundreds of hours of Chomsky's lectures across the world inter-cut with some library footage to illustrate points and in a few cases when the budget would allow, some playful animation (film-makers all dressed up as surgeons) illustrating how the 'New York Times' – an organ that comes in for a sound hammering – edited a story from London (on a massacre) and toned it down, belittling its importance in line with US policy in the area (there's just too much money to be made selling arms to worry about whose they get into). The directors adopt a very carefree style in terms of letting the audience see the strings on several occasions. They are also participants (although you don't know this until you see the Extras) and they leave shots a little long or leave the word "Cut" in place because its delivery has something damning to say about the subject being cut from. The lectures can sway into dense thickets of historical recall and ideological wish fulfillment but on the whole, Chomsky is not preaching to peers but to those who turn up (as Jed Bartlett of The West Wing said and it needs repeating, "The laws are made by those who show up.") Those unsympathetic to Chomsky's ideas are unlikely to attend his talks but also those rabidly opposed have opportunities to vent their spleens.
One of the more outrageous examples of Chomsky bashing is the case of Frenchman Robert Faurrison. I say outrageous because any logical person can accept Chomsky's argument but when emotion comes in and poisons logic, where are we then? Chomsky made the mistake of writing a short essay on the importance of the freedom of speech. He was cavalier by stating that the recipient could use it how they wished. It ended up as an introduction to a book by Robert Faurisson in which the entire holocaust, the massacre of six million souls, was flatly denied. Chomsky did not give permission for his essay to be used to shore up the sales of what must be accepted as a ludicrous revisionist treatise but found himself being regarded as a supporter of Faurrison's ideas. Here's the argument. Chomsky says "I defend your right to free speech, even when that speech is abhorrent to me – that's the point of free speech." How can aggrieved people react against that? But some do and did. It's the ludicrous association logic. You stand next to a murderer. You must be sympathetic to him/her... Uh, no.
Revered author Tom Wolfe is quick to dismiss Chomsky's central ideas of corporate media control as 'absolute rubbish' ascribing his behaviour to the need that intellectuals have to belong to a clergy. Interesting. Supporting that side is 'The New York Times' spokesman who insists, perhaps correctly, that because Chomsky has never run a newspaper, he doesn't know what's involved. This ties in with Nick Davies' assertion that control does not flow from the top. But against that, his 'column inches' arguments on story coverage is quite compelling even if they are not deliberate. They happen once maybe because of ignorance, haste and deadline pressure says the newspaper professional. Chomsky then cites the truth of very much more than these biases happening 'once'.
Chomsky is further grilled by fellow intellectual and broadcaster, William F. Buckley Jnr. This man comes across as owning a PhD in almost reptilian smarm and a mannered delivery that would make Brian Sewell blanche. I know it's a performance per se and I know the NTSC VHS source does no one any favours but this guy has facial ticks, winks and a whole gamut of ironic and patronising smiles that communicate almost as much as he does verbally. In both the actual film and again in this Extra, he says, through clenched teeth, "If you lose your temper I'll smash you in the goddamn face..." and you get a sense he means it and is not just performing amusingly to his loyal audience. He sniggers after he says this and I got a real chill watching him. Buckley died last year and will probably be remembered as the US's most famous Conservative intellectual of his time but not wishing to make any judgements on presentation alone, but this guy scares the bejesus out of me even when I know he's dead.
The plight of East Timor is highlighted, a horror that had the awful misfortune to occur at the same time as a more 'worthy' and 'relevant' news item; Pol Pot's ripping out of Cambodia's heart as featured in Roland Joffe's The Killing Fields. Vietnam was considered more newsworthy. Chomsky championed East Timor's cause and the simple shot of two girls in the middle of gunfire featured in the film, is gut wrenching; as too, is an Australian reporter who is visibly moved by the bravery of the soldiers he is accompanying in the small country, soldiers who accept they will die the next day as they engage the Indonesian invaders. This reporter and many of his other colleagues do indeed die the following day with the soldiers. It's incredibly moving. Just for completion's sake, Chomsky is ultra critical of the US (as in the case of Israel), because the invader's hardware was all bought from the then President Jimmy Carter fully supportive of the Indonesian case for invading East Timor. If there's a profit to be made...
I could go on listing the alleged deceit and lies of Chomsky's opponents but I must finish with one of those sublime and utterly accidental cuts that had me roaring. Earlier in the film, Chomsky is asked a question by a Dutch interviewer and is reminded to keep his answers short. This is akin to asking him to summarize the First World War in a sound bite. Modern TV has made it impossible to go deeply into subjects, to have a reasoned and rational debate 'because there isn't time'. There's always a soap opera nudging the intellectuals off the schedules... In this instance he's in debate with John Silber (see the Extras where the whole shows are featured) and as it gets heated, the host says that they've run out of time but he obviously gets permission in his ear for the debate to continue from his producers on high. Minutes later, tempers are flaring, Chomsky is cut off time and time again by a man with the fervent belief he is defending his truth and as Chomsky makes a final attempt to state his case, he is cut off...
...by a six frame mix to the national lottery board. Sublime and ridiculous have never been more so.
That transition couldn't have stated Chomsky's case more perfectly if he'd planned it himself. Please check this Two Disc set out. It's the cinematic equivalent of cleaning your glasses and being amazed that what you can see most clearly is the opaque dirt on your tissue paper.
The movie, at 4:3 or 1.33:1, originates from about as many sources as you can name. Its shoestring budget is by far one of its strengths (as if the truth could only manage an escape attempt through VHS all the way up to the relative quality of 16mm film). The state of the picture is therefore variable at best and 'Whoah!' at worst – but of course, this matters not one whit. There are Hard Of Hearing subtitles on the main feature.
The sound, like the picture, is a patchwork quilt but as this is a film of ideas expressed verbally, I'm happy to report that the Dolby Digital mono track is as clear as the source allows but not a word is lost from recording issues.
1. Interview with the Directors (21' 44")
Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick are interviewed by one of their producing colleagues. After seeing a Chomsky talk, Achbar asked himself how to get Chomsky's ideas and philosophies out to a greater audience. It took two years to rustle up enough money to start the project and a few very neat ideas along the way to keep it on track. One of them was to take Polaroids of their undeveloped film and sending a 'ransom' note to Canadian sources of funding in order to liberate the film and the ideas inside them. Lovely. The conclusion of both men, and something I wholeheartedly support, is that Manufacturing Consent is as relevant today as when it was made. I say a big thank you to the will and determination of men like Achbar and Wintonick. These films need to be seen. Bravo.
2. Manufacturing Consent Update 2007 (40' 31")
A big close up of Chomsky in his office from 2007 was recorded to update some of the key themes and subjects of the film. It's nice to see the same film-makers in place fifteen years after the film was finished. It illustrates, in a small way, that egos were successfully left out in the process of making the film. Ideas and the truth were straining at the gate and these three men gave them both their heads. For any further comment on the topics, I've added some thoughts under the subject matter heading.
EAST TIMOR UPDATE:
This is probably the biggest issue that the film pushed to the attention of the public. Chomsky updates the current situation. The most telling remark was ex-Bush insider, Colin Powell, delivering legalese to the East Timor populace. Help was offered but with a caveat that no East Timor resident could bring any court action against any American for any suffering 'the great Satan' may have caused. He didn't say 'the Great Satan'. Ballsy and somewhat inhuman.
Note: there is an electronic ping over a lot of this interview, someone's watch alarm or electronic gadget running out of power. It's a little irritating as it took me some time to figure out if it was in my office or the interview itself.
UPDATE: HOW THE MASS MEDIA FUNCTION
It's here that I heard for the first time, something said on screen that I have heard nowhere else (and the fact I find it staggeringly obvious makes it doubly odd it's not come up as straightforwardly as Chomsky states). The pretext of the war against Iraq was that it would be a defensive strike against terror, a petulant retaliatory smack prompted by the 9/11 attack with no provable justification. But then the general and known (but not out loud) expectation of the invasion was that it would increase the threat of terror (like bursting a water balloon and calling it 'fighting water'. What happens? Everyone gets wet). This statement prompted me to ask "Why have I not heard this said in the media?" It seems so obvious. Hence the result of a nation in fear.
HAVE THE MEDIA CHANGED
The central idea in the film was that it was dangerous for any kind of true democracy to flourish when twenty-three giant corporations controlled 50% (and in some cases, 100%) of the media. In 2007, what was a few score became five. 90% of everything that comes to you through screens (with the exception of the internet where anything's possible) is owned by five corporations. Eee. And most of that is PR...
IRAQ AND VIETNAM
All throughout the movie I was wondering what Chomsky felt about the Internet considering it seems like the perfect tool to mobilize activists. In the timeframe of the movie, the Internet was in its infancy. He grants its plus points reminding us that knowing what to look for and in what context (see, it's that word again) is the only way to make sense of the sheer volume of what's now available a few mouse clicks away. The downside of course is the proliferation of cults. Someone posts a bad idea and it is reinforced and on and on until you have Scientology or select your favourite cult. This, he contends, draws energy away from serious activism.
IMPACT OF THE FILM
Chomsky acknowledges that the film has done a lot of good in getting him and his messages all over the world but we butt up against a popular held belief in film-making that movies do not change anyone's minds but hell, how welcome is an alternative point of view based on factual record.
Chomsky outlines the three or four threats to our civilization that are in urgent need of being addressed and then he pours some well deserved scorn on to the theatrical event that is the US Presidential Elections. I mean, what is a true democracy if 230 million have the abundant choice between two candidates? Please go to TED online and seek out Malcolm Gladwell's talk. He celebrates the man responsible for the fact we have scores of flavours of spaghetti sauce because it was proved that this is what people wanted not just plain and spicy... Gradation in politics? Now there's a concept. Here's the link:
Chomsky makes a remark, an idea I'd not considered but is a compelling one to ponder. George W. Bush's so-called 'gaffes', his surreal flights of inexactitudinalosity, may even be orchestrated to give the left wing intelligentsia something to whine about – more smokescreens! My god, how exquisite if that were true... and revealed.
There's a sweet little film-makers' pose with their subject and his wife at the interview's tail, not too well framed I have to say.
3. Chomsky vs. Buckley (29' 42")
As mentioned in the meat of the review, this is the full TV show of Chomsky's encounter with the snake-like performance of William F. Buckley Jnr. I was considering editing out my reactions to this man (I'm not usually so mean spirited) but then I'm criticising a performance and will say now that in life, he was probably a very nice man. I'm still shivering.
4. Chomsky vs. Silber (16' 48")
The best cut in this 'Ten O'Clock News' segment occurs immediately after this clip and of course it's not included here (its significance is mentioned in the main body text). This is John Silber, president of Boston University for twenty-five years, who seems to be on a mission to prevent Chomsky from 'distorting the truth' by not letting him speak at all – classic.
5. Chomsky vs. Dershowitz (1 hour 32" 51")
Jesus H. Christ on a bike! To those of you, like me, who wish fervently the Israelis and the Palestinians could just get around a goddamn table and come to some inevitably compromised but peaceful agreement, here's ninety minutes of why our lack of political savvy is five Sundays short of less than naïve by a number of light years. It's not just "Get orf my land..." or more succinctly from the Palestinian point of view "You have no rights to our land..." It's which tiny bits of land can be negotiated; it's about infrastructure; it's about racism and religious conflict. Primarily it seems to be about death and death on a rather horrific scale with perhaps an even more horrific one-sided ratio. What stirs the mix of tension and constant threat of violence is that one side is funded and militarily supported by the US. In the Middle East, it's hard to reconcile any political situation if the US stands behind one side. When your ringer is Satan, even your supporters are not going to be cheering. Well, perhaps a little cheer.
Both debaters care passionately about their subject and the audience mix and questions are well balanced. The range of historical knowledge and arcane, relevant (or not) facts that each man comes up with is astonishing. Here are two guys whose lives have been shaped by this one poisonous boil on the political landscape and have emerged with idea upon idea but still we are no closer to easing the suffering.
The question you are left with at the end of this debate is very straightforward. If these two giant intellects cannot work out what needs to be done in the practical arena of what US leaders, Israeli leaders and Palestinian leaders can all realistically do, then what hope is there from our elected leaders for peace?
6. Necessary Illusions Demo Tape 1989 (16' 00")
A very informal behind the scenes look at the production at a time when digital editing was in its infancy and very much unaffordable to this team of film-makers. The youthful nature of the crew infuses the whole enterprise with a fresh faced perspective and it was terrific to see a Steenbeck being used (a flat bed editing table, something I used to drive). There are many behind the scenes snippets here and also interviews and sound bites not used in the cut of interest for their own merits. But I suspect cutting this film was almost painful and many hours of compelling argument was reluctantly shelved. Nice to see a few further snippets in here.
7. CD-ROM Content: A PDF of 'Manufacturing Consent' – A Companion To The Film.
Essentially a 266 page transcript of the film with enough information for you to start looking further afield for your non-corporate news to satisfy any nascent activist. It is essentially the annotated script with a big arrow pointing to rationalist libertarian socialism as a way of life.
8. DVD Booklet:
This contains the original 1993 Sight and Sound review of the film and some information on the film-makers. It's a testament to the BFI to have this film available in such an attractive package.
Interested at all in the power you have as a citizen in a democracy (if you are one, that is)? Then this two disc DVD set is a terrific primer for political activism. For all the power of the governments and corporations, there will always be those brave enough to put their heads upwards and forwards inviting reprisals. Yes, America is a country of 'free speech' and any 'Noam Chomsky-a-like's from a lot of other countries would certainly be dead by now. But from the 60s opposition to the Vietnam war, right through to passionate debate on the Israel/Palestine labyrinthine mess in the mid 2000s, I wouldn't want to have any one else guiding me through what is overlooked, hidden and suppressed. But I am up for a Sam Harris/Noam Chomsky debate on ethics... Can anyone arrange that? Highly recommended.