Media Circus: Just say Noam

The world's most important intellectual is a hit with people who don't even like to read.

Published February 17, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

it wasn't a religious experience. In fact, it was a rerun. But the dozenth coming of the Noam Chomsky documentary, "Manufacturing Consent," to a San Francisco movie house clearly inspired a reverence verging on the spiritual.

The line of blue-haired punks, scraggly young "hippies" and collegiate liberals waiting to get into the Haight Street theater demonstrated the devotion that in my youth could only be inspired by the kind of cacophonous bands that kept my mother up all night worrying. And then it struck me -- when you get right down to it, the Dead Kennedys and the monotone-voiced linguistics professor are hawking the identical message: Question authority.

But I don't think Noam would strike fear in my mom's heart. In fact, for all I know she's a fan. Chomsky's droning lectures are about as easy on the ears as Jello Biafra's loudmouthed harangues, but his popularity certainly isn't limited to nose-pierced punks.

Lefty public radio stations nationwide spread the good word with regular programming of Chomsky interviews. Web pages offer up all the Chomsky you can download; the newsgroup lets you chat about the master to your heart's content. The anarchists at AK Press, a worker-run cooperative publishing house, like Chomsky so much they've put out four Chomsky CDs so far (with another due out in March); the latest, "Capital Rules" is part of a two-CD set, combining the cunning linguist and media critic with didactic political popsters Chumbawamba. (If you're not sated by the 59 minutes of Chomsky on this CD, the AK Press catalog offers up more than three dozen other Chomsky selections on tape to choose from, with titles ranging from "The Role of the Media in Manufacturing Consent" to "The Occupation of East Timor.")

And Chomsky has countless listeners (if not always fans) outside the ranks of the radical left. Digital media king Louis Rosetto tipped his bits to Noam by devoting a four-page spread in the January issue of Wired to three sentences of Chomskybabble. The New York Times, his favorite media whipping boy, dubbed him "arguably the most important intellectual alive." His dozens of titles take up serious shelf space at mainstream bookstores and even conservatives like my dad, a retired Republican realtor, have read enough Chomsky to be able to recapitulate his basic view that our world is run by and for big business, which by its very nature is antithetical to being "by and for the people."

How did a far-left professor and self-professed anarchist become the darling of such a vastly divergent crowd? By playing the lowest common denominator game. For three decades Chomsky has stayed on message, repeating his mantra that capitalism is the root of most of our modern evils, and whacking U.S. foreign policy and the power of big business like a drum.

Fans and critics alike agree that his message is rather single-minded. "I think he's brilliant, but has a sort of single-bullet theory of the universe -- one answer for everything," says Richard Kadrey, author of the "Covert Culture Sourcebook," a catalog of hip 'zines, music and videos that appeals to a societal slice not unlike Noam's young troupe of followers.

Chomsky aims that single bullet over and over at dozens of targets, and is beautifully detailed and articulate about each case. His audience is willing to forgive his nerdy-professor look and drab lecturing style because of his ability to draw subversive conclusions about the nature of our political economy from something as familiar as the daily news. Chomsky makes it look easy, explaining his arguments in layman's terms. Unlike many other intellectuals, you can understand him without a degree in logic, an unabridged dictionary and a bottle of No-Doze. And with all the Chomsky CDs, tapes, videos and Real Audio snippets floating around, you don't even have to bother to read to get your Chomsky fix.

Chomsky says that he isn't invited onto network TV because he won't reduce the complexity of his thought to sound bites. Some of his fans, however, aren't quite so circumspect, transforming his intricate ideology into a mere collection of slogans. It's no surprise that Chomsky's pocket-sized "What Uncle Sam Really Wants" is more popular than his weightier tomes, like "After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology."

The simplification of Chomsky goes hand in hand with his deification. The fringe culture unquestionably worships Chomsky: In places like the Haight, a Chomsky book is a symbol of PC leftiness, not unlike the "anarchy A" that adorned leather jackets among the Dead Kennedys crowd. "For the boho coffeehouse crowd, Chomsky is somewhere between Kerouac and Nietzsche -- carrying around one of his books is automatic countercultural cachet," says William O. Goggins, steward of Idees Fortes at Wired magazine.

It's disheartening to find that the authority on questioning authority is accepted so readily and with so few questions asked. But in the end, it's Chomsky himself who fails us. His ideas may provoke thought -- but they don't provoke action. In fact, they may even make us more complacent. Chomsky asks us to recognize the terrible wrongs our country and the capitalist system commit in the world, but offers no solutions. So we sit back with righteous indignation, zap our remote control -- and pull the lever again for Clinton.

By not proposing an alternative new world order, Chomsky manages to avoid raising the very questions that divide his many followers. In any revolution, destruction is the easy part: The trouble never begins until the revolutionaries have to agree on the next step. What should replace capitalism? Anarchism? Libertarianism? Socialism?

It's easy for the anti-capitalist troops (and even some capitalist ones who like his attacks on the government more than his anti-corporate harangues) to gather together in Noam's name -- as long as he shies away from any call to action that might tear them apart. Noam is able to pass muster with libertarians and socialists alike because his message demands so little of its listeners. If he asked us not just to question authority, but to really change the world, he would likely lose his status as the darling of both the liberal and radical left. And ears would turn off his message as quickly as they do the raunchiest Black Flag album.

E X T R A !

Cunning Linguistics

A three-minute sample of Noam Chomsky's "Capital Rules" CD was analyzed. It was compared to a three-minute sample of the popular disco song "Ring My Bell." The results are as follows:

Chomsky Speech Ring My Bell
Number of "uhs" 34 0
"Uhs" per minute: 11.33 0
Number of "aaaaahs!" 0 7
"Aaaaas!" per minute: 0 2.33
References to "tyranny": 3 0
References to "transnational
corporate power": 1 0
References to slave trade: 1 0
Requests to "ring" speaker
and/or singer's "bell": 0 42
Uses of phrase "Ring my bell
ding dong ring aaaah!" 0 3
Uses of phrase "Ring my bell
ring a ling a ling push!" 0 2
Total number of references
to good things
(including bell ringing): 0.5 56
Total number of references
to bad things: 29 2

-- David Futrelle

By Kaitlin Quistgaard

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

MORE FROM Kaitlin Quistgaard

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