(Chomsky "Rocks" on Film)
by Mickey Z.
December 2, 2002
"This is a dissident linguist Bono stole from the radicals. I'm stealing him back."
Some years ago, I remember reading an article in The Nation about rock stars "idolizing" Noam Chomsky and attempting to bring him into the fold, so to speak. I learned that music producer Don Was not only had a "large portrait" of Chomsky hanging over his drum kit, he named his studio "The Chomsky Ranch." The Nation reported that Was had just begun work on a series of rock videos in which the recorded words of the "dissident linguist" (as the nation's oldest weekly oddly chose to identify Chomsky) would be combined with original music by "top" rockers like R.E.M. and Pearl Jam. In fact, I discovered those noted millionaire subversives in Pearl Jam were playing Chomsky selections on the 75-watt "pirate" radio stations they set up in each town while on tour.
Surely, the end of predatory capitalism was finally in sight now that the MTV generation had joined the fray. How long before we see bell hooks on "Survivor"?
As was inevitable, rock stars awash in capital were using the only internal reference point they know: their massive ego. The highest form of praise they can muster is to elevate another human being to the same level of blind adoration they wallow in (I can see it now: Noam stage-diving at his next lecture). The only possible result of such self-centered drivel is the personalization of Chomsky as a youth "hero" with very few of his ideas coming along for the ride. With most anti-corporate tyranny tenets being checked at the door by the pop music elite, members of the well-bred gentry class can now welcome a "dissident linguist" with open arms, conveniently leaving the rest of us behind.
It's class war for the polite crowd.
Around the same time as The Nation article, I read the liner notes for a Chomsky spoken word CD and spied a blurb from none other than Bono Vox, full-time lead singer of U2 and part-time saver of the world. Calling Chomsky the "Elvis of academia," Bono bemoaned the fact that a man of Chomsky's age had usurped rock and roll's place at the table of rebellion.
When exactly was it, I wondered, that rock and roll did anything more than pose, preen, and earn billions for large entertainment conglomerates? So-called activists like Bono have the money and the influence to help finance progressive publications, websites, rebel radio stations, and maybe even a third (second?) party. Instead, they sell more CDs by singing at a charity concert and using Chomsky's reputation when name-dropping.
Which brings me to the new Chomsky documentary currently making the rounds.
"Power and Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times" (which ironically opens with a quote from Bono calling Chomsky a "rebel without a pause") has very little in common with R.E.M.'s supposedly clever song lyrics, Pearl Jam's well-choreographed angst, or Bono's high profile hobnobbing with Paul O'Neill and Jeffrey Sachs. I saw this short, sparse film in late November at a very crowded showing at the Film Forum in the West Village. It was sharing a theater with another dissident doc: "The Trials of Henry Kissinger." As a result, the sign above the theater door read suspiciously like a septuagenarian prizefight of sorts: Kissinger-Chomsky.
In "Power and Terror," Prof. Chomsky succinctly lays out the post 9/11 geo-political realities of the day in language that would have most rock stars regurgitating their pâté into their kidney-shaped pool. This is information we all need to hear; information that goes far beyond fashionable poses or indecipherable theories. As usual, our favorite dissident linguist has done the tedious work of compiling the statistics, the quotes, and the headlines. From there, as always, it's up to us.
Besides urging you to see this movie and spreading the word long and far, I'd also like to encourage music fans to demand more from your chosen idols. If Bono and others want to wear the hat of political rebel, let's get more for our entertainment dollar. Instead of just whining about the disappearing rain forest, why not educate the masses about the role corporate America, the U.S. government, and the meat-based diet plays in the domestic affairs of Brazil? Why just write a song for starving Somalis when you have the influence to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to examine the social conditions that allow for poverty in a world of plenty? If not, we can simply stop buying their music, going to their concerts, and wearing their overpriced, sweatshop-produced t-shirts
Imagine that: Legions of music consumers mobilized in the name of peace, justice, and solidarity. There's a birthday gift (December 7) for you, Noam.
Mickey Z. is the author of Saving Private Power: The Hidden History of "The Good War" (www.softskull.com) and the upcoming book, The Murdering of My Years: Artists & Activists Making Ends Meet (http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/biblio?inkey=62-1887128786-0). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.