Noam Chomsky's new film "Requiem for the American Dream" is a clear-eyed, easily accessible outline of how and why American idealism has been sabotaged. Although he doesn't detail the dream, Chomsky sketches its promise of mobility, an expectation of progress toward a better life through some sort of democratic polity.
These documentary interviews, filmed over four years, suggest that the destruction of the dream is not a natural, inexorable occurrence, but the result of choices made by people operating within certain belief systems and for self-enrichment. Could the dream have been realized through different circumstances, different people making different choices?
Regarded by many as America's most influential intellectual, Noam Chomsky is also a great story teller. Without overwhelming the viewer or the material, he marshals data, example and anecdote, cutting through 250 years of history to distill ten basic principles of wealth and power which have conspired against the American Dream. More than anything, the film is a well organized, thoughtful look at these forces and their consequences.
This is not an exhortative polemic. Although Chomsky is not dispassionate, he is more saddened than outraged, more intent on finding cause than inciting action. Unlike fellow system critics like ubiquitous former Labor Secretary cum political reformist Robert Reich, Chomsky neither suggests, nor pleads for saving capitalism through economic reshuffling or revitalized bourgeois democratic elections.
Chomsky finds the roots of the Requiem in how the United States was originally set up. The U.S. Constitution put power in the hands of the wealthy. The Constitution was written to prevent, not promote, democracy. Concentrations of wealth resulted in concentrations of political power. The course of our history has been defined by the struggles of this wealth and political power against upsurges in democratization, most notably in the 1930s labor movement and the 1960s peace, civil rights and women's movements.
Power and wealth fought back against these popular movements by trying to shape ideology and manufacture consent. Elections are engineered. Attempts to regulate the economy are undermined. Solidarity of the American dreamers is attacked. As Chomsky has shown through earlier work ("Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media" with Edward S. Herman, 1988) control was extended beyond the use of force into the domain of culture by marketing compliance and marginalizing dissent.
Chomsky himself provides an example of the extent to which dissent is marginalized when he chooses to avoid mentioning by name the great sources of ideas which help us understand how power and wealth function: socialists like Gramsci, Lukacs or even the scholar of the British Museum himself. Rather than end his dissertation in despair, Chomsky offers elements of hope, if not exactly a well lit path to redemption. Popular movements, efforts to dismantle illegitimate authority, freedom of speech and new forms of political action all offer hope. He cites philosopher John Dewey's admonition that institutions should be under participatory democratic control. What matters, relates Chomsky quoting his friend Historian Howard Zinn, is the countless deeds of unknown people who lay the basis for the events of human history. Ultimately, learning how the world works will greatly aid in changing it. For his great contributions to the latter, particularly the summary given in "Requiem for the American Dream," Noam Chomsky has helped lay the foundations for understanding and ultimately change.
One of philosophy's central and most perplexing questions is, "Who are we?" Indeed, virtually all essential questions about human civilization, power, authority and governance follow from the question of what kind of creatures we are.
But is there really something distinct about us as a species? Or, to put the question in a more traditional philosophical context, is there such a thing as human nature? Classical philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle thought so, and so did most philosophers that form part of the modern tradition, beginning with Thomas Hobbes and going all the way up to Nietzsche. Of course, scientists have also probed human nature, and continue to do so down to this day, with the question being of particular interest to linguists, evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists and psychologists.
Noam Chomsky, one of the world's most influential linguists (the same prolific scholar known around the world for his trenchant critiques of US foreign policy and critical analyses on a wide range of social and political issues), has also been preoccupied for much of his life with the perennial question of what kind of creatures we are. His pathbreaking contributions to the field of linguistics have considerably advanced our understanding of the human mind, which has in turn influenced a diverse area of studies, ranging from cognitive science and computer science to philosophy and psychology.
Chomsky's latest book, just released by Columbia University Press, is fittingly titled, What Kind of Creatures Are We? The book is a collection of lectures delivered by Chomsky at Columbia University in December 2013, delving into areas like cognitive science, linguistics, philosophy and political theory. I talked with Chomsky about the book, his scientific explorations of language and the mind, and his views on society and politics in this exclusive interview for Truthout. (...)
(...) I assume that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination just because of the nature of our electoral system, which is basically now “bought” elections overwhelmingly, and the major funders will probably succeed at putting her across. What Bernie Sanders has achieved is pretty remarkable, but I doubt very much, in our existing system, he can make it beyond the primaries. So I think a fair guess is that Clinton will be nominated.
On the other side, it is probably going to be either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. In my opinion, Cruz is scarier than Trump. Trump is a kind of wildcard, but Cruz is really dangerous, if he means anything he’s saying.
Melissa Parker: You have a personal friendship with Bernie Sanders?
Noam Chomsky: That’s kind of an exaggeration. When he was mayor of Burlington about 30 years ago, he did invite me up for a couple of days to give some talks at town hall, and I also spent time with him. We talked, and I kind of followed him around in his daily duties talking to firemen, people in old age homes, just discussing with people about their personal problems. I was struck by the fact that Sanders was able to engage very easily with people over quite a broad spectrum of attitudes, thoughts and class lines. I thought he was very effective.
Sanders calls himself a Socialist, but I think what that means is New Deal Democrat basically. A New Deal Democrat in today’s political spectrum is way off to the left. President Eisenhower, who said that anyone who doesn’t accept New Deal measures is out of the political system, would be regarded as a dangerous leftist today. Everything has moved so far to the right. I don’t agree with Sanders on everything, not surprisingly, but I think he’s a respectable New Deal Democrat whose proposals would help the country considerably. (...)
(...) There is another sector of the media, the elite media, sometimes called the agenda-setting media because they are the ones with the big resources, they set the framework in which everyone else operates. The New York Times and CBS, that kind of thing. Their audience is mostly privileged people. The people who read the New York Times—people who are wealthy or part of what is sometimes called the political class—they are actually involved in the political system in an ongoing fashion. They are basically managers of one sort or another. They can be political managers, business managers (like corporate executives or that sort of thing), doctoral managers (like university professors), or other journalists who are involved in organizing the way people think and look at things.
The elite media set a framework within which others operate. If you are watching the Associated Press, who grind out a constant flow of news, in the mid-afternoon it breaks and there is something that comes along every day that says "Notice to Editors: Tomorrow’s New York Times is going to have the following stories on the front page." The point of that is, if you’re an editor of a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio and you don’t have the resources to figure out what the news is, or you don’t want to think about it anyway, this tells you what the news is. These are the stories for the quarter page that you are going to devote to something other than local affairs or diverting your audience. These are the stories that you put there because that’s what the New York Times tells us is what you’re supposed to care about tomorrow. If you are an editor in Dayton, Ohio, you would sort of have to do that, because you don’t have much else in the way of resources. If you get off line, if you’re producing stories that the big press doesn’t like, you’ll hear about it pretty soon. In fact, what just happened at San Jose Mercury News is a dramatic example of this. So there are a lot of ways in which power plays can drive you right back into line if you move out. If you try to break the mold, you’re not going to last long. That framework works pretty well, and it is understandable that it is just a reflection of obvious power structures.
The real mass media are basically trying to divert people. Let them do something else, but don’t bother us (us being the people who run the show). Let them get interested in professional sports, for example. Let everybody be crazed about professional sports or sex scandals or the personalities and their problems or something like that. Anything, as long as it isn’t serious. Of course, the serious stuff is for the big guys. "We" take care of that. (...)