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Film Reviews

The Laughing Noam - Manufacturing Consent Revisited
John Doran , January 28th, 2009 09:50

An easily digestible introduction to Chompers' media theories with added '09 content and relevance. But where is the animatronic breakdancing Marshall Macluhan? asks John Doran. All pictures courtesy of the BFI

Coincidentally, the night before watching this extensively expanded reissue of the 1992 documentary Manufacturing Consent, the fickle and occasionally unkind hand of dealt me a slap in the form of Morgan Spurlock's truly abysmal Where In The World Is Osama Bin Laden? This manifesto for stating the bloody obvious treats the viewer like a citizen of Mike Judge's Idiocracy, where in a future America the crops are sprayed with Gatoraid and the most watched movie is a two hour shot of someone's butt. Spurlock is obviously A Good Guy, something that is asserted continuously by methods of re-enforcement that you'd expect only from the crappiest of day time soaps. The rest of the 90 minutes is taken up with attempts to sum up the entire political situation of America and the Middle East. Helped along by the use of CGI break-dancing Osama Bin Ladens. He has, somehow, managed to make Michael Moore look like Jonathan Meades. Thankfully less prone the use of break-dancing cartoon characters are Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick who brought Chomsky's influential book on the media Manufacturing Consent (co-authored with Edward S Herman) to the big screen seventeen years ago. Now, on the eve of its reissue, it is quite shocking to compare it to what passes for left-leaning film making today.

The controversial philosopher, linguist and human rights campaigner first came to prominence as an opponent to the Vietnam war and is probably best known today as a radical but rationalist libertarian socialist who attacks what he (and his many followers) considers to be injustices in American power structures. The ironic title for his most celebrated/vilified book which was the inspiration for this film comes from Walter Cipram's 1921 book Public Opinion which proposed as a revolution in the practice of democracy, that there should be a special class of person able to delude the common man. This was a view expanded by Reinhold Neibuhr who claimed that rationality belonged to the "cool observer" unlike the common man who, because of idiocy, follows faith not reason and needs to be controlled with necessary illusions or "emotionally potent over simplifications" provided by the media and the government. And this is the fundamental stuff of Chomsky. The stuff that makes his followers see him as a progressive seer and makes his detractors claim he is a dangerous conspiracy theorist.

Chomsky's case is compelling however; and not just to media and politics graduates either. In fact all it really takes is an ability to think about disturbing and upsetting ideas for more than a few minutes without bursting into tears or shitting your nappy. An ability that does however seem to be absent amongst many journalists who write for such highly regarded newspapers as The New York Times or even supposedly liberal titles like The Guardian and The Observer even. (As a friend of mine put it recently: "Chomsky haters are everywhere. They're more likely to have a pro-USA, pro-New Labour bias . . . Writing a vicious hatchet job on Chomsky is a sort of initiation rite for these people. It proves you're a safe pair of hands, rather than a 'radical' who writes 'polemics' that might upset the advertisers.") And true enough if you suggest that school is for brainwashing not education; all of the American presidents since the 1950s have been war criminals and would have been executed at Nuremberg and, in this case, liberal democracies control their citizens using the media to the same ends as dictatorships that use violence and repression, the initial impulse is to soil yourself and then write to the Daily Mail. Which is a shame because Chomsky always backs up everything he says with meticulously researched facts and figures. (This is almost certainly why he attracts such vitriolic smear campaigns; it's pretty hard to knock him on his theories when faced with the facts.)

So who manufactures this consent then? Well, decisions about what happens in society are in the hands of a relatively concentrated network of major corporations, conglomerates, investment firms and these are the same people who staff the major executive positions in government and the ones who own the media as well, he reckons. And it is exactly at this point that most people start frothing at the mouth. Tom Wolfe, writer and be-suited conservative shoe shine boy, is one of many people who crop up on the doc to fulfil this role. And he raises an interesting and legitimate worry; even if it does turn out to be a totally flawed misreading. He claims that Manufacturing Consent slips into the common trap of imagining that there are "secret rooms" where all of the hidden elite meet up to discuss how they control the world. This, of course, is not what's being said. These systems of control are bigger than any one person or company and they are bound together by nothing more than a shared ideology. They don't meet up for strange blood drinking, wooden owl burning camp meets any more than various cells of the Al Q'aida meet up for an AGM in Brighton. And if I were to make this DVD compulsary viewing for one section of society it would be the gibbering 9/11 freaks, the bedroom bound truthers and conspiracy theorists. In a new interview on the second disc Chomsky reflects on the influence of the internet saying that it encourages cults which are immune to criticism and re-enforces and amplifies these beliefs without filters which in turn harms real activism.

Morgan Spurlock relies on breakdancing Osama Bin Ladens because he hasn't got much to say and because his producers think you are stupid. Chomsky has so much to say on his subject it is essential to this documentary that there isn't too much distraction. And despite the fact that this 3 hour film takes a dialectical, non-standard form, uses sound effects, film clips and draws on over 120 hours of source material (mainly lectures and debates), rapid jump cuts and other 'newsroom' editing techniques; they stop short of having a CGI Marshall MacLuhan body popping with a cartoon Neil Postman but perhaps this is just as well given the amount of material they need to cover. It seems at first as if the DVD is more of a Chomsky media overview than the book with which it shares a name. It really feels like the generous amount of space would have been better utilized by concentrating on methods of media control until you realise that his name is first and foremost associated with the smear campaigns in the minds of many. These smears say that he is an apologist for the Khmer Rouge, that he is a holocaust denier and an anti-semite all of which is relatively easy to refute but necessary nonetheless. Also, this circuitous route makes for a more pleasant journey if, like me, you have absolutely no grounding in political theory and reading books on the subject always feels a bit like trying to do algebra while on ketamine. (No one is saying that Chomsky is beyond criticism and, with the luxurious benefit of hindsight, it certainly feels like he took rather a long time to react to news of genocide coming out of the closed country of Cambodia but this still wilfully ignores the main point he was making: that documentation of the situation in East Timor was miniscule by comparison.)

It is both his strongest trait and biggest flaw that he either fails to fully understand or (as is more likely) refuses to be pragmatic in the face of his own media theories. He is a victim of his own flak principle, that states anyone speaking out against the mainstream media will be marginalised. His belief in the sacrosanctity of freedom of speach is so strong, he will use it to defend even a holocaust denier if necessary. And this is all quite depressing really given that - as is common with the visionary radical - it is highly unlikely that his views will become fully digested and understood widely until long after he is dead. If at all. One of the most chilling assesments on the extra interview disc is that although he thinks the overall media situation has improved a lot since 60s, things have also started regressing again making this highly useful, if not essential viewing.

Manufacturing Consent is available now on BFI DVD