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Distorted Morality: America's War on Terror?
distorted morality

Distorted Morality: America's War on Terror?
Noam Chomsky
Epitaph
DVD
(2003)
Noam Chomsky is not a flashy man. He is refreshingly, even startlingly, simple and straightforward, the antithesis of the "all flash and no substance" corporate-controlled news media. He is one of the most polarizing figures in American politics and philosophy today, due to his unorthodox and relentless attack on the ways in which America is governed. He steadfastly promotes dissent in favor of personal responsibility, even though his own personal responsibility is frequently questioned by his opponents. In short, he's a cult of personality in an age of widespread public indifference. It's a wonder he hasn't been locked up yet.

Distorted Morality: America's War on Terror? is a videotaped lecture given by Chomsky at Harvard University in early 2002. It's a crudely made thing, shot with one camera and presented uncut, unadorned and in a generally uninteresting fashion. Yet, like most of what Chomsky has to say, it's never the presentation that matters -- it's the content. In this case, the content is based upon one central conceit, and is betrayed by the question mark in the title.

"Whatever has been happening for the past several months and is going on now, and however you evaluate it, like it, hate it, or whatever, it's pretty clear that there cannot be a war on terror."

Those are bold words, and really, that's the entire crux of the DVD; everything else is evidence intended to support this central thesis, and it's a thesis that Chomsky supports quite staunchly. First, he implicates us all, even himself, in the theory that we are all hypocrites, from the President on down. A hypocrite, as defined by Chomsky, is "the person who applies to others the standards which he refuses to apply to himself." Accepting his hypocrite definition is imperative to accepting his thesis as a whole, because the second part of his theory involves another definition, that of the word "terror."

The official US definition of terrorism, as quoted by Chomsky from a United States Army manual circa 1984, is "the calculated use of violence or the threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious or ideological in nature." Already, those of you with a predilection for connecting the dots can see where Chomsky is headed with these statements, and it doesn't take much work to come to the same conclusion he does: in carrying out our alleged War on Terror, the United States is employing the same terroristic methods and ideals that we are supposed to be defending ourselves from.

I won't bore you with the details; Chomsky covers his bases quite thoroughly, though the specifics of his examples are essentially all from the Reagan, Bush and Clinton years, probably because the war in Afghanistan was still too fresh to talk about safely at the time the lecture was given. What's truly damning about Chomsky's facts and figures is the sheer number of them, and the disparity between them. For every hijacked airplane or Palestinian uprising, Chomsky cites the American wars on Nicaragua and Grenada, and the mind boggling amount of American money and resources being pumped into Israeli defense.

Chomsky quotes American propaganda from that time, intended to motivate citizens into fearful support of their government in the face of unspeakable evils from abroad. He then informs his audience that this propaganda was effective even after being disproven as fraudulent; in some cases, it continued to be referenced as official by the same journalistic sources who had already debunked it.

Chomsky doesn't have to point fingers and name names for us to see what he's getting at twenty years later. The same tactics that worked so well for Reagan are being employed in a concentrated effort by the warhawk Bush administration. Our moral imperative to defend ourselves from terrorism has enabled us to enact horrific and equally terroristic actions upon other nations. Destabilizing opposing governments for our own gain seems to be the order of the day; the burden of proof can forever be shrugged off, and the American people are apathetic or gullible enough to be easily swayed by unsubstantiated lies. To question or oppose the directives of the government is akin to being a traitor. It's awfully hard to mount an argument against the current political scenario when our armed forces are perpetually at war; to speak out against it must surely by insensitive, possibly even treasonous. The only proper way to support our country is unflinchingly and without question.

It's an Orwellian world we're living in, and Chomsky is one of the few voices of reason in the void. As such, the shortcomings of Distorted Morality are acceptable. The static presentation of the lecture does nothing to foster interest in the material. The Q&A included as "bonus material" is actually not solely from the title lecture, but also contains the follow-up to an MIT lecture Chomsky apparently gave regarding the war in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Afghanistan lecture itself is not included on the disc, so I was left feeling as if I'd wandered into the classroom during the mop-up session, which I essentially did. The disc's navigation is also reprehensible; despite a paucity of extra features, the programmers couldn't be bothered to arrange for the Q&A section to flow directly from question to question without forcing the viewer to make a pit stop back at the section menu. Still, these technical failings can hardly be faulted when juxtaposed with the information they present.

Then there's Chomsky himself. Despite, or perhaps because of, his enormous intellect, he is left wanting in the area of social skills. His attempts at humor are stilted and ill-timed, and could possibly be seen as haughty. His entire presentation smacks of intellectual elitism, as though it actually takes work for him to boil his ideas down to a grad school level. As I listened to him jump from point to point, I could almost sense that he was plucking facts and figures from the ether while his mind whizzed past them at the speed of light. Answering questions is an even bigger challenge. He clearly doesn't have the patience required to convince others of the validity of his statements, and therefore tramples over their arguments so as to save time. Whether this proves Chomsky's infallibility or unmasks him as a half-baked theorist, as his detractors often claim, is really up to the viewer to discern. However, as with most concepts, you need not agree with everything Chomsky says in order to agree with some of it.

In the end, Distorted Morality finds Chomsky preaching to the choir, as he often does. I'm not certain his armada of facts will be sufficient to convert many fence-sitters, especially those who prefer their news served up with slick packaging and clever phrasing. Perhaps a better, more telling testimonial to the facts Chomsky presents can be witnessed by turning on your TV or picking up a newspaper. When I first viewed this disc, the war in Iraq had gotten under way. As I write this review tonight, we seem to be on the brink of a new war with Iran, or Syria, or whomever Donald Rumsfeld decides is presenting the biggest terrorist threat to America. Chomsky's thesis, that our war on terror is hypocritical because we've been engaging in our own terroristic wars for decades, may not cease to be relevant for some time. If so, we'll have a lot longer than any of us would like to come around to his way of thinking. But Noam Chomsky isn't out to convert the world; he's only out to place the facts in plain view for all to see, and leaves it up to us to come to our own conclusions. That's what personal responsibility is all about.

-- Justin Kownacki




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