Noam Chomsky was present on Friday for a screening of his "Requiem for the American Dream" and a talkback at the Little Theatre. This event followed two evenings of the linguist, writer, MIT professor emeritus, and social critic giving lectures hosted by the University of Rochester last week.
This Rochester screening was Chomsky's first viewing of the film, which takes the form of a 75-minute documentary built from years of interviews. The work alternates the sage man's calm countenance with historical footage and animations of currency collages by artist Mark Wagner.
In "Requiem," Chomsky provides a concise outline of how the United States got into the accelerating social and economic decline it's in today. This information is available to all, he explains, but due to a system of media that's in bed with the holders of concentrated wealth and power, much of it may seem like revelations to the average citizen.
The information is organized into 10 principles, in which Chomsky traces the policies designed to favor the rich and disenfranchise the poor that have brought the US to this point of historically unprecedented inequality.
These principles kick off with "Reduce Democracy," in which Chomksy cites founding father James Madison's proposal during the Constitutional Convention that the government would need to limit democracy in order to protect the wealthy from backlash born of inequality.
In the "Shape Ideology" section, he illustrates the systemic backlash against an "excess of democracy" with the Powell Memo and the Trilateral Commission's report, "The Crisis of Democracy," which expressed the view that young people over-engaged with civic life were not receiving proper indoctrination.
The following sections, "Redesign the Economy," "Shift the Burden," and "Attack Solidarity," outline assaults on the job security of workers and on movements to organize workers. In "Run the Regulators," he describes the enormous growth in lobbying; today it is routine for interests being regulated to control the regulators.
"Engineering Elections" deals with corporate personhood and the legal equation of money with free speech under the Citizens United decision. This Supreme Court ruling is essentially a manipulative reading of the 14th Amendment to define corporations as persons and grant them those same rights. "Corporations are state-created legal fictions," Chomsky says. "Maybe they're good, maybe they're bad, but to call them persons is outrageous."
In "Keep the Rabble in Line," Chomsky looks at attacks on organized labor, including the Taft-Hartley Act and McCarthyism. One of the most critical sections, "Manufacture Consent," explores how excessive and superficial consumerism is created through aggressive advertising that promotes irrational choices rather than informs. He shows how this tactic is used to sell everything from beauty products to candidates. And finally, "Marginalize the Population" describes that what the public wants does not typically impact what the government does, and cites the Princeton study that identifies the U.S. as a corporate oligarchy.
During the talkback portion, Chomsky reiterated a much-recited point of his: Authority must justify its existence and its expression of power. "Very rarely is it possible to give a justification," he said. "And if you can't, the authority should be dismantled." But dismantling it is dependent upon the savvy and will of collective action.
A self-professed anarchist, Chomsky has written and spoken widely about the bad rap the theory has gotten, that it is often wrongfully equated with chaos. Contrary to how it is defined, anarchy is not an artless rejection of all authority, it is a demand that authority and hierarchical systems prove their worth to those they govern, or be dismantled.
An audience member asked Chomsky which presidential candidate most closely reflects his understanding of "systemic changes and the corrosion or perversion of American institutional life," to which he responded, "It's exactly who you'd think."
After the cheers died down, he spent a few minutes exploring that though Bernie Sanders is described as a "radical extremist, his views would not have surprised Dwight Eisenhower. He's a mainstream, New Deal Democrat." Sanders' views are also strongly supported by public opinion, Chomsky said, which hardly makes them extreme.
"What that means," he said, "is the political spectrum has shifted so far to the right that what the population wants, and what was once mainstream, now looks radical and extremist."
Though Chomsky gave lengthy, thoughtful responses to each question, he resisted providing concise solutions to the problems he explores. He instead reiterated that the population must force change, and "beat back the repressive tendencies that have created a pretty ugly situation."
He reminded the audience of what has been accomplished in the past through well-organized, unified activism -- through fighting together rather than simply mobilizing in support of politicians.
Another audience member raised a possible criticism of the film: Though it chronicles the process of decline of democracy, it might place too much faith in the power of human rationality. "Given that these masters of mankind have gotten so good at preying on our irrationality, they've gotten so good at perfecting the means and the instruments for keeping people in this condition where they're choosing to act in irrational ways, what are the chances that any of these trends are going to be reversed?" he asked.
Chomsky's response, a return to his "Manufacturing Consent" argument, was to point out that the proof of our extant rationality is the money that is continuously dedicated to suppress it.
"If you think about it," he said, "the advertising industry -- which spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to create the kind of individual who is focused on fulfilling artificial, external wants, and who are uninformed consumers making irrational decisions, the reason they're spending huge funds on that is because they think people are rational. Otherwise they wouldn't bother. They're trying to turn people into irrational creatures, they're putting huge efforts into it. I think they're right, they're not wasting their money."