Filmed over the course of the past five years, REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM (2016, dirs. Kelly Nyks, Jared P. Scott, Peter D. Hutchison) is purported to be the last long-form documentary Dr. Chomsky is going to grant interviews for. While this certainly does not mean he is going to drop off the face of the earth, he has created with these filmmakers essentially the best kind of teach-in material, at just over an hour, that communicates in a concise and mature fashion which can appeal to populists in both political parties what the problem is and how to fix it.
The problem with previous films Dr. Chomsky has appeared in, such as MANUFACTURING CONSENT or THE CORPORATION, was the fact they were, in their own way, limiting in their audience outreach, partly because of an anti-capitalist Left element in the dialogue that would annoy half of the populist masses that call themselves Libertarians and partly due to extreme length. MANFACTURING CONSENT has an intermission, which is the stuff of a weekend visit to the cinemas circa 1956, not 2016! What we have here is Dr. Chomsky’s distillation of five decades of agitational lectures on American society into a precise, compact compendium, based around a series of principles of how the populous is controlled, that offers the coordinates for solving our social catastrophe. After decades of releasing everything from records to books, he finally has articulated not the complete but the essential critique of our political economy.
The struggle now at hand is to learn how to translate the populist vocabulary of the Right Tea Party/Ron Paul revolutionaries and the Left Occupiers/Black Lives Matter activists into a coherent guide for change. The late Alexander Cockburn understood this all too well, hence his embrace of the wing of the Libertarian movement centered around Justin Raimondo and Gary Chartier. In other interviews, Dr. Chomsky has articulated a very important point, we must learn why the Tea Party rose so to critique Left organizational practices that alienate and ostracize those in the working class who subscribe to such philosophies.
Take for example gun rights. For Libertarians, it is about freedom and autonomy. But this same gun culture machismo, for Africans, the most Left-leaning demographic of the Democratic Party voting base, is a haunting reminder of the Fugitive Slave Act. How do you overcome such massive gaps between two meanings for the same signifier? Can one even begin to articulate a translation of such issues? In fact, they can, and it comes from the New Left tradition of the Black Panthers Party. But that kind of work requires a deep level of trust building that means shucking away the duopoly system.
Another such issue is education. Libertarians want to abolish the Department of Education, which has been totally co-opted by the education deformation movement of neoliberals like Bill Gates, while teacher unions loathe the Common Core and standardized test regimen created to eradicate the movement of organized educators. That is a bipartisan issue of agreement, but it goes deeper. A Libertarian friend of mine recently went on a rather absurd tear about how John Dewey was responsible for this state of affairs as opposed to Reagan and Clinton. The animus towards Dewey, the father of everything good in the modern education system of America, goes far deeper than one would imagine and is based around myths of the classical American Liberal being a nefarious agent of Prussian militarism due to his use of German pedagogical methods in his own writings. This is technically true, Dewey found much admirable in the Bismarckian state socialism project, including that dread institution of der kindergarten, just as a generation later Dwight Eisenhower found so much to admire in the autobahn. How can one articulate to these people that Dewey was the philosopher of a type of parliamentary democratic order that has lit the hearts and minds of so many Trump and Sanders supporters afire this year? Could his successors in Paolo Freire, bell hooks, and especially Henry Giroux offer a guide? I think so.
Dr. Chomsky here is against a black background and is lit in a way that makes his skin appear almost waxy and bordering on jaundiced. I think this is not so much a comment on his current health as much as he is meant to embody the status of the near-moribund American dream he is offering a requiem for.
This picture is a vital tool for our understanding and further efforts of mass mobilization. When Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto in 1848, they were responding to a massive outburst of populist democratic upsurge in a period of unrest linked in part to the aftermath of the 1847 financial crash. In this sense, we should see Dr. Chomsky’s final teach-in as the populist manifesto of this young century and heed his lesson.
Throughout this review, I have referred again and again to the philosophical heritage of the New Left, of which Dr. Chomsky was our society’s greatest inheritance. Slavoj Žižek, in his own rather convoluted way, has also alluded to the idea that this inheritance, and perhaps even a critically viewed form of the Old Left inheritance, is going to be the guidebook to our solutions for the impending social disasters we face due to climate change, genetic modification, and other issues that occur in the commons, the public domain. I believe he is correct in this sense, but with one modifier: it must, in the terms of Dr. Chomsky, be used with a simple Cartesian logic that has defined this man’s efforts for all these years. The sacrifice of the complicated Marxist vocabulary is essential for our decision between socialism or barbarism. We must do this out of a love for that part of the populist masses that would otherwise be alienated from such efforts.
For, to quote a frequent target of Chomsky’s early agitation, “we must either love each other or we must die”.