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 storyteller. 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, are 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.
A trailer for the film can be seen here.
Photo: Official website