At 2 hours and 47 minutes I will recommend my students watch this 1992 Noam Chomsky documentary more in hope than in expectation.

If I recommended just one excerpt then skip to 1:52:25 about TV debate, which incidentally reminds me of a presentation to the 2013 ESSL PGR conference by my colleague Kate Wicker at Leeds School of Sociology & Social Policy on “what makes an expert” and how they achieve the authority to appear on the news.

Anyway I remember watching Chomsky for the first time on VHS (!?) a number of years ago courtesy of my eldest brother who went on to tease me with the provocation that “the Cold War didn’t happen”. Incredulous at the time, I’ve since then read through Hegemony or Survival and Understanding PowerThe New Mandarins, cited appropriately enough at a 2013 BISA Roundtable on Telling Truth to Power, has made it onto my Amazon Wishlist.

Besides admiration for Chomsky’s range of expertise, defence of free speech and prodigious output, simply put I get uncomfortable when I read him, which is of course exactly what he wants. The gist of “manufacturing consent” is that propaganda is to democracy what violence is in a dictatorship, and the very use of the term propaganda exhibits one of his central arguments. Namely that the media, politicians, academics and other public figures, by framing issues and selecting stories bound the debate beyond which any discussion, opinions or indeed terminology such as “propaganda” appear extreme, fringe or ridiculous. Indeed Chomsky was one the first people I read to criticise the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, “the good war”, and thus speak beyond such boundaries, and has not confined his critique to the classroom as his police record testifies and academics opposed to the Trident nuclear deterrent at Faslane Naval Base would applaud.

Such “unpopular truths” about “necessary illusions” are often deemed “conspiracy theories” to be rightly dismissed by the well informed. So how do I get from unpopular truths to uncomfortable reading? After all it can’t simply be the violent realities and true costs of foreign policy exposed for all to read (see Chile, 1973 the other 9/11), for Chomsky’s books have no monopoly on these, save highlighting ones of which we are not aware or would prefer to ignore.

No the discomfort is because Chomsky’s world view is at odds with what I know I’m supposed to think, what a responsible member of the political class is supposed to do, and thus is comfortable with. His interpretation of international relations is at odds with the theories with which most academics are comfortable, that international society and the liberal rights order are a form of American hegemony if not empire. That The Persian Gulf War of 1991 was not a multilateral endeavour with precision weaponry. That containment by sanctions of Saddam Hussein in the 90s wrought horrific consequences. That the state, our accepted political unit of choice and the reference point upon which IR depends, is in fact the problem to which anarchy is the solution and not as we would have it, vice versa.

And this is what the excerpt at 1:52:25 gets too. My discomfort stems from the concern that when we debate intervention in Syria we do so within bounded terms using the correct language and expressing the appropriate talking points or “conventional pieties”. Bad enough when we do this in the pub, or to inform our voting, but it gets worse when we have a direct responsibility to others say by editing a student newspaper or by being a Teaching Assistant, both of which I have done with varying degrees of effectiveness…

The purpose of a university education should be to foster independent critical ability rather than rehash conventional wisdom, inculcate acquiescence or promote an agenda. But all too often this critique can come across as the stereotypical propagation of dissent, ripe for dismissal, simply because it attempts to question the consensus and thus make the listener uncomfortable about their complacency.