A big day is coming up—and it’s giving people cause for celebration.
On Dec. 7, Noam Chomsky turns 88, but the birthday of America’s great public intellectual actually got his mainstream acclaim last year in Matt Ross’ poignant indie film Captain Fantastic, a quirky comedic drama about a left-wing family living off the grid in the woods of the Pacific Northwest who traditionally celebrate “Noam Chomsky Day” instead of Christmas.
What is Noam Chomsky Day?
On this unique holiday, the presents aren’t the latest video games and expensive perfumes, but hunting knives and crossbows. There’s also cake, candles and quotations from “Uncle Noam,” the famed M.I.T. professor of linguistics and libertarian socialist culture critic.
As played by Viggo Mortensen, Ben Cash, the patriarch of this little tribe, is opposed to organized religion, soulless American consumerism and corporate commercialism that has demeaned contemporary life. He’s raising his six kids, who range in age from about 6 to 18, while their mom, his wife, is hospitalized with a debilitating disorder. In her absence, he maintains a rigorous program of physical and intellectual training, raising his brood to be philosopher kings. They know how to hunt, scale a cliff and interpret the Bill of Rights.
“Look, what we created here may be unique in all of human existence,” Cash tells his children solemnly. “We’ve created paradise.”
But there’s the rub. They’ve been living in isolation, so when word comes that their mother has died, things get very complicated. In this engrossing film, the children are an amazing ensemble cast but the adults are stars in their own right, too. Ben’s father in law (Frank Langella) is an upper-class conservative living in a gated community who blames Ben’s communal lifestyle for his daughter’s suicide and forbids them from attending the funeral, sparking rebellion.
“We want to see mom!” cries one of the youngest of the Cash clan. “Grandpa can’t oppress us!”
And so they set off for the sunny Southwest. They find out quickly they have a lot to learn. At a restaurant, one kid looks at the menu and asks, “What’s cola?” “Poison water,” replies his father with scorn.
Later, the eldest child cries out in despair to his dad, “Unless it comes out of a book, I don’t know anything!”
But what they do know is quite profound and what we learn from watching it is priceless.
Fans of this sleeper hit appreciate that Captain Fantastic is more than a simple road trip. Ross, who went to Julliard and New York University, is perhaps best known as the duplicitous high-tech exec Gavin Belson in HBO’s comedy satire Silicon Valley. In his feature-length directorial debut he tries to walk the line of the great cultural divide that has split the country, culminating in the election of Donald Trump—Chomsky himself a proponent of the “lesser evil voting” strategy of supporting Hillary Clinton. But he doesn’t devolve into stereotypes, although some critics may differ. He’s exploring family values in 21st century America with a refreshing candor that is all too rare.
In real life, Ross admits that he does indeed celebrate Noam Chomsky Day in his home in Berkeley, Calif., when he and his kids gather around for sweets and cake, blow out a candle and read a passage or two from Chomsky’s canon that ranges from works on language and mind to American foreign policy and the neoliberal security-surveillance state.
Chomsky’s bestseller, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), co-authored with Edward S. Herman, epitomizes his principled examination of contemporary social issues with a hard-hitting analysis that confronts conventional wisdom without fear or favor.
The renowned political theorist, philosopher, activist, scholar and prolific author, who’s published more than 100 works, is regarded as one of the most critically engaging minds alive today. Perhaps then, the Cash children’s incredulity that their grandfather doesn’t honor their family tradition by commemorating Noam Chomsky Day— “I don’t even know who that is!” he tells them—is Ross’ not-so veiled symbolism representing the American public at large, and an urgent plea for us to recognize Chomsky’s insights and embrace them.
As a linguist, Chomsky is regarded as revolutionizing the scientific study of language. As an activist, he remains one of the most outspoken critics of U.S. foreign policy and global imperialism—a dissent that has its origins in the country’s involvement during the Vietnam War. A celebrated champion of left-wing politics, Chomsky is also considered one of the most cited authors in all of history.
As his inclusion in the International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest (2009) states:
“Chomsky continues to be an unapologetic critic of both American foreign policy and its ambitions for geopolitical hegemony and the neoliberal turn of global capitalism, which he identifies in terms of class warfare waged from above against the needs and interests of the great majority.”
During movie production, Chomsky reportedly told Ross’s team just “please quote me correctly.”
That they did. No other American movie in mainstream release has ever referred to Chomsky with as much respect and humor. He may never become a household name—especially in the precincts Trump carried—but celebrating Noam Chomsky Day is a good way to honor his spirit.
—With Christopher Twarowski
Featured photo: Noam Chomsky Day is celebrated in Matt Ross’ indie film Captain Fantastic with cake, candles and quotations from the great American intellectual, social critic, philosopher and M.I.T. professor of linguistics’s many works. (Photo: Noam Chomsky official Facebook profile)