Right wing writer and former Sun News Network host Ezra Levant rarely shies away from a good debate, especially when it involves anyone from the left of the political spectrum. But the idea that he would even attempt to square off against well-known professor Noam Chomsky, arguably one of the most brilliant political thinkers on the planet, is as audacious as it is genius. Levant is, after all, deep into a crowdfunding campaign for his new online show, The Rebel, for which the YouTube clips so far consist of pieces like an interview with Defence Minister Jason Kenney about how far Canada will go to "fight Muslim terror abroad," euthanasia as "first-degree murder legalized," and how "the Left" wants to take away the tax-free savings account. So engaging a Skyped-in Chomsky in a debate about freedom of speech, US foreign policy, and Israel is something of a serious get for Levant.
And while a chat with Chomsky might not raise the ire of The Rebel's core demographic in the way that, say, an interview with Olivia Chow on universal child care or Thomas Mulcair on immigration policy, it's a decent boost for Levant's street cred. How many other Canadian right wing pundits can say that they've tried to argue with the man who wrote Manufacturing Consent?
"Noam Chomsky is interesting to me, since he usually presents as a free speech maximalist. So we had that in common, despite our other differences," said Levant in an email to VICE when we asked him why he wanted to talk to the professor. "Our producers asked him to come on the show, as they normally do with other guests. It was meant to be less than ten minutes, so he obviously enjoyed the sparring enough to stay for half an hour."
And what a half hour it was. The discussion ranged from US foreign policy under President Barack Obama to whether or not the UN's treatment of Israel constitutes anti-Semitism to Levant's raison d'etre, free speech. "I was curious to see if he would agree that the Left has moved away from free speech and towards censorship, in the service of political correctness," Levant said, not without adding his own assessment of that part of the discussion. "I think his answer suggests he's in denial about campus speech codes, 'hate speech' censors, 'trigger word' whiners, human rights commissions, etc. I thought his claim of being personally censored was unpersuasive." That said, Levant even attempted to draw the comparison between himself and his guest at the end of the interview: "We call ourselves The Rebels over here. So we're dissidents in our own way."
So, how did The Rebel fare against The Chomsky? Aside from cutting off the professor a number of times—to which Chomsky, usually in the midst of a complex example, was quick to cut back in with a "May I continue?"—Levant was clearly introducing ideas designed to back Chomsky into familiar Sun News corners. Sometimes these subjects led to in-depth analyses by Chomsky, most of which were perhaps far beyond the sort of rant-heavy editorializing that Sun News viewers might be accustomed to. At other times, Levant and Chomsky were simply talking at cross purposes.
Take this exchange:
Levant: "I think you're disregarding the democratization of the internet that allows anyone with a blog or a YouTube page or even a Facebook page to talk to literally millions. Do you discount that?"
Chomsky: "No, of course I don't discount that. In fact, I've written about it."
Levant: "You're more than just a grouch. You have particular philosophy. And I want to know if there's a place on earth that is more attuned to your philosophy... Is there a better society than America?"
Chomsky: "First of all, expressing criticism of society is not being a grouch."Or this:
Levant: "Do you think that the world's obsession with Israel, while ignoring similar prosecutions or examinations or condemnations of Bashar al-Assad or the Islamic State—do you think that's a sign of anti-semitism. And do you think that anti-semitism is on the rise in the world?"
Chomsky: "That's like asking me do I agree that the moon is made out of green cheese. First of all, it's not a fact. There's an overwhelming opposition to the Islamic State and Assad."
But even Levant was forced to acknowledge his own penchant for non-sequiturs and imprecision, going so far as to apologize to the unflinching Chomsky and his regular corrections, "I'm sorry. You're very precise in your language and I should be more precise in my characterization of you."
At the very least, Levant is maintaining the dedication to lengthy debates we gave a shout-out to in this eulogy for Sun News. Still, it's worth keeping in mind the intended audience here: namely, Levant's followers. Though the calibre of Chomsky's presence gave the show some weight, it was ultimately a very simple David-and-Lefty-Goliath premise intended to bolster support for the host. "I have had a very positive reaction to the interview," he said. "People already know I disagree with him ideologically; so why not try to put simple but firm questions to him?"
The Rebel's crowdfunding action has largely been underplayed in the mainstream Canadian media, which might be read as an unspoken hope that, by ignoring Levant's efforts, his voice will simply fade from existence, like the Sun News channel in general. Despite the lack of coverage, The Rebel has raised approximately $100,000 since the campaign began in February, with donations dedicated to everything from camera equipment and a Middle East bureau to a haircut for Mr. Levant.
If only Levant would make a budget line for a Chomsky-style van.
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