Friday, June 23, 2006

The Chomsky problem (Peter Beaumont & Brad DeLong)

In my younger days, back in the early 1970s, Noam Chomsky was someone whose social and political arguments I often admired, and I was favorably impressed by books like American Power and the New Mandarins (1967). Over the years, I became increasingly disillusioned with Chomsky--I think it was his apologetics for the Khmer Rouge that first gave me serious qualms--and often appalled and disgusted. I'm not the only one.

Peter Beaumont, the foreign affairs editor of the London Observer, has written a thoughtful, perplexed, sometimes ambivalent, but in the end highly critical and disappointed review of Noam Chomsky's latest book, Failed States. I don't know whether or not Beaumont himself chose the title of his review essay, "A noxious form of argument," but it captures the tone of his assessment. Some highlights:

-----------------------------------
What is most troubling about all this is that there is much that Chomsky and I should agree on. Like him, I was opposed to what I believed was an illegal war in Iraq. In my travels in that country, I, too, have been troubled by the consequences of occupation. Where I differ from him, however, is that I reject Chomsky's view that American misdeeds are printed through history like the lettering in a stick of rock. Instead, the conclusions I have drawn from more than a decade of reporting wars on the ground is that motivations are complex, messy and contradictory, that the best intentions can spawn the worst outcomes and, occasionally, vice versa. [....]

Reading Failed States, I had an epiphany: that by applying a Chomskian analysis to his own writing, you discover exactly the same subtle textual biases, evasions and elisions of meaning as used by those he calls 'the doctrinal managers' of the 'powerful elites'. The mighty Chomsky, the world's greatest public intellectual, is prone to playing fast and loose.

It is important to recognise this fact because the Chomskian analysis has become the defining dissident voice of the blogosphere and a certain kind of far-left academia. So a sense of its integrity is crucial. It is obsessively well-read, but rather famished in original research, except when it is counting how often the liberal media say this or that in their search for hidden, and sometimes not-so-hidden, bias. Crucially, it is not interested in debate, because balance is a ruse of the liberal media elites used to con the dumb masses. Chomsky is essential to save you, dear reader, from the lies we peddle.

If all this sounds entirely negative, I do concede that there are areas where Chomsky lands some crunching punches. His analysis of US double standards on issues from the promotion of democracy abroad, to the World Court, Kyoto, US support for Israel, nuclear proliferation and trade is spot-on - but far from novel areas of concern, and Chomsky doesn't like to settle on them. In themselves, they are not enough for the professor. The case that he wants to make is that the US is uniquely awful.

In setting about this task quite so selectively, he allies himself with some obnoxious characters. While Chomsky was righteously [but quite disingenously --JW] indignant over suggestions in a recent Guardian interview that he defended Srebrenica, he does portray a certain sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic. Kosovo, in his reading, began in 1999 with Nato bombers, not in 1998 with Serbian police actions that cleared villages, towns and valleys of their populations. (I know this, Mr Chomsky, because I saw them do it.)

But what I find most noxious about Chomsky's argument is his desire to create a moral - or rather immoral - equivalence between the US and the greatest criminals in history. [....]

Which leads to a question: is that really what you see, Mr Chomsky, from the window of your library at MIT? Is it the stench of the gulag wafting over the Charles River? Do you walk in fear of persecution and murder for expressing your dissident views? Or do you make a damn good living out of it? The faults of the Bush administration will not be changed by books such as Failed States. They will be swept away by ordinary, decent Americans in the world's greatest - if flawed and selfish - democracy going to the polls.
-----------------------------------

I sincerely hope that last bit is correct, by the way. I fear it may be overly optimistic. But be that as it may....

=> A similar assessment of Chomsky's style of argumentation was offered by Brad DeLong in two brief but devastating analyses he wrote in 1998 ("My Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky") and 2002 ("My Very, Very Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky: Khmer Rouge, Faurisson, Milosevic"). I've reproduced these below, after Beaumont's review essay. DeLong's conclusion, in brief, is that Chomsky's presentation of evidence is selective and unreliable, his analyses are systematically tendentious and often outright dishonest, and his arguments display a pervasive lack of intellectual integrity and serious moral judgment.

If this assessment strikes any of you as unfair, overstated, and/or implausible, I recommend that you read Brad DeLong's pieces on Chomsky and judge for yourself.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Some further elaboration is provided by Ami Isseroff in a useful delineation of Chomsky's distinctive "art of prevarication."

P.P.S. And here is a fairly measured rebuke of Chomsky, combined with a properly outraged and exasperated demolition of the broader Chomskyite crew of pro-Milosevic apologists, by Michael Bérubé.

=========================
The Observer (London)
(Politics, philosophy and society))
Sunday, June 18, 2006

A noxious form of argument

Noam Chomsky has allowed bile and rhetoric to replace intellectual rigour in his latest diatribe against the present United States administration, says Peter Beaumont

Failed States: The Abuse of Power and the Assault on Democracy
by Noam Chomsky
Hamish Hamilton £16.99, pp311
I will admit one thing from the start. When I read Noam Chomsky, the voice I hear is that of Chloe, the terrier-like computer geek in 24. This is not without reason. I met Chomsky once at a New Statesman lunch and that nagging, bullying, wheedling voice has stuck with me since. It is a voice that brooks no dissent from his dissident view. 'You'll know ... ' was his opening line on being introduced to two of us who covered the war in Kosovo, before launching into one of his favourite rants - that it really wasn't the poor Serbs what done it, but nasty Nato.

What is most troubling about all this is that there is much that Chomsky and I should agree on. Like him, I was opposed to what I believed was an illegal war in Iraq. In my travels in that country, I, too, have been troubled by the consequences of occupation. Where I differ from him, however, is that I reject Chomsky's view that American misdeeds are printed through history like the lettering in a stick of rock. Instead, the conclusions I have drawn from more than a decade of reporting wars on the ground is that motivations are complex, messy and contradictory, that the best intentions can spawn the worst outcomes and, occasionally, vice versa.

But you've got to admire him for the verbal speed with which he comes out from his corner, if not for his grasp on reality. He hits you with five facts before you have had time to digest the first. Chomsky is an intellectual bruiser. Bang, bang, bang, he goes, and all that is left for slower-witted mortals is to hang on, 'rope-a-dope', like Muhammad Ali and try to survive until the round is over. Except it doesn't work quite so well in his written prose.

Reading Failed States, I had an epiphany: that by applying a Chomskian analysis to his own writing, you discover exactly the same subtle textual biases, evasions and elisions of meaning as used by those he calls 'the doctrinal managers' of the 'powerful elites'. The mighty Chomsky, the world's greatest public intellectual, is prone to playing fast and loose.

It is important to recognise this fact because the Chomskian analysis has become the defining dissident voice of the blogosphere and a certain kind of far-left academia. So a sense of its integrity is crucial. It is obsessively well-read, but rather famished in original research, except when it is counting how often the liberal media say this or that in their search for hidden, and sometimes not-so-hidden, bias. Crucially, it is not interested in debate, because balance is a ruse of the liberal media elites used to con the dumb masses. Chomsky is essential to save you, dear reader, from the lies we peddle.

And, boy, is it a big lie this time. What Chomsky is taking on now is America's claim to be the world's greatest democracy. Failed States posits, tendentiously, that the US has become the ultimate 'failed state', a term usually reserved for places like Somalia. It is a terrorist state and a rogue state, a country that has brought us to the brink of annihilating darkness. These big claims are bolstered by his familiar arsenal of exaggeration, sarcasm and allusion.

This is a shame, because the issues Chomsky addresses in this book are crucial. The present US administration has presided over one of the most venal periods in the country's recent history at home and abroad. Through a tricksy application of laws never intended for those purposes, George W Bush's lawyers have dismantled constitutional balances between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of US governance to accumulate the exclusive power to interpret law in the presidential office, while on the international stage, citing the same necessity of protecting the homeland, American officials have stormed their way around the globe, kidnapping, torturing and killing.

These are all serious matters, but Chomsky chooses to deal with America's growing democratic deficit not by putting it under a microscope, but by reaching for hyperbole. He suggests an America in the grip of a 'demonic messianism' comparable to that of Hitler's National Socialism. Except that it isn't. Conveniently missing from Chomsky's account is the fact that the failure and overreach of George W Bush's policies, both on the domestic and the international front, has had serious consequences for his brand of neo-conservatism: disastrously collapsing public-approval ratings.

But then there is an awful lot conveniently missing from Chomsky's account of the crimes of his own country. In attempting to create a consistent argument for America as murderous bully, going back to the Seminole Wars, he edits out anything that could be put on the other side of the balance sheet. I could find no mention of the Marshall Plan, although there is enough about American crimes in Guatemala, to which he returns repeatedly. He can find enough to say about America's misdemeanours during the Cold War; but nothing about the genuine fear of the Soviet Union, one of the most brutally efficient human-rights-abusing states in history.

These are small matters in comparison with some of Chomsky's other rhetorical stunts. There are the long riffs on ideas extracted out of single sentences from journalistic articles or academic papers, sometimes by now-discredited figures, employed to explain whole policies and strands of history to his satisfaction. At other times, he elides rumour with quotes taken out of context, for example where he refers to: 'A Jordanian journalist [who] was informed by officials in charge of the Jordanian-Iraqi border after US and UK forces took over that radioactive materials were detected in one of every eight trucks crossing into Jordan destination unknown. "Stuff happens," in Rumsfeld's words.'

That's all pretty puzzling - as four pages earlier, Chomsky gives the impression that the weapons of mass destruction thing was all a deception. It is not only that his desire to wallop the US at any cost has allowed inconsistencies to creep in; there is also plain sloppiness. Between pages 60 and 62, for instance, he cannot decide whether an alleged bribe paid to UN official is $150,000 or $160,000. Maybe it's a typo. Maybe not.

If all this sounds entirely negative, I do concede that there are areas where Chomsky lands some crunching punches. His analysis of US double standards on issues from the promotion of democracy abroad, to the World Court, Kyoto, US support for Israel, nuclear proliferation and trade is spot-on - but far from novel areas of concern, and Chomsky doesn't like to settle on them. In themselves, they are not enough for the professor. The case that he wants to make is that the US is uniquely awful.

In setting about this task quite so selectively, he allies himself with some obnoxious characters. While Chomsky was righteously [but quite disingenuously] indignant over suggestions in a recent Guardian interview that he defended Srebrenica, he does portray a certain sympathy for Slobodan Milosevic. Kosovo, in his reading, began in 1999 with Nato bombers, not in 1998 with Serbian police actions that cleared villages, towns and valleys of their populations. (I know this, Mr Chomsky, because I saw them do it.)

But what I find most noxious about Chomsky's argument is his desire to create a moral - or rather immoral - equivalence between the US and the greatest criminals in history. Thus on page 129, comparing a somewhat belated US conversion to the case for democracy in Iraq after the failure to find WMD, Chomsky claims: 'Professions of benign intent by leaders should be dismissed by any rational observer. They are near universal and predictable, and hence carry virtually no information. The worst monsters - Hitler, Stalin, Japanese fascists, Suharto, Saddam Hussein and many others - have produced moving flights of rhetoric about their nobility of purpose.'

Which leads to a question: is that really what you see, Mr Chomsky, from the window of your library at MIT? Is it the stench of the gulag wafting over the Charles River? Do you walk in fear of persecution and murder for expressing your dissident views? Or do you make a damn good living out of it? The faults of the Bush administration will not be changed by books such as Failed States. They will be swept away by ordinary, decent Americans in the world's greatest - if flawed and selfish - democracy going to the polls.
------------------------------
Join the debate

Peter Beaumont, the Observer's foreign affairs editor, has also written a commentary about his review of Failed States, which you can read here. And you can join the debate on the Observer blog.

Noam alone
Born: 7 December 1928, Philadelphia.
Education: Philadelphia, Harvard.
Career: Currently professor emeritus of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Key political works: Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War and US Political Culture (1993); 9/11 (2001); Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance (2003).
In his own words: 'I've written about terrorism, and I think you can show without much difficulty that terrorism pretty much corresponds to power. I don't think that's very surprising. The more powerful states are involved in more terrorism, by and large. The United States is the most powerful, so it's involved in massive terrorism by its own definition of terrorism.'
(From an interview with Harry Kreisler at University of California)

====================
Brad DeLong
October 23, 1998
My Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky

Dear ____,

You had expressed disbelief at my strong and negative reaction (based on memories of the 1970s, when he seemed both in person and in print to be mocking those trying to alert the outside world to the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia) when the name "Noam Chomsky" was raised. You said that Chomsky was one of the most intelligent, hardest-working, incisive, and moral voices on the left today.
And you suggested that I give him another chance.

So the next time I stopped by Cody's, I picked up one of Chomsky's books: his (1992) What Uncle Sam Really Wants (New York: Odonian Press: 1878825011).

But I only got to page 17. Then I put the book down--with my strong negative allergic reaction confirmed.

The book began with a sketch of the history of U.S. foreign relations since World War II. By the second page Chomsky was in the middle of a brief discussion of planning for the postwar period. Four paragraphs were devoted to NSC 68--the end-of-the-1940s policy planning document that proposed building a military strong enough to confront the Soviet Union on any continent, and settling down for a long Cold War of unlimited duration. But NSC 68 was exhibited in a vacuum. There was not a word about the gradual shift in the late 1940s of U.S. policy from Rooseveltian cooperation with Stalin to Trumanesque confrontation, not a word about escalation of tensions--the fate of former German prisoners returned by the western allies to Stalin, the Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia, the disputes over German reconstruction ending in the Soviet blockade of Berlin--and not a word about how NSC 68 had no prospects of becoming policy until Josef Stalin took off the leash and Kim Il Sung began the Korean War.

I found this absence of any attempt to sketch the context disturbing.

After a discussion of George Kennan, Chomsky wandered off into three pages on "study groups" of the "State Department and the "Council on Foreign Relations" who sought to plan for U.S. postwar economic domination of the "Grand Area." He makes no contact with Bretton Woods, no contact with the founding and the initial policies of the World Bank and the IMF, no contact with those--like, say, Harry Dexter White--who actually made the policies that governed the postwar reconstruction of the global economy.

Why not devote your--very limited--space to discussing the views of those who actually had influence, and did make policy?

Chomsky then turned to political events in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. He began by making it sound as though first the U.S. armies conquered North Africa and Italy, and only then did Roosevelt decided to put fascists like Darlan and Badoglio back into power. The real history is more complicated: overextended U.S. forces fearful of German counterstrikes (Kasserine Pass, Anzio) and a willingness to make deals with the little devils in order to get into a better position to fight the biggest devil. I think that Roosevelt's decision to back Darlan and Badoglio was a bad mistake, but I also know that it didn't happen the way that Chomsky implies that it did.

I know that Chomsky's relation of the history of the Anglo-American reconquest of the Mediterranean from Hitler is not "as it really happened." But many of Chomsky's readers will not. And it makes me wonder: whenever we reach an issue that I do not know deeply, what things that I would like to know is Chomsky going to try to keep me from noticing?

Chomsky then moves on to how "CIA subversion" dispersed and suppressed the "anti-fascist resistance" in Italy, Greece, and Korea. No mention is made of the likely character of the regimes that would have come to power in the absence of U.S. support for the right. Now this is a big mistake, for it is hard to look at postwar Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and North Korea and avoid the conclusions that (a) people there lived worse and suffered more than the people of Italy, Greece, and South Korea; and (b) governments like those in the first three would have held power in the second three were it not for U.S. intervention. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that U.S. support for the right in Italy, Greece, and South Korea "expanded the cage" relative to what would have happened otherwise.

Now it is possible to avoid this conclusion. It is possible to make the case that U.S. intervention in Italy, Greece, and South Korea was destructive. But such a case needs to be backed by a powerful argument that "antifascist" Italy, Greece, or South Korean governments would have been very different from the actual governments of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, or North Korea; or by a powerful argument that if U.S. policy had been less confrontational then Stalin would have been content with an independent but "Finlandized" eastern Europe.

Chomsky makes no such argument.

Now let me make it clear what I am objecting to. I am not objecting--at least not objecting here and now--to claims that U.S. foreign policy in the late 1940s was disastrous because:
  • that there was a real possibility for a continuation of wartime good feeling had the U.S. been less confrontational
  • that Stalin might well, if properly placated, have been willing to accept Finland-like regimes all along his borders
  • that ramping up the U.S. to fight the Cold War did immense damage to American democratic institutions and liberties.
Indeed, I agree with one and a half of those three points. (Indeed, Dean Acheson himself agreed with at least one of them.) Smart and thoughtful people whom I respect believe in all three of them. People are allowed to follow different paths and reach different analytical conclusions than I do without provoking in me a profound allergic reaction.

What I object to is that Chomsky tears up the trail markers that might lead to conclusions different from his. He makes it next to impossible for people unversed in the issues to understand what the live and much-debated points of contention might be.

What I object to is the lack of background, to the lack of context. In telling the history of the Cold War as it really happened--even in ten pages--there has to be a place for Stalin, an inquiry into the character of the regimes that Stalin sponsored, and an assessment of Stalinist plans and expectations. But Chomsky ruthlessly suppresses half the story of the Cold War--the story of the other side of the Iron Curtain.

In my view, the first duty that any participant in any speech situation has: to tell it like he or she thinks that it is, not to try to suppress big chunks of the story because they are inconvenient in the context of your current political goals. You can't show only half (or less than half) the picture. That's an act of intellectual authoritarianism, an attempt to lower the level of the discourse, an attempt to keep people from knowing things that are not "good" for them--an intellectual foul.

In a world in which there are lots of people who try to tell it as it really happened, why should I spend any time reading someone who tries to tell it as it didn't happen?

And then there were the passages that I could not take to be anything other than casual lies:
  • That (doomed) postwar partisans trying to fight guerrilla wars against Soviet rule in Ukraine, Belorus, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere were "armies that had been established by Hitler." (Instead they were by and large people--a good chunk of them fascists and anti-semites-- who wanted to be ruled by neither Hitler nor Stalin. Nationalist partisans fought the Nazis when they occupied eastern Europe, and fought the Soviets when they moved in.)
  • That the "liberal extreme" of postwar American policymaking was the George Kennan who sneers at "vague... and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization." (No one who has read any of the documents can believe that. The liberal extreme--in fact, the vital center for much of the immediate post-WWII period--was the position that Kennan was arguing against in the passage Chomsky quotes: the position held by those who did care deeply about human, rights, economic development, and democratization., and who made them the focus of a substantial chunk of U.S. postwar policy.)
  • That "free trade is fine for economics departments and newpaper editorials, but nobody in the corporate world or the government takes the doctrines seriously." (How does he know better than I do what I--or Lloyd Bentsen, Bob Rubin, Larry Summers, or Laura D'Andrea Tyson--takes seriously?)
So by page 17 I had had more than enough.

Sincerely yours,
Brad DeLong

----------------------------------------
Brad DeLong
(Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal)
June 17, 2002

My Very, Very Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky: Khmer Rouge, Faurisson, Milosevic

"Never get involved in a land war in Asia." "Never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line." And now, "Never get involved in an argument over Noam Chomsky."

The Chomsky defenders--and there seem to be a surprisingly large number of them--seem to form a kind of cult. Arguing with them seems to be a lot like trying to teach Plato's Republic to a pig: it wastes your time, and it annoys the pig. But I've spent more than enough time on this over the past three months: time to let it out of the cage:

Consider Chomsky's claim that: "In the early 1990s, primarily for cynical great power reasons, the U.S. selected Bosnian Muslims as their Balkan clients..." On its face this is ludicrous. When the United States selects clients for cynical great power reasons, it selects strong clients--not ones whose unarmed men are rounded up and shot by the thousands. And Bosnian Muslims as a key to U.S. politico-military strategy in Europe? As Bismarck said more than a century ago, "There is nothing in the Balkans that is worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier." It holds true today as well: the U.S. has no strategic or security interest in the Balkans that is worth the death of a single Carolinian fire-control technician. U.S. intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s was "humanitarian" in origin and intention (even if we can argue about its effect). Only a nut-boy loon would argue otherwise.

But whenever I ask the Chomskyites why he would claim that, "In the early 1990s, primarily for cynical great power reasons, the US selected Bosnian Muslims as their Balkan clients..." I get one or more of three responses:
  • It was said in haste in an interview--it's not representative of his thought.
  • Of course the U.S. selected Bosnian Muslims as their Balkan clients for great power reasons! Mineral wealth! Oil pipelines!
  • Yes, he's made some mistakes. And he refuses to back down or make concessions when he is wrong. But it's more than counterbalanced by the stunning quality of his insights!
Insights? Like his writing a preface for a book by Robert Faurisson--a guy whose thesis seems to be that "the alleged massacre in gas chambers and the genocide of the Jews is part of one and the same lie, a gigantic political and financial racket for the benefit of Israel and international Zionism"? Like his claiming in said preface that Faurisson seems to be "a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort"? Like his claims that he "know[s] very little" about Faurisson's work, has "no special knowledge" about the topics Faurisson writes about, and--as Jay Parini notes-- continues to "maintain to this day that he has never read anything by Faurisson that suggests that the man was pro-Nazi"? These are supposed to be high quality insights?

But whenever I ask the Chomskyites why he would claim that Robert Faurisson is a "relatively apolitical liberal," and how he could possibly manage to "never read anything by Faurisson that suggests that the man was pro-Nazi," I get one or more of three responses:
  • What Chomsky wrote and said about Faurisson was written and said in haste, without proper reflection--it's not representative of his thought.
  • Chomsky is quoted out of context: he's defending Faurisson's right to free speech according to the principles of Voltaire, not endorsing or defending Faurisson.
  • Yes, he's made some mistakes. And he refuses to back down or make concessions when he is wrong. But it's more than counterbalanced by the extraordinarily good work he's done uncovering the cynical crimes of power-mad governments like the U.S. and Israel.
Which makes me ask, wouldn't it be better not to misrepresent Faurisson's beliefs? Not to claim that he is a relatively apolitical liberal? Not to say that you have seen no evidence that Faurisson is pro-Nazi? It is, after all, a much stronger defense of free speech to say that you are defending a loathsome Holocaust-denier's right to free speech because free speech is absolute, then to say that poor Faurisson--a relatively apolitical liberal--is being persecuted for no reason other than that some object to his (unspecified) "conclusions."

And uncovering the cynical crimes of mad governments? Take a look at Chomsky's 1979 After the Cataclysm:
If a serious study…is someday undertaken, it may well be discovered…that the Khmer Rouge programs elicited a positive response…because they dealt with fundamental problems rooted in the feudal past and exacerbated by the imperial system.… Such a study, however, has yet to be undertaken.
Reflect that it was published three full years after the Cambodian Holocaust of the Year Zero. Ask yourself whether this is an uncovering or a covering of the crimes of an abominable regime. But it gets worse. Go back to your Nation of 1977, and consider the paragraph:
...there are many other sources on recent events in Cambodia that have not been brought to the attention of the American reading public. Space limitations preclude a comprehensive review, but such journals as the Far Eastern Economic Review, the London Economist, the Melbourne Journal of Politics, and others elsewhere, have provided analyses by highly qualified specialists who have studied the full range of evidence available, and who concluded that executions have numbered at most in the thousands; that these were localized in areas of limited Khmer Rouge influence and unusual peasant discontent, where brutal revenge killings were aggravated by the threat of starvation resulting from the American destruction and killing.
Of this, jamesd@echeque.com writes:
Sounds very impressive, does it not? If... entirely respectable magazines denied the accusations that the Khmer Rouge had committed vast crimes... we cannot take seriously these allegations.... There must be some substantial evidence, presented by these magazines, that shows or strongly suggests that the refugees tales of terror were nonsense, right?... He claims that these are "conflicting reports" that justify disbelief in the alleged crimes of the Khmer Rouge....
In the case of the Economist, there are no [such] articles.... Presumably [Chomsky] refers to a letter to the Economist ... a letter replying to an entirely accurate article.... [T]his letter was indeed... ["provided"] by the Economist, but it is misleading to invoke [its] authority... the Economist opposes Chomsky's claims.
In the case of the Far Eastern Economic review the review did indeed publish an article that said almost, but not quite, what Chomsky represents it as saying.... Nayan Chanda ( Far Eastern Economic Review October 29 1976 ) does indeed doubt the refugees are telling the truth... but he... [presents no] evidence contradicting their stories. He does indeed say "thousands"... he does not say "at most in the thousands"... [he says] "the numbers killed are impossible to calculate."... Chomsky presented the Far Eastern Economic Review as confidently denying the possibility that the killings were vastly higher, but Chanda specifically denies such knowledge and confidence....
Chomsky lies by misdirection.... [H]e said "[provided]" to associate the authority of the Economist with a letter to the editor... [he said] " at most in the thousands" as if it were a conclusion of an article... [in] the Far Eastern Economic Review....
I've looked through the Economist. If there's anything written by the Economist's staff that has evidence casting doubt on the Cambodian Holocaust, I missed it as well.

So why does Chomsky lie about the "highly qualified specialists"? The claim that it is "space limitations" rather than "nonexistence" that prevents their being named cannot be a claim made in good faith, can it? And why would anyone lie for Pol Pot, unless they were either a nut-boy loon or were being mendacious and malevolent in search of some sinister and secret purpose? But when I ask the Chomskyites why he would falsely claim in 1977 that accusations of Cambodian genocide had been disputed in the pages of the Economist and the Far Eastern Economic Review by "highly qualified specialists"judging "the full range of evidence" and that these highly-qualified specialists put a firm upper bound of "at most in the thousands" on Khmer Rouge executions, I get one or more of three responses:
  • What Chomsky wrote and said about the Khmer Rouge was a mistake, but it's uncharacteristic of his work.
  • Chomsky never said the Khmer Rouge were genocidal butchers, he only said that there wasn't conclusive evidence that they were genocidal butchers.
  • When a serious study of the Khmer Rouge is carried out, we will learn that most of the evidence of their "crimes" was faked by the Vietnamese after their conquest of Cambodia
I can't see how anyone can make the second claim in good faith: Chomsky not only said that there wasn't conclusive evidence that the Khmer Rouge were genocidal butchers, he wrote--falsely--that there was reliable evidence that they weren't genocidal butchers.

And I don't see how anyone can claim that Chomsky's lies are "uncharacteristic" of his work. There are just too damned many of them.

I tried (unsuccessfully) to ascertain the reasons for the appeal of Chomsky--to people who don't believe that the Khmer Rouge are benevolent friends of humanity, that Robert Faurisson is an apolitical liberal, and that U.S. intervention in Bosnia was motivated by metal mines and pipeline routes, that is--once before. [i.e., in My Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky - October 1998]http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/brad-delong-october-23-1998-my-allergic-reaction-to-noam-chomsky.html

-----------------------------------
Posted by: Brad DeLong on June 17, 2002 05:54 PM
 
Here's what Noam Chomsky thinks of Vaclav Havel, a brave man and one of the heroes of our time. According to Chomsky, Havel is (i) "silly and morally repugnant", (ii) possessed of "supreme hypocrisy and audacity", (iii) "on a moral and intellectual level vastly below... Stalinist hacks," not to mention (iv) "mindless."

I interpret Chomsky's bile as the result of (a) his native personality, coupled with (b) the recognition that Havel is whom Chomsky wishes he had chosen to be--an intellectual who changed the world for the better, rather than someone who spent his life confusing the issues and running interference for Pol Pot, Ortega, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, and Osama bin Laden to give them more running room.

March 1, 1990
Letter to Alexander Cockburn
Source: Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age Is In Us (Verso, 1995), pp. 149-151

Dear Alex,

As a good and loyal friend, I can't overlook this chance to suggest to you a marvelous way to discredit yourself completely and lose the last minimal shreds of respectability that still raise lingering questions about your integrity. I have in mind what I think is one of the most illuminating examples of the total and complete intellectual and moral corruption of Western culture, namely, the awed response to Vaclav Havel's embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant Sunday School sermon in Congress the other day. We may put aside the intellectual level of the comments (and the response) -- for example, the profound and startlingly original idea that people should be moral agents. More interesting are the phrases that really captured the imagination and aroused the passions of Congress, editorial writers, and columnists -- and, doubtless, soon the commentators in the weeklies and monthlies: that we should assume responsibility not only for ourselves, our families, and our nations, but for others who are suffering and persecuted. This remarkable and novel insight was followed by the key phrase of the speech: the cold war, now thankfully put to rest, was a conflict between two superpowers: one, a nightmare, the other, the defender of freedom (great applause).

Reading it brought to mind a number of past experiences in Southeast Asia, Central America, the West Bank, and even a kibbutz in Israel where I lived in 1953 -- Mapam, super-Stalinist even to the extent of justifying the anti-Semitic doctor's plot, still under the impact of the image of the USSR as the leader of the anti-Nazi resistance struggle. I recall remarks by a Fatherland Front leader in a remote village in Vietnam, Palestinian organizers, etc., describing the USSR as the hope for the oppressed and the US government as the brutal oppressor of the human race. If these people had made it to the Supreme Soviet they doubtless would have been greeted with great applause as they delivered this message, and probably some hack in Pravda would have swallowed his disgust and written a ritual ode.

I don't mean to equate a Vietnamese villager to Vaclav Havel. For one thing, I doubt that the former would have had the supreme hypocrisy and audacity to clothe his praise for the defenders of freedom with gushing about responsibility for the human race. It's also unnecessary to point out to the half a dozen or so sane people who remain that in comparison to the conditions imposed by US tyranny and violence, East Europe under Russian rule was practically a paradise. Furthermore, one can easily understand why an oppressed Third World victim would have little access to any information (or would care little about anything) beyond the narrow struggle for survival against a terrorist superpower and its clients. And the Pravda hack, unlike his US clones, would have faced a harsh response if he told the obvious truths. So by every conceivable standard, the performance of Havel, Congress, the media, and (we may safely predict, without what will soon appear) the Western intellectual community at large are on a moral and intellectual level that is vastly below that of Third World peasants and Stalinist hacks -- not an unusual discovery.

Of course, it could be argued in Havel's defense that this shameful performance was all tongue in cheek, just a way to extort money from the American taxpayer for his (relatively rich) country. I doubt it, however; he doesn't look like that good an actor.

So, here's the perfect swan song. It's all absolutely true, even truistic. Writing something that true and significant would also have a predictable effect. The sign of a truly totalitarian culture is that important truths simply lack cognitive meaning and are interpretable only at the level of 'Fuck You', so they can then elicit a perfectly predictable torrent of abuse in response. We've long ago reached that level -- to take a personal example, consider the statement: 'We ought to tell the truth about Cambodia and Timor.' Or imagine a columnist writing: 'I think the Sandinistas ought to win.' I suspect that this case is even clearer. It's easy to predict the reaction to any truthful and honest comments about this episode, which is so revealing about the easy acceptance of (and even praise for) the most monstrous savagery, as long as it is perpetrated by Us against Them -- a stance adopted quite mindlessly by Havel, who plainly shares the utter contempt for the lower orders that is the hallmark of Western intellectuals, so at least he's 'one of us' in that respect.

Anyway, don't say I never gave you a useful suggestion.

Best,
Noam
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home