Lies, Damned Lies, and Noam Chomsky

Recently, Glenn Greenwald at The Guardian wrote an excellent piece on Noam Chomsky and his vilification by members of the media and intelligentsia, specifically on how such attacks are generally substance-free and based on misconceptions, personal attacks and downright lies. (Notably, Greenwald’s piece was in response to an interview with Chomsky done by The Guardian, in which the author riddles the article with anti-Chomsky smears.) Greenwald argues, correctly I think, that because Chomsky departs from mainstream thinking on issues like U.S. foreign policy, economic thought and so on, those who promote conventional, uncritical punditry must attack him; but rather than debunk his often rigorous analysis, they merely tar and feather him as a “self-hating Jew,” an apologist for mass murderers, etc.

It’s very easy to reject this slander and libel for what it is when you see it because it goes against Chomsky’s work as someone who ardently questions the status quo and attempts to hold elites to account for their actions. It makes no logical sense for a self-described “libertarian, egalitarian socialist” to support or otherwise apologize for tyrants and fascists, whether it be Nazi Germany or Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. If Chomsky has sympathized with anyone throughout his career, it has been the “little guy” – people who have been neglected, abused and repressed by people in power. The difference between Chomsky and other intellectuals, especially those on the left, is that the latter will happily and gleefully advocate for “little guys” kicked around in far-off corners of the globe by our government’s enemies, whereas Chomsky dares to call attention to how our own government does it on a regular basis – and, thanks to our wealth and might, on a scale other countries can only ever dream of.

I think if most people bothered to read Chomsky’s work or listen to his lectures, they’d come to the same conclusion. Most probably wouldn’t rush to join him on the fringes where he resides, but at least they’d respect him for the service he provides as someone speaking truth to power. The problem, though, is many people – even those we might assume to be intellectually curious individuals – cringe when they hear an orthodox view questioned by Chomsky in his savage, piercing terms, and then turn off, easily accepting the oft-cited, incorrect claims against Chomsky referred to above.

Case in point: J. Bradford DeLong, a respected economist and chair of the Political Economy major at the University of California, Berkeley. Although I don’t agree completely with his economics, I admire that DeLong has been a vocal critic of austerity measures and is outspoken in his political beliefs. So, it was with some sadness when I saw DeLong repeating smears against Chomsky on Twitter, both of which are as old as time and neither of which have any truth in them. Click the images below:

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I’d like to address the charges leveled against Chomsky concerning the Khmer Rouge and the Faurisson affair, but first I’d like to point out that, despite his strong feelings about Chomsky as an intellectual, DeLong has admitted in the past that he hasn’t really read Chomsky. In an October 1998 blog post, DeLong describes how he purchased a Chomsky book, read it for 17 pages, and then tossed it away:

“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.”

DeLong does engage with what little he did read of Chomsky, but most of his counters to Chomsky fall into two categories. The first is the all-too-common “what the U.S. did wasn’t pretty, but it was better than the alternative” cop-out, the sort of reasoning that keeps the U.S. supporting brutal dictators like Hosni Mubarak, since the “devil we know” is ostensibly better than, you know, people in other countries daring to elect leaders we might not like. The second category is the “Chomsky doesn’t provide context,” which is absolutely laughable if you’ve only read 17 pages of one of his books (and even more laughable when DeLong dismisses any kind of context to the Chomsky quotes he distorts below). Consider this commentary from DeLong:

“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.”

So because Chomsky didn’t denounce Stalin thoroughly in the ten pages you deigned to read, Chomsky must therefore be obfuscating history or some sort of water carrier for Stalin? Of course, anyone who types “Chomsky Soviet Union” into YouTube is going to instantly find clips from lectures in which Chomsky condemns Lenin and Stalin, calling the Soviet Union a “dungeon with social services.” But DeLong can’t be bothered to do this because, well, reading or listening to Chomsky makes him mad.

As an out-of-the-closet neo-Marxist PhD student, I often have to read stuff I vehemently disagree with. I’ve had to read Mancur Olson and The Logic of Collective Action probably half a dozen times as a graduate student. What if I had adopted Brad DeLong’s attitude in my reading of Olson? Can you imagine the reaction if I raised my hand in class and said, “I only read a few pages of the reading, but here are my strong opinions on it anyway”? You have to thoroughly digest something in its entirety before you can draw conclusions on something. And that isn’t radical thinking, some lesson Brad Delong may not have encountered. Any academic worth the appellation understands that before you can attack something you need to actually engage with it first.

All that aside, there is a twist of irony here, too. DeLong and his fellow anti-austerity colleague Paul Krugman are often criticized as being “shrill,” as if their points are invalid because they use “strong language.” DeLong and Krugman are not wrong when they tear austerity hawks a figurative new one, even if it hurts their targets’ feelings Yet DeLong, who understands this point when it applies to him, has no qualms about doing the same thing to Chomsky – that is, smearing and distorting him rather than addressing his overall arguments constructively, on the basis that Chomsky’s arguments make DeLong’s head hurt.

Now, what about the charges against Chomsky DeLong made on Twitter? Let’s start with the allegations concerning Chomsky’s “minimization” of the Khmer Rogue’s killing fields.

In 1979, Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote a book in which they discussed how the U.S. media selectively chooses which massacres to condemn, which to ignore, and which to support. In one chapter, they compared how the media dealt with the massacre of East Timorese during the Indonesian occupation versus the Khmer Rouge massacre of Cambodians during roughly the same period (between 1975 and 1977). In short, Chomsky and Herman found that the media tended to ignore the East Timor deaths (as Indonesia is a U.S. ally) but fixated and even exaggerated the deaths in Cambodia. Specifically, Chomsky looked into an oft-repeated review of a French book that purportedly claimed two million Cambodians had been killed. Chomsky obtained the book in question and found that the book claimed no such thing; the author of the review had distorted the contents of the book. The reviewer corrected the claim, stating “only” thousands had been killed, but the U.S. mainstream media nevertheless continued to repeat the claim, since it fed into the official narrative of the Khmer Rouge being “evil communists,” regardless of its relation to the truth.

If Bill O’Reilly or some other conservative pundit went on TV and said, “On 9/11, three million Americans were killed by al-Qaeda,” would you be guilty of “minimizing” the tragedy of 9/11 by pointing out that three thousand people actually died? Would that make you an al-Qaeda sympathizer? Or would it just make you someone interested in reporting the facts?

On Twitter, DeLong “cited” Chomsky thusly to implicate him:

“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.”

The blog “Prove Me Wrong” went and found the full quote back in 2010. Here it is, with the important details DeLong omitted in bold:

“If a serious study of the impact of Western imperialism on Cambodian peasant life is someday undertaken, it may well be discovered that the violence lurking behind the Khmer smile, on which Meyer and others have commented, is not a reflection of obscure traits in peasant culture and psychology, but is the direct and understandable response to the violence of the imperial system, and that its current manifestations are a no less direct and understandable response to the still more concentrated and extreme savagery of a U.S. assault that may in part have been designed to evoke this very response, as we have noted. Such a study may also show that the Khmer Rouge programs elicited a positive response from some sectors of the Cambodian peasantry because they dealt with fundamental problems rooted in the feudal past and exacerbated by the imperial system with its final outburst of uncontrolled barbarism.”

You can find the full quote in The Political Economy of Human Rights – Volume II: After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, p. 291.

DeLong’s cherry-picked version makes it sound like Chomsky is cheerleading for Pol Pot for taking on the “imperial system.” In the full version, you see that Chomsky is seeking to explain the violence of the Khmer Rouge, not to justify it morally. There is a clear and crucial distinction between those positions.

Again, if I seek to understand why there is so much anti-American feeling in the Middle East, why groups like al-Qaeda are able to recruit young men to commit acts of terrorism… Does pointing out possible causes for “blowback” make me a terrorist sympathizer? Or am I merely interested in understanding cause and effect?

As an aside, Chomsky is not the only academic who has been unfairly attacked because he’s interested in the truth. Mahmood Mamdani wrote a book about how the Save Darfur Coalition inflated the number of people who lost their lives in Darfar, pointing to research by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) that found around 120,000 died rather than the 400,000 dead claimed by the Save Darfur researchers. Mamdani sought to point out how the conflict in Darfur had its roots in a conflict dating back to colonialism, with blood on the hands of Western powers. As a consequence, he was raked over the coals by people who wanted to portray the Darfur situation as a black-and-white conflict between good and evil, the West versus bloodthirsty Muslims.

What about DeLong’s claims that Chomsky supports or apologizes for Robert Faurisson, a Holocaust denier? In 1979, Chomsky signed a petition in defense of Faurisson (who had been prosecuted by the French government) on the grounds of free speech. Chomsky was following the Voltairean precept of disapproving of what someone says, but defending the right of that person to say it. In fact, Chomsky throughout his career has been clear that he detests Holocaust denial and in no way agrees with what Faurisson and others like him argue.

Unable to find Chomsky actually endorsing Holocaust denial, his critics point to him calling Faurisson “an apolitical liberal of some sort” as some sort of subtle sympathy. The line comes from a letter Chomsky had written about civil liberties, which was used as a preface for Faurisson’s book (without Chomsky’s knowledge beforehand). Let us read it in full:

“…[I]s it true that Faurisson is an anti-Semite or a neo-Nazi? As noted earlier, I do not know his work very well. But from what I have read — largely as a result of the nature of the attacks on him — I find no evidence to support either conclusion. Nor do I find credible evidence in the material that I have read concerning him, either in the public record or in private correspondence. As far as I can determine, he is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort.”

While you can make fair points about the wisdom of speculating on someone’s politics, it is obvious that Chomsky is not defending Faurisson, but merely pointing out that (at the time) he had no reason to believe that Faurisson was a zealous fascist or neo-Nazi. In fact, Faurisson in an interview (see the video below) stated that he had no political views. Is he a Holocaust denier? Undoubtedly. Is he also a fascist or a neo-Nazi with some sort of political agenda? Not that we can see, and that is what Chomsky was stating.

But the larger point is that it’s irrelevant. Consider what Chomsky also wrote in the letter that became the preface:

“Note first that even if Faurisson were to be a rabid anti-Semite and fanatic pro-Nazi — such charges have been presented to me in private correspondence that it would be improper to cite in detail here — this would have no bearing whatsoever on the legitimacy of the defense of his civil rights. On the contrary, it would make it all the more imperative to defend them since, once again, it has been a truism for years, indeed centuries, that it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free expression for those who require no such defense.”

So even if Faurisson had been a political candidate for the French Nazi Party in addition to being an author of Holocaust denying works, it would be irrelevant to Chomsky; he would have continued to support his free speech because it’s essential that free speech protect the sort of speech we find the most reprehensible.

Ironically, it would have been better if Faurisson had been a candidate for the French Nazi Party or some other such party, since Chomsky would never have bothered speculating on the man’s politics, and therefore Chomsky’s critics would be forced to address the real issue here: freedom of speech. Instead, because Faurisson had no clear political agenda and Chomsky pointed this out, his critics were able to distort this into Chomsky somehow having common cause with a Holocaust denier.

Indeed, due to my defense of Chomsky, DeLong went ahead and called me a Holocaust denier as well:

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Fortunately, there are some people in this world above name-calling, smears and fabrications… People who actually willing to listen to both sides and give credence to the truth where it can be found. Whether you’re a Chomsky fan like me or an open-minded Chomsky critic who doesn’t want to be spoonfed lies from David Horowitz, thanks for reading this and please take the time to watch the video below, which has Chomsky talking in his own words about the smears leveled against him. It’s just a pity Brad DeLong couldn’t be bothered to watch it!

The Faurisson affair is addressed starting at 20:26 and the Khmer Rouge stuff begins around 33:03.