"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, firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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 our 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.) And 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. I'm not an intellectual totalitarian. I'm a liberal who believes that society needs a diversified intellectual portfolio of well-informed views.
What I object to is that Chomsky is an intellectual totalitarian. What I object to is that Chomsky tears up all the trail markers that might lead to conclusions different from his, and makes it next to impossible for people unversed in the issues to even understand what the live and much-debated points of contention are. What I object to is that Chomskywrites not to teach, but to to brainwash: to create badly-informed believers in his point of view who won't know enough about the history or the background to think th eissues through for themselves.
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 programs for expansion. And Chomsky ruthlessly suppresses half the story of the Cold War--the story of the other side of the Iron Curtain. A naive reader of Chomsky would not even know that there was a complicated and much-debated set of issues here.
In my view, the first duty that any participant in a 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 a major intellectual foul. And in a world in which there are lots of people who try hard to tell it as it really happened, I see no reason why I should waste time reading someone who tries to tell it as it isn't.
And then there are Chomsky's casual lies:
...that the (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 of people--a good chunk of them fascists and anti-semites--who had fought against the Nazis when the Nazis occupied eastern Europe, and fought against the Soviets after the Red Army drove west--for they wanted, and one can understand why, to be ruled by neither Hitler nor Stalin).
...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" (the liberal extreme--in fact, the vital center for much of the 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" (I was in the government, and will be again. How dare he lie about what I take seriously?). So by page 17 I had had more than enough. He's a sleazeball. I closed the book, and went on to read other things.