Further Update : Chomsky on Cambodia (II), January 19, 2010.
Update : It’s perhaps not that strange that Caldwell had neglected to read Ponchaud, given that he had already dismissed the Frenchman’s credibility in print. He based his damning opinion on a brief extract of Year Zero which the Guardian had published and a critique of the book by the American academic, Noam Chomsky. An icon of radical dissent who continues to command a fanatical following, Chomsky had questioned the legitimacy of refugee testimony that provided much of Ponchaud’s research. Chomsky believed that their stories were exaggerations or fabrications, designed for a western media involved in a “vast and unprecedented propaganda campaign” against the Khmer Rouge government, “including systematic distortion of the truth”.
He compared Ponchaud’s work unfavourably with another book, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, written by George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter, which cravenly rehashed the Khmer Rouge’s most outlandish lies to produce a picture of a kind of radical bucolic idyll. At the same time Chomsky excoriated a book entitled Murder of A Gentle Land, by two Reader’s Digest writers, John Barron and Anthony Paul, which was a flawed but nonetheless accurate documentation of the genocide taking place.
We can never know if Caldwell would have taken Ponchaud more seriously had Chomsky not been so sceptical, but it’s reasonable to surmise that the Scotsman, who greatly admired Chomsky, was reassured by the American’s contempt. In any case, the 47-year-old Caldwell arrived in Cambodia untroubled by the story that Ponchaud and others had to tell. In fact, he had just completed a book himself that would be posthumously published as Kampuchea: A Rationale for a Rural Policy, in which he wrote that the Khmer Rouge revolution “opens vistas of hope not only for the people of Cambodia but also for the peoples of all other poor third world countries”.
~ Lost in Cambodia, Andrew Anthony, The Observer, January 10, 2010. (Wave of hammer and sickle: Bob.)
Prompted by a bloke called Bob — he’s from
Barcelona Brockley — I’ve been doing a little reading on Chomsky on Cambodia.
In summary, a number of Chomsky’s critics accuse him (and occasionally his partner-in-crime Edward Herman) of being apologists for the Khmer Rouge (‘Red Khmer’). Often, Chomsky’s critics assert that this gross failing (and occasionally that of his partner-in-crime Edward Herman) is a product of his (and occasionally his partner-in-crime Edward Herman’s) general moral and political degeneracy and/or a myopic ‘anti-Americanism’. According to Leonard Zeskind, for example: “For two decades, Chomsky has repeatedly sung one analytical note. Sometimes he hits the right target. Other times he has been remarkably tone deaf. One note. One idea.”
For more, see : Shubel Morgan “another proud Maoist descendant of the now closed It’s Right to Rebel! Forum”. Also : On crackpots engaged in pigwork (January 10, 2009).
The Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of Pol Pot (aka Saloth Sar: 1928(?)–1998) ruled Cambodia (aka the ‘Democratic Republic of Kampuchea’) between the years 1975–1979. During this period, the regime engaged in what French writer Jean Lacoutre termed ‘autogenocide’: a deliberate policy of mass extermination, the number of victims of which has been estimated as being in the vicinity of 1.7 million people. Thus, according to Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program:
The Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979, in which approximately 1.7 million people lost their lives (21% of the country’s population), was one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. As in the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian genocide, in Nazi Germany, and more recently in East Timor, Guatemala, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, the Khmer Rouge regime headed by Pol Pot combined extremist ideology with ethnic animosity and a diabolical disregard for human life to produce repression, misery, and murder on a massive scale. On July 18, 2007, Cambodian and international co-prosecutors at the newly established mixed UN/Cambodian tribunal in Phnom Penh found evidence of “crimes against humanity, genocide, grave breaches of the Geneva Convention, homicide, torture and religious persecution.”
In brief, Bob identifies a number of key texts which chart Chomsky (and Herman’s) views on Pol Pot’s rule.
First, ‘Distortions at Fourth Hand’, Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman, The Nation, June 6, 1977, “a key text because it was here that they launched their assault on Ponchaud’s Cambodge année zéro [Cambodia: Year Zero], the book that more than any other really alerted the West to the Khmer Rouge crimes”.
- Note: Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia is the title of a 1979 documentary film by John Pilger. Pilger also produced Cambodia: The Betrayal (1990), “An examination of the continued secret support given by Western governments to the Khmer Rouge”. See also : Thirty years on, the holocaust in Cambodia and its aftermath is remembered, October 29, 2009. “Today, Pol Pot is dead and several of his elderly henchmen are on trial in a UN/Cambodian court for crimes against humanity. Henry Kissinger, whose bombing opened the door to the nightmare of Year Zero, is still at large. Cambodians remain desperately poor, dependent on an often seedy tourism and sweated labour.”
Secondly, The Political Economy of Human Rights, Volume II: After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology (South End Press, 1979), also written by Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman (and a companion volume to The Political Economy of Human Rights, Volume I: The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (South End Press, 1979)).
Thirdly, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Noam Chomsky & Edward S. Herman, Pantheon, 1988).
Chomsky and Herman (C&H) contrast Ponchaud to Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, by George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter, a defence of the Khmer Rouge which claims that mass starvation was a “myth”. Sample sentence:
- The evacuation of Phnom Penh undoubtedly saved the lives of many thousands of Cambodians… what was portrayed as a destructive, backward-looking policy motivated by doctrinaire hatred was actually a rationally conceived strategy for dealing with the urgent problems that faced postwar Cambodia.
C&H praise this book. They also argue that Ponchaud heavily overemphasises victim numbers and claim that this overemphasis is a common feature of Western reportage. They do not make a comparison yet to East Timor, but simply call for extreme skepticism about claims that large numbers of people were dying in Cambodia.
‘Distortions at Fourth Hand’ begins with an examination of accounts of conditions in Vietnam following the US withdrawal. While reports vary, they write, there is no evidence of any bloodbath, “although forecasts of a holocaust were urged by the U.S. leadership, official experts and the mass media over the entire course of the war in justifying our continued military presence”. Further:
It was inevitable with the failure of the American effort to subdue South Vietnam and to crush the mass movements elsewhere in Indochina, that there would be a campaign to reconstruct the history of these years so as to place the role of the United States in a more favorable light. The drab view of contemporary Vietnam provided by Butterfield [New York Times, May 1, 1977], and the establishment press helps to sustain the desired rewriting of history, asserting as it does the sad results of Communist success and American failure. Well suited for these aims are tales of Communist atrocities, which not only prove the evils of communism but undermine the credibility of those who opposed the war and might interfere with future crusades for freedom.
It is in this context that we must view the recent spate of newspaper reports, editorials and books on Cambodia, a part of the world not ordinarily of great concern to the press.
They then proceed to examine a number of accounts produced in the first two years following the Khmer Rouge’s victory: an article in The Washington Post (April 8, 1977), for example, in which “photographs believed to be the first of actual forced labor conditions in the countryside of Cambodia [to] have reached the West”; these, they write, were later exposed as having been faked by Thai intelligence.
Aside from these concerns, the bulk of the article concentrates upon three books: Cambodia Year Zero (?), by Francois Ponchaud, Murder of a Gentle Land (Reader’s Digest Press, 1977), by John Barron and Anthony Paul, and Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 1976), by George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter.
Of the latter book, their praise consists of the following: “Hildebrand and Porter present a carefully documented study of the destructive American impact on Cambodia and the success of the Cambodian revolutionaries in overcoming it, giving a very favorable picture of their programs and policies, based on a wide range of sources. Published last year, and well received by the journal of the Asia Society (Asia, March-April 1977)”. They further note that ‘In his Foreword to Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, Asian scholar George Kahin observes that it is a book from which “anyone who is interested in understanding the situation obtaining in Phnom Penh before and after the Lon Nol government’s collapse and the character and programs of the Cambodian Government that has replaced it will, I am sure, be grateful…”‘ Otherwise, its main virtue is that, unlike Barron and Paul’s title, it does not ignore the US role in Cambodia prior to the collapse: “B-52 attacks on villages or the systematic bombing and murderous ground sweeps by American troops or forces organized and supplied by the United States” and so on. (The sample sentence Bob cites is not included in their review.)
Regarding praise, of Ponchaud’s book the pair write that it “is serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited. He gives a grisly account of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.”
So: on my reading, it’s not obvious that the aim of ‘Distortions’ is to defend the Khmer Rouge, or to whitewash its crimes, in particular by reference to Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution. In which context, it’s worth noting that the title appeared in 1976, and at the time of their review-essay was one of very few scholarly works available on the subject. Further, the focus of their essay is upon the manner in which “the recent spate of newspaper reports, editorials and books on Cambodia” were received, and how this reception was shaped by broader political considerations regarding the historical legacy of the US intervention in that part of the world. Thus, Chomsky and Herman conclude ‘Distortions’ as follows (in doing so underlining the reason they titled their essay as they did):
We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments; rather, we again want to emphasize some crucial points. What filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered. Evidence that focuses on the American role, like the Hildebrand and Porter volume, is ignored, not on the basis of truthfulness or scholarship but because the message is unpalatable.
It is a fair generalization that the larger the number of deaths attributed to the Khmer Rouge, and the more the U.S. role is set aside, the larger the audience that will be reached. The Barron-Paul volume is a third-rate propaganda tract, but its exclusive focus on Communist terror assures it a huge audience. Ponchaud’s far more substantial work has an anti-Communist bias and message, but it has attained stardom only via the extreme anti-Khmer Rouge distortions added to it in the article in the New York Review of Books. The last added the adequately large numbers executed and gave a “Left” authentication of Communist evil that assured a quantum leap to the mass audience unavailable to Hildebrand and Porter or to Carol Bragg. Contrary facts and even authors’ corrections of misstatements are generally ignored or inadequately reported in favor of a useful lesson (we note one exception: an honest retraction of an editorial based on Lacouture in the Boston Globe). We noted earlier that the Monitor editorial and other press comments built on the Lacouture review offer at best a fourth-hand account. The chain of transmission runs from refugees (or Thai or U.S. officials), to Ponchaud, to the New York Review, to the press, where a mass audience is reached and “facts” are established that enter the approved version of history.
Here again, even as Ponchaud’s account was being tragically vindicated by the evidence that was unearthed after the Vietnamese liberation, C&H argue for low numbers. They further argue:
- The ferocious U.S. attack on Indochina left the countries [of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia] devastated, facing almost insuperable problems. The agricultural systems of these peasant societies were seriously damaged or destroyed… With the economies in ruins, the foreign aid that kept much of the population alive terminated, and the artificial colonial implantations no longer functioning, it was a condition of survival to turn (or return) the populations to productive work. The victors in Cambodia undertook drastic and often brutal measures to accomplish this task, simply forcing the urban population into the countryside where they were compelled to live the lives of poor peasants, now organized in a decentralized system of communes. At heavy cost, these measures appear to have overcome the dire and destructive consequences of the U.S. war by 1978 [p.viii].
This, it seems to me, is obscene.
C&H were by no means unusual on the left for taking this sort of line in 1979. However, as the 1980s went on, the evidence of the genocide built up, and many people changed their minds, C&H stopped describing the Khmer Rouge takeover as “liberation” and stopped claiming that the regime was actually a good one.
I don’t know how extensive support for the Khmer Rouge was in 1979: I was 8 at the time, and conducting a survey of the attitudes of the left — even that of the Australian left — on this subject is a major project, for which I have neither the time nor the inclination. (Presumably, there are some such surveys available in the scholarly literature produced in the intervening period.) I’m unsure how Chomsky and Herman’s rhetoric regarding the Khmer Rouge changed from 1979 onwards, or the frequency with which they used (or abandoned) the term ‘liberation’. I’m not convinced that either or both regarded the regime as a “good” one, however, especially given the frequency with which they note its responsibility for committing atrocities. That said, a few points.
Chomsky and Herman do address Ponchaud’s work in After the Cataclysm, in Chapter 6: ‘Cambodia’. In a footnote (No.2, p.344), they write: “Ponchaud, a French priest who lived in Cambodia for ten years, is the best-informed and most careful of those who have done extensive critical work on postwar Cambodia, though his study is not without serious flaws.” At a number of points in this Chapter, they proceed to draw attention to these flaws. On p.253 they write that “Ponchaud’s book, the second major source for Western audiences on postwar Indochina, is a more serious work [than Barron and Paul’s] and deserves more careful study and critical analysis”; on the same page (anticipating their 1988 volume) they take note of the fact that the widespread coverage of his and other’s writings on the subject should be compared to “the reaction to benign and constructive bloodbaths, as in the case of Timor”. Further (p.254–255):
…it is clear enough why this study has been singled out for special attention: its message, accurate or not, happens to conform perfectly to the needs of current Western ideology. These comments are no criticism of the book, of course. Rather, they relate to its remarkable reception, and thus are relevant to our primary concern: the workings of the Western propaganda system.
Most relevant in terms of their “assault on Ponchaud” are pages 278–284, concerning the English and American translations of his work, and notes of Ponchaud’s which refer to Chomsky and Herman’s 1977 review-essay (pp.279–280):
The contrast between these two texts, both dated September 20, 1977, is quite striking. Our favorable reference to Ponchaud’s book in the American version becomes a sharp attack in the British version. The “responsible attitude and precision of thought” that receive such fulsome praise in the American version become complete irrationality, refusal to consider evidence, blind dogmatism, lack of any critical approach, and faked “expertise” in the simultaneous British version.
The accusations in the British version are false, and Ponchaud knows very well that they are false, as is sufficiently clear from the American version penned — it appears — on the same day. Far from saying that “there have been no massacres”, we wrote in the article to which he refers that there undoubtedly had been massacres though their scope and character were subject to debate, which we briefly reviewed, including Ponchaud’s “grisly account of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge” in a book that we described as “serious and worth reading”. We concluded that “we do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments”, all of which, incidentally, assume substantial atrocities and thousands or more killed… Ponchaud’s statement that according to Chomsky and Porter “refugees are not a valid source” is also an outright falsehood, as he knows perfectly well. In the reference Ponchaud cites, we wrote: “While [refugee] reports must be considered seriously, care and caution are necessary”; exactly his own explicit conclusion in the book, as we have seen…
By 1988, when they wrote Manufacturing, they had accepted that the regime was indeed genocidal, but they continued to claim that the numbers reported in the West were exaggerations; no one can know the true numbers they say. Crucially, they also intensified their contention that the US bombings were the real cause of the Khmer Rouge genocide. They do not mention Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge.
Herman and Chomsky, following the title of the Finnish Inquiry, describe the 1970s as the “decade of the genocide” in Cambodia. Of phases I and II they write (p.263):
The actual scale of the slaughter and destruction during the two authentic phases of large-scale killings during the “decade of the genocide” (phases I and II) would be difficult to estimate at best, and the problems have been compounded by a virtual orgy of falsification serving political ends that are all too obvious. The Finnish Inquiry Commission estimates that about 600,000 people in a population of over seven million died during phase I, while two million people became refugees. For the second phase, they give 75,000 to 150,000 as a “realistic estimate” for outright executions, and a figure of roughly one million dead from killings, hunger, disease, and overwork. Vickery’s analysis is the most careful attempt to sort out the confused facts to date. He accepts as plausible a “war loss” of over 500,000 for the first phase, calculated from the CIA estimates but lower than their conclusions (see note 31), and about 750,000 “deaths in excess of normal and due to the special conditions of DK”, with perhaps 200,000 to 300,000 executed and a total population decline for this period of about 400,000.
These estimates, the most careful currently available in print to our knowledge, suggest that the toll under phase II of “the genocide” is somewhat greater than that under phase I, although not radically different in scale. But before accepting the figures at face value we must bear in mind that part of the death toll under phase II must be attributed to the conditions left by the U.S. war…
30. For extensive evidence on this matter, see PEHR, II.6, and Vickery, Cambodia, extending the story to phase II.
31. Others give higher estimates. Ponchaud gives the figure of 800,000 killed, but, as noted in our 1977 review, he seems to have exaggerated the toll of the U.S. bombing, and as shown in the references of note 22, he is a highly unreliable source. “US Government sources put the figure unofficially at 600,000 to 700,000” (CIA demographic study, which accepts the lower figure).
32. Vickery, Cambodia, pp.184ff. Other estimates vary widely. At the low end, the CIA demographic study gives the figure of 50,000 to 100,000 for people who “may have been executed”, and an estimate of deaths from all causes that is meaningless because of misjudgment of postwar population and politically motivated assessments throughout; the Far Eastern Economic Review reported a substantial increase in the population under DK to 8.2 million, “mostly based on CIA estimates” (Asia 1979 and Asia 1980 yearbooks of the FEER, the latter reducing the estimate from 8.2 million to 4.2 million, the actual figure apparently being in the neighborhood of 6.5 million); in the U.S. government journal Problems of Communism (May–June 1981), Australian Indochina specialist Carlyle Thayer suggests a figure of deaths from all causes at 500,000, of which 50,000 to 60,000 were executions. At the high end, estimates range to three million or more, but without any available analysis. As all serious observers emphasize, the range of error is considerable at every point.
So, in 1988, as in 1977, Herman and Chomsky continue to take note of: i) general difficulties in arriving at an accurate assessment of what occurred in Cambodia during the “decade of the genocide”; ii) “a virtual orgy of falsification” and “politically motivated assessments” surrounding these estimates and; iii) cite what they claim “to be the most careful currently available [estimates], in print to our knowledge” (Vickery).
With regards the impact of US bombing on Cambodia, Bob writes that they “intensified their contention that the US bombings were the real cause of the Khmer Rouge genocide”. Herman and Chomsky make a number of references to this impact, it being “a factor noted by all serious analysts” (p.264; citing Milton Osborne, David Chandler and Phillip Windsor, among others). Thus: ‘One may debate the weight that should be assigned this factor in determining Khmer Rouge policies, embittering the peasant society of the “base people”, and impelling them to force those they perceived as collaborators in their destruction to endure the lives of poor peasants or worse. But that it was a factor can hardly be doubted.’ The bombing is described in more detail on pages 270–280, including the media response to it (p.274ff).
With regards Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge, there are a few scattered references regarding the conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam, and Deng Xiaoping’s hope that this conflict might help further bleed Vietnam dry, but not a great deal else (that I can find — I’ll look more closely when I can). That said, I’m unsure of the significance of this fact. Presumably, Chinese support may be counted alongside the US bombing as part of the explanatory framework surrounding the rise of the Khmer Rouge. In which case, in failing to examine it, Herman and Chomsky are deliberately obscuring Chinese responsibility for the genocide in Cambodia — an argument which seems rather implausible.
Finally, with regards estimates of the scale of the genocide under Pol Pot (phase II), since 1988 there has been further research conducted; so too, into the US bombing (phase I). As noted, the Cambodian Genocide Program now estimates that “approximately 1.7 million people lost their lives (21% of the country’s population)” between 1975–1979. Further, in 2000, following the release of previously classified US government documents, it was revealed that:
…from October 4, 1965, to August 15, 1973, the United States dropped far more ordnance on Cambodia than was previously believed: 2,756,941 tons’ worth, dropped in 230,516 sorties on 113,716 sites. Just over 10 percent of this bombing was indiscriminate, with 3,580 of the sites listed as having “unknown” targets and another 8,238 sites having no target listed at all. The database also shows that the bombing began four years earlier than is widely believed — not under Nixon, but under Lyndon Johnson.
[“To put 2,756,941 tons into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during all of World War II. Cambodia may be the most heavily bombed country in history.”]
The impact of this bombing, the subject of much debate for the past three decades, is now clearer than ever. Civilian casualties in Cambodia drove an enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began, setting in motion the expansion of the Vietnam War deeper into Cambodia, a coup d’état in 1970, the rapid rise of the Khmer Rouge, and ultimately the Cambodian genocide…
Previously, it was estimated that between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed by the bombing. Given the fivefold increase in tonnage revealed by the database, the number of casualties is surely higher.
Source: ‘Bombs Over Cambodia’, Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, The Walrus, October 2006 (PDF).
Since 1988, the evidence has continued to build up, and the figure of 1.5 to 1.7 million excess deaths is now accepted by every expert, with many saying that this is a conservative estimate. Yet C&H continue to talk about Michael Vickery’s estimate (made in the early 1980s) of 750,000 as plausible. The fact is that no one reputable other than C&H any longer ever gives a figure of below a million as the lower end of the range, yet they still do.
C&H also continue to make a big deal out of a CIA report that made an early and very low estimate of deaths. When they turn to this, they describe its figures as “ludicrously” low, which they add to their evidence of Western distortions. However, the Finnish Inquiry which they rely on heavily gives almost identical estimates, which they don’t criticise. The latter was published in 1984, and significant evidence has emerged since then.
Their claims, in 1977, in 1979, in 1988 and subsequently go far beyond using Cambodia as a case study for their media model. Their claims are also about responsibility for genocide, and scale of genocide. However, their calculus of comparison and their comparative methodology is dodgy, because it mirrors the systematic bias they claim to uncover: they systematically minimise non-Western atrocities and systematically exaggerate Western ones.
TO BE CONCLUDED.
Probably the most sustained online attack on Chomsky (and Herman’s) views is by Bruce Sharp: Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy. Sharp has also written a reply to ‘The Chorus and Cassandra’, the 1985 essay by Christopher Hitchens defending Chomsky from this and other accusations.
Noam Chomsky interview
Noam Chomsky interviewed by George McLeod
Phnom Penh Post
March 27, 2009
Q. You were heavily criticised for some of your views of the KR, and some accused you of being favourable to the KR. Were you unfairly criticised?
A. It’s ridiculous — in fact, there has been a massive critique of some of things that Edward Herman and I wrote — and my view is that they were some of the most accurate things that were written in history.
Nobody has been able to find a missed comma, which is not surprising. Before we published the chapter — we had it reviewed by most of the leading specialists on the topic, who made some suggestions, but basically nothing.
Our main conclusion was: You have to tell the truth — don’t lie about our crimes denying them, and don’t lie about their crimes exaggerating them. In fact, what we actually did … the main thesis is a comparison between Cambodia and East Timor. And it’s a natural comparison — massive atrocities going on in the same part of the world — the same years — East Timor went on for another 25 years afterwards, and relative to population, they were about at the same scale. And what we found was that there was massive lying, but in opposite directions. In the case of East Timor, it was ignored and denied. In the case of Cambodia, it was wild accusations without a particle of evidence. So what was the fundamental difference between the two cases — in Indonesia we were responsible, and we could have done something. But in the other case, an enemy was responsible.
Q. You seemed to defend the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, despite UN resolutions passed against the Vietnamese. In contrast, you criticise the Israelis for their occupation on the grounds of UN resolutions passed against the Israelis. Why were you able to look the other way with the Vietnamese?
A. I didn’t defend it, I criticised it. If you look at that same book that Herman and I wrote in 1979 — it criticises the invasion. It’s not a very harsh criticism because it did have a very positive consequence — it got rid of the KR, and if you look at it, the Vietnamese had plenty of provocation — the KR were attacking across the border and killing Vietnamese. By our standards it was fully justified, nevertheless, we did criticise it. If you want to look at humanitarian interventions since the war — I mean interventions that had a humanitarian consequence whatever their motive was — there are really only two major examples. The Indian invasion of East Pakistan in 1971 and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. And they are never touted because the US was against them.
On the Iraq Election
Noam Chomsky interviewed by Andy Clark
December 18, 2005
Andy Clark: Another criticism that is sometimes levelled against you goes back to Cambodia and some of your writings there. This is from Noah Cooperman from Florida in the US: Noah’s email: “Does the Professor harbour any feelings of guilt for acting as an apologist for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge during the period of the genocide in Cambodia. Or is mass murder by leftwing extremists still acceptable?”
Noam Chomsky: I would ask the listener whether he harbours any guilt for having supported Hitler and the Holocaust and insisting the Jews be sent to extermination camps. It has the same answer. Since it never happened, I obviously can’t have any guilt for it. He’s just repeating propaganda he heard. If you ask him, you’ll discover that he never read one word I wrote. Try it. What I wrote was, and I don’t have any apologies for it because it was accurate, I took the position that Pol Pot was a brutal monster, from the beginning was carrying out hideous atrocities, but the West, for propaganda purposes, was creating and inventing immense fabrications for its own political goals and not out of interest for the people of Cambodia. And my colleague and I with whom I wrote all this stuff simply ran through the list of fanatic lies that were being told and we took the most credible sources, which happened to be US intelligence, who knew more than anyone else. And we said US intelligence is probably accurate. In retrospect, that turns out to be correct, US intelligence was probably accurate. I think we were the only ones who quoted it. The fabrications were fabrications and should be eliminated. In fact, we also discussed, and I noticed nobody ever talks about this, we discussed fabrications against the US. For example a standard claim in the major works was that the US bombings had killed 600,000 people in 1973. We looked at the data and decided it was probably 200,000. So we said let’s tell the truth about it. It’s a crime, but it’s not like anything you said. It’s interesting that nobody ever objects to that. When we criticize fabrications about US crimes, that’s fine, when we criticize and in fact expose much worse fabrications about some official enemy, that’s horrible, it becomes apologetics. We should learn something about ourselves. If you’re interested in the truth, which you ought to be, tell the truth about yourself and tell the truth about others. These fabrications had an obvious political purpose. Incidentally, we continually criticize the Khmer Rouge after the Vietnamese invasion. After the Vietnamese invasion, which finally threw them out thankfully, the US and Britain immediately turned to support Pol Pot. Well, we criticized that, too, we said, no, you shouldn’t be supporting this monster. So yes, our position was consistent throughout. There’s been a huge literature trying to show that there was something wrong in what we said. To my knowledge, nobody’s even found a comma that’s misplaced. And therefore what you have is immense gossip. My guess is that the person who just wrote this in has never seen anything we wrote, but has heard a lot of gossip about it.
The Wild Man in the Wings
The case of East Timor provides an important insight into Chomsky’s moral calculus: atrocities are abhorrent regardless of who commits them, but we have a special obligation to terminate those atrocities for which we bear responsibility. From 1975 to 1979, there was mass murder of comparable proportions in East Timor and in Cambodia. The US, the UK and Australia aided Indonesia’s genocide in East Timor, where up to a third of the population died. This was the worst slaughter relative to population since the Holocaust. It could have been terminated by withdrawing Western support to the Indonesian military. Instead, many self-described ‘public intellectuals’ in Australia and the US said little about it, preferring instead to denounce Pol Pot in Cambodia, where they had no prospect of terminating the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.
Chomsky’s Political Critique: Essentialism and Political Theory
Contemporary Political Theory
Vol.4, No.2, May 2005
In Chomsky’s view, the disparity between inputs and outputs (policy rhetoric/policy outcome) suggests that elites have a rather different view of human need not only from Chomsky, but more significantly from the one they profess to hold. Moreover, as Herring and Robinson (2003) argue, just as the media can be shown to be subservient to US elite perspectives on US foreign policy, so too are academics. This may go some way to explain academic critiques of Chomsky.
Comparing and contrasting policy rhetoric with official data on policy outcomes is only one method Chomsky employs to demonstrate that agendas other than those proclaimed are at work. Chomsky’s other method is to draw ‘historical parallels’ (Chomsky, 2000), or study ‘paired examples’ (Chomsky, 1989a) in respect of elite responses to international events. In other words he compares American and other Western responses to similar events, thereby exposing the ‘double standards’ (Chomsky, 1999) at work, demonstrating that a distinction is often made between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims, just as there is between ‘benign’ and ‘nefarious’ dictators. In so doing, Chomsky demonstrates that proffered values are not necessarily universalizable in the minds of the elite. His comparison of media and policy maker responses to the massacres in Cambodia and East Timor is an example of just such an historical parallel. Cambodia produced a ‘huge outcry of protest’; East Timor coverage by contrast was ‘flat zero’ (Chomsky, 1989a, 156). In his controversial work on Cambodia [Lukes, S. (1980) ‘Chomsky’s betrayal of truths’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 7 November], Chomsky argues that establishing the actual numbers murdered by the Pol Pot regime is not what is interesting. Chomsky wants to make clear that he is not arguing that the facts are not interesting. Nor is he arguing that the actual number of deaths are inconsequential (Chomsky, 1989a, 156). For Chomsky, what is interesting is that, despite the variety of accounts available and therefore the obvious difficulties in establishing the ‘truth’, the Western media fell upon and trumpeted only those claims that put this so-called socialist regime in the worst light (Chomsky, 1979).
In our comparative study of the response to the Cambodia and Timor massacres, we drew no specific conclusions about the actual facts. As we reiterated to the point of boredom, an attempt to assess the actual facts is a different topic, not pertinent to our specific inquiry. That is a simple point of logic. The question we addressed was how the evidence available was transmuted as it passed through the filters of the ideological system. (Chomsky, 1989a, 155)
Chomsky’s analysis is less concerned with seeking to persuade us of the correctness of his interpretation of the ‘facts’ than with exposing the ‘double standards’ at work in the rhetoric and actions of the elite. As has been argued, our sympathies for his interpretation of the ‘facts’ can be informed by an understanding of his political theory. This does not mean that Chomsky is of the view that the ‘facts’ do not matter, but as Chomsky argues ‘to determine the actual facts is a different task’ (Chomsky, 1989a, 156). This allows him also to take issue with those who do assert that whether Pol Pot murdered thousands or millions ‘is of no consequence’ (Chomsky, 1989a, 156). Often, it is difficult to ascertain the ‘facts’, but even when this is not the case, the interpretation of the ‘facts’ can be what is revealing. The final point to make about the methodology employed by Chomsky is that he focuses his critique upon American foreign policy, sometimes broadening this to a more general critique of the west. To his critics this is evidence of a myopic approach to international relations, having the effect of overemphasizing America’s power/responsibility in world affairs and a concomitant failure to be critical of the crimes of other states. What such criticism misses, however, is that Chomsky’s emphasis and focus is determined by entirely political criteria. Chomsky is not attempting to provide an objective, dispassionate and/or impartial account. As has been argued, Chomsky holds the unverifiable view that human beings require certain conditions in order to realize their full potential. Any policy, practice or rhetoric inimical to the provision of these conditions is therefore worthy of target and criticism. As states and capitalism concentrate power, any policy, practice or rhetoric in their name is likely to produce effects that undermine the optimum conditions for human fulfilment, and those effects will vary. As he will readily acknowledge, America ‘is a free society, much more so than any other’ (Chomsky, 1993, 182). This does not mean of course that there is no urgent need for reform. However, as a citizen of American society, Chomsky is clearly more likely to have an effect criticizing the state of his own country, than he is criticizing the state of another country. As a representative democracy, America is relatively susceptible to domestic public opinion (Chomsky, 1988, 134). Chomsky’s focus then, does not mean he is not critical of action by other states, but it is entirely consistent with his concern with the human consequences of his action (Chomsky, 1988, 207and Chomsky, 1969). As he argues:
It is, for example, easy enough for an American intellectual to write critical analyses of the behaviour of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe (or in supporting the Argentine generals) but such efforts have little if any effect in modifying or reversing the actions of the U.S.S.R. Suppose, for example, that some German intellectual chose in 1943 to write articles on the terrible things done by Britain, or the U.S. or Jews. What he [sic] wrote might be correct, but we would not be very much impressed. (Chomsky, 1988, 369)
Chomsky’s relentless attack on American foreign policy reflects his status and animation as an American citizen, and as an intellectual with considerable privilege. As such, he takes seriously his responsibility as an intellectual to expose the lies of government, and not just any government, but the government for whose actions he feels in part culpable. His use of the official data and version of events has added potency, given that the official record is bound to be the account that is most favourable to the government. The relative freedom of information in the USA gives Chomsky the greatest scope to find evidence that supports his critical conclusions, scope that, he is the first to admit, would be systematically denied in all other political jurisdictions.
What the World is Really Like: Who Knows It — and Why
The Chomsky Reader
The right to lie in the service of power is guarded with considerable vigor and passion. This becomes evident whenever anyone takes the trouble to demonstrate that charges against some official enemy are inaccurate or, sometimes, pure invention. The immediate reaction among the commissars is that the person is an apologist for the real crimes of official enemies. The case of Cambodia is a striking example. That the Khmer Rouge were guilty of gruesome atrocities was doubted by no one, apart from a few marginal Maoist sects. It is also true, and easily documented, that Western propaganda seized upon these crimes with great relish, exploiting them to provide a retrospective justification for Western atrocities, and since standards are nonexistent in such a noble cause, they also produced a record of fabrication and deceit that is quite remarkable. Demonstration of this fact, and fact it is, elicited enormous outrage, along with a stream of new and quite spectacular lies, as Edward Herman and I, among others, have documented. The point is that the right to lie in the service of the state was being challenged, and that is an unspeakable crime. Similarly, anyone who points out that some charge against Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, or some other official enemy is dubious or false will immediately be labeled an apologist for real or alleged crimes, a useful technique to ensure that rational standards will not be imposed on the commissars and that there will be no impediment to their loyal service to power. The critic typically has little access to the media, and the personal consequences for the critic are sufficiently annoying to deter many from taking this course, particularly because some journals — the New Republic, for example — sink to the ultimate level of dishonesty and cowardice, regularly refusing to permit even the right of response to slanders they publish. Hence the sacred right to lie is likely to be preserved without too serious a threat. But matters might be different if unreliable sectors of the public were admitted into the arena of discussion and debate.
Shoot the kids at school
All in a bloody pool
I’ll show the teachers too
‘Cause they can’t tell me what to do
Getting Bs and Cs
Saying thanks and please
You broke the golden rules
You’re staying after school
Life is real estate
To the ones I hate
Cops say you must refrain
From squatting, drinking, and hopping trains
Drink but don’t drink this
It ain’t beer it’s piss
Rock the 40oz.
It’s the change that counts
When we get there on the train
We’ll get some booze and start again
Living in the past
Going nowhere fast
Jesus has a place for me
A life of sin and infamy
Dropping out of school
Teacher is a fool
So you run away
Living day to day
Doing what you wanna do
And what makes you happy too
Falling prey to drugs
Sporting body bugs
Rock the 40oz.
It’s the change that counts
Just don’t get locked up in jail
‘Cause no one’s gonna have the bail
Taking time to break the laws
And then I’ll lick my dirty paws
Dodging all the lies I’m fed
I’ll live my life and then I’m dead
The Cambodia Industry
December 20, 2006
Below is an exchange that took place in the ZNet Sustainer Forums where Noam interacts with the forum users. The question posed to Noam, and related material cited, is further below in this blog post. Here is Noam’s response to the question…
Noam Chomsky: I have no record or memory of the posting below, dated in January. And I’m confident that I did not receive it, because it is the kind of posting I would have answered at the first opportunity, not because of its merit (on which, below) but because of the significance of the general phenomenon of which it is yet another illustration — and, incidentally, an illustration that appears to have been dropped from the litany many years ago, I suspect out of embarrassment.
I know nothing about Bruce Sharp, and have no time to access the link or in fact anything from the huge torrent of charges about Cambodia that derive from one of many industries of denunciation, from many different quarters. They would take 48 hours a day if I bothered with them. No one does that, or is expected to, in professional life either. It would be an impossible and pointless task, for anyone who does anything in the least controversial. In the case of the Cambodia industry, I did respond to much of the hysteria and deceit elicited by what Edward Herman and I wrote (as did he), but I stopped paying attention years ago because the industry was simply re-cycling charges that we had already answered. However, if someone wants to bring something specific to my attention, I do respond. As I will show below, the one excerpt from Sharp’s article below keeps to the standards of extreme dishonestly of the industry.
On the phrase “Cambodia industry,” adapted from Norman Finkelstein, see below.
It is interesting that in the reams of industry denunciations brought to my attention, no one has found anything mistaken or even misleading in the 1977 review-article or in our follow-up chapter in Political Economy of Human Rights (PEHR) or in anything else we have written on the matter jointly or individually. If you (or anyone) thinks there is something else in Sharp’s comments that merits attention, then I’ll be happy to consider it and respond, if you send it to me, either here or privately, and I presume Ed Herman would be too. But no one, ever, can be expected to respond to what is posted somewhere or even appears in print. To repeat, no one ever is expected to do that, whether in professional or political life, and certainly not when it becomes an industry — in this case, an extremely interesting industry, casting a dazzling light on the deeply rooted imperial mentality and the dedication to serve state power and atrocities. I’ll discuss the general context briefly below, as often before, after a few comments on the posting you included, which refers to a review-article by Chomsky and Herman, Nation, June 25, 1977.
Our article discussed commentary on postwar Indochina through 1976, all that was available at the time we wrote in early 1977. One part of the article was about Vietnam, reviewing the familiar pattern: material that was generally positive about early reconstruction efforts was completely ignored, even when it was from highly regarded specialists on Vietnam. Meanwhile the US role in destroying Vietnam was largely ignored or downplayed. An illustration is the NY Times report we cited about “substantial tracts of land made fallow” — to translate to English, utterly devastated by US bombing. To date, I have seen no comment on this part of our review-article.
The most striking case, perhaps, was the book on postwar Vietnam we cited co-authored by Jean Lacouture, based on direct observation as well as his specialist knowledge. Revealingly, though he was ignored in the area of his expertise (critical, but fairly positive about Vietnam, hence doctrinally unacceptable), he was very widely and prominently quoted on Cambodia, based on a review of Francois Ponchaud’s Cambodge annee zero, in which every single reference to the book was grossly falsified, as he conceded — while he also added that he didn’t think it mattered if his estimate of deaths in Cambodia was too large by a factor of 100, a statement that elicited no concern that I could detect (except ours). You can imagine the reaction if anyone were to say something like that about the crimes of the US or some other favored state.
The review-article then turns to Cambodia, discussing media reports and the three books that were then available: Hildebrand-Porter (H-P), Ponchaud, and Barron-Paul. The review of media reports reveals the same pattern: for example, eager repetition of what were conceded to be defamatory lies. Our review of Ponchaud was the first to appear in the US, though the book, as noted, was very widely cited on the basis of Lacouture’s (conceded) falsifications. We praised the book as “serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited,” also raising a few questions about it — in each case, later shown to be serious errors in the book. In the American translation a year later, Ponchaud thanked me for praising his book, and praised me in turn for “the responsible attitude and precision of thought” revealed in everything I had written (or co-authored with Herman) about Cambodia, including the review-article and subsequent correspondence, which revealed many errors that he corrected in the American translation. Note that I say “American”: not “English,” or “other translations.” The reason is discussed in PEHR, revealing Ponchaud’s extraordinary contempt for the reigning intellectual culture in England and the continent — justified, as it turned out. On Barron-Paul, we gave a few illustrations of how it was worthless, basically agreeing with reviewers who knew anything about the topic. We gave many further and quite remarkable illustrations in PEHR. Barron-Paul remained the main source on Cambodia for the general public, Lacouture’s falsified review for the educated classes. See PEHR for much more on the topic.
One of the four questions we raised about Ponchaud’s book in our review-article was his apparent serious exaggeration of deaths due to the US bombing. His book cited no sources, but H-P did, and by using their sources, we were able to suggest the probable cause of Ponchaud’s error. It is interesting that in the flood of denunciations of the review-article, including the posting here, no one has ever criticized our correction of Ponchaud’s exaggeration of US crimes, or faulted us for using the documentation in H-P to correct the error. That is instructive. It reveals, once again, that it is not only legitimate but essential to correct inaccurate charges against the US, while it is utterly criminal to correct false charges against an official enemy. And reliance on H-P for the worthy purpose of correcting charges against the US passes without notice on the part of those who denounce us for accurately and appropriately citing H-P. As in the posting below.
The posting, and excerpt from Sharp, express outrage over our citation of H-P, the only scholarly study then available. They omit the most crucial facts, among them our citation of H-P to correct exaggerations of US crimes, but others that are far more significant. Namely these:
As we noted, the foreword to H-P was written by the leading Southeast Asia scholar George Kahin, the founder of the modern scholarly discipline, who wrote that “anyone who is interested in understanding the situation obtaining in Phnom Penh before and after the (US-backed) Lon Nol government’s collapse and the character and programs of the Cambodia Government that has replaced it will, I am sure, be grateful to the authors of this valuable study,” which concentrates on the effects of “the heavy American bombing” and its consequences: “a significant amount of starvation,” destruction of “many of the richest farming areas” (adding that Washington refused to allow food stocks to be replenished to the urban population), and other US crimes to which the new government reacted not by “some irrational ideology,” but with “pragmatic solutions by leaders who had to rely exclusively on Cambodia’s own food resources and who lacked facilities for its internal transport.” The major contribution of the book, Kahin writes, apart from its account of living conditions at the end of the US assault in April 1975, is its “extensive analysis of how in the years leading up to the National United Front’s assumption of power, it managed to turn a shattered rural economy into a strong enough base from which to wage a successful war against Lon Nol’s American-supported regime, and then move rapidly on to develop the extensive additional agricultural resources that enable it to feed an urban populace nearly as large as the predominantly rural population previously under its control.” That was the judgment of the leading Southeast Asia scholar concerning the book we dared to mention in reviewing all the books then available. And it is omitted from the posting, in standard industry style.
Also omitted is the crucial matter of timing: Kahin refers to the period before the Khmer Rouge takeover, and the few weeks that followed. The reason is that the book went to press shortly after the KR takeover, as the footnotes to which Sharp refers triumphantly make explicit. It was, in fact, the only study available — and may still be — of the state of Phnom Penh as the US assault came to an end, and what led to this miserable situation. As we wrote, the book was ignored, given its topic, in accord with systematic practice.
When we wrote the review-article, it was too early to cite the analyses by the leading Asia specialist of the Washington Post, Lewis Simon, and the similar analyses by State Department intelligence, agreed on all sides to be the most knowledgeable source. In PEHR we cited these and other studies by recognized and respected specialists, all contradicting the standard stories that were circulating on the basis of falsified reports. Among others, we cited the report to Congress after our article appeared by the two leading State Department Cambodia watchers (Charles Twining and Timothy Carney, confirmed by their superior Richard Holbrooke). They estimated that deaths were in the thousands or hundreds of thousands from all causes, primarily from “brutal, rapid change,” not “mass genocide,” etc.; see PEHR for further details, invariably omitted by the Cambodia industry. In Manufacturing Consent we cited the astonishing analyses by the CIA and the government’s leading Indochina scholar, Douglas Pike, downplaying Pol Pot crimes, well after the flood of refugees in 1979 made it clear how atrocities had mounted severely in 1978. By the time of Pike’s statement and the CIA demographic study, the US had of course turned to direct support for the Khmer Rouge and severe punishment of Vietnam for the crime of having ended Pol Pot atrocities as they were peaking. Not of interest to the Cambodia industry, though it is to Cambodia scholars. Michael Vickery, for one, wrote about it.
We now know a lot more about what happened during the years before the KR takeover in 1975. Just a few weeks ago, Znet published a very important article reviewing new official documentation on the US bombing of Cambodia. I think it is the first time this has appeared in the US. The study, by Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen, appeared in the Canadian journal The Walrus. Kiernan is one of the most prominent Cambodia scholars, also director of the Yale University Genocide Project, which focuses mostly on Khmer Rouge atrocities from 1975 through 1978, when they were finally ended by the Vietnamese invasion as they were peaking. The new documentation, they report, reveals that the bombing was five times as heavy as what was reported, “making Cambodia even today the most heavily bombed country in history.” The massive US attack on the peasant society played a major role in creating the Khmer Rouge, they report, updating what was already known from other sources. It was instrumental in turning the KR “from a small force of perhaps 10,000 in 1970 to over 200,000 troops and militia in 1973,” and more later as the US bombing continued, ferociously, via the Lon Nol government. These crucial revelations are of course of great interest to anyone concerned with the people of Cambodia. They also bear on what Kahin and H-P book record about their topic: Cambodia up to the end of the US war. The silence with which the Kiernan-Owen [article] has been greeted provide yet another indication of the actual concern of the industry for the fate of Cambodians.
To summarize, we were exactly correct in our review-article in summarizing the basic content of the one scholarly source available, H-P, and the praise for it by the most respected Southeast Asia scholar, all referring throughout to the pre-takeover period and the few weeks afterward: that is, to the effects of US crimes in Cambodia, now known to be vastly greater than even what had been assumed at the time. So much for the posting and what it cites.
Turning to the more general context, I have been using the phrase “Cambodia industry,” adapted from Norman Finkelstein’s very important study The Holocaust Industry. Finkelstein distinguishes between “Holocaust studies” and the “Holocaust industry.” The former consists of extremely valuable scholarly work, initiated by Raul Hilberg, which has brought to light the hideous truth of this incredible crime. The latter consists of those who exploit the tragic events for political or personal gain, caring little for the victims, as their behavior demonstrates. Similarly, we can distinguish Cambodia studies — a serious branch of scholarship from which we have learned a great deal about the terrible fate of Cambodia from the early days of the Indochina wars until today — and the Cambodia industry, which concentrates laser-like on the years of KR rule (1975-1978), ignoring the massive US crimes that led to the hideous circumstances of early 1975 (and contributed signicantly to the rise of the KR), and Washington’s turn towards direct support of the KR, military and diplomatic, while punishing Vietnam for the crime of ending the atrocities. There are fairly simple criteria to distinguish the products of the industry from the work of those who care about the people of Cambodia. I have just given a few illustrations. In the review-article there are some others. We greatly amplified the account in PEHR, and reviewed and updated it a decade later in Manufacturing Consent. New and dramatic illustrations regularly appear, the Kiernan-Owen study and the reaction to it being the most recent.
It is also worth recalling the more general context. Here Edward Herman’s distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims is pertinent. The “worthy victims” are those whose fate we can attribute (often with distortion and deceit) to someone else, particularly official enemies. The “unworthy victims” are those for whose fate we are directly responsible. With a level of precision that is quite remarkable in complex human affairs, the worthy victims elicit most impressive laments, vast fabrications that are uncorrectable, and much posturing about the evil of others. The unworthy victims are either ignored, or their fate is minimized and attributed to their evil nature. The distinction is even more revealing when we consider the (obvious) fact that we can do something about the tragedy of the unworthy victims, very easily — namely, by ending our participation in their torment — while for the worthy victims we [can] do very little if anything, so laments and posturing are a very safe stance. On the most elementary moral level, the unworthy victims who are ignored are far more important.
Cambodia illustrates the pattern quite well: when Cambodians were unworthy victims, pre-1975, their terrible fate elicited little media attention (we reviewed it in PEHR). When they switched to worthy victims after the KR takeover in mid-1975, there were instant charges of “genocide,” and a torrent of fabrication and deceit — and no one proposed to do anything to help them. When Vietnam ended their torture in 1978, and the US switched to support for Pol Pot, they became worthy victims of the Vietnamese, who had rescued them, and who we therefore had to punish severely. The record is most revealing.
Also very revealing is the reaction to the exposure of these patterns, not just in the case of Cambodia. To mention just one of a great many examples we have documented, the major focus of PEHR is on two huge atrocities in the same part of the world during the same years: the KR crimes in Cambodia, and the US-backed Indonesian invasion of East Timor (which of course continued, with horrifying consequences and constant US support, until mid-September 1999, when Clinton, under enormous international and domestic pressure, informed the Indonesian generals that the game was over, and they instantly withdrew — teaching obvious lessons that cannot be comprehended). The comparison was quite fair. Our detailed study of East Timor and the reaction to our own crimes was completely ignored. The paired study of Cambodia under the KR and the reaction to the crimes of an enemy elicited enormous indignation in the Cambodia industries, and endless efforts to find at least something that could be criticized — so far, a complete failure to my knowledge, when mendacity such as that just reviewed is dismantled.
It is also intriguing to see how Cambodia industry enthusiasts pretend not to understand that their reaction demonstrates that they are miserable apologists for the violence of their own state. The logic is transparent. We (accurately) compared Cambodia and East Timor, so claims that we downplayed atrocities in Cambodia reveal that those who issue those claims are downplaying the atrocities in East Timor — crimes comparable to Cambodia in the years we reviewed, crimes for which they share responsibility then and later, and that they could have brought to an end, very easily, if the fate of human beings was their concern. The logic is elementary, but incomprehensible to the properly educated. There are innumerable other examples, reviewed elsewhere.
It is also useful to recall the (again obvious) point that the KR atrocities were highly functional for Western apologists for the violence of their own states. Within the Cambodia industry, the atrocities were exploited both to provide a depraved form of retrospective justification for the US wars in Indochina (including the crimes that were instrumental in creating the KR), and for the US atrocities then escalating in Central America — to protect the people from “the Pol Pot left,” in the phraseology of supporters of the crimes of their own states. Again, we have reviewed the matter in print, and I won’t repeat.
One last comment. The preceding illustrates one of the crucial functions of the various industries, in Finkelstein’s sense. Their advocates surely understand very well that mendacity and deceit require merely a phrase, when one is lining up with power. But correction takes time and effort. One service of the industries, doubtless intended, is to immobilize critics of the crimes of concentrated power. And the effort would be successful, if anyone were to pay attention. I’ll repeat again that as in the past, I’ll respond to specific claims and charges, but not to a reference to some essay or posting somewhere. That is not an appropriate request.
ZNet Sustainer: Hi Noam,
I can’t find a response from you on the question posed below and I had the identical query. I’ve been pressing acquaintances of mine to read your works and one of them sent me the same Bruce Sharp article that is mentioned in the attached posting [link] as an example of your doing precisely what you criticize: [selecting] wrong or exaggerated data for the purposes of misleading people toward the conclusions you like.
If you’ve answered the challenge in previous work, just kindly point me there and I’ll take it from there… otherwise, your body of work will have at least one active challenge.
I know the Faurisson thing is a pure junk and I really enjoy having that one brought up for the fun of punching holes in it… But Bruce Sharp’s work deserves a response in my opinion, either from you or Ed Herman.
Critique of Sharp
June 17, 2008
The thesis is indeed a bold one and if correct, it would effectively discredit Chomsky as a public intellectual. However, upon closer inspection, the story is not as simple as Sharp presents.
Sharp begins his article with a raucous bang, writing:
Sharp is correct when he says that misconceptions have a very long life, particularly when they take this form, namely, the misconception that Chomsky in any way supports or supported the Khmer Rouge, or that his work led to any misunderstandings regarding the history of their campaign of genocide and terror. Another misconception should be pointed out: the misconception that facts, and the methodology used to interpret those facts, are one [and] the same. What is commonly misunderstood about Chomsky’s writings on Cambodia is that he was primarily engaged in an effort to record the methodologies used by the Western media to interpret the facts on the ground in Cambodia. As Chomsky and Herman explicitly stated in After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina & the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, “our primary concern here is not to establish the facts with regard to postwar Indochina, but rather to investigate their refraction through the prism of Western ideology, a very different task.” It would logically follow that the task of Chomsky’s critics would be to see if his analysis of the Western media’s methodology is accurate, not whether or not the narrative presented by the press turned out to be correct. Sharp is in a constant state of conflating fact with interpretation, truth with the application of evidence. His critique ultimately collapses as a result.
Sharp points to Chomsky’s “astuteness” in reviewing the consequences of the coup by Lon Nol and Sirik Matak in 1970, which overthrew Prince Norodom Sihanouk, as well as his apparently prophetic predictions for the consequences of the U.S. invasion. However, Sharp cites Chomsky’s introduction to Malcolm Caldwell and Lek Tan’s Cambodia in the Southeast Asia War with regards to Chomsky’s apparent naïve perception that the revolutionary forces would bring about liberation and economic development and social justice. However, Chomsky’s quote only indicates the hope that this would be the case. The quote reads:
At this stage, Chomsky’s view of the matter is simply a desire for things to get better in Indochina, not a prediction of things to come. This is the kind of subjective interpretation that characterizes the bulk of Sharp’s essay; when Chomsky’s work fails to meet the charges leveled against him, his words are simply construed to conform to the arguments of his detractors. Sharp then makes the claim that:
This claim is simply false. There was a great deal of confusion among journalists and scholars regarding the nature of the Khmer Rouge during the final period of the warfare, as well as during the evacuation of Phnom Penh and even into the full genocidal-scale atrocities that followed. As Jamie Metzl documented in his authoritative study Western Responses to Human Rights Abuses in Cambodia, 1975-1980:
The historical record (including the analyses of academics as well as mainstream journalists) yields a very different picture than the image of a clear and unequivocal view of the Khmer Rouge as presented with the benefit of hindsight by Sharp.
The initial article that generated the torrent of criticism against Chomsky on this was co-authored with Edward Herman; the article was ‘Distortions at Fourth Hand’, which was published in The Nation. Sharp is no exception to the belligerent responses to this article. In it, Chomsky and Herman reviewed three books pertaining to the situation in Cambodia. They were: Cambodia Year Zero, by Francois Ponchaud, Murder of a Gentle Land, by John Barron and Anthony Paul, and Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, by George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter. In Chomsky and Herman’s view, the “response to the three books under review nicely illustrates [the] selection process” of the Western media. Chomsky and Herman referred to Hildebrand and Porter’s book as “a carefully documented study of the destructive American impact on Cambodia and the success of the Cambodian revolutionaries in overcoming it, giving a very favorable picture of their programs and policies, based on a wide range of sources.” This comment elicits a furious outcry by Sharp, who thinks Chomsky’s assessment is evidence of his pro-Khmer Rouge bias. Sharp writes:
However, Sharp once again has fallen into the erroneous method of conflating fact with interpretation. A closer look at Hildebrand and Porter’s book, as well as Chomsky and Herman’s review of the book is in order. First, Hildebrand and Porter’s book was published in 1976 when events in Cambodia remained highly obscure. The book was the only academic study about the Khmer Rouge then available which adhered to acceptable standards of scholarship and research. Gareth Porter was the co-director of the Indochina Resource Center during this period, one of the most authoritative organizations covering the U.S.’s involvement in Indochina. Furthermore, Chomsky and Herman were by no means the only scholars to review Hildebrand and Porter’s book favorably. The prominent Southeast Asia specialist George McT. Kahin called Hildebrand and Porter’s account “the best informed and clearest picture yet to emerge,” and that the U.S. government had attempted to “suppress much of the pertinent information” which also supports Chomsky and Herman’s thesis of media bias. Note also that Sharp neglects to mention one of Chomsky’s key uses of Hildebrand and Porter’s book, namely to correct exaggerations of U.S. crimes. What does this suggest? It suggests that Sharp’s presentation of Chomsky as a simple ideological propagandist doesn’t hold much water for the simple reason that he was a scholar attempting to review the factual record according to the best and most authoritative resources then available. This includes speculating about implausible numbers, reviewing contradictions in reports and refugee testimonies, as well as critically reviewing academic studies according to the accepted standards of scholarship.
Sharp is particularly critical that Chomsky and Herman did not [heap] praise on Francois Ponchaud’s Cambodia Year Zero in the same way that the mainstream media did. Chomsky was hesitant to defer to Ponchaud’s account on the grounds that it was primarily an account of refugee interviews and Cambodian radio broadcasts which offered little in the way of verifiable information. Sharp writes that “[t]he grounds for the claim that Ponchaud ‘plays fast and loose with numbers’ are absurdly trivial.” He indicates that because Chomsky is suggesting that the number of victims caused by U.S. bombing was an exaggeration, his propaganda model must be false. However, what Sharp passes over is Ponchaud’s apparent disregard for the veracity of his sources. He quotes Ponchaud to the fact that, “[o]n the first anniversary of the liberation, April 17, 1976, the authorities of Kampuchea declared 800,000 dead and 240,000 disabled as a result of the war.” Apparently Sharp thinks it is totally ridiculous and unforgivable when Hildebrand and Porter cite the authorities of Kampuchea and yet at the same time it is perfectly legitimate for Ponchaud to do so. Additionally, (as pointed out by Sharp) Chomsky never offered a blanket condemnation of Ponchaud’s book. On the contrary, he and Herman described it as “serious and worth reading,” and indicated that Ponchaud “also reminds us of some relevant history.” But the general problem with Ponchaud’s book (as evinced by Chomsky), is that his analysis primarily relies on unverifiable radio broadcasts and refugee testimonies and that Ponchaud refused to document the accounts of refugees during the U.S. bombing campaign. Cambodia: Year Zero is a “careless” account of the situation in Cambodia and far from a serious academic study. Furthermore, Chomsky’s criticisms were echoed by Danish human-rights activist Torben Retboll, who accused Ponchaud of poor scholarship in the unattributed words of Chomsky. Additionally, there were more criticisms provided in the New York Village Voice, yet we find no reference or criticism of these mainstream sources from Sharp. What is more problematic about Ponchaud’s book than his minimalist approach to citing evidence is the fact that many of the refugee reports are utterly contradictory. As it is soberly pointed out by Michael Vickery in Cambodia: 1975-1982, Ponchaud reports:
The contradictions in Ponchaud’s report mount without a word from Bruce Sharp, who claims that “[t]he testimony of the refugees, and Ponchaud’s analysis of Khmer Rouge policy, were entirely accurate.” Either Sharp is careless in neglecting to review these contradictions or he is simply a liar. In any case, his position expresses the basic view that Chomsky’s refusal to endorse a book from an author without any scholarly or journalistic credentials which lacked any verifiable information and contained contradictory refugee testimonies is evidence of his apparent left-wing bias if not outright Khmer Rouge apologetics. You can decide for yourself whose position is more reasonable.
The final book reviewed by Chomsky and Herman in ‘Distortions at Fourth Hand’ was Anthony Paul and John Barron’s book Murder of a Gentle Land, which enjoyed wide distribution in Reader’s Digest. Chomsky and Herman described the book as a “third-rate propaganda tract,” for the simple reason that it is a third-rate propaganda tract as made obvious from the title alone. Sharp writes: “With vintage Chomsky disdain, they attempt to discredit the book with the snide remark that Barron and Paul ‘claim’ to have analyzed refugee reports.” Let’s review the scholarship for a moment. Barron and Paul’s book is based primarily on visits to refugee camps arranged by a representative of the Thai ministry of the Interior, where the refugees were subjected to the control of the virulently anti-communist Thai authorities. During this period, pressure was being applied in the United States from Congress to take action. Representative Steven Solarz called a special hearing in May of the Subcommittee on International Relations on the Cambodia situation. Peter Poole, David Chandler, John Barron, and Gareth Porter were invited. Poole and Chandler claimed that the situation in Cambodia was difficult to judge, and that the U.S. was at least partially responsible for the conditions there. Barron presented the bloodbath version of events, claiming that “the people of Cambodia are being denied virtually all human rights.” Several problems arise from Barron and Paul’s book. The most important, is their use of a quote from an exchange between Khieu Samphan and an Italian journalist from Famiglia Christiana, which reads:
Chomsky and Herman’s own deconstruction of this quote is informative. As they write in After the Cataclysm:
In addition to this discrepancy, Father Ponchaud himself wrote in August, 1977 that he “knows for certain” that the interview never took place. What is particularly striking about this admission is that Barron and Paul indicated that one of their primary fact-checkers was Ponchaud himself. Barron said: “Ponchaud assisted us extensively in our interviews in France. He compared data with us, criticized our work, and challenged in some cases our findings.” In addition to this admission, we must look at the credentials of John Barron himself. According to Jamie Metzl:
Yet such criticisms do not find their way into Sharp’s analysis of Chomsky’s work. This is because they prove that Chomsky and Herman’s denunciations of Barron and Paul were not only uncontroversial and often echoed by other writers and scholars, but they were also quite accurate and justified. Once again, Michael Vickery points to the overwhelming [number] of problems with Barron and Paul’s crude methods. He writes that in addition to their blatantly unrepresentative sample of refugee reports, they:
The case against Barron and Paul’s work goes on and on. Elizabeth Becker referred to the book as a “Cold War propaganda piece,” and few scholars on Cambodia defer to it in the contemporary literature. Yet Sharp insists that it is an accurate account of the situation in Cambodia at the time. He mentions that Barron and Paul’s refugee testimonies “could easily have been verified.” I suppose frivolous details like falsifying refugee reports are simply not worth mentioning.
Let us review Chomsky and Herman’s assessment for the moment. They reviewed Murder of a Gentle Land negatively because of the suspect nature of the testimonies, the dubious nature of the Famiglia Christiana quote, and also because of Barron’s probable ties to the US government. Not an unreasonable assessment. Chomsky and Herman provided a mixed review of Ponchaud’s Cambodia Year Zero, describing it as “more serious” than Barron and Anthony as well as “serious and worth reading,” though they were skeptical as to Ponchaud’s application of death tolls as well as the inherently difficult nature of refugee testimonies and the lack of verifiable information in the book. Last is Hildebrand and Porter’s book, which Chomsky and Herman praised on the grounds that it provided extensive documentation about the nature of the U.S. bombing campaign and was also praised by the leading Southeast Asia specialist George Kahin. Although the book proved to be an incorrect assessment of the Khmer Rouge, Chomsky’s endorsement of the book at the time was not naïve or unreasonable. Sharp once again employs the deceitful line of argument that fact is the same as interpretation. Chomsky and Herman were merely reviewing the material according to the best means that were then available. Things were not at all clear as to the nature of the situation in Cambodia during this period, though Bruce presents the story as if there was no dispute regarding the facts on the ground in the academic community.
The controversy surrounding Chomsky’s writings on Cambodia escalated through a polemical exchange with Jean Lacouture who had published an account of Ponchaud’s book in The New York Review of Books, where Lacouture admitted that he had exaggerated the number of Khmer Rouge executions and subsequently corrected himself from “two million” deaths, to “thousands or hundreds of thousands.” Chomsky and Herman disagreed with Lacouture’s overly cavalier attitude regarding factual documentation. Ponchaud referred to the exchange in the preface of the American edition of Cambodia: Year Zero. Sharp is quick to cite the reference:
Notice for a moment, what Sharp doesn’t include. He does not include Ponchaud’s preliminary remark:
Chomsky and Herman provide Lacouture’s entire mea culpa in After the Cataclysm, with a great deal of discussion pertaining to the selection of evidence by the Western press. Sharp quotes Chomsky to the fact that, “Ed Herman and I responded to his challenge to me by saying that we thought that a factor of 1000 did matter.” Sharp believes that this is evidence that Chomsky lied about the death toll in Cambodia. He writes: “Since Lacouture had cited a figure of two million deaths, it would appear that Chomsky is implying that the real toll at that point was on the order of two thousand.” Remember that Chomsky was responding directly to Lacouture’s correction from “two million,” to “thousands or hundreds of thousands.” Chomsky’s “factor of 1000” does not imply that he believed the death toll was 2000. The comment was a direct response to Lacouture’s apparent disregard for the difference between millions, and thousands. Furthermore, Chomsky and Herman presented Lacouture’s entire mea culpa and indicated that he at least was not guilty of the “incredible moral lapse” of refusing to acknowledge the U.S. responsibility for the situation in Cambodia. All that Sharp can refer to is Lacouture’s statement that Chomsky’s corrections had caused him “emotional distress.” Never mind Lacouture’s initial and unabashed support for the Khmer Rouge or his blatant lack of respect for factual accuracy. Where are Sharp’s denunciations against Lacouture for supporting the Khmer Rouge and the consequences of their policies? As Christopher Hitchens writes in “The Chorus and the Cassandra,” published in the Grand Street Magazine: “Incidentally, Lacouture reduced his own estimate of deaths from ‘two million’ to ‘thousands or hundreds of thousands.’ Is this, too, ‘minimization of atrocities?'” Sharp himself mentions that “Lacouture was hardly alone in his support for the Communists in Southeast Asia. Many in the West accepted the idea that the Communists would be ‘liberators’ freeing the masses from the servitude of imperialism.” Why then, does Sharp still cling to the view that condemnation for the Khmer Rouge was practically monolithic and that Chomsky was the lone nut who dared to review the record in all their contradictions and misrepresentations? Many of Chomsky and Herman’s suspicions regarding the veracity of the evidence selected by the mainstream press during the early years of Democratic Kampuchea were subsequently confirmed. For instance, Michael Vickery is unequivocal in insisting that:
If Sharp knows that Chomsky and Herman were not alone in reviewing the record of 1975-76 and that Chomsky examined the entire progression of Lacouture’s views regarding the situation in Cambodia in full (as made clear from the fact that Sharp repeatedly cites After the Cataclysm), then he must know that he was not engaged in a simple-minded campaign to pounce on anyone who dared to criticize the Khmer Rouge. Chomsky was doing what any competent scholar does; namely, review the factual record.
Sharp’s complaints diminish in competence as the essay proceeds. Sharp insists that many of Chomsky’s supporters have argued that Chomsky was comparing the treatment of media coverage of Cambodia with the coverage of the genocide taking place in East Timor at the same time. Sharp writes:
Although it is true that Chomsky and Herman make no direct reference to East Timor in ‘Distortions at Fourth Hand’ (which was not the subject of the article), they do refer to it repeatedly in After the Cataclysm. Chomsky and Herman write:
It’s curious that Sharp would neglect to mention this fact in his diatribe. Unless he is of the sudden opinion that After the Cataclysm does not count (for whatever reason) as a work by Chomsky about the media coverage in Indochina, or he is simply omitting any sentence which Chomsky writes that does not conform to his thesis. One might say that Sharp’s work is somewhat “marred by omissions, dubious statistics, and, in some cases, outright misrepresentations” to use a familiar phrase.
Sharp continues with a transparently irresponsible exegesis of After the Cataclysm, where he repeats the view that the book was simply a vehicle for Chomsky and Herman to prove that the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule was simply a myth. Sharp quotes Chomsky and Herman in the preface that, “[i]n a sense, the refugee flow from Vietnam in 1978 is comparable to the forced resettlement of the urban population of Cambodia in 1975.” He comments that this remark is indicative of Chomsky’s “spin” on the history, asking “[h]ow is an exodus of refugees, voluntarily risking their lives to escape a communist regime, in any way comparable to the deadly forced march into the Cambodian countryside?” However, the context in After the Cataclysm in which Chomsky and Herman make this remark is completely different than the context Sharp implies. Chomsky and Herman write that “[t]he exodus was accelerated by intensifying conflict between Vietnam and China and by the disastrous floods of the fall of 1978, which had an extremely severe effect throughout the region,” though this background is conveniently omitted by Sharp. The overarching argument of Chomsky in this section is that the West consistently attributes all of the crises in Indochina to Communism without looking at alternative factors, such as its own repeated aggression to … Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Sharp applies the same sleight of hand in discussing Chomsky’s criticism of Ponchaud. He quotes Chomsky and Herman:
Yet he excludes their major point, namely their contention that “[a]s far as we know, however, during the years Ponchaud lived in Cambodia he never publicly expressed this sympathy and also apparently felt that no purpose would be served by any public comment or protest over the war-specifically, the foreign attack-while it was in progress;” Sharp’s representation of Chomsky and Herman’s commentary paints a picture that distorts their argument. His omission of Ponchaud’s known neglect with regard to the U.S. bombing campaign is actually reinforcement of Chomsky’s argument, not a refutation of it.
After a reprisal of the Chomsky-Lacouture exchange wherein Sharp contributes absolutely nothing substantive to his prior argument, he moves into a discussion of Chomsky’s alleged belief that the Khmer Rouge was not tyrannical because it had support among the peasantry. He quotes Chomsky and Herman: “…how can it be that that a population so oppressed by a handful of fanatics does not rise up and overthrow them?” And concomitantly, “the regime has a modicum of support among the peasants.” However, Sharp once again omits Chomsky’s quote from R.-P. Paringaux’s interview with a functionary of the Lon Nol regime that the “old people who were with the Khmer Rouge during the war offer more support to the new regime”. Additionally, Chomsky refers to McGovern’s claim that the Vietnamese were unable to quickly remove the Cambodian regime from power. Sharp has repeatedly isolated Chomsky’s claims from their support and context to make them appear absurd and far-fetched. He stretches Chomsky’s claim that the Khmer Rouge had a “modicum” of support (now conceded by practically every mainstream study of the regime), to they had “popular support.” Nowhere do Chomsky and Herman argue that the Khmer Rouge had “popular support” in After the Cataclysm.
Perhaps the only remaining complaint from Sharp which bears any semblance of accuracy is his use of Jamie Frederic Metzl’s study Western Responses to Human Rights Abuses in Cambodia, 1975-80. The book documents the rate of media coverage during the years of Khmer rule by compiling the total number of articles from [the] Washington Post, the New York Times, the Times of London, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the New Orleans Times Picayune, and Le Figaro from 1975-1980. The rates of coverage indicate a diminution during the peak years of Khmer human rights violations, which is touted by Sharp as evidence of Chomsky’s misconstrued assessment of the U.S. media. However, Sharp neglects the crucial feature of the study: Metzl only begins assessing the quantity of coverage after the U.S. bombing of Cambodia had ended. If the quantitative analysis of media coverage had begun in 1969 when the U.S.’s illegal campaign began, the analysis would look considerably different. Metzl’s book is in fact further evidence of Chomsky’s propaganda model, not a refutation of it. Once again, Sharp’s critique is simply a well disguised work of second-rate political deceit.
 Sharp, Bruce. Averaging Wrong Answers.
 Chomsky, Noam and Edward Herman. The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume II. After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina & the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology. Cambridge: South End Press, 1979. pp. 139-140.
 Caldwell, Malcolm and Lek Tan. Cambodia in the Southeast Asian War, p. xi.
 Sharp, Bruce. Averaging Wrong Answers.
 Metzl, Jamie Frederic. Western Responses to Human Rights Abuses in Cambodia, 1975-80. Oxford: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1996. p. 21.
Thanks for this Andy. I’ll have to read this tomorrow.
PS. A hyperlink would be nice.
Useful too…! (D’oh…! And done.)
Andy, I have read this through once, and have some comments I will make when I have a bit more time. Your diligence is exemplary, and there are certainly some points on which I stand corrected.
Incidentally, I see via Coatesy:
that this has flared up again in the mainstream media:
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Aware that my response is still pending. Have been very busy. See another site of the flaring up, at the blog of some (virtual) friends of mine:
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