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.)
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.”
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