Not surprisingly, the name of Noam Chomsky surfaced in response to my recent reference to Pol Pot. Chomsky is an infamous skeptic of atrocities by anyone other than Western imperialists. Many younger polemicists of the left, like Michael Moore and Naomi Klein, emulate him. Are they “great intellectuals”, or intellectual frauds? Are they intellectual at all?
I’ve been told that Noam Chomsky is the greatest intellectual alive, and I’m brainwashed, arrogant and stupid for disagreeing. Since one often comes across admirers of his, or of similar anti-capitalist populists like Naomi Klein and Michael Moore, perhaps it is worth explaining why I sneer at his opinions.
I first came across Chomsky as a young computer science student. His work provided a formal description of how languages are structured, which is useful not only to the field of computer programming, but in problems involving meaning contained in sequences of symbols, such as natural language recognition. He is indeed brilliant as a linguist and logician, and merits all the honours bestowed upon him in this capacity.
Dull academic obscurity, however, did not satisfy Chomsky. A fervent anti-war activist, he turned his grasp of language into a career as a critic of the political use of words as propaganda. In the heyday of talking heads on television, his brand of “public intellectualism” was popular. Chomsky’s focus on language as propaganda appears to be modelled on Politics and the English Language the famed 1946 essay by George Orwell on clarity in writing.
The Orwell piece is appealing to a young writer, and useful if it alerts the reader to how language can be misused. However, like much advice about writing, it has a cranky, conservative, insular, arbitrary and even self-contradictory air about it. It also has the worst ever conclusion: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
Are we to understand that after all Orwell’s finger-wagging about clichés, pretentious diction, dirty foreign words and coy euphemisms, clarity in the use of language is just a subjective matter of taste? Who is to judge our barbarousness?
Like Orwell, who referred euphemistically to “Stalinist purges” as if the extermination of political opponents by the millions is merely an annoying but wholesome cleansing, Chomsky falls into the very trap against which he warns.
Some of the sentiments that motivate Chomsky are noble. Among them is a deep distrust of the state, which I share, and a strong revulsion against war, with which I also sympathise. Where we disagree is in the organisation of production and the nature of property rights.
Chomsky describes himself as an anarcho-syndicalist, or libertarian socialist. He seeks equality not only of opportunity, but of conditions. He opposes the exercise of power of one person over another, even if they are in voluntary agreement. He doesn’t mean to oppose only crony-capitalism, in which corporates usurp the coercive power of the state for their private gain, but free-market capitalism too. In fact, he doesn’t even distinguish between them. Working to earn a living he considers “wage-slavery”.
He says that while the description “libertarian socialist” appears self-contradictory, that is only because the term libertarian in the United States has been perverted, and has come to mean an “extreme advocate of total tyranny”. Really. He says Adam Smith was actually an anti-capitalist.
If you’re confused, don’t feel bad. AJ Venter must love this guy, but I don’t get it either. For someone who goes on about the abuse of language for political purpose, Chomsky sure seems to be a master of obfuscation and contradiction.
(For a comprehensive overview of anarchist schools of thought, Wikipedia is, naturally, a good source. My own desire for a strictly limited government that maximises individual liberty is most closely aligned with the anarcho-capitalist views of thinkers like Murray Rothbard. Left-wing anarchists like Noam Chomsky would deny Rothbard even the right to use the term, however. The philosophical key to anarchism is how social structure and organisation would be consistent with human nature and natural rights, in the absence of the coercive power of the state.)
Chomsky embroidered upon the notion that political speech and mainstream media narratives are little more than propaganda in aid of the dominant class.
Such a view has some intuitive validity, in that the rich and powerful tend to have easy access to the public discourse, and can therefore safely be presumed to wield more influence than the poor and powerless. But his attempts to view the historical record through the lens of who stands to gain from propaganda leads him to make exactly the same kind of errors of which he accuses others.
Chomsky makes the mistake of assuming that because history is often written by the winners, that this history is at best incomplete, and most likely false. That would be an untenable leap of logic on its own, but he goes on to conflate the history-writers with the powerful.
His world-view casts every conflict naïvely as one of David, who is presumed to be right, against Goliath, who is naturally wrong. But remember that in the Biblical story, David was the invader, and Goliath the defender of his home country against foreign aggression. David was also the victor, and his people, not the people of the more powerful Goliath, wrote the “propaganda” we know as history. Whether or not David was justified in his actions cannot be determined purely from the power relations between him and Goliath, nor from the “propaganda” written afterwards.
In the case of Cambodia, which prompted Chomsky’s intrusion into my column, he wrote an essay in 1977, entitled Distortions at Fourth Hand. In it, he correctly criticised the American media for glossing over the actions of the US military committed during the Vietnam war. His view appears almost childlike in its denunciation of any act of war committed in any cause.
He goes on to dismiss reports of communist atrocities as merely serving a propaganda purpose that “sustain[s] the desired rewriting of history”. He suggests that reports of hardship and starvation in Cambodia are either faked, or can be blamed primarily on American bombing. He de-emphasises the “alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities”, which he says are reported purely to make the “propaganda” more “palatable” to a Western readership. He says that instead of comparing Cambodia to the genocide of Nazi Germany, it is “more nearly correct” to compare it to France in the wake of the French Revolution. As if Robespierre’s Reign of Terror was a mere rough patch on the road to glorious liberty.
In later interviews, Chomsky again correctly notes that Americans have crimes to answer for, but he uses that as a sort of tu quoque fallacy: he implies a false equivalence, and suggests that putting Khmer Rouge leaders on trial would be “farcical” unless such a process prosecuted the US military too.
He contrasts the negative American view of Pol Pot’s rule in Cambodia with the media’s neglect of Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. It is true that the latter was never a great cause of public outrage in the West, but that might be because the Khmer Rouge makes it onto lists of all-time worst genocides in history, while the East Timor invasion was not only less politically significant, but occurred on a scale several orders of magnitude smaller. Such factors do not seem as relevant to Chomsky as the explanation that the US considered Indonesia an ally, and Cambodia an enemy.
Says Chomsky: “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.”
Such rash statements about “wild accusations without a particle of evidence” make it tempting to dismiss Chomsky as just a deluded apologist for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but he is a little more complex than that. Despite his initial credulous skepticism of reports of Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia, he did later concede that it was all rather nasty.
Chomsky always stands ready to believe the worst of America and the best of its enemies. He always roots for the underdog, whether or not the underdog is defensible. In his fervent desire to find support for causes with which he sympathises, notably socialist uprisings, he is all too eager to paint powerful Western governments, big corporations and the media as the bad guys, “rewriting history”.
What Chomsky produced as a consequence was a rewriting of history that was at least as flawed as any war propaganda he was trying to criticise. Many of his instincts are good and moral, but his confirmation bias led him deep into indefensible redoubts and untenable contradictions. Cornered, he becomes increasingly illogical and shrill.
Bruce Sharp, an American historian and writer who founded the Mekong Network, a site devoted to information about south-east Asian countries, compiled a thorough and fair-minded dissection of Noam Chomsky’s equivocation about Cambodia.
In his very long essay, Sharp writes: “A peculiar irony is at the heart of this controversy: Noam Chomsky, the man who has spent years analyzing propaganda, is himself a propagandist. Whatever one thinks of Chomsky in general, whatever one thinks of his theories of media manipulation and the mechanisms of state power, Chomsky’s work with regard to Cambodia has been marred by omissions, dubious statistics, and, in some cases, outright misrepresentations. On top of this, Chomsky continues to deny that he was wrong about Cambodia. He responds to criticisms by misrepresenting his own positions, misrepresenting his critics’ positions, and describing his detractors as morally lower than ‘neo-Nazis and neo-Stalinists.’ Consequently, his refusal to reconsider his words has led to continued misinterpretations of what really happened in Cambodia. Misconceptions, it seems, have a very long life.”
In pointing out hypocrisy in the foreign policy of the US, he ends up whitewashing the crimes of others. According to Martha Nussbaum, an American professor of law and ethics, his view is that one ought not to criticise one’s friends, because solidarity trumps any ethical concerns one might have.
Cambodia isn’t the only example in Chomsky’s oeuvre. In 1967, at the height of Mao Tse-tung’s Cultural Revolution, during which millions died, Chomsky defended China: “There are many things to object to in any society. But take China, modern China; one also finds many things that are really quite admirable… China is an important example of a new society in which very interesting positive things happened at the local level.”
In a television interview in 2006, Chomsky described a libel suit by British television network ITN against a small newspaper, Living Marxism, which had claimed that the network’s reporting on certain atrocities during the war in the former Yugoslavia had been fraudulent. He appears to claim not that NATO’s intervention in the Bosnian war was caused by “ethnic cleansing” on the part of the Serbian Army, but that the reverse was true: the war’s atrocities, when not faked by the media, were caused by the NATO bombing.
Ed Vulliamy, a reporter who actually witnessed the events in question (and not “at fourth hand”), wrote a scathing indictment of the “unholy alliance of Serb apologists and misguided intellectuals” that supported the Marxist paper.
Another notable error of this kind, which Chomsky could easily have corrected if he were inclined to do so, involved his defence of the right to free speech of a controversial historian, Robert Faurisson. Faurisson was prosecuted under a harsh French law which criminalises Holocaust denial. Notably, Faurisson disputed the existence of gas chambers for anything worse than disinfecting lousy prisoners, and denied that the extermination of Jews was Nazi policy.
Chomsky wrote an essay that appeared as the foreword of Faurisson’s book, Defense against those who accuse me of falsifying history. It appears to make the argument that free speech ought to be absolute, and that this right would be meaningless if it did not protect objectionable speech. If that is as far as it went, we’d be in agreement.
However, despite disclaimers that he meant to say nothing about the substance of Faurisson’s claims, Chomsky went on to write that there is no “credible evidence” that Faurisson is an anti-Semite. “As far as I can determine, he is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort,” Chomsky wrote.
In a post-mortem of the affair a few months later, Chomsky lists (in parantheses, as if it doesn’t really matter) the exact nature of Faurisson’s historical revisionism, including denying the existence of the gas chambers, and the authenticity of testimony such as the Diary of Anne Frank and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel’s wartime memoirs. This demonstrates that Chomsky knew full well Faurisson was no mere “apolitical liberal of some sort”.
In his eagerness to defend the rights of any unlikely underdog against repression by powerful states or large corporations, Chomsky has repeatedly found himself defending provably false and morally despicable opinions.
If this was merely accidental, it would have been easy to set the record straight. I’ve defended the rights and liberties of dodgy characters myself, while dissociating myself from the substance of their views or actions. It can be done.
But Chomsky did no such thing. On the contrary, he engaged in further correspondence with Nazi apologists and Holocaust denialists in which he described Wiesel as “one of the major frauds of our time”.
Ironically, I have more respect for an overt Holocaust denier like Faurisson, who merely claims that no history, no court pronouncement, and no official record ought to be immune from criticism and review. He might be wrong, but at least he’s honest.
Chomsky, by contrast, squirms and wriggles, and doesn’t shrink from redefining words to escape the corners he painted himself into. He is a dishonest worm.
Perhaps these are the inherent contradictions of being a “libertarian socialist”. Chomsky speaks against totalitarianism, without recognising that it is socialism’s inevitable consequence. He decries propaganda, without recognising that he is just as guilty of it. He claims to oppose both violence and tyranny, but finds himself excusing the most violent tyrannies of all time.
“Why are so many people persuaded by Chomsky’s arguments?” asks Sharp. “In large measure, this is because Chomsky is undeniably brilliant. As propagandists go, he is skilful and persuasive… or at least, persuasive to people whose only knowledge of the topic at hand comes from Chomsky himself.”
This is why I do not consider an invitation to “go f***ing watch Noam Chomsky or something” to be a convincing argument. I do not regard him as “the greatest living intellectual”. And even if I did, such a simplistic appeal to authority would be a logical fallacy. DM
Star Wars was the first major film to be dubbed in Navajo.