One of my regular correspondents responds to my post on Noam Chomsky:
Don't you think that he's a particularly outrageous example of a more general inflation (and hence debasement) of the currency of moral condemnation (e.g. the Israelis are as bad as the Nazis, etc etc)? This often goes hand in hand with a deflationary line about other groups - militants instead of terrorists, and so forth. In fact the pattern of inflation and deflation can be very revealing about deep and often unacknowledged political sympathies.
Another correspondent observes:
Chomsky lies ... through indirection. He quotes statements accurately, but absurdly out of context. (And then, as you point out, he tops the whole thing off with offensive hyperbole.)
Between them these assessments capture with economy and exactness the character of Chomsky’s political output. In this post I give three examples that illustrate the consistency of Chomsky’s methods over 35 years.
Example 1 comes, appropriately, from Chomsky’s first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins, published in 1969. The book purports to expose government deceit in the service of state. Chomsky cites, as evidence of the capitalist imperatives underlying the rhetorical ideals of US foreign policy, a speech given by President Truman at Baylor University in 1947. Yet of this passage, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jnr writes (The Cycles of American History, 1986, pp 135-6):
Noam Chomsky in American Power and the New Mandarins (New York, 1969) twice claimed that Truman had said: “All freedom is dependent on freedom of enterprise…. The whole world should adopt the American system…. The American system can survive in America only if it becomes a world system”…. Truman said nothing of the sort, at Baylor or elsewhere. The quotation is fabricated.
How Chomsky responded to his exposure provides an insight into the methods he has stuck by ever since.
Schlesinger originally exposed the bogus quotation in a review of American Power for a journal called Book World. He summarised the point in a letter published in the December 1969 edition of Commentary magazine, in reply to an article by Chomsky in the magazine’s October issue (both the letter and the article are available, for a fee, from Commentary’s archive):
[Chomsky] seems to feel licensed to forget or distort the truth whenever it suits his polemical convenience. He begins as a preacher to the world and ends as an intellectual crook…. Of course President Truman never spoke the words thus attributed to him, and reviewers quickly caught Dr Chomsky out in his scholarly fakery. But this exposure has evidently not perturbed Dr Chomsky in the slightest. He now concedes that he lifted his “quotations” from [the highly unreliable historian] D.F. Fleming and [the contemporary observer] J.P. Warburg: but he still insists that they are “accurate and perceptive” paraphrases of the Baylor speech, that they “convey the essence of Truman’s speech”. The Baylor speech still seems to him dramatic proof of the American drive for world economic expansion.
Chomsky’s manoeuvre on that occasion is highly significant for his later voluminous political writings. Schlesinger exactly recounted the form that manoeuvre took, as Chomsky demonstrated in a letter replying to Schlesinger, published in the March 1970 edition of Commentary:
As I explained in the October issue of Commentary, in my book I erroneously attributed to Truman two statements that were, in fact, paraphrases of his Baylor speech by D.F. Fleming and James Warburg. In the book I also gave a precise page reference to the source from which I took the quotes (which, to compound the error I mistranscribed). As I stated, this was a careless and inexcusable error, which I am glad to have pointed out, and which is corrected in the second printing…. Schlesinger was quite justified in pointing out this error, though his elaborate pretense that he couldn’t find the quotes, that I had invented them, that this fakery, fabrication, etc., was perhaps somewhat exaggerated.
And then he’s away. He goes on for four pages constructing an elaborate defence of his claim that he has accurately paraphrased the Baylor speech.
What are we to make of this? Two characteristics of Chomsky’s argument stand out. First, having been caught out in a bogus quotation, he shifts to a contention that, because it is about interpretation as well as fact (namely, “two eminent commentators were accurate in their rendition of Truman’s remarks”), is less easy to refute. Secondly, though less easy to refute, his argument is still demonstrably false, as Schlesinger had already demonstrated in his letter:
[I]t is characteristic of Dr Chomsky’s unbeatable instinct for distortion that he can write in the October Commentary: “Truman argued that freedom of enterprise is one of those freedoms to be valued ‘even more than peace’.” What Truman actually said, as the reader will have observed, was that Americans valued freedom even more than peace, and he made it clear that he meant above all intellectual and religious freedom.
Schlesinger sent a further letter to Commentary in response to Chomsky’s letter in the February 1970 issue. In this second letter (published in the March 1970 issue), Schlesinger dealt with Chomsky’s claim about “pretence”:
There is no point in trying to deal with all Dr Chomsky’s misrepresentations; it would make my letter as long and boring as his. His comment, with regard to the exposure of his fake Truman quotations, about Schlesinger’s “elaborate pretense that he couldn’t find the quotes, that I had invented them,” is an easily demonstrable lie. In my review of Chomsky’s book (Book World, March 23, 1969), I traced the quotes to Fleming and Warburg, pointing out that “the first quotation does not appear on the page cited in Fleming and may well have been invented by Chomsky” – a point he has more or less conceded.
The humiliation of having his quotations debunked by a serious historian ought to have been sufficient to damage irreparably Chomsky’s pretensions to be a serious social critic. My contention is that in fact it did, and that paradoxically this has been of immense benefit to Chomsky in his role as a political polemicist. Chomsky doesn’t appear to have realised this. The Schlesinger exchange clearly rankled with him many years later. In an interview with his faithful Boswell, a radio host called David Barsamian, in 1991 (reprinted in Chomsky’s book Chronicles of Dissent, 1992, pp 350-1) Chomsky lamented:
From the first time I opened my mouth the attacks started…. In the first book that I wrote, American Power and the New Mandarins, in the first edition there’s a slight error, namely that I attributed a quote to Truman which was in fact a very close paraphrase, almost verbatim paraphrase of what he said in a secondary source. I got a note mixed up and instead of citing the secondary source I cited Truman. It was corrected within about two months, in the second printing. There isn’t a scholarly monograph that doesn’t have a similar error somewhere. There have been at least a dozen articles, if not more, using this to denounce me, to prove that you can’t believe anything that’s said by anybody on the left, etc. These are very desperate people. A commissar culture is a very desperate culture. They know they cannot withstand criticism, and therefore you’ve got to silence it.
These are deranged and pitiable claims. The spurious quotation was bogus even as a paraphrase; the correction was forced on Chomsky because Schlesinger had exposed his “scholarly fakery”, as Chomsky sees fit not to mention; the criticism was specific to Chomsky’s case (“an intellectual phoney”, as Schlesinger terms him), rather than to “anybody on the left”; and so far from being silenced, Chomsky has since that episode generated an enormous output that has rarely received sustained and serious criticism.
As I say, Chomsky benefited from this early bloodying, in two related ways. First, he learnt to avoid direct falsehood and rely instead on more circuitous means. Demonstrating that a paraphrase is false, or that relevant information has been omitted, is more laborious – because it requires the critic to supply the missing context – than debunking a spurious quotation. Of necessity, a critic must therefore spend time and effort in disinterring and dissecting Chomsky’s factual claims in order to evaluate his work. Secondly, almost no academic historians, economists or political scientists have since considered it worthwhile to do this – not because, as Chomsky claimed of a group of Berkeley professors (Chronicles of Dissent, page 347), “[t]hey know they don’t have either the competence or the knowledge to respond, so the only thing to do is to somehow shut it up”, but because Chomsky’s political writings were early on shown to fall outside the canons of scholarly research.
Example 2 is also from Chomsky’s early role as a polemicist on the subject of Indochina. The New York Review of Books, 26 February 1970, published a letter from Samuel Huntington. It begins:
In the space of three brief paragraphs in your January 1 issue, Noam Chomsky manages to mutilate the truth in a variety of ways with respect to my views and activities on Vietnam. Mr. Chomsky writes as follows:
"Writing in Foreign Affairs, he [Huntington] explains that the Viet Cong is 'a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist.' The conclusion is obvious, and he does not shrink from it. We can ensure that the constituency ceases to exist by 'direct application of mechanical and conventional power…on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city….'"
It would be difficult to conceive of a more blatantly dishonest instance of picking words out of context so as to give them a meaning directly opposite to that which the author stated. For the benefit of your readers, here is the "obvious conclusion" which I drew from my statement about the Viet Cong:
"…the Viet Cong will remain a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist. Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation."
By omitting my next sentence—"Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation"—and linking my statement about the Viet Cong to two other phrases which appear earlier in the article, Mr. Chomsky completely reversed my argument.
Huntington doesn’t exaggerate: it genuinely is difficult to think of a more blatantly dishonest case of quoting something out of context. It is not possible to do inadvertently what Chomsky has done here. I would encourage readers to follow the link I have given and make their way through Chomsky’s long and convoluted reply to Huntington’s letter, for it has a striking characteristic: it doesn’t even mention the complaint from Huntington that I have just quoted, that Chomsky has taken words out of context and fitted them to other words to yield a meaning opposite to their author's clearly-stated view.
I cite Examples 1 and 2 because they go some way to explaining the poor reputation that Chomsky acquired with his writings on the Vietnam war. It wasn’t – as he and his admirers like to claim – that Chomsky was marginalised by a monolithic establishment; rather, he was marginalised by his own methods. There were good reasons that his political exhortations were conducted in student ‘teach-ins’ – events where, by definition, the answers were already known and all that was required was that they be communicated to a willing audience. Example 3 has a more enduring quality. It concerns an American statesman, politician and academic for whom I have much respect, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But first – for reasons I have explained – I need to put it in context.
In his recent flawed but invigorating attack on modern quackery, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World, 2003 (p. 301), Francis Wheen writes of Chomsky:
The professor has an inexhaustible hoard of analogies and precedents that allow him to avoid the immediate issue. Asked in the 1990s why he opposed efforts by the international community to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo, he would reply that genocide in the Balkans was no worse than genocide in East Timor – and then segue into his well-rehearsed speech about Western support for Indonesia, nimbly sidestepping any discussion of Slobodan Milosevic’s thuggery.
Wheen’s example is well-chosen. Chomsky’s mythology trivialises simultaneously East Timor’s brave resistance to Indonesian aggression and the horrors that Chomsky compares it to (Bosnia and Kosovo, and before them Cambodia under Pol Pot).
Now, there is an immediate response that could be made to Chomsky’s “inexhaustible hoard of analogies and precedents”, which is to use the technique back at him. I don’t want to make too much of this, because I think it’s a debased form of argument; but I do want to demonstrate that Chomsky’s technique can be applied more widely than he allows. In a long and merciless review-article (“Chomsky on US Foreign Policy”, Harvard International Review, Dec-Jan 1981, pp 3-31), Stephen Morris did so:
[E]ven if one were to play the game by Chomsky's rules, and judge the human rights record of a regime by referring to its behaviour in foreign wars, then Indonesia's cruelty towards the East Timorese has at least one serious competitor: the Vietnamese invaders of Cambodia. The Vietnamese Communist regime, which had launched a military invasion of its neighbor under the pretext of saving the Cambodian people from Pol Pot, had prevented food and medicines from being delivered to the starving population via a truck convoy from Thailand. According to the Central Intelligence Agency study Kampuchea: A Demographic Catastrophe (recommended to me by Professor Chomsky), the Vietnamese invasion and food embargo caused 700,000 deaths in Cambodia in 1979. This is seven times as many people as had died (in Chomsky's estimate) in East Timor.
Thus it would seem that the Soviet-armed and Soviet-supported Vietnamese had, in one stroke, destroyed the single shred of argument Chomsky had been presenting for the view that the United States is "responsible" for most of the human rights violations in the world. Yet not even that monumental act of inhumanity by Chomsky's and [Chomsky’s collaborator Ed] Herman's comrades in Hanoi was necessary to disprove their thesis. It is an easily calculated fact that either the Maoist regime alone (whose executed and imprisoned victims number in the millions) or the Pol Pot regime alone (whose murder victims are estimated at nearly two million) has killed more than the combined total of all civilians killed by American-armed and aided regimes in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, and the Indonesian invaders of East Timor. Even the Idi Amin regime, which according to Amnesty International probably murdered up to 300,000 Ugandans, far outstrips the domestic death toll of all America's third world "clients" combined. Amin at "peace" has probably killed many times more than Indonesia at war. He was not armed and aided by the United States, but by the Soviet Union and Libya. These facts are known to any minimally literate student of international affairs, but they are ignored by Chomsky and Herman.
They are indeed, for Chomsky’s concern is not, and was not then, East Timor; it is the United States, which – as I indicated in my earlier post – Chomsky is concerned to depict as even worse than Nazi Germany. To that end, he has for many years presented a “killer fact” – which is my example no. 3, as I shall now explain.
I have read the argument in question in countless of Chomsky’s books and articles, and I am aware (though I have never heard him speak) that he cites it in interviews and speeches too. Of very many instances of it, this comes from Chomsky’s book A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo, East Timor and the Standards of the West (2000, pp 79-80):
The guiding principles were well understood from the outset by those responsible for guaranteeing the success of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion [of East Timor]. They were articulated lucidly by [the United States’] UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in words that should be committed to memory by anyone with a serious interest in international affairs, human rights, and the rule of law. The Security Council condemned the invasion and ordered Indonesia to withdraw, but to no avail. In his 1978 memoirs, Moynihan explains why:
"The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."
Success was indeed considerable. Moynihan cites reports that within two months some 60,000 people had been killed, “10 per cent of the population, almost the proportion of casualties experienced by the Soviet Union during the Second World War.” A sign of the success, he adds, is that within a year “the subject disappeared from the press.”
It’s a fair bet that few of Chomsky’s readers who are impressed with the moral clarity of the master’s denunciation will have read the memoirs of Daniel Patrick Moynihan (A Dangerous Place, 1978). Take, for example, Neil Smith, Professor of Linguistics at University College London, the second edition of whose book Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals has just been published. Smith's book contains a useful bibliography of Chomsky’s writings, and I assume – for I’m not competent to judge – that the four chapters that discuss Chomsky’s work in linguistics are a reliable account. The chapter on Chomsky’s political writings is, on the other hand, stupid and disgusting. (On page 208, Smith describes the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson - a charlatan who purports to reveal “the real meaning” of texts - as “a professor of history [wrong – he once was a lecturer in twentieth-century French literature] whose research led him to question the existence of gas chambers in Nazi Germany and to doubt the Holocaust”.) Unsurprisingly for a man who’ll believe anything, Smith (p. 194) merely appends to his quotation of Chomsky’s quotation of Moynihan the judgement, “Comment is superfluous.”
Comment is in fact required. Washington’s stance on Indonesian aggression in the 1970s was shameless, but Chomsky’s account of it is shameless misrepresentation using exactly the technique – quoting out of context, and fitting unrelated passages together – that he used against Samuel Huntington in 1970. In context, the quotation from Moynihan ought to read (it appears on page 247– in all the citations he gives of this book, Chomsky never, ever gives page numbers, for a reason that will shortly become obvious):
[S]uch was the power of the anticolonial idea that great powers from outside a region had relatively little influence unless they were prepared to use force. China altogether backed Fretilin [a Marxist group that had seized power] in Timor, and lost. In Spanish Sahara, Russia just as completely backed Algeria, and its front, known as Polisario, and lost. In both instances the United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.
Moynihan is describing a period in the Cold War when the Soviet Union was making advances in the Third World both directly and by proxy, and US policy aimed single-mindedly at thwarting those ambitions. The policy was right in principle; the means to effect it often weren’t, morally and strategically. (One of the reasons I, as a left-winger, favour President Bush’s re-election is that he has overturned the tradition of being prepared to ally with autocratic regimes in the interests of western security, maintaining instead that autocracies foment the totalitarian forces that wish us harm.) But Chomsky’s claim that those means included wishing Indonesia to launch a bloody invasion of East Timor bears no resemblance to what Moynihan wrote. In context, the phrase “the United States wished things to turn out as they did” clearly refers to the failure of Soviet and Chinese clients in, respectively, Spanish Sahara and Timor. Chomsky has taken it out of context in order to insinuate, utterly falsely, that Moynihan is boasting about the successful accomplishment of mass murder by proxy.
In fact, I don’t know why I use the word “insinuate”. Chomsky states his thesis openly. It’s not entirely explicit in the version of his argument that I’ve quoted, so consider instead the version Chomsky gives in Chronicles of Dissent, pp 252-3:
Referring to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, [Moynihan] says that the United States wanted things to turn out as they did and that he had the assignment of making sure that the United Nations could not act in any constructive way to terminate or reverse the Indonesian aggression. He carried out that task with remarkable success. He then in the next sentence goes on to say that he’s aware of the nature of that success. He says that two months later, reports surfaced that the Indonesian invasion had killed off about 10 per cent of the population in East Timor over a period of two months. A proportion of the population which, he then goes on to say, is about the same as the proportion of people in Eastern Europe killed by Hitler. So he’s taking pride in having stopped the United Nations from interfering with an aggression that he himself compares with Hitler’s invasion of Eastern Europe, and he then drops it at that.
Well, I have Moynihan’s book open in front of me. The sentence after the words “carried it forward with no inconsiderable success” reads in full:
It is difficult to say precisely when Luanda fell.
Luanda is not in East Timor: it is the capital of Angola. Moynihan has left the subject of East Timor and has embarked on a new section of the book. The reference to the killing of 10 per cent of the population of East Timor does appear in the book, but not in the context that Chomsky asserts. Chomsky’s claim that Moynihan “in the next sentence goes on to say that he’s aware of the nature of that success” is outright fabrication: no such remark appears anywhere in the book. Nor does Moynihan say that a “sign of success” was that the subject disappeared from the press. He merely reports that fact, along with the estimate of the deputy chairman of the provisional government that 60,000 people had been killed since the outbreak of the civil war. This is on pages 245-6. Incidentally, Moynihan was misquoting the estimate; according to Robert Conquest in the Daily Telegraph, 8 March 1980 (cited in Leopold Labedz, The Uses and Abuses of Sovietology, 1989, p. 119) the figure given by the administrator was that 60,000 people had lost their lives or homes, and that this included 40,000 who had fled from the Communists.
Chomsky misrepresents Moynihan by omission and fabrication; he also doesn’t appear to have read the book he claims to be quoting from. Moynihan himself was appalled by the US stance on the annexation of East Timor and the partition of Western Sahara, but represented the views of the administration. My description of the US position as “shameless” is in fact his description. As he put it in his book Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics, 1993, p. 153:
It happens I was United States representative at the UN when these events occurred. I defended a shameless American policy – Morocco and Indonesia were cold-war allies - with sufficient shamelessness.
He points to the context in which the major powers considered such issues, which were “too often assessed in terms of cold-war advantage/disadvantage”. What is relevant to this discussion of Chomsky is that this was not merely a view that Moynihan came to once the Cold War had ended. In the same book Chomsky so egregiously mis-quotes, Moynihan bemoans the degeneration of the UN because, so he claims, it has become complicit in the annexation of Timor (pp. 244-5):
A theme of our speeches throughout November  had been that to corrupt the language of human rights – the language, that is, of Leo Strauss’s “Modern Project,” the language of “a society consisting of equal nations, each consisting of free and equal men and women” – would soon enough imperil the language of national rights also, and soon enough it did. In December, two fledgling nations were conquered or partitioned by their neighbours, while a third [Angola] was invaded by Communist forces from half a world away. It would be gratifying to report that there were those who made some connection between what we said would happen and what now did happen, but there were none. This perhaps only confirmed our charge that the Charter was being drained of meaning.
There are some who believe that Chomsky has taken a wrong turning since the destruction of the Twin Towers, and that his work before that date includes some valuable social criticism. There are others who date his degeneration from his apologetics for the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s. On the contrary, his political output for nearly four decades has been remarkably consistent: base, dishonest and incompetent.