I have received a lot of correspondence about my recent and continuing series on Noam Chomsky, most of it along the lines of – to quote one message in full and as it is written – “BANKER ASSHOLE UNLIKE YOU CHOMSKY DEFENDS THE POOR”. I don’t believe this is true, but in any event it doesn’t deal with the subject of my posts, which concerns Chomsky’s handling of source material. On the evidence of his own writings, Chomsky cannot be trusted to give a reliable or honest account of the sources he cites. Look closely at his voluminous footnotes, and serious doubts occur to the critical reader. Chomsky’s citations rarely cover the scholarly literature; if they did, his methods would be swiftly detected by specialists. (This happened early in his polemical career when the historian Arthur Schlesinger caught him in “scholarly fakery”.) Many are drawn from press articles. Where books are cited, Chomsky is not averse to withholding information that would enable the reader easily to check Chomsky’s account.
Other messages I have received from Chomsky’s admirers generally make two ripostes: first, that out of Chomsky’s output I have concentrated on only a few “dodgy” (not my word – for in my judgement it’s too generous - but a correspondent’s) cases and written about them at length; and secondly, that even supposing I am right in these cases (a point on which my correspondents graciously profess to suspend their disbelief, though apparently have no intention of checking the matter for themselves), any writer as prolific as Chomsky can be expected to make occasional errors. Let me therefore explain why these defences of Chomsky fail.
The reason I have written at length about the cases I have cited is that they require background and context. Chomsky works by removing the context required to make a critical judgement. Putting the context back in is a laborious task to write and, I fear, even more to read, but it has to be done in order to evaluate Chomsky’s claims. Bear in mind too that, while Chomsky has produced many books on politics, they are often strikingly similar: collections of articles or interviews that make identical arguments. I particularly refer interested readers to the example (which I discuss in this post) of Chomsky’s quoting out of context the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former US Ambassador to the UN and then Democratic Senator for New York, with regard to US diplomacy over the Indonesian invasion of Timor. I stress the example for two reasons. First, it is one of the cases that Chomsky cites most frequently to demonstrate the hypocrisy of US foreign policy. It is his stock response to those who believe that progressives should have supported US military intervention in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Secondly, while an important part of Chomsky’s case, it has not – so far as I know – been debunked before.
In my earlier post I quoted the appearance of this argument in just two of Chomsky's books, A New Generation Draws the Line and Chronicles of Dissent. In fact you trip across it in most of his books, in more or less flagrantly dishonest versions. Here are three examples that illustrate these gradations of deception.
In Deterring Democracy (1991, p.200), Chomsky appends to the Moynihan quotation:
[Moynihan] adds that within a few weeks 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.”
In Rogue States (2000, pp. 55-56), he again gives the Moynihan quotation (in which Moynihan speaks of his “no inconsiderable success”) and adds:
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.”
Finally, in a speech in London in 1994 (and reprinted in the magazine Red Pepper), he stated:
Moynihan was particularly honest and, to give him credit, he said in his memoirs that at the time of the Indonesian invasion: "The State Department wanted things to turn out as they did. It was my responsibility to render the United Nations utterly ineffective in any action and I carried that out with no inconsiderable success." And the next sentence of the memoirs says that within the next two months 60,000 people were killed, approximately the proportion of the population that the Nazis killed in Eastern Europe. And then he turns to some other topic. So he's taking credit for having succeeded in killing a proportion of the population comparable to what Nazis did in Eastern Europe...
In Example 1, Chomsky runs together two separate passages in order to insinuate falsely that Moynihan judges success by the number of people killed by Indonesian forces. In Example 2, Chomsky embellishes this by explicitly attributing, rather than merely insinuating, that judgement to Moynihan. In Example 3 he goes further still, identifying this judgement as an explicit statement by Moynihan immediately after the comment about “no inconsiderable success”.
Rather than explicate again the dishonesty involved in Chomsky’s citations, I refer readers to my earlier post. What I find especially disturbing about Chomsky’s methodology is that in every case (forgivable in a speech, but not in a book that’s decked out with the appearance of scholarship) he drops the page references that would enable his readers to check his claims. The reason for this is not hard to fathom: if he were to give page references, it would be obvious that a rather large ellipsis is involved. I have put those page references back in. I invite readers to obtain a library copy of Moynihan's book and check that I have cited it accurately and in context, and verify that Chomsky has not.
Finally, note the trickery involved in Chomsky’s remark, “A sign of the success [Moynihan] adds, is that within a year, ‘the subject disappeared from the press.’” Moynihan says nothing at all about a disappearance of press coverage being “a sign of success”. Chomsky has taken a genuine quotation, wrenched it out of context, and provided a new context that clearly conveys to the reader that the words “a sign of success” are an accurate paraphrase of what is to be found in the book. They are not: Chomsky is lying.
I cannot stress enough that as well as being a standard Chomsky argument this is a characteristic technique. When 20 years ago I began to read Chomsky and first noticed his failure to adhere to scholarly standards, I assumed that I was finding errors born of his writing in a discipline that he didn’t know. I have only become more convinced over the years that Chomsky is ignorant of history, politics and - especially - economics (he uses the term ‘political economy’ a lot, for no obvious reason), but I no longer believe that these are errors alone. When the “errors” are all in the same direction - namely a determination to prove that the United States is morally equal or inferior to Nazi Germany – then something more is involved.