I have written at some length over several posts on Noam Chomsky. To summarise: I judge Chomsky’s political writings to be discreditable, dishonest and on occasion scandalous. His comments on Holocaust denial illustrate those qualities, but the response of his admirers to the episode is at least as perplexing. That is the subject of this post.
Andrew Sullivan kindly linked to my most recent post on this subject, and I have received many messages from those of his readers who are more sympathetic to Chomsky than Andrew and I are. I have to say that those messages generally correspond with the observation of the economist Brad DeLong on his weblog a couple of years ago:
The Chomsky defenders--and there seem to be a surprisingly large number of them--seem to form a kind of cult. Arguing with them seems to be a lot like trying to teach Plato's Republic to a pig: it wastes your time, and it annoys the pig.
This is an apt analogy. DeLong notes, in the context of Chomsky’s version of the origins of the Cold War (a subject I shall discuss shortly in a separate post), the obligation of any serious writer:
… not to try to suppress big chunks of the story because they are inconvenient in the context of your current political goals. You can't show only half (or less than half) the picture. That's a major intellectual foul. And in a world in which there are lots of people who try hard to tell it as it really happened, I see no reason why I should waste time reading someone who tries to tell it as it isn't.
It isn’t just that Chomsky gives a false account of the issues he writes about: he actively manipulates the evidence in order to mislead. Chomsky’s admirers, many college students among them, frequently lack the background to be able to spot his techniques, and Chomsky takes advantage of this in order to make short-cuts, elisions, false interpolations and outright fabrications. He is to politics, economics and modern history what the Creation Science movement is to geology, palaeontology and biology. When reading him, you have to bear in mind that every reference and quotation he gives needs to be checked independently; on making those checks, you find a pattern of abuse of source materials that is impossible to explain as mere accident.
Chomsky’s malpractice is consistently on one side, moreover. It serves to bolster an all-embracing mythology of the malevolence of the United States, which Chomsky depicts as the moral equal or inferior of Nazi Germany. Absurd and offensive as this notion is, its very heterodoxy in political debate encourages Chomsky’s adherents to think of themselves as the elect. From him, they learn a roster of historical myths, heroic assumptions and dubious analogies, and repeat them in answer to any counterexample or criticism. Indeed, only rarely from my experience – and, I infer, from DeLong’s too – do they have anything apart from Chomsky’s writings to contribute to a discussion, and even then their reading of Chomsky is slight, comprising perhaps two or three of the pamphlets and a book of interviews. They are a tabula rasa on which Chomsky has latitude to expound.
I say this by way of explanation for the behaviour of Chomsky’s admirers when faced with his defence of the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson. Collectively they are convinced that Chomsky’s critics have maligned their hero as himself a Holocaust denier. Almost all of the posts I have received on this subject take it for granted that that is a charge I make against Chomsky. Yet Chomsky’s principal critics make no such accusation. Pierre Vidal-Naquet, for example, states in his essay On Faurisson and Chomsky:
To be sure, it is not the case that Chomsky's theses in any way approximate those of the neo-Nazis.
Alan Dershowitz makes it clear by counterexample what his objection is, and at no point does it include the charge that Chomsky is a Holocaust denier (Chutzpah, 1991, p. 173):
If I were asked to defend the right of a Holocaust denier to express his perverse views, I would agree to defend his right, but I would insist on exercising my own right to call his views antisemitic and false. Nor would I encourage anyone to read or listen to such garbage. To the contrary, I would urge everyone to reject it outright in the marketplace of ideas, to refuse to patronize that disease-infested part of the market. I mention how I, as an opponent of censorship, would handle the issue of Holocaust denial, in order to contrast this with the disgraceful manner in which Professor Noam Chomsky took up the cause of a notorious neo-Nazi Holocaust named denier Robert Faurisson.
The strongest version of the critique against Chomsky over the Faurisson affair that I am aware of is by the sociologist Werner Cohn, in The Anti-Chomsky Reader (2004, p. 150), but he is scrupulous in stating:
Chomsky’s propaganda, taken by itself, is obnoxious and certainly hostile to Jews, but still doesn’t have quite the same character as that of his associates. Where they are frankly neo-Nazi and antisemitic, he fudges and covers himself with self-exculpatory formulas. Were it not for his associates, we would certainly wish to acknowledge a line between him and organized antisemitism.
In the first of my own posts setting out the facts of the Faurisson case, I stated the case this way:
Chomsky is not himself a Holocaust denier, and no responsible critic has ever claimed he is. He is, rather, an “antisemitism denier”. His disaffection from genuinely progressive values – the values that the United States at its best effectively promotes, as we have lately seen in Afghanistan – is so extreme that it leads him to see not only “no enemies on the Left” but also “no enemies amongst the enemies of my enemies” – even if it puts him alongside men who whitewash Nazi genocide.
The views of us critics are surely not difficult to interpret. Chomsky is not a Holocaust denier; he is an associate of Holocaust deniers. He does not defend the historicity of Robert Faurisson’s claims about the Holocaust; he does defend the political legitimacy of those claims. He does so, moreover, while being fully aware of the pro-Nazi and antisemitic character of those beliefs. This is, as Dershowitz rightly states, a disgraceful record.
Evidently aware that the facts are against him, Chomsky’s editors and annotators rewrite the charge-sheet to a form they prefer. In a recent long book of Chomsky pieces, Understanding Power (2003, p.206), the editors put in the following explanatory note on the Faurisson affair:
Chomsky made public statements in 1979 and ’80 that a French professor who denied the Holocaust should not be jailed for his writings by the French government, and was denounced as a defender of the man’s views.
That passage is notably dishonest. Leave aside the incidental errors of fact: Faurisson was not a professor, and the French government was not his antagonist (he was sued for falsifying history by two anti-racist organisations in a civil case – a charge that ought not to have been heard in a court of law, but was strictly accurate). The plain implication is that the critics slandered Chomsky as a Holocaust denier because Chomsky defended free speech. In fact Chomsky has been criticised because – I repeat the point, but it clearly bears repeating - by active misrepresentation and the omission of relevant information he sanitised the views of a man he knew to be a pro-Nazi apologist and antisemite. In that sense – and not the ‘straw man’ that Chomsky was a Holocaust denier – it is correct to say that Chomsky defended Faurisson’s views.
As could be predicted, the misrepresentation perpetrated by Chomsky and his circle has its effect on those who don’t have the background to investigate (or, it has to be said, the inclination to question) the matter. Almost all the messages I have received in the past couple of days have been complaints of greater or lesser animation about a charge that I, Dershowitz, Cohn and others have not made, with an accompanying eerie silence about the charge we do make. I choose one example among my (in fact, Andrew Sullivan's) correspondents that makes disturbingly clear the characteristics that DeLong refers to. The correspondent's name is Patrick Boyle, and I alerted him in reply that I reserved the right to reproduce his remarks. He writes to Andrew, copying it to me:
Today you provide a link to the "invaluable" Kamm whose essay claims to establish that Chomsky is a Holocaust denier. Do you actually read the essays that you provide links to? No where does Kamm provide any quote from Chomsky regarding a denial of the reality of the Holocaust….
I don’t know whether Andrew reads the essays he links to, but Patrick Boyle clearly doesn’t. For good measure, Boyle complains that:
Ironically, one of the more prominent (so that both of you cannot be unaware of it) debunking of the claim that Chomsky is a Holocaust denier was made by Christopher Hitchens -- an apparent darling of both you and Kann [sic]. Kann has an active link on the same page that he attacks Chomsky to an essay by Hitchens. Talk about intellectual dishonesty. Again you would think the most basic notion of fairness would require that you provide your readers with a link to Hitchens' defense of Chomsky.
Except that I did link to precisely the Hitchens essay that Boyle is referring to, in my original post, as was clearly referenced. I do not use the term for hyperbolic effect: Chomsky's followers do have the appearance of a cult. They maintain the authority of Chomsky by not reading him, and the malevolent fallibility of his critics by not reading them.
If anyone else is thinking of writing to me along the lines of Mr Boyle – and many have already - I should appreciate it if you would take note of the reply I have sent to him:
Thank you for writing. I receive, if not quite hundreds, then certainly scores of messages from people who, like you, press Chomsky's case without having first read either him or his critics. Be assured, however, that your own message is distinctive, in that few of my correspondents manage to scale comparable heights of idleness and incompetence, or at least not in the opening sentence.
You assert there that my "essay claims to establish that Chomsky is a Holocaust denier", when it explicitly denies that Chomsky is a Holocaust denier. What my essay says is that Chomsky defends the content of Faurisson's assertions not by agreeing with Faurisson's views on the historicity of the Holocaust but by asserting the political legitimacy of those views. In the circumstances I am unsurprised at your expedient in framing the argument as you wish I had made it rather than as I actually made it, but if you persist in these manoeuvres then you will need to get used to wide-eyed expressions of admiration on the scale of your effrontery in lecturing Andrew, me or anyone else on standards of intellectual honesty.
Had you read my posts before wasting your own time and, more importantly, Andrew’s and mine with your vexations, you would have seen that not only do I do what you demand of Chomsky's critics, viz. link to that 1985 essay by Christopher Hitchens, but I also point out what's wrong with Hitchens's argument. Hitchens offers the mildest of friendly criticisms - that Chomsky misdescribed Faurisson's political character when he ought not to have speculated on the matter - in order to absolve Chomsky of more serious misdemeanours. I point out in my post that that criticism is in fact also made by critics of Chomsky; Brad DeLong asserts that Chomsky had a duty to inform himself of Faurisson's political views yet failed to do so.
But Hitchens and DeLong are both wrong on this point. Chomsky made his comments about seeing no antisemitic implications in Faurisson's work, and about Faurisson's appearing to be a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort, when he (Chomsky) was fully aware that Faurisson was in fact a vehement antisemite and pro-Nazi apologist. As you have not read my posts, I have the good fortune of not needing to repeat the details of the case but can refer you instead to what I have already written. Were you to do so, and to read also what Chomsky has written on the subject, you would see that Chomsky himself gives us the information that he was aware of the character of Faurisson's toxic political views. Chomsky chose to whitewash those views, which is why I describe him as an apologist for bigotry and a defender of the content of Faurisson's opinions (i.e. just to get this straight, as you appear to have difficulty with the concept, a defender of Faurisson's political legitimacy regardless of the historical veracity of Faurisson's claims about the Holocaust)....
There is at least one more of my correspondents on Chomsky I wish to present, and I shall do so later in the week.