Not long after I started this blog 18 months ago, I got involved in a spat with another blogger who had posted sympathetic and grossly ill-informed remarks about the now-defunct German terrorist group the Red Army Fraction. Spelling out to a determinedly uncomprehending interlocutor the appalling nature of that organisation remains the most dispiritingly pointless blogging experience I have had. On its conclusion, I resolved in future to avoid targets that were as ephemeral and obscure as a political naïf’s weblog, and I have generally held to that rule. In this post I make an exception, for I am going to comment on a very soft target indeed: a weblog written from a 'socialist, vegan, transhumanist' standpoint, for which I suspect (though do not know) the audience is extremely limited. The reason is that the target, while intrinsically trivial, is both representative and illustrative of a position of which I am contemptuous, yet on behalf of which it appears that I am now dishonestly being cited.
The subject is, once more, the nature of the association between the linguist Noam Chomsky and that most perplexing adaptation of modern antisemitism, Holocaust denial. Let me recap.
In 1979-80 Chomsky intervened in the case of a French Holocaust denier, Robert Faurisson. Chomsky’s admirers habitually and indignantly insist that the support extended to Faurisson was nothing more exceptionable than a defence of free speech, which they claim Faurisson was being denied. The unboundedly credulous among those admirers – such as Neil Smith, Professor of Linguistics at London University, in his book Chomsky: Ideas and Ideals – even present Chomsky’s actions as heroic. The reality is different. I set out the facts of the case in this post last month. I summarise them again now, but please see the earlier post for sources.
First, the Faurisson affair had nothing to do with freedom of speech, but was a university’s response to a faculty member’s demonstrable fraud in presenting his arguments. By fraud, I don't mean just that Faurisson's claims about the Holocaust were false (though of course they were); I mean he was caught out by a genuine historian (Faurisson is no historian at all, contrary to Professor Neil Smith's invincibly ignorant account of the case) in doctoring his source material in order to suppress those parts of it that clearly stated the existence of the gas chambers. With offensive sophistry, Chomsky (Chronicles of Dissent, 1992, p. 349) describes the charge of 'falsifying history' that was brought against Faurisson as 'a case where a fascist law was applied' and as 'standard Stalinist, fascist doctrine'. The truth is that 'falsifying history' is a literal and exact description of what Faurisson was proved to have done. Faurisson is a charlatan and a crook whose methods disqualify him from teaching in a university.
Secondly, Chomsky’s intervention was a defence of the content of Faurisson’s beliefs and not merely of Faurisson’s right to express those beliefs. In his essay misleadingly entitled Some Elementary Comments on The Rights of Freedom of Expression, Chomsky declared, “As far as I can determine, [Faurisson] is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort” – and did so in the full knowledge that Faurisson was an antisemite and pro-Nazi apologist. This is not a guess on my part to the effect that Faurisson's antisemitism is something Chomsky must have known: it is something Chomsky actually did know. I have demonstrated this beyond argument by paying close attention – as Chomsky’s admirers invariably fail to do – to what Chomsky wrote at the time. Chomsky may not have read Faurisson, but he had certainly read – for he tells us so – an article by the historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet that accurately summarised the pro-Nazi and anti-Jew tirades that Faurisson had published. (Vidal-Naquet's article is reproduced as Chapter 1 of his book translated into English as The Assassins of Memory, 1987. For an account of this piece - which unfortunately is not available on-line, so far as I know - please again refer to my earlier post.) Knowing that Faurisson was an antisemite and a pro-Nazi apologist, Chomsky chose to whitewash the man’s politics. Why he did this is a matter for interpretation, and I offered mine at the end of my post; that he did it is not open to dispute.
Surveying Chomsky's incomparable record of dishonesty and perversity, the Berkeley economist Brad DeLong wrote on his own weblog a couple of years ago:
What I object to is that Chomsky is an intellectual totalitarian. What I object to is that Chomsky tears up all the trail markers that might lead to conclusions different from his, and makes it next to impossible for people unversed in the issues to even understand what the live and much-debated points of contention are. What I object to is that Chomsky writes not to teach, but to brainwash: to create badly-informed believers in his point of view who won't know enough about the history or the background to think the issues through for themselves.
Not everything DeLong said in his Chomsky posts was strictly correct: ironically, in concluding (justifiably) that Chomsky's political writings were not worth considering at any length, DeLong overlooked some of the most damning evidence against Chomsky. But the passage I have just quoted is a temperate and accurate judgement, as I shall now demonstrate.
I had no serious expectation that my own exegesis of Chomsky's writings would shake the certainties of those 'badly-informed believers in his point of view', and so it has proved. The author of the socialist, vegan, transhumanist blog I mentioned above, and that I – presumably in common with my readers - had never stumbled across before, responded to the facts I presented by reciting the catechism with a fervour unmarked by a consideration of those facts:
In the context of [Chomsky's] essay and especially in the context of Chomsky's strong views on Holocaust denial, this was clearly not any kind of attempt to normalise or justify Faurisson[']s malignant views on the Holocaust - indeed, the whole point of the essay was that free speech is for people we find disgusting, not only for people we like or tolerate.
I hold no objection to the author's voluntarily-chosen veganism, while some of those I most admire in politics were or are socialists (George Orwell, Ernest Bevin, Sidney Hook and Michael Walzer). If I knew what transhumanism is, I'm sure I should be sympathetic to it. But rank dishonesty is another matter altogether; if this blogger persists in it, then I shall persist in pointing it out. I have already shown that Chomsky’s defence of Faurisson is, precisely, an attempt 'to normalise and justify' Faurisson’s views, by disregarding the pro-Nazi character that Chomsky knew they possessed. Dealing with the evidence by pretending it doesn't exist is a fashionable approach among Chomsky's followers, but this particular one of their number will not find it in his interests to continue with it.
How does our pro-Chomsky blogger deal with the uncomfortable fact of Chomsky's knowledge of Faurisson's antisemitism and Nazi apologetics? Well, I had thought myself inured to the full extent of human gullibility once I had read Professor Neil Smith’s hagiography of Chomsky, but it turns out Smith was a novice in the field. Here is our blogger's rationalisation; read it carefully, for it is a pearl of great price (emphasis added):
I must first make the obvious point which Kamm seems to have missed: (a) even though we know Chomsky noticed the part of an article which criticised him personally, because he (Chomsky) said so, it is logically possible that he might not have read carefully the bits making clear Faurrison's [sic] own views; (b) even had he read it all, he might have forgotten it (though, given Chomsky's impressive powers of recall, this latter explanation seems implausible).
What I have just quoted may seem incredible, but remember what Brad DeLong said. Chomsky’s admirers are badly-informed. Few have read much in the way of politics, economics and history, which makes them vulnerable to Chomsky’s characteristic techniques of stripping out relevant context, making false interpolations, and twisting source material. What is more surprising is that few of them have read much by Chomsky either, or at least not beyond the pamphlets and books of interviews. The blogger I have quoted, who insists on the 'logical possibility' that Chomsky might have forgotten that inconvenient detail that Faurisson was an apologist for Nazi Germany, hasn’t even read the article he claims to be summarising. In that piece Chomsky not only states explicitly that he had read the article by Vidal-Naquet summarising Faurisson’s political writings, but also remarks:
Let me add a final remark about Faurisson's alleged "anti-Semitism." Note first that even if Faurisson were to be a rabid anti-Semite and fanatic pro-Nazi -- such charges have been presented to me in private correspondence that it would be improper to cite in detail here -- this would have no bearing whatsoever on the legitimacy of the defense of his civil rights.
Disregard the characteristic non sequitur about Faurisson’s civil rights, which were never at stake in this case. Note merely that here Chomsky acknowledges that he has read the evidence of Faurisson’s antisemitic and pro-Nazi views, in the form of correspondence to him. Indeed his dismissive reference to that correspondence is also characteristic: he falsely dresses up as fastidiousness what is in fact a straightforward and shameless cover-up. Chomsky doesn't say so, but that correspondence was from Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who was determined that Chomsky should not be in a position to claim ignorance of Faurisson's positions. Here is what Vidal-Naquet has to say on the matter, in Chapter 2 of The Assassins of Memory:
[Chomsky] has also read his critics, specifically my article in Esprit (September 1980), and even the personal letters I sent to him on the subject, "a private correspondence which it would be inappropriate to cite in detail here." A fine case of scruples, and a fine example as well of double language, since Chomsky did not realize that the book he was prefacing contained unauthorized reproductions of a series of personal letters, and he himself does arrogate the right of summarizing (while falsifying) my own letters. I shall simply say to him: "Kindly publish-- I give you my authorisation-- the entirety of that correspondence. It will then be possible to judge whether you are qualified to give me lessons in intellectual honesty."
Chomsky does not appear ever to have taken up that challenge. I assume, however, that, given that Vidal-Naquet tells us that his letters to Chomsky were on the same subject as his article in Esprit - viz. Faurisson's pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish bigotry, which the article demonstrated at length - not even our vegan blogger is going to claim that it is 'logically possible' they instead dealt exclusively with the weather, Chomsky's health, or recipes for blanquette de veau au pamplemousse.
As I intimated at the start, I have in this post discussed at far greater length than it merits a target of zero intrinsic value: an ill-read blogger's hapless defence of Chomsky. I have done so first because this blogger's refusal to acquaint himself with what Chomsky has said and written - a counterpart to those who manage to maintain the inerrancy of the Bible by the expedient of not reading it - is replicated across countless university campuses and supposedly progressive publications, and when I see it I am unwilling to let it pass. But secondly, I decided to discuss his attempt to defend the indefensible because he has the effrontery to cite me in his support (emphasis added):
I also note in passing that even Kamm (who seems to have studied this [Faurisson] episode at length) says that "Chomsky is not himself a Holocaust denier, and no responsible critic has ever claimed he is."
Let me say this as undemonstratively and cordially as I can to any Chomsky admirers who may be reading this (and judging by the messages I receive daily on this subject, in varying shades of politeness, there are liable to be quite a number). If you wish to quote me on this or any other subject, I expect and require you to do so with the relevant context included, rather than in the way this blogger has done. So you should be in no doubt about what that involves, I am doing you the favour of appending a paragraph I have knocked together that will provide you with both the judgement that you apparently wish to reproduce and the context in which it is made. Here goes:
Kamm has studied the Faurisson episode at length and is consequently in a position to refute Chomsky's self-serving and dishonest claim that he is the victim of a campaign to depict him as a Holocaust denier. Chomsky's most prominent critics on this subject - among them Alan Dershowitz, Steven Lukes, and the late Lucy Dawidowicz - have made no such accusation. Chomsky's claim to the contrary is deliberate misdirection designed to impress a personal following that evidences scant familiarity with the issues involved. Kamm has also demonstrated the falsehood of the constant refrain of Chomsky's admirers that, in defending Faurisson, Chomsky was doing no more than defending freedom of speech. Chomsky in fact defended the character of Faurisson's beliefs and not just Faurisson's right to express those beliefs (which was in any event never at issue). Chomsky did this not by endorsing Faurisson's obviously false claim that the Holocaust never happened, but by defending Faurisson against the charges of antisemitism and pro-Nazism despite the fact that Chomsky knew those charges were true. Kamm has thereby demonstrated that Chomsky, contrary to his followers' belief that he represents some sort of progressive and principled strain of politics, is in fact a dissembling apologist for bigotry.
If you want to quote me, comrades, then quote that.