From the popular Skeptic’s Dictionary:
Communal reinforcement is the process by which a claim becomes a strong belief through repeated assertion by members of a community. The process is independent of whether the claim has been properly researched or is supported by empirical data significant enough to warrant belief by reasonable people…. Communal reinforcement explains how entire nations can pass on ineffable gibberish from generation to generation.
I turn ineluctably to the subject of the admirers of Professor Noam Chomsky. Members of that community spend much time and expend much effort in reassuring each other that when, a quarter-century ago, their hero intervened in support of the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson he was disinterestedly and even heroically defending the principle of free expression. Readers who have followed the story from my earlier posts will know that that is nonsense. Chomsky defended the political legitimacy of Faurisson’s beliefs, and not merely the right to express those beliefs. He did this - inexcusably speculating that Faurisson was “a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort” – despite being fully aware that he was speaking of an antisemite and an apologist for Nazi Germany.
In the course of this discussion, I commented on a source of a type I would not normally discuss at all, viz. the weblog of a member of the community of Chomsky’s admirers. I made an exception in this case first because the blog in question was illustrative of a point I wished to make about the character of Chomsky's following (see below), and secondly because, to my perplexity, it cited me in Chomsky’s defence, by the seasoned expedient of quoting me out of context. Writers quite as obscure as I am have found themselves unwittingly transmuted into exhibits in the self-reinforcing mythology that Chomsky’s admirers construct for each other, and I was disinclined to acquiesce in a similar hoax through the excess of taciturnity for which my friends know me.
Because I described this blogger as a soft and hapless target, I feel it is only fair to refer my readers to his rejoinder, which I reproduce in full and as it is written:
Oliver Kamm has replied to my earlier post on Chomsky/Faurisson (which was in turn a reply to one of his posts). I am now convinced that Kamm is not an honourable debater.
He accuses me of "rank dishonesty". I want to just respond to that, and then point out Kamm's own dishonesty, and leave the rest aside. This post will therefore be relatively short.
Kamm says that the original piece contradicts my claim that Chomsky might have skipped over, read hastily or misremembered the claims about Faurisson's views. I say it doesn't. This is perfectly normal and expectable human behaviour isn't it - misreading or misremembering something? Everyone does it once in a while.
Indeed, none of the evidence Kamm provides disproves my claim - although it does cast some doubt on it, I'll freely admit. Readers can judge for themselves. (The letters - I don't know what in detail was in them, and Kamm doesn't tell us, so they could have contained circumstantial yet unconvincing evidence, for all I know.) Chomsky was and is a busy man, and he was not particularly interested in Faurisson's views, as he regarded Faurisson's Holocaust denial conspiracy theories as (obviously) disgusting and false, and therefore not worth discussing directly. My claim is perfectly (as I said) "logically possible" - and I happen to think that that's the most likely explanation for Chomsky's apparent mistake - the mistake of describing Faurisson as a "relatively apolitical liberal".
Let's now just take a quick look at Kamm's dishonesty.
He says "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."
We can safely assume that he is not here talking about the 90% of the Chomsky piece on free expression that does not deal directly with Faurisson's views. So he must be talking about the final few sentences of the piece:
"Putting this central issue aside, is it true that Faurisson is an anti-Semite or a neo-Nazi? As noted earlier, I do not know his work very well. But from what I have read -- largely as a result of the nature of the attacks on him -- I find no evidence to support either conclusion. Nor do I find credible evidence in the material that I have read concerning him, either in the public record or in private correspondence. As far as I can determine, he is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort. In support of the charge of anti-Semitism, I have been informed that Faurisson is remembered by some schoolmates as having expressed anti-Semitic sentiments in the 1940s, and as having written a letter that some interpret as having anti-Semitic implications at the time of the Algerian war. I am a little surprised that serious people should put such charges forth -- even in private -- as a sufficient basis for castigating someone as a long-time and well-known anti-Semitic. I am aware of nothing in the public record to support such charges. I will not pursue the exercise, but suppose we were to apply similar standards to others, asking, for example, what their attitude was towards the French war in Indochina, or to Stalinism, decades ago. Perhaps no more need be said."
Normalising is one thing, and it's what's under debate. But just because Chomsky said Faurisson was a "relatively apolitical liberal", this doesn't mean that he was trying to justify any of Faurisson's views in any shape or form. If Kamm really thinks that, then I am curious to know precisely which views of Faurisson's Chomsky was trying to justify, according to Kamm - and from where he adduces this conclusion on Chomsky's state of mind. If he doesn't really think that, then he is being deliberately deceptive.
With this, I think we may safely determine that the issue is definitively resolved.
I don't wish to sound ungracious, but I would rather that than be misunderstood. My interlocutor is mistaken in assuming my remarks were either a reply to him or a contribution to a debate with him. They were, rather, a citation of the reductio ad absurdum that he serendipitously exemplified of the irrationalism that characterises Chomsky’s following. I do not know how to refute an argument of the form "I can't believe it, therefore it didn't happen", and would not presume to try. (Admirers of the zoologist Richard Dawkins's book The Blind Watchmaker will recall his citation of arguments of a similar form - which he terms The Argument from Personal Incredulity - where the "it" refers to such propositions as that the human eye cannot possibly have evolved independently of divine fiat.)
I am glad, however, to record, as I am requested to do, precisely which of Faurisson's beliefs Chomsky set about justifying (i.e. defending as reasonable or proper - OED): Faurisson's belief that the Holocaust was a hoax perpetrated by international Jewry for nefarious purposes, i.e. his entire philosophy on the subject. My interlocutor is at liberty to attribute any views he finds congenial to Chomsky, but he should be prepared for some brutal remarks about his competence in the field if he persists in making such claims without first consulting Chomsky's own writings on the matter. The claim that Chomsky "regarded Faurisson's Holocaust denial conspiracy theories as (obviously) disgusting" is plain ignorant. Of Faurisson's theories, Chomsky says nothing of the kind. On the contrary, in a letter to the historian Professor William D. Rubinstein in 1981, he wrote:
I see no antisemitic implications in denial of the existence of gas chambers, or even denial of the Holocaust. Nor would there be antisemitic implications, per se, in the claim that the Holocaust (whether one believes it took place or not) is being exploited, viciously so, by apologists for Israeli repression and violence. I see no hint of antisemitic implications in Faurisson's work.
In short, while he doesn't endorse the factual accuracy of Faurisson's opinions, Chomsky does defend their propriety. Those opinions are, as we have seen, pro-Nazi and antisemitic, and - again, as we have seen - Chomsky was aware of this at the time he wrote in Faurisson's defence.
Rubinstein quoted these stupid and repulsive remarks in an article "Chomsky and the Neo-Nazis" in the Australian magazine Quadrant, October 1981. They are quoted in turn in Alan Dershowitz, Chutzpah, 1991, p. 176, which is my source. After Rubinstein made public the contents of the letter, Chomsky complained about the supposed impropriety in doing so (I think Rubinstein did the right thing) but he has never disputed that the words were quoted accurately. He's hardly in a position to do so, given that he conveyed these preposterous views liberally. In her posthumous book What is the Use of Jewish History? (1992, p. 95), the historian of the Holocaust Lucy Dawidowicz writes:
In a letter to me, September 18, 1980, Chomsky expressed complete agnosticism on the subject of whether or not Faurisson's views were "horrendous", saying that he was not sufficiently involved in the issue to pursue or evaluate it.
Nor has Chomsky changed his mind on the matter. In Chronicles of Dissent, 1992, p. 352, the following exchange from 1991 between him and his interviewer, David Barsamian, is recorded:
Barsamian: You told Bill Moyers in an interview that given a chance you would do some things differently. I was wondering if you were thinking about the Faurisson affair?
I began this line of thought by quoting, earlier this week, the judgement of the Berkeley economist Brad DeLong on the cult-like qualities of Chomsky's following. I have laboured over the worked example in this post because I am concerned to demonstrate that DeLong's assessment, while not flattering, is accurate and sociologically important. Chomsky's admirers include - and I believe predominantly comprise, but this is merely an impression rather than an authenticated statistic - many college students, whose observations of the domestic and international political order are inchoate. Listen for any length of time to Chomsky's followers, and you gain an unmistakable impression of a quasi-religious movement using the language of personal rebirth and salvation. For example:
In 1993, as a 19-year-old UF student, I didn't know who Noam Chomsky was, and while I was interested in politics, I didn't know much I hadn't learned from the mainstream news. However, I saw a flyer for Chomsky's speech at the Reitz Ballroom and, for some reason (maybe I was bored that night), I decided to go. When I saw the overflow crowd-it must have been hundreds-crammed into the hallways outside the ballroom, it was clear something special was happening. I was one of the lucky ones who got a seat, and what I heard was truly life-changing.
For me, hearing Chomsky speak for the first time was a life-changing experience. His ability to take preconceptions and destroy them—to completely remodel one’s understanding of reality with cold, hard facts—blew me away. When I left what was then the ARCO Forum last fall, I felt as though I had been through the Matrix and back. Chomsky really has this effect because he bombards you with evidence and logic, not empty rhetoric. It is nearly impossible to hear him or read him—once you’ve actually checked his facts yourself (he even cites page numbers in public addresses)—and deny what he’s saying.It's difficult to find much redeeming levity in this sort of bathos, but the last sentence of the second quoted passage does it for me. Those readers who have followed this series on Chomsky's writings will know why. Those who go further, and elect to discuss with Chomsky's admirers the matters I have laid out, will gain an insight into the thinking of an incomparably greater observer than Chomsky of the human condition, the late Eric Hoffer (Reflections on the Human Condition, 1974, p. 54):
An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of forcing anything into an empty head.