Against my expectations, there is a perceptive interview in The Guardian today, by Emma Brockes, not a writer I'd previously credited with much independence of thought, with Noam Chomsky. The stated reason for the interview is the Prospect/FP poll in which Chomsky was voted the world's top public intellectual. I have given my views on this result here and in Prospect magazine. In her interview, Ms Brockes never states explicitly the reasons for scepticism, but does give some encouraging hints:
[Chomsky's] conclusions remain controversial: that practically [sic - the 'practically' is not necessary - OK] every US president since the second world war has been guilty of war crimes; that in the overall context of Cambodian history, the Khmer Rouge weren't as bad as everyone makes out; that during the Bosnian war the "massacre" at Srebrenica was probably overstated. (Chomsky uses quotations marks to undermine things he disagrees with and, in print at least, it can come across less as academic than as witheringly teenage; like, Srebrenica was so not a massacre.)
She also notes that Chomsky is accused of 'miring a debate in intellectual spam, what the writer Paul Berman calls his "customary blizzard of obscure sources"' - which is a rather polite way of characterising Chomsky's handling of source material. But most revealing is an extraordinary passage that, despite the carefully hedged terms that Ms Brockes couches it in, merits reproducing at length and ought to be widely publicised:
As some see it, one ill-judged choice of cause was the accusation made by Living Marxism magazine that during the Bosnian war, shots used by ITN of a Serb-run detention camp were faked. The magazine folded after ITN sued, but the controversy flared up again in 2003 when a journalist called Diane Johnstone made similar allegations in a Swedish magazine, Ordfront, taking issue with the official number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre. (She said they were exaggerated.) In the ensuing outcry, Chomsky lent his name to a letter praising Johnstone's "outstanding work". Does he regret signing it?
"No," he says indignantly. "It is outstanding. My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough. It may be wrong; but it is very careful and outstanding work."
How, I wonder, can journalism be wrong and still outstanding?
"Look," says Chomsky, "there was a hysterical fanaticism about Bosnia in western culture which was very much like a passionate religious conviction. It was like old-fashioned Stalinism: if you depart a couple of millimetres from the party line, you're a traitor, you're destroyed. It's totally irrational. And Diane Johnstone, whether you like it or not, has done serious, honest work. And in the case of Living Marxism, for a big corporation to put a small newspaper out of business because they think something they reported was false, is outrageous."
They didn't "think" it was false; it was proven to be so in a court of law.
But Chomsky insists that "LM was probably correct" and that, in any case, it is irrelevant. "It had nothing to do with whether LM or Diane Johnstone were right or wrong." It is a question, he says, of freedom of speech. "And if they were wrong, sure; but don't just scream well, if you say you're in favour of that you're in favour of putting Jews in gas chambers."
Eh? Not everyone who disagrees with him is a "fanatic", I say. These are serious, trustworthy people.
"Like my colleague, Ed Vulliamy."
Vulliamy's reporting for the Guardian from the war in Bosnia won him the international reporter of the year award in 1993 and 1994. He was present when the ITN footage of the Bosnian Serb concentration camp was filmed and supported their case against LM magazine.
"Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true."
But Karadic's number two herself [Biljana Plavsic] pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity.
"Well, she certainly did. But if you want critical work on the party line, General Lewis MacKenzie who was the Canadian general in charge [of Unprofor, and later, as discovered by Roy Gutman of Newsday, undertook a speaking tour financed by a pro-Serb lobby group, whose support he did not disclose - OK] has written that most of the stories were complete nonsense."
And so it goes on, Chomsky fairly vibrating with anger at Vulliamy and co's "tantrums" over his questioning of their account of the war. I suggest that if they are having tantrums it's because they have contact with the survivors of Srebrenica and witness the impact of the downplaying of their experiences. He fairly explodes. "That's such a western European position. We are used to having our jackboot on people's necks, so we don't see our victims. I've seen them: go to Laos, go to Haiti, go to El Salvador. You'll see people who are really suffering brutally. This does not give us the right to lie about that suffering." Which is, I imagine, why ITN went to court in the first place.
I'm not usually lost for words on the subject of Chomsky's political opinions, but I have no idea where to begin in commenting on this denigration of the work of honest reporters, whose accounts have been verified even by the war criminals they helped bring to book. I spoke to Ed Vulliamy at some length while the libel case against LM magazine was going on; he was most anxious to convince me (and he did) that the scurrilous accusations and harassment conducted by the magazine fully justified ITN's legal action. This was about the time, incidentally, that LM magazine endorsed the discredited former minister Neil Hamilton in his Tatton constituency in the 1997 general election, and I recall thinking it was a shame that Mr Hamilton had allowed his name and reputation to be exploited in this way.
I don't usually link to essays without comment, but on the general subject of the 'Left revisionists' and their attitude to Serb aggression, this article by Cambridge historian Marko Atiila Hoare is definitive and damning.