I've received a lot of letters and emails in response to my article in Prospect and posts about Noam Chomsky. Here's a kind thought from a reader:
I really find it amazing that you actually congratulated the Guardian on this dishonest and shoddy piece of journalism from Emma Brockes. I think your own critical faculties are seriously in doubt if you can believe that this childish "interview" has any merit whatsoever, regardless of any position that you have on Chomsky's integrity. It seems anyone who throws dirt in his direction is just fine and dandy with you. Anyway good luck with your book of apologetics for the latest round of imperial military adventurism.
Another writes, in relation to the Prospect article:
It seems a shame that someone with your obvious talents should be devoid of compassion for your fellow human beings. Perhaps I've misunderstood the thrust of your arguments, but it seems to me that you somehow derive some benefit from conflict, war, human suffering, butchery, carnage and torture. I can't help feeling that that would be a waste of a human being, and an educated and erudite one at that. If only you could focus your life's energy to some constructive purpose, but perhaps you believe that's what you're doing already.
One Joshua Smith, apparently fearing that I might infer from the sagacity of his remarks that he is a man of mature years, introduces himself as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland before coming to the meat of his observations:
I would have thought for someone who floods Amazon with these endless one-star reviews, whose blog is filled with sniveling anti-Chomsky ruminations, and whose claim to fame beside neo-conservative t-shirts rests almost solely on splaying and filleting Chomsky, would have come better prepared with substantial arguments and real sources, not tracks from an audio CD that you clearly didn't listen to. That kind of tripe may go unnoticed at Front Page Magazine, but not out here in the real world where facts actually matter. Perhaps the fact that this is the best you could do is proof enough that Chomsky is indeed the world's top public intellectual, especially in matters of US foreign policy.
The audio CD that Mr Smith alludes to is one that includes Chomsky's well-known speech at MIT on 18 October 2001, when he declared, of US policy in Afghanistan:
Looks like what’s happening is some sort of silent genocide. It also gives a good deal of insight into the elite culture, the culture that we are part of. It indicates that whatever, what will happen we don’t know, but plans are being made and programs implemented on the assumption that they may lead to the death of several million people in the next few months….very casually with no comment, no particular thought about it, that’s just kind of normal, here and in a good part of Europe.
Mr Smith is right that I didn't listen to the audio CD: instead I read the transcript here. Chomsky has never retracted these absurd and speedily-refuted remarks, which I'm slightly taken aback even Mr Smith would wish to defend. So far from being genocidal, the US-led bombing of Afghanistan and toppling of the Taliban precipitated the largest return of refugees (3.5 million of them) that the UNHCR has participated in for 30 years.
Once more: I thought Emma Brockes's interview with Chomsky in The Guardian was a fine piece of work, and I wish I'd done it. What made it stand out from the usual run of Chomsky interviews was that it posed, fairly and reasonably, difficult questions that Chomsky clearly preferred not to discuss but which were highly pertinent to his political writings. Recall that what Chomsky thinks of as an 'interview' is not an especially taxing procedure. Here is one example of the technique of his regular 'interviewer', David Barsamian in the recently-published Imperial Ambitions: Conversations with Noam Chomsky on the Post-9/11 World, 2005, p. 122 (I shall be reviewing this book in a future issue of the on-line journal Democratiya, and ought perhaps to reveal in advance that my judgement will not be a favourable one):
CHOMSKY: [I]t's gotten to the point that the New York Times is publishing on the front page photographs and accounts of major US war crimes.
BARSMIAN: Are you referring to the November 8, 2004, issue of the New York Times, which showed US troops occupying a hospital in Falluja?
An exchange of this type, where an adulator outdoes himself in enthusiasm to feed his master with cues, is not properly termed an interview. Not even the most accommodating of professional political interviewers - say, Sir David Frost, to whom I mean no disrespect - would get away with this. It is to The Guardian's credit that it displayed a still courteous but less reverential approach to Chomsky; critical readers would expect it to do no less.
This is not relevant to the interview - Ms Brockes's work stands on its own merits, which are considerable - but I find her approach bears favourable comparison to Chomsky's own methods of carrying on a public conversation. Chomsky's vulgar abuse of Vaclav Havel (which I discuss here) marks a low point, but Chomsky can rarely encounter a critic without engaging in what the philosopher Michael Walzer has referred to (in the New York Review of Books, 16 August 1984 - link requires fee) as "graceless sarcasm [and] impersonal and self-righteous hatred".
Examples are legion. I came across one recently in my cuttings files, and that I had forgotten. During the first Gulf War, Michael Ignatieff wrote a spirited column in The Observer defending the forcible expulsion of Saddam's forces from Kuwait, and criticising a number of anti-war writers, including John Pilger, Paul Foot and Noam Chomsky. The next issue published long letters of protest from Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, and Lady Antonia Fraser (and a short one from me in Ignatieff's defence - which tells you how few must have been the supportive letters). Chomsky's argument will be familiar to my readers (the 'what about East Timor?' rhetorical question), and I fear so will be the terms in which he describes Ignatieff. It isn't enough to call Ignatieff wrong: Chomsky has to denounce him as a Stalinist (he refers to 'The Ignatieff School of Falsification', an allusion to a work by Trotsky called The Stalin School of Falsification).
After 9/11, Chomsky maintained his polemical methods but cranked up the volume. When Christopher Hitchens criticised him, Chomsky responded with accusations of - what, exactly? Dishonesty, stupidity, racism? He never made it explicit, he just sprayed around unworthy insinuations:
That Hitchens cannot mean what he writes is clear, in the first place, from his reference to the bombing of the Sudan. He must be unaware that he is expressing such racist contempt for African victims of a terrorist crime, and cannot intend what his words imply.
As I commented recently, when the political theorist Jeffrey Isaac accused Chomsky of cynicism over his remarks on the bin Laden network, Chomsky responded not with a defence of his position, and not even with just his customary abusive remarks about his opponent's dishonesty and puerility, but with a diatribe against Isaac's supposed apologetics for mass murder. No, I understate: an accusation not even of apologetics, but of culpability, for atrocities:
The remainder [of Isaac’s argument] is just a series of childish fabrications, random shots without even a hint of evidence or argument. No person of even minimal moral or intellectual integrity would engage in such practices.
One can appreciate Isaac's distress over the revelation of his inability to construct a justification for his support for state violence in one of the cases discussed, and more strikingly, of his culpability for the massive atrocities in the analogue. Even his efforts to defame without evidence pale into insignificance in comparison with the cold savagery with which he views his own passive acquiescence in what he knows -- or can easily discover -- to be perhaps the worst slaughter relative to population since the Holocaust [East Timor], peaking in the late 1970s, continuing since, escalating again from early 1999, and continuing today in ways that we would condemn with justified fury if Serbia were the guilty party.
The most extraordinary thing about Chomsky's boorishness, spite and vulgarity unaccountably passed me by when I first commented on this passage. Among all his imprecations against liberal and intellectually-weighty figures with whom he disagrees politically - men such as Walzer, Hitchens, Isaac, Havel, Ignatieff, Abba Eban - a few stand out: that they are apologists for state violence and atrocities, Stalinists, racists, and so forth. (He makes an explicit accusation of racism in a foul tirade against Leo Casey, a critic who had exposed Chomsky's math abuse over the bombing of Sudan in 1998.) Yet Chomsky has written altogether differently of one man who, more than anyone else in public life, genuinely can be called a racist and an apologist for state violence - in fact, an apologist for the greatest atrocity committed by any state in modern history.
I modestly believe I have written the definitive short account of Chomsky's defence of the political legitimacy (not the factual accuracy) of the claims of the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, and also definitively disposed of the frivolous, false and rather repugnant claim made by Chomsky's defenders that his intervention in the case was merely an unexceptionable defence of free speech. Make what you will of this discrepancy in Chomsky's treatment of honourable men and a bigoted, fraudulent, racist crank. Let it never be gainsaid, however, that, according to the readers of Prospect and Foreign Policy, Chomsky is the foremost living public intellectual.