One thing you find from corresponding with devotees of Noam Chomsky (I do this a lot, and will be posting some of the messages I have received in response to the recent Prospect poll) is that they regard criticism of their hero as something more than merely mistaken. As the economist Brad DeLong has put it, they form ‘a kind of cult’, and in this cult taking issue with Chomsky is more like heresy.
It is little surprise, then, that the letters page of The Guardian should publish today two indignant letters (and I should be surprised if it had not received many more) protesting at Emma Brockes’s interview with Chomsky in yesterday’s paper. The real offence committed by Ms Brockes was to raise pertinent questions – a technique you will almost never (I can think of one instance only) find in the numerous volumes of ‘interviews’ with Chomsky conducted by his chronicler David Barsamian.
The second letter can be dismissed immediately as the work of someone either disingenuous or unfamiliar with Chomsky’s writings:
The fact that Noam Chomsky has serious doubts about the validity of certain aspects of television reportage, particularly in relation to the inevitably controversial coverage of war, hardly places him on the lunatic fringe.
Talk about a straw man…. Everyone I have ever met who has given any thought to the matter, including many who have long first-hand experience of television war-reporting, “has serious doubts about the validity of certain aspects of television reportage, particularly in relation to the inevitably controversial coverage of war”. I do myself. That wasn’t the issue Ms Brockes raised with Chomsky, and isn’t the distinctive characteristic of Chomsky’s commentaries. The issue raised by Ms Brockes – and I have written to her to commend what looks to me like a journalistic scoop – was that “Chomsky insists that "LM [magazine] was probably correct” when it libelled ITN reporters by claiming that footage taken in August 1992 of the Serb-run Trnopolje camp in Bosnia was faked.
The other pro-Chomsky letter in today’s Guardian, from one Jill Abson of Montreal, is no better-informed. Here it is in full:
I've read some bad interviews with Noam Chomsky in my 30 years of following his work, but your ill-informed and supercilious exercise (G2, October 31) was one of the worst. Chomsky has never said that the Khmer Rouge were "not as bad as everybody makes out". He has said that they killed fewer people than the American "secret" bombing, which in turn laid the groundwork for the predictable rise of the KR. Remember that the Americans later supported the KR at the UN, fully aware of their crimes, when the Vietnamese attempted to remove them from power.
As for Srebrenica, General Lewis Mackenzie wrote an article about it in the Globe and Mail (www.transnational.org/features/2005/MacKenzie_Srebrenica.html). Maybe your writer could tell us why, then, he should be ignored on the subject. Going into an interview having already decided that the subject is a revisionist, but respected and revered, nutter is perhaps not the best stance if one wants to produce light rather than heat.
Summarising Chomsky’s position on the Khmer Rouge as they “were not as bad as everybody makes out” is a fair and reasonable summary of what he wrote in the 1970s. In a notorious article in The Nation, 6 June 1977, entitled Distortions at Fourth Hand, Chomsky and Ed Herman denied the widespread claim that the Khmer regime was comparable to Nazi Germany (and bear in mind Chomsky is not normally restrained in levelling the accusation of being Nazi-like):
If, indeed, postwar Cambodia is, as he [an author supposedly under review] believes, similar to Nazi Germany, then his comment is perhaps just, though we may add that he has produced no evidence to support this judgement. But if postwar Cambodia is more similar to France after liberation, where many thousands of people were massacred within a few months under far less rigorous conditions than those left by the American war, then perhaps a rather different judgement is in order. That the latter conclusion may be more nearly correct is suggested by the analyses mentioned earlier. [The term ‘analyses’ used here by Chomsky and Herman is a scandalous distortion, but this will episode will await another article – OK]
As Ms Abson asks directly why General Lewis Mackenzie should be ignored on the subject of Serb atrocities, let me refer her to the findings of Roy Gutman of Newsday in 1993:
The former U.N. commander in Bosnia has participated in a speakers tour funded by a Serbian-American advocacy group that seeks to dispel the internationally accepted view that Serb fighters were principally responsible for the mass killings, rape and ethnic cleansing that has destroyed the former Yugoslav republic.
In an interview with Newsday, retired Canadian Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie said he has done nothing unethical or improper in connection with last month's tour. MacKenzie last week acknowledged in a telephone conversation from Ottawa that his tour was funded by the group, SerbNet, but said he does not know how much he was paid. In his public appearances, including congressional testimony last month, MacKenzie never disclosed SerbNet's financial support.
MacKenzie said that he customarily receives up to $10,000 an appearance and that he "wouldn't be surprised" if SerbNet paid that rate through his agent.
Now, MacKenzie's views on culpability for atrocities committed in the Bosnian war may be right or they may be wrong (they are wrong and reprehensible), but if you're going to cite him as an authoritative source, as Chomsky does and Ms Abson repeats, you ought to mention this background. If I did a round of television interviews defending Tony Blair’s alliance with the Bush administration's foreign policies and received a five-figure appearance fee paid by, say, the Project for a New American Century, you would want to know that detail. And if I failed to declare it, you would have something to say on the matter. So, doubtless, would Jill Abson of Montreal.