Last month I cited the criticisms made by the late Pierre Vidal-Naquet of Noam Chomsky in a famous case. These criticisms were a minor feature in Vidal-Naquet's distinguished life as a scholar and public intellectual. In his academic work, he was a noted historian of the ancient world. As a political campaigner, he denounced the use of torture in France's colonial war in Algeria. As an opponent of prejudice, and with a historian's respect for the use of evidence, he exposed the organised campaign of falsehood known as Holocaust denial. But Vidal-Naquet's criticisms of Chomsky's defence of a notorious Holocaust denier, Robert Faurisson, are characteristic in their scrupulousness and scholarship. (Those criticisms are available online in French here and in English translation here.)
I mean no disrespect to Vidal-Naquet's memory when I say that, so far as Chomsky's most dedicated political admirers are concerned, the great historian might as well not have bothered. Here is one Dennis Perrin on the Counterpunch website (a forum whose ugliness I have noted before) giving an account (which I suppose we must take at face value; it makes no odds to me) of a debate he took part in with a prominent pro-Israel campaigner, Morton Klein:
When Noam Chomsky came up, Mort denounced him for writing a preface for a Holocaust denier's book (the Robert Faurisson affair). I immediately corrected him, informing him that Chomsky actually wrote an essay about protecting free speech, no matter how crazy or vile, and that the state shouldn't be allowed to determine or legislate historical truth. The essay was given to Chomsky's friend in France, Serge Thion, who did indeed place it as the opening to Faurisson's book. But this essay was in no way a defense of Faurisson's views, only of his right to publish whatever he wanted without being prosecuted for historical deviationism, which he was at the time.
"Hmmm," said Mort. "I didn't know that." He paused, and then stated with forefinger raised, "Then Chomsky should denounce that man who put it in that book!"
"Well," I replied, "that's his choice, not yours."
Perrin is talking nonsense. Had Chomsky's article genuinely been a straightfoward defence of freedom of speech even (or especially) for those of odious views, there would have been no controversy. (I certainly would not criticise him for defending Faurisson's right to disseminate bigotry.) But that was not what the article said, or at least it was not all that it said. First, Chomsky casually insulted the quality of French intellectual life, "where a civil libertarian tradition is evidently not well-established and where there have been deep totalitarian strains among the intelligentsia for many years." Secondly, Chomsky did in fact judge the character of Faurisson's political opinions, and not only a right to express those opinions, declaring: "As far as I can determine, [Faurisson] is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort." Chomsky made this characterisation despite - on his own account, in the same article - having read Vidal-Naquet's forensic dissection, in Esprit, September 1980 (available in French here and English translation here), of the ideas of Faurisson and his associates.
Further, Perrin's assertion that "the state shouldn't be allowed to determine or legislate historical truth" is, while true, irrelevant to this case. Faurisson was prosecuted not by the state, but in a civil case by two anti-racist organisations. That case ought never to have been brought, in my view, but it is literally correct to say that Faurisson had falsified his historical claims. A historian called George Wellers demonstrated that Faurisson had deliberately suppressed evidence from his own claimed sources, where that evidence pointed unequivocally to the historical fact of the gas chambers. Faurisson was not being prosecuted merely for holding odious opinions. (He was also, incidentally, convicted on separate charges of incitement to racial hatred and slander - both charges were correct and the prosecutions justified).
Finally, note Perrin's evasive use of language in this sentence: "The essay was given to Chomsky's friend in France, Serge Thion, who did indeed place it as the opening to Faurisson's book." Perrin seems to think that this disposes of the charge that Chomsky wrote a preface to Faurisson's book. Of course it doesn't. The salient issue is what Chomsky intended his friend to make of this essay. The notion that Faurisson made illicit use of it is not confirmed by consulting what Chomsky said at the time. According to Gill Seidel of Bradford University in her dated but useful survey Holocaust Denial: Antisemitism, Racism and the New Right (1986, p. 103), Professor Arno J.Mayer of Princeton spoke with Chomsky a month before publication of Faurisson's volume, when Chomsky confirmed that he knew exactly the use to which Faurisson intended to put Chomsky's essay.
No responsible critic claims that Chomsky is a Holocaust denier. Nor is Chomsky an antisemite. But despite being familiar at least with the debunking of Faurisson by an outstanding critic of historical falsehood, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Chomsky chose to give a sanitised version of Faurisson's political message. That is, as Seidel (a supporter of Chomsky's politics) put it 20 years ago, an act of gross irresponsibility.
It also makes for an interesting contrast with Chomsky's usual invective. When faced with leftwingers or liberals who hold different views from himself, Chomsky frequently claims that his opponents are racists, apologists for state crimes and so forth. Yet when commenting on a man who, more than anyone else in public life, genuinely deserves to be termed a racist and an apologist for state crimes - the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson - Chomsky carefully refrains from using such language. Why he does this is a matter for wonderment. (Chomsky is, I repeat, not an antisemite or a Holocaust denier himself.) That he does it is a matter of record, however much his admirers might wish to divert our attention.