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Chomsky and Herman: Distortions at Fourth Hand
The Pol Pot Affair

Collaborators once more, Chomsky and Edward Herman published The Political Economy of Human Rights in 1979. In the second volume of this two-volume work, After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, they compared two sites of atrocity ­ Cambodia and Timor ­ and evaluated the diverse media responses to each. It embroiled Chomsky in an entirely new controversy.

In a 7 November 1980 Times Higher Education Supplementarticle called "Chomsky's Betrayal of Truths," Steven Lukes accused Chomsky of intellectual irresponsibility. He was contributing to the "deceit and distortion surrounding Pol Pot's regime in Cambodia," Lukes charged, because, "obsessed by his opposition to the United States' role in Indochina," he had "lost all sense of perspective" (31). Lukes concluded that there was "only one possible thing to think" : Chomsky had betrayed his own anarchist-libertarian principles. "It is sad to see Chomsky writing these things. It is ironic, given the United States' government's present pursuit of its global role in supporting the seating of Pol Pot at the [United Nations]. And it is bizarre, given Chomsky's previous stand for anarchist-libertarian principles. In writing as he does about the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, Chomsky betrays not only the responsibilities of intellectuals, but himself" (31).

The Obscure History of East Timor

Lukes makes no mention here of the subject of the book, which is clearly stated in the introduction to volume 1, which is entitled "Cambodia: Why the Media Find It More Newsworthy than Indonesia and East Timor." It is an explicit comparison between Cambodia and Timor ­ the latter being the scene of the worst slaughter, relative to population size, since the Holocaust. Now if the atrocities perpetrated in Timor were comparable to those perpetrated by Pol Pot in Cambodia (and Chomsky claims that they were), then a comparison of Pol Pot's actions to those committed in Timor could not possibly constitute an apology for Pol Pot. Yet somehow Lukes suggested that it did. If such comparisons cannot be made without the intellectual community rising up in protest, then the entire issue of state-instigated murder can become lost inside the polemics of determining which team of slaughterers represents a lesser evil.

That Lukes could ignore the fact that Chomsky and Herman were comparing Pol Pot to East Timor "says a lot about him," in Chomsky's opinion:

By making no mention of the clear, unambiguous, and explicit comparison [of Pol Pot and East Timor], he is demonstrating himself to be an apologist for the crimes in Timor. That is elementary logic: if a comparison of Pol Pot to Timor is apologetics for Pol Pot, as Lukes claims (by omission of the relevant context, which he could not fail to know), then it must be that the crimes in Timor were insignificant. Lukes, then, is an apologist for the worst slaughter relative to population since the Holocaust. Worse, that is a crime for which he, Lukes, bears responsibility; uk support has been crucial. And it is a crime that he, Lukes, could have always helped to terminate, if he did not support huge atrocities; in contrast, neither he nor anyone else had a suggestion as to what to do about Pol Pot. (13 Feb. 1996)
The vigor of Chomsky's remarks reflects the contempt that he feels for this kind of by-now-familiar tactic. Decorum must not take precedence over decrying slaughter and falsity, and Chomsky is compelled to demonstrate this: "Let us say that someone in the us or uk . . . did deny Pol Pot atrocities. That person would be a positive saint as compared to Lukes, who denies comparable atrocities for which he himself shares responsibility and knows how to bring to an end, if he chose. That's elementary. Try to find some intellectual who can understand it. That tells us a lot . . . about the intellectual culture" (13 Feb. 1996). The point of course goes beyond Lukes, and extends into a general discussion concerning the intellectual community, which itself, in Chomsky's opinion, "cannot comprehend this kind of trivial, simple, reasoning and what it implies. That really is interesting. It reveals a level of indoctrination vastly beyond what one finds in totalitarian states, which rarely were able to indoctrinate intellectuals so profoundly that they are unable to understand real trivialities" (14 Aug. 1995).

Within weeks, two long and lucid replies to Lukes's piece were sent in to the Times Higher Education Supplement, accusing him of selective reading, of missing the entire point of both volumes of Political Economy, of ignoring the first volume, of trivializing the moral potency of Chomsky's thesis, of cold-bloodedly manipulating the truth, of misrepresenting Chomsky and Herman's work, and of disrespect. Neither reply came from Chomsky; one was from Laura J. Summers, the other from Robin Woodsworth Carlsen.

Though bolstered by the support of those sympathetic to his position and his larger aims, Chomsky knew that a smear campaign could be much more effective and have a much wider dissemination than rational argumentation. In Herman's opinion,

the Cambodia and Faurisson disputes imposed a serious personal cost on Chomsky. He put up a diligent defence against the attacks and charges against him, answering virtually every letter and written criticism that came to his attention. He wrote many hundreds of letters to correspondents and editors on these topics, along with numerous articles, and answered many phone enquiries and queries in interviews. The intellectual and moral drain was severe. It is an astonishing fact, however, that he was able to weather these storms with his energies, morale, sense of humour and vigour and integrity of his political writings virtually intact. ( "Pol Pot" 609)

Cambodia today: continuing carnage

As ever, Chomsky is quick to point out that being the subject of such treatment did not make him unique. But the ferocity of the attack on him does reveal something about the power of popular media, the lengths to which endangered elites will go to eliminate dissent, and the nature of what passes for appropriate professional behavior. In a letter he wrote to the Times Literary Supplement in January of 1982 ­ a reply to an article by Paul Johnson in that same publication in which he, like Lukes, accused Chomsky and Herman of sympathizing with the Khmer Rouge ­ Chomsky examined one of the tactics used against him: "[A] standard device by which the conformist intellectuals of East or West deal with irritating dissident opinion is to try to overwhelm it with a flood of lies. Paul Johnson illustrates the technique with his reference to my `prodigies of apologetics . . . for the Khmer Rouge' (December 25). I have stated the facts before in this journal, and will do so again, not under any illusion that they will be relevant to the guardians of the faith." Chomsky asserted that the smear campaign was a side issue; the larger concern was, of course, the intellectual apologists' ability to forgo reasonable analysis when their own government was at fault:

The context was extensive documentation of how the mainstream intelligentsia suppressed or justified the crimes of their own states during the same period. This naturally outraged those who feel that they should be free to lie at will concerning the crimes of an official enemy while concealing or justifying those of their own states ­ a phenomenon that is, incidentally, far more significant and widespread than the delusions about so-called "socialist" states that Johnson discusses, and correspondingly quite generally evaded. Hence the resort to the familiar technique that Johnson, and others, adopts. ("Political Pilgrims")
Otero even goes so far as to describe (in a note he added to Language and Politics) the reaction to Chomsky's positions on Faurisson and Pol Pot as a coordinated attempt to undermine his credibility and thereby sabotage his powerful critique of policies on Indochina:

The major international campaign orchestrated against Chomsky on completely false pretexts was only part ­ though perhaps a crucial part ­ of the ambitious campaign launched in the late 70s with the hope of reconstructing the ideology of power and domination which had been partially exposed during the Indochina war. The magnitude of the insane attack against Chomsky, which aimed at silencing him and robbing him of his moral stature and his prestige and influence, is of course one more tribute to the impact of his writings and his actions ­ not for nothing he was the only one singled out. (310)

Such commentary assigns to the ruling elite a uniformity that is based on the values shared by its members. Evidence for this may be found in the heavy media coverage given to the Lukes camp and the general reluctance to allow Chomsky space for rebuttal (particularly in France).

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