Since Noam Chomsky was voted the world’s top public intellectual last year, another backlash has been gathering force. The problem, for anyone who would like to see a substantive conversation, is that Chomsky’s critics too often mix concrete observations with wild, unfocused accusations – exactly, indeed, what they accuse Chomsky himself of doing.
Reviewing Chomsky’s new book, Failed States, in the Observer a couple of weeks ago, for example, foreign editor Peter Beamont congratulated himself on applying “a Chomskian analysis to [Chomsky’s] own writing”. Let’s see some of this Chomskian analysis:
But what I find most noxious about Chomsky’s argument is his desire to create a moral – or rather immoral – equivalence between the US and the greatest criminals in history. Thus on page 129, comparing a somewhat belated US conversion to the case for democracy in Iraq after the failure to find WMD, Chomsky claims: ‘Professions of benign intent by leaders should be dismissed by any rational observer. They are near universal and predictable, and hence carry virtually no information. The worst monsters – Hitler, Stalin, Japanese fascists, Suharto, Saddam Hussein and many others – have produced moving flights of rhetoric about their nobility of purpose.’
Plainly, Chomsky’s use of the superlative “worst”, in calling Hitler, Stalin and Saddam etc “the worst monsters”, is grammatically doing the opposite of creating an “equivalence” between them and other leaders. To note uncontroversially that there is one point of comparison between all leaders – they profess benign intent – is not to assert an overarching “equivalence” between them, any more than it would be to note accurately that they are all human beings. Still, the reactionary narrative of “moral equivalence” is evidently too attractive to abandon.
Oliver Kamm recently took a more forensic approach to the book. On Kamm’s account, Chomsky misused a study on pre-intervention Kosova deaths by Nicholas Wheeler, attributing to Wheeler the claim that “Serbs were responsible for 500 of the 2,000 killed” pre-bombing, and concluding that the KLA killed the rest. According to Kamm, Wheeler nowhere makes this claim in the referenced study.
This looks like a strong empirical case. (I haven’t checked it myself.) Kamm goes on to claim that it is an example of deliberate falsification, that Chomsky
distorts his source material in order to generate a predetermined conclusion about the iniquities and cynicism of Western policy. His fabrications and elisions are an intellectual scandal. His political writings are an affront to the notion of scholarship.
It is an interesting question, how we decide on the critical mass of examples that would make such a charge plausible. How many errors (if you are feeling generous) or fabrications (if not) in a scholar’s large body of work need to be tallied up to count as evidence for deliberate distortion? In the case of a systematic liar and Holocaust-denier like David Irving, the evidence is vast and overwhelming (as shown in Deborah Lipstadt’s excellent History on Trial). But demonstrating intent must be harder in less massively egregious cases. Kamm answered this objection explicitly in an earlier post:
When the “errors” are all in the same direction – namely a determination to prove that the United States is morally equal or inferior to Nazi Germany – then something more is involved.
How this characterization of Chomsky’s “determination” is to be squared with the subject’s well-known assertions that the US is “in many respects” the “freest” and (without qualification) the “greatest” country in the world is mysterious. Reasonable questions about possible bias or subjectivity in Chomsky’s writing are sidelined by the exaggeration. If his errors really are all in the same direction, whatever direction it really is, that should indeed be a warning flag.
What can be shown of Chomsky’s writing, rather than asserted of his intent, is sometimes bad enough. Kamm and others demonstrated how Chomsky argued, in an email to supporters in Sweden, that one only has a “right” to call Srebrenica an act of “genocide” if one simultaneously denounces his favoured examples of killing in East Timor. There is no question of some conditional “right” to use the word, depending on what else you say about other crimes. “Genocide” has a legal definition, albeit little consulted, and Srebrenica was found to fit it. Such facts are not easily admitted by the kind of Chomsky acolyte who wraps himself up in the propaganda model as though it were a comfort blanket.
Yet Chomsky’s critics appear to consider that such scattered observations are not sufficiently wounding blows to the Chomsky hydra. So it must be further asserted that he thinks Bush is a new Hitler, etc. The more generalized accusations are prone to dilute the force of the specific ones. This is illustrated compellingly when, in another post, Kamm links enthusiastically to a document by Paul Bogdanor called “The Top 100 Chomsky Lies” (pdf). How “useful” (Kamm’s word) this screed is may be measured by the following extract, rebutting Chomsky’s “lie” with Bogdanor’s “truth”:
The Lie: “European powers conquered much of the world with extreme brutality. With the rarest of exceptions, they were not under attack by their foreign victims… It is not surprising, therefore, that Europe should be utterly shocked by the terrorist crimes of September 11.”
The Truth: Arab-Islamic conquests included the territories of Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Crete, and the southern areas of France and Italy. The Ottoman Empire expanded as far as Hungary and southern Poland, as well as the whole of central Europe, including parts of Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria.
So, an elementary truth (as Chomsky would say; but who could reasonably argue?) about European colonial violence is apparently a “lie” because those scary “Arab-Islamic” guys also conquered some territory. This doesn’t even qualify as “an affront to the notion of scholarship”, as Kamm says of Chomsky: it’s just farcical. I haven’t checked Chomsky’s references against the counter-references supplied in aid of Bogdanor’s attempted rebuttals, but some readers may be suspicious of Bogdanor’s appeals to books with hagiographic titles such as Sharon: An Israeli Caesar.
So this round of Chomsky wars rumbles on, lately between Michael Bérubé and Dennis Perrin, among others. Chomsky’s detractors are certainly right on one point: his renown and influence are such that his work demands an updated, reasoned critique, which would cover more than the familiar arguments over Cambodia and the Faurisson affair. But in these debates, substance is too often compromised by hyperbole.