Not Lost in Cambodia, Just Lost

Last week I wrote about Andrew Anthony’s article in The Observer, “Lost in Cambodia,” on the horridly naive supporter and apologist for the Khmer Rouge, Malcolm Caldwell, whom the Khmer Rouge murdered for his efforts. Now Oliver Kamm has a follow up.

Anthony’s article noted the influence on Caldwell of Noam Chomsky’s skepticism about the Cambodian genocide. It’s necessary to say that when Chomsky projects skepticism it is often literally equivocal while tonally derisive. It’s one of his tricks, enabling him, he thinks, to assert credible deniability whenever, so often, he is caught in contradiction. The only person ever less frequently mistaken about anything was George W. Bush.

Kamm tells us of Chomsky’s letter of response in The Observer to Anthony’s piece.

Chomsky can rarely see a critical reference to himself in print without sending a lengthy justification of his enduring wisdom. That’s his prerogative, and The Observer publishes a long letter from him today. If you didn’t know the author, you’d be able to tell immediately from the distinctive laboured sarcasm. I’ve had it too. Chomsky and I had an exchange in Prospect magazine a few years ago in which he lied blatantly, in print and on a matter easily checked (namely, whether I’d quoted him accurately from a book published in 1969).

There is a long, involved history behind the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge, behind the earliest accounts in book form of what was occurring in Cambodia, and the many years since of accusation, denial, and rationalization. You’ll see that in miniature from Kamm’s account. Kamm is knowledgeable of this history, as are, of course, Chomsky and various other players mentioned, and their arguments with each other are so involved and selective from among the many issues and points of contention, in advancing their own arguments, that the overall argument can be difficult to follow. This is often the case regarding the politics of complex histories. An unfortunate consequence of this reality for the more casual, if interested, observer, is that facts, and the apparent reality that emerges from them, can be easily manipulated. The casual observer might then be skeptical of all involved – except that it is worth remembering that the reality of what happened in Cambodia has long since been firmly established, and an individual’s manner of argument becomes a trail of evidence itself.

As Brad Delong wrote over ten years ago,

What I object to is that Chomsky tears up the trail markers that might lead to conclusions different from his. He makes it next to impossible for people unversed in the issues to understand what the live and much-debated points of contention might be.

What I object to is the lack of background, to the lack of context. In telling the history of the Cold War as it really happened–even in ten pages–there has to be a place for Stalin, an inquiry into the character of the regimes that Stalin sponsored, and an assessment of Stalinist plans and expectations. But Chomsky ruthlessly suppresses half the story of the Cold War–the story of the other side of the Iron Curtain.

In my view, the first duty that any participant in any speech situation has: to tell it like he or she thinks that it is, not to try to suppress big chunks of the story because they are inconvenient in the context of your current political goals. You can’t show only half (or less than half) the picture. That’s an act of intellectual authoritarianism, an attempt to lower the level of the discourse, an attempt to keep people from knowing things that are not “good” for them–an intellectual foul.

We see this very procedure at work in Chomsky’s letter responding to Anthony. Chomsky writes,

Caldwell’s fate, Anthony suggests, may have resulted from his failure to read Francois Ponchaud’s “Cambodia Year Zero” because of my review of the book (Chomsky and Edward Herman, June 1977) – which recommended it as “serious and worth reading.” An odd reaction.

But Anthony enlightens us in rebuttal:

It’s worth taking a look at Professor Chomsky’s selection of quotes in his response to my piece. For example, he notes that he described Francois Ponchaud’s book as “serious and worth reading”. This is true, but what he doesn’t say is that he also called it ‘fast and loose with quotes and numbers”, “careless, sometimes in rather significant ways” , or that he argued that it suffers from “an anti-Communist bias”.

By contrast, no such criticisms were made of Hildebrand and Porter’s book, which was based largely on Khmer Rouge propaganda. Professor Chomsky made the following comparison between Hildebrand and Porter’s grotesque misrepresentation of what was actually happening in Cambodia and Ponchaud’s historically accurate account: Ponchaud “lacks the documentation provided in Hildebrand and Porter and its veracity is therefore difficult to assess”. The implication here is that Hildebrand and Porter’s veracity was more straightforward to assess – ie based on fact. In actuality it was a travesty. Not only did they fabricate the reality of the Khmer Rouge before the revolution, but they swallowed whole the Khmer Rouge propaganda after the revolution.

Last week, in Politics and Shame, I recalled an accusation that Chomsky made at a post 9/11 talk he gave at MIT just over a month later. Chomsky’s remarks then have been discussed by Kamm and others. During the talk he accused the U.S. of being in the process of committing a “silent genocide” in Afghanistan, in preparation for war. It is extraordinary to follow Chomsky’s attempt – by stringing together several New York Times reports (the Times, conveniently, and according to customary introductory form, both jokingly relied on and faulted in the same argument, as it suits Chomsky’s purpose), loose references to the World Food Program, The London Financial Times, as well as both refugees and aid workers cited by the above – to establish that American plans for action were resulting in a “genocide” through starvation (though Chomsky actually uses the word “slaughter,” not starvation) of perhaps three to four million people. It is not enough, however, for these predicted consequences to constitute genocide; they somehow qualify as a “silent” genocide.

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…

Chomsky does not elaborate on the modifier, but it is typical of Chomsky. Every passing adjective, every final, falling prepositional phrase is a verbal IED with a tripwire. One can’t help but wonder: which genocides – when, indeed, they are committed – are publicized by their perpetrators? Did Chomsky mean, then, by “silent” the lack of news coverage? Given the characteristic circumstances surrounding genocidal behavior, the reporting on it is typically sketchy, but there is no question that the added “silent” conveys some deeper level of wicked stealth to the supposed American genocide. Since the word is so overused, clearly genocide alone is no longer enough; now Chomsky needed bad genocide – it’s secret.

Of course, another reason genocide might be “silent” is that it is not, in fact, occurring, and it is, indeed, a kind of wonder, during the talk, to witness a formidable intellect stand thin premises on spindly legs, attach them to threads of supposition and tenuous prediction based on sketchy evidence, and try to make them all stand on the head of an imaginary needle the intellect insists is real.

What has Chomsky had to say about this supposed silent genocide in the years since? A little over a year later, he emailed one correspondent, reporter and culture critic Jesse Fox Mayshark, that

thankfully, the dire warnings of the NY Times, the aid agencies, Harvard U specialists on Afghanistan, and others were realized only partially — how much, of course, we do not know, with no investigations.

Note the levels of disingenuousness here. It was the Times, the aid agencies, Harvard “specialists,” and “others” who were mistaken in their “dire warnings,” not Chomsky for confidently and maliciously attributing to the United States an act of genocide (a word never used by any of those sources) through starvation (“slaughter”) that did not take place. Or, according to Chomsky, the – what? genocide? starvation? – did “partially” take place? To what degree? Ninety-five percent? Fifty percent? One percent? And, of course, in Chomsky’s Logic, failure to prove a negative is failure to investigate, or, rather, to posit an unsubstantiated claim and assert it not disproved by virtue of its being uninvestigated. “With no investigations,” implies something to be investigated, which perhaps should be the claim itself of partially realized warnings that Chomsky chooses to make, according to Chomsky himself, with no investigations.

Another year later, and Rob Hinkley, self-described as “just some guy who programs computers for a living,” emailed Chomsky to follow up on an interview Chomsky gave the Independent. As Hinkle tells it,

Noam Chomsky was asked in the Independent on the 4th of December

Where is the “silent genocide” you predicted would happen in Afghanistan if the US intervened there in 2001?

To which he replied:

That is an interesting fabrication, which gives a good deal of insight into the prevailing moral and intellectual culture. First, the facts: I predicted nothing. Rather, I reported the grim warnings from virtually every knowledgeable source that the attack might lead to an awesome humanitarian catastrophe…

(my emphasis) He went on:

All of this is precisely accurate and entirely appropriate. The warnings remain accurate as well, a truism that should be unnecessary to explain. …

(my emphasis) Given the evident lack of millions of people actually starving to death in Afghanistan in the winter of 2001/2002 I would say the warnings of millions of people starving to death (as we will see below) were in fact utterly inaccurate. This should be unecessary to explain. Anyhow, back to Professor Chomsky’s claim that he predicted nothing…

Hinkley reports the remainder of Chomsky’s always contemptuous response to those who challenge him. You’ll find it only a little short of totally incomprehensible, as did Hinkley, with circular arguments and self-contradictions rubbing elbows from sentence to sentence. (Ain’t easy to deny the nose on your face.) Here are the two salient points for today, however – one enormously telling, the other a mere “insight.” When Chomsky does, indeed, state at MIT,

Looks like what’s happening is some sort of silent genocide

he follows it with

It also gives a good deal of insight into the elite culture, the culture that we are part of. (Emphasis added)

When he condemns this completely accurate quotation as “an interesting fabrication,” he adds that it “gives a good deal of insight into the prevailing moral and intellectual culture.” Well, that’s a breathtaking amount of weight for a single question to carry, but Chomsky is always finding revelations of depravity in the purported genocides and mere inquiries of others. He doesn’t clarify in this statement, though, to whose “moral and intellectual culture” he refers. But I’m having an insight.

The telling point is this, that while equivocating as alway,s so that in his mind deniability of any argument against him is always available, clearly the force of his intellectual energy continues to be on diminishing the revelations of the Khmer Rouge genocide that did occur and propping up suspicions of an American genocide in Afghanistan that did not.


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