A Question of Character
By Matthew Green at Jul 04, 2008
A Question of Character: Noam Chomsky vs. his critics
Some time ago I posted a blog entry on Noam Chomsky and on the question of defending him. Although I really wanted and still want to give Chomsky the benefit of the doubt and assume that his critics are wrong or, worse, have slandered him and committed libel to print, some of the criticisms that I have read of Dr. Chomsky have seriously confused me and left me with second thoughts. One of the sources that I mentioned in my post was the Anti-Chomsky Reader and other sources critical of Chomsky. I also mentioned a blog by Oliver Kamm as well as the exchange between Chomsky and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Rather than focus on the debate between Chomsky and Schlesinger here (which would be the subject of another blog post, being quite lengthy as it is) I want to focus on several accusations of dishonesty on Chomsky's parts. I want to know what is wrong with the criticisms that I will list here. All of them are taken from Oliver Kamm's blog (I deliberately chose from a self-professed liberal instead of a politically conservative critic of Chomsky).
What are these criticisms of Chomsky? One is that Chomsky had dishonestly distorted the position of Samuel Huntington. Another is that Chomsky had deliberately distorted the words of former Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan . Oliver Kamm even accused Chomsky of distorting something he wrote in his negative appraisal of Chomsky as a candidate for the leading public intellectual. After discussing these examples, I would like to move onto specific criticisms listed in the Anti-Chomsky Reader.
Allegation One: Chomsky misrepresented
"In the space of three brief paragraphs in your January 1 issue, Noam Chomsky manages to mutilate the truth in a variety of ways with respect to my views and activities on
"Writing in Foreign Affairs, he [Huntington] explains that the Viet Cong is 'a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist.' The conclusion is obvious, and he does not shrink from it. We can ensure that the constituency ceases to exist by 'direct application of mechanical and conventional power...on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city....'"
"It would be difficult to conceive of a more blatantly dishonest instance of picking words out of context so as to give them a meaning directly opposite to that which the author stated. For the benefit of your readers, here is the "obvious conclusion" which I drew from my statement about the Viet Cong:
"...the Viet Cong will remain a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist. Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation."
"By omitting my next sentence—"Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation"—and linking my statement about the Viet Cong to two other phrases which appear earlier in the article, Mr. Chomsky completely reversed my argument."
In reviewing this allegation from
I have done just this and read Chomsky's reply to
"He also points out that the Viet Cong is "a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist."
"These comments are no doubt accurate and, as I wrote, provide a succinct explanation of American strategy. Since the Viet Cong is a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist, we have resorted to military force, causing the migration of the rural population to refugee camps and suburban slums where, it is hoped, the Viet Cong constituency can be properly controlled.
"I also commented that Mr. Huntington "does not shrink from" these conclusions. This comment could, in fact, have been strengthened. Thus he says that "forced-draft urbanization and modernization," Vietnam-style, may well be "the answer" in general to mass-based peasant revolutions. In fact, he expresses no qualms, no judgment at all about such methods (which clearly involve "war crimes" as defined by Nuremberg Principle VI, for example). His approach follows the principle stated by two counterinsurgency theorists in Foreign Affairs, October, 1969: "All the dilemmas [of counterinsurgency] are practical and as neutral in an ethical sense as the laws of physics." Thus
But what of
"Mr. Huntington further claims that I said he "favors" eliminating the Viet Cong constituency by bombardment, whereas he only states that such "forced-draft urbanization" may well be "the answer to 'wars of national liberation' " that we have stumbled upon in Vietnam. The distinction is rather fine. One who insists on it must also recognize that I did not say that he "favored" this answer but only that he "outlined" it, "explained" it, and "does not shrink from it," all of which is literally true."
A critic of Chomsky could reply that Chomsky didn't have to say that
Allegation 2: Chomsky Misrepresented the position of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Kamm argues that Chomsky misrepresented a quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his book A New Generation Draws the Line: Kosovo,
"The guiding principles were well understood from the outset by those responsible for guaranteeing the success of
"Success was indeed considerable. Moynihan cites reports that within two months some 60,000 people had been killed, "10 per cent of the population, almost the proportion of casualties experienced by the Soviet Union during the Second World War." A sign of the success, he adds, is that within a year "the subject disappeared from the press."
Kamm goes onto quote the exact passage from which Moynihan wrote the above words that Chomsky quoted:
"[S]uch was the power of the anticolonial idea that great powers from outside a region had relatively little influence unless they were prepared to use force.
Kamm quoted Chomsky, again, this time from his book Chronicles of Dissent:
"Referring to the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, [Moynihan] says that the United States wanted things to turn out as they did and that he had the assignment of making sure that the United Nations could not act in any constructive way to terminate or reverse the Indonesian aggression. He carried out that task with remarkable success. He then in the next sentence goes on to say that he's aware of the nature of that success. He says that two months later, reports surfaced that the Indonesian invasion had killed off about 10 per cent of the population in
Kamm replied: "Well, I have Moynihan's book open in front of me. The sentence after the words "carried it forward with no inconsiderable success" reads in full:
"It is difficult to say precisely when
If Kamm is wrong and that Chomsky corrected quoted Moynihan, how so?
Allegation Three: Chomsky on "Denazification"
Oliver Kamm appears to have strongly objected to Prospect Magazine's consideration of Chomsky as the world top public intellectual in its issue of November 2005. Writing against Chomsky, Kamm wrote the following:
"Chomsky's first book on politics, American Power and the New Mandarins (1969) grew from protest against the Vietnam war. But Chomsky went beyond the standard left critique of US imperialism to the belief that "what is needed [in the
To which Comsky responded:
"Proceeding further to demonstrate my "central" doctrine, Kamm misquotes my statement that "We have to ask ourselves whether what is needed in the
Kamm replied to this by stating:
"Over 40 years, Noam Chomsky (January) has accused many more distinguished men than I of "tacit acquiescence to horrendous crimes." More interesting would have been a defence of his polemical distortions. We get only a reprise. Chomsky's account of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's comments on
"I noted (November) that from his earliest writings Chomsky "went beyond the standard left critique of US imperialism to the belief that 'what is needed [in the
"The full quotation runs: "We have to ask ourselves whether what is needed in the
I am having difficulty understanding here how Kamm is wrong about all of this. How is Kamm wrong? Especially in regards to this exchange over "denazification" of the
This is the reason I have come to question Chomsky's character while wanting to grant him the benefit of the doubt. Kamm is no right-wing hack, but, again, neither was Schlesinger. It's these allegations of dishonesty that really concern me and, honestly- I don't know how to react to them. I am not the sort of person who blindly dismisses allegations like these because Chomsky tells me what I want to hear. I am willing to listen to serious critics of any position, actually. So, I wanted to ask what is wrong with these allegations? Where do people like Kamm, Huntington, and others who have responded to Chomsky miss the mark, so to speak?