avatar
A Question of Character


                        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 Huntington‘s view regarding the Viet Cong in Foreign Affairs. Samuel Huntington published a letter in the New York Review of Books on Februrary 26, 1970.

 

"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 Vietnam. Mr. Chomsky writes as follows:

"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 Huntington, Kamm writes:

"Huntington doesn’t exaggerate: it genuinely is difficult to think of a more blatantly dishonest case of quoting something out of context. It is not possible to do inadvertently what Chomsky has done here. I would encourage readers to follow the link I have given and make their way through Chomsky’s long and convoluted reply to Huntington’s letter, for it has a striking characteristic: it doesn’t even mention the complaint from Huntington that I have just quoted, that Chomsky has taken words out of context and fitted them to other words to yield a meaning opposite to their author’s clearly-stated view."

I have done just this and read Chomsky’s reply to Huntington. The essence of Chomsky’s reply is what he wrote:

"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 Huntington uses such terms as "urbanization" to refer to the process by which we drive the Viet Cong "constituency" into refugee camps and cities, and he speaks of the "American-sponsored urban revolution," the "social revolution" that we have brought about in this way. So successful is "urbanization," he might have added, that the population density of Saigon is now estimated at more than twice that of Tokyo. Lucky Vietnamese."

But what of Huntington‘s specific complaint of Chomsky distorting his position? Chomsky replies:

"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 Huntington explicitly favored the approach. A critic could argue that by omitting the "obvious conclusion" that "Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation", that Chomsky strong implied that Huntington favored eliminating the Viet Cong constituency by bombardment. One doesn’t have to explicitly say; a critic can point out, what one can suggest by implication. It is for this reason that I find Chomsky’s reply unsatisfactory.

If Huntington is wrong, then how so? This is what I am failing to understand.

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, East Timor, and the Standards of the West (pg, 79-80). Chomsky writes:

"The guiding principles were well understood from the outset by those responsible for guaranteeing the success of Indonesia‘s 1975 invasion [of East Timor]. They were articulated lucidly by [the United States‘] UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in words that should be committed to memory by anyone with a serious interest in international affairs, human rights, and the rule of law. The Security Council condemned the invasion and ordered Indonesia to withdraw, but to no avail. In his 1978 memoirs, Moynihan explains why:

"The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."

"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. China altogether backed Fretilin [a Marxist group that had seized power] in Timor, and lost. In Spanish Sahara, Russia just as completely backed Algeria, and its front, known as Polisario, and lost. In both instances the United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."

 

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 East Timor over a period of two months. A proportion of the population which, he then goes on to say, is about the same as the proportion of people in Eastern Europe killed by Hitler. So he’s taking pride in having stopped the United Nations from interfering with an aggression that he himself compares with Hitler’s invasion of Eastern Europe, and he then drops it at that."

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 Luanda fell."

"Luanda is not in East Timor: it is the capital of Angola. Moynihan has left the subject of East Timor and has embarked on a new section of the book. The reference to the killing of 10 per cent of the population of East Timor does appear in the book, but not in the context that Chomsky asserts. Chomsky’s claim that Moynihan "in the next sentence goes on to say that he’s aware of the nature of that success" is outright fabrication: no such remark appears anywhere in the book. Nor does Moynihan say that a "sign of success" was that the subject disappeared from the press. He merely reports that fact, along with the estimate of the deputy chairman of the provisional government that 60,000 people had been killed since the outbreak of the civil war. This is on pages 245-6. Incidentally, Moynihan was misquoting the estimate; according to Robert Conquest in the Daily Telegraph, 8 March 1980 (cited in Leopold Labedz, The Uses and Abuses of Sovietology, 1989, p. 119) the figure given by the administrator was that 60,000 people had lost their lives or homes, and that this included 40,000 who had fled from the Communists."

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 US] is a kind of denazification." This diagnosis is central to Chomsky’s political output. While he does not depict the US as an overtly repressive society—instead, it is a place where "money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print and marginalise dissent"—he does liken America‘s conduct to that of Nazi Germany. In his newly published Imperial Ambitions, he maintains that "the pretences for the invasion [of Iraq] are no more convincing than Hitler’s."

 

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 United States is dissent – or denazification." The context, which he again omits, is a 1968 report in the New York Times of a protest against an exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry where children could "enter a helicopter for simulating firing of a machine gun at targets" in Vietnam, with a light flashing when a hit was scored on a hut — "even though no people appear," revealing the extremism of the protestors. This was a year after the warning by the highly respected military historian and Vietnam specialist Bernard Fall that "Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity…is threatened with extinction …[as]… the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size."

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 East Timor excises relevant context, presents unrelated passages as sequential, and interpolates remarks that Moynihan did not make. Even where Chomsky was right to attack western policy, he is analytically unscrupulous.

"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 US] is a kind of denazification.’" Chomsky replies: "To demonstrate my ‘central’ doctrine, Kamm misquotes my statement that, ‘We have to ask ourselves whether what is needed in the US is dissent—or denazification.’"

"The full quotation runs: "We have to ask ourselves whether what is needed in the United States is dissent or denazification. The question is a debatable one. Reasonable people may differ. The fact that the question is even debatable is a terrifying thing. To me it seems that what is needed is a kind of denazification." Chomsky quotes only the first sentence, suggesting agnosticism on whether the US needed "denazification," and omits the fifth, where he makes precisely that judgement. He withholds this information from Prospect’s readers to complain baselessly of misquotation. "The world’s top public intellectual responds to accusations of dishonesty," indeed."

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 United States?

 

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?

 

 

Matthew

Leave a comment