Friday, November 18, 2005

Chomsky the revisionist

You may have read Emma Brockes' interview with Noam Chomsky after he perversely won the Prospect intellectual of the year award, or whatever it was called. Brockes rightly called Chomsky on some of his more dubious political position, particularly his apologism for deniers and downgraders of the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia.

The Guardian has issued a craven and highly unnecessary apology and in fact removed the article from their site. Luckily, and oddly, Chomsky keeps it on his site. John-Paul Pagano has an excellent dissection of the apology and why it's so wrong on his blog (as well as a sharp analysis of the original interview, entitled Airbrushing Anti-Semitism), as, of course, does Oliver Kamm.

In case Chomsky takes it down, I'm putting the crucial bits here. Bear in mind that this is only part of the profile, which was largely, I thought, quite affectionate. Also, the hyperlinks are added.

These days, Carol accompanies her husband to most of his public appearances. He is asked to lend his name to all sorts of crackpot causes and she tries to intervene to keep his schedule under control. As some see it, one ill-judged choice of cause was the accusation made by Living Marxism magazine that during the Bosnian war, shots used by ITN of a Serb-run detention camp were faked. The magazine folded after ITN sued, but the controversy flared up again in 2003 when a journalist called Diane Johnstone made similar allegations in a Swedish magazine, Ordfront, taking issue with the official number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre. (She said they were exaggerated.) In the ensuing outcry, Chomsky lent his name to a letter praising Johnstone's "outstanding work". Does he regret signing it?
"No," he says indignantly. "It is outstanding. My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough. It may be wrong; but it is very careful and outstanding work."
How, I wonder, can journalism be wrong and still outstanding?
"Look," says Chomsky, "there was a hysterical fanaticism about Bosnia in western culture which was very much like a passionate religious conviction. It was like old-fashioned Stalinism: if you depart a couple of millimetres from the party line, you're a traitor, you're destroyed. It's totally irrational. And Diane Johnstone, whether you like it or not, has done serious, honest work. And in the case of Living Marxism, for a big corporation to put a small newspaper out of business because they think
something they reported was false, is outrageous."
They didn't "think" it was false; it was proven to be so in a court of law. But Chomsky insists that "LM was probably correct" and that, in any case, it is irrelevant. "It had nothing to do with whether LM or Diane Johnstone were right or wrong." It is a question, he says, of freedom of speech. "And if they were wrong, sure; but don't just scream well, if you say you're in favour of that you're in favour of putting Jews in gas chambers."
Eh? Not everyone who disagrees with him is a "fanatic", I say. These are serious, trustworthy people.
"Like who?"
"Like my colleague, Ed Vulliamy."
Vulliamy's reporting for the Guardian from the war in Bosnia won him the international reporter of the year award in 1993 and 1994. He was present when the ITN footage of the Bosnian Serb concentration camp was filmed and supported their case against LM magazine.
"Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true."
But Karadic's number two herself [Biljana Plavsic] pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity.
"Well, she certainly did. But if you want critical work on the party line, General Lewis MacKenzie who was the Canadian general in charge, has written that most of the stories were complete nonsense."
And so it goes on, Chomsky fairly vibrating with anger at Vulliamy and co's "tantrums" over his questioning of their account of the war. I suggest that if they are having tantrums it's because they have contact with the survivors of Srebrenica and witness the impact of the downplaying of their experiences. He fairly explodes. "That's such a western European position. We are used to having our jackboot on people's necks, so we don't see our victims. I've seen them: go to Laos, go to Haiti, go to El Salvador. You'll see people who are really suffering brutally. This does not give us the right to lie about that suffering." Which is, I imagine, why ITN went to court in the first place.
You could pick any number of other conflicts over which to have a barney with Chomsky. Seeing as we have entered the bad-tempered part of the interview, I figure we may as well continue and ask if he finds it ironic that, given his views on the capitalist system, he is a beneficiary of it. "Well, what capitalist system? Do you use a computer? Do you use the internet? Do you take an aeroplane? That comes from the state sector of the economy. I'm certainly a beneficiary of this state-based, quasi-market system; does that mean that I shouldn't try to make it a better society?"
OK, let's look at the non-state based, quasi-market system. Does he have a share portfolio? He looks cross. "You'd have to ask my wife about that. I'm sure she does. I don't see any reason why she shouldn't. Would it help people if I went to Montana and lived on a mountain? It's only rich, privileged westerners - who are well educated and therefore deeply irrational - in whose minds this idea could ever arise. When I visit peasants in southern Colombia, they don't ask me these questions."
I suggest that people don't like being told off about their lives by someone they consider a hypocrite. "There's no element of hypocrisy." He suddenly smiles at me, benign again, and we end it there.

More links:
Virtual Security.Net: Atrocity, memory, photography (ITN v LM)
George Monbiot: Invasion of the Entryists
Andy Beckett: Highbrow celebrity gloss
Ed Vulliamy: Poison in the well of history
Nick Cohen: Boardroom Revolutionaries
Chris McGreal: Genocide? What genocide?

Postscript, 2007
This issue has rumbed on, and you can check my ChomskyWatch posts for updates. The best summary, however, comes from Stephen Glover in The Independent.


raven said...

Bob, there's this little thing in the US called the First Amendment. Diane Johnstone is a mini Faurisson. Your friend Pagano seems to put Chomsky in the same rank as Holocaust deniers, a patently absurd accusation for anyone who knows anything about the man.

I'm looking forward to a post from you: an itemized list of your grievances against Chomsky, so simpletons like myself can understand what all the fuss is about :)

bob said...

OK Raven, here it is: