Monday, July 19, 2004

Assassin of Memory

The following is from the highly recommended Assassins of Memory, by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, one of the most prominent French critics (along with Alain Finkielkraut) of Chomsky's support for Robert Faurisson.  It critiques in inimitably French style both the petition Chomsky signed, the press controversy surrounding it, and Chomsky's essay which prefaced one of Faurisson's books.
I read the text carefully and with an increasing sense of surprise. Epithets came to my pen, expressing, progressively, the extent of my surprise and my indignation...I shall proceed in order.

1. The preface in question partakes of a rather new genre in the republic of letters. Indeed, Noam Chomsky has read neither the book he prefaced, nor the previous works of the author, nor the criticisms addressed to them, and he is incompetent in the field they deal with: "I have nothing to say here about the work of Robert Faurisson or his critics, of which I know very little, or about the topics they address, concerning which I have no special knowledge." These are indeed remarkable qualifications. But since he needs to be able to affirm a proposition and its opposite, Chomsky nonetheless proclaims, a few pages further on, his competence. Faurisson is accused of being an anti-Semite: "As noted earlier, I do not know his work very well. But from what I have read - largely as a result of the nature of the attacks on him - I find no evidence to support [such conclusions]"...

2. Chomsky-the-Janus-faced has thus read Faurisson and not read him, read his critics and not read them. Let us consider the issues in logical order. What has he read of Faurisson which allows him to bestow so fine a certificate? For is he not "a realatively apolitical liberal of some sort" (pp.xiv-xv)? Since Chomsky refers to nothing in support of this, it is impossible to know, and I shall simply say: Faurisson's personal anti-Semitism, in fact, interests me rather little. It exists and I can testify to it, but it is nothing compared with the anti-Semitism of his texts. Is it anti-Semitic to write with consummate calm that in requiring Jews to wear the yellow star starting at the age of six "Hitler was perhaps less concerned with the Jewish question than with ensuring the safety of German soldiers" (Verite, p. 190)? Certainly not, within Faurisson's logic, since in the final analysis there is no practical anti-Semitism possible. But within Chomsky's logic? Is the invention of an imaginary declaration of war against Hitler, in the name of the international Jewish community, by an imaginary president of the World Jewish Congress, a case of anti-Semitism or of deliberate falsification? Can Chomsky perhaps press linguistic imagination to the point of discovering that there are false anti-Semites?
Let us now pose the other side of the question. What does Noam Chomsky know of the "criticisms" that have been addressed to Faurisson, and specifically of the study that he refers to, which I published in Esprit and which attempts to analyze "historically" the "method" of Faurisson and of several others? The answer is simple. "Certain individuals have taken Faurisson's defense for reasons of principle. A petition with several hundred signatories, led by Noam Chomsky, protested against the treatment Faurisson has recieved by presenting his 'conclusions' as though they were in fact discoveries. That petition seems to me scandalous."

The content of these lines leaves no doubt about Chomsky's motives. It is not a question of the gas chambers; it is very little a question of Faurisson, and only secondarily of freedom of speech. It is above all a question of Noam Chomsky. It is as though, by anticipation, Jacques Prevert were speaking of him, and not of Andre Breton, when he wrote in 1930: "He was, then, quite thin-skinned. For a press clipping, he would not leave his room for eight days." Like many intellectuals, Chomsky is scarcely sensitive to the wounds he inflicts, but extremely attentive to whatever scratches he is forced to put up with...

But let us return to the heart of the matter. Is the petition an innocent declaration in favor of a persecuted man that everyone, and first of all myself, could (or should) have signed? Let us read:

"Dr. Faurisson has served as a respected professor of twentieth-century French literature and document criticism for over four years at the University of Lyon 2 in France.  Since 1974 he has been conducting extensive independent historical research into the 'Holocaust' [scare quotes are in the original text - Benjamin] question.  Since he began making his findings public, Professor Faurisson has been subject to a vicious campaign of harassment, intimidation, slander, and physical violence in a crude attempt to silence him.  Fearful officials have even tried to stop him from further research by denying him access to public libraries and archives."
Let us pass over what is excessive or even openly false in petition.  Faurisson has been forbidden from neither archives nor public libraries.  Does the petition in fact present Robert Faurisson as a serious historian conducting genuine historical research?  To ask the question is to supply an answer.  The most droll aspect of it all is that one finds the following adage, which has become something of a motto, preceding works published by La Vielle Taupe:  "What is terrible when one sets out after the truth is that one finds it."  For my part, I maintain -- and prove -- that...Faurisson does not set out after the truth but after falsehoods.  Is that a "detail" which does not interest Chomsky?  And if one is to understand that poorly informed, he signed on trust a genuinely scandalous text, how are we to accept his willingness to underwrite today the efforts of a falsifier?
3.  But there is more still: regarding himself as untouchable, invulnerable to criticism, unaware of what Nazism in Europe was like, draped in an imperial pride and an American chauvanism worthy of those "new mandarins" whom he used to denounce, Chomsky accuses all those who hold a different opinion from his own of being assassins of freedom...
"I do not want to discuss individuals," Chomsky writes, and immediately thereafter, in accordance with the same double discourse with which we are beginning to be familiar, he attacks an imaginary "person" who "does indeed find the petition 'scandalous' [which was indeed the word I used], not on the basis of misreading, but because of what it actually says'.  An elegant way of not saying -- and at the same time saying -- that I assault the freedoms of my enemies.  For Chomsky goes on to say:  "We are obliged to conclude from this that the individual in question believes that the petition was scandalous because Faurisson should in fact be deprived of the normal right to self-expression, that he should be harassed and even subjected to acts of physical violence, etc."  It happens that what I wrote was precisely the opposite...The conditions under which Faurisson was brought to request leave of Lyon...were certainly regrettable, and I have said as much, but his freedom of expression, subject to extant law, has not been threatened at all.  He was able to be published on two occasions in Le Monde.  Thion's book, in which his theses are vented, was not the subject of any lawsuit, and if Faurisson is the target of a civil suit, brought by various antiracist associations, which do not all have freedom as their primary goal, such lawsuits do not prevent him from writing or being published.  Is not the book prefaced by Chomsky...proof?  Would he like a law passed by the republic requiring that Faurisson's works be read in public schools?  Is he asking for all history books to be rewritten in accord with his discoveries -- I mean conclusions (findings)?  Is he requesting at the very least that they be advertised and sold at the entrance to synagogues?
The simple truth, Noam Chomsky, is that you were unable to abide by the ethical maxim you had imposed.  You had the right to say: my worst enemy has the right to be free, on condition that he not ask for my death or that of my brothers.  You did not have the right to say: my worst enemy is a comrade, or a "relatively apolitical sort of liberal."  You did not have the right to take a falsifier of history and to recast him in the colors of truth.
There was once, not so long ago, a man who uttered this simple and powerful principle:  "It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies."  But perhaps you know him?  (p. 66-72)
There is little I could add to such an elegant and impassioned deconstruction. I would only note a small reservation of mine; it is something I have mentioned before, and Vidal-Naquet's shocked tone returns me to it now:  intellectuals of the Left -- even sensible ones like Vidal-Naquet -- find it extraordinarily difficult to completely rid themselves of the influence of Chomsky's work on their own ideologies and their admiration for some of his stances, particularly on Vietnam. This results in an inability to clearly percieve the motivations behind some of his more extreme stances. Vidal-Naquet seems to ascribe Chomsky's otherwise inexplicable sympathies towards Faurisson to vanity, rather than the far simpler and more likely explanation that Chomsky harbors anti-semitic sympathies.  Nor can he make the connection between Chomsky's intellectual authoritarianism and its practical political implications.  An unfortunate shortcoming, but, equally unfortunately, not an uncommon one.