Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Deconstructing the Janus-Faced

Pierre Vidal-Naquet, describing Noam Chomsky’s essay in defense of his advocacy on behalf of Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, noted that it “partakes of a rather new genre in the republic of letters.” Chomsky’s recent letter to the Guardian in regard to Emma Brockes’ critical interview with him must be included in this new genre. A genre demarcated by its extraordinary capacity for Orwellian inversion and brazen disingenuousness. It is, of course, well known that the only thing European leftists enjoy more than hating America is being flagellated for failing to hew sufficiently to the party line; indeed, it is not going too far to say that all radical leftists have at least a bit of the sado-masochist about them; and this is the only reason I can think of for the Guardian's craven capitulation to such an obviously absurd and dishonest screed. The facts of the issue at hand have been dealt with elsewhere, and I prefer to concentrate on the text itself, which is a remarkable case study in Chomskyite duplicity and obfuscation. Chomsky begins by telling us that he is, in fact, completely unconcerned by the article in question, but he is forced to respond due to his altruistic concern for humanity.
It is a nuisance, and a bit of a bore, to dwell on the topic, and I always keep away from personal attacks on me, unless asked, but in this case the matter has some more general interest, so perhaps it’s worth reviewing what most readers could not know. The general interest is that the print version reveals a very impressive effort, which obviously took careful planning and work, to construct an exercise in defamation that is a model of the genre. It’s of general interest for that reason alone...

It was evident from the electronic version that it was a scurrilous piece of journalism. That’s clear even from internal evidence. The reporter obviously had a definite agenda: to focus the defamation exercise on my denial of the Srebrenica massacre. From the character of what appeared, it is not easy to doubt that she was assigned this task. When I wouldn’t go along, she simply invented the denial, repeatedly, along with others.
I will put aside the extraordinary irony of the words "defamation" and "scurrilous" issuing from a man whose entire career constitutes little more than a single, protracted act of scurrilous defamation, since that too is a bit of a bore. I will simply concentrate on the issue at hand. At first glance what is most evident to the reader is the inherently absurd paranoia of what is being said. The Guardian is a newspaper whose ideology and political loyalties are open, well known, and unabashedly leftwing. The idea of this paper's resolutely progressive staff getting together and cooking up a plan to screw Noam Chomsky is material for satire, not an ostensibly serious polemic. Chomsky’s persecution complex is certainly remarkable, he is finding sinister plots even among his allies.

Now for the more serious, or at least the more relatively sane, charge. Chomsky is making only one real accusation here: that his interlocutor, one Emma Brockes, claimed – falsely – that he, Chomsky, denied the fact that there was a massacre in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war. From amidst the usual blizzard of invective, Chomsky invokes only a single fragment of a sentence to support this, so I will quote the ostensibly offending paragraph in full:
This is, of course, what Chomsky has been doing for the last 35 years, and his conclusions remain controversial: that practically every US president since the second world war has been guilty of war crimes; that in the overall context of Cambodian history, the Khmer Rouge weren’t as bad as everyone makes out; that during the Bosnian war the “massacre” at Srebrenica was probably overstated. (Chomsky uses quotations marks to undermine things he disagrees with and, in print at least, it can come across less as academic than as witheringly teenage; like, Srebrenica was so not a massacre.)
As is plain to see, the only thing that is revealed by this quote is Chomsky’s apparent inability to recognize sarcasm; not an unusual vice among men who have grown used to worshipful adoration. Beyond that, Brockes’ irony clearly has a serious intent, that is, to point out the nature of Chomsky’s discourse; which is to say, arrogant, dismissive, and utterly indifferent to the suffering of other human beings. Her point is both well taken and no surprise to those of us who have read Chomsky’s work.

But what follows is truly extraordinary.
The printed version reveals how careful and well-planned the exercise was, and why it might serve as a model for the genre. The front-page announcement of the interview reads: “Noam Chomsky The Greatest Intellectual?” The question is answered by the following highlighted Q&A above the interview:

Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated?
A: My only regret is that I didn’t do it strongly enough.

It is set apart in large print so that it can’t be missed, and will be quoted separately (as it already has been). It also captures the essence of the agenda. The only defect is that it didn’t happen. The truthful part is that I said, and explained at length, that I regret not having strongly enough opposed the Swedish publisher’s decision to withdraw a book by Diana (not “Diane,” as the Guardian would have it) Johnstone after it was bitterly attacked in the Swedish press. As Brockes presumably knew, though I carefully explained anyway, there is one source for my involvement in this affair: an open letter that I wrote to the publisher, after editors there who objected to the decision, and journalist friends, sent me the Swedish press charges that were the basis for the rejection. In the open letter, readily available on the internet (and the only source), I went through the charges one by one, checked them against the book, and found that they all ranged from serious misrepresentation to outright fabrication. I then took – and take – the position that it is completely wrong to withdraw a book because the press charges (falsely) that it does not conform to approved doctrine. And I do regret that “I didn’t do it strongly enough,” the words Brockes managed to quote correctly. In the interview, whatever Johnstone may have said about Srebrenica never came up, and is entirely irrelevant in any event, at least to anyone with a minimal appreciation of freedom of speech.
I reproduce this passage in full because it may be one of the most fascinating pieces of double discourse ever committed to paper. It is, in fact, a confession disguised as a writ for the defense. A mea culpa in the clothes of a denunciation. It is a necessity here to repeat the substance of Brockes’ actual accusation: that Chomsky openly and publicly praised the work of people who attempted to (falsely) minimize and dismiss the Srebrenica massacre, and that he lent the weight of his reputation to their aid and defense. This is a charge to which Chomsky openly pleads guilty. And not merely openly, but proudly as well. Because there is no defense against Brockes’ charge, Chomsky does not mount one. He chooses instead to engage us in a blizzard of proofs to the effect that he never committed a wrong of which he is not accused. That is to say, he is telling us, clearly and in no uncertain terms, and with immense and unnecessary detail, that he never denied the massacre in Srebrenica. A charge which, I feel I must repeat, was never asserted in the first place.

The truth is, in other words, hiding in plain sight. Chomsky is denying Brockes’ assertion by admitting to it. He did, as he announces with outspoken pride, support people who claimed the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated, and believes, then and now, that their work is of an extraordinary nature. He announces, furthermore, that he proudly protested the withdrawal of a book which, as this article elucidates, engaged in precisely the sort of minimization and dismissal which Brockes is citing. In other words, Noam Chomsky is viciously attacking Emma Brockes while simultaneously acknowledging the truth of her accusations. Vidal-Naquet did not refer to the good professor as “Chomsky the Janus-faced” for nothing.

In the end, the noble cause of free speech (applied with discretion, of course) absolves all sins, as it did for Chomsky’s defense of Robert Faurisson as well. As Vidal-Naquet wrote on that occasion: “The principle he invokes is not what is at stake.” Nor is it at stake now, except for Emma Brockes. Those of us with “a minimal appreciation of free speech” cannot help but be reminded of Hannah Arendt’s quote regarding her attempts to confront Martin Heidegger over his collaboration with Nazism: “He constantly tried the same [tactic]: through endless comparisons and rational elucidations he relativized all particular events, for instance, now also the gas chambers…It is all really just a game.” A tragic game, of course, for some. But not for Noam Chomsky.

This slander/confession constitutes the only substantial assertion Chomsky makes regarding the substance of the interview in question, and it is relevant to note that, even to arrive at this much, one is forced to wade through an ocean of childish insults and paranoiac ravings. In fact, and this is quite telling, Chomsky’s letter says remarkably little about the content of the interview itself. He spends a great deal more time, and displays a remarkable streak of vanity, attacking his photographic representations, which appear to have caused him no end of fuming consternation.
One is a picture of me “talking to journalist John Pilger” (who isn’t shown, but let’s give the journal the benefit of the doubt of assuming he is actually in the original). The second is of me “meeting Fidel Castro.” The third, and most interesting, is a picture of me “in Laos en route to Hanoi to give a speech to the North Vietnamese.”

That’s my life: honoring commie-rats and the renegade who is the source of the word “pilgerize” invented by journalists furious about his incisive and courageous reporting, and knowing that the only response they are capable of is ridicule.

Turn to the Castro picture. In this case the picture, though clipped, is real. As the editors surely know, at least if those who located the picture did 2 minutes of research, the others in the picture (apart from my wife) were, like me, participants in the annual meeting of an international society of Latin American scholars, with a few others from abroad. This annual meeting happened to be in Havana. Like all others, I was in a group that met with Castro. End of second story.
I must point out, once again, that Chomsky freely admits that there is nothing in the least inaccurate or untrue in any of these photographs. Chomsky is, of course, an admirer of John Pilger, whose capacity for paranoia and invective is perhaps exceeded only by Chomsky himself; and the good professor has been publicly carrying the torch for the Castro regime for decades. For instance, an entire chapter of his bestseller 9/11 is taken up with a long rant, totally irrelevant to 9/11, denouncing American resistance to Cuban communism. But, perhaps, we can take comfort in Chomsky’s largely unspoken acknowledgement that there is, at least, something unseemly about palling around with such people. Progress, it appears, has been made.

Chomsky then turns to a long dissertation, as is his wont, on American evils in Vietnam (without, I would note, sparing a single tear for the victims of the North Vietnamese regime he supported – mass murder has never much mattered to him so long as the right people are being killed) until he arrives at this extraordinary paragraph.
The rest of the trip “to Hanoi to give a speech to the North Vietnamese” is a Guardian invention. Those who frequent ultra-right defamation sites can locate the probable source of this ingenious invention, but even that ridiculous tale goes nowhere near as far as what the Guardian editors concocted, which is a new addition to the vast literature of vilification of those who stray beyond the approved bounds.
This is, put bluntly, a conscious and deliberate lie. Chomsky’s speech on North Vietnamese radio is real and is documented here, with further commentary here, as well as in Paul Hollander’s book Political Pilgrims and in David Horowitz and Peter Collier's Destructive Generation. No doubt these qualify as "ultra-right defamation sites", as does this blog and, one imagines, anyone who dares to point out the good professor's tendency towards frequent "ingenious invention". In truth, one doesn’t know whether to be astounded by the brazenness of this falsehood or by the degree of cowardice behind it. If one must shill for totalitarianism one ought to have the courage to own up to it after the fact.

But we are used to Chomsky’s confabulations; they are nothing new, and nothing very surprising. So it is to the Guardian itself that we must direct the lion’s share of our approbation. Had the editors applied the same standards to this letter as Chomsky applies to their reporter, this falsehood alone should have been enough to render Chomsky’s entire letter suspect and unprintable. The cowardice of a man who has spent his life churning out mendacious polemics is nothing compared to the cowardice of men who ought to, and probably do, know better. But we are not finished yet.
So that’s my life: worshipping commie-rats and such terrible figures as John Pilger. Quite apart from the deceit in the captions, simply note how much effort and care it must have taken to contrive these images to frame the answer to the question on the front page.

It is an impressive piece of work, and, as I said, provides a useful model for studies of defamation exercises, or for those who practice the craft. And also, perhaps, provides a useful lesson for those who may be approached for interviews by this journal.
Indeed it does. The lesson is: never question a leftwing icon unless one is prepared to be slandered and lied about by your subject and subsequently abandoned by your editors. The truth, of course, is that there is a great deal more to Noam Chomsky’s life than worshipping commie-rats and terrible John Pilgers, although these are certainly among his major interests. There is also a lifetime of verbose mandarinism on behalf of regimes and movements dedicated to totalitarianism, terror, and mass murder; not to mention more than occasional forays into antisemitism and semi-deranged paranoiac fantasies involving, apparently, even the editors of newspapers sympathetic to Chomsky’s own politics. And, of course, we have writings such as this one, which are, in their own way, masterpieces of lying, dissembling, defamation, and bad faith. The sum total of this life, Noam Chomsky, is most likely the reason Ms. Brockes saw fit to treat you without the fawning deference to which you apparently believe yourself entitled.

So what are we left with, after the smoke and mirrors are cleared away? We are left with a tapestry of slanders, lies both small and large, and a series of deliberate misrepresentations which, taken together, could not qualify as a letter to the editor, let alone stand as the rationale for retracting an article which, while openly critical, nonetheless remains well within the bounds of journalistic ethics. So we are left, ultimately, with a successful act of suppression. With a gaggle of cowards, fanatics, and totalitarian ideologues who have together collaborated to silence a welcome and necessary attempt to expose the truth behind one of the most corrupted intellectual legacies of the last half-century. A victory, in other words, for tyranny.

A certain professor once famously said: “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.” This is, of course, a banality, and thus meaningless. The harsh truth is that the responsibility of the intellectual is to confront political evil and to expose those who embrace it. To resist and not to collaborate. Emma Brockes fulfilled that responsibility by exposing a small measure of the human cost accrued by Chomsky’s lifetime of collaboration. The question now is whether her editors will fulfill theirs by honoring her courage; a possibility which is, I fear, depressingly remote. Chomsky, for his part, may rest easy. He has succeeded, once again, in reducing the dead to a debating point.

Brockes original article, as well as Chomsky's response, can be found at Chomsky's official website.