Greenwald on Chomsky

How does a Chomsky hagiographer deal with Cambodia? If he’s Glenn Greenwald, he just ignores it.

If you wanted to write a hagiographic study of Noam Chomsky and a denunciation of his critics as character assassins committed to destroying a great man’s reputation to silence his dissent from “orthodoxies,” you’d have four options for dealing with Chomsky’s holocaust-denial about Cambodia (and denunciation of those who complained about it while it was happening):

1. You could deny that Chomsky said what he said.

2. You could claim that Chomsky was right on the facts.

[Chomsky’s own strategy seems to be a combination of these two.]

3. You could admit that Chomsky was wrong on the facts but argue that he was justified in supporting the Khmers Rouges, and in doing some violence to the truth in the process, so as not to give aid and comfort to Kissinger.

4. You could admit that Chomsky was wrong on the facts and figure out some way to make that an excusable mistake.

Or, if you were really, totally, completely shameless, you could just pretend the whole thing never happened, passing it over entirely in silence.

Guess which strategy Glenn Greenwald chose? Twenty-six paragraphs, in which the word “Cambodia” does not appear.

The first time I heard Chomsky speak was at the Philadelphia Moratorium rally October 15, 1968, which I’d done a tiny bit to organize. Chomsky gave one of the four most effective political orations I’ve ever heard live (the others were by Gene McCarthy, Cesar Chavez, and Andreas Panandreou). He had perfected the great rhetorical trick of seeming utterly unrhetorical; he simply recited a catalogue of facts, with citations, to show that the war was a terrible idea.

Of course, the key “fact” was that the NLF was an entirely indigenous movement of the South Vietnamese, that the Southerners hated the Northeners, and that, therefore, the certain result of American withdrawal would be the establishment of an independent South Vietnam.

It was a great speech, though. No wonder Greenwald admires Chomsky!

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

105 thoughts on “Greenwald on Chomsky”

  1. I’m not shocked there, and I wouldn’t expect any admission of failure on the part of Greenwald in that. I remember him coming under fire once for getting something wrong, and he just kept getting more and more evasive in response to the criticism, while attacking the critics personally.

    Of course, it could just be that Greenwald’s actual knowledge of Chomsky’s policy positions is so shallow that he didn’t even realize that Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge, and was/is in denial over the fact that the Cambodian Genocide happened. The whole piece is centered around Chomsky’s positions on Israel.

  2. High standard alert, Mark. What is missing here is the transitivity relation by which Chomsky’s attitude towards the Khmer Rouge is taken to discredit all of his other thought and work. This argument deserves to be made explicit, because, as it stands here, it is on a purely handwaving level and therefore cannot defend itself against the charge that it is a non sequitur. I am neither agreeing nor disagreeing with you, but you owe it to us to show your work.

    1. If you defend the Khmer Rouge, it does discredit the rest of your work. It demonstrates either that you are prepared to lie about evil in order to build your case about someone else or that you are so determined to build that case that you willfully blind yourself to obvious truths. If you will go to the length of taking the side of Pol Pot in one instance, it is reasonable to assume that you would do so in other cases and that means that no one should trust a single thing you say.

      1. That’s my view precisely. I’d add: And if X has defended the Khmer Rouge, and Y attacks X’s character, you don’t need to reach out to “Y is protecting orthodoxies” as an explanation.

        1. This is hugely disappointing and almost shocking. *Unsupported*, this reduces to the same argument as the extremely familiar one that Einstein’s scientific theories must be false because COUGH COUGH AHEM you know the rest of the song.

          Now I really must call your bluff. Explain the connection between Cambodia and generative grammar. I take your word that it can be done — and who better to explain it, and what could possibly be more instructive?

          1. This has zero to do with generative grammar. That’s up to the linguists. The question here is about how to treat Chomsky’s political statements.

        2. But that isn’t really your view, now is it? Your view is “If Z claims that X has defended the Khmer Rouge….”, you then go on to attack X’s character on that basis.

          mitchellfreedman, below, has a link to the article that started all this back in 1977. You can read it, and judge for yourself.

        3. The question at hand is rather simple:

          What did we know about the Khmers Rouge activities at the time Chomsky wrote what Mark linked to? (Hindsight and all that jazz)

          It’s not as if we had free access there, right?

          Now, if it turns out that it was accessible knowledge (and by extension that Chomsky HAD to know) then we got a problem. Because one will have to explain to me why people who ORDERED torture on a grand scale (Rumsfeld come to mind) souldn’t be totally shun as Chomsky.

          1. The timeline is indeed important, and the information may be searchable but perhaps some of it is not in Google’s databases. Joan Baez was outspoken and was a signatory (if memory serves) to a full page ad in the New York Times at or about the same time she and some others (Bayard Rustin?) went to the Cambodian border trying to deliver food and other humanitarian assistance (which the KR rejected). The date of Baez’ protests and the NYT ad would help to pinpoint a date at which time Chomsky and others would have some accountability for their statements on Cambodia. The Chomsky Nation article is mid-1977, and the timing of the killing fields’ piling up of skulls etc. may have become apparent later; this could be an important point. I poked around on Google but did not quickly come up with a date for Baez speaking out; I only remember that it happened and that some criticism came her way from sources on her left.
            Chomsky’s piece in The Nation, I agree, was mostly about the media coverage of events rather than a direct defense of the KR, but that does not resolve the question of whether he applied different standards of scrutiny to reports of atrocities by the KR and the US. Was he more willing to accept the validity of information about the secret bombings in Laos and Cambodia than information about the KR, and if so, was this because the reliability of the former was greater than the latter? If the reports had been of comparable information quality, would he have been equally critical of both or would he have been more forgiving of flaws in reports on damage inflicted by the US Air Force than by the KR? I sort of suspect so but cannot prove it.

      2. “It does discredit the rest of your work.” In the related area only – here current affairs. The value of his work as a linguist is unaffected. Compare Shockley’s work on electronics and on eugenics, and Alexis Carrel’s immunology that opened the door to transplants and his enthusiastic support of Vichy France’s racism and mass murder of the mentally handicapped.

        1. Sometimes you need a fairly narrow definition of a “related area.” The nonsense Linus Pauling wrote about ascorbic acid does not invalidate the work he did on the chemical bond, without which undergraduate chemistry courses would not get off the ground. His Vitamin C quackery gained credibility because of his contributions to biochemistry; there is really quite a distance between clinical nutrition and valence bond theory, but both have something to do with science and could look similar from a distance.

          1. I suggest that because the areas are so close, you couldn’t reason from the fact that Pauling was wrong on ascorbic acid to a general distrust of his views on biomedical matters. He may have been wrong on everything such, but deserved a hearing. There does seem to be a touch of Newton’s alchemy though.

      3. “someone else or that you are so determined to build that case that you willfully blind yourself to obvious truths.”

        This is probably the smartest argument I’ve heard in a long time (I’m being serious). Nonetheless, Chomsky is very good at pointing out US hypocrisy (East Timor is an excellent example, as is our support of Saddam Hussein against Iran).

        1. One last thing: Greenwald does the same thing. He blamed the Mali Islamist uprising on NATO intervention in Libya (which has been successful) with absolutely no supporting evidence whatsoever.

    2. I have to agree with Frank– there seems to be an awful lot of unstated backstory to the post, too much for this semi-regular reader to grasp. I’m reminded a little bit of Mark’s goose-stepping video post a while back. There’s an old world of arguments and positions behind them that’s terra incognita to me.

    3. Supposedly when Kruschev gave his de-Stalinization speech, a French Stalinist told an anti-Stalinist ‘We were right to be wrong; you were wrong to be right’.

      We just went through a tenth-anniversary orgy of non-apology for the Iraq War by our intellectual alleged elites, which was 99% patterned after that, with extra pats on their own backs for bravery. Frankly, Chomsky looks pretty good compared to that.

      And I remember that Mark Kleiman himself supported the war, and was unrepentant, stating that he had made the right decision at the time.

      Frankly, I stopped reading this blog after Mark endorsed Stephen Heymann as a good guy; this lie (and it was a flat-out lie) stuck in my throat.

      I would say that perhaps Mark should STFU until he can correctly read people like Stephena and Megan McArdle.

  3. I hold no brief for Chomsky, but Greenwald was only secondarily defending Chomsky. The main thrust of Greenwald’s piece was contained in his leadoff sentence: “One very common tactic for enforcing political orthodoxies is to malign the character, ‘style’ and even mental health of those who challenge them.” This primary point strikes me as legitimate. If you ignore Chomsky (as I do), it should be because he has a slippery relationship to the truth (as I think he does), not because he “is a sarcastic, angry, soporific, scowling, sneering self-hating Jew, devoid of hope and speaking from hell, whose alpha-male brutality drives him to win at all costs”.

    But this is fairly typical Greenwald: defending the indefensible by conflating it with the defensible. Greenwald is a national treasure, but I wish he would stop writing like a litigator; he is hiding his light under a bushel. Judges are the only readers who are trained to think that bogus arguments do not necessarily discredit sound arguments with which they are associated. Consequently, litigators (wrongly IMO), frequently throw the kitchen sink at the judge. It’s not a good way to win arguments with ordinary people.

    1. You say you agree that ad hominems should be avoided, but then immediately accuse Chomsky of being dishonest and Greenwald of applying unspecified “bogus arguments”. You also note Greenwald’s background as a litigator, which is enough to malign him in the eyes of many people (the word conjures ambulance chasers before it does constitutional lawyers).

      Notably absent from your critique is any mention of any specific claims that either Chomsky or Greenwald have made that you think are wrong, let alone why you think they are wrong. You have merely labeled them as of this or that stock. If you really think you agree with the “main thrust” of Greenwald’s article, you are suffering from a shocking lack of self-awareness.

      1. Ad hominems are a logical fallacy only when used to assess the truth value of a statement. I wasn’t trying to assess the truth value of a statement–I was relying on Mark’s characterization that Chomsky denied the Cambodia holocaust and assuming it was true for these purposes. Instead, I was using the ad hominem for a different purpose: to decide whether Chomsky was worth listening to at all. Do you pay as much attention to Rush Limbaugh as Glenn Greenwald? Why not, if you are too pure to act on ad hominem judgments?

      2. Plug “Chomsky” and “dishonest” into Google and you’ll find numerous examples. His misuse of ellipses is particularly egregious. The most disheartening thing about his dishonesty is the facts are on his side when he accuses America of being a terrorist nation led by elites working to promote their interests here and abroad. He undermines his credibility, which makes it easier to dismiss him as a crank.

  4. It seems to me that Chomsky went all in on the Khmer Rouge thing because he hated the Vietnam war, and the situation in Cambodia was fairly murky at the time it was occurring. That was wrong (really really wrong). On the other hand, Chomsky has been correct (as in factually correct) on a lot of things, including Iraq & Bush, which certainly involved a lot of murky situations, like torture.

    Greenwald, on the other hand, says nice things about civil liberties but seems to wander all over the map as to what should be done about it, preferring to strike poses. But, as noted above, he’s a lawyer.

    And then there are the legions of right-wingers who share all the faults and none of the brains of somebody like Chomsky.

    [‘Lovely intellectual environment you’ve got there, shame if anything happened to it….wait, what am I saying?!’]

    1. Anyone can make a mistake when things aren’t perfectly clear to them. I’ll even apply that to things which are clear to a number of other people. Sometimes even very intelligent people who are normally quick to catch on just don’t get some particular thing as quickly as you’d normally expect them to. I don’t disqualify their future opinions on that basis. However, I’m with Paul Krugman on this one, once the facts are in, if they don’t acknowledge the error how can I expect their opinions to be of much use?

  5. I can’t lay claim to being a Chomsky scholar, but being a normal, reflexive reader of some of his works I have to admit to feeling insulted by the manner by which he delivers his speeches, and/or writings. It’s kind of the “Al Gore effect.” Immature, maybe, but real nonetheless. Also, I wonder how much of his perceived brilliance is due to this personality trait. I feel that much of his rhetoric and/or insight isn’t all that unique, simply plain Liberal boilerplate. However, it’s made to appear revelatory by his, I guess you could say, “bombastic” delivery.

    Undoubtedly, the sum of his knowledge of certain issues is large, much larger than mine, for certain. That is true. But, rightly, or wrongly, Greenwald’s hyperventilated defense of the man has to get past the unnecessary aura Chomsky cloaks himself in……that he comes off as a jerk.

    Oh, one more thing. I will admit to being prejudiced towards Greenwald ever since he (temporarily, I hope) came down from his usually objective perch and assumed his Pied Piper role for the faithful with his “Kill Hillary” rants when she wouldn’t cancel her campaign when ordered vs. The One.

  6. Why anyone takes Noam Chomsky’s political pronouncements seriously is beyond me. Originally it had something to do with his prestige from having seemed to have turned linguistics from a branch of the humanities into an analytical science. But with the perspective of 50 years we know that, despite the glittering analytical language, none of what he said about universal grammar or deep structure was true. A seemingly powerful intellectual structure with almost no contact with reality. It turns out his political views had the same nature. A stopped clock is right twice a day, but that doesn’t make it reliable. It’s important to consider arguments and their relation to facts critically, and not to rely on authorities. The US political system is premised on the thought of the Enlightenment, so being against authority should not be a particularly radical notion in 2013.

    1. “…. none of what he said about universal grammar or deep structure was true”. Can we bid for a post expanding this? I was under the impression that Chomsky at the very least broke with a sterile and absurd behaviourist psychology of language, and raised far more productive new questions about the “instinct to acquire an art” as Darwin described the remarkable process of human acquisition of language. You could argue that Copernicus was wrong in every detail of his theory, but he was right on the one big thing.

      1. Will comply more fully at a later date. Chomsky did reject the behaviorist approach, which might be viewed as productive, but he did so in an extremely polarized and polarizing way, which required everything important about language to be innate, and created a narrow research program that wasted a lot of effort. Since the publication of Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (1965, I think), Chomsky and his acolytes (for it really was an academic cult) have had to back off one claim after another (or add epicycles to the theory) as the empirical work has disproved the theoretical expectations. There is little left to universal grammar other than recursion. The theory was overly-bought into the notion of information processing on the model of a digital computer, in which linguistic symbols were assumed to be real and involved in the basic way the brain processed information. I don’t have citations to the relevant academic literature ready to hand, and no one should take away from my comment that this is the majority opinion within academic linguistics today, but accessible books that are worth a look include Making Sense by Geoffrey Sampson (Oxford, 1980), Lingua ex Machina by William Calvin and Derek Bickerton (MIT, 2000), or chapter 9 of Derek Bickerton’s Adam’s Tongue (2009).

        Copernicus was right about the big empirical claim of his theory — that the earth is not the center of the universe and instead resolves around the sun, even if he didn’t get that orbits were elliptical, and so the calculations did not work out very well until that was recognized. Chomsky’s trajectory has been the opposite he debuted with the glittering mathematistic formalism of transformational grammar which went along with some basic claims about how language worked in the brain that could not be reconciled with evolution, and deployed his technical and polemical brilliance to defend his position over a long career rather than to seek the truth, making tactical retreat after tactical retreat, claiming the essential claims were still intact when they were not. (Bickerton in 2009 apparently had no way of knowing that Chomsky’s collaborator on issues of evolution and language, Marc Hauser, would resign his Harvard professorship the next year following revelations that his research was characterized by repeated scientific misconduct–eight counts as determined by Harvard’s internal investigation.)

        The most favorable thing I can say about Chomsky is that the rigor he seemed to bring to linguistics attracted many researchers with a scientific attitude and fostered research programs — including Bickerton’s — that undermined his basic axioms and empirical claims. It’s sort of like the rational expectations fad in economics — which deployed fancy mathematics around a plausible behavioral insight (that certain government interventions might be limited in effectiveness if economic actors foresee their impact)and rather than evaluating real-world data to see if this might be significant, built closed analytic worlds where calculated consistency of expectations over time could be used instead of empirical investigation to determine results and win academic arguments.

        So if one asks, what is there about Chomsky’s career in linguistics that should make one listen to him about politics, I think the answer is less than nothing. I can find little evidence that his science has let him to understand anything about human interactions or about the use of evidence in relation to evaluating hypotheses about human action. Normally results in natural science are reliably because they are used technically in producing other results that can be shown to have contact with reality, and that over time the tools that are not useful tend to be discarded. Thus quantum mechanics works and continues to be applied even though it’s stochastic character offends some physicists, including Einstein. But I can’t see anything about Chomsky’s linguistic theories or habits of thought that have this feedback structure that suggests any sort of heightened reliability.

        1. As John Lyons remarked in his review of Syntactic Structures, Chomsky’s legacy would end up as an elegant formalism. That formalism enabled down in the trenches descriptive linguists to ask all new kinds of questions about the particular languages they were investigating. I count myself as one of those. In these investigations, new insights bloom and the theory adjusts itself accordingly. This seems to me to be standard scientific process, Chomsky is largely responsible for inoculating linguistics with scientific reasoning. Chomsky’s entire focus was to study language as a product of the mind, and thus dismissed as “uninteresting” everything that had to do with history and behavior. Derek Bikerton who you cite as a legitimate critic of Chomsky has made his career as a sociolinguisti, a school of language study fundamentally opposed to Chomsky’ s structuralism. To preset Bickerton’s work as a refutation of Chomsky’s contributions is less than disingenuous. There are many reasons factual and formal that challenge transformational grammar, but the fact that one particular theory of language needs to be modified does not discredit the major contributor to the field. I have no idea where Chomsky’ s thinking on language is right now but I would wager that it is not where it was forty-five years ago. So my advice is to lighten up a bit. Give the man his due.

          1. “Chomsky’s entire focus was to study language as a product of the mind, and thus dismissed as “uninteresting” everything that had to do with history and behavior.”

            This is like a biologist who only studies adults of a species and is uninterested in developmental and evolutionary processes, or the doctor who declares himself only interested in disease agents and not the immune system. How such an attitude can be regarded as “scientific” rather academic Pettifoggery is beyond me, since it gives up many opportunities for multi-dimensional understanding.

            People who wish to be admired as great intellectuals should not shutter themselves off from important aspects of the systems they study, and should not assume the most important result of their inquiries in their premises, as Chomsky clearly did.

            And people who trade on an academic reputation to gain stature in the political arena should indeed be scrutinized for how their mind relates to reality in both arenas.

          2. Every grammar of every language relies at least on the operational assumption of synchronicity,I.e. the statements of rules are independent of time and space. There are lots of good reasons to not like the assumption of synchronicity, but it seems to be the only way to proceed to the matter at hand. You might argue that grammars are arbitrary and unscientific, but it is impossible to understand anything about language without them. Lets face it, language like all human behavior is a continuously varying soup, only available for study through these grammatical snapshots. It seems to me , rather than pettifiggery that much of scientific investigation relies on similar operational procedures.

    2. I think Chomsky’s political pronouncements are taken seriously because he backs them up with citations to facts, while his opponents (as Greenwald discusses) rely on ad hominem arguments. If Chomsky’s opponents would check his citations, they’d probably find means to deflate at least some of his arguments. For some reason they don’t seem to take that approach often.

      Though I doubt this is the forum for it, I’d like to echo James Wimberley’s request for more evidence for your claim about Chomsky’s linguistics. I’ll grant you that what “deep structure” means has changed a good deal (changes made by Chomsky, in response to criticism and experimental evidence), but universal grammar — i.e., the existence of an innate “language organ” — doesn’t seem to be fading away. For an informal discussion of this, and its “contact with reality”, see Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct.

      1. You’re right that it’s impossible to go very usefully here on this. I’ve read most of what Steven Pinker has written, and let’s just say that his immense productivity has been at the expense of a certain amount of rigor and consistency. However if you look at p.333 of the paperback edition of The Language Instinct (the second page of chapter 11), you will see that he acknowledges that Chomsky agrees that a uniquely human language instinct is inconsistent with Darwinian evolution. And Universal Grammar has been reduced to just the possibility of recursion. I’ve added a reply to James Wimberley immediately above that goes over some of this. The description of “mentalese” on page 81 (the second to last page of chapter 3) as the basic description of thinking is really simplistic nonsense in terms of how the brain actually works, and ignores the fact that much thinking must at base be non-linguistic.

        1. I thought the talk of “mentalese” was influenced more by Fodor than Chomsky. Fodor’s thesis has always been a bit puzzling to me.

          Bickerton’s “Adam’s Tongue” chapter appears to be summarized (or excerpted) here:

          It appears that Chomsky has never been interested in making just-so stories about the evolution of language. I can’t say I fault him much for the reluctance, though I agree with Bickerton that it’s an interesting question.

          “Reduced to just the possibility of recursion”? That’s not much of a reduction, now, is it? It (in the form of phrase-structure, which I take it has been refined) was one of the most persuasive examples drawn from language acquisition in children, I always thought.

          But never mind, my familiarity with the field is almost thirty years out of date. Thanks for the Bickerton references, the library is routing them to me. (I’m afraid I never took Sampson seriously — he seemed to be more motivated by politics more than linguistics.)

          1. While Fodor was influenced by Chomsky and mentalese is certainly plausibly consistent with Chomsky’s approach, I was not tagging Chomsky with this silly notion. I was only bringing it up as one of the more risible notions advanced by Steven Pinker in the book that you put forward as an authority. And yes, if recursion is the only universal among generative grammars that is a dramatic retrenchment compared to Chomsky’s original claims. If you look at Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, which was already a substantive retrenchment from his earlier transformational grammar, you will see am expectation of a much richer set of constraints on the set of meaningful sentences and generative grammars. Plus it seems that much of the preparation that’s wired in the brain that allows for language learning is closer to semantic (predisposing toward recognition of categories and relationships) than syntactical… While Chomsky alludes to the boundary between semantics and syntax as a “residual problem” in the first section of chapter 4 it’s clear that semantics are basically unimportant in his description of language. You might want to go back and read the key section (chapter 1, section 6)on what characteristics are required for a theory that is capable of explaining language acquisition… it has nothing to do with linguistic competence or performance and only to do with the formal constraints on sentences. On page 35 Chomsky asserted “Real progress in linguistics consists in the discovery that certain features of given languages can be reduced to universal properties of language, and explained in terms of these deeper aspects of linguistic form.” If all that is left of the universal properties is the principle of recursion, then there is not much progress that can be expected. A useful theory of language cannot stay within the realm of symbol systems but must explain the relation between external symbol systems, internal processing of symbols, and internal non-symbolic processing.

    3. “A stopped clock is right twice a day, but that doesn’t make it reliable.”

      Isn’t it completely reliable? The clock will be correct at some time, t, known or unknown, and every 12 hours thereafter.

  7. We need dates for this discussion to make sense. What Chomsky wrote when is crucial for making the case that he “supported the Khmer Rouge” between 1975 and 1978.

    Chomsky was saying in the 1980s that the Khmer Rouge had been a murderous regime, and was insisting that his analysis was focused on differences between media coverage of the Khmer Rouge and coverage of a proportionally comparable genocide in East Timor in approximately the same time period. He had contrasted the column-inches in the New York Times devoted to the two regimes, arguing that the Timorese genocide, conducted by an Indonesian regime friendly to the US, was as atrocious as the Cambodian genocide, but was passed over in practical silence compared to the murders of the Khmer Rouge regime.

    If he had defended the Khmer, it must have been earlier than in the 1980s. If there is a contrast between what he said earlier and what he said later, we need a reference to an earlier defense of the Cambodian genocide. Is that reference available online? I assume it is what Mark is alluding to.

    If you happen to have that right at your fingertips, Mark, that would advance the discussion, document what Chomsky said at the time the atrocities were happening, and clarify what Greenwald is unwilling to look at. I could go searching but was hoping you could spare me the effort.

    1. The most cited critique of Chomsky on the subject focuses on the book he wrote (with co-author Edward Herman) in 1979. In the book “After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology” (as well as an article in The Nation in June 1977 titled “Distortions at Fourth Hand” ) they argue extensively that reports of the numbers killed in Cambodia under the Khemer Rouge were being greatly exaggerated and went to great lengths to discount the sources. They claimed reports of mass murder were propaganda created by Thai anti-communist officials to counter the popular support the Khemer Rouge had among the Cambodian population. They argue (historically inaccurately) that the deaths caused by the KR were less than those caused by American bombings in Cambodia. These were points Chomsky often repeated in presentations and speeches during the period, including denunciations of George McGovern’s concerns about the genocide in Cambodia as it was taking place.

      As a veteran of 1970s left sectarian battles, I can tell you that among North American Maoist groups supporting the KR (as an extension of their pro-Chinese global orientation) often cited Chomsky and his arguments in defence of the Khemer Rouge government. (For several years in the late 1970s it was a very heated point of contention between various Maoist and Trotskyist groups).

      In the 1980s Chomsky was forced to acknowledge some of the historical realities of the Cambodian genocide, but he continued to advance claims of lower death tolls than most serious research found, and to frame his interpretation of the period through the lens of a global geopolitics that attempts to rationalize and excuse much of what happened.

      There is plenty of room to debate whether Chomsky’s actions in the KR debate inherently should poison one’s opinion of all of his other writings and conclusions – but wherever one comes down on that, it is clear in retrospect that his words in the matter were a dark stain on his record at the very least.

      1. It is one thing to defend the KR and another thing to criticize media reports about the KR. The article can be read as a criticism of the authors’ reporting methods rather than a direct defense of the Cambodian genocide of 1975-78.

        Chomsky seemed to be evading confrontation with the actions of the KR by focusing on the adequacy of the reporting methods; it is much easier to point out flaws in an argument you are uncomfortable with than it is to look beyond the flaws and consider the possibility that the reports have substance, however many problems there may be with the methodology of the coverage.

        Thanks, Terje, for the link. I had a feeling it was in the Nation but wasn’t sure. Pretty weird times those were; especially when you could use as a barometer of a person’s radicalism the spelling of the country’s name: Amerika or Amerikkka.

        1. The problem is that what Chomsky did was more than just criticize media reports. You can read “Distortions at Fourth Hand” yourself; it is full of evasions and half-truths (you can find a detailed critique here, and some of it is evident even without deep background). At best, you can argue that disgust with the Vietnam war and American Vietnam policies caused him to turn a blind eye to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and write an extremely hackish, dishonest piece as a result. But even that means that as an author he is discredited, because then he is still incapable of not letting his passion distort the factuality of his writing. At worst, it’s an apologia of Khmer Rouge atrocities.

          1. Yes, and, if you piece together his seemingly inexhaustible supply of wiggle words, it’s no longer circumstantial. “We get it,” and his writing makes sure that we do. How many times does he use this justifying technique? (paraphrasing) “well yes, some peripheral reporting has been done alleging there “may have been aggravated assaults,” but there’s no adequate proof the participants weren’t simply actors from different factions holding life long grudges, and not the Khmer Rouge at all. And, all those refugees (refugees being, historically unreliable) who claim to have seen large numbers of humans harnessed to plows in the fields, that’s only because the American bombers killed all the horses and oxen…… nauseum.

            When you try that hard to not say what you’re compelled to say, the odds that it’s the reader who misunderstands ranges from zero, down.

      2. “…they argue extensively that reports of the numbers killed in Cambodia under the Khemer Rouge were being greatly exaggerated and went to great lengths to discount the sources. They claimed reports of mass murder were propaganda created by Thai anti-communist officials to counter the popular support the Khemer Rouge had among the Cambodian population. They argue (historically inaccurately) that the deaths caused by the KR were less than those caused by American bombings in Cambodia. These were points Chomsky often repeated in presentations and speeches during the period, including denunciations of George McGovern’s concerns about the genocide in Cambodia as it was taking place. ”

        Sounds like the standard line about deaths in Iraq (i.e., that the Iraq Body Count was an overcount, until the MIT/Lancet report came out, and the IBC became the gold standard).

        I’m still trying to figure out why Chomsky’s in trouble – his standards are certainly not below what’s normal for the ‘mainstream’ US elites.

        For example, has the NYT used the word ‘torture’ to describe US torture, or is it still verbotten?

  8. The Nation article from June 1977 which Chomsky and Ed Herman wrote where he and Herman doubted the veracity of the initial refugee reports is here: There are caveats throughout the article, too, one should note and they were relatively kind to Proudhard, with whom they were friendly and who was sounding an alarm.

    As for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia starting at the end of 1978 and rolling into 1979, while Chomsky did not want to support humanitarian interventions, due to the cynical use of the phrase by Western leaders, he had the decency to recognize the Vietnamese had far more justification to overthrow the Khmer Rouge than anything Western leaders had when invading Southeast Asia.

    With that said, what does Kleiman make of the Carter, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton administrations’ support–yes, support–of the Khmer Rouge in the United Nations in the 1980s and 1990s? How about the strong support for the Khmer Rouge during the 1980s and early 1990s by Stephen Solarz, an otherwise great Congressman from New York? We know the reason Solarz and the various administrative leaders of the successive administrations supported the Khmer Rouge: As a bulwark against the Vietnamese government and because our leaders and nation were becoming friendly with Communist China, which was beginning its corporatization of its economy.

    But somehow it is required for people who seek to be players in academia and government to demonize Chomsky, who had endured so many lies from the U.S. government and its supporters throughout the Southeast Asian wars, and knew the brutality of the American bombings of Cambodia that rarely focused on what it did to the people of Cambodia, and parse what Chomsky wrote in 1977-1979 about Cambodia.

    One more thing in response to Mark: Chomsky, in the late 1960s did state the NLF were indigenous and were in a position, before the early 1970s, to have some real power in South Vietnam. The speech Mark saw was hopeful on Chomsky’s part, but what he was hoping was that Nixon would not get away with the bombing and killing of villagers throughout South Vietnam which Nixon had recently begun to intensify. As Chomsky wrote at page 386 in his book, “At War With Asia,” in 1970, the year Mark heard Chomsky speak:

    “It is conceivable that the United States may be able to break the will of the popular movements in the surrounding countries, perhaps even destroy the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, by employing the vast resources of violence and terror at its disposal. If so, it will create a situation in which, indeed, North Vietnam will necessarily dominate Indochina, for no other viable society will remain.”

    Unfortunately, that is precisely what happened, if people know their Vietnamese and Southeast Asian history. And the ironic result for the Nixon administration and General Abrams was that the North Vietnamese sent more and more people into the South to replace the NLF cardres and supporters who were killed by American bombings and general killing. It is also what made Nixon’s “Peace with Honor” such a cynical move as Nixon and Henry Kissinger knew the North had far more control over the South by 1973 than they did at the start of the Nixon administration in 1969 when, as the late Stanley Karnow recognized in his book on Vietnam, the US could have entered into essentially the same accords when there was far less North Vietnamese control (and sadly support) in the southern Vietnamese villages. The Nixon Peace with Honor did not require North Vietnamese troops to leave the various South Vietnamese villages, in case anyone wonders.

    If one reads Chomsky carefully in those essays and books he wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and reads carefully much later books on the US war in Southeast Asia from Larry Berman and Lewis Sorley, one sees much that dovetails into Chomsky’s analysis about the indigenous aspects of the NLF. One also sees it in the memoirs of Truong Ngh Tang, the former NLF Justice Minister, who said the North Vietnamese army leaders came into South Vietnam in 1975, and disarmed and undermined the NLF because the North recognized exactly what Chomsky was talking about.

    Overall, it is wrong for Mark to rely upon his memory of a speech Chomsky gave as a college student to make his judgment of demonizing Chomsky.

    1. One error in my comment: When Mark heard Chomsky, it was October 1968, before Nixon ascended to the presidency and began to expand the bombing, and continued in practice though not in name the odious Phoenix program. This makes his snark against Chomsky that much more misguided.

      1. I just added the link to Chomsky’s 1977 piece. In addition to scoffing at reports of genocide in Cambodia, he writes glowingly of the then-current situation in South Vietnam, with “well-known leaders of the non-Communist Third Force … active in the press and government.” If Chomsky is disappointed that the NLF had lost out and that the result of the war was the effective conquest of the south by the north – falsifying his confident predictions – he doesn’t mention it.

        Chomsky also scoffs at predictions of a “bloodbath.” No mention of Boat People: the 10% or so of the population that tried to flee. I suppose he’s right about the “bloodbath,” though: when you drown at sea, no blood is shed.

          1. Hmm. Having re-read that piece again, I still think your characterization is unfair, but I can see how a reasonable person might think it, particularly in light of subsequent events.

            With respect to your snark about “bloodbath”: you were there, you remember what “bloodbath” meant at the time. “Preventing a bloodbath” was a defense of continuing a war that had already cost a million lives in Vietnam in the 1960s, and was to cost another million before the “prevention” worked its course.

        1. And Mark, Chomsky is quoting the NY Times Fox Butterfield’s story in the exact quote you are citing. I don’t see you ripping into Fox Butterfield, who was a respected reporter not known for being a Communist sympathizer. Lots of folks in mainstream media, starting with Syd Shanberg, did not predict the bloodbath would follow. It is unfortunate that Butterfield was unaware of what was really happening to NLF personnel. Truong held on himself for several years, but eventually ended up in France as a political refugee.

          My point remains: The demonization in the American discourse is limited to the ultimately non-powerful dissenters from the American foreign policy establishment, while we give succor and talk merely of “mistakes” with regard to the people with the true blood on their hands.

          You did not answer my point about Stephen Solarz, Clinton, Gore, Biden, Bush I, Reagan, and nearly the entire American foreign policy establishment which began to actively support the Khmer Rouge in the UN and elsewhere the moment the Vietnamese helped install a government that replaced the Khmer Rouge. Their support ran from 1979 through the mid-1990s.

          I also await your post on the crimes of Hilary Clinton and John Kerry for endorsing the lies and subsequent death and destruction in Iraq. Might as well since we’re parsing Chomsky here.

          1. Nope. Mea Culpa on Fox Butterfield. It was the American Friends Committee he was quoting…Still, a sometimes naive lot, but not ridiculous such as say John Bolton or Elliot Abrams.

  9. It takes Greenwald 26 paragraphs to order a sandwich, without beverage or dessert, so I’m not surprised his 26 paragraphs on Chomsky failed to touch every aspect of his long career. Why are we paying attention to Greenwald any more–that’s the real question. Don’t his sock puppets give him enough of an audience already?

  10. Ed Whitney makes a good suggestion. When I’ve encountered criticisms of politically active academics like Paul Krugman or Noam Chomsky, almost invariably the criticisms depend on misunderstanding or misattribution.

    So there’s a fifth defense one could make of Chomsky: you could actually read what he said. This is similar to (1), I suppose, in that it amounts to denying characterizations by others of what he is said to “have said”.

    I assume we’re talking about his 1978 (or so) article in The Nation where Chomsky called into question claims made about the Khmer Rouge. This was media criticism, not a defense — the Khmer Rouge were bloody enough without having to exaggerate their crimes.

    1. It’s worth noting a big difference between Krugman and Chomsky as “politically active academics.” Probably well over 90% of Krugman’s political involvement and policy commentary is related to his academic expertise in economics, whereas about zero percent of Chomsky’s political involvement is related to linguistics. As a result there is a strong bench of experts ready, able, and well-motivated to professionally evaluate and criticize the way Krugman applies economics to policy, whereas Chomsky encounters very little discipline-based feedback from his linguistics colleagues on the substance of his politics. One might personally applaud Chomsky for his citizenship and no doubt he has at times taken heat for his radicalism from establishment circles at the same time he has been lionized by others, but presumably his linguistics graduate students and departmental colleagues have not had the same professional concern with his policy analyses that Krugman’s have had. (In other words, there is no linguist equivalent of Brad DeLong exercising quality control on Noam Chomsky.)

      1. For years, Chomsky’s linguistic work was far too lightly criticized in academia because of his political activism. This is less the case now, but there was a time when bringing up data that disconfirmed Chomsky’s theory of language (and there is a lot) was considered tantamount to supporting the war in Viet Nam. It was for years a statement of liberal loyalty to embrace his scientific theories, which was to the great detriment of the science of language. Now that a new generation that knows little of Viet Nam is prominent in academia, his theory has been badly battered, as it should be, because it’s wrong.

        1. A fascinating observation about academic sociology. It would be interesting to see whether this mode of intellectual protection is used by others and if so whether there are asymmetries between left and right politics and differences by disciplinary home.

        2. Keith,

          The critics of Chomsky’s in linguistics are similar to the critics of Freud in psychology. They are reacting to and expounding Chomsky even if they are disagreeing with him. Chomsky is pretty damned important in the area of linguistics regardless of whether one challenges him or agrees with him.

          As for politics, I think the most important points Chomsky made concern the continuities of elite promotion of policies, particularly foreign and trade policies, regardless of which political party controlled Congress and the President’s office, and that so many “mistakes” in American foreign policy required us to look more carefully at the background memoranda and memoirs to see what was in fact a project of Empire. Chomsky’s analysis of how corporate media operates was also compelling, in recognizing the planning that went into development of corporate propaganda in the 1920s and 1930s and how the system that developed from the late 1940s through the early 1970s in corporate owned media, under the guise of professionalism, hardened and narrowed the scope of opinion with respect to issues of labor and capital and again in foreign policy.

          These are important political insights that demand attention, and it is disappointing the way Mark and so many other academics would rather pile on than engage these points.

          1. The question about Chomsky’s linguistics was whether there was anything in his intellectual activities in that field that should make us particularly respect his insight and judgments in the area of politics. Stalin was “pretty damned important” in Soviet politics but that doesn’t make me want to follow his policies or otherwise treat him as an authority. In Chomsky’s case, from what I can tell in linguistics he has been something of an intellectual bully who did as much to retard the development of the field as to advance it, and whose original specific judgments on the facts of how language works have been dramatically walked back over time.

            So nothing there to recommend him as a sage.

  11. Why are we paying attention to Greenwald

    He uses his platform to protest official policies of warrantless wiretapping, immunity for torturers, summary execution of terror suspects, preemptive detentions, radical secrecy in military and national security matters, indiscriminate slaughter of Yemenis and Pakistanis, insane prosecutions of leakers as spies, and systematic harassment of dissenters. He’s the only high-profile media figure to document and inveigh against this stuff. Next question?

  12. I much prefer Chomsky to Glenn Greenwald. I’ve corresponded with the former multiple times and he has always been polite and pleasant. PS, you know who else supported Pol Pot: Zbigniew Brezinski. Look it up. He told the Chinese to support the KR after Vietnam invaded.

  13. Furthermore, look up Chomsky’s writing and videos on education, democracy in the workplace, the new atheism etc. Again, I despise Glenn Greenwald, but Chomsky is truly a good and kind man.

  14. Chomsky was not the only person to believe that the Vietcong were an indigenous movement. The CIA believed it as well,

    Too bad Chomsky did not explain to Kleinman that his argument was made without taking into consideration that the CIA would “neutralize” 80,000 VietCong cadre.

    And as pointed out above, those who find Chomsky’s minimization of Khemer Rouge atrocities to be unforgivable, seem curiously unwilling to think about people who actually supported the Khmer Rouge,such as Zbig.

    But congratulations, Mark, you were able to reproduce Greenwald’s tactic of contemptuous moral dismissal of anyone who fails to agree with you very well.

      1. Also I don’t agree with Chomsky on all things. Or Greenwald for that matter. I’m considerably more hawkish on Iran than both of them. Let’s just pay attention to what really matters.

        1. I can’t stand Greenwald and am not a true believer in Chomsky by any stretch. However, I find Mark’s attempt to discredit Chomsky by misinterpreting his comments weak and his pitch perfect rendition of Greenwald’s “if you disagree with me you are a contemptible insect” tone to be irritating. Mark knows full well that Chomsky was in no way attempting to justify the Khmer Rouge, but was pointing out that the same US press that was so unwilling to report on Nixon’s genocide was not dubious at all about any reports of atrocities in Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Chomsky’s argument is open to criticism, but not to the bad faith criticism produced here. The fact that the Pol Pot regime was so murderous makes the failure of the US press to cover Nixon’s atrocities – which directly put the KR into power – even worse. All in all, Mark would be better off disagreeing with Chomsky on specifics rather than reaching for a “this statement makes all his other work invalid so I don’t have to do any work” magic wand

          1. “Mark would be better off disagreeing with Chomsky on specifics rather than reaching for a “this statement makes all his other work invalid so I don’t have to do any work” magic wand”

            Yes, but then he wouldn’t be providing an instance to illustrate Greenwald’s actual thesis, which thesis is not an apology for Chomsky, but an analysis of how many with a voice in U.S. media and politics avoid engaging Chomsky on specifics.

  15. It’s amusing that a UCLA professor makes an oft-repeated claim and like all those before him, fails to cite or quote the text that implicates Chomsky in his support for the Khmer Rouge.

    Chomsky’s position on the Khmer Rouge seems to take the following into consideration:
    1. According to the State Dept. and the CIA, cited by Chomsky, the US contributed to the ascendency of the Khmer Rouge by dropping 2.75 million tons of ordinance on Cambodia between 1965-1973, killing around a half million people.
    2. The media were largely silent as these killings went on.
    3. Once the Khmer Rouge took power and began massacring people, the US establishment seized on the killings and sensationalized them in order to justify their destruction of Indochina and highlight the evils of communism.

    1. “Sensationalized them”? You don’t think 2 million murders are sensational enough on their own? No wonder you smell BS.

      1. Honest question, Mark: what do you see as the difference, if any, between willful murder by governments and deaths due to use of indiscriminate military ordnance, by non-indigenous forces or otherwise? I ask because that seems somehow implicated in your attitude to Chomsky, which seems absolutist in ways and for reasons I don’t understand.

        Personally, I’m not so sure there’s any great difference. The estimated million or so Vietnamese and other area civilians, and more recently the official 100,000-plus Iraqi civilians (but I think probably many more) that our ordnance killed in those two wars were the completely foreseeable results of decisions made by our political actors and processes. To that extent, those deaths were purposeful. I’ll grant that the individuals weren’t usually targeted specifically but mostly happened to be in the way. But if that’s supposed to be a difference, I’m not sure I see it as really meaningful.

        Or is this completely off the beam as far as your view of some regimes and of Chomsky is concerned?

      2. Mark, I’m a long time reader and admirer but I’m calling bullshit right here. I spent much of college and law school (the 90’s, basically) working with the East Timor Action Network and I am here to tell you, no, 2 millions murders – or, rather, the demographic equivalent thereof – is NOT sensational enough on its own. The Indonesian genocide in East Timor was fully worthy of extensive front page coverage – the U.S. was complicit, with its arming of Suharto – but it didn’t get it, because it wasnm’t needed or desired in order to justify U.S. militarism and imperialism.

        Similarly in Guatemala, where Hector Gramajo declared that the government really ought to eliminate 30% of the population, and went a considerable way towards achieving that goal. Remember the multiple screaming 24-point-font NYTimes headlines? Of course not.

        You know perfectly damn well what I Smell BS meant – the US media, like all media, chooses what to highlight and in what manner.

        The story here is that Chomsky poo-poohed the media reports about the K.R. genocide up until about 1980, when he began to concede them but insisted on contrasting them with media coverage of the Timor genocide. Chomsky turns out to have been wrong, for a few years, about the authenticity of media reports about the K.R. genocide, but surely someone, such as yourself, who recalls Tonkin Gulf, the Pentagon Papers, etc etc ad nauseum can see why someone would adopt a stance of reflexive suspicion of media reports that appear to serve the interests of the U.S. war machine.

        Chomsky still got it wrong and he deserves to be called out for that, but you’re acting as if he bears personal responsibility for those 2 million deaths, and I daresay you’re holding him to a much higher standard than you have held others

      3. Ok, professor. What are you, 12? When I mention US sensationalizing of KR atrocities, I’m referring to faked photographs, books such as Reader’s Digest’s “Murder of a Gentle Land,” etc. Somehow to apologists of state violence such as yourself, calling a country ravaged by the heaviest bombardment in human history, along with Laos and Vietnam, a “gentle land” does not seem out of line.

  16. I just read the Greenwald article in the Guardian. Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge seem rather tangential to the points Greenwald was making Chomsky. I have read much Chomsky, starting in the 1960s. Methinks Kleiman doth protest too much.

  17. @ Ed

    So what about Gadhaffi? Should be keep dictators because they are stable? A silly thought.

    1. The tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq (sadly) has not yet been a thread on this website, but Simon raises a parallel issue worthy of discussion.

      John Gray wrote a book titled “Black Mass” about the relationships between apocalyptic religion and utopian thinking. Gray and Andrew Bacevich ( go a bit deeper than the average pundits in analyzing the basic assumptions about the world’s workings that led to our attempts to remake the greater Middle East in the wake of 9/11, far beyond the “we should have planned for the occupation better” kind of stuff that has dominated many discussions on NPR and such venues.

      Gray and Bacevich reject the illusion of an ultimate convergence in history, which both point to as underlying the neoconservative model of reality. Gray discusses nicely what he calls the “lure of harmony in ethics” and the need to resist it. Many moral philosophies take it for granted that the requirements of morality must be compatible, and that no dictate of morality can collide with any other. This bedrock assumption, he says (crediting Isaiah Berlin), derives from Enlightenment thinkers’ ideas about reality: that it is a harmonious whole, and that if ideals appear to conflict with one another, this is an illusion deriving from some misunderstanding of their properties. This assumption, Gray asserts, underlies all varieties of the kinds of utopianism that justify preventive war.

      But experience shows us that the components of morality are often at odds with one another: toppling a tyrant may lead to anarchy, but propping up a tyrant can worsen the abuse of his power. Bringing down Gaddafi ended his tyranny, but it had a price, not only economically (which we could handle with ease) but also morally. Its consequences include violence and suffering inflicted on parties who were not beneficiaries of Gaddafi’s downfall.

      If Gray and Bacevich are right, the only silly thoughts are those which derive from hopes that changes in human institutions can resolve the contradictions of human nature. Good riddance to Gaddafi, but people in Mali became unwilling participants in the drama of his departure in a script of liberation they did not write. Good riddance to Saddam Hussein, but Iran was the real winner of his destruction, and it can use Iraqi airspace to fly aid to the government of Syria with impunity while John Kerry can only scold and implore Iraq to stop the flights.

      Hard problems with no easy answers: the heart of reality-based thinking about the world.

      1. No. What Gray and Bacevich represent is the coming together of the hard-left and the hard-right (and make no mistake Bacevich is a Buchananite) into pessimistic isolationism. There IS a convergence towards democratic states. Democracy IS an intrinsic good. Dictatorship IS bad. Of course there are trade-offs along the way, but who said there wasnt?

        I suggest you read Pinker’s book on the decline of violence worldwide. Then read Gray’s review. Then tell me who is more in touch with reality.

      2. Or you can read the late AO Hirschman’s “Perversity, Futility, Jeapordy” which restates the exact same argument you just made and shows how it has been used by reactionaries throughout history to support their causes, including slavery, Jim Crow, Sodomy Laws, the Death Penalty. The list goes on and on.

        Consider, and don’t call me inhumane. The Iraq war had 10x less US casualties than the Vietnam War, and in the end we are left with an imperfect democratic state, Kurdish autonomy, and Saddam gone. Should we have gone to war? I still think the answer is no. But this pessimistic attitude does not strike me as reality based.

      3. Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” is one of my favorite recent books, no doubt in part because it tells me what I want to believe. Pinker did not as far as I recall attribute the decline in violence to forces that flow from the barrel of a gun, which is how we tried to impose freedom on Iraq.

        Also, I do not eschew ideas based on the disreputable uses to which they may be put. Idea A has been used in the past to justify nefarious causes B, C, and D; therefore idea A is false. I cannot remember the name of the fallacy offhand. Hell, I do not even seek to discredit the hope of moral harmony because it has been used to justify utopian interventionism at the expense of many. The harmony of all good things remains a great hope for me.

        That said, the flaws of human nature have much more to do with the non-arrival of Utopia than do the operations of evil influences which can be removed by force. Anti-utopianism, wisely applied, is the foundation of many a humane policy in the world.

  18. [[He had perfected the great rhetorical trick of seeming utterly unrhetorical; he simply recited a catalogue of facts, with citations, to show that the war was a terrible idea.

    Of course, the key “fact” was that the NLF was an entirely indigenous movement of the South Vietnamese, that the Southerners hated the Northeners, and that, therefore, the certain result of American withdrawal would be the establishment of an independent South Vietnam.]]

    You make a good analysis about Chomsky’s main rhetorical device – the appearance of being a straightforward reporter just delivering facts. However the second sentence is a total red-herring. The moral and political catastrophe of that war is in no way lessened by the post-war unification. The criminal and dishonest behavior of the US government that Chomsky documented and rather bravely opposed at some risk to himself can’t be papered over so easily.

    1. I think your comment here touches an important point: the role of counter-factuals in political history. It is impossible to know what would have happened apart from our intervention. A more contemporary case is Iraq: what would an uprising like the one in Syria have looked like in Iraq if Saddam was still around. Would less civilians really have died?

    2. The point is not that the war was a good idea. It wasn’t. That’s the reason I helped organize that protest, and then (alas!) the Mobe.

      The point is that Chomsky, in opposition to that war, said things that he knew not to be true. Therefore, when he says things now, I do not assume they are true until I have independent confirmation.

      1. You manage to shift goalposts and make another unsupported accusation at the same time. Your initial complaint was that “Of course, the key “fact” was that the NLF was an entirely indigenous movement of the South Vietnamese”. I pointed out that such a claim was not at all “key” to a critique of the war or Chomsky’s critique of the war. So you dropped that and now assert that Chomsky knew the (not key) claim to be not true which is something you have no possible way of knowing even if the claim was not true.

        As you know, one of the central claims of the proponents of the war was that the NLF was simply a front organization for an “invasion” from the North – something that US military and intelligence knew very well to be untrue. Chomsky’s refutation of that false claim may have been overstated, his prediction of what would happen at the end of the war if the US withdrew in 1968 might have been incorrect – although you don’t know that either – but you have provided absolutely zero evidence of the deliberate lie you now allege.

        1. I cannot hep but feel that there is a hidden agenda here. The angry vituperation does not seem justified by what is being discussed. If you accuse someone of lying,you assert that they knew full we’ll that what they were stating was totally false. I see no evidence of this in your snark. Why don’t you tell us what is behind all of this? One suspects that Israel is the subtext.

  19. Good job Kleiman. Having now read the article you criticize, and the comments to your piece, I must say my respect for Greenwald and Chomsky has only increased.

  20. I just want to make one more point here. A big problem with Chomsky, as I see it, is that he refused to see the prisoner’s dilemma of international politics clearly enough. So why he is great at pointing out US hypocrisy (our support for dictators is legion, our rhetoric for freedom is as well) he refuses to consider that some of the interventions we led over the years of the cold war and even till the present may have been better than the alternatives. One problem here is that the counter-factual did NOT in fact occur, so it’s difficult to say who is right. Consider, however, some ideas: the Sandinistas, who Reagan overthrew with the help of the contras, have been rehabilitated in the presidency of Ortega, and proceeded to quash civil liberties almost as badly as Somoza. Another: Chomsky is resolutely against support for the Syrian revolution, but Russia is actively playing imperialist to a brutal dictatorship. The fact of the matter is that Roosevelt may have been right, sometimes it’s better to have OUR son of a bitch than somebody elses, and not just for matters of the national interest, but for the inhabitants of other countries as well.

  21. I was not, and am not, a supporter of the war in Vietnam or Brzezinski’s version of realist foreign policy. I think Chomsky was right about East Timor. I would respect him if I thought his opposition was to genocide rather than to American power. Note that Chomsky criticized the Khmer Rouge for the same reason Zbig supported them: because they were fighting Vietnam.

    Greenwald was engaging in media criticism: “Why does Chomsky get dismissed?” I was media-criticizing him right back, by pointing out that his account leaves out one of the best reasons to dismiss Chomsky: as illustrated by his record on Cambodia, he’s not a truth-teller, and his moral outrage is highly selective.

    1. Perhaps it would have been better to emulate the post cited by Anonymous, above, instead of imitating David Horowitz, and bolstering Greenwald’s argument.

      “He had perfected the great rhetorical trick of seeming utterly unrhetorical; he simply recited a catalogue of facts, with citations, to show that the war was a terrible idea”, is a good analysis of how he persuades. When critics engage in baseless ad hominem responses, it doesn’t harm his credibility, it enhances it, since apparently the critics have no stronger case to make.

      The article, in contrast, is a good demonstration of how to do it right.

    2. I would respect him if I thought his opposition was to genocide rather than to American power.

      So. Taking a dim view of American power is ipso facto immoral? Further, you are sneaking in the assertion that Chomsky does not, in a moral sense, oppose genocide…which is frankly absurd.

  22. Okay, I must admit that, even though I’ve read a lot of Chomsky over the years, I have not read his 60s and 70s stuff. But I think I can reasonably make this assertion: in his writings that I have read, spanning from the 80s to now, I have NEVER read anything that even REMOTELY comes close to a defense of the Khmer Rouge. I’ve read him comparing how the US corporate media tend to trump up the atrocities of official enemies while downplaying the atrocities of official allies, but when he writes about Cambodia, in my experience, it is always with the understanding that genocide is a heinous crime against humanity. Indeed, it would have been a startling turnabout for him to have mounted a defense of the KR in that above mentioned Nation essay, and then only a few years later in Manufacturing Consent to unequivocally CONDEMN the KR. So I’m very skeptical. Especially because the vast majority of Chomsky-bashing along these lines I’ve read over the years usually turns out to so much willful ignorance of what he’s actually written. So I’m going to click on that link and see what I can see. I’ll be surprised if there’s any “there” there.

  23. Chomsky’s estimates of both American-inflicted and Khmer Rouge-inflicted casualties were lower than most estimates. Those estimates changed, and not always in an evidence-based way. Chomsky and Herman based their opinions mostly on Vickery’s work.

    Now, who DID support the Khmer Rouge, again, you keyboard commandos? Ronald Reagan, for one. In fact even Nixon emeritus agreed the Khmer Rouge should be part of the governing coalition in Cambodia. The reason, if the word reason should be a part of such a bold plan, was that the Vietnamese were being a “regional Sparta” and Hun Sen was merely their puppet. Never mind that he was a relief to most of the population. Or that Cambodia had been as belligerent and hostile as North Korea ever was, insisting on un-negotiated control of all the disputed territory between Vietnam and Cambodia which had been a point of contention since the French lost control of Indochina during the war. On that issue – support for a Pol Pot-dominated coalition – Maoists and Reaganites were in complete agreement, and the US sent aid to a coalition dominated by Pol Pot, and ran cover for them in the UN while Red China invaded Vietnam (and were tossed out, which people like me applauded and people like you – God knows – probably weren’t even aware of). You’re welcome.

  24. I think you missed the whole point of the Greenwald article. It was not an article on Chomsky but on the media obsession with discrediting and discounting critics of establishment with personal and stylistic attacks. I am sure Greenwald will be the first to acknowledge that if anyone wants to challenge Chomsky on facts and his mispronouncements (or outright lies, if that would please you), then they are welcome to do so. In fact, I’d very much like that for I have not heard of the Holocaust denial that you refer to. Greenwald doesn’t defend Chomsky by white-washing a part of his history and neither does he have any need to. He simply and quite eloquently points out that Chomsky and his political views are somehow deemed illegitimate or fringe by the mainstream media. And that these pronouncements do not come with a “He denied the holocaust and therefore his views are ridiculous” but with a “He is an alpha-male with a monotone voice and the Nation once called him a self-hating Jew and so his views are ridiculous”

    1. You probably read too fast:

      The quote was…..”……with Chomsky’s holocaust-denial ABOUT CAMBODIA.”

  25. I note only that I have a very high opinion of you and a very high opinion of Glenn Greenwald and I don’t know why you two can’t just get along.

    OK I must add that I have a very low opinion of Chomsky and I am very reluctant to read the linked Greenwald article, because I don’t want to know why you two can’t just get along.

  26. There was no Khmer Rouge denial. I am denying it.
    Chomsky was writing media criticism, the treatment of Ponchaud’s book in our media. This is tomfoolery on your part.

  27. When I first stumbled on The Reality-Based Community, I thought “Great! A place where intellectuals talk about policy and politics!” Reading through this long thread has been very depressing for someone coming here for the refreshing intellectual tone. This is a dank swamp. Any discussion that seeks to address the question of whether Noam Chomsky’s support for the Khmer Rouge disqualifies him on other subjects without ever once setting forth a piece of unambiguous evidence, or really even ambiguous evidence, that Chomsky ever supported the Khmer Rouge, occupies a similar intellectual terrain as discussions of whether Barack Obama’s Muslim faith or his Kenyan nationality call his presidency into question. Come on, please.

    1. Herschel,

      They do write some good stuff here a good deal of the time, but hippie punching at this place is a feature, not a bug, and naturally we cannot raise professor Kleiman’s initial lukewarm support for the invasion of Iraq to vilify his utter lack of morals, now can we? That would be unseemly.

      1. Actually, having now just read the Glenn Greenwald piece that so exercises Mark Kleiman, I find the criticism of Greenwald as intellectually barren and depressing as the criticism of Chomsky, and perhaps as reckless and mildly unhinged as the accusations against Chomsky that have been percolating for the last half century with never an actual fact to hang their hat upon. Kleiman finds it shocking that anyone could write twenty-six paragraphs (twenty-six! imagine!) about Chomsky without engaging Kleiman’s Cambodia hobby-horse. That is to say, Greenwald is taken to task for writing his article about Chomsky and not Kleiman’s article. I didn’t come here in search of bogeymen, but that’s what this particular discussion seems to be all about.

  28. I did not realize that Mark shares with Glenn a uncomfortable legacy of support for Bush’s destruction of Iraq. It’s odd how people who have such a history can still generate such levels of disdain for the moral limit of others.

    1. I’ve come to believe that the best model for the Iraq War was a lynching: ‘those sandn*ggers killed some white folk, so we gotta kill some of them, to teach them a lesson’. And lynch mobs are not picky about victims. And afterwards, many participants will prefer a polite silence.

      Note that Thomas Friedman almost openly admitted it, in his famous scene about ‘popping the terrorist bubble’, where he said that it didn’t matter which country.

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