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The article below is an archived draft. The current version of this article is at http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/chomsky.htm. Some links within this article may no longer be functional. This draft was last modified in April, 2004.


 

Averaging Wrong Answers:
Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy

by Bruce Sharp

This article is divided into eight sections:

I. Genocide and So On
II. The Right Villains
III. The Wrong Villains
IV. Eyes Wide Shut
V. Rewriting the History of Dissent
VI. You Are Either With Me...
VII. The Ministry of Counter-Propaganda
VIII. Links, Acknowledgements and End Notes

Note: This is a long article, and it may take a few moments to load.

 

I. Genocide and So On

"I mean the great act of genocide in the modern period is Pol Pot, 1975 through 1978 - that atrocity - I think it would be hard to find any example of a comparable outrage and outpouring of fury and so on and so forth." -- Noam Chomsky, in the documentary "Manufacturing Consent," 1993.(1)

How did a man who describes the Khmer Rouge regime as "the great act of genocide of the modern period" come to be vilified as a vocal supporter of Pol Pot?

In a long, illustrious career, Chomsky has amassed a formidable array of books, articles, and speeches. He has been a tireless advocate for the underdog, and has demonstrated admirable commitment to his principles.

The underdogs, however, are not always the good guys, a fact clearly illustrated by the Khmer Rouge. The question of whether or not Noam Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge is not as clear as either his critics or his defenders would like to pretend. His critics frequently extract a handful of quotes from "Distortions at Fourth Hand" or After the Cataclysm and suggest that Chomsky was an enthusiastic advocate for the Cambodian communists. His defenders, meanwhile, limit their collections of quotes to Chomsky's disclaimers and qualifiers, conveniently ignoring the overall theme of his articles. Gathering all of Chomsky's fig leaves into a single pile, they exclaim: My, what a lot of greenery.

There is something vaguely unsettling in Chomsky's words, even as he acknowledges the horrible toll of the Cambodian communists: There was an atrocity, people were outraged, so on and so forth, blah blah blah. The reaction is Chomsky's primary concern; genocide itself is a lesser point.

If Chomsky was initially skeptical of the reports of Khmer Rouge atrocities, he was certainly not alone. Given that he now acknowledges the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, is it fair to continue to criticize him?

A peculiar irony is at the heart of this controversy: Noam Chomsky, the man who has spent years analyzing propaganda, is himself a propagandist. Whatever one thinks of Chomsky in general, whatever one thinks of his theories of media manipulation and the mechanisms of state power, Chomsky's work with regard to Cambodia has been marred by omissions, dubious statistics, and, in some cases, outright misrepresentations. On top of this, Chomsky continues to deny that he was wrong about Cambodia. He responds to criticisms by misrepresenting his own positions, misrepresenting his critics' positions, and describing his detractors as morally lower than "neo-Nazis and neo-Stalinists."(2) Consequently, his refusal to reconsider his words has led to continued misinterpretations of what really happened in Cambodia. Misconceptions, it seems, have a very long life.

 

II. The Right Villains

Any detailed examination of Chomksy's comments on Cambodia should begin with his comments in the wake of Lon Nol and Sirik Matak's 1970 coup, which overthrew Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and brought to power a staunchly pro-American regime. In Cambodia, prior to the coup, the war in neighboring Vietnam had been held largely in check. Fighting was limited mainly to the border areas, where large numbers of Vietnamese communists had set up sanctuaries inside Cambodian territory. Sihanouk promptly allied himself with the rebels, and in June, 1970, Chomsky wrote a long article in the New York Review of Books, outlining the dire consequences of American involvement in Cambodia. Despite some misleading remarks, it is, on the balance, a very astute analysis. Chomsky accurately predicted the repercussions of Sihanouk's alliance with the rebels:

"Speculating a year ago about the prospects of the Cambodian rebels for success, Michael Leifer wrote that these prospects 'will depend (discounting external factors) not only on the exploitation of genuine grievances but also on an ability to identify with the nationalist cause for which Prince Sihanouk has been the most ardent and passionate advocate. This would seem unlikely.' Before March 18, this was a reasonable assessment. Now, however, Sihanouk, the 'most ardent and passionate advocate' of the national cause, the person whom one American expert described as being 'a significant expression of the Cambodian people's will,' has identified himself with the rebels. It is doubtful that the right-wing Lon Nol government, with its narrow urban base, can counter this popular force or win it over."(3)

His remarks on the U.S. invasion, too, were fairly accurate:

"It is a virtual certainty that great victories will be claimed in the Cambodian invasion, and that the military will release reports of arms caches and rice destroyed, military bases demolished, and much killing of 'North Vietnamese,' i.e., people who find themselves in the way of an American tank or in an area bombed or strafed. So many reputations and careers are at stake that glorious victories are guaranteed.

"Furthermore, some of these reports may even be correct. On probabilistic grounds alone, one would expect that American military intelligence can't always be wrong about everything. The headquarters of the Vietnamese resistance forces and the bases that they use for R-and-R must be somewhere, and they may well be found and destroyed during the American-Saigon sweep. Whether the invading troops will withdraw remains to be seen. That the countryside will be devastated and its population removed or destroyed is reasonably certain. Very probably, if these territories are abandoned by the invading forces, some, at least, will be joined to the area on the South Vietnamese side of the border as an extended free fire zone."(4)

Chomsky's article underscores an important point: With the coup, the delicate balance that had kept Cambodia out of a wider war collapsed. U.S. and South Vietnamese forces poured across the border, and the Vietnamese communists suddenly retreated deeper into Cambodia, mauling Lon Nol's forces along the way. War soon enveloped the entire country. These events confirmed Chomsky's 1970 predictions.

The ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge had dire consequences for the Cambodian people. This, however, was not a matter of critical importance for Chomsky. His writings follow a consistent pattern: Chomsky excels at illuminating crimes... but only the crimes of the right villains.

The first evidence of this is apparent in December 1972, in Chomksy's introduction for Cambodia in the Southeast Asia War by Malcolm Caldwell and Lek Tan. In the introduction, Chomsky writes, quite rightly, "The misery and destruction for which Nixon and Kissinger bear direct responsibility are crimes that can never be forgotten." He then continues:

"By the impulse it has given to the revolutionary forces, this vicious attack may have also prepared the ground, as some observers believe, not only for national liberation but also for a new era of economic development and social justice."(5)

It is a rather drastic jump to move from remembering the crimes of Nixon and Kissinger, to suggesting that the Khmer Rouge would be "liberators" who would usher in "economic development and social justice." By 1972, there was already disturbing evidence of the brutality of the Cambodian communists, and only a naive romantic would have seen them as just and noble freedom fighters. Caldwell, however, was a devout Marxist, and not surprisingly his book makes no mention of the reports of Khmer Rouge brutality.

This, in essence, was a sign of things to come. Unlike the crimes of the West, the crimes of the Khmer Rouge were not to be illuminated. They were to be obfuscated.

 

III. The Wrong Villains

Early reports of Khmer Rouge brutality could, to some extent, be attributed to the natural consequences of warfare. Once the Khmer Rouge seized power, however, such rationalizations were no longer possible. Draconian measures were instituted immediately. Within hours of their victory, they ordered the complete evacuation of Phnom Penh, and all other cities as well. The Khmer Rouge flouted traditions of diplomatic immunity, political asylum, and extraterritoriality. High-ranking officials of the former regime were executed. Cambodians who had taken refuge in the French Embassy were forced out. Members of the press, for all practical purposes captives within the Embassy, witnessed macabre scenes of horror as the entire city of Phnom Penh, swollen with refugees, was evacuated. Even hospitals were emptied; witnesses saw patients pushed through the streets on hospital beds. An unprecedented atrocity had begun.

It is important to understand the nature of Khmer Rouge Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge regime was, without question, one of the most disastrous social experiments of the last century. One could make a persuasive case that it was in fact the single worst government in the modern era, combining mind-numbing brutality with astonishing incompetence. History was to begin anew: the Khmer Rouge declared that henceforth Cambodia was to be known as Democratic Kampuchea, and the beginning of their reign was "Year Zero." Determined to convert Cambodia into an agrarian communist state, the Khmer Rouge upended every institution in Khmer society, exterminating millions in a frenzy of executions and criminal neglect for the welfare of its citizens. Enemies, both real and imagined, were executed. Families were split apart as husbands and wives, brothers and sisters were sent to communal work groups in the countryside. Currency was abolished. Buddhism, the religion of roughly 95% of the population, was for all practical purposes banned. Angkar, "The Organization," assumed control over virtually all aspects of its subjects' lives.(6) (For an overview of Cambodia's history, see The Banyan Tree.)

Much of this was documented in a book by Francois Ponchaud, Cambodge Annee Zero ("Cambodia Year Zero"). Published in France in 1977, and later translated into English, Ponchaud's book was discussed in several major newspapers, including the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Review of Books.

It was at this point that Chomsky began to protest the supposed "bias" of the media's coverage of Cambodia. One of the earliest expressions of this was in an article Chomsky co-wrote, with Edward Herman, for The Nation, entitled "Distortions at Fourth Hand." (7)

Describing the media coverage of Southeast Asia as a "farce," Chomsky and Herman contrasted the grim reports on Vietnam by New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield with the with the much more favorable comments of the members of a handful of non-governmental groups. This, Chomsky and Herman asserted, was evidence of a campaign of disinformation:

"The drab view of contemporary Vietnam provided by Butterfield and the establishment press helps to sustain the desired rewriting of history, asserting as it does the sad results of Communist success and American failure. Well suited for these aims are tales of Communist atrocities, which not only prove the evils of communism but undermine the credibility of those who opposed the war and might interfere with future crusades for freedom."(8)

Seeking to bolster their point, Chomsky and Herman examined three books on Cambodia: Murder of a Gentle Land, by John Barron and Anthony Paul, Ponchaud's Cambodge Annee Zero, and Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, by George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter. Chomsky and Herman write:

"The response to the three books under review nicely illustrates this selection process. Hildebrand and Porter present a carefully documented study of the destructive American impact on Cambodia and the success of the Cambodian revolutionaries in overcoming it, giving a very favorable picture of their programs and policies, based on a wide range of sources. Published last year, and well received by the journal of the Asia Society (Asia, March-April 1977), it has not been reviewed in the Times, New York Review or any mass-media publication, nor used as the basis for editorial comment, with one exception. The Wall Street Journal acknowledged its existence in an editorial entitled 'Cambodia Good Guys' (November 22, 1976), which dismissed contemptuously the very idea that the Khmer Rouge could play a constructive role, as well as the notion that the United States had a major hand in the destruction, death and turmoil of wartime and postwar Cambodia."(9)

Hildebrand and Porter's book deserves examination. One simple fact provides a clue to the authors' sympathies: The book does not contain even a single sentence critical of the Khmer Rouge. Chomsky and Herman make no note of this: Just as Hildebrand and Porter had nothing negative to say about the Khmer Rouge, Chomsky and Herman had nothing negative to say about Hildebrand and Porter.

At only 124 pages, Starvation and Revolution is a slim volume. Describing the reports of atrocities in Cambodia as "systematic process of mythmaking,"(10) Hildebrand and Porter present a glowing depiction of the Khmer Rouge. The authors assert that the charges of starvation in Cambodia are unfounded: "It is the officially inspired propaganda of starvation for which no proof has been produced... Thus the starvation myth has come full circle to haunt its authors."(11) The Khmer Rouge, according to Hildebrand and Porter, were rebuilding the country quite effectively, implementing a "coherent, well-developed plan for developing the economy."(12)

A few of the book's omissions should be noted. The book makes no mention of public executions. It makes no mention of the forcible separation of children from their families, no mention of the separation of husbands and wives, no mention of the repression of ethnic minorities, no mention of restrictions on travel, or the abolition of the mail system. Put simply, the book bears no earthly resemblance to the reality of communist Cambodia.

Hildebrand and Porter's claims regarding the evacuation of Phnom Penh are particularly galling:

"The evacuation of Phnom Penh undoubtedly saved the lives of many thousands of Cambodians... what was portrayed as a destructive, backward-looking policy motivated by doctrinaire hatred was actually a rationally conceived strategy for dealing with the urgent problems that faced postwar Cambodia."(13)

The remark is surely one of the most sordid fabrications within Porter and Hildebrand's work. There are a number of points which need to be made. First, all major towns and cities were evacuated, not just Phnom Penh. And this was not a new policy: As Ponchaud pointed out in Cambodia: Year Zero, "ever since 1972 the guerrilla fighters had been sending all the inhabitants of the villages and towns they occupied into the forest to live, often burning their homes so that they would have nothing to come back to."(14) Clearly, if the policy had been in place since 1972, it had nothing to do with a shortage of food inside Phnom Penh in 1975. Although most sources suggest that there was enough food in the capital for only about a week, Ponchaud, who was there, believes it was more likely that there was enough for a month. Several voluntary agencies and foreign countries offered aid, but the Khmer Rouge refused. This refusal suggests that the Khmer Rouge believed that starvation was less important than maintaining the purity and self-sufficiency of their revolution.

Whatever the reason for the exodus, how can its brutal nature be justified? Ben Kiernan, arguably the West's foremost authority on the Khmer Rouge, estimates that 20,000 people died in the evacuation of Phnom Penh.(15) How could evacuating hospitals possibly have saved lives? To quote Ponchaud's eyewitness account: "I shall never forget one cripple who had neither hands nor feet, writhing along the ground like a severed worm, or a weeping father carrying his ten-year old daughter wrapped in a sheet tied around his neck like a sling, or the man with his foot dangling at the end of a leg to which it was attached by nothing but skin."(16)

It is difficult to reconcile these words with descriptions of "a rationally conceived strategy."

Similarly, Hildebrand and Porter do not discuss the final siege of Phnom Penh, when the Khmer Rouge rained rockets and artillery down on the city every day. One would think that a description of the plight of civilians in the midst of a civil war might mention that they were being shelled on a daily basis.

By 1978, even Gareth Porter seemed to want to distance himself from the book. Interviewed by Ed Bradley for the CBS documentary "What Happened to Cambodia," Porter's eyes dart back and forth when Bradley questions him about the Khmer Rouge regime. He casts his eyes down and stutters slightly. "My... my only plea is for some degree of balance in assessing the human suffering that undoubtedly still exists in Cambodia."(17)

It is frustrating that Chomsky and Herman do not note the obvious omissions in Hildebrand and Porter's book. Equally frustrating is their claim that the book is "based on a wide range of sources."(18)

This is arguably true with regard to the opening chapter on conditions in Phnom Penh. Ironically, however, the sources for this chapter are primarily the very media outlets which Chomsky and Herman claim ignored the horrible effects of the war. The first chapter includes citations from the Washington Post, the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. The presence of these sources demonstrates that the media coverage -- which was, according to Chomsky and Herman, monolithic in its condemnation of the Khmer Rouge, and negligent in its coverage of the horrors of the Lon Nol period -- was neither as monolithic nor as negligent as Chomsky and Herman would like us to believe. The claim that the media ignored the role of the US in the Cambodian war is unfounded. Consider a few of the events that occurred when the invasion and bombing were taking place: The protests at Kent State and Jackson State. The Cooper-Church amendment, restricting the role of U.S. troops in Cambodia. The Congressional refusal to fund further bombing. These pivotal events, driven by public outcry, occurred when Americans were supposedly in the dark about the U.S. role in Cambodia.

But what about the sections of the book dealing specifically with the Khmer Rouge? The primary sources for these chapters: The Khmer Rouge. The book's last fifty footnotes, from the chapter on "Cambodia's Agricultural Revolution," provide an excellent case in point. Out of these 50 citations, there are 43 that pertain to the Khmer Rouge regime. Of these, 33 can be traced directly to the Khmer Rouge sources. Six more come from Hsinhua, the official news agency of Communist China, i.e., the Khmer Rouge's wealthiest patron. Two come from an unnamed source, described only as "a Cambodian economist." And the remaining two references? Both come from Le Monde: one is a dubious estimate of future rice production, and the other simply notes that, in the future, large rice paddies would be subdivided, "giving the country the appearance of an enormous checkerboard."(19)

The diversity of Hildebrand and Porter's sources, however, is a relatively unimportant point. By the time this book was written, the Khmer Rouge were already directly responsible for - at the very least - a hundred thousand deaths, and quite probably far more.(20) But let's accept for a moment the dubious claim that the nature of the Khmer Rouge was still unclear at the time of the book's publication. Wouldn't an unbiased account have described the situation as "unclear"? That is not what Hildebrand and Porter do. On the contrary, everything is clear to them: if the Khmer Rouge say that it is so, then it is so.

Bearing this in mind, let's examine Chomsky and Herman's reaction to the other two books, both of which described Khmer Rouge atrocities in detail.

With regard to Anthony Paul and John Barron's book Murder of a Gentle Land, Chomsky and Herman are completely dismissive, calling it a "third-rate propaganda tract."(21) They discount Barron and Paul's sources as unreliable, implying that connections to the US government, or the Thai government, or the Malaysian government make them inherently unreliable. (And yet the Khmer Rouge connections of Hildebrand and Porter's sources did not strike them as inappropriate.) With vintage Chomsky disdain, they attempt to discredit the book with the snide remark that Barron and Paul "claim" to have analyzed refugee reports. "Their scholarship," Chomsky and Herman write, "collapses under the barest scrutiny."(22)

Barron and Paul are justly criticized for sloppy and misleading citations of other press accounts. But they are also criticized for ignoring more benign accounts of the Khmer Rouge regime:

"They do not mention the Swedish journalist, Olle Tolgraven, or Richard Boyle of Pacific News Service, the last newsman to leave Cambodia, who denied the existence of wholesale executions; nor do they cite the testimony of Father Jacques Engelmann, a priest with nearly two decades of experience in Cambodia, who was evacuated at the same time and reported that evacuated priests 'were not witness to any cruelties' and that there were deaths, but 'not thousands, as certain newspapers have written' (cited by Hildebrand and Porter)."(23)

The validity of this criticism, however, rests on whether or not Barron and Paul's refugee testimony was accurate. If we wish to dispute the stories told by the refugees, the testimony of "witnesses" who did not see the events described is irrelevant. The accuracy of the refugee accounts, then, is of utmost importance when evaluating the merit of Barron and Paul's book. We will return to the question of the refugees' accuracy later.

Ponchaud fares slightly better than Barron and Paul. Chomsky's supporters often point out that he described Ponchaud's book as "serious and worth reading". They rarely mention his other comments about the book, such as the claim that the book "lacks the documentation provided in Hildebrand and Porter and its veracity is therefore difficult to assess," and that Ponchaud "plays fast and loose with quotes and with numbers." Chomsky and Herman asserted that the book had "an anti-Communist bias"and was "careless, sometimes in rather significant ways." They claimed that Ponchaud's refugee testimonies are "at best second-hand with many of the refugees reporting what they claim to have heard from others." And yet in spite of its supposed "anti-Communist bias," Chomsky and Herman claimed that Ponchaud's book "also gives a rather positive account of Khmer Rouge programs of social and economic development, while deploring much brutal practice in working for egalitarian goals and national independence."(24)

The grounds for the claim that Ponchaud "plays fast and loose with numbers" are absurdly trivial. According to Chomsky and Herman,

"Ponchaud cites a Cambodian report that 200,000 people were killed in American bombings from March 7 to August 15, 1973. No source is offered, but suspicions are aroused by the fact that Phnom Penh radio announced on May 9, 1975 that there were 200,000 casualties of the American bombing in 1973, including 'killed, wounded, and crippled for life' (Hildebrand and Porter). Ponchaud cites 'Cambodian authorities' who give the figures 800,000 killed and 240,000 wounded before liberation. The figures are implausible. By the usual rule of thumb, wounded amount to about three times killed; quite possibly he has the figures reversed."(25)

Apparently, Chomsky and Herman are suggesting that, in the first instance, Ponchaud cited a figure for all casualties as though it were an estimate of those killed. If this is so, then Ponchaud is overstating the number of victims of American actions... not Khmer Rouge actions. This is hardly support for Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model. In the second instance, it is Chomsky and Herman who have it wrong: The number of 240,000 is not given as the number of wounded. It is cited as the Khmer Rouge's own estimate of the number of those disabled as a result of the war ("invalides de guerre").(26)

The supposed "fast and loose" use of quotes is also inconsequential. Chomsky and Herman claim that two similar quotes from different sources are misrepresentations of the same quote: one is described as an unattributed Khmer Rouge slogan that "one or two million young people will be enough to build the new Cambodia" and the other is attributed to a Khmer Rouge military commander: "To rebuild the new Cambodia, a million people are enough." But the meaning of the quotes is not significantly different, and there is nothing to suggest that both quotes aren't perfectly accurate: It is not at all unlikely a Khmer Rouge military commander would indeed rephrase that slogan as quoted by Ponchaud.

The claim that Ponchaud gives "a rather positive account" of Khmer Rouge social and economic programs is baffling. Reading Ponchaud's book, it is difficult to determine exactly what Ponchaud said that could be construed as "rather positive." Certainly the Khmer Rouge were disciplined, and relatively free of corruption in comparison to other regional governments, but it is difficult to see these traits as "positive" when they are in the employ of a government which regards genocide as a viable tool for restructuring society. Chomsky and Herman, however, insist that there were many sources presenting a more favorable view of the Khmer Rouge than that presented by Barron and Paul and Ponchaud. These sources, they argued,

"...have not been brought to the attention of the American reading public. Space limitations preclude a comprehensive review, but such journals as the Far Eastern Economic Review, the London Economist, the Melbourne Journal of Politics, and others elsewhere, have provided analyses by highly qualified specialists who have studied the full range of evidence available, and who concluded that executions have numbered at most in the thousands; that these were localized in areas of limited Khmer Rouge influence and unusual peasant discontent, where brutal revenge killings were aggravated by the threat of starvation resulting from the American destruction and killing. These reports also emphasize both the extraordinary brutality on both sides during the civil war (provoked by the American attack) and repeated discoveries that massacre reports were false. They also testify to the extreme unreliability of refugee reports, and the need to treat them with great caution, a fact that we and others have discussed elsewhere (cf. Chomsky: At War with Asia, on the problems of interpreting reports of refugees from American bombing in Laos)."(27)

Chomsky's defenders suggest that Chomsky and Herman were not attempting to cast doubt on the refugee accounts, but were merely stressing the need evaluate their testimony objectively. Chomsky's earlier insistence on evaluating refugee testimony with "great caution," however, came in the context of another case where the refugees were telling him what he did not want to hear: that they hated the Pathet Lao. It would be far easier to accept Chomsky's objectivity if he voiced the same concerns in relying on the reports of refugees fleeing U.S.-sponsored regimes, such as Salvadorans or Guatemalans.

Hildebrand and Porter's refusal to consider refugee testimonies ensured that their book would provide a markedly different assessment than that of Barron and Paul or Ponchaud. Which assessment was correct? Of the three books under review, Chomsky and Herman claimed that the book based largely on reports from Khmer Rouge and communist sources, a book which presented "a very favorable picture" of the Khmer Rouge regime, was "a carefully documented study." The other two books relied heavily on those troublesome refugee reports, which are by nature characterized by "extreme unreliability." Those books were "third-rate propaganda," or marred by "an anti-Communist bias;" they were "careless," and "fast and loose" with facts. Wary that their sophistry might come back to haunt them, however, Chomsky and Herman concluded their review with a disclaimer:

"We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments; rather, we again want to emphasize some crucial points. What filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered."(28)

In later years, many of Chomsky's supporters have argued that the point of his comments on Cambodia was to contrast the media response to events in Cambodia with what were (according to Chomsky) atrocities of similar scale in other countries, such as East Timor. This, however, is not the argument advanced by Chomsky and Herman in 1977; there is no mention of East Timor, or any other comparable country, in "Distortions." The premise of the article is straightforward: the media was distorting the truth.

History has provided a very different judgment. Ponchaud's book has withstood the test of time. The testimony of the refugees, and Ponchaud's analysis of Khmer Rouge policy, were entirely accurate. Even Barron and Paul's flawed, right-wing account depicts Khmer Rouge Cambodia far more accurately than did Hildebrand and Porter. Barron and Paul presented Khmer Rouge Cambodia as a land of slavery, fear, violence, and tyranny. That is accurate.

Nonetheless, Chomsky's quest to reveal the allegedly flawed coverage of Cambodia continued. Chomsky raised some of his objections in personal correspondence with Ponchaud, and when Cambodge Annee Zero was translated into English, in 1977, Ponchaud alluded to Chomsky's criticisms. In an "Author's Note" at the beginning of the American edition, commenting on Chomsky's reaction to Jean Lacouture's review of the book, he writes:

"Mr. Chomsky was of the opinion that Jean Lacouture had substantially distorted the evidence I had offered, and, considering my book to be 'serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited,' he wrote me a personal letter on October 19, 1977, in which he drew my attention to the way it was being misused by antirevolutionary propagandists. He has made it my duty to 'stem the flood of lies' about Cambodia -- particularly, according to him, those propagated by Anthony Paul and John Barron in 'Murder of a Gentle Land.'"(29)

Chomsky's words, quoted by Ponchaud, seem at odds with his publicly stated position: One wonders why a man who claims that he does not know the truth would describe the reports of atrocities as a "flood of lies."

Still, while professing to be uncertain about the nature of the Khmer Rouge, Chomsky and Herman deemed Cambodia a suitable case study for demonstrating the propaganda mechanisms of the free press. They outlined their position in a book, After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology. The book went to press in 1979, shortly after the Khmer Rouge regime had collapsed under the onslaught of a Vietnamese invasion.

With the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the "bamboo curtain" of secrecy surrounding Cambodia was thrown open. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, freed at last from one of the most totalitarian regimes in history, suddenly poured across the border into Thailand. They brought with them irrefutable proof of the misery of the previous three years. The Vietnamese invasion not only put an end to Pol Pot's regime: it also put an end to attempts to deny the horrors wrought by Cambodia's Communists.

Or, more accurately, it put an end to most attempts. In After the Cataclysm, Chomsky and Herman advanced a lengthier argument of the same charges they had made in The Nation two years earlier.

 

IV. Eyes Wide Shut

After the Cataclysm is, according to Chomsky and Herman, concerned primarily with "U.S. global policy and propaganda, and the filtering and distorting effect of Western ideology."(30) Consequently, many of Chomsky's supporters claim that it is unfair to criticize the book on the basis of the impressions it might convey about Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia. The book includes a disclaimer to that effect: "[W]e have not developed or expressed our views here on the nature of the Indochinese regimes."(31)

This disclaimer, however, comes after nearly 300 pages of arguments that seem to be expressing a very clear set of views. This is surely inevitable: if one is to contend that a particular viewpoint is "filtered" or "distorted," one must have some opinion of what constitutes an unfiltered or undistorted view.

Near the beginning of the chapter on Cambodia, Chomsky and Herman note that "it is surely worthwhile, if one is going to discuss Cambodia at all, to try to comprehend what has in fact taken place there, which is quite impossible if critical standards are abandoned and 'facts' are contrived even out of honest anger or distress."(32) Given that Chomsky and Herman spend the next 150 pages discussing Cambodia, one can assume that the authors are indeed trying to comprehend what had taken place under the Khmer Rouge. Their claim -- that the media was distorting the truth about the Khmer Rouge -- necessarily implies that the image painted by the media was inaccurate.

Falsehoods and misrepresentation abound, according to Chomsky and Herman, and "evidence about Cambodia has a way of crumbling when one begins to look at it closely, a fact that should raise some questions about the examples that have not been investigated because of their lesser prominence in the international campaign."(33)

This theme is consistent throughout the book: the widely accepted view of the Khmer Rouge was based on dubious evidence. Chomsky and Herman begin painting their alternative picture in the book's Preface:

"The ferocious U.S. attack on Indochina left the countries [of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia] devastated, facing almost insuperable problems. The agricultural systems of these peasant societies were seriously damaged or destroyed... With the economies in ruins, the foreign aid that kept much of the population alive terminated, and the artificial colonial implantations no longer functioning, it was a condition of survival to turn (or return) the populations to productive work. The victors in Cambodia undertook drastic and often brutal measures to accomplish this task, simply forcing the urban population into the countryside where they were compelled to live the lives of poor peasants, now organized in a decentralized system of communes. At heavy cost, these measures appear to have overcome the dire and destructive consequences of the U.S. war by 1978."(34)

The reference to "brutal measures" suggests that Chomsky and Herman were beginning to back away from the stance in their Nation article, which had implied that Hildebrand and Porter's "very favorable picture" of the Khmer Rouge was more accurate than Barron and Paul's and Ponchaud's negative views. Nonetheless, Chomsky and Herman still seemed unaware -- or unwilling to admit -- that the regime had been an unmitigated disaster. Moreover, they seemed determined to deflect blame away from the Khmer Rouge. Thus, they imply that the Khmer Rouge were forced to implement these "drastic" measures in part because foreign aid had been terminated. They neglect to mention that the foreign aid was terminated by the Khmer Rouge. Francois Ponchaud pointed this out in Year Zero, noting that the Khmer Rouge even refused a transport plane which had been previously loaded with urgently needed medical supplies.(35)

There is similar sophistry in the claim that the urban population was "forced to live the lives of poor peasants." Peasants in years prior to the Khmer Rouge did not suffer the repression imposed upon the evacuees (the "new people") by Angkar. The population was not forced to live the lives of peasants: they were forced to live the lives of slaves.

The claim that the policies implemented by the Khmer Rouge managed to "overcome" the difficulties of the damaged economy is contradicted by the evidence. Khmer Rouge economic policies, if they can even be called that, were brutal, naive, inefficient, and often downright destructive.

In The Quality of Mercy, describing his visit to Cambodia in 1979, William Shawcross noted that there was no way to evaluate the rice production during the Khmer Rouge years:

"Rather astonishingly, rice was being exported again, but the Cambodian people themselves were being deprived of adequate rations throughout much of the country. Afterward, peasants claimed that the vast new fields, dams, and canals that they had been ordered to build rarely worked. Instead they upset the ecological balance of the countryside.

"Once, I was in a boat steaming up a narrow river, just off the Great Lake. I was being taken to see a fishery in one of the richest of the fishing areas. Along with rice, fish is a staple food in Cambodia and the most important source of protein. Long before our old boat came around the bend of the river, an extraordinary smell came wafting out to greet us. The river was jammed with hundreds of thousands of dead fish, packed tight as ice floes. What had happened? I asked. 'Pol Pot' came the reply.

"It turned out that the Khmer Rouge had built a huge dam just upstream from here and the water in this ancient fishing village was now far shallower than it had ever been before. In the heat of the dry-season sun the fish had, quite simply, cooked."(36)

The Cambodian communists' economic plans were, at times, utterly surreal. Scholar David Chandler notes that, in a Democratic Kampuchea report on General Political Tasks of 1976, there are three lines devoted to education, and six devoted to urine. The document states that, regarding human urine, "We collect thirty per cent. That leaves a surplus of 70%."(37). These were indicative of the types of policies that Chomsky and Herman claimed had lifted Cambodia out of the ashes of war.

The Preface of After the Cataclysm sets the tone for the entire book: again and again, Chomsky and Herman apply dubious spin to reality. Commenting on the flow of boat people out of Vietnam, for example, Chomsky and Herman claim that "In a sense, the refugee flow from Vietnam in 1978 is comparable to the forced resettlement of the urban population of Cambodia in 1975."(38) How is an exodus of refugees, voluntarily risking their lives to escape a communist regime, in any way comparable to the deadly forced march into the Cambodian countryside?

Rather than expressing concerns about the fate of the Khmer people, Chomsky and Herman seem primarily concerned with the "abuse" directed at the Khmer Rouge regime:

"While all of the countries of Indochina have been subjected to endless denunciations in the West for their 'loathsome' qualities and unaccountable failure to find humane solutions to their problems, Cambodia was a particular target of abuse. In fact, it became virtually a matter of dogma in the West that the regime was the very incarnation of evil with no redeeming qualities, and that the handful of demonic creatures who had somehow taken over the country were systematically massacring and starving the population."(39)

Whether or not this was a matter of "dogma" hardly seems important in the context of the larger question: was the regime really systematically murdering and starving its people? From time to time, Chomsky and Herman acknowledge that there were, perhaps, some bad things happening in Cambodia, but they quickly shift focus back to their propaganda model. After arguing that, in Vietnam, the treatment of "collaborators" has been "relatively mild,"(40) the authors allowed that the situation in Cambodia was different:

"But in the case of Cambodia, there is no difficulty in documenting major atrocities and oppression, primarily from the reports of refugees, since Cambodia has been almost entirely closed to the West since the war's end... The record of atrocities in Cambodia is substantial and often gruesome, but it has by no means satisfied the requirements of Western propagandists, who must labor to shift the blame for the torment of Indochina to the victims of France and the United States. Consequently, there has been extensive fabrication of evidence, a tide that is not stemmed even by repeated exposure."(41)

Despite the occasional acknowledgements of brutality, the tone of After the Cataclysm is essentially the same as their 1977 article. Commenting in retrospect on that article, Chomsky and Herman reprise their comment that "'we do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments,' all of which, incidentally, assume substantial atrocities and thousands or more killed."(42) The second part of this statement, however, is blatantly false: Porter and Hildebrand did not "assume substantial atrocities," nor "thousands or more killed." On the contrary, recall that Hildebrand and Porter had described the reports of atrocities as "a systematic process of mythmaking."

There is relatively little discussion of Porter and Hildebrand's book, though Chomsky and Herman do mount a brief, oblique defense, noting that it was "well received by the journal of the Asia Society," and that the magazine Choice described the book as "'A rare combination of humanitarianism and scholarly research.'"(43)

John Barron and Anthony Paul, meanwhile, again come in for harsh criticism. Chomsky and Herman claim that "Very little in the Barron-Paul book is subject to possible verification. Therefore an assessment of the credibility of their primary evidence (refugee reports) rests very largely on the accuracy of their brief historical remarks."(44) (p. 245) This is not an appropriate claim in 1979; with the massive buildup of refugees on the Thai border, one could easily have verified the credibility of their refugee testimony simply be talking to other refugees. Rather than speak to refugees, however, Chomsky and Herman simply pretend that the refugees existed only in some other, inaccessible dimension, and even imply that Barron and Paul hadn't spoken with them either: their evidence is "unverifiable documentation: alleged interviews with Cambodians."(45)

In disparaging Barron and Paul, Chomsky and Herman write that their sources are "in toto: specialists at the State and Defense Departments, the National Security Council, and three unnamed foreign embassies in Washington."(46) This remark is worth remembering, for Chomsky would later make a very different claim regarding these same specialists.

Dismissing Barron's claim that Murder of a Gentle Land was based on "'diverse sources,'" Chomsky and Herman ask rhetorically, "Can anyone imagine a researcher limiting himself to comparable sources on the other side of the fence for a critical study of U.S. imperial violence, then to be lauded for his meticulous and exhaustive scholarship?"(47)

It is impossible to ignore the hypocrisy here: Hildebrand and Porter based their work on comparably limited sources, and Chomsky and Herman lauded them for their meticulous and exhaustive scholarship.

Francois Ponchaud, too, is again criticized, even more harshly than in the Nation article. If Ponchaud actually cared about Cambodian peasants, Chomsky and Herman claim, "he never publicly expressed this sympathy... Furthermore, he describes nothing that he did that might have been to the benefit of the peasants of Cambodia."(48)

Having thus insinuated that Father Ponchaud was callous and indifferent to the Khmer people, they continue:

"It apparently has not been noticed by the many commentators who have cited Ponchaud's alleged sympathy with the Khmer peasants and the revolutionary forces that if authentic, it is a remarkable self-condemnation. What are we to think of a person who is quite capable of reaching an international audience, at least with atrocity stories, and who could see with his own eyes what was happening to the Khmer peasants subjected to daily massacres as the war ground on, but kept totally silent at a time when a voice of protest might have helped to mitigate their torture? It would be more charitable to assume that Ponchaud is simply not telling the truth when he speaks of his sympathy for the Khmer peasant sand for the revolution, having added these touches for the benefit of a gullible Western audience..."(49)

Naturally, it would not fit Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model to suggest that Ponchaud was able to reach a large audience when describing Khmer Rouge atrocities simply because he was one of the few people who had gathered exhaustive information on the subject.

Consistent with their comments in "Distortions", they again describe Ponchaud's refugee testimony as "unverifiable material."(50) Never mind the thousands of other refugees who could have corroborated this "unverifiable material": Chomsky and Herman boldly assert that "The fact is that Ponchaud's book is highly unreliable where an independent check is possible."(51) If it was worthy of consideration, it was just barely worthy:

"A fair review of informed opinion about postwar Cambodia would, in our opinion, include this book as a serious though also seriously flawed and obviously unreliable contribution, in some (but not all) respects, to be placed at the more extreme critical end of the spectrum of specialist judgment and analysis... It is noteworthy that not only the media but also governments appear to have relied uncritically on Ponchaud, despite his evident unreliability."(52)

Again returning to the claims that Phnom Penh was evacuated for humanitarian reasons, Chomsky and Herman note that Ponchaud suggested the shortage was not nearly as dire as some sources claimed, and that there may have been adequate supplies to last as much as two months. Chomsky and Herman dispute this, and add that "Even if Ponchaud's possibly 'excessive' two month-estimate were correct, it remains unclear how famine could have been averted after two months had the cities not been evacuated..."(53) Apparently, the idea that rice could have been brought into the city is too difficult for Chomsky and Herman to grasp.

In the wake of Chomsky and Herman's Nation article, Ponchaud's failure to denounce the media treatment of Cambodia seems to have incurred Chomsky and Herman's wrath. In After the Cataclysm, Chomsky and Herman devote several pages to the subtle differences between the American and British translations of Cambodia Year Zero, noting in particular differences in the introductions of the two books. The manner in which Chomsky and Herman present these differences provides an excellent example of their highly selective editing. First, they provide an excerpt from the American edition:

"On March 31, 1977, the New York Review of books published an account of my book by Jean Lacouture, which provoked considerable reaction in all circles concerned about Asia and the future of socialism. With the responsible attitude and precision of thought that are so characteristic of him, Noam Chomsky then embarked on a polemical exchange with Robert Silvers, Editor of the NYR, and Jean Lacouture, leading to the publication by the latter of a rectification of his initial account. Mr. Chomsky was of the opinion that Jean Lacouture had substantially distorted the evidence I had offered, and, considering my book to be 'serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited,' he wrote me a personal letter on October 19, 1977, in which he drew my attention to the way it was being misused by antirevolutionary propagandists..."(54)

Chomsky and Herman then contrast this excerpt with the British version of the introduction, from which they provide the following excerpts:

"Even before this book was translated it was sharply criticized by Mr Noam Chomsky and Mr Gareth Porter. These two 'experts' on Asia claim that I am mistakenly trying to convince people that Cambodia was drowned in a sea of blood after the departure of the last American diplomats. They say there have been no massacres, and they lay the blame for the tragedy of the Khmer people on the American bombings. They accuse me of being insufficiently critical in my approach to the refugee's accounts. For them, refugees are not a valid source...

"After an investigation of this kind, it is surprising to see that 'experts' who have spoken to few if any refugees should reject their very significant place in any study of modern Cambodia. These experts would rather base their arguments on reasoning: if something seems impossible to their personal logic, then it doesn't exist. Their only sources for evaluation are deliberately chosen official statements. Where is that critical approach which they accuse others of not having?"(55)

Describing these differences as "quite striking," Chomsky and Herman write that "Our favorable reference to Ponchaud's book in the American version becomes a sharp attack in the British version. The 'responsible attitude and precision of thought' that receive such fulsome praise in the American version become complete irrationality, refusal to consider evidence, blind dogmatism, lack of any critical approach, and faked 'expertise' in the simultaneous British version."(56)

Note that Chomsky and Herman's quote from the American edition is the very same passage cited earlier in this article. But Chomsky and Herman excerpt slightly less of the passage: They stop immediately before the sentence in which Ponchaud quotes Chomsky's description of the coverage of Cambodia as a "flood of lies."

The truncated excerpt suggests that Ponchaud was effectively agreeing with Chomsky's claim that the book was being "misused" by antirevolutionary propagandists. But let's pick up where Chomsky and Herman left off. Referring to Chomsky, Ponchaud writes:

"He has made it my duty to 'stem the flood of lies' about Cambodia -- particularly, according to him, those propagated by Anthony Paul and John Barron in 'Murder of a Gentle Land.'"

"Mr. Gareth Porter also criticized my book very sharply during a congressional hearing on the subject of human rights in Cambodia, and argued that I was trying to convince people that Cambodia was drowned in a sea of blood after the departure of the last American diplomats. He denied that a general policy of purge was put into effect and considered that the tragedy through which the Khmer people are now living should mainly be attributed to the American bombings. He censured me for lacking a critical approach in my use of the refugee accounts, on the ground that they were not credible because the refugees were deliberately trying to blacken the regime they had fled."(57)

Ponchaud continues:

"In the beginning, I was not opposed to the Khmer revolution... I welcomed the revolutionaries' victory as the only possible means of bringing Cambodia out of its misery. But after making a careful and full study... I was compelled to conclude, against my will, that the Khmer revolution is irrefutably the bloodiest of our century. A year after the publication of my book I can find no reason to alter my judgement."(58)

The longer excerpts make it clear that the two introductions are not nearly as different as Chomsky and Herman pretend. Ponchaud notes that Porter was also criticizing his position on Cambodia; that is, Porter was taking the same position as Chomsky. Cambodia was awash in a flood of lies, drowning in a sea of nonexistent blood.

The Jean Lacouture affair, discussed briefly in Distortions, is examined in greater detail in After the Cataclysm. Lacouture's review of Cambodge, Annee Zero included an incorrect reference to the Ponchaud's estimate deaths in Cambodia. Ponchaud had cited an estimate of 1.2 million deaths, and Lacouture apparently added to this an estimate of deaths during the civil war, claiming a total of 2 million deaths. Lacouture also incorrectly attributed a quote from a Thai reporter to a Khmer Rouge official. Chomsky immediately alerted Lacouture to these errors, and Lacouture issued a correction, which was then published by the New York Review of Books.

Chomsky's corrections, Lacouture noted, "have caused me great distress. By pointing out serious errors in citation, he calls into question not only my respect for texts and the truth, but also the cause I was trying to defend." Nonetheless, Lacouture argued, Chomsky's points were not of great significance. "Faced with an enterprise as monstrous as the new Cambodian government, should we see the main problem as one of deciding exactly which person uttered an inhuman phrase, and whether the regime has murdered thousands or hundreds of thousands of wretched people? Is it of crucial historical importance to know whether the victims of Dachau numbered 100,000 or 500,000? Or if Stalin had 1,000 or 10,000 Poles shot at Katyn?"(59)

Chomsky and Herman, in response, argue that if "a factor of 100 is relatively insignificant... then why bother to present alleged facts at all?" However, they continue,

"If, indeed, the Cambodian regime was, as Lacouture believes, as monstrous as the Nazis at their worst, then his comment might be comprehensible, though it is worth noting that he has produced no evidence to support this judgment. But if a more appropriate comparison is, say, to France after liberation, where a minimum of 30-40,000 people were massacred within a few months with far less motive for revenge and under far less rigorous conditions than those left by the U.S. war in Cambodia, then perhaps a different judgment is in order."(60)

Even in 1979 it was obvious that Khmer Rouge Cambodia was in no way similar to "France after liberation." The implication is a profound insult to the victims of the Khmer Rouge: one cannot equate Cambodian civil servants with Nazi collaborators. Now, years later, it is beyond dispute that the Khmer Rouge regime was indeed "as monstrous as the Nazis at their worst." One would think, then, that Chomsky would have conceded Lacouture's point. But quite the contrary: in recent years Chomsky has implied that the exaggeration of the death toll was even greater, perhaps by a factor of 1000. In an article in the Z Magazine forum Chomsky claims that "Ed Herman and I responded to his challenge to me by saying that we thought that a factor of 1000 did matter."(61) Lest we assume that he simply misspoke, it is worth noting that he made the same claim in a 1999 discussion on Cambodia: "in short, a factor of 1000 matters in estimating deaths, and we should try to keep to the truth, whether considering our own crimes or those of official enemies."(62) Since Lacouture had cited a figure of two million deaths, it would appear that Chomsky is implying that the real toll at that point was on the order of two thousand.

And, just as they question Ponchaud's sympathy for the peasants, Chomsky and Herman dispute Lacouture's own admission that he had at one time supported the Khmer Rouge: "His previous writings indicate that he was a supporter of Sihanouk, who was a bitter enemy of the Khmer Rouge until they joined forces against Lon Nol in 1970 and whose subsequent relations with the Khmer Rouge were not at all clear. In fact, it is difficult to see how a Westerner could have supported the cause of the Khmer Rouge, since virtually nothing was known about it."(63) By this logic, of course, one could also claim that the Cambodian peasants who flocked to the Khmer Rouge in the wake of Sihanouk's overthrow also did not actually support the cause of the Communists... though as we shall see, Chomsky and Herman make the opposite argument with regard to the peasants. Lacouture, however, was simply following "the herd":

"When the herd stampedes in a different direction for one reason or another, and service to some favored foreign state no longer has its appeal, we entered the 'God that Failed' phase, which at one time had a certain validity and integrity, but now has become, all too often, a pose for those who adopt the more typical stance of the intelligentsia, namely, service to the propaganda system of their state. To this end, it is often convenient to manufacture past allegiance to the current enemies against which recriminations are directed."(64)

Lacouture was hardly alone in his support for the Communists in Southeast Asia. Many in the West accepted the idea that the Communists would be "liberators" freeing the masses from the servitude of imperialism. (Chomsky and Herman themselves on several occasions refer to the Khmer Rouge victory as "liberation."(65)) Many years later, when Lacouture did change his views, he would write that "... it is not only because I once argued for the victory of this very regime, and feel myself partially guilty for what is happening under it, that I believe I can say: there is a time, when a great crime is taking place, when it is better to speak out, in whatever company, than to remain silent."(66)

Disparaging these sentiments, Chomsky and Herman and describe Lacouture's mea culpa as "deeply wrong."(67) They suggest that "Future victims of imperial savagery will not thank us for assisting in the campaign to restore the public to apathy and conformism so that the subjugation of the weak can continue without annoying domestic impediments."(68)

Apparently, contemporary victims of Communist savagery were less important than the hypothetical future victims of imperialism.

Or were the Khmer really "victims" at all? Chomsky and Herman advance a number of arguments that imply that they weren't. "...how can it be that that a population so oppressed by a handful of fanatics does not rise up and overthrow them?"(69) It is not unlikely, in Chomsky and Herman's view, that "the regime has a modicum of support among the peasants."(70) Noting that the Khmer Rouge attacked both Thailand and Vietnam, Chomsky and Herman suggest that a regime with no popular support would surely find its army unwilling to fight on behalf of their country.(71) Examining the comments of several "specialists" on the willingness of Cambodians to resist the Vietnamese during outbreaks of fighting in 1977, Chomsky and Herman again raise the same point: "It is noteworthy that in the varied attempts to find a solution to this most difficult question, one conceivable hypothesis does not seem to have been considered, even to be rejected: that there was a significant degree of peasant support for the Khmer Rouge and the measures that they had instituted in the countryside."(72)

These arguments are infuriatingly wrong-headed. Consider the implications of the first question: why didn't the population overthrow their oppressors? If the lack of a successful revolt indicates that a government was not oppressive, we must concede that Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, and Mao's China were actually benign. After all, their subjects did not rise up and overthrow them.

Chomsky and Herman do not bother to explain exactly how unarmed peasants living under the most totalitarian regime in modern history were supposed to achieve this spontaneous rebellion.

The idea that Khmer Rouge attacks on Thailand and Vietnam indicate that the Khmer Rouge had popular support is bewildering. This presents a rather unique yardstick for measuring a regime's popularity: apparently, according to this logic, any country that attacks its neighbors must surely be endowed with the support of its populace.

Moreover, Chomsky and Herman's arguments ignore a very basic fact: the military was a privileged class in the Khmer Rouge regime. Khmer Rouge soldiers were not part of the suffering masses. They were part of the apparatus of control.

Finally, it is should be remembered that the book went to press after the Vietnamese invasion of December 1978. The earlier strikes that Vietnam had launched in response to the Khmer Rouge border raids had been limited, and, given that Vietnam quickly withdrew, one could claim that the attacks had been repelled. The December 1978 invasion, however, was the real thing. The result? The Khmer Rouge regime collapsed like a house of cards, in part because of a complete lack of support from the population they had enslaved.(73)

The lack of support was rooted in many things. One in particular bears comment here: the forcible removal of residents from their homes. The evacuation of Phnom Penh in particular surely ranks as one of the regime's most epic violations of basic human rights, and deserves additional discussion.

Chomsky and Herman echo the arguments advanced by Hildebrand and Porter, suggesting that, because of unsanitary conditions and food shortages in the city, the evacuation "may actually have saved lives."(74) As noted above, this claim is contradicted by the evidence. In any case, according to Chomsky and Herman, "The horrendous situation in Phnom Penh (as elsewhere in Cambodia) as the war drew to an end was a direct and immediate consequence of the U.S. assault..."(75)

A reminder is in order here: the U.S. bombing had ended a year and half earlier. And yet the situation in Phnom Penh is still a "direct and immediate consequence" of the U.S. attack... not, apparently, a consequence of the Communist encirclement, or the blockade of the Mekong, or the daily rocket and artillery attacks launched by the Khmer Rouge. The book's underlying theme surfaces again: whatever happens, the U.S. is entirely to blame.

Regardless of who was to blame for conditions inside the city, there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that the evacuation was done for humanitarian reasons. William Shawcross, commenting on a five-hour speech by Pol Pot, broadcast on Phnom Penh radio, and in a subsequent press conference in Beijing, noted that:

"Pol Pot made no mention of food shortages or famine as the motive for evacuating Phnom Penh -- his explanation is in fact closer to that of Barron and Paul than to that of Hildebrand and Porter. He said the decision to clear the city was made 'before the victory was won, that is in February 1975, because we knew that before the smashing of all sorts of enemy spy organizations, our strength was not enough to defend the revolutionary regime.' In light of this, arguments about the precise quantities of food available in the city in April 1975 become somewhat academic."(76)

It is impossible to ignore Chomsky and Herman's double standards on the issue of the evacuation. Consider their reaction to another forced relocation: the U.S. government's "strategic hamlet" program in South Vietnam. Was the Saigon regime lauded for "saving lives" by removing people from combat zones? Of course not: Chomsky and Herman quite rightly labeled the strategic hamlets as "virtual concentration camps," and described the program as "savage."(77) The irony here is that Chomsky and Herman do indeed detect a double standard with the forced relocations instigated by the U.S., and the forced relocations instigated by the Communists... but they detect it only with regard to the West's criticisms of communist Vietnam's relocation of the Montagnards. This, they claim, "exemplifies once again the typical hypocrisy of the media."(78) They do not, however, detect any hypocrisy in their own defense of the far more brutal and far more extensive forced relocations conducted by the Khmer Rouge.

Regarding the evacuation of Phnom Penh, Chomsky and Herman devote several pages to an account written by Shane Tarr, a New Zealander, and Chou Meng, his Khmer wife. The Tarrs originally left Phnom Penh in the evacuation, then returned to Phnom Penh and were confined to the French embassy along with the other foreigners. Devout communists, the Tarrs claimed to have seen "'no organised executions, massacres, or the results of such like.'" The evacuation, they claim, was "'slow and well-organized,'" and "'The aged and the ill were not expected to join in the march. We saw very few who were old or sick on the road; those that we met elsewhere told us that the revolutionary organisation catered for their needs.'"(79)

"Again, we may ask why the eyewitness report of Chou Meng and Shane Tarr does not enter the record, as shaped by the selective hand of the media and mainstream scholarship?"(80) Chomsky and Herman allude to the fact that journalists in the Embassy despised Tarr, but do not bother to consider that perhaps their dislike was entirely warranted. Years later, in his outstanding memoir River of Time, journalist Jon Swain describes Tarr in no uncertain terms:

"There are also those with whom we, who had abandoned our Cambodian friends, did not wish to pass the time of day. One was Shane Tarr, a twenty-four-year-old New Zealander and his Cambodian wife (who, if she was lucky, would be able to stay). He was full of self-righteous and nauseating revolutionary rhetoric and extolled the deeds of the 'liberation forces'. That the Khmer Rouge had kicked two million people out into the countryside without making adequate provision to feed them; looted the city; ripped off watches, radios, cars; and executed people, did not trouble his conscience. 'They are not looting. They are expropriating private property,' he said. 'The people give up their things willingly.'

"But when it came down to it he was as bourgeois and in need of creature comforts as the rest of us. Nearly always the first in line for the food we ate at 3p.m. -- a soggy mixture of rice sprinkled with fragments of meat or vegetable -- he complained bitterly when the air-conditioning stopped. And he did little work. He and his wife, Chou Meng, fraternised with the Khmer Rouge guards over the walls. The more paranoid among us worried that they might be passing on our little secrets. He had a low opinion of the capitalist press; as we had of his hypocrisy. He was shunned." (81)

One may compare the Tarr's account of the evacuation with any of the many memoirs of Cambodia written by those forced out of Phnom Penh, and judge which is warranted: Chomsky and Herman's suggestion that Tarr was a reputable source, or Swain's contempt.

In addition to suggesting that the evacuation saved lives, Chomsky and Herman also suggest that it wasn't really very important to the Cambodians themselves: they quote one of the men who accompanied a Swedish delegation to Cambodia in 1976, Jan Lundvik, who claims that the evacuation of the cities was not "'as noteworthy for the Kampuchean people as had been represented in the West' because Cambodia is an agricultural country."(82)

One wonders whether or not Lundvik himself would have found it "noteworthy" if he had been forcibly evicted from his home and deposited in the middle of a malaria-infested jungle, with the instructions to convert the forest into a rice paddy.

Richard Boyle, another source whom Chomsky and Herman cite in attempting to discredit the common perception of the evacuation as a brutal exercise, claims that the evacuation was "'justified by horrendous conditions in Phnom Penh.'"(83) Among Boyle's other claims: Phnom Penh's water filtration plants and power lines had been destroyed by "'secret police agents'", and "'not one of the 1100 foreign nationals, including about 20 journalists, who left on the two convoys provided by the Khmer Rouge ever witnesses any bodies abandoned on the roadside.'"(84) It is particularly interesting that Chomsky and Herman cite this last claim, since their own book provides evidence that it is untrue: on page 251, they note that Sidney Schanberg in fact did see bodies on the road leading out of Phnom Penh.

Chomsky and Herman also cite a report by Patrice de Beer of Le Monde:

"De Beer urges caution with refugee or secret service reports ('how badly mistaken they were is only too well known'). He is skeptical about the reports of executions. 'One instance cited is that of Oudong, which we went through on April 30, and where we saw nothing of the sort.' He is also skeptical of monitored radio messages, 'when you recall that the day after Phnom Penh fell a clandestine transmitter on the Thai border announced that a score of journalists had been killed by the Khmer Rouge, when in fact they were all alive.'"(85)

There are several points worth raising here. Chomsky and Herman's recurring theme - the unreliability of refugee testimony - is once again put forward. But the specifics here are particularly noteworthy. First, de Beer's comment regarding the executions in Oudong is simply absurd: are we expected to believe that, after confining all foreigners to the French embassy for weeks, the Khmer Rouge would conveniently drive a convoy of journalists past the corpses of those they had murdered? Moreover, there were executions at Oudong. From Ben Kiernan's The Pol Pot Regime:

"In March 1974, CPK forces captured Cambodia's nineteenth-century capital, Oudong. On Mok's orders, it was immediately evacuated. A participant recalls: 'Forty thousand people were sent in all directions. The Khmer Rouge burnt houses everywhere... Uniformed Lon Nol soldiers were executed along the way.'"(86)

Aside from the confirmation of executions, the passage from Kiernan also reinforces the point made by Ponchaud with regard to the evacuation of Phnom Penh: evacuating towns and cities under their control was standard practice for the Khmer Rouge. The evacuation was not a response to starvation: it was established policy.

It is also worth commenting on de Beer's claim that there were false reports of journalists being killed. Perhaps de Beer is correct; perhaps there was such a report. But Chomsky and Herman fail to note a significant fact: in 1970, Communist forces murdered a total of twenty-five journalists in Cambodia.(87) The consequences of this omission are predictable: readers whose only knowledge of Cambodia comes from Chomsky and Herman will confidently proclaim that the stories of the Khmer Rouge murdering reporters is an outright lie.

The inclusion of comments like those of Lundvik and de Beer again suggests that Chomsky and Herman were trying to convey the impression that conditions in Cambodia were not as dire as critics claimed. Why else would Chomsky and Herman cite the accounts of Swedish, Finnish, and Danish Ambassadors, noting that they did not see any sign of "oppression or cruelty," nor signs of starvation?(88) Are we to believe that the fact that the Khmer Rouge did not murder their victims in front of visiting foreign dignitaries is evidence that they did not murder or starve them at all? Why include Swedish Ambassador's comment that Khmer Rouge ideologue Khieu Samphan "gives the impression of being an intellectual of quality"?(89)

Continuing in this same vein, Chomsky and Herman attempt to downplay the significance of child labor by claiming that "vocational training" for twelve-year-old children is "not generally regarded as an atrocity in a poor peasant society."(90) The argument is a waste of ink. No amount of scholarly doublespeak can conceal the fact that child slavery is not "vocational training."

Nonetheless, this argument pales in comparison with some of After the Cataclysm's other misrepresentations. For example, Chomsky and Herman devote three pages to the remarks of Francois Rigaux, a member of a delegation from "the Association Belgique-Kampuchea" in Mid-1978. Supposedly a specialist in "the area of family life," Rigaux claimed that conditions he saw in Cambodia were (in Chomsky and Herman's words) "not unlike that of Western European villages before the industrial revolution, with a strong emphasis on family life. Children over a year of age had collective care during the work day, and he reports efforts to arrange for married couples and families to share related occupations where possible. With the extreme decentralization and local arrangements for personal affairs, bureaucracy appeared to be reduced to a minimum." Chomsky and Herman describe Rigaux's impression of health care in Democratic Kampuchea: "Similarly, medical care is not concentrated in the cities and reserved for the elite but is distributed through the most backward regions with an emphasis on preventative medicine and hygiene."(91)

"'The best propaganda for the new regime,' Rigaux writes, was the attitudes and behavior of the older peasants whom he came upon by chance in his travels. To Rigaux, they appeared to have acquired dignity, serenity, and security after a lifetime of oppression and violence."(92)

Chomsky and Herman also say that:

"Rigaux believes that 'relative to what it was before liberation, or compared to that of the peasants of Bangladesh, India, or Iran..., the condition of the Khmer peasant has improved notably.' For urban or Western elites, the results are 'shocking,' in part because of the deliberate insistence on equality, which requires that all share in 'the conditions of work to which the immense majority of the world's population have been subjected for millennia.' Now everyone faces 'the exalting task of cooperating in the progressive improvement of the conditions of life of the entire population.'"(93)

Rigaux's comments are obscene. A "strong emphasis on family life"? The Khmer Rouge implemented policies deliberately designed to break the allegiance of children to their parents, siblings, other relatives. Among the many ludicrous claims advanced in After the Cataclysm, this is surely one of the most disgraceful, particularly as it was being propagated in 1979, when the camps of the Thai border were rapidly filling with thousands of refugees capable of refuting the claim.

"Medical care"? The Khmer Rouge murdered doctors as a matter of policy. The claim is that medical care was not reserved for the elites is completely wrong. It is a safe guess that Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan were not treated with the same "medicine" as the rest of the population: the grainy dark pellets that refugees commonly described as "rabbit shit."

A "deliberate insistence on equality"? For all of the Khmer Rouge rhetoric about a classless society, their regime was defined by rigid, inflexible classes: the Khmer Rouge themselves, the "old people," and, at the bottom, the "new people."

The "best propaganda for the new regime?" No, that would have been the likes of Rigaux himself. Or, one is tempted to add, Chomsky and Herman.

Other accounts relayed by Chomsky and Herman include the reports of a team of Yugoslav journalists who were given a guided tour of the country in March 1978. Chomsky and Herman seem to accept many of their claims at face value: that the work day was only 9 hours, for example, or the completely wrong claim that there was an "absence, even in mild form, of political indoctrination."(94)

Had they bothered to speak with any of the refugees pouring into Thailand, they could have found ample evidence to the contrary: In most areas, nightly political meetings and "self-criticism" sessions were common, and few Cambodians worked nine-hour days; many, if not most, were often forced to rise before dawn, and worked until well after sundown.

Chomsky and Herman also note the account of a Vietnamese man who supposedly crossed Cambodia on foot without seeing any evidence of massacres. Of course, the ability of one man to walk through the countryside without witnessing murder does not make particularly compelling evidence for the existence of a new era of social justice. Chomsky and Herman did not, however, dismiss all accounts of Khmer Rouge atrocities. Instead, they argue that the existence of relatively benign accounts shows that there were local variations inside the country. On this point, they are correct. However, the conclusions they draw from this are wrong. They argue that these variations provide evidence against the existence of state-directed violence.(95) Regarding responsibility for the massacres, Chomsky and Herman discuss the work of Ben Kiernan, and suggest that Kiernan's interpretation of events in Cambodia "is rather different from what has been featured by the press. Specifically, he took issue with the horror stories published in Time (April 26, 1976), which alleged that 500,000 - 600,000 people had died under the rule of the Khmer Rouge... like others, he notes that most of the most of the atrocity stories come from areas of little Khmer Rouge strength, where orders to stop reprisals were disobeyed by soldiers wreaking vengeance, often drawn from the poorest sections of the peasantry... He questions the assumption that there was central direction for atrocities as well as the assumption that the stories from specific areas where, in fact, the Khmer Rouge had little control, can be freely extrapolated to the country as a whole."(96)

The presence of local variations, however, most certainly does not argue against the presence of central direction; in fact, many of the worst massacres in Democratic Kampuchea occurred as the result of centrally-directed purges of specific geographic areas.

Moreover, one wonders if Chomsky and Herman would exempt the Salvadoran government from culpability, if, for example, the murderous right-wing death squads had been organized by local commanders, and were not the result of "central direction."

At the time After the Cataclysm was written, several scholars did suggest that the Khmer Rouge never really exercised complete control throughout the country; according to this view, directives provided by the central authority in Phnom Penh were perverted by local commanders bent on settling old scores. Ben Kiernan was originally one of the proponents of this theory.

Kiernan, however, reconsidered his position shortly after the publication of After the Cataclysm. In the Bulletin of Concerned Asia Scholars, October-December 1979, the editors of that publication asked him why he had "changed his mind" and had become critical of the Khmer Rouge regime. "I was late in realizing the extent of the tragedy in Kampuchea," he wrote. He continued: "I was wrong about an important aspect of Kampuchean communism: the brutal authoritarian trend within the revolutionary movement after 1973 was not simply a grassroots reaction, and expression of popular outrage at the killing and destruction of the countryside by US bombs, although that helped it along decisively."(97) He echoes this statement in Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea 1942 - 1981. "In analysing the reasons for continuing violence after the war, I failed to identify the deliberate, if hampered, activities of the Pol Pot group."(98)

In The Pol Pot Regime, written in 1996, Kiernan goes even farther in refuting the claims that Khmer Rouge atrocities were the work of overzealous local authorities:

"We are also in a position to resolve a number of other contentious issues about the Pol Pot regime. Its racialist preoccupations and discourse were of primary importance, but so were totalitarian ambitions and achievements. Along with Vickery's theory of a 'peasant revolution' (see Chapter 5), we can now dismiss Thion's assertion that in Democratic Kampuchea, 'The state never stood on its feet.' Despite its underdeveloped economy, the regime probably exerted more power over its citizens than any state in world history. It controlled and directed their public lives more closely than government had ever done."(99)

In the wake of Kiernan's reversal, it is maddening that Chomsky continues to insist that the positions he outlines in After the Cataclysm were correct. Cataclysm is accurate in the sense that Chomsky faithfully records the remarks of Kiernan and others; but Kiernan and many others subsequently admitted that those remarks were wrong. One would expect a serious scholar to acknowledge the implications of those admissions.

With regard to the overall "propaganda" picture, however, Chomsky and Herman do make some concessions, noting that some reporters' work did not conform to their model. These reporters did not accept the idea that the Khmer Rouge were monsters. Chomsky and Herman note, for example, a Washington Post article by Lewis Simons, in which Simons quotes Gareth Porter's claim that "The fact is that the evacuation and the regime's concentration on rice production have averted mass starvation. If you look at the three Indochinese countries today, you'll find that Cambodia undoubtedly is in the best food position." Simons' article also says that this claim "is more or less supported by State Department officials" and notes that there are reports of rice exports. "It is particularly worthy of note," Chomsky and Herman write, "that visitors in late 1978 found food supplies to be more than adequate... it seems that the extensive development of dikes and dams in the postwar period, which has consistently impressed visitors, sufficed, despite some damage, to overcome the worst effects and to afford the population an ample supply of food, even including a surplus for export, according to the regime..."(100)

But despite Chomsky and Herman's claim, there is no evidence that the dams which "consistently impressed visitors" had any positive effect at all on the production of rice. Comments such as these seem to be based on nothing more than the (supposed) ability of the Khmer Rouge to avoid starvation among the population. Cambodia, however, had historically been an exporter of rice, and it did this without evacuating cities and building massive canals and dams. Many of the dams and dikes never worked at all. In her book When the War Was Over, Elizabeth Becker described the typical effects of these projects. Her comments echo the judgment of the peasants, noted by Shawcross earlier:

"The plans were drawn up by cadre with no engineering experience and without advice from peasants familiar with the area. The construction of the First January Dam is a good example of the awful results.

"That dam was built in the northwest in 1977. The Center ordered it to be completely dug and constructed between the January harvest and the May planting season. It was to irrigate 20,000 hectares of land. There was practically no mechanical equipment available -- no bulldozers for digging and few trucks for hauling The cooperatives in the general vicinity had to 'donate' labor teams of thousands of people with no training. They worked like ants, digging the earth with crude picks and shovels, carrying back-breaking loads of dirt and rocks in bamboo baskets balanced on poles across their shoulders. They worked around the clock with the moon and lanterns lighting the area at night. But they finished on time. And in the 1978 rainy season the dam burst. It had been constructed without a spillway, a shortcut that halved construction time but made it certain that the dam would not hold up under heavy rains and swelling rivers during the monsoon season.

"Nearly every dam in Democratic Kampuchea was built that way. One engineer who later surveyed the irrigation projects of the Khmer Rouge described the criminal neglect of these construction schemes. 'Without a spillway there is no effective way to control the water and it broke through the dam. When the dam broke there was little protection for the people who lived downstream and they were flooded. The rest of the irrigation system was usable but many canals were either out of alignment or in need of basic repairs that would have been unnecessary if the canals had been built correctly in the first place.'

"But such care and consideration were impossible in the regime's schemes for a great leap forward and in its basic political philosophy that the political character of the workers was more important than engineering skills."(101)

Chomsky and Herman, however, seem to take it for granted that rice production was increased by the Khmer Rouge: "Recall the widespread acknowledgement that the new regime had considerable, perhaps 'spectacular' success in overcoming the food crisis caused by U.S. bombing, considerably more so than the other countries of Indochina.'"(102) They fail to note, however, the simple fact that the end of combat would inevitably have provided an impetus to recovery. To the limited extent that the food crisis abated, it was in spite of Khmer Rouge policy... not because of it.

There is another crucial point here as well: large segments of the population in fact did suffer from severe malnutrition and starvation in 1975 and 1976. Not surprisingly, Chomsky and Herman fail to understand what this says about the Khmer Rouge regime: ensuring that the population had adequate food was simply not a priority.

Finally, it should be noted that the claims of spectacular agricultural "success" are somewhat at odds with another of Chomsky's contentions, that being that the U.S. was to blame for many of the deaths which occurred during the Khmer Rouge regime. If the Khmer Rouge quickly overcame the damage done by the U.S. bombing, that damage cannot be responsible for significant numbers of deaths.

Just as Chomsky and Herman's interpretation of evidence about conditions inside Cambodia is dubious, their interpretation of how the media responded to the reports is also questionable. A good example can be seen in Chomsky's comments on the reports of three Westerners who were allowed to make a guided tour of the country. In December 1978, the three -- Becker, of the Washington Post, Richard Dudman, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and scholar Malcolm Caldwell -- were briefly permitted to enter Cambodia. The goal, presumably, was to reverse the world's negative view of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Caldwell, co-author of the book in which Chomsky made his "new era of economic development and social justice" comment, did not survive to write his impressions. He was murdered in Phnom Penh on the final night of their visit, apparently by a Khmer Rouge faction determined to embarrass Pol Pot.(103)

Both Dudman and Becker wrote long articles on their visit. Chomsky and Herman claim that the media ignored these accounts, noting that "The New York Times dismissed their visit in a line. Bernard Weinraub, in the 11th paragraph of a 13 paragraph story on the reported purges in Cambodia, remarked that their visit 'produced no substantial surprises since the visitors only saw what the government wanted them to see.'"(104) Never mind that Weinraub's summary was quite accurate. And never mind that Dudman and Becker's own papers ran extended articles detailing their reports: the fact that a competing newspaper did not devote lengthy space to reports written by someone else's reporter is, in the "propaganda model" of Chomsky and Herman, evidence of a campaign of distortion and disinformation.

Of course, if the media is governed by Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model, one wonders why Barron and Paul's book was described as "'a Cold War propaganda piece" in the Washington Post.(105)

Chomsky and Herman's faith in their model, however, remained unshakeable. Thus the authors confidently asserted that "It is a fair generalization that the more extreme the condemnation of Cambodia, the more confident the claim that 'Communism' lies at the roots of its present travail, the more diminished the U.S. share and responsibility -- then the greater the exposure."(106)

That assertion, however, has not been borne out. Barron and Paul's book -- which ignores the U.S. role in Cambodia's agony -- is long forgotten, while William Shawcross' Sideshow -- which lays the blame for the destruction of Cambodia at the feet of Nixon and Kissinger -- is still in print more than 20 years after its original publication.

After the Cataclysm can be evaluated by two separate measures: the validity of its propaganda model, and the accuracy of its alternative picture of the Khmer Rouge reign. The evidence for the existence of what the authors describe as a "system of brainwashing"(107) is unconvincing at best. The value of their observations on the nature of the Khmer Rouge regime are completely without merit. How bad was Democratic Kampuchea? Chomsky and Herman do not at any point provide their own estimates of the death toll. They do, however, quote Laura Summer's contention that it is "not surprising that the revolution was violent for in addition to the human destruction heaped upon the community by intensive American bombing, there were profound social grievances and scores to be settled," and note that Summers goes on to suggest that the postwar death toll from "exhaustion, disease, and execution" was "in the range of two hundred thousand."(108) Of course, Chomsky and Herman have also suggested that some sources predicted that "a million people were certain to die of starvation" in postwar Cambodia, a situation that was "squarely the responsibility of the United States."(109) Combine these estimations with their claim that actions such as the evacuation of Phnom Penh "may actually have saved lives," and consider the implications: If we accept Chomsky and Herman's most extreme arguments, we would arrive at the conclusion that the Khmer Rouge "liberation" actually saved roughly 800,000 people.

But in case some readers were not persuaded by the arguments that the Khmer Rouge were actually not all that bad, Chomsky and Herman are ready with a second argument: if the Khmer Rouge were bad, it was because the U.S. deliberately made them that way. Thus, they repeat Michael Vickery's claims that US policy in Cambodia was driven by a desire to "'insure that the post-war revolutionary government be extremely brutal, doctrinaire, and frightening to its neighbors, rather than a moderate socialism to which the Thai, for example, might look with envy.'" "Then," Chomsky and Herman write, "the aggressors would at least be able to reap a propaganda victory from the misery they had sown."(110)

This theme is reiterated near the end book:

"If a serious study of the impact of Western imperialism on Cambodian peasant life is someday undertaken, it may well be discovered that the violence lurking behind the Khmer smile, on which Meyer and others have commented, is not a reflection of obscure traits in peasant culture and psychology, but is the direct and understandable response to the violence of the imperial system, and that its current manifestations are a no less direct and understandable response to the still more concentrated and extreme savagery of a U.S. assault that may in part have been designed to evoke this very response, as we have noted. Such a study may also show that the Khmer Rouge programs elicited a positive response from some sectors of the Cambodian peasantry because they dealt with fundamental problems rooted in the feudal past and exacerbated by the imperial system with its final outburst of uncontrolled barbarism."(111)

Among all of Chomsky and Herman's troubling comments on Cambodia, this stands out. It is difficult to see this paragraph as anything other than blatant apologetics. If the Khmer Rouge were brutal, it was "understandable," since the policies of the United States were "designed to evoke this very response." Never mind that the scenes of warfare, death, and dismemberment carved into the stones of Angkor demonstrate that the "violence lurking behind the Khmer smile" has been around for at least 800 years: the "imperial system" is to blame. Evidence be damned.

 

V. Rewriting the History of Dissent

Chomsky's position regarding the Khmer Rouge has shifted somewhat in the years following the Vietnamese invasion. Gone are the references to overcoming the devastation of the war and the "constructive role" of the Khmer Rouge in rebuilding the country.

Similarly, references to the supposed inaccuracy of the refugee accounts are also rare; instead, Chomsky contrasts the paucity of coverage of human rights violations in East Timor with coverage of events in Cambodia.

This position still requires addressing the scale of the disaster in Cambodia. In a posting the Z Magazine Internet forums, Chomsky writes:

"The CIA, in its demographic study in 1980, claims that Pol Pot killed 50-100,000 people and attributes most deaths to the Vietnamese invasion, also denying flatly the atrocities of 1978, which were by far the worst (that's the source of the famous piles of skulls, etc.; these became known after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, and were certainly known to the CIA). Michael Vickery has written about the CIA study, suggesting that it was tailored to fit the fact that the US was tacitly supporting Pol Pot in '78 and later... Vickery estimates about 700,000 deaths 'above the normal' in the Pol Pot years -- which, if accurate, would be about the same as deaths during the US war (the first phase of the 'Decade of Genocide,' as 1969-79 is called by the one independent government analysis, Finland). For that period, the CIA estimates 600,000 deaths. The Yale Genocide project (Ben Kiernan and others) gives higher estimates, about 1.5 million. In fact, no one knows. No one ever knows in such cases, within quite a broad range. When numbers are put forth with any confidence, and without a big plus-or-minus, you can be sure that there is an ideological agenda, in any such case. Demographic analyses are very weak."(112)

Chomsky seems to be implying that the CIA's estimate of the death toll was lower than Vickery's. However, this is an apples-and-oranges comparison. The CIA's figure refers specifically to deaths by execution, whereas Vickery's number refers to excess deaths from all causes: executions, starvation, malnutrition, disease. Moreover, Chomsky's other claims about the report are false. The report absolutely does not "attribute most deaths to the Vietnamese invasion." A charitable assessment of this claim is that it is an error based on a careless reading of the report; a less charitable interpretation is that it is simply a lie. The report estimates a severe population decrease in 1979, but shows that this is due to the exodus of refugees, and not to deaths.(113) Similarly, the claim that the report was "denying flatly the atrocities of 1978" is also false. The report does not discuss the purges of 1978, and that is without question the report's most serious shortcoming. However, there is nothing to indicate that the authors of the report were aware of the internecine conflict which gave rise to the purge, and certainly no flat denial that it occurred. There is a very clear difference between not discussing an event, and denying that it happened.

Continuing on the topic of the death toll, however, Chomsky has more to say, despite his claim that the truth is unknowable:

"If we wanted to be serious, we would also ask how many of the post-1975 deaths are the result of the US war. The predictions by US officials, doctors in Phnom Penh, and others were that there would be a huge toll in the coming years; people were dying in Phnom Penh alone at 100,000 a year when the KR took over (no one has a clue as to what was happening in the heavily bombed countryside)."(114)

The claim of 100,000 deaths a year in Phnom Penh is highly dubious, and Chomsky does not provide a source. But Chomsky and Herman's preferred sources, Hildebrand and Porter, write in Starvation and Revolution that "...the total number for the last five months of the war must have been at least 15,000 and possibly far more."(115) Conditions in the capital worsened as the siege of Phnom Penh dragged on, and consequently the final months of the siege were the most deadly. But even if we ignore this, and base our estimate of the death toll for the entire year on the last months, we still arrive at a figure of only 36,000 deaths. This is a horrible toll, but it is still vastly lower than Chomsky's inflated claim. Furthermore, who is to blame for these deaths? The Americans, who had ceased direct involvement in combat more than a year and a half earlier? Or the Communists, who had encircled the city and cut off all supplies? A realistic assessment would note that the Khmer Rouge, the Americans, and the Vietnamese were all partly to blame. Chomsky, however, is not in the business of providing realistic assessments. Thus, the toll can be tripled, and laid entirely at the feet of the Americans.

Chomsky raised the theme of U.S. culpability again in 1997 interview with Tom Morello, guitarist for the band Rage Against the Machine:

"In the Nixon years, for example, the bombing of inner Cambodia in 1973 was a monstrous crime. It was just massacring peasants in inner Cambodia. It isn't much reported here because nobody paid attention, but it was quite a part in helping create the basis for the Khmer Rouge. Well, the CIA estimate is that 600,000 people were killed in the course of those US actions, either directed or actually carried out by the United States."(116)

Once again, Chomsky's reference is wrong: the report estimates 600,000 - 700,000 war-related deaths, on both sides, over the course of the entire civil war. It is not an estimate of those "killed in the course of US actions." In Chomsky's interpretation, only the US is to blame: the Khmer Rouge and the North Vietnamese, apparently, didn't kill anyone.

The goal of this, one suspects, is to demonstrate some sort of moral equivalence between the Khmer Rouge and the Americans: 600,000 dead at the hands of the U.S., compared to Vickery's estimated 700,000 "excess deaths" during the Pol Pot regime. It's all "about the same."

Of course, Chomsky does admit the possibility of higher tolls, citing the Cambodian Genocide Project's estimate of 1.5 million deaths, but, he reminds us, "no one knows."

It is worth discussing for a moment what is known about the human cost of the Khmer Rouge reign.

In recent years, figures of 1.5 to 1.7 million excess deaths are commonly attributed to the Khmer Rouge regime. Forensic evidence uncovered in the last decade suggests that the actual toll could be even higher. Craig Etcheson, formerly the head of Yale University's Cambodia Genocide Project, notes that as of 1999, the Documentation Center of Cambodia had mapped the locations of more than 20,000 mass graves, containing 1,112,829 remains described as "victims of execution." This is worth remembering in the face of Chomsky's claim that "the famous piles of skulls" were from massacres that had not yet taken place when Ponchaud and others began to publicize Khmer Rouge atrocities. With 20,000 different graves to pick from, the accuracy of Chomsky's claim depends on precisely which pile of skulls one wishes to discuss. In any case, Etcheson estimates excess deaths from all causes (execution, starvation, overwork, and so on) to be between 2.0 and 2.5 million, with a most-likely figure of roughly 2.2 million deaths.(117)

Michael Vickery's estimate, based on his research in the early 1980s, was by far the lowest estimate of any serious Cambodia scholar. In light of recent evidence, why would Chomsky continue to suggest that Vickery's figure is plausible? The answer, one suspects, is that a lower estimate is more in keeping with Chomsky's predetermined idea of what the "truth" should be.

One might argue that it is unfair to judge Chomsky's earlier comments by the standard of currently available evidence. It should be noted, however, that some of the earlier, higher estimates of the death toll were based primarily on statistical extrapolations from refugee accounts: the very accounts that Chomsky and Herman claimed were characterized by "extreme unreliability."

Other dubious claims surface in Chomsky's comments in the Z forums. In another posting in the forum posting in March 2002, Chomsky again refers to the "Demographic Catastrophe" report, branding it a "whitewash of the Khmer Rouge by US government scholars and the CIA."(118) A whitewash? The report's section on the Khmer Rouge begins: "The almost four years of brutal rule by the Pol Pot regime drastically accelerated the disintegration of Kampuchean society."(119) This is a whitewash?

In the same posting, Chomsky makes a number of other claims which merit rebuttal:

"US intelligence and Ponchaud, as we quoted, took a much more skeptical position than we did on refugee reports, but anyone who is even marginally serious about the matter understands all this -- of course, not those who don't give a damn about the suffering that refugees report, but are merely using it as an ideological weapon, specifically, as a justification for brutal atrocities. Recall that that was exactly the crucial issue at the time, as charges about the KR and the Vietnamese, many of them fabrications at a level that would have impressed Stalin (as we demonstrated), were being used as a justification for US atrocities in Central America and elsewhere. But credible evidence of atrocities existed then, which is why we condemned the brutality and crimes of the Khmer Rouge, and a lot more evidence came to light after we wrote, and after the reports of Ponchaud and State Department intelligence that we cited..."(120)

Chomsky's claim that Ponchaud and the State Department took a more skeptical position with regard to refugee reports is sheer nonsense; it was Chomsky and Herman who claimed again and again that the refugee's claims were "unverifiable." And where was Chomsky's supposed condemnation of the brutality and crimes of the Khmer Rouge? There are offhand references to "major atrocities"(121) which were "substantial and often gruesome"(122) but no condemnation of that; instead, Chomsky suggests that the US is to blame for whatever the Khmer Rouge did.

Chomsky goes on to make another claim that is even more surprising:

"You might recall, perhaps, that we were probably the only commentators to rely on the most knowledgeable source, State Department intelligence. Our conclusion at the time was that it was probably the most reliable as well as by far the best informed, and subsequent revelations support that tentative judgment. They were avoided in the mainstream commentary because their conclusions didn't fit the propaganda line that was required to exploit the misery of the Cambodians to justify subjecting millions of other people to comparable misery, in Central America and elsewhere. Presumably that is also why the CIA demographic study of 1980, regarded as authoritative by US government specialists, is totally ignored..."(123)

The only commentators to rely on State Department intelligence? This is a revision worthy of Orwell's 1984. Attentive readers will recall exactly the opposite of what Chomsky claims: In After the Cataclysm, Chomsky and Herman blasted Barron and Paul's reliance on "specialists at the State and Defense Departments."

And what of the other claims regarding the CIA's demographic analysis? Exactly who regarded the 1980 study as "authoritative"? And exactly who ignored it?

Aside from the peculiar reversal regarding the State Department sources, Chomsky's criticism of Barron and Paul and Ponchaud has remained consistent over the years. His comments with regard to Hildebrand and Porter's book, however, have subtly changed. Unfortunately, his new position is no more accurate than his old one. In "Distortions at Fourth Hand," Chomsky had implied that Hildebrand and Porter's favorable picture of the Khmer Rouge was more accurate than Barron and Paul and Ponchaud. More recently, however, rather than defending the book, Chomsky simply misrepresents its content. In the earlier posting from the Z Magazine forums, Chomsky describes the book as "a heavily documented study of US atrocities,"(124) which is absurd. Starvation and Revolution is transparent propaganda, and very little of it is even concerned with the US role in Cambodia; it primarily a collection of absurd claims and fabricated statistics, largely provided by the Khmer Rouge themselves, on their marvelous progress in rebuilding Cambodia. The entire portion of the book concerned with US policy takes up less than 30 pages. Contrast this with William Shawcross's excellent book Sideshow, which, at nearly 500 pages, truly is a heavily documented study of US atrocities.

In recent years, however, Chomsky's attempts to downplay the atrocities committed when the Khmer Rouge have become more rare. Instead, Chomsky tends to shift focus to address other periods of Cambodian history. An article in The Scotsman in April 2002, illustrates this point nicely. The (supposed) subject of the article was the fact that Cambodian textbooks do not discuss the Pol Pot regime. The author, Matt Warren, seems to have predicated his story on the premise that the Khmer Rouge are not discussed in the books because Cambodia is "still reliant on western aid."(125) The premise is completely wrong (Discussions of the Khmer Rouge era are absent because many members of the current government were themselves members of the Khmer Rouge), but no matter: Chomsky is an ideal "expert" to support Warren's theory, and the Professor dutifully supplies remarks tailor-made for the occasion:

"The accepted view is that Cambodia was a gentle country of smiling Buddhists until the Khmer Rouge swept to power in April 1975. This is a fabrication," said Professor Noam Chomsky, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, author of Manufacturing Consent, a book examining media misrepresentation of world affairs. "There were countless atrocities before 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, and after 1979, when the Vietnamese defeated the Khmer Rouge, that are simply not mentioned. Why? Because the West was involved."

Chomsky goes on to add that:

"There is a Cambodian Genocide Act in [the US] Congress and it refers to crimes from 17 April, 1975, to 9 January, 1979," said Prof Chomsky. "That is, it excludes the period when the US was supporting atrocities before and after Pol Pot."(126)

Thus, in an article which is supposedly about the Khmer Rouge regime not being discussed in Cambodian textbooks, we have Professor Chomsky studiously avoiding any discussion of the Khmer Rouge regime.

When Chomsky does discuss the Pol Pot years, it is generally to contrast media coverage of Cambodia with other atrocities. East Timor is Chomsky's favorite example; Chomsky attributes the appalling paucity of news coverage of massacres in East Timor to Indonesian government's status as a U.S. ally.

Meaningful comparisons between East Timor and Cambodia, however, are difficult to make for several reasons. The first difference is that the deaths in East Timor occurred during a war; the Timorese were slaughtered by an invading army. The deaths in Cambodia, however, occurred during peace: the Khmer were massacred by their own government as a matter of policy.

Moreover, the United States had been actively engaged in Cambodia for years. Hundreds of American lives were lost in Cambodia, and billions of dollars had been spent in a futile attempt to prop up Lon Nol.(127) The greater coverage of Cambodia in the American media is a direct consequence of the U.S. involvement in Indochina. This simple explanation, however, is ignored by Chomsky, presumably because it contradicts his propaganda model.

Reuters correspondent Bernard Melunsky noted another extremely simple explanation that influenced the amount of coverage given to Cambodia: in Cambodia, there was a clear frontier where the effects of the disaster were visible, and getting there required only a few hours in an air-conditioned taxi from Bangkok.(128)

Finally, there are other examples which demonstrate the shortcomings of Chomsky's propaganda model. In his thesis "The Khmer Rouge Canon," Sophal Ear argues that concurrent coverage of human rights violations in right-wing regimes in Chile and South Korea exceeded the coverage given to Cambodia.(129) Coverage of Cambodia peaked only after the Vietnamese invasion made the scale of the disaster undeniable.(130)

A quick review of the listings in the New York Times archives seems to support the claim that Chile received more coverage than Cambodia throughout most of the Khmer Rouge regime. In 1975, as Phnom Penh fell and the Khmer Rouge evacuated the city, coverage of Cambodia overshadowed coverage of Chile. Cambodia found its way into Times headlines 200 times; Chile was in the headlines 107 times. In 1976, 1977, and 1978, however, Chile consistently drew more headlines than Cambodia. In 1976, there were 77 headlines concerning Chile, versus 35 for Cambodia. In 1977, Chile appeared in 71 headlines, and Cambodia appeared in 28; in 1978, there were 63 for Chile, and 52 for Cambodia. It was not until 1979, after Pol Pot was overthrown by the Vietnamese invasion, that coverage of Cambodia again eclipsed coverage of Chile: in that year, Cambodia appeared in 126 headlines, and Chile appeared in 51.(131)

It should also be understood that the magnitude of the repression in Cambodia is probably unrivalled in modern history. Even the death toll alone does not tell the whole story. Was the amount of coverage excessive? That is subjective; after all, there are no hard and fast rules governing just how much press one should devote to a government which kills upwards of 15% of its population in three and a half years. To claim that press coverage of the atrocities in Cambodia was exaggerated, it's necessary to take one of two positions: either the atrocities were not widespread, or the atrocities were not newsworthy.

While Chomsky's comments on Cambodia are misleading and inaccurate, one important point must be borne in mind: The actions of the United States were largely responsible for the growth of the Khmer Rouge. But again, Chomsky cannot leave well enough alone: he pushes every theory too far, and paints every stroke with a brush that is too wide. Thus, he is not content to demonstrate that U.S. actions drove thousands (or even tens of thousands) of peasants to join the Khmer Rouge: the violent nature of the regime must also blamed on the Americans.

Chomsky is not alone in this respect. Several mainstream scholars and journalists, for example Kiernan and Shawcross, also accept this view. It is not, however, a position that stands up to examination. The essence of this argument is that the brutality of Khmer Rouge is a direct result of the violence of the U.S. bombing. A number of factors, however, demonstrate that there is no correlation between the two. Laos was bombed more heavily than Cambodia, and yet the Pathet Lao never resorted to the level of violence of the Khmer Rouge.(132) Vietnam, too, was far more damaged than Cambodia, and yet the Vietnamese communists did not resort to genocide.

Meanwhile, genocide has occurred in several countries that were never carpet-bombed by B52s (Rwanda, for example). Moreover, massive killing has occurred in countries which shared the Communist ideology of the Khmer Rouge (for instance, China during the Cultural Revolution). If we want to understand why governments kill -- regardless of whether that killing is perpetrated by the Right or the Left -- it is necessary to move beyond the simple-minded acceptance of whatever explanation conforms to our own biases. If the supposed cause (bombing) is sometimes present without the supposed effect (genocide)... and the supposed effect (genocide) is sometimes present without the supposed cause (bombing)... then we need to re-evaluate whether or not a cause-and-effect relationship exists.

The Khmer Rouge demonstrated their brutality long before the heaviest U.S. bombing; as early as 1971, captives were being tortured and murdered in a jungle prison known as M-13.(133) M-13 was, in essence, the forerunner of the infamous S-21 prison, more commonly known as Tuol Sleng. For those not familiar with Tuol Sleng, a statistic is in order: of roughly 20,000 persons incarcerated at the facility, there were seven survivors.(134) Tuol Sleng's existence was revealed in January, 1979.(135) Not surprisingly, there is no mention of Tuol Sleng in After the Cataclysm.

 

VI. You Are Either With Me...

One might expect that Chomsky would be willing to accept that his comments on Cambodia were inaccurate, or, at the very least, misinterpreted. If Chomsky would admit that his skepticism was misplaced, if he would admit that his deliberately one-sided account of Khmer Rouge Cambodia created a false impression of the regime, his actions would be easier to understand, and easier to forgive.

Yet he will not do this. Instead, he continues to insist that his work was completely accurate:

"I am very pleased that there has been such a hysterical reaction to these writings. They've been analyzed with a fine tooth comb to try to find some error, and to my knowledge, the end result is that not even a misplaced comma has been found. True, a lot of errors have been found in fabricated material attributed to me, but that's a sign of the desperation of the apologists for state violence. If you know of an exception, I'd appreciate it if you'd inform me. I haven't yet seen one."(136)

It is difficult to determine what Chomsky means when he refers to "fabricated material" that was attributed to him. Exactly what was fabricated, by whom, and when was it attributed to Chomsky?

The claim that his critics have unjustly vilified Chomsky is a mantra repeated again and again by Chomsky's supporters. Yet if Chomsky's critics have misrepresented his position, they are not alone: Chomsky himself seems quite willing to rewrite his own comments. During the question-and-answer period following a 1998 speech in New Zealand, for example, an audience member raised the question of Cambodia: "Do you think it was appropriate for Jean Lacouture to apologise in 1978 for having once disbelieved the reports indicating genocide by the Khmer Rouge. The same reports you once disbelieved, and for having once believed, like you, that the Khmer Rouge could in your words, play a constructive role in Cambodia?"

"Not my words," Chomsky replied. "...those are not my words. You're quoting from a review that Edward Herman and I wrote of several books on Cambodia and one of them, which was written in 1976 after a few months in which the Khmer Rouge had been in power, described them as playing a constructive role and we referred to that, just as we referred to what was reported in the other books."(137)

First, it should be noted that Hildebrand and Porter's book includes footnotes dated May 1976, so at the very least the Khmer Rouge had been in power for more than a year when the book was completed -- not "a few months." But more to the point, what about the words that Chomsky disowns? As noted earlier, this is a direct quote from "Distortions at Fourth Hand." ("The Wall Street Journal acknowledged its existence in an editorial entitled "Cambodia Good Guys" (November 22, 1976), which dismissed contemptuously the very idea that the Khmer Rouge could play a constructive role, as well as the notion that the United States had a major hand in the destruction, death and turmoil of wartime and postwar Cambodia.") The phrase "constructive role" does not appear in Hildebrand and Porter, nor does the it appear in Journal article.(138) So whose words are they? They were either Chomsky's, or Herman's. Perhaps what Chomsky meant was that they were not his sentiments. Readers of "Distortions" and After the Cataclysm, however, are likely to conclude otherwise.

Similar revisionism is apparent in a letter Chomsky wrote to the Wall Street Journal in September 1984: "I recommended Francois Ponchaud's study based on refugee testimony, praise which he acknowledges and reciprocates in the American edition of his book."(139)

Chomsky is alluding to Ponchaud's comments in the book's introduction, noted above. Putting aside the fact that Chomsky criticized Ponchaud far more than he praised him, one has to ask: Are Ponchaud's comments really reciprocated praise? On the contrary: Ponchaud's disappointment in Chomsky is palpable. It would seem that Ponchaud, like Lacouture, expected better from Chomsky.

Unable to accept criticism in any form, Chomsky adopts the same mindset as the policymakers he condemns: "You are either with me, or you are an enemy of everything that is good and decent." This attitude is in evidence in Chomsky's Znet forum message, noted earlier, in response to a question about Indochina. The questioner, apparently, had alluded to some Internet sites about Cambodia.(140) After claiming that the stories about communist atrocities "were being used as a justification for US atrocities in Central America and elsewhere,"(141) Chomsky continues:

"I should add that I don't pay attention to what appears on the internet sites that you are referring to... But if you do find this interesting, I'd suggest that you switch to sites that are at a similar intellectual level but a much higher moral level: I have in mind neo-Nazi and neo-Stalinist sites, which I presume exist. There I suppose you'll find very similar arguments: denunciations of those who condemned Nazi and Stalinist crimes on the basis of the terror and atrocities of resistance forces and the horrible aftermath of the defeat of fascism and the collapse of the USSR... But the neo-Nazis and neo-Stalinists are on a far higher moral level, for the obvious reason: fortunately, they are in no position to exploit the terror of the resistance and the horrendous aftermath in order to justify, and carry out, terrible crimes. That is, they were unable to sink to the depravity of those whose sites you are reading, who exploit the suffering for which they share considerable responsibility in order to impose misery on others, to protect them from 'the Pol Pot left' in El Salvador (priests organizing peasants, for example), or from the 'Communists' elsewhere -- exactly as we wrote in the 70s, and as has been happening since."(142)

This, apparently, summarizes Chomsky's view of those who have criticized his stance on Cambodia: They are depraved. They are morally lower than neo-Nazis and Stalinists. They seek to justify and carry out terrible crimes. They are exploiting suffering, in order to impose misery on Central Americans. And, on top of everything else, Chomsky is making these allegations about people whose work he admits he does not read.

In Chomsky's condescending view, if the media was right about the Khmer Rouge, it was only because their "lies" happened to match the truth by pure coincidence. Considering the fact that the majority of reporters who were in Southeast Asia in the Seventies were opposed to US policy, this is not a very persuasive argument.(143)

There is enormous hypocrisy in Chomsky's accusation that his critics "don't give a damn about the suffering that refugees report" and "are merely using it as an ideological weapon." For twenty-five years, Chomsky's only interest in Cambodia has been his quest to represent the media coverage of genocide as manufactured propaganda. In other words, he has spent twenty-five years using it as an ideological weapon.

Rather than attempting to clarify his beliefs, Chomsky dismisses the accusations of support for the Khmer Rouge with typical sarcasm: "You've probably read it on the internet: the inventor of this amusing tale was David Horowitz."(144) Ad hominem attacks are fair game: Horowitz is labeled a "Stalinist."(145) Alan Dershowitz, who debated Chomsky on the Middle East, is described as "basically a clown."(146) New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, who suggested that Chomsky did not believe the reports of Khmer Rouge atrocities, is "a coward" who chose to "hide under Mommy's skirt after he threw some shit at one of his enemies."(147) Chomsky's critics are, in his view, "commissars," intent on stifling dissent.(148)

Arrogance and self-righteousness undermine meaningful debate. Wouldn't Chomsky's message be more favorably received if he stated it diplomatically? Or if not diplomatically, at least objectively?

 

VII. The Ministry of Counter-Propaganda

How did Chomsky wind up so consistently saying wrong things about Cambodia? One possible explanation is that Chomsky did not truly understand the nature of the Khmer Rouge until the massive exodus of refugees in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion made it impossible to ignore. In this view, Chomsky's errors are rooted in naivete, gullibility, and poor scholarship.

Chomsky is not an expert on Cambodia. He does, however, know enough about Cambodia to sound knowledgeable to all of the people who know nothing at all. Still, how could he have so seriously misjudged the nature of the Khmer Rouge? Perhaps it is a natural consequence of being a generalist. Chomsky writes about events all over the world. Can one person really understand all of the intricacies of the politics and history of any one country? Probably. But can one person understand the intricacies of ten countries? One hundred countries? Two hundred? No. There are conflicting accounts of the history of any country and any event. How can anyone without specialized knowledge of a given region evaluate which of those accounts is accurate? In Chomsky's case, he does not evaluate all sources and then determine which stand up to logical inquiry. Rather, he examines a handful of accounts until he finds one which matches his predetermined idea of what the truth must be. He does not derive his theories from the evidence. Instead, he selectively gathers "evidence" which supports his theories and ignores the rest. Furthermore, he does not subject sources he regards sympathetically to the same rigorous critical scrutiny that he applies to conflicting accounts.

Some have suggested that Chomsky's changing stance on Cambodia reflected his reaction to gradually accumulating evidence. That interpretation implies an objectivity that is absent in Chomsky's work. His writing reflects precisely the same sort of unthinking bias that he derides in the mainstream press. Consider, for example, his comments in October 2001, on the bombing of Afghanistan: Chomsky brazenly asserted that "what's happening is some sort of silent genocide... plans are being made and programs implemented on the assumption that they may lead to the death several million people."(149) Why is he willing to predict (wrongly) a death toll in the millions before the fact in one instance, and unwilling to acknowledge a similar death toll after the fact in another instance?

It is also possible, however, that Chomsky did fully understand the nature of the Khmer Rouge... but acknowledging the magnitude of their crimes would have undermined the effectiveness of the example he needed to illustrate his theories of media bias. Faced with what he believed to be an onslaught of propaganda, Chomsky responded with his own barrage of counter-propaganda.

Propaganda is, by its nature, advocacy. The American Heritage dictionary defines propaganda as "The systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause." Chomsky often describes the Western media as propaganda. Yet Chomsky himself is no more objective than the media he criticizes; he merely gives us different propaganda.

Chomsky's supporters frequently point out that he is trying to present the side of the story that is less often seen. But there is no guarantee that these "opposing" viewpoints have any factual merit; Porter and Hildebrand's book is a fine example. The value of a theory lies in how it relates to the truth, not in how it relates to other theories. By habitually parroting only the contrarian view, Chomsky creates a skewed, inaccurate version of events. This is a fundamentally flawed approach: It is an approach that is concerned with persuasiveness, and not with the truth. It's the tactic of a lawyer, not a scientist. Chomsky seems to be saying: if the media is wrong, I'll present a view which is diametrically opposed. Imagine a mathematician adopting Chomsky's method: Rather than insuring the accuracy of the calculations, problems would be "solved" by averaging different wrong answers.

Describing the difference between good science and bad, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman stressed the importance of including all available evidence:

"Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can -- if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong -- to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it... In summary, the idea is to give ALL of the information to help others judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another."(150)

By contrast, consider the tactics employed by a devoted partisan. The partisan has already decided where her or his sympathies lie; the goal is to convince others to adopt the same position. Toward that end, a partisan will not concede anything, and will not encourage the examination of conflicting points of view. Seen in this light, the first step is to discredit conflicting accounts of any event. Arguments advanced for this purpose need not be consistent. If one reader decides that Barron and Paul are unreliable because they relied on government sources, fine; if another reader decides that Chomsky and Herman are reliable because they relied on government sources, that's fine, too. If one reader believes that the Khmer Rouge averted widespread starvation thanks to their ingenious irrigation projects, that's fine; if another reader believes that there was widespread starvation, but that it was due to the US bombing two years earlier, that's also fine.

Why are so many people persuaded by Chomsky's arguments? In large measure, this is because Chomsky is undeniably brilliant. As propagandists go, he is skillful and persuasive... or at least, persuasive to people whose only knowledge of the topic at hand comes from Chomsky himself.

Chomsky understands a critical axiom of sophistry: it's far better to mislead than to lie. Obfuscation is the propagandist's best friend. A skilled propagandist will not say, "Hildebrand and Porter's book shows that conditions under the Khmer Rouge were fairly good." Better to say that the book presents a "very favorable picture," to praise it as "carefully documented," and let the readers draw their own conclusions. Don't say, "Ponchaud's book presents a false picture of atrocities under the Khmer Rouge." Instead, simply say that this "grisly account" is "careless," and that "its veracity is therefore difficult to assess." And never forget the value of a good disclaimer: "We do not pretend to know where the truth lies..."

Naturally, Chomsky himself has spent a great deal of time considering the nature of propaganda. In an article entitled "Propaganda, American-style," he outlines his theory on how propaganda functions in a democracy:

"In totalitarian societies where there's a Ministry of Truth, propaganda doesn't really try to control your thoughts. It just gives you the party line. It says, 'Here's the official doctrine; don't disobey and you won't get in trouble. What you think is not of great importance to anyone. If you get out of line we'll do something to you because we have force.' Democratic societies can't work like that, because the state is much more limited in its capacity to control behavior by force. Since the voice of the people is allowed to speak out, those in power better control what that voice says -- in other words, control what people think. One of the ways to do this is to create political debate that appears to embrace many opinions, but actually stays within very narrow margins. You have to make sure that both sides in the debate accept certain assumptions -- and that those assumptions are the basis of the propaganda system. As long as everyone accepts the propaganda system, the debate is permissible."(151)

Now consider Chomsky's reaction to Christopher Hitchens, after Hitchens argued against any attempt to rationalize the September 11 attacks. Chomsky responded by claiming that "Hitchens cannot mean what he writes... We can therefore disregard it... Since Hitchens evidently does not take what he is writing seriously, there is no reason for anyone else to do so. The fair and sensible reaction is to treat all of this as some aberration..."(152)

In other words, Hitchens was not accepting the necessary assumptions; debate, therefore was not permissible, and Hitchens' remarks could be dismissed as an "aberration."

This is one of Chomsky's frequent tactics when confronted with a reasonable person who is saying things that Chomsky would rather not acknowledge: they are simply saying something that they don't mean, or don't believe. In After the Cataclysm, for example, commenting on Ponchaud's suggestion that the death toll in Cambodia might run into the millions, Chomsky and Herman suggest that "we wonder, frankly, whether Ponchaud really believes such figures."(153) The same strategy is apparent in their claims that Lacouture had never actually supported the Khmer Rouge, even though Lacouture himself stated quite unambiguously that he had.

Chomsky's attempts to limit the grounds of debate are also apparent when, in "Propaganda, American-style" he discusses the opposition to the Vietnam War:

"Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism... The device of feigned dissent (as practiced by the Vietnam-era 'doves,' who criticized the war on the grounds of effectiveness and not principle) is one of the more subtle means, though simple lying and suppressing fact and other crude techniques are also highly effective."(154)

What exactly does he mean by "feigned dissent"? Feigned by whom? The argument is absurd: It implies that those who were opposed to the Vietnam War were not really opposed to it if the grounds of their opposition was not the same as Chomsky's. Here again, Chomsky is trying to keep the debate within his own accepted assumptions: Dissent is allowed only if it falls within the narrow spectrum of the Party Line.

In this sense, Chomsky's strategy echoes the rigid dogmaticism of devout communists. Chomsky's detractors, in fact, often label the professor a communist. He isn't, but it should come as no surprise that his comments are interpreted that way. Adam Fifield, in his memoir about growing up with a Cambodian foster brother (A Blessing Over Ashes), noted that socialists on his college campus lured potential recruits with a copy of Chomsky's What Uncle Sam Really Wants. His own flirtation with socialism ended in the middle of a demonstration in 1991. Carrying the gold-and-red hammer and sickle banner, "... I realized that the bastards who had brutalized my brother had worshipped this flag." He deserted the march, leaving the flag on the curb.(155) One could argue that this is not Chomsky's fault. It does, however, demonstrate a flaw in the "counter-propaganda" model that Chomsky pursues. A one-sided criticism of an existing system lends itself to misuse by any opposing system, regardless of whether or not the opposing system is better or worse than what it seeks to replace.

His defenders often justify Chomsky's failure to criticize the "official" enemies on the grounds that these enemies are outside our sphere of influence. Certainly, we can exert more pressure on our own government than on the governments like the Khmer Rouge. And yet, the idea that we can do nothing about these abuses shows a poor understanding of international relations. In the case of Cambodia, many of Chomsky's supporters insist that nothing Chomsky said would have mattered anyway. "After all," the argument goes, "What could have been done to stop the Khmer Rouge? They were already diplomatically isolated. Nothing short of an invasion would have removed them from power, and the US never would have committed troops to Southeast Asia after the debacle in Vietnam."

Chomsky and Herman themselves make this argument in After the Cataclysm: "We stress again that in the case of Cambodia, as all observers of even moderate seriousness agree, what happened in the 1975-78 period under review, whatever it may have been, lay beyond our control..."(156)

Beyond our control? Yes. But beyond our influence? No. The Khmer Rouge could not have been removed peacefully, but this misses a crucial point: it is possible to affect the world without overthrowing governments. The consequences of world opinion extend beyond borders. Consider the situation of Khmer refugees in Thailand: Until the overwhelming volume of refugees made it impossible, the Thais simply jailed or repatriated the vast majority of refugees who managed to escape. Thousands died in these repatriations.(157) That policy was made possible in part by the world's refusal to accept the enormity of what was happening within Cambodia. Moreover, it was not only Cambodia that was affected by the outside world's perception of the Khmer Rouge. How many people were seduced by Maoism when that ideology was portrayed as the key to a tiny country's triumph over imperialism? Silence in the face of atrocities carries a price. To borrow Chomsky's own rhetoric, future victims of Communist savagery will not thank us for assisting in the campaign to maintain the public apathy.

Certainly there is merit to the idea that we should be more concerned with our own morality, rather than that of our enemies. But the wider implications of this seem to be lost on many of Chomsky's supporters: If we admire Chomsky -- if his viewpoint is "our" viewpoint -- then we should be deeply concerned with ensuring that it is fair and accurate. To influence policy, one has to be willing to speak up. But before speaking up, it is important to know something about the subject at hand.

Belief is a powerful force. It lets us see what we want to see. In A Cambodian Odyssey, the late Haing Ngor provides a glimpse of the illusion that drew in gullible Westerners:

"Sometimes, as I stood by the canal, hoe in hand, I had to admit that Angka, the Organization, had indeed reorganized the countryside. Before the takeover, nobody could have thought that the land would look as it did now, with thousands of people marching to work in orderly single-file lines. And Angka did more than set the tasks. It had provided a complete philosophy, parts of which were obviously true (the corruption under Lon Nol had indeed been terrible), and other parts of which appealed to patriotism (we needed to rebuild the country after the civil war). With loudspeakers attached to poles near the common kitchens, our new leaders blared a new music that carried far across the rice fields. And when I listened to that music, with its strong and vigorous beat, and when I saw the huge red flags flapping in the breeze and didn't look too closely at the lines of people, I found myself believing, for a least a few moments at a time, that the Khmer Rouge had done it. They had succeeded in remaking the country to their bold plan. They had erased the individual, except as a unit in a group. They had given us a new religion to devote ourselves to, and that religion was Angka.

"But when I looked more closely, the illusion fell apart. The people working in the canal were tired and malnourished and their clothes were torn. Just like me. Their hoes rose and fell slowly, without energy, and their faces expressed a terrible futility and sorrow.

"That's all it took, a moment's glance, to know that the country had turned in the wrong direction."(158)

Apologists, propagandists, and true believers rarely look twice. The lesson driven home by Chomsky's comments on Cambodia should be clear: Propagandists make poor teachers. Which teaches us more: sophistry, or history?

 


 

VIII. Acknowledgements, Links, and End Notes

The opinions expressed in this article are mine and mine alone, and I would like to stress that the people listed here do not necessarily agree with my opinions. Some, in fact, strongly disagree with my conclusions. However, they have all provided thoughtful criticisms and valuable information, and they all deserve thanks: Steve Denney, Sophal Ear, Nathan Folkert, Dan Clore, John Kenneth Rucell, Brian Turner, Timothy Tantivithiwate, James Donald, and Charles Kalina. And special thanks to my sister Maureen for retrieving several ancient articles from the Purdue University library.

The subject of Chomsky and Cambodia is a frequent topic in Internet newsgroups, particularly in alt.fan.noam-chomsky. (Messages from that group are available in the Google archives. There are several other Internet sites that discuss Chomsky's work on Cambodia. I do not necessarily agree with the viewpoints expressed on the sites linked here, but they do provide a glimpse of the nature of the debate on Chomsky's work. At the two extremes are articles by Dan Clore and James Donald, both of whom are frequent participants in Chomsky newsgroup. Donald's site is entitled Chomsky Lies. Clore's rebuttal is Contortions at First Hand: James Donald on Noam Chomsky. Another (less acrimonious) debate is archived on this site; there are a total of seven articles, beginning with Evil Scholars? Cambodia and the Media. As noted in the Final Thoughts article, written years after the debate took place, some of my own opinions have changed over time.

On the subject of general scholarly perceptions of the Khmer Rouge, Sophal Ear's thesis, The Khmer Rouge Canon, provides a very detailed analysis. Regarding Chomsky specifically, many of the criticisms available on the Internet are little more than conservative rants. There are, however, some thoughtful critiques as well. Bradford DeLong's short essay My Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky summarizes the problems with Chomsky's approach to history. Russil Wvong's excellent Noam Chomsky: A Critical Review discusses some of these shortcomings in greater detail. Brian Carnell's Leftwatch.Com: Noam Chomsky is also among the better critical resources.

Many of Chomsky's articles are archived on the Z Magazine website, in The Noam Chomsky Archive. In 1985, Christopher Hitchens wrote an impassioned defense of Chomsky's work, entitled "The Chorus and the Cassandra". (My response to Hitchen's article is available on this site, at hitchens.htm.) Josh Buermann's site, Flagrancy to Reason has a fairly lengthy article about Chomsky, with an impressive array of links to other resources. Buermann is highly critical of my own article about Chomsky and Herman; he discusses "Averaging Wrong Answers" and other critiques of Chomsky's Cambodia writings in an article entitled The Hollow Khmer-Chomsky. My response to Buermann's complaints is at buermann.htm. Finally, Patrick Jennings has gathered a good collection of material on Chomsky at the eJournal Noam Chomsky Resources site.

 


Notes:

(1)  From the 1993 documentary Manufacturing Consent. Transcript is online at http://www.zmag.org/Chomsky/mc/mc-script-6.html.

(2)  Chomsky's comments from a March 2002 Znet forum posting; available in the Google archive at http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1

(3)  Chomsky, Noam: "Cambodia: A Special Supplement," New York Review of Books, June 4, 1970. This article is available online at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/10941.

(4)  ibid.

(5)  Caldwell, Malcolm and Lek Tan: Cambodia in the Southeast Asian War, p. xi.

(6)  Angka and Angkar are different transliterations of the same Khmer term.

(7)  Chomsky, Noam, and Herman, Edward: "Distortions at Fourth Hand," The Nation, June 25, 1977.

(8)  ibid.

(9)  ibid.

(10)  Hildebrand, George, and Porter, Gareth: Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, Monthly Review Press, 1976, p. 97.

(11)  ibid., p.86

(12)  ibid., p. 88

(13)  ibid., p. 56

(14)  Ponchaud, Francois: Cambodia Year Zero, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1978, p. 21.

(15)  Kiernan, Ben: The Pol Pot Regime, pp. 48-49

(16)  Ponchaud, pp. 6-7.

(17)  "What Happened to Cambodia?" CBS, 1978. I'm uncertain of the exact air date of this program. I'm grateful to Ronnie Yimsut for providing a copy of the tape.

(18)  Chomsky and Herman, "Distortions"

(19)  Hildebrand and Porter, pp. 122-124

(20)  Few sources provide a year-by-year estimate of deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime. It seems certain, however, that the toll had, at the very least, exceeded 100,000 by the end of the first year of the regime. Combining Kiernan's estimate of 20,000 deaths during the evacuation of Phnom Penh with the CIA's estimate of 80,000 executions for the period from April 1975 to January 1976, we arrive at a figure of 100,000, without even considering the toll from starvation and disease. Although statistics provided by the Khmer Rouge are naturally suspect, two of the regime's estimates merit discussion: in The Pol Pot Regime, Kiernan notes that, in March 1976, Phnom Penh radio estimated the population at about 7.74 million, a decrease of more than 160,000 from the generally-accepted 1975 figure of 7.9 million. This decrease would presumably include losses due to both deaths and refugees. By August 1976, the regime's own estimate had declined to roughly 7.33 million, a decrease of nearly 570,000 (p. 457). The estimate of 1.2 million deaths, cited by Ponchaud, dates from 1977.

(21)  Chomsky and Herman, "Distortions"

(22)  ibid.

(23)  ibid.

(24)  ibid.

(25)  ibid.

(26)  Regarding the term "invalides de guerre": I have not seen the French version of the book, but Lacouture cites this French phrase specifically in his review. The English translation of Ponchaud's book states, quite unambiguously, "On the first anniversary of the liberation, April 17, 1976, the authorities of Kampuchea declared 800,000 dead and 240,000 disabled as a result of the war." (Ponchaud, p. 71)

(27)  Chomsky and Herman, "Distortions"

(28)  ibid.

(29)  Ponchaud, Year Zero, p. xiii

(30)   Chomsky, Noam, and Herman, Edward: The Political Economy of Human Rights - Volume II: After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, p. 299

(31)  ibid., p. 299

(32)  ibid., pp. 150-151

(33)  ibid., p. 260

(34)  ibid., p. viii

(35)  Ponchaud, p. 35

(36)  Shawcross, William: The Quality of Mercy, p. 283

(37)  Chandler, David: "Introduction: 'Report of Activities of the Party Center According to the General Political Tasks of 1976,'" in Pol Pot Plans the Future, p. 198

(38)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. ix

(39)  ibid., p. xi

(40)  ibid., p. 135

(41)  ibid., p. 136

(42)  ibid., p. 279

(43)  ibid., p. 285

(44)  ibid., p. 245

(45)  ibid., p. 251

(46)  ibid., p. 243

(47)  ibid., p. 243

(48)  ibid., p. 257

(49)  ibid., p. 257

(50)  ibid., p. 267

(51)  ibid., p. 282

(52)  ibid., p.284

(53)  ibid., p. 273

(54)  ibid., p. 278

(55)  ibid., pp. 278-279

(56)  ibid., p. 279

(57)  Ponchaud, pp. xii-xiv

(58)  ibid., p. xiv

(59)  Lacouture, Jean: "Cambodia: Corrections," New York Review of Books, May 26, 1977.

(60)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 149

(61)  This quotation comes from one of Chomsky's posts in the Z Magazine ZNet ChomskyChat Forum. The precise date of the post is not given, but the forums first appeared online in 1995. The article is available in the site's achive, at http://www.zmag.org/forums/chomcambodforum.htm

(62)  This quotation also appeared in the ZNet Forum. A transcript of Chomsky's reply was posted to the alt.fan.noam-chomsky newsgroup: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=36ACFC7A.3565%40columbia-center.org&rnum=2

(63)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 256

(64)  ibid., p. 24

(65)  Aside from Chomsky's allusion to "liberation" in his introduction to Caldwell's book, he uses the term again in "Distortions" and also in Cataclysm (For example, see pages 198 and 293). It should be noted that Ponchaud also uses this term, a fact which hints at his sympathy for the revolutionaries... sympathy which Chomsky and Herman deny that he had.

(66)  Lacouture, Jean: "Cambodia: Corrections"

(67)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 151

(68)  ibid., p. 150

(69)  ibid., p. 152

(70)  ibid., p. 156

(71)  ibid., p. 156

(72)  ibid., p. 158

(73)  The Vietnamese launched their invasion on December 25, and captured Phnom Penh by January 7. See Nayan Chanda's Brother Enemy, pp. 341-346.

(74)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 160

(75)  ibid., p.162

(76)  Shawcross, William: "The Third Indochina War," New York Review of Books, April 6, 1978

(77)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 65

(78)  ibid., p. 66

(79)  ibid., p.237

(80)  ibid., p. 237

(81)  Swain, Jon: River of Time, pp. 159-160

(82)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p.188

(83)  ibid., p. 371

(84)  ibid., p. 371

(85)  ibid., pp. 251-252

(86)  Kiernan, Ben: The Pol Pot Regime, p. 80

(87)  For further details, see the review of T. Jeff Williams and Kurt Volkert's book A Cambodian Odyssey and the Deaths of 25 Journalists.

(88)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, pp. 187-190

(89)  ibid., p. 188

(90)  ibid., p. 195

(91)  ibid., p. 197

(92)  ibid., p. 197

(93)  ibid., p. 198

(94)  ibid., p. 195

(95)  ibid., pp. 144-5

(96)  ibid., pp. 226-227

(97)  I have not seen the entire text of the BCAS article; Sophal Ear was kind enough to provide this and other quotes from the article in personal communication.

(98)  Kiernan, Ben: Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea 1941 - 1982, p. 314

(99)  Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime, p. 464

(100)  ibid., p. 167-8

(101)  Becker, Elizabeth: When the War Was Over, pp. 250-251

(102)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 287

(103)  Becker, pp. 433-436, pp. 447

(104)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 207

(105)  I have not seen this article, but the reference comes from Chomsky and Herman themselves: "Elizabeth Becker objects that they 'pepper their book with facile polemics,' turning it 'into a Cold War propaganda piece.' (p. 242) Their source for the quote is the Manchester Guardian Weekly, July 30, 1978, but they note that the article was "reprinted from the Washington Post." (p. 373)

(106)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 292

(107)  ibid., p. 300

(108)  ibid., p. 225

(109)  ibid., p. 161-162

(110)  ibid., pp. 218-219

(111)  ibid., p. 291

(112)  ZNet Forum posting, http://www.zmag.org/forums/chomcambodforum.htm

(113)  Central Intelligence Agency (National Foreign Assessment Center): "Kampuchea: A Demographic Catastrophe," 1980. This report is available online at http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/demcat.htm. Nathan Folkert addresses some of Chomsky's claims about this report in a separate article on this site: Noam Chomsky on the CIA Demographic Catastrophe Report. In addition to the errors Folkert notes, it's also worth mentioning that Chomsky claims that "the CIA study was completely suppressed" (http://www.zmag.org/forums/chomcambodforum.htm). Suppressed? Anyone who wanted a copy could purchase the report from the CIA.

(114)  ZNet Forum posting, http://www.zmag.org/forums/chomcambodforum.htm

(115)  Porter and Hildebrand, p. 29

(116)  Transcript is online at http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/rage/rageQA.html

(117)  Etcheson, Craig: "The Number: Quantifying Crimes Against Humanity in Cambodia," available online at http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/toll.htm. Etcheson's own estimates of the death toll were provided in personal communication.

(118)  Znet forum, March 2002: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1

(119)  Central Intelligence Agency: "Kampuchea: A Demographic Catastrophe"

(120)  Znet forum, March 2002: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1

(121)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p.135

(122)  ibid., p. 136

(123)  Znet forum, March 2002: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1

(124)  ZNet Forum posting, http://www.zmag.org/forums/chomcambodforum.htm

(125)  Warren, Matt: "Cambodia Finally Bringing Past to Book," The Scotsman, April 16, 2002. Article is available online at http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=a9p95j%24475%241%40pencil.math.missouri.edu&rnum=1

(126)  ibid.

(127)  American deaths in Cambodia: from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/109ts.html; Amount spent on bombing, approximately $7 billion (Shawcross, Sideshow, p. 350)

(128)  Cited in Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy, p. 169. Regarding comparisons with East Timor, Charles Kalina has noted that there are other examples that fail to conform to Chomsky's propaganda model; for an overview, see http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=6jik9m%24lm1%241%40nnrp1.dejanews.com&rnum=1

(129)  Ear, Sophal: "The Khmer Rouge Canon," online at http://www-mcnair.berkeley.edu/uga/osl/mcnair/Sophal_Ear_canon.html

(130)  In his undergraduate thesis, discussing media coverage of the Khmer Rouge, Timothy Tantivithiwate uses the Chicago Tribune to demonstrate the trends in media coverage of Cambodia. In 1975, there were 167 articles about Cambodia. By contrast, in 1976, there were only 13. In 1977 (the year that Chomsky began claiming that Cambodia was the subject of a massive propaganda blitz), there were only 20 articles. In 1978 and 1979, however, coverage increased drastically. Tantivithiwate does not cite a precise figure for 1978, but he notes that Cambodia "became a popular topic" in the paper, and that articles "appeared numerous times a month during all twelve months of the year." He does not provide an exact count, but does state that the following year (1979) was "an even busier year for the printing presses," with a total of 131 articles.

(131)The Times archives are available online (http://pqasb.pqarchiver.com/nytimes/advancedsearch.html), and they can be searched by headline, author, or topic. The figures cited from the New York Times are indicative of general tendencies, but they should certainly not be interpreted as definitive. The number of headlines in the cited totals include all references to the countries in question, and not only articles discussing human rights. Attributing the amount of coverage entirely to ideological concerns ignores the numerous other factors that affect coverage of any given event. Concurrent events would be one example; an article about a faraway country is unlikely to merit much space if a major domestic news story is unfolding at the same time. Logistics is another example; in the case of Cambodia, one could argue that the inability of journalists to actually enter the country contributed to the diminished coverage in 1976 and 1977, when the number of NYT headlines on South Korea exceeded the number on Cambodia. These examples highlight the questionable methodology of Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model, as well as the partisan media analysis of groups such as FAIR and AIM.

(132)  About two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos, versus about 540,000 tons in Cambodia. The tonnage dropped on North and South Vietnam would be on the order of five or six million tons. (Source: http://home.earthlink.net/~aircommando1/Vietnam.htm, citing The Vietnam War Day by Day by John S. Bowman.) This, again, is contrary to one of Chomsky's claims. In the previously cited articles at http://www.zmag.org/forums/chomcambodforum.htm, Chomsky states that the bombing of the Plain of Jars was "the most intense bombing in history" but was "later exceeded by US bombing in Cambodia".

(133)  Bizot, Francois: The Gate. Bizot does not refer to the prison as M-13; Richard Arant identifies the prison as such in his Amazon.com review.

(134)  Kiernan, Ben: The Pol Pot Regime, p. 464

(135)  Tuol Sleng known to the outside world in January 1979: Chandler, David, Voices from S-21, p. viii

(136)  Znet forum, March 2002: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1

(137)  Transcript of Chomsky's remarks at the Opera House, Wellington, New Zealand, 10 November 1998; available online at http://www.geocities.com/ubinz/IR/items/19981110ChomskyNZ.html

(138)  As a side note, Chomsky's claim that this article "dismissed contemptuously the very idea" that the U.S. had a hand in the destruction of Cambodia is, again, untrue. The article's sole reference to the U.S. role is to summarize Porter and Hildebrand's assertion that press coverage of the evacuation was "distorted by the U.S. government... to draw attention away from its own crimes in bombing the rural population." The article summarizes Porter's arguments quite accurately: "[T]he Khmer Rouge are just a bunch of misunderstood Cambodian good guys, international boy scouts who do good deeds not by helping little old ladies cross the street, but by compassionately helping a while population across a country." Source: "Cambodian Good Guys," Wall Street Journal, November 22, 1976.

(139)  Chomsky's letter to the Wall Street Journal, September 6, 1984, quoted online at http://www.abbc.com/totus/CGCF/file14chomsky.html. (I prefer not to link directly to the site in question, as it appears to be an anti-semitic site. It should be stressed, however, that the article in question is entirely unrelated to the overall content of the site.

(140)  Chomsky's response was posted to the alt.fan.noam-chomsky Internet newsgroup. The full text of the original question, however, was not posted, and since the Znet forums are open only to registered users, I have not seen the complete exchange. The question apparently concerned the testimony of refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam.

(141)  Znet forum, March 2002: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1

(142)  ibid.

(143)  This is based on anecdotal evidence; I'm unaware of the existence of any formal surveys of the correspondents in question. Among the memoirs supporting this view: Robert Sam Anson's War News, John Laurence's The Cat From Hue, Tim Page's Page After Page, Jon Swain's River of Time. That correspondents referred to the official U.S. daily briefing from Saigon as "The Five O'Clock Follies" indicates that the government's credibility was extremely low. This skepticism apparently began fairly early in the war. In Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s The Bitter Heritage, published in 1967, Schlesinger notes that reporters rarely believed the Diem government's official claims: "They stopped believing Diem's communiques; and, when Harkins and Nolting kept insisting they were true, they stopped believing Harkins and Nolting. Their picture of South Vietnam differed from the official reports by about 180 degrees." (p. 42).

(144)  Znet forum, March 2002: http://groups.google.com/groups?&selm=e1136ec2.0203060336.13dd2585%40posting.google.com&rnum=1

(145)  http://monkeyfist.com/ChomskyArchive/interviews/sensible_html

(146)  http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/interviews/dissent-excerpts.html

(147)  "Unfit to print: Noam Chomsky and the New York Times," Chicago Media Watch Newsletter, August 1997, http://web.archive.org/web/19981202225344/http://www.mediawatch.org/chicago/chomsky.html

(148)  http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0318-03.htm

(149)  Chomsky, Noam: "The New War on Terror," MIT Technology and Culture Forum, October 18, 2001. Transcript is available online at http://www.zmag.org/GlobalWatch/chomskymit.htm

(150)  Feynman, Richard: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, p. 341

(151)  Chomsky, Noam: "Propaganda, American-style," available online at http://www.zpub.com/un/chomsky.html

(152)  Chomsky, Noam: "Reply to Hitchens," The Nation, posted to the Nation website on October 1, 2001. Available online at http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20011015&s=chomsky20011001. Hitchens, incidentally, was one of Chomsky's ardent defenders on the issue of Cambodia. His article "The Chorus and the Cassandra" is available on the Z Magazine website. A response to Hitchen's "Cassandra" article is available on this site.

(153)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 290

(154)  Chomsky, Noam: "Propaganda, American-style"

(155)  Fifield, Adam: A Blessing Over Ashes

(156)  Chomsky and Herman, After the Cataclysm, p. 293

(157)  For an overview of Thai policy and the repatriations, see William Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy, pp. 82-93; for a harrowing, firsthand account of one such repatriation, see JoAn Criddle and Teeda (Thida) Mam: To Destroy You Is No Loss, pp. 246-263.

(158)  Ngor and Warner, A Cambodian Odyssey, pp. 200-201.

 


Bibliography:

Barron, John, and Paul, Anthony: Murder of a Gentle Land, Reader's Digest Press, 1977.

Becker, Elizabeth: When the War Was Over, Simon and Schuster, 1986.

Bizot, Francois: The Gate, Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

Central Intelligence Agency: Kampuchea: A Demographic Catastrophe, 1980.

Caldwell, Malcolm and Lek Tan: Cambodia in the Southeast Asian War, Monthly Review Press, 1973.

Chanda, Nayan: Brother Enemy, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986.

Chandler, David: Voices from S-21, University of California Press, 1999.

Chandler, David; Kiernan, Ben, and Chanthou Boua: Pol Pot Plans the Future, Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, New Haven, Connecticut, 1988.

Chomsky, Noam: "A Special Supplement: Cambodia," New York Review of Books, June 4, 1970.

Chomsky, Noam, and Herman, Edward: "Distortions at Fourth Hand," The Nation, June 25, 1977.

Chomsky, Noam, and Herman, Edward: The Political Economy of Human Rights - Volume II: After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology, South End Press, 1987.

Etcheson, Craig: "The Number" -- Quantifying Crimes Against Humanity in Cambodia," Documentation Center of Cambodia, 1999.

Fifield, Adam: A Blessing Over Ashes, Perennial Books, 2001.

Feynman, Richard: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman

Hildebrand, George, and Porter, Gareth: Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, Monthly Review Press, 1976.

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Lacouture, Jean: "The Bloodiest Revolution," New York Review of Books, March 31, 1977.

Lacouture, Jean: "Cambodia: Corrections," New York Review of Books, May 26, 1977.

Ngor, Haing, and Warner, Roger: A Cambodian Odyssey, Macmillan Publishing, 1987.

Ponchaud, Francois: Cambodia Year Zero, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978.

Shawcross, William: Sideshow, Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Shawcross, William: Shawcross, William: The Quality of Mercy, Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Shawcross, William: "The Third Indochina War," New York Review of Books, April 6, 1978.

Sophal Ear: "The Khmer Rouge Canon," available online at http://www-mcnair.berkeley.edu/uga/osl/mcnair/Sophal_Ear_canon.html

Swain, Jon: River of Time, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1995.

Tantivithiwate, Timothy: Undergraduate thesis on the media reaction to the Khmer Rouge, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003.

Warren, Matt: "Cambodia Finally Bringing Past to Book," The Scotsman, April 16, 2002.

 

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