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The Chorus and the Cassandra: A Response

In 1985, Christopher Hitchens wrote a lengthy essay ("The Chorus and the Cassandra") defending Noam Chomsky against several accusations. One of the criticisms leveled against Chomsky was the charge that he had supported the Khmer Rouge.

The question of whether or not it is fair to say that Chomsky "supported" the Khmer Rouge is discussed in detail elsewhere on this site, in the article entitled Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy.

Those who admire Chomsky may find Hitchen's defense of the Professor very comforting. Those who lack the patience to compare Chomsky's comments to the factual record will likely believe that Hitchens' article exonerates Chomsky.

The reality, however, is that Hitchens' article merely contains more of the errors and misrepresentations that characterize Chomsky's original writings.

The first third of Hitchens' essay is a long-winded introduction, in which he rambles on about the Professor's eminence, tossing in sundry references to Oxford University, razor blades, Dr. John Arbuthnot's 1714 "Treatise on the Art of Political Lying," airplane propellers, eschewed principles, and, of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Regrettably, I've never heard of Ryszard Kapuscinski, but I am sure is equal in esteem to Dr. Arbuthnot, of whom I've also never heard.

Since I clearly lack the Oxfordian breadth of Mr. Hitchens, I will confine my comments to the subject of Cambodia... for in spite of my lack of education, I have managed to learn a few things about Southeast Asia.

Cambodia, it seems, is not really something Hitchens has ever bothered to study. How else can we explain the fact that he begins his defense of Chomsky with a falsehood? He notes that Chomsky was criticized for suggesting, in 1972, that a Khmer Rouge victory might lead to "a new era of economic development and social justice." This comment, according to Hitchens, appeared in "Dr. Malcolm Caldwell's collection of interviews with Prince Norodom Sihanouk." Hitchens clearly never bothered to read the book: it is not a collection of interviews with Sihanouk, but a history of events leading to the Cambodian civil war, written by an avowed Communist. By misrepresenting the content of the book, Hitchens imbues Chomsky's preface with an aura of apolitical neutrality.

Hitchens then proceeds to repeat the politically expedient claim that the violence of the Khmer Rouge (or, as he puts it, the "derangement of Cambodian society") was caused by the US bombing. This claim, however, does not withstand any scrutiny: Among the countries of Indochina, both Vietnam and Laos were bombarded more heavily than Cambodia. Neither of those countries, however, resorted to the massive violence of the Khmer Rouge.

There are other misrepresentations, as well. For example, Hitchens includes an excerpt from William Shawcross' The Quality of Mercy. Shawcross wrote:

"Through 1976 and 1977 and especially in 1978 the Western press's coverage of Cambodia increased. Nonetheless, the issue never reached critical mass. I did not write enough myself. And there was no broadly based campaign of protest in the West as there was, say, over abuses of human rights in Chile.

One reason for this was the skepticism (to use a mild word) displayed by the Western left toward the stories coming out of Democratic Kampuchea. That skepticism was most fervently and frequently expressed by Noam Chomsky, the linguistic philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He asserted that from the moment of the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975 the Western press collaborated with Western and anti-Communist Asian governments, notably Thailand, to produce a 'vast and unprecedented' campaign of propaganda against the Khmer Rouge."

Hitchens argues that Shawcross is dishonestly misrepresenting Chomsky's position. Why? Because, Hitchens notes, Shawcross had quoted three paragraphs from The Political Economy of Human Rights together, without ellipses to indicate that they were not contiguous. The three paragraphs read:

"Three features of the propaganda campaign with regard to Cambodia deserve special notice. The first is its vast and unprecedented scope. Editorial condemnation of Cambodian "genocide" in the mainstream media dates from mid-1975, immediately following the victory of the so-called 'Khmer Rouge.' After that time the western media were deluged with condemnation of Cambodia."

"A second major feature of this propaganda campaign was that it involved a systematic distortion or suppression of the highly relevant historical context as well as substantial fabrication -- the grim reality evidently did not suffice for the needs of the propaganda."

"A third striking feature of the campaign was the constant pretense that the horrors of Cambodia were either being ignored except for the courageous voices that seek to pierce the silence or that some great conflict was raging about whether or not there have been atrocities in Cambodia."

Hitchens suggests that this is unfair, not only because of the missing ellipses, but also because of the timing of its publication:

'The book [Political Economy] went to press in 1979, after the forcible overthrow of the Pol Pot regime. Thus, even if the paragraphs were quoted and sourced properly, and even if they bore the construction that Shawcross puts on them, they could hardly have contributed to the alleged indifference of civilized opinion "throughout 1976 and 1977 and especially in 1978" or inhibited the issue from reaching "critical mass." Since Shawcross lists the book, with its date, in his bibliography, the discrepancy can hardly be due to ignorance.'

Notice that Hitchens has applied a little creative spin: although Shawcross noted that press coverage increased from 1976 to 1978, in Hitchens' latter formulation it is "indifference" that peaked in 1978... quite the opposite of what Shawcross actually wrote.

Moreover, a little context is in order: In Shawcross' book, the paragraphs from Political Economy are provided (in a footnote) merely as a summation of Chomsky's "skepticism" with regard to the reports of atrocities in Cambodia.

By complaining about the missing ellipses, Hitchens implies that Shawcross has altered the meaning of Chomsky's remarks. But the implication is false: the three paragraphs Shawcross cites succinctly summarize Chomsky's position on the media coverage of Cambodia.

Having sidestepped the question of whether or not the quoted material correctly summarizes Chomsky's arguments, Hitchens seeks to convince us that the fact that these quotes are from a 1979 book undermines Shawcross' criticism of Chomsky's role in disparaging the reports of atrocities while the Khmer Rouge were in power. The book, after all, appeared after the Khmer Rouge had been ousted by a Vietnamese invasion. This, however, is very disingenuous: given that Chomsky and Herman's 1977 Nation article ("Distortions at Fourth Hand") provided ample evidence that Chomsky was skeptical of the reports from Cambodia, the fact that he was still expressing skepticism in 1979 reflects poorly on Chomsky, not on Shawcross.

Hitchens then suggests that Shawcross was remiss in not quoting a couple carefully-chosen sentences from Chomsky's "Distortions at Fourth Hand," in which Chomsky writes: "Ponchaud's book is serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited. He gives a grisly account of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge."

And yet Hitchens neglects to mention that the very next paragraph claims that "Ponchaud's book lacks the documentation provided in Hildebrand and Porter and its veracity is therefore difficult to assess. But the serious reader will find much to make him somewhat wary. For one thing, Ponchaud plays fast and loose with quotes and with numbers."

Apparently, Hitchens thinks it would be fine to quote Chomsky's description of what Ponchaud's book says, as so long as we leave out the part where Chomsky tells us that the book is full of mistakes, and not as well-documented as a different book that told us the Khmer Rouge were wonderful. Readers who are undecided as to whether Shawcross or Hitchens was more accurately representing Chomsky's opinion of Ponchaud's work can refer to Chomsky and Herman's 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. There, the kindly professors describe Ponchaud as "highly dubious" (p. 383) and accuse him of "remarkable deception" (p. 388).

Not surprisingly, many other commentators criticized Chomsky's stance with regard to Cambodia. Hitchens cites as an example the remarks of conservative journalist Fred Barnes. Barnes, Hitchens says, told him that:

"I sat next to Noam Chomsky at a seminar at Lippmann House (of the Nieman Foundation) of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in 1978. On the matter of Genocide in Cambodia, the thrust of what he said was that there was no evidence of mass murder there. As I recall, he was rather adamant on the point. He had, by this time, I believe, written a letter or two to The New York Review of Books making the same point. Chomsky seemed to believe that tales of holocaust in Cambodia were so much propaganda. He said, on another point, that there was an effort underway to rewrite the history of the Indochinese war -- in a way more favorable to the U.S. Perhaps he thought the notion of genocide in Cambodia was part of that effort."

But, Hitchens implies, we can disregard anything Barnes says. Why? Because "there was no letter from Chomsky about Cambodia in The New York Review of Books." Again, however, either Hitchens has his facts wrong, or he's being deliberately misleading: There was no letter from Chomsky printed in The New York Review of Books. But Chomsky in fact did write to Robert Silvers, the editor of the Review. According to Francois Ponchaud, in the author's note for the English translation of his book Cambodia Year Zero, after the appearance of Jean Lacouture's article in the Review, "Noam Chomsky then embarked upon a polemical exchange with Robert Silvers, Editor of the NYR, and with Jean Lacouture..." Ponchaud goes on to note that Chomsky also "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.'"

In essence, Hitchens comments on a handful of Chomsky's remarks, ignores many, many others, and then leads his readers to believe that they now know all that need be known about the controversy. He does not, for example, make any comment on Shawcross' refutation, in The Quality of Mercy, of the claims of a "vast and unprecedented" propaganda campaign on the subject of Cambodia.

Hitchens does, however, briefly touch on the issue of the death toll in Cambodia: "A close analysis of Problems of Communism and of the findings of State Department intelligence and many very conservative Asia specialists will yield a figure of deaths in the high hundreds of thousands. Exorbitant figures (i.e. those oscillating between two and three million) are current partly because Radio Moscow and Radio Hanoi now feel free to denounce the Pol Pot forces... The facts are now more or less in," Hitchens writes, "and it turns out that the two independent writers were as close to the truth as most, and closer than some."

Here, oddly enough, Hitchens himself is contradicting Chomsky and Herman's claims that they had not formulated an opinion on the scope of the violence. The fact that he is contradicting Chomsky, however, is less important than the fact that he is also contradicting the historical record. Forensic and statistical research have refuted Hitchens quite effectively: Population surveys and the continued discovery of mass graves suggest that the toll was indeed between 2 and 2.5 million. (A detailed discussion of the death toll is available on this site, in the article Counting Hell.) Even the figure of three million deaths, which Hitchens attributed to "Radio Moscow and Radio Hanoi," was not simply a propaganda invention; as Craig Etcheson notes in his article "The Number - Quantifying Crimes Against Humanity in Cambodia," it was based on a house-to-house survey conducted shortly after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Hitchens and Chomsky parted company. Hitchens criticized what he regarded as Chomsky's attempts to rationalize the attacks ( Chomsky, in response, insinuated that Hitchens was a racist for refusing to accept comparisons between the 9/11 attacks and the American bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan: "He must be unaware that he is expressing such racist contempt for African victims of a terrorist crime"... ( Hitchens responded that "With his pitying tone of condescension, and his insertion of a deniable but particularly objectionable innuendo, I regret to say that Chomsky displays what have lately become his hallmarks." (

For the scholars and journalists who had been ridiculed by Chomsky for accusing the Khmer Rouge of genocide, the exchange carried an aura of surreal comedy. One is reminded of the moment in Casablanca, where Claude Rains orders Bogart's club closed: "I am shocked -- shocked! -- to find that gambling is going on in here!" At which point the croupier emerges from the gambling room and hands Rains a stack of bills: "Your winnings, sir." Poor Hitchens: he was shocked, shocked to discover that Professor Chomsky will resort to ad hominem attacks and misrepresentations of his critics' arguments.

Why the change of heart? In effect, Hitchens argues that his own position has never changed, and that Chomsky and others on the far left had become so determined to resist American domination that they were willing to overlook the true nature of America's official enemies. Hitchens' essay on this topic ("Stranger in a Strange Land," makes this point effectively. The only thing Hitchens has wrong is the date. The phenomenon did not occur after September 11. It was already apparent in the Left's reception of the Khmer Rouge, nearly twenty-five years earlier. There is no difference between Hitchens' dismay at the rationalizations of al Qaeda's brutality, and the Jean Lacouture's dismay at the rationalizations of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge. Like Hitchens, Lacouture was "an honorable man of the left." Chomsky's reaction in both cases was identical: he claimed that his critics simply did not truly hold the beliefs that they claimed to hold.

Shocked, Monsieur Rick. Shocked.


For more details:
Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy

Related Sites:
Hitchens Watch

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