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Evil Scholars? A Rebuttal

by John Kenneth Rucell

Note: This is the second in a series of seven articles.

From: rucell@psu (John Kenneth Rucell)
Date: 29 May 1995 08:45:37 GMT

Although with trepidation at entering this mire I'd like to respond to some of the statements in "Evil Scholars". Some of the ones I don't respond to, I believe are taken out of context and leave an impression which is not entirely accurate.

I have also added several comments on the portions of Sophal Ear's thesis which appear to still be available on soc.culture.cambodia. Throughout "you" refers to Bruce Sharp, and SE to Sophal Ear.

If due to natural optimism... The great majority of what Chomsky has written on Cambodia is in his book "After The Cataclysm", part of the two volume work "The Political Economy of Human Rights" together with "The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism". There is something of an update in his book "Manufacturing Consent", also with Edward Herman.

>"The evacuation of Phnom Penh undoubtably saved the lives of
>many thousands of Cambodians... what was portrayed as a
>destructive, backward-looking policy motivated
>motivated by doctrinaire hatred was actually a rationally
>conceived strategy for dealing with the urgent problems that
>faced postwar Cambodia." (P.56.)

As Herman and Chomsky document in these books, this statement is almost certainly true. (I was quite surprised upon reading such things myself, and checked some of them personally at the NY Public Library during a period when I was unemployed). At the very least the judgment seems quite justified in light of the following fact they report on: What is most convincing is that the CIA (or some other US Government organ) PREDICTED the evacuation BEFORE the city fell to the Khmer Rouge, saying that as there was only a week's worth of food in the city, the communists would have to evacuate the city in order to avoid mass starvation. So unless one thinks C & H are US government dupes or agents, or the CIA is controlled by the Khmer Rouge (or that Chomsky runs the CIA!!) . . .?

>In addition to his initial skepticism regarding the reports of
>genocide, he has also misrepresented the nature of the media
>coverage during the years when the Khmer Rouge were in
>power. In the documentary about Chomsky, "Manufacturing
>Consent," much is made of the amount of news coverage given
>to events in Cambodia relative to the appalling paucity of
>news coverage of East Timor. But, as Sophal Ear has pointed
>out in related posts, concurrent coverage of human rights
>violations in other right-wing regimes (specifically, Chile
>and South Korea) exceeded the coverage given to Cambodia.
>Perhaps my memory is a bit hazy... after all, these events
>were taking place during my "Dazed and Confused" high school
>years... but to my recollection there was very little written
>about Khmer Rouge atrocities until the Vietnamese invasion
>in 1979, when war, famine and chaos sent hundreds of
>thousands of starving, brutalized refugees into Thailand. It
>was then... and only then... that Cambodia became a cover story
>in the mainstream media.

Now this statement is entirely false, and I hope that if you try harder to remember, you will recall the mainstream coverage. I too was in high school at the time and I recall clearly (and C & H document in mind-numbingly exhaustive detail . . .) the -absolutely enormous- media campaign (right up there in the annals of such with China's "Criticize Confucius, Criticize Lin Piao") long before the Vietnamese invasion. It would be hard to describe accurately the size of this crocodile-tear campaign in the US, without having access to things like a library of videotapes of newscasts of the time, but at least the articles in Reader's Digest and -many- others referenced in these books should jog your memory. William Shawcross and others claiming that this media campaign did not exist is an incredible bald-faced lie, reminiscent (and just in time) of the scene in (Orwell's) 1984 when the official enemy suddenly becomes Eastasia rather than Eurasia, and displaying a truly amazing but unfortunately accurate assessment that one could declare without fear of mainstream public contradiction that what had just shortly before been the biggest story of the year simply did not exist.

I remember this very well because it was nearly the first time I had become interested in a political issue, and I was horrified at the "autogenocide" and thought quite a lot about it; however, as some of the death totals began to exceed others' estimates of the total population, I began to realize that there had to be exaggeration and began to wonder at the motive for such, beyond simple jumping on the bandwagon of partying pundits. All this long before I had ever heard of Chomsky, or any other figure on "the left" for that matter.

As Chomsky notes, and as I was puzzled by at the time, a remarkable thing about these statements is that -everyone- seemed to pretend that he was the lone voice protesting these atrocities while the world ignored them, while in reality there was an enormous herd of pundits and journalists all saying the same thing.

I am sure that anyone would agree that firsthand evidence is better than hearsay, and I can assure you and Sophal Ear that this campaign did exist and enormously outshouted whatever tiny voices in opposition there were. I noticed none, nor did, I am sure, the overwhelming majority of Americans, who do not read tiny left-wing periodicals. On this issue it is we who were in the US, who are the experts and not the Cambodians, and I hope others out of this nation of couch potatos and vidiots will confirm this for you and for Sophal Ear.

Much of SE's documentation and argument come from AIM (Accuracy In the Media), whose penchant for accuracy one can check by comparing whatever they have recently printed with the real world. The preposterous statement that there was more criticism directed against US client states (I personally never heard of human rights violations in Chile or South Korea until much later) during this period appears to be made by adroit selection of time period surveyed to before the campaign began. SE also opposes the Readers Digest article to a !headlined! story in the (now-defunct) New York Guardian a comparatively tiny Marxist newspaper and letters to the editor of the (also defunct) Washington Star. Frankly, is this a joke?

One also reads in this thesis that "This had been, after all, the same American press that almost single-handedly pushed public opinion away from further American intervention in Vietnam before Watergate." I am sure that the pilots who refused to bomb, the mass refusals to fight on the part of the US Army, and the hundreds of fraggings were caused by the soldiers watching TV newscasts (in between their viewing of Barney the Dinosaur) rather than their first hand experience.

Furthermore I note that SE's thesis appears to be partially self-refuted by its own bibliography, listing many denunciations of Khmer Rouge atrocities from 1975 on, which appeared in the mainstream press.

On Vickery's estimates, I think you should look at his recent letter to Z magazine, where he states his lack of objections to somewhat higher estimates - say a million+, and makes the point that most (all?) of the other estimates do not (as he states is standard practice, and which seems reasonable to me) differentiate between "excess deaths" due to Pol Pot & Co. and natural mortality which should be on the order of hundreds of thousands. If you think - as seems to be a consensus - that Vickery's is the best overall survey, then why do you question Chomsky and Herman's similar statements?

I have no personal objection to the use of the term "autogenocide", which seems to have been coined for the occasion, especially as long as one also uses it for the US war which was the main begetter of the Cambodian atrocity, and which the architects of this war never would, conceiving themselves to be of a different race and species than its victims, who "do not love life nor feel pain as we do" in the words of one of its apologists. In my opinion, one should be aware of the possibility that the word "autogenocide" is used to describe the actions and thus the character of a race of people who "are not like us," who could never do such a thing.

Also, if you look in "Manufacturing Consent"(I believe) you will note that C & H also lower the CIA's own estimate of casualties due to US bombing; though as far as I'm aware, they haven't been criticized for downplaying the US genocide.

Concerning the fact that Chomsky is not an expert on Cambodia, I'd like to reiterate his constant statement throughout these and all of his books, which finally sinks in the 20th or so time one reads it, that his main concern is -not- Cambodia or Vietnam or Nicaragua, but the U.S. and its institutions, and in presenting a bill of indictment against World Public Enemy Number One: the US Government and power structure; and in analyzing the way its subservient and thoroughly dishonest media aids it in doing its nefarious work. As another poster pointed out, the point is not that the US is #1, but that one has a duty to criticize the actions of one's own country, above all.

I too started reading Chomsky out of curiosity as to the thoughts and motives of the leader of the Pol Pot caucus of "Jews for Hitler". I would also like to add that precisely because almost all of what C & H wrote is press review (and therefore easily checkably true), it can be quite confusing - they go out of their way to say almost nothing positive, and state several times that the most extreme figures could be true. This style makes it rather difficult to understand that they actually mean their plain statements rather than ulteriorly denying crimes. (There is a similar problem in reading Chomsky's scientific works, many being filled with similarly ramified arguments with his linguistic/philosophical opponents.) Perhaps he should phrase things better, in order not to hurt the feelings of such victims as your wife, but factually speaking, he seems to have very little to apologize for. If you think his other statements (not all of which I have seen and evaluated personally) which you deem to be "support for the Khmer Rouge" to be but due to natural human optimism that things might get better after the war, then I hardly see what you are criticizing him about, or why you think he should retract anything.

I am not (mainly) disputing your superior knowledge of Cambodia; however I am disputing your knowledge of what Chomsky and Herman have written. The above is written entirely from memory, but the main contentions and quotations are checkable, and accurate, I believe.

Lastly, from you well-written post, and against your self-description you sound like an intelligent person. Having done the same sort of work myself, for a short while, with the same type of complaints from coworkers, I hope you get better work someday.

P.S.: (Having just read part of Sophal Ear's undergraduate thesis, I think it might have been appropriate for you to mention in your list of qualifications that you are the "editor of Cambodian Life, a Texan periodical on Cambodian issues," in addition to your janitorial duties.)

For a reply to this rebuttal, click here.
This is the second in a series of seven articles on this topic.

A more complete discussion of the Chomsky Cambodia controversy can be found in the article Averaging Wrong Answers, at

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