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Evil Scholars? The Author Responds

by Bruce Sharp

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

From: bruce@interaccess (Bruce Sharp)
Date: Tue, 30 May 1995 01:04:01 -0400

NOTE: Some of the material in this response refers to another article which had been posted in reply to my original comments. As I was unable to contact the author regarding permission to repost that article, it is not reprinted here. The essence of the article was that I had "missed the point" in Chomsky's writings about Cambodia, and that Chomsky's primary concern was not Cambodia, but rather the way that the media reacted to the reports of atrocities committed by an enemy regime.

Thanks for the feedback on my post regarding Chomsky. I appreciate that the responses have been polite and thoughtful, as opposed to what I've often seen on the net. I'd like to respond first to some of the comments by Mr. Debellis, then to Mr. Rucell. To Mr. Debellis:

One of the first things I would like to say is that you make one remark with which I completely, totally agree: That we should be more concerned with our own immoral actions than with those of our "enemies." In a sense, that is why politics in general has never interested me. I would define politics as "the science of what to tell everybody else to do." It is far better that we concern ourselves with our own actions, and let others do the same.

Don't discount media bias... But with regard to Chomsky's writings on Cambodia, I don't think I have missed the point on his writings; I think you have missed the point on mine. I'm fully aware that Chomsky acknowledges the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge... now. My intention was not to imply otherwise; in fact, I stated explicitly in my original post: "None of this, I must stress, is meant to imply that Chomsky is or was a Khmer Rouge apologist. He isn't." He did not, however, acknowledge them while they were happening, and my point is that his failure to do so was rooted in precisely the same sort of unthinking bias that he derides in the mainstream press. Or, to borrow a phrase from your post, stories which support his theory are "held to a different (far lower) standard of accountability" than stories which do not. And I would ask you again: Do you seriously believe that Chomsky applies the same critical eye to all media accounts, regardless of whether or not they support his thesis? It is my recollection that Chomsky declared that in El Salvador "the population became the battlefield." The same was true - on a much more massive scale - in Cambodia. But he did not make the same declaration with regard to that nation; rather, he described the reports emerging from that country as "a flood of lies." (Chomsky's personal communication to Francois Ponchaud, October 1977.)

Regarding the amount of coverage given to the violence in Cambodia, I very, very strenuously disagree that it was "exaggerated." But I suppose that is subjective; after all, there are really no hard an fast rules governing just how much press one should devote to a government which kills 15% of its population in three and a half years. That seems rather newsworthy to me, but again, maybe my perception is unduly colored by what happened to my wife. At any rate, with regard to coverage relative to other countries, I would refer you to Sophal Ear's thesis, posted on soc.culture.cambodia, or to "How Democracies Perish" by Jean-Francois Revel for views differing from Chomsky-Herman with regard to, respectively, Cambodia specifically, and media coverage in general. I don't completely discount Chomsky's theories of media bias; in fact, I think he's often correct in characterizing the nature of the flaws in the media, although I would disagree with his ideas of why those flaws exist. If I seem skeptical of Chomsky, it is because there is only one country in the world - Cambodia- where I really feel capable of evaluating the accuracy of conflicting historical accounts... and with regard to that one country, Chomsky has demonstrated disturbing ignorance. In how many other countries are his observations similarly in error?

Admirers of Chomsky tend to argue that his theories in general are valid, and that the specifics of what happened in Cambodia are not really relevant. But to us, the specifics are relevant. The "specifics" were children, parents, friends, colleagues...

But to return to the first point, about concern with our own actions: it is a bit ironic that this very issue was cited by Jean Lacouture after Chomsky criticized him for speaking out against the Khmer Rouge. His response to Chomsky, quoted in Sophal's thesis:

" is not only because I once argued for the victory of this regime, and feel myself partially guilty for what is happening under it, that I believe I can say: there is a time, when it is better to speak out in whatever company, than to remain silent."

With regard to Mr. Rucell's post, there is one item with which I totally, completely, vehemently disagree: the contention that the evacuation of Phnom Penh saved lives. That is absolutely absurd, and it ranks as one of the most sordid fabrications within Porter and Hildebrand's work. To begin with, to say that the evacutation had been predicted in some quarters before the end of the war is both unsurprising, and irrelevant. All Cambodia scholars, regardless of their opinions on the reasons for the evacuation, acknowledge that it was planned beforehand. As Francois 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." (P.21). But in any case, that is beside the point. Ben Kiernan, whom I consider to be the foremost authority on the Khmer Rouge reign, estimates that 20,000 people died in the evacuation of Phnom Penh. Among Cambodians whom I have personally interviewed, to the best of my recollection every last one reported seeing corpses (of civilians, not soldiers) on the roads leading out of the city; many witnessed summary executions. Most sources do suggest that there was enough food in the capital for only about a week, though 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 the Khmer Rouge refused. If the Khmer Rouge were truly concerned about starvation, then the only reason for such a refusal was that the they believed that it was more important to avoid compromising the "purity" and "self-sufficiency" of their revolution than to provide food. Further, the idea that the evacuations were undertaken to avoid starvation does not address the fact that all sizable cities were evacutated... when only Phnom Penh presented logistical difficulties for providing food. Finally, what of the brutal nature of the evacuation? Whatever the reason for the exodus, how can its absolute nature be justified? 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." (Cambodia Year Zero, pp. 6-7.)

Of all the issues raised by Mr. Rucell in his post, while I disagree with most of them, it is only this characterization of the evacuation that I consider to be completely beyond debate.

With regard to the amount of coverage given to Cambodia, beyond my response to Mr. Debellis, I will again reiterate that I may be wrong... but I doubt it. I suspect that your perception of it may be partly incorrect with regard to the period when the coverage reached its height. Beyond my own memory, I really think you are off-base in saying that William Shawcross was perpetrating a "bald-faced lie." What possible motivation would he have had? It was Shawcross who worked tirelessly to write what is generally regarded to be the definitive work on the Cambodian civil war. That book, "Sideshow," is utterly unrelenting in its criticism of US involvement in Cambodia. I would suggest also that your perception may be colored by something you mention in the next paragraph: "I remember this very well because it was nearly the first time I had become interested in a political issue..." It's possible that you remember coverage of Cambodia... but do not remember coverage of South Korea or Chile.... precisely because it was an area of interest to you. With regard to your comments on Sophal's thesis, I should first state that I don't always agree with Sophal, and for that matter disagree with some aspects of his thesis. But I think you've made a couple unfair criticisms of his work, and since I don't know if he reads this newsgroup, I'll reply. Specifically, your claim that "Much of [his] documentation and argument come from AIM (Accuracy in the Media)..." Out of 278 footnotes in the thesis, exactly three cite AIM as the source. Furthermore, you might also have noticed that Sophal notes in the footnote immediately following AIM that Chomsky and Herman rely on different sources, and further duly notes Chomsky and Herman's characterization of AIM as a "right-wing" group. Additionally, you contend that Sophal's thesis is "partially self-refuted by its own bibliography, listing many denunciations of Khmer Rouge atrocities from 1975 on..." I think you can clearly see the fallacy of that argument; the bibliography is hardly a representative sample. I think you'll concede that point, particularly in light of the fact that among the cited works written before 1980, there are MORE denying the refugee accounts than those which supported them! We would both agree that that does not reflect the nature of the media coverage.

Regarding the death toll, I am inclined, again, to be persuaded by Kiernan, David Hawk, and others who estimate a higher toll, in part because the higher toll corresponds more closely to what would be expected if I extrapolate based on the deaths suffered by the families of refugees I have personally interviewed. With regard to Vickery's work on Cambodia as being "the best overall survey," I disagree. I think Vickery's work is praiseworthy, but the thrust of his works seems a bit stilted by an anti-urban bias. There are better works by Kiernan, David Chandler, Karl Jackson, and others.

This, I realize, is getting a little bogged down in the specifics of Cambodia. My apologies for that, as this group is intended to deal with Chomsky. I hope that the main thrust of my post is not lost in all of this; I am trying to present a cautionary tale, both for scholars and for those of us who place our faith in their ideas. We all make mistakes. Of all the issues raised in response to my original post, in fact, there is one which I find very difficult to refute. I must apologize to the woman or man who posted it, since I did not save it and cannot remember his or her name. The question raised was, basically, wasn't this alot of fuss over one book review? That is factually incorrect in that Chomsky's comments were hardly limited to "one book review," but the question is still appropriate: Given that Chomsky now (more or less) acknowledges the atrocities, is the issue of "apology" still important? I guess I would concede that in the larger context, no, it doesn't make much difference to anyone now. What is done, is done...


PS to Mr. Rucell... Sophal was not quite correct in labelling me the editor of Cambodian Life. My association with that magazine, which was on a voluntary basis, involved collecting a monthly summary of news events in Cambodia. The magazine, I believe, is on the verge of being disbanded. Also... I'm no longer a janitor... I do research for a software company. Though in truth, I'm not sure that is really a "better" job!

For a reply to this article, click here.
This is the third 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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