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Cambodia and the Media: Chomsky and Herman (Archived Debate: Part 5)

Evil Scholars? The Author Responds Again

by Bruce Sharp

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

From: bsharp (Bruce Sharp)
Date: Sun, 4 Jun 1995 12:48:50 -0400

My turn for a retraction: It was foolish of me to have criticized Chomsky's statement that the US bombing ended in 1975, when it ended in 1973. I don't think Mr. Rucell's comment about the Mayaguez affair is really relevant, for reasons explained below; but I think Mr. Rucell is quite likely correct in suggesting that Chomsky merely misspoke. In a less peevish and contrarian mood, I probably would not have cited that error. But what can I say? Peevish is my middle name. Well, I mean, it's not LITERALLY my middle name, but you get the idea.

To address some of Mr. Rucell's other comments: With regard to other Khmer Rouge motives for refusing aid, he correctly mentions xenophobia and suspicion. When I put forth the opinion that their sole motives were a desire for revolutionary purity and self-sufficiency, it should be borne in mind that these desires were in fact partly rooted in xenophobia, but primarily in chauvanistic nationalism and ideological inflexibility. But to cite the Mayaguez incident as "adequate explanation for a degree of xenophobia" is getting things backwards. The refusal of aid and the evacuation of the cities took place before the seizure of the Mayaguez, which occurred in early May of 1975. However, if Mr. Rucell were to argue that the massive US bombing prior to 1973 had created that xenophobia, I don't think I'd be too inclined to disagree.

I expect him to be unbiased... Regarding the Mayaguez affair, I think it's reductio ad absurdum to contend that it represented a continuation of the earlier bombing. And I think Mr. Rucell's post presents a somewhat inaccurate view of that that incident. To simply say that "the US with incredible viciousness bombed the then Khmer Rouge - run Cambodia AFTER they had returned the crew" is to ignore several facts. Specifically: The Khmer Rouge had issued no reply whatsoever to inquiries from the US, or from the United Nations, regarding the seizure of the vessel. It was three days before the Khmer Rouge issued any statement at all on the fate of the crew. By the time they did finally comment on the incident, in a propaganda radio broadcast, military action aimed at freeing the crew was already underway. And by the time news of the broadcast reached the White House, several US marines who had gone ashore on the island of Koh Tang in the mistaken belief that the hostages were being held there had already been killed in the fighting. It is also worth noting that broadcast did not state that the crew members had been released; only that they would be. Furthermore, even after word reached the government that the hostages had been freed, the marines on Koh Tang were still engaged in combat and were under such heavy fire that they could not evacuate. The bombing on the mainland was directed at Khmer Rouge bases near Kompong Som to prevent KR forces there from reinforcing the units already on Koh Tang. Finally, it should be noted that the Khmer Rouge had already established a record of brutality in dealing with foreigners: More than twenty foreign journalists were murdered by the Khmer Rouge during the course of the Cambodian civil war. In my own estimation, the Mayaguez affair represented one of the few instances... perhaps even the only instance... where US bombing was justified.

With regard to the amount of press coverage given to events in Cambodia, I am still inclined to believe that Mr. Rucell is mistaken about WHEN that coverage became so extensive. There was a tremendous amount of coverage given to the Khmer Rouge in the summer and fall of 1979, especially the fall; this came at the same time as a tremendous outflow of boat people from Vietnam. Mr. Rucell refers to the Barron-Paul book of 1977 to support his belief that there was an "enormous barrage" of media coverage. I would point out that the worst massacres in Cambodia occured in 1975, immediately after the Khmer Rouge came to power. Given that nearly two years had passed by the time the book appeared, its existence hardly proves that there was a great deal of coverage. Again, I think the question comes back to a matter of opinion: How much press attention does genocide merit?

I'd also like to note one other item regarding Sophal Ear's thesis: I think Mr. Rucell's criticism is in part rooted in a misunderstanding of the theme of that thesis. Mr. Rucell notes that he read only chapters 4 and 5, I think he may be seriously mistaken as to what Sophal was trying to demonstrate. Sophal does not claim that the press ignored Cambodia; his contention is that the academic community -- as distinct from the mainstream press -- cast doubt upon the stories of Khmer Rouge atrocities at a time when the veracity of those accounts should have been clearly apparent. That is entirely different than claiming that the media in general ignored the atrocities. I get the impression that Mr. Rucell did not understand that Sophal's thesis addresses primarily the rather limited community of Southeast Asia scholars.

With regard to William Shawcross, I think I would probably not feel compelled to respond had you said that you believe he is mistaken. Leaving aside for a moment the accuracy of his observations, is it not rather vindictive and inappropriate to jump to the conclusion that he is "lying?" One person's post accuses him of shilling for the right wing, another person's post accuses him of being an "agent of the Khmer Rouge." And the person who accused him of supporting the Khmer Rouge is citing as evidence an article by John Pilger, whose 1979 documentary "Year Zero - The Silent Death of Cambodia" was characterized by exactly the kind of propagandistic hyperbole that Chomsky and Herman seized upon in their works... This is getting rather convoluted, isn't it? I could go into this at length, just as I could go into the issue of the bibliography (I counted 25 supporting, 26 questioning... but if I characterized less broadly, I'd say that Mr. Rucell's count is probably more precise) a bit more, or the issue of why the US "supported" the Khmer Rouge through the Eighties (not exactly true that they did, not exactly false, not exactly without reason... which is not to say that I agreed with the policy, because I think it was immoral, appalling, short-sighted, and stupid)... but I think I'm probably getting pretty tedious and dull already...

A couple final comments: that Chomsky aims to present the side of the story less frequently seen, that he makes few positive statements one way or the other... that no one can be an "entire 'unbiased' news service." I do not expect Chomsky to be a news service, but I do expect him to be unbiased. He was not coerced into reviewing Porter and Hildebrand's book. Is it too much to ask that he objectively evaluate a work before giving it his stamp of approval?

Lastly, with respect to the comment in Mr. Rucell's first post, suggesting that some of what I have quoted is "taken out of context," I would argue that what I have done is precisely the opposite. I have put these statements into context. Mr. Rucell correctly points out that Chomsky's primary concern is not Cambodia, but rather the media. Is media criticism more important than the death of innocent people? For Chomsky to have chosen to cast doubt on the stories of the refugees while the Khmer Rouge were in power was inopportune at best. It is as though a man had seen a building engulfed in flames, and had called out, "Everybody! Get out! The whole building is burning!"... and Chomsky promptly replied that the man was exaggerating, that anyone willing to exercise his or her powers of observation could plainly see that the "whole" building wasn't burning, that there was clearly an area on the third floor that was untouched by the fire, that much of the structure was concrete and of course we all know that concrete is not flammable, that even though there was, granted, some fire, from the man's vantage point on the street there was really no way to know what was happening in the back of the structure...

I apologize for ending this post with rhetoric; analogies may serve to illustrate, but they do not prove anything. I don't wish to... uh... shall I say, fan the flames?... especially since Mr. Rucell raises valid points, particularly about my relative ignorance of the some of the nuances of Chomsky's theories. So, as a token of good faith, let me hereby misspell the word, "Potato."


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