Evil Scholars? A Few Thoughts on a Debate That Won't End
The controversy over Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman's comments on Cambodia seems to flare up every few months. It has been eight years since I found myself in the middle of one such debate. That debate has, for many years, been archived on this site, in a series of seven articles, beginning with Evil Scholars: Cambodia and the Media.
A more recent (and much more detailed) discussion of Chomsky's work is available in another article on this site, entitled Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy.
Initially, I believed that he simply did not understand the true nature of the Khmer Rouge regime. At this point, I don't think that is the case: I think he simply decided that the only way to combat propaganda was with counter-propaganda, and the nature of the Khmer Rouge was completely irrelevant to the point he was determined to make. Nonetheless, it is difficult to read Chomsky's remarks without feeling a pang of anger. It is hard to be dispassionate when the victims were friends and family members.
Rereading the archived debate, there are a few additional remarks that seem worth making. There are a few inaccurate statements by Mr. Rucell that I did not notice or comment on at the time; but since he does not have the opportunity to defend his position, it would be unfair of me to comment on those. I will, however, comment on one of my own statements which was stupid and utterly wrongheaded: At one point, I suggested that the Khmer Rouge claimed more victims in 1975 than in 1977. I justified this statement by arguing that although there were more killings in 1977, many of these were themselves Khmer Rouge who were killed in a series of violent purges. This is simply wrong: although many of the later victims were indeed Khmer Rouge, this does not change the fact that they were brutally murdered. Moreover, in typical Khmer Rouge fashion, in many instances entire families were killed for the sins of one purged cadre.
Considering the articles in a broader sense, the question of whether or not all of the statements made by Chomsky and Herman were accurate is not the sole issue. It is what they did not say that causes so many people to misunderstand what happened in Cambodia. By presenting evidence only of errors in media coverage of the Khmer Rouge - and then favorably reviewing a book that denied Khmer Rouge atrocities - Chomsky and Herman lead many people to conclude that the atrocities never occurred.
Imagine for a moment that you work in an emergency room. It is your job to prepare a case history of each patient. You explain to the doctor on duty that this particular patient has been complaining of nausea, and that he has a history of hypochondria. Those are accurate statements. But you fail mention that this patient has diarreah, has been vomiting, is losing large clumps of hair, and worked on the cleanup crew at the site of a leak in the cooling system of the local nuclear reactor.
What you said was completely and totally accurate. But would anyone argue that you had really done your job?
The absurdity of the manner in which Chomsky and Herman regard refugee reports is exasperating. If fifty people witnessed Khmer Rouge executions, but five people didn't, Chomsky and Herman clamor about "media bias" when newspapers don't report the stories of the people who didn't personally see the killings.
If someone burns a cross on your lawn and paints racist slogans on your front door, that would be news. But by Chomsky's logic, reporters should be writing about the houses that aren't vandalized. After all, there are more of those, aren't there? Aren't the reporters demonstrating bias by "sensationalizing" the story of the house that was "supposedly" defaced?
One wonders how Chomsky expects readers to learn about human rights by speaking only to a handful of people whose rights were not violated. Would Chomsky approach a story about human rights in Argentina the same way he approaches Cambodia? Would he argue that if the right-wing death squads of El Salvador were not "centrally directed" by the government, but were in fact "grassroots expressions" of anger by rich landowners, that the Salvadoran government should not be held accountable?
Regardless of Chomsky's intent, the simple truth is that readers whose only knowledge of Cambodia comes from Chomsky will have a seriously erroneous idea of the nature of the Khmer Rouge regime. Moreover, it is horribly tiresome to see Chomsky continually citing press coverage of Cambodia as a perfect example of his theories of media bias.
There may indeed be some merit to some of Chomsky's ideas... but the press coverage of Khmer Rouge Cambodia certainly is not an example of it. Certainly the media criticizes our allies less harshly than our official enemies. I don't know what to say to that except... well, duh. If my children are noisy at the movie theatre, they are just high-spirited. If someone else's children are noisy, they are troublesome, undisciplined brats. Welcome to human nature. It's not exactly rocket science, is it?
I would make this analogy regarding Chomsky's theories and Cambodia: Chomsky is like a man who insists that we absolutely must make sure that our cars have antifreeze. As he is driving to work one day, he passes an empty car, stopped on the side of the road. A hundred yards ahead, a man is walking away from the car, carrying a gas can. "You see?" says Chomsky, "he has run low on antifreeze, and his car has overheated." I don't think that is the conclusion I would draw, but hey, I'm not a famous professor.
The best essay I've ever read about Chomsky's work is:
My Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky
Another outstanding analysis is by Russil Wvong:
Noam Chomsky: A Critical Review
There is also a nice collection of critical resources at:
Leftwatch.Com: Noam Chomsky
Z Magazine maintains an extensive online archive of Chomsky's works:
The Noam Chomsky Archive