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My Response to Noam Chomsky

by Bruce Sharp

Life is short.

Someday, I will look back on my life, and regret the time that I spent on pointless endeavors.

With that in mind, I will try to keep this short... though brevity has never been among my strengths.

Recently a reader emailed a link to a posting on Noam Chomsky's blog. For the uninitiated, Chomsky has written a great deal about Cambodia, and most of it has been highly misleading. About two and a half years ago, I wrote a very long article (Averaging Wrong Answers) evaluating Chomsky's comments on Cambodia.

On Chomsky's blog, a reader had posted a question, and in that question quoted a brief passage from Averaging Wrong Answers. The reader questioned whether or not Chomsky could be accused of selecting "wrong or exaggerated data for the purposes of misleading people toward the conclusions you like." The quoted passage read:

"At only 124 pages, Starvation and Revolution is a slim volume. Describing the reports of atrocities in Cambodia as 'systematic process of mythmaking,' Hildebrand and Porter present a glowing depiction of the Khmer Rouge. The authors assert that the charges of starvation in Cambodia are unfounded: 'It is the officially inspired propaganda of starvation for which no proof has been produced... Thus the starvation myth has come full circle to haunt its authors.'(11) The Khmer Rouge, according to Hildebrand and Porter, were rebuilding the country quite effectively, implementing a 'coherent, well-developed plan for developing the economy.'(12) A few of the book's omissions should be noted. The book makes no mention of public executions. It makes no mention of the forcible separation of children from their families, no mention of the separation of husbands and wives, no mention of the repression of ethnic minorities, no mention of restrictions on travel, or the abolition of the mail system. Put simply, the book bears no earthly resemblance to the reality of communist Cambodia.........

........But what about the sections of the book dealing specifically with the Khmer Rouge? The primary sources for these chapters: The Khmer Rouge. The book's last fifty footnotes, from the chapter on 'Cambodia's Agricultural Revolution,' provide an excellent case in point. Out of these 50 citations, there are 43 that pertain to the Khmer Rouge regime. Of these, 33 can be traced directly to the Khmer Rouge sources. Six more come from Hsinhua, the official news agency of Communist China, i.e., the Khmer Rouge's wealthiest patron. Two come from an unnamed source, described only as 'a Cambodian economist.' And the remaining two references? Both come from Le Monde: one is a dubious estimate of future rice production, and the other simply notes that, in the future, large rice paddies would be subdivided, 'giving the country the appearance of an enormous checkerboard.'"

Chomsky's response to the post contains virtually nothing new; and I would not bother to respond, were it not for the fact that he accuses me personally of "extreme dishonesty":

"I know nothing about Bruce Sharp, and have no time to access the link or in fact anything from the huge torrent of charges about Cambodia that derive from one of many industries of denunciation, from many different quarters... As I will show below, the one excerpt from Sharp's article below keeps to the standards of extreme dishonestly[sic] of the industry."

Curiously, he never gets around to explaining precisely what he thinks is "dishonest." (Generally, I believe it is customary to cite something that is actually false when you accuse someone of lying.)

Chomsky does, however, devote a substantial amount of space to an explanation of why he shouldn't have to respond to criticism:

"No one does that, or is expected to, in professional life either. It would be an impossible and pointless task, for anyone who does anything in the least controversial... But no one, ever, can be expected to respond to what is posted somewhere or even appears in print. To repeat, no one ever is expected to do that, whether in professional or political life, and certainly not when it becomes an industry -- in this case, an extremely interesting industry, casting a dazzling light on the deeply rooted imperial mentality and the dedication to serve state power and atrocities."

The bulk of Chomsky's response is composed of the same misrepresentations that he has made for years. There is the claim that his critics are imperial apologists, and that they are justifying U.S. atrocities in Central America. There is the claim that Chomsky and Herman's goal was to contrast the response to Cambodia with East Timor. (Never mind that there is no mention of East Timor in "Distortions at Fourth Hand," the article which touched off the controversy to begin with.)

And, again, there is the familiar claim that John Barron and Anthony Paul's book about Cambodia was "worthless." Flawed? Yes. But worthless? Hardly: it presents a generally accurate picture of Khmer Rouge Cambodia. The same cannot be said of Hildebrand and Porter's book, which Chomsky praised.

Chomsky also reprises his insinuation that Francois Ponchaud had heaped praise upon him: Ponchaud, according to Chomsky, praised "everything I had written (or co-authored with Herman) about Cambodia." This is bluntly dishonest: as detailed in Averaging Wrong Answers, it is excruciatingly clear that in the introduction to the American edition of Ponchaud's book, which Chomsky quotes, Ponchaud was in fact expressing disappointment with Chomsky's purported quest to "stem the flood of lies" (Chomsky's phrase) about Cambodia.

What is new is Chomsky's distortion of what I myself have said. He claims that I "express outrage over our citation of H-P, the only scholarly study then available." First, it is absurd to say that Hildebrand and Porter's book is "scholarly," and yet Ponchaud is not. But more to the point, the substance of Chomsky's claim is false: I did not express outrage over the fact that Chomsky cited Hildebrand and Porter. (In fact, in other contexts, I myself have cited Hildebrand and Porter.) No, as was clear from the excerpt that Chomsky claimed to be refuting, my complaint is not that he cited Hildebrand and Porter: my complaint is that his review of Hildebrand and Porter is grotesquely misleading, as is his claim that they had based their work on "a wide range of sources."

Remember, of course, that Professor Chomsky has already admitted that he didn't actually read what I wrote. Perhaps he should have: it would have saved him from making yet another blatantly false statement. Specifically, he claims that I "omit the most crucial facts, among them our citation of H-P to correct exaggerations of US crimes, but others that are far more significant."

Had he bothered to read my article, he would know that in fact I cite precisely the passage where he addresses Ponchaud's "exaggeration" of US crimes. And, as I noted, in the broader context of the book, this is a trivial error; and yet Chomsky and Herman used this trivial error to claim that Ponchaud was playing "fast and loose" with numbers. Moreover, as I noted in Averaging, Chomsky and Herman's so-called "correction" misstates what Ponchaud had said to begin with: Ponchaud had cited a figure the Khmer Rouge had given as the number of those disabled during the war; but Chomsky and Herman incorrectly state that this figure was given as the number of wounded.

This, from the man who complains endlessly about the supposed sloppiness of Ponchaud's scholarship.

In any case, Chomsky goes on to complain that the question posted to his blog omitted any discussion of the role of the U.S. bombing in the creation of the Khmer Rouge. One could easily ask why a straightforward question about the accuracy of Chomsky's review should have discussed such a thing. Again, however, there is a more important point: since he purports to be responding to what I wrote, Chomsky is implying that I ignore the role of the United States in creating the Khmer Rouge. This, too, is false, illustrating again the pitfalls of attempting to refute an argument without reading it first. In Averaging, I stated my opinion directly: "While Chomsky's comments on Cambodia are misleading and inaccurate, one important point must be borne in mind: The actions of the United States were largely responsible for the growth of the Khmer Rouge."

Chomsky then moves on to the question of "timing." He writes that "Kahin refers to the period before the Khmer Rouge takeover, and the few weeks that followed. The reason is that the book went to press shortly after the KR takeover, as the footnotes to which Sharp refers triumphantly make explicit." Apparently he is implying that the book was written immediately after the takeover. Par for the course, however, this is again wrong. And once again, this point was addressed in Averaging: Chomsky has previously claimed that the book was written "a few months" after the takeover, but the inclusion of footnotes dated May 1976 indicates that the Khmer Rouge had in fact been in power for more than a year before the book was completed. Here, by referring only to Kahin's introduction, and "the few weeks that followed," he appears to be intent upon obscuring the truth still further. It scarcely matters; had Hildebrand and Porter's book actually been written only a few weeks after the fall of Phnom Penh, it would still be wildly inaccurate; only those inaccuracies would be slightly more forgivable. In any case, we are left to wonder: Why was it that the unscholarly Ponchaud could get it right, while the scholarly Hildebrand and Porter could not?

Scholars, indeed. I find myself rather underwhelmed by the accuracy of Professor Chomsky, a man who is surely one of the world's most renowned scholars. There is something vaguely amusing about being called "dishonest" by a man of the Professor's stature... particularly when he admits that he didn't actually read what I wrote, and neglects to explain exactly what I said that he finds dishonest.

His diatribe about "the Cambodia industry," however, is considerably less amusing. It is frankly offensive: the man who called reports of Khmer Rouge atrocities a "flood of lies" now feels qualified to distinguish between legitimate "Cambodia studies" and the vile "Cambodia industry." Chomsky, his motives as pure as the driven snow, has spent years droning on about how Cambodia illustrated his "propaganda model"; and yet those of use who have spent countless hours trying to understand the genocide that took place between 1975 and 1979 are said to be engaged in "a depraved form of retrospective justification for the US wars in Indochina."

Anyone who believes that I personally am attempting to justify US wars in Indochina could easily determine whether or not that is the case by simply reading a few of the articles available on this site; a good starting point might be the article entitled Twenty-Twenty Foresight. Am I trying to justify imperialism, or murder in Central America? Anyone genuinely curious can easily learn why the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime matter to me.

I am not bothered by the fact that Chomsky knows nothing about me; there is no reason that he should. And, I completely understand why he has no time to read what I wrote. As I noted at the outset: Life is short.

When Chomsky was asked about the excerpt from my article, a reasonable response would have been: "I have not read this article, and unfortunately I do not have the time to do so. For that reason, I can't really address your question."

It is not, however, a reasonable response to attribute to me attitudes and beliefs that I do not hold. It is not reasonable to accuse me of omissions, when the facts that I supposedly "omitted" are outlined in detail in the article that the Professor did not bother to read. It is not reasonable to accuse me of mendacity, without citing so much as a single factual error in what I have written.

And above all, it is not reasonable for Professor Chomsky to deem who is and who is not sufficiently righteous to write about Cambodia.

-- December 30, 2006


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