**note: I wrote this before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the [at time of writing this note – september 2022 – ongoing] war. Chomsky – very unsurprisingly, if you look at what is documented on this page – has peddled some crappy pseudo-anti-imperialist talking points about the whole situation. I haven’t added stuff on this in this post, but maybe I’ll do it at some point. To be frank, I’m probably gonna choose to leave it as it was when I first wrote it, because the old man spews bullshit on an almost weekly basis, I’m not gonna update this every time he goes out of his way to make silly/shitty comments on current events/geopolitics…
It was inevitable that at some point I would do this, and the time has come for a short breakdown of the “dark side” of Noam Chomsky, which on a moral level completely discredits everything worthwhile he may have said. Guess what, the fact he has behaved in these harmful and disturbing ways means that whatever insights may remain from his very long career of talking about US society, politics and imperialism – maybe there are some, but a broken clock can be right twice a day, and if you’re over 90 years old like him, that possibly adds up to quite a lot over the years – must be recontextualised/revisited and better sources of analysis ought to be prioritised. Lots of very smart people across history had bad-to-horrendous politics or were racist, etc. We don’t have to keep relying on them, why not aim for better intellectuals/sources that don’t betray basic ethical and ideological standards? Not engaging in denialism and the spreading of conspiracy theories shouldn’t be such a high bar for sorting out which authors or intellectuals are worth giving credit to and taking seriously.
That being said, I want to emphasize something here, by way of comparing Chomsky to a much more important figure: W.E.B. Du Bois. Despite being one of the most important intellectuals and individuals of the 20th century (among many other things, a pioneer of modern sociology and critical theories of race/racism), and particularly important for the black radical/communist/socialist tradition in North America, a rather shocking aspect of his politics/worldview was pointed out by Christopher Wong and has stayed on my mind ever since. Du Bois supported the atrocious Japanese colonialism/fascism that was objectively one of the darkest parts of the very dark 20th century, and this simply isn’t something that can be glossed over when we talk about his own legacy. So what is the difference between him and Chomsky? Should we also dismiss Du Bois as a whole, then?
There’s no point in trying to ignore or rationalize the “problematic” dimensions of (nearly all, save a few) radical/socialist historical figures and intellectuals, but that doesn’t mean having to throw them away completely as inherently worthless for today. Or does it? I personally think there’s a pretty clear difference between acknowledging and critiquing things we don’t like in authors/individuals we otherwise find valuable, on other things/topics about which we deem their contributions *unique* and *important*, and coming to think that in other cases, the person’s disturbing and dangerous views on some issues/questions actually lead to a necessity to step away from them more completely/permanently. The difference between Chomsky and Du Bois – or, for that matter, Bakunin (and his antisemitism) – is that the ‘dark side’ of Chomsky is located in and derived from the arguments/contributions he is most famous for and the main reason he has been hugely influential on several generations of radicals/activists in the US. Outside of linguistics, he is most famous/influential for his critique of propaganda and mainstream American ideology on the one hand, and his analyses/critique of US foreign policy and imperialism, on the other hand. His views on the collapse of Yugoslavia and Bosnia/Kosova, Cambodia, etc., stem precisely from both aspects of his worldview. Therefore, his own perspective in these two main areas led to the harmful and retrograde arguments (and by extension, politics) that are reviewed below. As explained by anarchist historian Zoe Baker, Bakunin’s anarchism (for example, his critique of state power and state socialism) wasn’t rooted in or derived from his antisemitism, and various anarchists criticized/opposed it when they learned about it. On the contrary, not only are Chomsky’s most appalling views tied to his most important arguments – such as his (in)famous “propaganda model”, authored with E. Herman. The fact that this led to dangerous/”problematic” views has not only not been criticized by the bulk of people who have been influenced by and still refer/defer to him, these people more often than not repeat and spread further these really harmful arguments.
As a leftist/socialist teenager, trying to find new analytical and ideological frameworks or perspectives that criticize and help make sense of US imperialism/foreign policy, I really liked popular leftist ‘intellectuals’ like Chomsky and Vijay Prashad and for a time looked up everything I could find from them. I remember using the commuting time during a small one-month job (in a farm) to listen to Chomsky’s talks which were compiled in a long playlist on Spotify. I read his books diligently. Over the last few years, I have had to come to terms with the fact that many of the most popular figures of the international (esp. Western) leftist intelligentsia are deeply flawed, to the point that they simply can’t be relied upon and promoted anymore. The likes of Prashad and Chomsky are uncontroversially pretty smart guys, so their undeniable habit of peddling harmful conspiracist and denialist viewpoints within the left must be taken very seriously: I don’t believe that simple opportunism and cynicism can explain why they keep behaving in ways that undermine the radical goals of international revolution and solidarity. This means that what’s happening here is more nefarious: the problem comes largely from some aspects of their worldview (that is, both their political ideology and theoretical/analytical viewpoints) which, because of their notoriety and popularity, end up being spread and replicated across much of the left’s media and information/political discussion circles.
Ultimately, there is no simple answer for dealing with the problematic (and even unforgivable) aspects of some of the past’s most influential figures in radical history and politics. The only right thing to do is to ruthlessly oppose and critically deconstruct these things, such as Du Bois’ support of one of the darkest colonialist projects in recent centuries. It has to be said that some other black radicals in the US at the time were already taking the opposite view, as explained in this article by Mohammed Elnaiem (on Du Bois’ support for Japan, see two articles here and here). In the end, many radicals and leftists in the past failed to stay consistent across all topics and issues: very often one can find something on or about which they held “problematic” and even reactionary views. Dealing with this problem (i.e. not something that can be glossed over) is the responsibility of other radicals and leftists today as much as it was in the past. And this is where the parallel with Chomsky comes again. Despite the relative differences between the cases of Chomsky and Du Bois that I pointed out, the critique of the fundamentally harmful ideas peddled by Chomsky today is important for the same reasons as opposing what Du Bois said would be if we were in the shoes of radicals back then. It’s nothing more than basic moral and ideological consistency, from the standpoint of radical socialists favoring international solidarity/brotherhood: unlike far too many people on the left both in the past and today, siding with the oppressed, the persecuted (including and especially in the context of genocides, it should go without saying) should be an uncontroversial starting point and immediate priority. Any time someone claiming to oppose domination, oppression, imperialism, untold suffering and injustice, fails to actually do so and instead undermines the survival/resistance/liberation/revolution/etc. of oppressed people/groups, they are giving more power to the oppressors, the forces of tyranny and reaction/counterrevolution.
I believe that popular leftist intellectuals in recent decades, such as Chomsky and V. Prashad (not to mention Milosevic fanboy Michael Parenti), have been vastly overrated as supposedly radical thinkers of modern politics. The fact that they also consistently/repeatedly act in ways that are deeply harmful to oppressed groups and thoroughly incompatible with genuine international solidarity and emancipation, should be enough to discredit them from ever being taken seriously or asked to intervene. But as others have pointed many times, what we see more often than not is the contrary: what will it take for these denialists, grifters and authoritarians to be considered persona-non-grata in leftist/radical groups and movements?
Let’s now turn to Chomsky’s bullshit. The following brief examination is divided in three sections:
- A summary of the disturbing and harmful behaviors Chomsky has engaged in or contributed to over the years.
- A brief note characterizing what is wrong with him in general.
- Concluding with a call for rejecting Chomsky (and the like) in radical/leftist circles. This should have been done by the early 2000s or earlier, but his influence within the left is still harmful and must be opposed.
Chomsky represents in many ways the rotten core of much of contemporary leftist viewpoints and political radicalism, which he significantly influenced over the last 30+ years.
Part 1: Overview and Resources/Receipts
Let’s review the consistent pattern of Chomsky saying/doing outrageous or despicable things – and getting away with it for some reason (the overall spinelessness and immorality of many people on the left, I’m afraid). This covers the main issues, but let me know if I missed something (I’ll look into it and add it if relevant).
The Faurisson Affair
Weirdly emulating a specific and rather obscure subset of French leftist radicals (part of what was and is sometimes called “ultra-left” in the jargon of marxist circles) who peddled Holocaust denial in the 1960s and 70s, Chomsky infamously supported the so-called ‘right to free speech’ of notorious Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson (in French, see this and this), a well-known far right activist and antisemite. This period – including the 1980s, saw a weird proliferation of historical relativism across the political spectrum, especially in France. The so-called “new philosophers” and rightwing “anti-totalitarians” (such as André Glucksman, François Furet or Bernard-Henry Lévy) who became prominent in France in the 70s, contributed to this significantly, notably by re-defining stalinism and nazism as being essentially the same. But the fact that some individuals and small sects/groups from margins of the left played a role in spreading denialism is a damning example of what Alain Bihr called “the pitfalls of revolutionary sectarianism” (“les mésaventures du sectarisme révolutionnaire”).
In the fall of 1979, Chomsky was asked by French sociologist Serge Thion to sign a petition calling for Faurisson’s “freedom of speech and expression” to be defended and protected. Thion belonged in the same category of intellectuals as Chomsky: an academic presenting himself as a “libertarian socialist”, he had already peddled genocide denial in the case of Cambodia [see below for Chomsky’s similar record on this]. Chomsky considered it as his libertarian duty to defend Faurisson, in spite of supposedly not being aware of the content of works and views – and explicitly not caring about those, as can be seen here: “The petition implied nothing about quality of Faurisson’s work, which was irrelevant to the issues raised.” The petition was condemned by many people including Pierre Vidal-Naquet, one of the foremost French authors on the question of denialism.
Continuing further down this insane free-speech-absolutist path, Chomsky then wrote a “brief statement” on this affair, according to him on the demand of Thion again:
Thion then asked me to write a brief statement on the purely civil libertarian aspects of this affair. I did so, telling him to use it as he wished. In this statement, I made it explicit that I would not discuss Faurisson’s work, having only limited familiarity with it (and, frankly, little interest in it). Rather, I restricted myself to the civil-liberties issues and the implications of the fact that it was even necessary to recall Voltaire’s famous words in a letter to M. le Riche: “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”
I later learned that my statement was to appear in a book in which Faurisson defends himself against the charges soon to be brought against him in court. While this was not my intention, it was not contrary to my instructions. I received a letter from Jean-Pierre Faye, a well-known anti-Fascist writer and militant, who agreed with my position but urged me to withhold my statement because the climate of opinion in France was such that my defense of Faurisson’s right to express his views would be interpreted as support for them. I wrote to him that I accepted his judgment, and requested that my statement not appear, but by then it was too late to stop publication.https://chomsky.info/19810228/
The ‘statement’ by Chomsky was published in 1980 as a preface to Faurisson’s Mémoire en Défense contre ceux qui m’accusent de falsifier l’Histoire: La Question des Chambres à gaz [A Defense Against Those Who Accuse Me of Falsifying History: The Question of the Gas-Chambers]. As Vidal-Naquet and others pointed out, he not only “defends his freedom of speech” but actually denies that he is an anti-semite or neo-nazi (a fact that had been known for decades by then), calling him instead “a relatively apolitical liberal”:
Let me add a final remark about Faurisson’s alleged “anti-Semitism.” Note first that even if Faurisson were to be a rabid anti-Semite and fanatic pro-Nazi — such charges have been presented to me in private correspondence that it would be improper to cite in detail here — this would have no bearing whatsoever on the legitimacy of the defense of his civil rights. On the contrary, it would make it all the more imperative to defend them since, once again, it has been a truism for years, indeed centuries, that it is precisely in the case of horrendous ideas that the right of free expression must be most vigorously defended; it is easy enough to defend free expression for those who require no such defense. Putting this central issue aside, is it true that Faurisson is an anti-Semite or a neo-Nazi? As noted earlier, I do not know his work very well. But from what I have read — largely as a result of the nature of the attacks on him — I find no evidence to support either conclusion. Nor do I find credible evidence in the material that I have read concerning him, either in the public record or in private correspondence. As far as I can determine, he is a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort. In support of the charge of anti-Semitism, I have been informed that Faurisson is remembered by some schoolmates as having expressed anti-Semitic sentiments in the 1940s, and as having written a letter that some interpret as having anti-Semitic implications at the time of the Algerian war. I am a little surprised that serious people should put such charges forth — even in private — as a sufficient basis for castigating someone as a long-time and well-known anti-Semitic. I am aware of nothing in the public record to support such charges. I will not pursue the exercise, but suppose we were to apply similar standards to others, asking, for example, what their attitude was towards the French war in Indochina, or to Stalinism, decades ago. Perhaps no more need be said.https://chomsky.info/19801011/
Not only did Chomsky tell Thion to do whatever he wanted with the statement – as he says above, using it as a preface “was not [his] intention, [but] it was not contrary to [his] instructions” -, he later said that he regreted asking for a retraction at the last minute (after Jean-Pierre Faye asked him to do so): “I should have just said fine, let it appear”.
Then in 1989 he continued to defend his stance, giving this reasoning for not assuming that someone who has spent their career denying the holocaust might be an anti-Semite: someone who’d never heard of the Nazis might not believe it was possible. The appalling rationalist and insensitive “let’s enter the battle of ideas and only use spurious ‘logical’ depoliticized arguments to this talk about this atrocity” stance – which is typical of denialist rhetoric – comes out in the following words:
Now your first question. The “statement” to which you refer is a distortion of something that I wrote in a personal letter 11 years ago, when I was asked whether the fact that a person denies the existence of gas chambers does not prove that he is an anti-Semite. I wrote back what every sane person knows: no, of course it does not. A person might believe that Hitler exterminated 6 million Jews in some other way without being an anti-Semite. Since the point is trivial and disputed by no one, I do not know why we are discussing it.
In that context, I made a further point: even denial of the Holocaust would not prove that a person is an anti-Semite. I presume that that point too is not subject to contention. Thus if a person ignorant of modern history were told of the Holocaust and refused to believe that humans are capable of such monstrous acts, we would not conclude that he is an anti-Semite. That suffices to establish the point at issue.https://chomsky.info/1989____/
To conclude, in his famous book Les assassins de la mémoire (1981), Pierre Vidal-Naquet wrote a summary of what’s at stake in this whole story:
The simple truth, Noam Chomsky, is that you were unable to abide by the ethical maxim you had imposed. You had the right to say: my worst enemy has the right to be free, on condition that he not ask for my death or that of my brothers. You did not have the right to say: my worst enemy is a comrade, or a “relatively apolitical sort of liberal.” You did not have the right to take a falsifier of history and to recast him in the colors of truth.
[then, in a 1987 postscript]
Let us restate the point with due calm: the principle he invokes is not what is at stake. If Chomsky had restricted himself to defending Faurisson’s right to free speech, from my point of view there would not be any Chomsky problem. But that is not the issue. Nor is the issue for me one of responding to the innumerable proclamations, articles, and letters through which Chomsky, like some worn-out computer reprinting the same speech, has spewed forth his outrage at those who have been so bold as to criticize him, and specifically at the author of these pages.
It will suffice for me to observe: 1) that he went considerably further than was generally believed in his personal support of Faurisson, exchanging friendly letters with him, accepting even to be prefaced by the leader of the revisionist league Pierre Guillaume (while claiming –mendaciously– that he had not written a preface for Faurisson), characterizing Guillaume as “libertarian and antifascist on principle” (which must have provoked some hilarity from the interested party, since he regards antifascism as fundamentally mendacious); 2) that he has not remained faithful to his own libertarian principles since he –whom the slightest legal action against Faurisson throws into a fit– went so far as to threaten a publisher with a lawsuit over a biographical note concerning him in which several sentences had the misfortune of displeasing him. And in fact, he succeeded in having the biographical note in question assigned to a more loyal editor.
To be sure, it is not the case that Chomsky’s theses in any way approximate those of the neo-Nazis. But why does he find so much energy and even tenderness in defending those who have become the publishers and defenders of the neo- Nazis, and so much rage against those who allow themselves to fight them? That is the simple question I shall raise. When logic has no other end than self-defence, it goes mad.http://www.anti-rev.org/textes/VidalNaquet81b/
In a similar way to the Faurisson affair, denialism about the Cambodian genocide included various leftwing academics and intellectuals in the latter part of the 70s, as political scientist Sophal Ear documented in his 1995 study “The Khmer Rouge Canon 1975-1979: The Standard Total Academic View on Cambodia“. And Chomsky took part in that ugly confusionist game, i.e. relying on his recurring style of muddying the waters without explicitly denying that things (massive atrocities) happened, which is a very common denialist tactic:
The question of whether or not Noam Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge is not as clear as either his critics or his defenders would like to pretend. His critics frequently extract a handful of quotes from “Distortions at Fourth Hand” or “After The Cataclysm” and suggest that Chomsky was an enthusiastic advocate for the Cambodian communists. His defenders, meanwhile, limit their collections of quotes to Chomsky’s disclaimers and qualifiers, conveniently ignoring the underlying theme of his articles: that Khmer Rouge Cambodia was not nearly as bad as the regime’s detractors claimed. Gathering all of Chomsky’s fig leaves into a single pile, they exclaim: My what a lot of greenery.
There is something vaguely unsettling in Chomsky’s words, even as he acknowledges the horrible toll of the Cambodian communists: there was an atrocity, people were outraged, so on and so forth, blah blah blah. The reaction is Chomsky’s primary concern; genocide itself is a lesser point.
If Chomsky was initially sceptical of the reports of Khmer Rouge atrocities, he was certainly not alone. Given that he now acknowledges the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, is it fair to continue to criticise him?
A peculiar irony is at the heart of this controversy: Noam Chomsky, the man who has spent years analyzing propaganda, is himself a propagandist. Whatever one thinks of Chomsky in general, whatever one thinks of his theories of media manipulation and the mechanisms of state power, Chomsky’s work with regard to Cambodia has been marred by omissions, dubious statistics, and, in some cases, outright misrepresentations. On top of this, Chomsky continues to deny that he was wrong about Cambodia. He responds to criticisms by misrepresenting his own positions, misrepresenting his critics’ positions, and describing his detractors as morally lower than ‘neo Nazis and neo Stalinists.’ Consequently, his refusal to reconsider his words has led to continued misrepresentations of what really happened in Cambodia. Misconceptions, it seems, have a very long life.”https://www.mekong.net/cambodia/chomsky.htm
And as usual, Chomsky only knows to do one thing: doubling down. In an interview from 2009, he said that his words (that is, denial of the Cambodian genocide) are “some of the most accurate things written in history”:
Q. You were heavily criticised for some of your views of the KR, and some accused you of being favourable to the KR. Were you unfairly criticised?
A. It’s ridiculous — in fact, there has been a massive critique of some of things that Edward Herman and I wrote — and my view is that they were some of the most accurate things that were written in history.
Nobody has been able to find a missed comma, which is not surprising. Before we published the chapter — we had it reviewed by most of the leading specialists on the topic, who made some suggestions, but basically nothing.
Our main conclusion was: You have to tell the truth — don’t lie about our crimes denying them, and don’t lie about their crimes exaggerating them. In fact, what we actually did … the main thesis is a comparison between Cambodia and East Timor. And it’s a natural comparison — massive atrocities going on in the same part of the world — the same years — East Timor went on for another 25 years afterwards, and relative to population, they were about at the same scale. And what we found was that there was massive lying, but in opposite directions. In the case of East Timor, it was ignored and denied. In the case of Cambodia, it was wild accusations without a particle of evidence. So what was the fundamental difference between the two cases — in Indonesia we were responsible, and we could have done something. But in the other case, an enemy was responsible.https://chomsky.info/20090327/
Just to pick a few more instances of his awful attitude, he once said that “The slaughter by the Khmer Rouge is a Moss-New York Times creation.” Worse still, he compared the victims of genocidal stalinism in Cambodia with Nazi collaborators, by saying that the Khmer Rouge terror was similar to French vigilanteism (against the collaborators) after the end of WWII. It doesn’t get more ghoulish than that, even without saying that the genocidal atrocities didn’t happen.
While Chomsky asserts it may be important to know how many died under the Khmer Rouge, here and ever after he dismisses the quest for precision as windmill chasing, the matter being simply too difficult to determine given the body of evidence.
And yet, when it comes to the American bombing, he has no problem in expressing confidence in numbers (placing deaths in the hundreds of thousands) based on far less compelling evidence than for estimates of deaths for the period 1975-1979. In truth, the best estimate for deaths attributable to the American bombing is “we have no friggin’ idea, really”. But the paucity of evidence when it comes to the pre 1975 deaths is side-stepped by Chomsky as it makes it that much harder to shift focus to the “Blame America” theme on which he has established his career as a historian.https://www.khmer440.com/k/2013/05/cambodia-the-chomsky-problem/
These are just a few elements of Chomsky’s record on Cambodia. It is appalling, and yet neither this nor denying the Bosnian genocide (or defending Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson) have seeminlgy been enough for radical circles to discredit him significantly. For more on this issue (Cambodia and Chomsky’s denialism), see the following articles. which go into much more detail:
- Michael Ezra: Malcolm Caldwell, Noam Chomsky and the Cambodian Genocide. (short)
- Jeff Mudrick: Cambodia: The Chomsky Problem. (short)
- Bruce Sharp: Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy. (long)
- Nate Thayer: Khmer Rouge Apologist Noam Chomsky: An Offense to all who died under Pol Pot. A review of his record to date. (long)
In a recent discussion, Adnan Delalić said that
Genocide deniers are not good faith actors interested in finding out the truth. & Chomsky is not a genocide scholar, just a yank who feels entitled to opine on every topic Most of what he said about Bosnia is typical denialist/perpetrator discourseAdnan Delalić (2022, January 4)
As @HeresMakarov explained, Chomsky has been called a genocide denier in the context of Bosnia because he made ‘multiple appearances in which he refused to acknowledge that the Bosnian genocide was, in fact, a genocide’ and ‘spread conspiracy theories about how the concentration camps where the RS tortured and murdered Bosniaks were actually safe shelters for refugees where they could leave at any point if they want to.’ The lies about the Trnopolje concentration camp, which was pictured in a 1992 TIME magazine photograph of Fikret Alic who became a global symbol of the atrocities committed against non-Serbs in Bosnia, were first published (at least in the West and in English) in 1997 by now-the defunct LM (formerly Living Marxism). Chomsky then reiterated the claim in 2006, saying: ‘It was a refugee camp, I mean, people could leave if they wanted’. He opposed the libel case against LM in 2011, denying that Srebrenica was an act of genocide – he thought calling it so “cheapens the word” (see also here for the same argument when talking with David Barsamian).
Chomsky’s apologists have turned such blatantly denialist interventions into a supposedly legitimate “open-minded battle of ideas” wherein safely-sheltered intellectuals in the West that question the genocidal nature of what Bosniaks went through should be taken seriously, and the victims’ trauma dismissed… The fact that so many people do not recognise the inherent violence in such behaviors (which, for victims, constitute a continuation of genocide by attacking the efforts at historical memory and their ability/opportunity to heal) is a damning indictment of modern politics, across the whole political spectrum – and in the context of Chomsky, Western leftist circles in particular. It takes a special kind of piece of shit to argue that the cold-blooded slaughter of more than 8000 Bosnian Muslims isn’t an instance of genocide. But Chomsky has been consistent; in a 2013 conversation with Jonathan Freedland he said:
“[T]o kill, say a couple thousand men in a village and after you’ve allowed the women and children to escape, in fact truck them out, that doesn’t count as genocide.”Source: @denying_history (2020, april 24)
Back to reality, Jasmin Mujanović defined what actually happened as follows:
The Bosnian Genocide refers to the 1992–1995 campaign by Serb nationalist forces, sponsored and directed by the then government in Serbia, in Bosnia, and Herzegovina (BiH) during the Bosnian War that aimed to exterminate and expel the non-Serb population in the parts of the country that had come under the control of the self-declared Republika Srpska (RS) entity. This campaign disproportionally affected members of the Bosniak community, who account for nearly 65% of all causalities during the war. Although the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has limited recognition of the genocide to the events in the Srebrenica area in July 1995, other relevant courts as well the consensus opinion within the scholarly literature situates Srebrenica as only the deadliest episode within a broader, systematic genocidal project targeting Bosniaks and other non-Serbs in RS-administered territories during this period.Mujanović J. (2022) Bosnian Genocide. In: Richmond O., Visoka G. (eds) The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Peace and Conflict Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
Hence, not only was Srebrenica an instance of genocide, but it was only the deadliest event of a broader project. The whole genocidal campaign from 1992 to 1995, from the brutal four-year siege of Sarajevo to the Srebrenica genocide, resulted in “close to 100,000 civilians killed, over 2 million people forcibly displaced, and between 20,000-50,000 women systematically raped”. It took many forms, including forced mass expulsions (problematically called “ethnic cleansing”, a term popularised by Milosevic himself), concentration camps. The systematic destruction of mosques was another example of the generalised and planned targeting of non-Serbs, most of whom were Muslim:
There were 4,190 structures of Islamic worship in Bosnia and Herzegovina before the 1992-1995 aggression and genocide, including 1,149 mosques. A great number of them (up to 80% according to some sources) were damaged or destroyed during the conflict.https://twitter.com/BosnianHistory/status/1399140628752121860
A telling example of the consequences of Chomsky’s denialist bullshit is that he is sometimes cited and used by far right Serb nationalists as a ‘smart’ intellectual source that gives them a small degree of legitimacy. This is no anomaly, since as Bob from Brockley said here, Chomsky himself “has given comfort to Milosevic’s regime and its apologists: “[Milosovic] did all sorts of terrible things, but it wasn’t a totalitarian state. I mean, there were elections, there was the opposition…” Chomsky once told Serbian television.” Repeating the same talking points as Serbian genocidal fascists themselves, he also said in The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo that “Serbia is one of those disorderly miscreants that impedes the institution of the U.S.-dominated global system.” (p. 13, quoted here).
Chomsky’s views on Kosovo were unsurprisingly also problematic. As marxist (“Marxist-Humanist”) Peter Hudis wrote in 1999, reviewing the aforementioned book published that same year:
There once was a time when the radical critic, faced with rape camps and mass killings against an ethnic minority, could be counted on to attack the offending regime, expose the complicity of the Western powers, and extend solidarity to the victims of oppression. But no more-at least judging from Noam Chomsky’s latest book on the war in Kosova.
Chomsky debunks the myth that the U.S. went to war over Kosova for “humanitarian” reasons. He is right that this wasn’t the first time U.S. imperialism tried to justify a military intervention through ideological double talk. As he shows, the U.S. bombed Serbia to bolster the prestige of NATO, not to aid the victims of “ethnic cleansing.”
The problem, however, is that not one but TWO wars were fought in Kosova this year. One was the U.S. war against Serbia. The other was Serbia’s war against the Kosovars. Reading Chomsky, you’d barely know the second ever occurred. Neither the nature of Milosevic’s regime nor the struggle of the Kosovars receives any serious discussion.https://libcom.org/library/chomsky-kosovo-marxist-humanism
Denouncing Chomsky’s “one-sided anti-imperialism”, Hudis highlighted the hypocritical selective solidarity that has indeed characterized parts of the international for decades (and recently in cases like Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine or Hong Kong):
The gist of Chomsky’s approach is seen when he draws an analogy to the U.S. in explaining why Serbia responded harshly to attacks by the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA): “We need scarcely tarry on how the U.S. would respond to attacks by a guerrilla force with foreign bases and supplies, seeking, say, independence for Puerto Rico” (p.31). No one need be told what would be the response of the U.S. But what would be the response of those opposed to U.S. imperialism? Obviously, to support the fighters for Puerto Rican independence. But when it comes to Kosova, Chomsky uses the analogy to ATTACK the KLA’s fight for independence, on the grounds that it provoked the Serbs!
(…) He has apparently forgotten that Serbia was a virtual ALLY of the U.S. during 1995-98, following the signing of the Dayton accords-which REWARDED Milosevic by dividing Bosnia into distinct ethnic cantons.
Chomsky’s failure to support the fighters against genocide in Bosnia and Kosova, after writing eloquently for years in defense of the victims of “ethnic cleansing” in Guatemala, East Timor and elsewhere, shows that the power of U.S. militarism has become so total that even anti-statist radicals are being drawn into making apologies for any force, no matter how reactionary, so long as it can be considered a bulwark against U.S. dominance.
It isn’t that Chomsky actually SUPPORTS Serbia. He knows the regime has committed unspeakable crimes. But that just doesn’t matter that much to him. He instead wants to expose the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy. The inevitable result of such a one-sided approach when a TOTAL view is needed is that the HUMAN dimension-those struggling against Serbian policies in Kosova-drops from sight.
Last spring some of Chomsky’s writings on the war were circulated by the Tanjug press-Milosevic’s state-run propaganda bureau. No doubt this book too will be used by those out to defend Serbia as the “lesser evil.” It’s a sad commentary that Chomsky allows himself to be used in this way.https://libcom.org/library/chomsky-kosovo-marxist-humanism
At some point, we cannot merely regret that the guy who wrote in 1967 about the ‘responsibility of intellectuals‘ has let himself ‘be used’ by the likes of Milosevic, but rather actually ruthlessly oppose Chomsky as the willing denialist that he has been for decades, contributing to the prolongation of the suffering of victims of genocides and other atrocities by – willingly or not – targeting their ability/opportunity to grieve and heal.
[Since writing this I have found another summary of Chomsky’s denialism on Bosnia, in Peter Lippman’s 2019 book Surviving the Peace, reproduced below]
In 2004, the writer M. Junaid Alam interviewed Noam Chomsky for the website Left Hook. The interview was published under the title “Civilization versus Barbarism?” During the interview, Chomsky provides a wide-ranging overview of war crimes, atrocities, and terrorist attacks, comparing various events that took place in Iraq, Chile, Nicaragua, Burundi, Germany, and Chechnya, among others. In his presenta- tion Chomsky illustrates the scale of crimes perpetrated or supported by the United States as compared with those that come under the rubric of “Islamic terrorism,” and shows the latter to be significantly smaller in scale. I do not argue with this overall presentation.
However, while mentioning the massacre at Fallujah, Iraq, which took place in the same year as this interview, Chomsky compares the event with the Srebrenica massa- cres. He comments that the military onslaught against Fallujah was “very much like Srebrenica—which is universally condemned as genocide—Srebrenica was an enclave, lightly protected by UN forces, which was being used as a base for attacking nearby Serb villages. It was known that there’s going to be retaliation. When there was a retaliation, it was vicious. They trucked out all the women and children; they kept the men inside, and apparently slaughtered them. The estimates are thousands of people slaughtered.”48
It is more than implicit in the wording of this statement that the Muslim population of the enclave was the aggressor in the conflict—practically inviting revenge. What is omitted is the entire background of the siege of Srebrenica and the development of the enclave. It would not have been necessary for Chomsky to stray far afield from the topic of the interview in order to make it clear that the inhabitants of the Srebrenica enclave were surrounded, besieged, starved, and shelled for several years. Instead, the impression an uninformed reader gets is that those inhabitants were aggressors and the provocateurs of their own massacre.
Toward the end of 2005 the journalist Emma Brockes published a controversial interview with Noam Chomsky in the British daily newspaper the Guardian. Owing to some unfortunate journalistic exaggeration on Brockes’s part and a misleading pull quote, the interview was removed from circulation, but it is available on the Internet.49 Parts of it are revealing of Chomsky’s attitudes toward Bosnia and denial.
Chomsky has long presented himself as a defender of free speech, and there are other instances where he falls back on this stance in response to criticism of his apparent support for very offensive positions. In the interview with Brockes, Chomsky asserts, “And Diana Johnstone, whether you like it or not, has done serious, honest work.” He also hedges, saying, “It may be wrong; but it is very careful and outstanding work.” As Brockes expressed, it was difficult not to be confused about this statement.50
In the Guardian interview, one can observe that when pressed, Chomsky not only falls back on the freedom of speech defense but goes on the attack, calling critics “hys- terical” and “irrational,” saying, “if you depart a couple of millimetres from the party line, you’re a traitor, you’re destroyed. It’s totally irrational.”51
It is understandable that Chomsky wishes to make sure that ordinary observers of political events are aware of the scale of responsibility for atrocities that is borne by the United States, as the most powerful state in the world. But he has the unfortunate tendency to wander carelessly into discussion of history about which he is not an expert and, when confronted, to make matters worse by going on the offense and attacking the critic, making irrelevant and trivializing comparisons, or denying that he has taken positions he has undeniably taken.52
Noam Chomsky is not a flat-out atrocity denier, nor does he openly side with the war criminals and their supporters, as did Edward Herman. In an interview with Ser- bian television journalist Danilo Mandić, both Chomsky and Mandić openly refer to the Srebrenica massacres as such; Chomsky also slams Slobodan Milošević.53 Given this, and given the fact that progressives and defenders of human rights tend to adore Chomsky, it is all the more confusing when he sides with those who deny the war crimes in the former Yugoslavia—which he does in the same interview, denying the vicious nature of the concentration camps around Prijedor.
In this vein, in an interview with Andrew Stephen of the New Statesman in June 2006, Chomsky acknowledges that Srebrenica was the “worst crime” (of the Bosnian war) but insists that Milošević had no responsibility for the atrocity, and that it was primarily the responsibility of the Dutch government. Chomsky gives undue weight to a Dutch report (without identifying the report), saying that it exonerates Milošević of responsibility for the massacres.54 These statements reduce the atrocity to a Dutch mistake.
In mid-2011, the British activist and author George Monbiot took Noam Chomsky to task for having written the foreword to Edward Herman and David Peterson’s book The Politics of Genocide. In a letter he asked, simply, whether Chomsky had read the book, and whether he considered his foreword an implicit endorsement of the book. He also asked whether Chomsky considered the book’s description of the events at Srebrenica to be accurate.55
Writing a foreword to a book seems so obviously an endorsement of the same that, for my part, I would not have bothered to inquire of Chomsky about it. But the response from Chomsky, reproduced on Monbiot’s website, is rather surprising. First, he denies that the word “genocide” applies to the case of Srebrenica. Then he characteristically goes on the counterattack by changing the subject and bringing up the denial of geno- cide in the United States, as if this denial cancels out that of Herman and Peterson. Subsequently, he openly rejects the idea that there is any implicit endorsement of a book involved in having written its foreword.56
On one hand, Chomsky praises the atrocity revisionists who have written a book of denial—which he refers to as a “powerful inquiry.”57 On the other hand, he denies having done so. In his final letter to Monbiot, Chomsky first trivializes the question of how many people the Serb forces killed at Srebrenica, and then states that it is not known, and can probably never be known. This, after numerous witnesses testified at war crimes trials, after dozens of mass graves were uncovered, and after thousands of victims were identified and reburied. The facts about the Srebrenica massacres are, to use one of Chomsky’s stock phrases, a matter of public record.
The fact that over several decades Chomsky has become established as a vener- able authority in progressive antiwar and human rights circles makes the impact of his revisionism powerful. A couple of generations of activists have grown up revering Chomsky for his clear and accurate description of, among many other things, what he has called an “intellectually totalitarian atmosphere” in the West. No other figure on the Left comes close to this man whom the New York Times described as “arguably the most important intellectual alive.”58
Most readers do not have the time to check the facts behind what they are used to receiving as Chomsky’s wisdom, and there is an entire coterie of writers and thinkers rhetorically situated around Chomsky, buttressing his positions. Some of these people do so intentionally, because they agree with his positions, and others do it unwittingly, because they are uninformed. Thus we are confronted with a serious absence of critical thinking in the presence of a revered analyst.
Referring to Noam Chomsky, David Watson wrote that “his role as a luminary itself is a central problem. Almost no one else can go around the world and speak to audiences looking for answers to their questions about everything from the economy to global warming to the situation in Nepal to Iraq to Latin America and on and on.”59
Chomsky and the other revisionists described above are blinded by their anger at the United States as a perpetrator of large-scale military aggression. I share this revulsion. But the revisionists reflexively trivialize or deny the crimes of anyone who is an adversary of the United States.
There is in fact no contradiction between criticizing US war crimes and those of the smaller powers that the United States has targeted. Quite the contrary is true; what is at stake is moral consistency. It is a grave moral and intellectual failure on the part of Noam Chomsky and his admirers to miss this point.Peter Lippman(2019) Surviving the Peace : the struggle for postwar recovery in Bosnia-Herzegovina, p. 365-368.
In the case of Srebrenica, ultimately it is the survivors of the atrocity whose voices should be heard and with whom human rights advocates should stand in solidarity. In this vein, in 2006 Hasan Nuhanović, Srebrenica survivor and human rights activist, wrote an article titled “Who Is Noam Chomsky?”60 Nuhanović outlines Chomsky’s biog- raphy and then mentions some of the history of distortion that I have described above.
Nuhanović then poses several questions about Chomsky, wondering whether Chomsky was really convinced that the things that he said were true, or whether, al- ternatively, he had made mistakes and his ego would not let him admit it. Nuhanović notes that he wrote Chomsky via e-mail, offering to provide him with information about the case of Srebrenica. Chomsky “kindly responded,” but did not wish to receive further information.
Nuhanović further wonders whether Chomsky was aware of how much damage he could create with his public statements. This point is critical to the discussion of revisionism. There are real people concerned, survivors who have lived through the atrocities and are seeking justice. For them, justice requires acknowledgment of the crimes that were committed, not denial and falsification of history. That falsification, first of all, works directly against the elucidation of the crimes and, for the victims, it adds insult to injury. And as Nuhanović noted in his article, it gives the perpetrators cause for celebration.61
Rwanda & The Politics of Genocide
For once, Chomsky himself doesn’t seem to have directly denied a genocide. But he still did so indirectly, by associating with his long-time collaborator Edward Herman along with David Peterson, when he wrote a foreword to their 2010 book, The Politics of Genocide. Without going too much into this horrendous waste of paper and quintessential “anti-imperialist” denialist manifesto, the crux of their “argument” is that instead of a genocide, it was part of an elaborate American conspiracy to “gain a strong military presence in Central Africa, a diminution of its European rivals’ influence, proxy armies to serve its interests, and access to the raw material-rich Democratic Republic of the Congo.” [Gerard Caplan]
Various experts and other rigorous critics (like the relentlesss M. Karadjis) have analyzed this shitty book already, including the following selected articles:
- Martin Shaw: Review of The Politics of Genocide.
- Gerald Caplan: The politics of denialism: The strange case of Rwanda: Review of ‘The Politics of Genocide’.
- Adam Jones: Denying Rwanda: A Response to Herman & Peterson.
- Michael Karadjis: Debunking Herman’s Genocide Denial on Rwanda.
Since 2000 Chomsky has not only double-downed and not genuinely revisited and apologized for his (unforgivable) past failures, he has also contributed to the toxic and harmful propaganda by pseudo-anti-imperialists in the more recent contexts and international events. And so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he has contributed to the dehumanization of Syrians by leftist sycophants in the West.
Despite acknowledging (on Truthout and Democracy Now) that Assad is ‘pretty horrible’ (and his regime, a ‘moral disgrace’) and isn’t being demonized, and also that Russia has committed atrocities in Syria, he has contributed to spreading conspiracy theories and a reductionist/retrograde (if not racist) perspective on Syrian people’s struggle. See for example the pieces by Idrees Ahmad and Louis Proyect (I have some issues with both individuals, but their documenting work is valuable nonetheless, at least in this case). Veteran bullshit-watcher Bill Weinberg offered a summary of the problem:
Amy Goodman‘s Democracy Now website sports her latest interview with Noam Chomsky, this one before an audience at a church in Cambridge, Mass. Disgracefully if predictably, they engage in detatched and smug theorizing that the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack was a “false flag,” although they do not actually use that ugly phrase. Chomsky concedes that it is “plausible it was the Syrian government,” but immediately follows up that it is “not so obvious why the Assad regime would have carried out a chemical warfare attack at a moment when it’s pretty much winnning the war, and the most serious danger it faces is that a counterforce will enter and undermine its progress.”
The “winning the war” exclusion can simply be dismissed. To point out the obvious, the US was winning the war when it nuked Hiroshima. It also ignores that as recently as last month, Damascus itself was threatened by a surprise rebel advance. Assad is clearly bent on terrorizing the populace into submission—the logic of his war ever since March 2011.
Chomsky continues: “Maybe you can think of some reason why the Assad regime, which is a murderous brutal regime [note perfunctory lip service], might have done it, [but] there’s even another question of why the Russians would have allowed it.” This assumes both that Moscow directly controls Assad and that Putin himself would oppose this kind of thing.
Chomsky next cites MIT scholar Theodore Postol‘s “devastating critique” of the White House report blaming the attack on Assad. RT is (of course) avidly touting Postol’s claim that the report “contains absolutely no evidence that this attack was the result of a munition being dropped from an aircraft.”
This all sounds superficially good, until you actually think about the politics of the situation. Insurgent forces, which have to worry about the hearts and minds of the populace, never commit mass murder on their own people as a provocation. In contrast, counterinsurgency forces all too often resort to mass murder to terrorize targeted populations. Assad is the only “plausible” suspect, and to cast the blame elsewhere in the absence of positive evidence is merely to legitimize “false flag” theorizing. Whether Chomsky and Postol are impolitic enough to use that phrase or not.
Implying that none of us really know anything about what is going on Syria, Chomsky adds: “Reporting from Syria is extremely difficult. If reporters go into rebel-held areas and don’t do what they’re told, you’ll get your head cut off.”
He doesn’t mention any such putative journalist decapitations, of course. Actually, it is only ISIS that has done that kind of thing—and the Assad regime! (Local reporter Ahmed Assaad Al-Shahab was beheaded by regime forces in Homs governorate in January 2013, Reporters Without Borders finds.) We haven’t heard of any such beheadings by the “rebels.” Without giving details, Chomsky cites the writing of the extremely problematic Patrick Cockburn to back up his claim.
Writer and activist Idrees Ahmad addresses Chomsky’s claim on Facebook: “[Y]ou surely cannot be unaware of the fact that AFP journalists had reported from the scene in Khan Sheikhoun and that the site was also visited by the Guardian’s Kareem Shaheen. Beyond Idlib, journalists such as Clarissa Ward and Nagieb Khaja have done excellent reporting for CNN and Al Jazeera from inside rebel territory. Are you aware of their work? If not, then what were you basing your judgment on? I hope you weren’t repeating claims from by the regime-embedded Patrick Cockburn…”
Chomsky also fails to note that our supposed ignorance about what really happened is first and foremost the fault of Russia, which vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have called on Damascus to cooperate with an international investigation of the attack. (CNN, April 13) Odd behavior if they really have nothing to hide.
It does not occur to Goodman to challenge Chomsky on any of this. Of course. Indeed, just days earlier, she hosted Jonathan Steele—who openly floated the idea that the Khan Shaykhun massacre was “a dirty trick to try and discredit the Syrian government.”
Almost exactly a year before the interview, Sam Hamad in Muftah wrote on “How Noam Chomsky Betrayed the Syrian People.” First and foremost, by portraying the Syrian opposition as monolithically jihadist. This is why Chomsky’s lip service about how Assad is bad ultimately comes down to a sleazy trick to lure the uninitiated. When push comes to shove, Chomsky’s position is that Assad is the best thing going.https://countervortex.org/blog/syria-gas-attacks-air-strikes-and-hypocrisy/
As if he was unable to not systematically contribute to the spreading of harmful denialist disinformation/propaganda, Chomsky has apparently commented – in his typical way of poking the bear without pretending the events didn’t happen – on the ongoing cultural genocide of the Uyghurs by the Chinese state:
China is becoming more authoritarian internally. I think that’s pretty bad. Is it a threat to us? No, it’s not a threat to us. Let’s take what’s happening with the Uyghur. Pretty hard to get good evidence, but there’s enough evidence to show that there’s very severe repression going on. Let me ask you a simple question. Is the situation of the Uyghurs, a million people who’ve been through education camps, is that worse than the situation of, say, two million and twice that many people in Gaza? I mean, are the Uyghur having their power plants destroyed, their sewage plants destroyed, subjected to regular bombing? Is it not happening to them? Not to my knowledge.
So yes, it shouldn’t be happening. We should protest it. It has one crucial difference from Gaza. Namely, in the Uyghur case, there’s not a lot that we can do about it, unfortunately. In the Gaza case, we can do everything about it since we were responsible for it, we can stop it tomorrow. That’s the difference. OK? So yes, that’s a very bad thing among other bad things in the world. But to say that it’s a threat to us is a little misleading.https://chomsky.info/20210423/
As has Adnan Delalić said, the most troubling thing here is that the suffering of oppressed groups is used “for whataboutism and pit[s] them against each other”.
Anti-Antifa & Chomsky’s Civic Libertarianism
Several people have pointed that Chomsky’s commitment to anarchism is, despite his reputation (and the fact he was and to some extent remains a major reference in anarchist literature/discussions), questionable in some respects. As someone mentioned in a comment here, there’s a clear dimension of civic libertarianism in his worldview:
Chomsky has always been more of a civil libertarian than communist/anarchist. It’s that left-liberalism that sees protest and “resistance” as nothing more than a tool to win the “battle of ideas” in the bourgeois media.
https://twitter.com/heresysquad/status/1072931676429332480?s=20 Chomsky, who has defended a holocaust denier for “free speech” & supported Hillary for president, has always been more of a liberal than an anarchist. A liberalism that sees protest & “resistance” as nothing more than a tool to win the “battle of ideas” in the established media.
There are at least two troubling manifestations of this (leftwing) civic liberalism/libertarianism in Chomsky, the first one being his stance of free-speech absolutism. As mentioned above, this led him to lend support to famous Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson. More recently, he has also supported other assholes like Chris Williamson (fmr Labour Party antisemite; see my article on antisemitism for more) and David Miller (antisemitic conspiracy theorist/Assad apologist).
The other troubling issue is his stance on antifascism. Here again, as in the case of supporting/legitimizing Holocaust deniers, he follows a trend among some (specific) “ultra-left” figures such as Gilles Dauvé and Serge Quadruppani – though it actually goes back to Amadeo Bordiga, whose disciples also peddled Holocaust denialism/relativism. A. M. Gittlitz also reiterated this same “anti-antifa” (ultraleft/leftcom) viewpoint more recently. Before mentioning what Chomsky said about antifa, the following excerpt from a 2013 piece in Ni patrie ni frontières is relevant:
His constant praise of the exceptional freedom of expression in the United States shows that he fully subscribes to one of the myths of bourgeois democracy, a belief that is not anarchist or libertarian or relativistic (…). Chomsky is convinced that one must “win the argument” against fascists and not prevent denialists from speaking out. In the United States, according to Chomsky, no one “hears about the deniers” “even though there are thousands of them” (?!); there is no more interest in deniers than in “those who claim that the Earth is flat”; in Europe, on the other hand, “all the newspapers advertise their theses by mentioning them”. This ridiculous argument schematically and arbitrarily separates the propaganda of fascists, anti-Semites or racists from their inevitable actions… In his interview on anti-fascism, Chomsky cites the persecution at the time of the First World War against American anti-militarist socialists such as Eugene Victor Debs, and then against the Civil Rights Movement, but curiously he forgets the most important thing: the consequences of the Cold War and McCarthyism in free America. He superbly ignores the legal, official existence of hundreds of armed extreme right-wing militias, of nearly a thousand racist and neo-Nazi groups, of gangs of “Aryan supremacists” active even in prisons, etc., all of this in this marvellous country where, according to our distinguished libertarian linguist, Holocaust denial has remained groupuscular thanks to freedom of expression. Strange political blindness!http://mondialisme.org/spip.php?article1960
Chomsky’s stance on antifascism is fundamentally liberal, as Isaac Russo described:
Following the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Donald Trump enraged half of the US population once again by blaming both sides (Nazis and anti-Nazis) for the reckless and deliberate killing of the peaceful protester. A few days after condemning the “violence and bigotry on many sides”, he asserted that “there was a group on this side, you can call them Left (…) that came violently attacking the other group.”
As disgusting as it is, Trump’s response is hardly a surprise. What is more striking, however, is that renowned leftists condemn antifa actions with comparable energy.
Famous linguist and household name for the US left, Noam Chomsky, told the Washington Examiner that antifa is “a major gift to the Right, including the militant Right, who are exuberant.” The argument goes like this: Anti-fascist mobilizations, instead of being a check against unabashed racism and bigotry, only serve to fan the flames of fascism. This claim has been a historic trademark of American liberalism.https://www.leftvoice.org/Noam-Chomsky-and-Chris-Hedges-Are-Wrong-Antifa-and-Nazis-Are-Not-the-Same/
Notice the incongruence between this response and something Chomsky had said in a 1989 interview with his friend David Barsamian:
Non-violent resistance activities cannot succeed against an enemy that is able freely to use violence. That’s pretty obvious. You can’t have non-violent resistance against the Nazis in a concentration camp, to take an extreme case…https://web.archive.org/web/20000829081348/http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/interviews/db-8912.html
Instead of this (very basic and obvious principle), it seems Chomsky has adopted the utterly absurd liberal position of refusing to confront and resist Nazis by any means necessary… That figures like Chomsky and Chris Hedges fail to pass the very simple test of supporting antifascist activism/direct action is really telling, and their reasoning is completely backwards, as already addressed by Isaac Russo and in this libcom.org blog post.
There’s no doubt that the “mainstream” (more accurately called dominant or bourgeois) media are profoundly problematic, and in particular insofar as they contribute to constructing, maintaining or reinforcing passive ideological consensus in favor of the status quo, or for justifying certain policies or propagandistic depictions of capitalist nation-states’ chosen (internal and external) enemies. There are different sections of this dominant media ecosystem, based on economic competition, ideological and political relations, and even simple geography. But the need for critique doesn’t imply giving a free hand to create and propagate reductionist, conspiracist, campist, or monocausal theoretical model.
Altough Chomsky’ linguistics appear to have been to a large extent debunked in recent decades (see below), his famous “Propaganda Model”, constructed with his friend and prolific genocide denier, Edward Herman, is clearly still very influential. A few years ago, Joan Pedro-Carañana, Daniel Broudy & Jeffery Klaehn edited a book assessing and discussing this model, available here in open access; the contributors also came together for a discussion here. On the whole, the link between this conception of propaganda/ideological manipulation and Chomsky and Herman’s long record of denialism doesn’t seem to be questioned (but I haven’t read the whole book, so who knows). Instead, the description of the book says that “the PM has been subjected to marginalisation, poorly informed critiques and misrepresentations” and that “[in] current theoretical and empirical studies of mass media performance, uses of the PM continue, nonetheless, to yield important insights into the workings of political and economic power in society, due in large measure to the model’s considerable explanatory power”.
But as announced in the introduction, in my opinion Chomsky and Herman’s conception of propaganda both opens the way for conspiracist – and denialist – political approaches, and this cannot be separated from the authors’ consistent record of denial and deception. It fails to provide an adequate critical perspective on the media and its roles or functions, and instead fuels reductionist shortcuts that have led to the utterly ridiculous “everything is a plot by the US govt/CIA” (or Israel, NATO, NED, etc) which is now common on significant parts of the so-called “anti-imperialist” left.
Their book came out in 1988 and has been extremely popular in leftist and activist circles ever since. But there’s a clear parallel between Chomsky and Herman’s contribution and that of Michael Parenti, who actually wrote his first book on the topic – Inventing Reality: The Politics of the Mass Media – two years before them. Among his obscenely long bibliography, one can also find such writings as Make-Believe Media: the Politics of Entertainment from 1992, and “Methods of Media Manipulation”, from 1997. In this article, a pro-Parenti stalinist unwittingly demonstrates the proximity between Chomsky and Parenti; it goes without saying that Stalinism is one of the world’s most horrendous ideologies, but the parrallel is at least made clear (ignoring all other content lol). In France, Serge Halimi, the monthly publication Le Monde Diplmatique, the group Acrimed, and others, have also proposed a similar critique, in part influenced by Chomsky’s approach. Halimi’s essay-turned movie Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde was very successful (and sold a lot, which would logically contradict the authors’ self-victimization as alleged victims of censorship…).
As far as I can tell, Philippe Corcuff has offered the most relevant/useful critique of Chomsky & co’s media critique. Crucially, he emphasizes that a critique of hegemonic media is indeed necessary and possible, but should be built on better sociological and critical concepts and perspections (he mentions Pierre Bourdieu and Stuart Hall, we could add classics from Cultural Studies such as Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy). Here are two excerpts from Corcuff’s critical writings (translated via deepl.com):
The Manichean critique of the media that was to gradually dominate the militant and sympathetic circles of the radical left took advantage of the analyses of another critical thinker who was very much in vogue in these circles, notably via the monthly Le Monde diplomatique, the organ of the written press with the largest audience within the radical left in France and with a certain international echo: the American linguist and radical militant Noam Chomsky and his “propaganda model” developed with the economist Edward S. Herman . Their book gives a good account of the movement of economic concentration underway in the media sector. However, it tends to unify reality around two temptations that are more or less privileged depending on the moment of analysis: an economism (economic constraints directly and mechanically imposing their law on journalistic practices, independently of ideological mediations and the autonomy of professional practices) and a soft conspiracy (the weight of hidden manipulations, which is revealed to be predominant in a whole series of passages). The political scientist Géraldine Muhlmann is right, therefore, to oppose both Chomsky and Herman and Halimi to ‘ideology, in the sense of Marx’, insofar as the latter ‘exercises an anonymous and diffuse domination over all, a domination that is not reducible to the “manipulation” of some by others.’
The Manichean critique of the media formulated in Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde, Le Monde Diplomatique or by Chomsky embodies the more reasoned pole of this critical posture, which nevertheless remains Manichean and which has the disadvantage of diffusing and legitimizing soft forms of conspiracy. From the beginning of the 2000s, the Manichean critique of the media saw the emergence of a less serious pole with insulting tones, with the newspapers PLPL (Pour lire pas lu, 2000-2005, founded by the filmmaker Pierre Carles, with the collaboration of Serge Halimi or Pierre Rimbert) and its successor Le Plan B (2006-2010, born from the partial fusion of PLPL and Fakir, the newspaper launched by François Ruffin in 1999 in Amiens and which still exists). The articles in these newspapers often featured ad personam attacks, resorting to gossip and unverified rumors, distorting words and facts, and sometimes using insults, these characteristics being alleviated but also legitimized by the use of humor and biting irony. On the other hand, in PLPL, the authors of the articles were protected by anonymity, a support for a “lifting of taboos” in the name of an antipathy towards “media personalities” presented as manipulators, in rhetorical procedures similar to those used by “the new reactionaries”. In this way, we can see, in embryonic form, the aggressive and insulting hypercriticism that social networks are often the receptacle of today. Moreover, the staging of a battle between the evil of a total “system” and the implicit purity of its denouncer leaves little room for deciphering the complications of the world and for critical self-examination.
(…) Largely left-wing at the beginning, the Manichean criticism of the media, in its reasoned and insulting poles, will be emulated on the right and on the extreme right.Philippe Corcuff: La grande confusion
Certainly Chomsky’s analysis gives a good account of the movement of economic concentration in progress in the sector of the means of communication, with real effects of the economic field on the journalistic field. But Chomsky’s error consists in thinking of these effects in a direct and mechanical logic: in the mode of conscious manipulation and/or in that of economic control. On the contrary, Bourdieu notes: “one cannot explain what is done at TF1 by the sole fact that this channel is owned by Bouygues (…) There is a form of short materialism, associated with the Marxist tradition, which explains nothing, which denounces without enlightening anything”. The effects of the economic field on the journalistic field pass then by the mediation of the autonomous logic of the journalistic field: “competition for customers tends to take the form of competition for priority, that is, for the newest news (the scoop) (…) The constraint of the market is exercised only through the intermediary of the field effect (…) Inscribed in the structure and mechanisms of the field, competition for priority calls for and favors agents endowed with professional dispositions inclined to place all journalistic practice under the sign of speed (or haste) and permanent renewal.” It is true that the neoliberal tendencies underway on a global scale have resulted in a growing pressure from the economic field on the journalistic field. But, if we follow Bourdieu, they operate through the intermediary of the logics proper to the space of journalism. And the resistance to this market pressure also draws resources from the autonomous values that have historically been associated with the journalistic profession.
Converging with these original intuitions of Bourdieu and Passeron, the sociology of the media has seen the development of a dynamic pole of reception studies, breaking with “a reified and miserabilistic vision of the public as an amorphous and passive mass”, according to the words of Brigitte Le Grignou, who recently proposed a rich critical synthesis of these works. The studies of television reception were thus systematized from the beginning of the 1980s under the impulse of the British cultural studies. The viewers revealed by these reception studies tend to filter the messages they receive (according to the social group to which they belong, their gender, their generation, various dimensions of their biography, etc.) and show variable (but rarely completely null) critical capacities. The famous “propaganda” would thus not have necessary and univocal effects.
One of the most interesting authors among the British cultural studies is one of its initiators: the “neo-Marxist” Stuart Hall. For he associated in his model four important aspects: the capitalist conditions of production of media messages, the stereotyped content of these messages, the relative autonomy of professional rules in their production and their variable critical filtering by the viewers. Thus for Hall, the “coding” of messages in the logic of dominant stereotypes, within a society dominated by capitalist production relations, leaves open gaps with the “decoding” implemented by the viewers according to their social and political experiences. Moreover, he pointed out the relative autonomy of the values and the professional rules of those who manufacture the television programs: “the professionals of the television broadcasting manage to operate from “relatively autonomous” codes which are their own, while managing to reproduce (not without contradictions) the hegemonic significance of the events”. These are dimensions that Chomsky cannot perceive, because he concentrates on two aspects: 1) the ownership structure of the media, and above all 2) the analysis of the content of the messages disseminated (by privileging, moreover, the treatment of international politics by the written press, a category of messages whose reception studies show that they are among those that reach the least a large audience: but what is the point of devoting so many pages to media “propaganda” if it hardly reaches its supposed targets?) For the “propaganda model”, in its conspiratorial and/or economistic tones, is not really interested in how media messages are produced and received. The narrative links between characters, events and facts are then largely postulated, without any real empirical evidence as to how they work in practice (multiplying quotations from newspaper articles, as Chomsky does, is not the same as this kind of empirical evidence).
In Noam Chomsky’s “Propaganda & Public Mind Control”, we find the interweaving of economist and intentionalist schemes in the approach to the media through the theme of “entrepreneurial propaganda”, presented as “one of the main elements of the history of the United States in the twentieth century” (p.28). This propaganda would have a systematic scope: “Of course, it is displayed in the commercial media, but it also concerns the whole range of means of communication intended for the public: the entertainment industry, television, a significant part of what circulates in schools, and much of what appears in newspapers” (ibid.). It would be the direct translation of “the war waged against the workers” by “the business community” “a class war” both conscious (“it is waged in a perfectly conscious way”) and hidden (“even if they don’t want it to be known”) (p.27). But in the intersection of economistic systemism and intentionalism, it is the latter that tends to take over the narrative: “From the beginning, the explicit as well as perfectly conscious objective of this industry was to ‘control the public mind’ – as it was then called” (p.28).
In this text, Chomsky insists on an argument: intellectuals, associated with the “public relations industry”, would have explicitly thematized “the conscious manipulation of the opinion and social behaviors of the masses” (p.29). But does the fact that some members of the dominant classes are aware of certain aspects of the logics of domination imply that these logics are the direct work of a conscious mastery, that the will of the dominants constitutes the principal factor of the mechanisms of domination? Is this apprehension by “elites” of domination as “conscious manipulation” necessarily the main truth of this domination? Does it imply that capitalists, and the journalists supposedly under their total dependence, have the same consciousness, on a daily basis, of these processes and that it is this consciousness that ultimately guides them? This is only a hypothesis that would suppose, to be endowed with a greater veracity, the description of the mediations between the said writings dedicated to the “conscious manipulation of the opinion” and the social interactions that manufacture daily the media logics. An opposite hypothesis, more nourished by the works of the social sciences, was stated by Pierre Bourdieu: “the social mechanisms are not the product of a Machiavellian intention; they are much more intelligent than the most intelligent of the dominants”(39). If manipulative intentions such as partial concertations would indeed exist among the dominants (the IMF, the World Bank, the WTO, etc.), they would only constitute a part, and a secondary part, in the modes of domination, and thus also in media domination.Philippe Corcuff: Chomsky et le «complot médiatique» – Des simplifications actuelles de la critique sociale
Understanding how propaganda works and the critique of dominant media are indeed important, but there’s a better conceptual foundation and discussion to be had than the flawed ‘model’ proposed by the likes of Chomsky but also the similar theories found in Michael Parenti – at the very least the model outlined in Manufacturing Consent is incomplete/reductionist and vulnerable to reactionary interpretations/applications (e.g. Chomsky and Herman’s own record of denialism). But I am myself trying to learn more about how propaganda and disinformation works, I don’t have fixed answers here. And it’s not the point of this article… Some people have already been studying propaganda for decades in a more rigorous way than Chomsky or Parenti, so why not start by trying to glean some valuable insights? Collaborative handbooks that present some of the most recent scholarship are always a good place to start, but of course a critical re-appropriation of academic studies is probably necessary.
I have included a few more things on other areas of Chomsky’s life or career, with links for more. But it’s the political stuff addressed above that seems to me most relevant.
Academic background, Linguistics, and Relation to His Politics
For an anarchist anti-imperialist writer, however, his academic post had an unusual financial basis. He worked in an MIT unit funded by the US Armed Forces, generating tensions between his academic and political roles. Chomsky’s fellow MIT academics often denied that their scientific research had any military relevance, some to the extent of self-delusion. Such a disavowal posed difficulties for Chomsky too, given his political awareness, accentuated by his students’ involvement in a project run by the MITRE Corporation for the US Air Force. Hence the puzzle of a possible link between Chomsky’s political and scientific roles (as in the 1979 NYT essay above).
Those tensions have been analysed in an impressive book, Decoding Chomsky: Science and Revolutionary Politics, by Chris Knight. He has discussed more specific issues about Chomsky’s dual roles in his three articles on openDemocracy, e.g. ‘Explaining Chomsky’s Strange Science’.https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/chomsky-paradox-responsibility-of-intellectuals-revisited/
In the 1960s, the US linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky offered what looked like a solution. He argued that children don’t in fact learn their mother tongue – or at least, not right down to the grammatical building blocks (the whole process was far too quick and painless for that). He concluded that they must be born with a rudimentary body of grammatical knowledge – a ‘Universal Grammar’ – written into the human DNA. With this hard-wired predisposition for language, it should be a relatively trivial matter to pick up the superficial differences between, say, English and French. The process works because infants have an instinct for language: a grammatical toolkit that works on all languages the world over.
At a stroke, this device removes the pain of learning one’s mother tongue, and explains how a child can pick up a native language in such a short time. It’s brilliant. Chomsky’s idea dominated the science of language for four decades. And yet it turns out to be a myth. A welter of new evidence has emerged over the past few years, demonstrating that Chomsky is plain wrong.https://aeon.co/essays/the-evidence-is-in-there-is-no-language-instinct
Worse, we could – partly jokingly – say that his theoretical argument was debunked in the 1200’s by Frederick II in a (possibly made up) “language deprivation” experiment to try to find if there was a natural language.
More on Chomsky’s linguistics:
- Vivyan Evans’s The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct. (goes into more detail on why Chomsky and others’ perspective is wrong)
- Christina Behme’s article: A “Galilean” science of language. Journal of Linguistics, 50(03), 671–704.
- Chris Knight: this series of articles and this page on ‘s website.
- Les Levidow’s article (partly talks about it)
- Chomsky may have supported a TERF
Part 2: What is Wrong with Chomsky?
I think that a few things can help define and identify the roots of the problems with Chomsky and his worldview/interventions. They are certainly tied together, but the first aspect is undeniably an affinity for denialism.
As Adnan Delalić (@_adn) writes (talking about another Bosnian genocide denier, Peter Handke), denialism is rooted in the deliberate creation of an ‘ambience of uncertainty’ that ‘keeps the victims from mourning, healing and moving’ by having to keep resisting (and surviving) the violence of their own experiences and traumatized subjectivities being attacked, disbelieved and dismissed. Indeed, this is a continuation of genocide, and the bulk of Chomsky’s horrendous behaviors (on Bosnia but also the other things outlined above) should be seen through the prism of what Adnan describes here:
As Aleksandar Hemon reminds us, “any survivor of genocide will tell you that disbelieving or dismissing their experience is a continuation of genocide. A genocide denier is an apologist for the next genocide.” Genocide denial goes beyond the claim that literally nothing happened. More often than not it comes in the form of something happened but. Its shifting strategies draw on a diverse arsenal of erasing, omitting, obscuring, distorting, minimizing, relativizing, decontextualizing, whatabouting, gaslighting, sealioning, bullshitting, dog-whistling, concern-trolling, victim-blaming and many other techniques. It does not seek to establish facts but to destabilize them. It purports to seek the truth but aims to create the opposite: an ambience of uncertainty. The violence of genocide denial keeps the victims from mourning, healing and moving on. It is the continuation of Ratko Mladić’s motto for the siege of Sarajevo – “Let’s blow their minds, so they cannot sleep” – by other means.
To Peter Handke and his disciples, treating people from the Balkans as subhumans, denying genocide, deriding victims of war, trivializing our pain and falsifying our history, means little. For them, this is just another intellectual parlour game, “just navel-gazing chatter.” For us, however, the “flatulence of the colonizer” is an attack on our war-torn subjectivities, salt rubbed into our wounds. Retraumatization, anxiety, insomnia, depression. Weeks of (unpaid) emotional and intellectual labour. Every time a colonizer flatulates again, we have to revisit what was written about it in 2014, 2010, 2006, 2003, 1999, 1996. Once again we find ourselves dredging up ICTY records and defending well-documented facts against ‘alternative facts’. And yet, Bosnian genocide denial is getting worse. The truth seems to matter little in the face of intense Islamophobia and conspiracism.Adnan Delalić (2019, December 2) Wings of Denial. Mangal Media.
In Israel Charny’s Classification of Denials of the Holocaust and Other Genocides (original in 2003, updated 2012), Chomsky is mentioned under the category of “denials from a ‘big mouth’ that, for various reasons allows itself to say anything:
Anything goes – just because I want to –for known political motives, often truly to be a show-off who draws a great deal of public attention by saying interestingly bizarre things (see iv in this classification); but often enough, almost without being linked to the previous motives, ‘simply’ as an expression of an omnipotent can say anything I want to narcissism about one’s mind products.
Denials of the Holocaust may be understood relatively easily as it were as anti-Semitism, and denials of the Armenian Genocide may be understood as promoting Turkish policy.
But there are denials of known genocides that are far less linked to known political motives that are rendered by well-known people, including intellectuals, government leaders, and church leaders, e.g., Noam Chomsky who has been involved in one way or another in supporting denials of the Holocaust, Cambodian Genocide and most recently the Rwandan Genocide, as well as the genocidal massacre in Srebrenica. Chomsky is not alone. A substantial array of bonafide PhD scholars and professors are not only guilty of denials, but devote themselves notoriously to promoting their denials as a major focus in their academic and especially public lives.
Denials of known and clearly factual genocides in many cases are made in the service of exhibitionistic seeking of prominence, exercising of negativism and antagonism. The denier allows oneself totally uncontrolled and undisciplined right to say anything at all, no matter how freakish or mad, and in many cases of well-known people, also to use one’s authority as an established political leader, church leader, or respected intellectual to endow their denials as if with respectability and authority.Charny, Israel W. (2003). A classification of denials of the Holocaust and other genocide. Journal Genocide Research, 5(1), 11-34.
Denialism is related to a sort of hyper-contrarian stance, which is called “la méthode hypercritique” (essentially, obsessively contrarian skepticism, which is of course very closely tied to how conspiracism works and seduces ppl):
The hypercritical method is a method of argumentation consisting in the systematic or excessively meticulous criticism of the smallest details of an assertion or its sources1. It differs from critical thinking, which is the use of reason to refine and clarify assertions without seeking in principle to discredit them.
The range of application is vast, but polemical fields such as controversial technologies and ideologies, fundamentalism, creationism, nationalism, historical crimes or negationism [=denialism], are particularly invested by the users of the hypercritical method. For example, Pierre-André Taguieff, analyzing contemporary conspiracy, notes the “temptation of radical relativism, implying the reign of limitless doubt “.French wiki (rough translation via deepl.com)
This hyper-contrarian tendency leads Chomsky and his disciples toward conspiracist and denialist viewpoints, of course. This is adressed in the critique of the ‘Propaganda Model’ by Philippe Corcuff mentioned above. Here’s the core argument that’s relevant here:
[Their approach] tends to unify reality around two temptations that are more or less privileged depending on the moment of analysis: an economism (economic constraints directly and mechanically imposing their law on journalistic practices, independently of ideological mediations and the autonomy of professional practices) and a soft conspiracy (the weight of hidden manipulations, which is revealed to be predominant in a whole series of passages). The political scientist Géraldine Muhlmann is right, therefore, to oppose both Chomsky and Herman and Halimi to ‘ideology, in the sense of Marx’, insofar as the latter ‘exercises an anonymous and diffuse domination over all, a domination that is not reducible to the “manipulation” of some by others.’
And I’d argue that apart from those two ‘temptations’ highlighted by Corcuff, another pillar of Chomsky’s perspective is campism (usually calling itself ‘anti-imperialism’, of course), which is brillitantly analyzed in this article by Barnaby Raine. She says that:
I think this is a politics that in some cases, says, Bashar Al Assad is marvellous and he’s creating a gorgeous society in Syria, or that Gaddafi did the same in Libya until the West got rid of him. Or it says: look, the Chinese state has lifted more people out of poverty, which is to repeat a line from apologists for capitalism.
But the more dominant thread is that lots of people, I think, on the western left are inclined to sympathy with these kinds of states not because they think these states are building a majestic New Paradise, but because they think there’s nothing else. Because in a world in which American imperialism seemed—in the language of the New World Order of the 1990s—to run hegemonic rampant across the earth with no antagonist, they look to these states for some small crumbs of opportunity in the possibility of resisting the global tide of American dominance.https://breachmedia.ca/is-the-enemy-of-my-enemy-my-friend/
So I think of this as a kind of left Fukuyamaism. (….) The people who understand themselves as being on the left, who are actively part of left campaigns, and who’ve really accepted an End of History narrative, are I think those people who don’t believe we can do any better than the defense of states like China, Syria, Cuba, and sometimes even North Korea, as building blocks in a feeble global antagonism against the overwhelming dominance of American power. So this is a pessimistic campism, not an optimistic campism. There were certainly pessimists among the members of the Communist Party who didn’t think the Soviet Union was a glorious place, but who thought it was necessary to defend it. But broadly, there’s been a shift from a form of optimism to a form of pessimism in campist politics.
Curiously, for someone known as a ruthless critique of American hegemony, Chomsky seems to take part in a longstanding ‘Americana‘ tradition: civic libertarianism and free-speech absolutism.
The Classical Liberal free speech absolutist stance of Noam Chomsky, who has claimed “antifa” is a “gift to the Right” and engaged in revisionism denying the Bosnia/Cambodia genocide, has led him to defend antisemites such as Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson & Chris Williamson.https://twitter.com/heresysquad/status/1378473486344093696?s=20
Veteran Chomsky critic and blogger Bob from Brockley outlined in 2005 the six things that he thought constituted what’s wrong with him:
- Coldness: To talk about Chomsky’s coldness seems trivial, but I think it is crucially important. What Chomsky demonstrates is common amongst idealists: love of humanity, hatred of humans. [he gives examples regarding Chomsky’s distate for music and sport] These two prejudices of Chomsky reveal his fundamentally elitist worldview, his distaste for the messy reality of ordinary human beings. You never read human stories in his books. People are just pawns manipulated by the great powers, sponges uncritically absorbing the lies told to them by Fox News, nameless innocent men, women and children to be mowed down by the evil empire and stacked up anonymously in a bodycount to be compared dispassionately to some other bodycount.
- False scholarship and performing intelligence: My problem is the way that Chomsky exploits the myth of academic objectivity and expertise. Through his mastery of the codes of academic speech, he has perfected the art of giving his pronouncements a veneer of ‘facticity’. He never uses the first person; he peppers his work with quotations, references and footnotes; he liberally sprinkles his work with numbers and statistics and factoids. This is an elitist rhetorical strategy, designed to bolster his authority as an author. We can call it scholasticism, rather than scholarship. For those on his side who are unable to think for themselves, he appears to have done the thinking for them. For those who disagree with him, they find themselves up against a sheer glass cliff of fact and argument, impossible to challenge. When someone – like Oliver Kamm – takes the trouble to look up the references, though, or decipher the stats, they often turn out to be far shakier than Chomsky lets on. Chomsky’s performance of scholarship and his coldness are, I believe, related on a deep level. His disregard for humans in favour of an abstract humanity fits well with his scholastic cultivation of dispassionate, fact- and number-heavy prose in his books.
- Ultra-liberalism: Chomsky’s linguistic theory, which stresses innate human capacity to acquire language, sits squarely in an Enlightenment rationalist tradition that goes back to Descartes, which stresses the individual’s rational capacities, tied to a theory of the innateness of knowledge. This philosophical tradition has flowed into classical liberal political theory, as exemplified in Voltaire’s thought and in the some of the documents of America’s Founders. One of the key elements in this rationalist liberal Enlightenment worldview is the doctrine of Free Speech. For Free Speech fundamentalists, the right to speak freely is the highest of values. For some critics of Free Speech fundamentalism, free speech is one among many rights, and must be balanced against them, but also against our responsibilities as citizens. Thus Chomsky has fallen foul of anti-fascists and anti-racists who see the right to free speech as balanced against the right to live free of racist or fascist violence. Anti-fascists see Chomsky’s defence of genocide-deniers’ “right” to speak as placing freedom of speech above the lives of those who have died in the genocides denied – and the lives at risk from future acts of violence which denial makes more possible. The liberal free speech doctrine complements Chomsky’s rationalist conception of the role of the intellectual – himself – as exemplar of humanity’s rational capacities. And again, Chomsky’s ultra-liberalism fits well with his moral coldness. To place an abstract morality of free speech above the suffering of real people, which is the essence of Free Speech fundamentalism, is pretty cold.
- Manicheanism: Increasingly in Chomsky’s writings, we find a manichean worldview – an evil ‘West’ against the innocent rest. ‘The West’, America, Zionism and capitalism have, over time, come to be more or less equivalent terms in Chomsky’s vocabulary. Anything evil you can name, Chomsky will either somehow trace it back to ‘The West’, or else compare it to the crimes of ‘The West’ and find it somehow less evil: “Yes, but we armed him.” “Yes, but that’s not as bad as that massacre we committed.” “Yes, but the real terrorist is America.” “Yes, but this is the chickens coming home to roost.” This manicheanism means Chomsky is willing to use the language of moral judgment about actions by ‘the West’, but not about actions by the rest. His books talk about the My Lai massacre and “huge terror operations” perpetrated by America in Vietnam, but not about ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. At times, this can amount to pursuing double standards. At worst, it relativises, contextualises away, apologises for and excuses some of the most evil acts our time has seen. It is in this frame that we have to view his minimising away of Pol Pot’s genocide, of Osama’s attacks on New York, of the Serbian violence against Bosnians – and his defence of those who minimise genocide even more radically than he ever does, such as Faurisson or LM. Once again, we can see this worldview as fundamentally disrespectful to human life, in the name of an abstract humanity. Those killed at Kishinev become a mere footnote – “only 49”; those who died in the Twin Towers become mere collateral damage.
- Slippage from vulgar materialism to conspiracy theory: The fifth problem I have with Chomsky is the ontology that underlies his work. This used to be a version of what Marxists call “vulgar materialism”: the crude determinism that traces all human events back to economic causes. (The most prevalent version of vulgar materialism these days is the idiotic “blood for oil” pseudo-analysis of the Iraq wars.) This vulgar materialism has animated Chomsky’s truly impressive analyses of the political economy of the mass media and of the political economy of modern warfare. Increasingly, though, this vulgar materialism seems to give way in Chomsky’s writing to the vulgar materialism of fools: conspiracy theory. When Chomsky portrays a gullible citizenry manipulated by a sophisticated web (I don’t think he’s actually ever used the word “cabal”) of shadowy financiers, media moguls and military strategists, he is sustaining a view of the world based on conspiracy theory. Hence the enthusiastic take-up of his work by people who think 9/11 didn’t happen or was a Mossad plot, the people who think Srebrenica or the massacre of Kosovan Albanians was fabricated, the people who see the Project for a New American Century as the latter-day Elders of Zion. Again, this vulgar materialist/conspiracy theory mentality reflects his utter lack of respect for ordinary people, who are reduced to pawns in the power games of the mighty.
- Chomsky as brand: Finally, in addition to these five issues, I am suspicious of Chomsky for the way he has become a star, a brand even. Chomskyites like to think of their guru as an archetype of “dissent”, as voicing something repressed from the “mainstream” media. Yet look in any bookstore, pick up any broadsheet, you will find it remarkably easy to access Chomsky’s views. Chomsky, like Michael Moore, is a hot commodity, and the ease with which capital commodifies and recuperates them for the market makes me suspicious. But that is not a fair criticism, as it is not a criticism of Chomsky, but rather of what is done with Chomsky – it is a problem not of Chomsky but of the culture of celebrity and branding and bullshit in which Chomsky seems to sit so easily.
Why should leftist circles tolerate scum (des ordures) like Chomsky and other genocide deniers or conspiracists? Adnan Delalić and others would instead say: why should victims of genocide and authoritarian murderers (like Assad) tolerate a left that contributes to denialism and to their dehumanization, and praises the likes of Chomsky? And there’s nothing one can retort to that, honestly… The immorality of the left (a pretty vague term anyway), especially but not exclusively in the West, is truly appalling.
Chomsky belongs to a certain category of relativist/confusionist, civic libertarian contrarians that includes Jean Bricmont (who was once called the ‘Belgian Chomsky’), Norman Finkelstein, Glenn Greenwald, Chris Hedges, Edward Snowden, and so on. Among other things, they share a stance of free-speech absolutism and what Isaac Russo called ‘reactionary pacificism‘, which is part of their contempt for the diversity of tactics – combining violence and non-violence for example – embraced by movements like antifascism.
It’s long past time radicals, the left, or whatever we might call it, stopped relying on such overrated, intellectually flawed and morally repugnant figures as Chomsky (and Parenti). Also, let’s just let this old man retreat into irrelevancy, he is 92 years old for fuck’s sake! We don’t need his nonsense being spread around and poisoning the already grim landscape of today’s politics…