Here in Cambodia, Noam Chomsky is without a doubt the guy everybody loves to hate. In expat circles, most have never read either his books, articles or reviews, but they certainly know of him as an apologist for the Khmer Rouge. Chomsky has indeed been the target of numerous attack pieces over the years, both for his early writings on the Khmer Rouge revolution and subsequently for his defense of those writings.
Does Chomsky get a bad rap? Well, here is my brief take. This is not a scholarly piece referencing everything Chomsky has written, really just the thoughts of someone who has lived with thirty six years of thinking-about-Chomsky (since writing an apologetic piece for a 1977 college paper based on Australian communist Wilfred Burchett’s writings).
Those looking for a more thorough review of Chomsky’s writings (or journalistic crimes depending on your view) might look at Nate Thayer’s article here.
The last we heard from Professor Chomsky on Cambodia was the interview provided to the Phnom Penh Post in October 2010 conducted, rather embarassingly it seems to me, by someone who runs a “Chomsky School” – something the Post might have mentioned but deemed unimportant.
Here Chomsky mostly redirected questions related to the Khmer Rouge back to the U.S. role in Indochina or policies in East Timor with little illuminating information about what he really thinks the Pol Pot regime was all about.
And so it has been from the beginning.
A good place to start in understanding “The Chomsky Problem” is a brief article Chomsky authored with Edward S. Herman published in the Nation in June 1977 entitled “Distortions at Fourth Hand”. This is a good place to start because it is here you will find a number of statements on the Khmer Rouge which have been quoted or misquoted by others in attack or defense of Chomsky. It’s just one article but it’s as illuminating as anything he’s written. He has never disavowed it.
There is foremost the issue of how many were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime, and for Chomsky especially, the issue of how many were killed directly or indirectly by the massive American bombing campaign which preceded the revolution. Here’s some of what Chomsky had to say in this piece.
“To give an illustration of just one neglected source, the London Economist (March 26, 1977) carried a letter by W.J. Sampson, who worked as an economist and statistician for the Cambodian Government until March 1975, in close contact with the central statistics office. After leaving Cambodia, he writes, he “visited refugee camps in Thailand and kept in touch with Khmers,” and he also relied on “A European friend who cycled around Phnom Penh for many days after its fall [and] saw and heard of no … executions” apart from “the shooting of some prominent politicians and the lynching of hated bomber pilots in Phnom Penh.”
He concludes “that executions could be numbered in hundreds or thousands rather than in hundreds of thousands,” though there was “a big death toll from sickness” — surely a direct consequence, in large measure, of the devastation caused by the American attack. Sampson’s analysis is known to those in the press who have cited Ponchaud at second-hand, but has yet to be reported here. And his estimate of executions is far from unique.”
Now on the one hand it is clear that the claim that there may have been hundreds or thousands rather then hundreds of thousands of executions is not Chomsky’s though it is often attributed to him either from this reference or in subsequent articles in which Chomsky refers back to this.
The reference is also to a letter referencing observations halfway through the reign of the Khmer Rouge and before the massive purges of 1978 had begun. And to the extent that it refers specifically to executions it may in fact be an accurate conjecture at the point in time it was put forward (it’s not clear when the author of the letter left Cambodia).
The real problem for Chomsky here, is that, in fact in the next paragraph, he refers to this as “expert testimony” despite the fact that it is based in large part on the tales of the same refugees who Chomsky dismisses – in the immediately preceding paragraph no less – as not trustworthy when they are telling tales of Khmer Rouge killings or other abuses. And it’s this picking and choosing of sources and his own distortions in characterizing the writings of others which his critics on the right and left rightly find maddening. For Chomsky, as Nate Thayer points out, KR propoganda when referenced by his favored authors is a credible source but not the reports of these refugees.
Unfortunately, Chomsky goes quite further in dismissing commonly used estimates of the number of dead attributable to Khmer Rouge policies more generally (going beyong executions). When faced with varying estimates of questionable reliability Chomsky goes the extra step of saying “The slaughter by the Khmer Rouge is a Moss-New York Times creation.”
In closing the Nation article Chomsky says “It seems to us quite important to determine whether the number of collaborators massacred in France was on the order of thousands, and whether the French Government ordered and organized the massacre. Exactly such questions arise in the case of Cambodia. …We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments; rather, we again want to emphasize some crucial points. What filters through to the American public is a seriously distorted version of the evidence available, emphasizing alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities and downplaying or ignoring the crucial U.S. role, direct and indirect, in the torment that Cambodia has suffered. Evidence that focuses on the American role, like the Hildebrand and Porter volume, is ignored, not on the basis of truthfulness or scholarship but because the message is unpalatable.”
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.
In 1977 I wrote a silly little paper, based primarily on one dubious source (Mr. Burchett) which explained away reports of Khmer Rouge atrocities reflecting my hope at that time that the good guys had finally won and that things would be ok. For the record, I was wrong, I admit it, and I probably didn’t deserve the grade my professor gave on it.
Having now said that, in my view it’s Chomsky’s turn.