Cambodia: The Chomsky Problem

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.

Jeff Mudrick

13 thoughts on “Cambodia: The Chomsky Problem

  1. A Reply

    I like it when you talk politics, Jeff. You should do it more often. This is interesting stuff – I also really liked your Counterpunch counterpunches.

  2. Khmerhit Reply

    Excellent autocritique, JM! Of course, we all wanted the ‘good guys’ to be victorious, and Good at the same time. In the Gate, F Bizot describes a scene that took place on victory day, when some French students who were living near the airport, and who were rooting strongly for the KR, were brought to the embassy. They passed through the famous gate of the title chanting vive la revolution,only to be slapped in the face by an older Frenchman who had a clearer idea of what lay in store. Chomsky never got it, even when the facts slapped him in the face.

  3. Pinnochio Reply

    So someone said/wrote something possibly inaccurate. What’s really egregious is present day expats supporting a government that continues to collude with the still existent Khmer Rouge as you sit around on street 1-0-whatever bragging about how many years youv’e supported the corrupt regime. What a bunch of apathetic losers. Top one mates. Ps, does anyone know the specials for this week at ……. Go write another fluff article to make yourself feel useful as you drop off your next payment in whichever form to support the mistreatment of both the majority populace and your fellow expats.

    • Soi Dog Reply

      You missed the point completely, jackass. Rational dialogue is wasted on your lot.

  4. Pinnochio Reply

    More like Soy Dog. The point isn’t the point. That’s the point. Look at your present day and future actions and how they affect this world and not your opinion of some sadsacks opinion of someone else’s opinion of the past. And I thought I was a small wooden puppet.
    Ps, I heard there’s a nickel off Anchor drafts at the….. I’ll post the times on line. I can’t wait ! Drrrrrrrrrrr.

    • Soi Dog Reply

      Oh, sorry. I thought you were just a wanker. I didn’t know until now that you are a retarded, incoherent wanker.

  5. Pinnochio Reply

    No reply needed. Your words (or inability/lack thereof) or actione (or inability/lack thereof) speak for themselves. Check mate. And I thought I was a small wooden puppet.

  6. bomar Reply

    Chomsky established his career as a historian based on the fact that he’s a ground breaking linguist. He is pretty horrible as a historian.

  7. Chomsky Fan Reply

    I don’t see the big deal about Chomsky. He doesn’t represent the views of anybody but himself apparently (although he has plenty of Islamo-fascist followers) and doesn’t influence mainstream thought. He is a child of anarchism, which was cool 100 years ago in the Jewish communities of the former soviet union, kind of like Justin Bieber is popular now. He doesn’t represent anything relevant and is not relevant. He is nothing more than a witty Russian Jew. If MIT wants to keep him on the payroll so be it. Not the problem for proper Western people…

  8. jimmyboy Reply

    Jeff is an estimable man, and a good man.
    Pinnochio nails the rest of you pretty accurately.
    Kudos for allowing his comments.

    How about the local politics among expats with the aussie xl though?
    Cat got your collective tongue?

  9. steve owen Reply

    chomsky position is to highlight the crimes of the US military in Indochina, there would have been no kymer rouge if the US had not invaded vietnam.and commited genocide on the people of Indochina but this is an unpalatable truth that must be hidden

  10. gb Reply

    It seems like wherever you have a situation of extreme disparities of wealth and poverty, of backwardness and development, that implies potential for extreme instability. Then throw in the powderkeg of violence and disasters, whether natural or manmade — especially the kind of massive violence of modern warfare — and both the left and the right will tend to latch onto certain, often self-serving formulas by which to neatly and smugly sum up the ensuing events.

    For the right, the formulaic message will always tend to be the predictable script about how “extremisms of fascism and the far right or communism and the far left all end up the same, just different flavors of death camps.” And in that case, we are even permitted then to wink at the worst atrocities of rightwing dictators like Pinochet as merely offering some kind of necessary counterweight to leftist “utopian lunatics” who are “even worse.” Whereas for the left, the message will always tend to be another simplified, Manichaean view that “it’s all the fault of imperialism,” another version of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The rightwingers are “crackpot realists” for whom “realism” always uncannily aligns with self-interest, whereas the leftists are always discovering the much maligned victims of imperialist apologies.

    Philip Short’s excellent book, “Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare”, offers a good antidote in this particular case. And a good reminder to both left and right that every particular case IS particular, and needs to be studied on its own merits.

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