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Evil Scholars? Noam Chomsky and Cambodia

by Bruce Sharp

Note: This page is the first in a series of seven articles discussing Noam Chomsky's writings on the subject of Cambodia. Those articles, written in 1995, were originally posted to alt.fan.noam-chomsky, a Usenet newsgroup dedicated to Chomsky's work. A much more detailed discussion of this topic is now available in a single article: Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy. As noted in the article summarizing the older, archived articles, ("A Few Thoughts on a Debate That Won't End") in some ways my opinions have shifted over the years. However, as there are a number of other sites linking to the original articles, they will be maintained at this URL. Averaging Wrong Answers, however, is a much more thorough statement of my position.

Thanks are in order to John Kenneth Rucell for granting permission to reproduce his posts on this topic. Within these seven articles, there are a number of typos (and perhaps a few factual errors). Inasmuch as Mr. Rucell did not have the opportunity to make corrections in his posts, I have also left my own articles unmodified. There are a few references to other articles which had been posted concurrently in alt.fan.noam-chomsky and soc.culture.cambodia, but the material below is for the most part self-explanatory. An eighth and final article contains a few additional thoughts, written several years after the original articles.


From: bruce@interaccess (Bruce Sharp)
Newsgroups: alt.fan.noam-chomsky
Date: 27 May 1995 04:57:16 GMT

Recently there has been considerable debate about various scholars and whether or not they supported -- either actively or inadvertently -- the Khmer Rouge. The definitive word on this subject has been provided by Sophal Ear, who was kind enough to post his political science thesis on the subject in soc.culture.cambodia. I'd like to add a few of my own thoughts on this issue, examining Cambodia specifically, but also bearing in mind the implications regarding the skepticism and gullibility of scholars in general. I hope that this will not be mistaken for a flame; I'm not trying to be rude to anyone.

Let me begin by addressing any questions which might arise concerning my own qualifications for discussing this topic. Lest anyone doubt my credentials, my work background includes four years of working in the food service industry, along with some eight years of janitorial experience. Furthermore, I should stress that when I say "janitorial experience," I am NOT using a euphemism for the hands-off, remote work of property management. I refer to eight years filled with solid, eight-hour days of picking up popcorn cups and scrubbing toilets. (Hence my personal motto: "I've cleaned more toilets than most people have sat on!") I also have a great deal of familiarity with college, gleaned from one afternoon when I went to visit a friend at his job delivering VCRs and overhead projectors to classrooms at Northwestern University. In the unlikely event that there are lingering doubts about my expertise, please allow me to recount an anecdote which may prove illuminating:

Years ago I was working in a movie theatre which was being repainted. I was asked to paint a large radiator in the women's washroom. I had just opened a new can of paint, and a friend suggested that I remix the paint using an electric drill. But I needed an extention cord. After five minutes of fruitless searching, I finally asked a coworker.

"Why do you need the extension cord?" he asked.

"Because I want to use the drill to mix the paint, and the cord won't reach."

He looked at me for a moment, then spoke very softly. "I have an idea," he said. "Why don't you move the paint can closer to the wall?"

I tried that and it worked.

Bear my impressive intellectual pedigree in mind, then, as I outline some of the mistakes prominent scholars have made in writing about Cambodia. A good starting point is a book written in 1976 by George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter: "Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution." Hildebrand and Porter presented a glowing depiction of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, describing the new government's "coherent, well-developed plan for developing the economy." (P.88.) Brutality in Cambodia? No! "The evacuation of Phnom Penh undoubtably saved the lives of many thousands of Cambodians... what was portrayed as a destructive, backward-looking policy motivated by doctrinaire hatred was actually a rationally conceived strategy for dealing with the urgent problems that faced postwar Cambodia." (P.56.) Starvation in Cambodia? Not anymore! "It is the offically inspired propaganda of starvation for which no proof has been produced... Thus the starvation myth has come full circle to haunt its authors." (P.86.)

Chomsky does not evaluate all sources... What is most noteworthy about "Starvation and Revolution" is the manner in which it was received by the far Left at the time of its publication. The most prominent scholar to praise the book was the esteemed Noam Chomsky. Chomsky described the book as "a carefully documented study of the destructive American impact on Cambodia and the success of the Cambodian revolutionaries in overcoming it, giving a very favorable picture of their programs and policies, based on a wide range of sources." He went on to note that "it has not been reviewed in the [New York] Times, New York Review, or any mass-media publication, nor used as the basis for editorial comment, with one exception. The Wall Street Journal acknowledged its existence in an editorial entitled 'Cambodia Good Guys'... which dismissed contemptuously the very idea that the Khmer Rouge could play a constructive role..."

Does this indicate that Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge? It is perhaps also worth noting Chomsky's forward to "Cambodia in the Southeast Asia War" by Malcolm Caldwell and Lek Tan, written in 1972, in which Chomsky predicted that a communist victory in Cambodia would lead to "a new era of economic development and social justice." (Brief footnote: Caldwell was later murdered by the Khmer Rouge.)

Those are, certainly, supportive statements. But Chomsky's "support" for the Khmer Rouge was not rooted in indifference to brutality. It was, I think, rooted in naivete, gullibility, and poor scholarship. Having reread Chomsky's comments on Cambodia, having heard him speak, and having seen the documentary about the good professor, I have no doubt that he is a man of honor and great integrity.

However, he knows nothing about Cambodia.

No... that isn't true. The truth is much worse. He knows just enough about Cambodia to sound knowledgable to all of the people who really don't know anything about Cambodia. (Quick example, from the documentary: Chomsky refers to the US bombing as ending in 1975. It ended in August 1973, over a year and a half before the Khmer Rouge came to power.)

How could Chomsky have so seriously misjudged the nature of the Khmer Rouge? One reason is what I would refer to as the "The Curse of the Generalist." Chomsky writes about events all over the world. Can one person really understand all of the intricacies of the politics and history of any one country? Probably. But can one person understand the intricacies of ten countries? fifty? two hundred? No. There are conflicting accounts of the history of any country and any event. How can a person who does not have specialized knowledge of a given country evaluate which of those accounts is accurate? In Chomsky's case, he does not evaluate all sources and then determine which stand up to logical inquiry. Rather, he examines a handful of accounts until he finds one which matches his predetermined idea of what the truth must be. He does not derive his theories from the evidence. Instead, he selectively gathers "evidence" which supports his theories and ignores the rest. Furthermore, he does not subject sources he regards sympatheticly to the same rigorous critical scrutiny that he applies to conflicting accounts. The book by Hildebrand and Porter provides a perfect case in point.

The book is meticulously footnoted. The footnotes are worth reading. The primary sources for the information on conditions under the Khmer Rouge? The Khmer Rouge themselves. Of the 309 footnotes in the book's final chapter, dealing with conditions inside Cambodia, roughly 125 cite as their source Khmer Rouge government agencies and Khmer Rouge officials. Of the Western sources cited in the final chapter, the majority allude to quotations which Hildebrand and Porter use as examples of the "distorted" coverage by the U.S. media. Apparently, the authors did not bother to interview even one, single, solitary refugee who had fled Cambodia. If they did, there is no record of such an interview reflected in the footnotes. Now, try to imagine for a moment how Chomsky would have reacted to a book on, say, El Salvador, if the author had relied on the ARENA party for over one-third of its "factual" evidence... if such a book had cited a thesis by Alfredo Cristiani in its analysis of the Salvadoran economy... if the author had not interviewed a single refugee. Would Chomsky have praised its "careful documentation?" Would he have noted the "success" of the right wing? Would he have given a respectful nod to the "wide range of sources" consulted by the author? It is cruelly ironic that it was precisely the lack of "diverse sources" that Chomsky cited in his contemptuous, dismissive review of "Murder of a Gentle Land," one of the early accounts of Khmer Rouge atrocities.

None of this, I must stress, is meant to imply that Chomsky is or was a Khmer Rouge apologist. He isn't. But there is, I think, some justification for the anger felt toward him by many of the scholars, journalists, and human rights advocates who have spent years studying Cambodia. In addition to his initial skepticism regarding the reports of genocide, he has also misrepresented the nature of the media coverage during the years when the Khmer Rouge were in power. In the documentary about Chomsky, "Manufacturing Consent," much is made of the amount of news coverage given to events in Cambodia relative to the appalling paucity of news coverage of East Timor. But, as Sophal Ear has pointed out in related posts, concurrent coverage of human rights violations in other right-wing regimes (specifically, Chile and South Korea) exceeded the coverage given to Cambodia. Perhaps my memory is a bit hazy... after all, these events were taking place during my "Dazed and Confused" high school years... but to my recollection there was very little written about Khmer Rouge atrocities until the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, when war, famine and chaos sent hundreds of thousands of starving, brutalized refugees into Thailand. It was then... and only then... that Cambodia became a cover story in the mainstream media. William Shawcross, I think, summed up the sudden flurry of interest rather nicely, dryly observing that journalists could report on a holocaust after enduring nothing more trying than a three-hour ride from Bangkok in an air-conditioned taxi.

In the years since the Khmer Rouge were deposed, Chomsky has openly acknowledged their crimes. However, to the best of my knowledge, he has never publicly admitted his own mistakes. His frequent collaborator, Edward Herman, seems intent on avoiding the issues through silly semantic games: in an scowling critique of a review of Haing Ngor's book "A Cambodian Odyssey," Herman accuses the reviewer of "resuscitating an especially foolish propaganda claim" ... specifically, that the Khmer Rouge "'tried to exterminate... a majority of the population.'" He writes, "... if the Khmer Rouge aim was 'autogenocide,' it was unable to come anywhere near meeting its objective. The best overall survey of the period, by Michael Vickery, estimates 750,000 excess deaths in the Khmer Rouge era from all causes... on a population base of six to eight million." Apparently, as Sophal points out, Herman's logic is this: Since a paltry 750,000 victims did not constitute a "majority," then there was no autogenocide.

I will point this out to my wife, who is Cambodian, the next time she mourns the loss of her father, her brother, her grandfather, or any of the other 20 relatives she lost during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Don't cry, Srey... it's okay, we've all been mistaken, it wasn't genocide after all...

Forgive me if my anger comes through from time to time.

Putting aside semantics momentarily, it's worth addressing the issue of the estimates of the number of victims who died between 1975 and 1979. The figure of 750,000 cited by Michael Vickery is by far the lowest put forth by any serious Cambodia scholar. Other scholars suggest significantly higher totals, based on substantial, detailed analyses. Why do Chomsky and Herman choose to rely on Vickery's estimate? The answer, of course, is that a lower estimate is more in keeping with their predetermined idea of what the "truth" should be. The worst massacres, after all, are always perpetrated by the superpowers. Or so the theory goes...

If, through honest errors, Chomsky had supported the Khmer Rouge, the final question is: What constitutes redress? How does one atone for such mistakes? There were many prominent scholars who openly supported the Khmer Rouge; most have had the decency to subsequently admit their error. It is, moreover, important to remember the context in which the Khmer Rouge came to power. Given the haphazard manner of the US bombardment of the country, given the violence and stupidity with which Lon Nol had ruled Cambodia, I believe that it wasn't all that unreasonable to think that conditions were bound to improve with the end of the war. Most of us are optimists at heart; we hope for the best even when our better judgement warns us of our folly. We all make mistakes. Hopefully, we learn from them.

And, hopefully, one of the things we learn is how to say: "I was wrong. I am sorry."

Of course, it is only appropriate that I admit that my analysis here may be wrong. I might be making a complete ass of myself by blabbering and drooling incoherently across our valuable bandwidth. Maybe it's easy for me to say this because my reputation is not on the line; after all, I'm just some damn toilet guy, mindlessly searching for the Holy Grail, the Mother of All Extension Cords...

Maybe I should just let all of this pass... maybe I should just ignore the pomposity and the arrogance that cloud brilliant minds in a fog so thick that they are blinded to the truth...

On the other hand...

Maybe Chomsky and Herman and Limbaugh and Gingrich and the rest of our brilliant social commentators should spend less time talking, and more time cleaning toilets. Lock them in the biggest, dirtiest movie theatre around, isolate them from the minions and dittoheads who feed them the sound bites and half-truths they collect to support their pet theories... Let them turn their mental energy inward. Let them subject their own theories, their own reasoning, even their own values to the relentless critical scrutiny to which they subject the work of their detractors. This, the opportunity for self-examination, is one of the gifts afforded by menial labor.

There is another gift, as well, when it comes to cleaning toilets.

It helps to keep us humble.

Click here for a response in Chomsky's defense.

Other links: The text of Noam Chomsky's article "Distortions At Fourth Hand," referred to above, is available online at http://www.zmag.org/zmag/articles/chombookrev.htm. Sophal Ear's thesis, "The Khmer Rouge Canon," is also available online at http://www-mcnair.berkeley.edu/uga/osl/mcnair/Sophal_Ear_canon.html. These articles will open in a new window. Averaging Wrong Answers, mentioned in the introduction to this archived debate, is at http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/chomsky.htm.


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