The Chorus and Cassandra
Grand Street, Autumn, 1985
|In his imperishable Treatise on the Art of
Political Lying, published in 1714, Dr. John Arbuthnot laid
down a standard for falsifiers and calumniators that has yet to be
Sixteen years ago I went to the Examination Schools at Oxford University to hear Professor Noam Chomsky deliver the John Locke Lectures. The series was chiefly concerned with modern theories of grammar, syntax, and linguistics, but Chomsky attached a condition which the syndics of the university could not easily decline. He insisted on devoting one entire, self-contained lecture to the American war in Indochina and to the collusion of "academic experts" in an enterprise which was, he maintained, debauching America even as it savaged Vietnam.
Several things intrigued me about the stipulation. First, I liked the way Chomsky separated his political statement from his obligation as a guest lecturer rather than, as was and is the style at Oxford, pretending to objectivity while larding the discourse with heavily sarcastic political "pointers." There was no imported agenda of the kind one got from Hugh Trevor-Roper, Max Beloff, or John Sparrow. Second, I was impressed by his insistence, which was the inverse of the shifty practice of Tory and liberal scholars, that academics could and should have a role in political life but should state their allegiance squarely. It had, after all, been only a few months since Gilbert Ryle had told us, as we clamored about the crushing of Czechoslovakia, "What can we do? We are philosophers, not lifeboat men." That there was something wrong with the Rylean bleat I was certain. What it was, I was not sure. Chomsky seemed to suggest that you need not politicize the academy in order to take a stand, but that if you did not take a stand, then you were being silent about a surreptitious politicization of it. To the hundreds of us who broke the habit of many terms and for once attended lectures consistently and on time, he seemed to have a measured, unshakable, but still passionate manner that contrasted rather well with the ardent ultraleft confusion and the creepy conservative evasions that were competing at the time.
Still, Chomsky was unmistakably on the left, though he scorned the sectarians and the know-alls. In those days, also, you could read him everywhere; his name had a kind of cachet. He was interviewed with respect on television and radio, though more often abroad than in America. He was a seminal contributor to The New York Review of Books. His predictions about a widening of the Indochina war, and a consequent narrowing of the choices between a Sovietization of the peninsula and an utter devastation of it, now seem almost banal in their accuracy. Nineteen sixty-nine was before Nixon's "madman theory," before Kissinger's "decent interval," before the Christmas bombing, the Church Committee, the "plumbers," and all the rest of it. Tumultuous as it seemed at the time, the period in retrospect appears an age of innocence. The odd thing -- and I wonder why it didn't occur to me more forcefully then -- was that, the more Chomsky was vindicated, the less he seemed to command "respect." To the extent that I reflected about this at all, I put it down to shifts in fashion ("Chomsky? -- a sixties figure"), to the crisis undergone by many superficial antiwar commentators when the American war was succeeded by Spartan regimes (of which more later), and to the fact that Chomsky had started to criticize the Israelis, seldom a prudent course for those seeking the contemplative life.
As "wound healing" went on in American society, and as we were being bidden to a new age where "self-doubt and self-criticism" were things of the past, and just as I was wondering whether one would admire an individual who had put self-doubt and self-criticism behind him, Oxford struck back at Noam Chomsky. In the 1983 Biographical Companion to Modern Thought, edited by Alan Bullock, there appeared a 550-word entry under Chomsky, Avram Noam. Of these 550 words, the most immediately arresting were those which maintained that he had
The piece was written by Geoffrey Sampson, an academic nonentity who made various other incautious allegations and who later, while engaged in an exchange with my friend Alexander Cockburn [The Nation, December 22, 1984, and March 2, 1985], strolled into the propellers and was distributed into such fine particles that he has never been heard from again.
Elsewhere in his entry, Sampson alluded foolishly to "relationships between the academic and political sides of Chomsky's thought," going so far as to say that "Chomsky has sometimes made such links explicit, for instance in arguing that Lockean empiricist philosophy paved the way for imperialism," and concluding lamely that "recently, however, Chomsky has insisted on a rigid separation between the two aspects of his work." This, insofar as it was not a simple-minded non sequitur, I knew to be flatly untrue from my attendance at the John Locke Lectures in 1969. In a 1985 article in The New Criterion, Sampson made an equally false claim about threats of legal action against his person from Chomsky, succeeded in convincing only its editor, the too-credulous Hilton Kramer, and the undiscriminating Martin Peretz, of The New Republic, of his veracity, was made to apologize by Cockburn, and, as I said, disappeared like breath off a razor blade.
My curiosity was ignited, not at first by the debate over the integrity of the Bullock crib, but by the fact that anything so cavalier and crude had been published at all. Bullock and his deputies are nothing if not respecters of persons. And we live in a world where fact checkers, subeditors, and (except for people like Chomsky, who eschew them on principle) libel lawyers work mightily to protect reputations on both sides of the Atlantic. How came it that Noam Chomsky, among the few Americans of his generation to lay claim to the title of original thinker, could be treated in such an offhand way? As I later found, Chomsky had written to a stoically indifferent Bullock:
All this began to interest me at about the turn of the New Year. In the following weeks, without even trying, I was able to glean the following merely from the journals and papers to which I subscribe in the ordinary way:
Nor was this all. Without digging very much further, I found that the London Spectator had just published an article by Richard West on September 29, 1984, which lustily indicted
This comment appeared in a review of The Quality of Mercy, which, like Sideshow, was written by William Shawcross. On page 55 of The Quality of Mercy, which was published in the fall of 1984, appears the following, as an explanation of relative Western indifference toward the Calvary in Cambodia. Of the assumed indifference, Shawcross wrote:
It seems that Chomsky is impaled on some kind of inquisitorial fork here. He is accused of leaning on Shawcross, who in turn accuses him of culpable complacency, if not outright intellectual complicity. Then there is the bland assertion by the editors of The New Republic, on December 24, 1984:
After reading which, Martin Peretz's flat assertion earlier that "Noam Chomsky's views are quite mad" seems a mere grace note. Reaching for the denunciation of last resort, Peretz yelled that "even in circles which had once revered him, Mr. Chomsky is now seen as a crank and an embarrassment."
As I said, I found all these references with no more effort than it takes to keep up with he weeklies. And I can count William Shawcross and Richard West among my friends, The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement among my employers, David Horowitz and Fred Barnes among my distant nodding acquaintances. No real "research," in other words. was needed to amass these confident citations. But a little work was required to establish a small fact. Not one of the extracts quoted above, whether you take them "in their context" or out of it, contains any approximation to the truth. I lay down my pen and look at what I have just written. Have I the blind spot or have they? Have I discounted enough for my own prejudices? Should I say here that Noam Chomsky once gave a book of mine a very decent review? That I have met him three times and found him sane? All these allowances made, I still maintain that we are in the territory so deftly mapped by Dr. Arbuthnot -- and by Ryszard Kapuscinski in Shah of Shahs;
The gravamen of the bill against Noam Chomsky is this. That, first, he did euphemize and minimize the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. That, second, he did "endorse" or otherwise recommend a pamphlet or paper that sought to prove the Nazi Holocaust a fiction. That, third, he is an enemy of the Jewish state and a friend to footpads and terrorists of every stripe. This is what "everybody" knows about the lonely, derided linguist who no doubt blames America first and is a self-hating Jew into the bargain. Never was an open society better insulated from dissent. In Britain, he would be dismissed as "brilliant but unsound; doesn't know when to stop." In the United States, it takes a little more than that to encompass the destruction of a reputation.
The Case of the Cambodian Genocide
David Horowitz and Peter Collier were wrong, in the syndicated article announcing their joint conversion to neoconservatism, to say that Chomsky hailed the advent of the Khmer Rouge as "a new era of economic development and social justice." The Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. In 1972, Chomsky wrote an introduction to Dr. Malcolm Caldwell's collection of interviews with Prince Norodom Sihanouk. In this introduction, he expressed not the prediction but the pious hope that Sihanouk and his supporters might preserve Cambodia for "a new era of economic development and social justice." You could say that this was naive of Chomsky, who did not predict the 1973 carpet-bombing campaign or the resultant rise of a primitive, chauvinist guerrilla movement. But any irony here would appear to be at the expense of Horowitz and Collier. And the funny thing is that, if they had the words right, they must have had access to the book. And if they had access to the book.... Well, many things are forgiven those who see the error of their formerly radical ways.
The Richard West-William Shawcross fork also proves, on investigation, to be blunt in both prongs. Chomsky and Shawcross have this much in common: that they both argue for and demonstrate the connection between the Nixon-Kissinger bombing and derangement of Cambodian society and the nascence of the Khmer Rouge. It is not the case that Chomsky borrowed this idea from Shawcross, however. He first went to press on the point in 1972, seven years before Sideshow was published, with an account supplied by the American correspondent Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Dudman is one of the few people to have been both a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge and a chronicler of his own detention. His testimony indicated a strong connection between American tactics in the countryside of Cambodia and the recruitment of peasants to the guerrilla side. (Imagine the strain of composing an account that denied such a connection.)
This more or less disposes of West, who has simply got the order of things the wrong way about and added some random insults. The case of Shawcross is more complicated. In his The Quality of Mercy, he quotes three full paragraphs apparently from Chomsky's pen, though he does not give a source. The three paragraphs do not express "skepticism" about the massacres in Cambodia, but they do express reservations about some of the accounts of them. They also argue that the advent of the Khmer Rouge should be seen in the historical context of the much less ballyhooed American aerial massacres a few years earlier -- a point which the author of Sideshow is in a weak position to scorn. Finally, the three paragraphs convey a sardonic attitude toward those who claim that it "took courage" to mention the Khmer Rouge atrocities at all.
But mark the sequel. The three paragraphs as quoted do not appear anywhere. They are rudely carpentered together, without any ellipses to indicate gaps in the attribution, from the summary and introduction to Volume 1 of The Political Economy of Human Rights, which was written by Noam Chomsky and Professor Edward Herman of the Wharton School of Business. The book went to press in 1979, after the forcible overthrow of the Pol Pot regime. Thus, even if the paragraphs were quoted and sourced properly, and even if they bore the construction that Shawcross puts on them, they could hardly have contributed to the alleged indifference of civilized opinion "throughout 1976 and 1977 and especially in 1978" or inhibited the issue from reaching "critical mass." Since Shawcross lists the book, with its date, in his bibliography, the discrepancy can hardly be due to ignorance.
As for the gratuitous insinuation about protest over Chile, I can't help recording that one of the anti-Khmer Rouge blockbusters with which the American public was regaled came in TV Guide (circulation 19 million) in April 1977 and was written by Ernest Lefever. Lefever had earlier told Congress that it should be more "tolerant" of the "mistakes" of the Pinochet regime in attempting to "clear away the devastation of the Allende period." He also wrote, in The Miami Herald, of the "remarkable freedom of expression" enjoyed in the new Chile. In 1981, Lefever proved too farouche to secure nomination as Reagan's Under Secretary for Human Rights.
William Shawcross enjoys his reputation for honesty. And so I have had to presume that his book represents his case at its most considered. Why, then, if he has room for three paragraphs from Chomsky and Herman, does he not quote the equally accessible sentences, published in The Nation on June 25, 1977, where they describe Father Francois Ponchaud's Cambodia: Year Zero as "serious and worth reading," with its "grisly account of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge"?
Chomsky and Herman were engaged in the admittedly touchy business of distinguishing evidence from interpretation. They were doing so in the aftermath of a war which had featured tremendous, organized, official lying and many cynical and opportunist "bloodbath" predictions. There was and is no argument about mass murder in Cambodia: there is still argument about whether the number of deaths, and the manner in which they were inflicted, will warrant the use of the term "genocide' or even "autogenocide." Shawcross pays an implicit homage to this distinction, a few pages later, when he admits that Jean Lacouture, in his first "emotional" review of Father Ponchaud, greatly exaggerated the real number of Khmer Rouge executions. These errors, writes Shawcross, "were seized upon by Noam Chomsky, who circulated them widely. In a subsequent issue of The New York Review, Lacouture corrected himself. Not all of those who had reported his mea culpa published his corrections. Chomsky used the affair as part of his argument that the media were embarked on an unjustified blitz against the Khmer Rouge."
If this paragraph has any internal coherence -- and I have given it in its entirety -- it must lead the reader to suppose that Chomsky publicized Lacoutre's mea culpa without acknowledging his corrections. But in The Political Economy of Human Rights there is an exhaustive presentation of the evolution of Lacoutre's position, including both his mea culpa and his corrections and adding some complimentary remarks about his work. Incidentally, Lacouture reduced his own estimate of deaths from "two million" to "thousands or hundreds of thousands." Is this, too, "minimization of atrocities"?
Ironies here accumulate at the expense of Chomsky's accusers. A close analysis of Problems of Communism and of the findings of State Department intelligence and many very conservative Asia specialists will yield a figure of deaths in the high hundreds of thousands. Exorbitant figures (i.e. those oscillating between two and three million) are current partly because Radio Moscow and Radio Hanoi now feel free to denounce the Pol Pot forces (which now, incredibly, receive official American recognition) in the most abandoned fashion. Chomsky wrote that, while the Vietnamese invasion and occupation could be understood, it could not be justified. May we imagine what might be said about his complicity with Soviet-bloc propaganda if he were now insisting on the higher figure? For both of these failures to conform, he has been assailed by Leopold Labedz in Encounter, who insists on three million as a sort of loyalty test, but, since that magazine shows a distinct reluctance to correct the untruths it publishes -- as I can testify from my own experience -- its readers have not been exposed to a reply.
Chomsky and Herman wrote that "the record of atrocities in Cambodia is substantial and often gruesome." They even said, "When the facts are in, it may turn out that the more extreme condemnations were in fact correct." The facts are now more or less in, and it turns out that the two independent writers were as close to the truth as most, and closer than some. It may be distasteful, even indecent, to argue over "body counts," whether the bodies are Armenian, Jewish, Cambodian, or (to take a case where Chomsky and Herman were effectively alone in their research and their condemnation) Timorese. But the count must be done, and done seriously, if later generations are not to doubt the whole slaughter on the basis of provable exaggerations or inventions.
Maurice Cranston's letter to The Times Literary Supplement, with its unexamined assumption that Chomsky was a partisan of North Vietnam, falls apart with even less examination. In 1970, Chomsky wrote up his tour of the region for The New York Review of Books and said:
I think of that article whenever I read wised-up Western newsmen who dwell upon the "ironic" fact that the North Vietnamese, not the NLF, now hold power in Ho Chi Minh City. It takes real ingenuity to blame this on the antiwar movement, but, with a little creative amnesia and a large helping of self-pity for the wounds inflicted by the war (on America), the job can by plausibly done.
Finally, to Fred Barnes, recruited to The New Republic from The Baltimore Sun and The American Spectator. I wrote to him on the day that his article appeared, asking to know where he heard Chomsky say such a thing. I received no reply until I was able to ask for it in person two months later. I then asked him to place it in writing. It read as follows:
Since this meeting took place in the year after Chomsky and Herman had written their Nation article, and in the year when they were preparing The Political Economy of Human Rights, we can probably trust the documented record at least as much as Mr. Barnes's recollection. And there was no letter from Chomsky about Cambodia in The New York Review of Books. It is interesting, and perhaps suggestive, that Barnes uses the terms "genocide," "holocaust," and "mass murder" as if they were interchangeable. His last two sentences demonstrate just the sort of cuteness for which his magazine is becoming famous.
Here is the story, as far as I can trace it, of Chomsky's effort to "minimize" or "deny" the harvest of the Khmer Rouge. It will be seen that the phony "credibility" of the charge against him derives from his lack of gullibility about the American mass killings in Indochina (routinely euphemized or concealed by large sections of the domestic intelligentsia). From this arises the idea that Chomsky might have said such things; was the sort of person who could decline to criticize "the other side"; was a well-known political extremist. Couple this with the slothful ease of the accusation, the reluctance of certain authors to prove they are not unpatriotic dupes, and you have a scapegoat in the making. Dr. Arbuthnot was right. Nobody would believe that Chomsky advocated a massacre. But they might be brought to believe that he excused or overlooked one.
The Case of the Negated Holocaust
Here, Dr. Arbuthnot gives way to Ryszard Kapuscinski. The tactic is not to circulate a part-untruth so much as it is to associate the victim with an unpardonable out-group, against which preexisting revulsion and contempt can be mobilized.
My tutor at Oxford was Dr. Steven Lukes, a brilliant and humane man with an equal commitment to scholarship and to liberty. His books on Durkheim, on power, on utopianism, and on Marxism and morality are, as people tend to say, landmarks in their field. He took me as his guest to one of Chomsky's private seminars in that spring of 1969. When, in 1980, he told me that Chomsky had written an introduction to a book by a Nazi apologist, and that the book described the extermination of the Jews as a Zionist lie, I was thunderstruck. Like Noam Chomsky, Steven Lukes is Jewish. Like Chomsky, he was and is much opposed to the usurpation of Israel by the heirs of Jabotinsky. But this seemed incomprehensible. The political rights of hateful persons was one question (rather a vexed one in the British case, where the police and not the courts usually decide who may or may not speak in public), but keeping company with them was quite another. More, it appeared that Chomsky had dignified this character's book with a preface and had not even bothered to read the text he was decorating. I admit that I allowed myself a reflection or two about the potentially harmful effects on Chomsky of his political and personal isolation on the Middle East.
When I began to write this article, I wrote to Lukes at Balliol and asked him to furnish me with the background material to l'affaire Faurisson. I also pursued all the other references in print. I do not read French very well, but I have studied Nadine Fresco's famous article "The Denial of the Dead," adapted in Dissent from Les Temps modernes; Pierre Vidal-Naquet's "A Paper Eichmann?" reprinted in Democracy; and Arno J. Mayer's "Explorations" column on the same theme in the same magazine. There is also Paul Berman's article in The Village Voice of June 10, 1981, "Gas Chamber Games: Crackpot History and the Right to Lie," which is a sort of macedoine of the first three.
Let us not waste any time on Robert Faurisson. He is an insanitary figure who maintains contact with neo-Nazi circles and whose project is the rehabilitation, in pseudoscholarly form, of the Third Reich. How he came to be appointed in the first place I cannot imagine (from what I have seen his literary criticism is pitiful), but in 1979 he was a teacher in good standing of French literature at the University of Lyons. If, like our own Arthur Butz, who publishes "historical revisionist" garbage from Northwestern University, he had been left to stew in his own sty, we might have heard no more of him. But in that year he published an article entitled " `The Problem of the Gas Chambers' or the Rumor of Auschwitz.' " The whole appeared in Maurice Bardeche's sheet, Defense de l'Occident, and extracts were reprinted in Le Monde. Faurisson summarized his conclusions in a supplement:
The rest of the "supplement" concerned the sinister ways in which the media had prevented these truths from becoming generally known.
I have no idea whether Faurisson hoped to attract unpleasant attention by the publication of this stuff, but the consequences were fairly immediate. His sternist critic, Nadine Fresco, records: "At Lyons, there were displays of antipathy and Faurisson was lightly molested by Jewish students. Consequently, the president of the university chose to suspend his classes." Fresco slightly minimizes (if that is the word I want) the fact that a subsequent suit, brought against Faurisson for "falsification of history" and for allowing others to use his work for their own fell purposes, was successful and he was condemned by a French court.
In the early stages of this process, Chomsky received a request, from his friend Serge Thion, that he add his name to a petition upholding Faurisson's right to free expression. This, on standard First Amendment grounds and in company with many others, he did. The resulting uproar, in which he was accused of defending Faurisson's theses, led to another request from Thion. Would Chomsky write a statement asserting the right to free speech even in the case of the most loathsome extremist? To this he also assented, pointing out that it was precisely such cases that tested the adherence of a society to such principles and adding in a covering letter that Thion could make what use of it he wished. At this stage, only the conservative Alfred Grosser among French intellectuals had been prepared to say that Faurisson's suspension by the University of Lyons set a bad example of academic courage and independence. Chomsky's pedantic recitation of Voltairean principles would probably have aroused no comment at all had Thion not taker rather promiscuous advantage of the permission to use it as he wished. Without notification to Chomsky, he added the little essay as an avis to Faurisson's pretrial Memiore en defense.
Chomsky's seven-page comment received more attention in the international press, as Paul Berman noted, than any other piece of work for which he had been responsible. Let me summarize those reactions, which are still worth quoting and which are still (when occasion demands) being repeated:
Of these criticisms, the most nearly fair seems to me the one offered by Vidal-Naquet (an early hero of mine because of his book on torture in Algeria). But he is wrong on one factual point. Fresco herself confirmed, and justified, the refusal of certain archivists and documentation centers to permit access to Faurisson. And he is at risk in his distinction between truth and false witness, a distinction which Milton understood better in Aeropagitica when he argued that the two must be allowed to confront one another if truth is to prevail. There is therefore no obligation, in defending or asserting the right to speak, to pass any comment on the truth or merit of what may be, or is being, said. This is elementary.
Also rather unsafe is the injunction (employed above most crudely by Vidal-Naquet's colleague Arno Mayer) to be careful of the use that may be made of one's remarks or signatures. Elsewhere in the same essay, for example, Vidal-Naquet asserts, "In the case of the genocide of Jews, it is perfectly evident that one of the Jewish ideologies, Zionism, exploits this terrible massacre in a way that is at times quite "scandalous." Scandalous -- the same word that he attaches to Chomsky's signature on a petition. But he supplies the corrective himself -- "that an ideology seizes upon a fact does not make this fact inexistent." Precisely. And the "fact" here is that Chomsky defended not Faurisson's work but his right to research and publish it. Vidal-Naquet undoubtedly knows better than to resort to the old Stalinist "aid and comfort" ruse. Where, then, is the core of his objection?
Does this not leave Arno Mayer, also, in some difficulty? The fact that neo-Nazis may have seized upon Noam Chomsky's civil-libertarian defense does not, of itself, make that defense invalid. Or, if it does, then by himself seizing upon what they have seized upon, Mayer is "objectively" associating civil-libertarian principles with the Nazis -- an unintended compliment that the latter scarcely deserve. Vidal-Naquet's point about Zionism's exploitation of the Holocaust could, if cleverly enough ripped from its context, be used to support point (4) in Faurisson's "supplement" above. Who but a malicious falsifier would make such a confusion as to who was in whose galere?
I wouldn't accuse any of the critics listed here of deliberate falsification. But it is nevertheless untrue to describe Chomsky's purloined avis as a preface, as Fresco does on almost a dozen occasions and as Mayer does twice. It is also snide, at best, to accuse Chomsky of "breaking with his usual pattern" in praising "the traditions of American support for civil liberty." He has, as a matter of record, upheld these traditions more staunchly than most -- speaking up for the right of extremist academics like [Walter] Rostow, for example, at a time during the Vietnam War when some campuses were too turbulent to accommodate them. It is irrelevant, at least, to do as Fresco also does and mention Voltaire's anti-Semitism. (As absurd a suggestion, in the circumstances, as the vulgar connection between Locke and imperialism.) Would she never quote Voltaire? Finally, she says that no question of legal rights arises because the suit against Faurisson was "private." What difference does that make? An authoritarian law, giving the state the right to pronounce on truth, is an authoritarian law whoever invokes it.
Chomsky can be faulted here on three grounds only. First, for giving a power of attorney to Serge Thion, who seems rather a protean and quicksilvery fellow. Second, for once unguardedly describing Faurisson as "a sort of relatively apolitical liberal." Admittedly, this came in the context of an assertion that Faurisson's opinions were a closed book to him; still, all the more reason not to speculate. The whole point is that Faurisson's opinions are not the point. Third, for attempting at the last minute, when he discovered too late that he was being bound into the same volume as a work he had not read, to have his commentary excised. He writes of this that "in the climate of hysteria among Paris intellectuals it would be impossible to distinguish defense of the man's right to express his views from endorsement of these views." Maybe. But Voltairean precepts involve precisely the running of that risk.
This is still nothing to do with "endorsement" and explains the repeated feverish sarcasm with which his critics claim that he had not "even read the endorsed" volume. Again, the irony would seem to be at their expense. An unread book is an unendorsed one, unless one assumes that Chomsky would endorse any Holocaust revisionist on principle -- an allegation so fantastic that it has not "even" been made. If, by any action or statement, Chomsky had hinted at sympathy for Faurisson's views, I think that we would know about it by now. The recurring attempt, therefore, to bracket him with the century's most heinous movement must be adjudged a smear. And the wider attempt -- to classify all critics of Israel as infected or compromised with anti-Semitism -- is, of course, itself a trivialization of the Holocaust.
The Case of the Forgotten War
Chomsky's evolving position on the Middle East conflict is the source of much of his unpopularity and (one sometimes suspects) the cause of much of the spite with which he is attacked on other issues. But where are the baying hounds this time? I can offer no lists of critics, no litany of denunciations. Chomsky wrote a book of more than 450 pages that was devoted to the United States and the Lebanese war of 1982, and what do you think? There was barely a squeak.
An unreviewed book is no rare thing in the United States, There is usually some explanation for the nonevent. The author may be obscure, or the subject arcane, or the issue dead, or the "issue" too widely covered already. Again, there may be no qualified reviewer in sight, so that, rather than assign the volume to an amateur, the books department may blushfully "pass" on the whole idea. A version of the same procedure is sometimes followed when no reviewer with a big enough "name" is on hand. And there are postal delays, crowded schedules, demands on inelastic space. Everyone remotely connected with "the trade" understands this, even when the rough and the smooth seem to be insufficiently random in their distribution. A good advertising budget has been known to help, but nobody is so coarse as to insinuate that it determines anything much.
These well-known vagaries and mutabilities cannot explain why, in the fall of 1983, Chomsky's book The Fateful Triangle was treated as if it did not exist. Consider: One of America's best-known Jewish scholars, internationally respected, writes a lengthy, dense, highly documented book about United States policy in the Levant. The book is acidly critical of Israeli policy and of the apparently limitless American self-deception as to its true character. It quotes sources in Hebrew and French as well as in English. It is published at a time when hundreds of United States marines have been killed in Beirut and when the President is wavering in his commitment, which itself threatens to become a major election issue. It is the only book of its scope (we need make no judgment as to depth) to appear in the continental United States. The screens and the headlines are full of approximations and guesses on the subject. Yet, at this unusually fortunate juncture for publication, the following newspapers review it: (1) the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner; (2) The Boston Globe. In Los Angeles, Chomsky has an admirer who is also a local book reviewer. This man prevails after a struggle. In Boston, Chomsky is a well-known local figure. But that's it. Many months later, after its foal, the London Review of Books, has devoted many respectful columns to the book, and after almost every major newspaper and magazine in England, Canada, and Australia has done the same, The New York Review of Books publishes a "mixed review." This presumably takes care of the only other possible editorial excuse (itself significant) -- that The Fateful Triangle was published by a small radical house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, named South End Press.
Paranoia would be inappropriate here. After all, this was not 1973, when the first edition of Chomsky and Herman's The Political Economy of Human Rights was suppressed by its own publishers, Warner Communications, for making unpatriotic assertions about United States policy in Indochina and elsewhere. The twenty thousand copies might have been pulped if it were not for a legally binding contract. Instead they were sold to an obscure outfit named MSS Information Corporation, where upon Warner -- which later bid high for the Nixon memoirs -- washed its hands of the entire deal and of all responsibility for advertising, promotion, and distribution. Difficult to imagine that happening to anyone else of remotely comparable stature, but, as I say, 1983 was different. The book was out, and the foreign-policy intelligentsia had every chance to comment.
I confess that I have no ready explanation for the total eclipse that followed. The New York Times had found Chomsky interesting enough to publish two long and pitying articles about the Faurisson business. Other newspapers and magazines seem, as I suppose I have shown, to find him deserving of comment. I therefore rang a selection of literary editors and asked if they could explain their reticence on this occasion.
I began with The New Republic, because it is mentioned so often in The Fateful Triangle and because its editors had assured me at the time that they would not let the critique go unanswered. Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor, told me jauntily when I inquired:
Editors at The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post Book World were less ready to be quoted but quite ready to talk. From the Times I heard variously, "I think we tuned out on Noam after Vietnam," "It fell through the cracks," and "We never received the book." From the Post, I heard that "by the time we got all those letters protesting about not reviewing it, the book wasn't in local bookstores -- so we didn't." I also heard that there was some doubt about having received the copy in the first place.
Katha Pollitt, who was literary editor of The Nation at this time, told me that there were already too many books about the Middle East, that the "front half" of the magazine devoted plenty of space to the subject, and that she herself preferred to preserve her pages for articles on fiction, poetry, and feminism.
Joe Clark, then books editor at Dissent, told me, "My guess is that I didn't feel a very strong desire to review the book." He said he would "have needed an overpowering reason." Clearly, the frequent and scornful mention of Dissent in The Fateful Triangle did not supply this incentive. For the literary editor of The New Republic to say that he sees "no reason for [Chomsky] to be above criticism" is presumably a joke. For him to say that the first invited contributor was "too disgusted" to review the book is not. The first invited reviewer, as I know and as Wieseltier confirmed to me, was Ze'ev Schiff, military correspondent of Ha'aretz and coauthor of Israel's Lebanon War. "Disgust" is certainly not what he evinced when I spoke to him about the book in the summer of 1984.
A category mistake is involved in the Post explanation, unless the editors of that newspaper assume there to be no connection between their failure to review a book and its absence from Washington's bookstores. I like the idea, though, of their not giving in to letters from readers.
The Times may perhaps not have received a copy, though South End Press was doing nothing but lobby for its chief title between November and June, and claims to have sent four in all. Radical incompetence allowed for, what is there to prevent an editor from doing what editors do every day and requesting a copy?
Pollitt has a point, and even though the rules of fairness oblige me to be harder on a former colleague, I can't see a way through her candor.
So what it comes down to is this. Life is unfair, and though it does seem odd that such a book is ignored only in its country of origin (and the country whose state policy it attacks), the whole thing is easily explicable. Above all, it is nobody's fault. Does this mean that there is no reluctance to hear the bad news about the Middle East? Well, again, and whether or not you believe in cock-up rather than conspiracy -- a favorite evasion of the soothing commentator -- it does seem harder for some people to get an audience than others. Especially hard for the man who, according to Shawcross, enjoyed sufficient sway to confuse or silence the American press over the question of Cambodia.
Whether he is ignored, whether he is libeled, or whether he is subjected to an active campaign of abuse, Chomsky is attacked for things that he is thought to believe, or believed to have said. A lie, it has been written, can travel around the world before truth has even got its shoes on. Merely to list the accusations against Chomsky, whether they are made casually or with deliberation, is a relatively easy task. Showing their unfairness or want of foundation involves expense of ink on a scale which any reader who has got this far will know to his or her cost. Perhaps for this reason, not all the editors who publish matter about Chomsky ever quite get around to publishing his replies. I could write an ancillary article showing this in detail, with his answers either unpublished or unscrupulously abridged. And, of course, a man who writes a lot of letters to the editor soon gets a reputation, like Bellow's Herzog, as a crank, an eccentric, a fanatic. Whereas the absence of a reply is taken as admission of guilt. . .
Ought I to be "evenhanded" and indicate where I disagree with Chomsky myself? I don't really see why I ought. My differences with him concern things that he does believe and has said. I also dissent from him, quite often, concerning the way in which he says things and on his repeated misuse of the verb "to brutalize." I think he has sometimes been facile about Cold War "moral equivalence" as well. But this is between him and me, or him and any other political opponent or critic who observes the rules of evidence and debate.
For the recurrent way in which this is not done, and for the process whereby the complaisant mainstream and the conservative guardians actually agree not to hear what is being said about them and their system, we need a word. "Marginalization" is too merely descriptive. "Ghettoization" is too self-pitying. It may come to me.
The contemporary United States expresses the greatest of all paradoxes. It is at one and the same time a democracy -- at any rate a pluralist open society -- and an empire. No other country has ever been, or had, both things at once. Or not for long. And there must be some question about the durability of this present coexistence, too. Already spokesmen of the Reagan Administration say plainly that their foreign and military policy is incompatible with the disloyalty and division that stem from a deliberative Congress and an inquisitive press. They laughably exaggerate the reflective capacity of the first and the adversary character of the second, but they have a point. If it is to have the least chance of success, their strategy calls for an imposed national unanimity, a well-cultivated awareness of "enemies within," and a strong draft of amnesia.
The academy and the wealthy new batch of think tanks are awash with people who collude, at least passively, in the process. As C. Wright Mills once wrote:
Not even Mills, or Chomsky in his "New Mandarins" essay, could have anticipated the world of the Heritage Foundation, of "Kissinger Associates," of numberless power-worshipping, power-seeking magazines and institutes interlocking across the dissemination of culture, priority, information, and opinion. But Mills did write, in 1942:
Noam Chomsky has attempted, as a volunteer, necessarily imperfectly, to shoulder this responsibility at a time of widespread betrayal of it. And it must be an awed attitude to the new style -- a willingness to demonstrate flexibility in the face of so much pelf and so much cant -- that allows so many people to join in ridiculing him for doing so. As a philosophical anarchist, Chomsky might dislike to have it said that he had "done the state some service," but he a useful citizen in ways that his detractors are emphatically not.