Aug 1 1997

Ritually Denouncing Chomsky

It’s a rare day when Noam Chomsky’s name surfaces in mainstream media. But Anthony Lewis’ June 23 New York Times column on the reported arrest of Pol Pot took a passing swipe at the MIT linguist and social critic.

“A few Western intellectuals, notably Prof. Noam Chomsky, refused to believe what was going on in Cambodia,” Lewis wrote. “At first, at least, they put the reports of killing down to a conspiratorial effort by American politicians and press to destroy the Cambodian revolution.”

In fact, Chomsky did acknowledge that massive atrocities had taken place in Cambodia, but questioned whether they were greater in scale than other massacres that had taken place with far less attention from the Western press, such as the contemporaneous killings being perpetrated by Indonesia in East Timor. He also pointed to the responsibility that the U.S. bore for the Cambodian tragedy, noting that the Khmer Rouge took power after the U.S. had destabilized the neutralist government of the country and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians in a ferocious bombing campaign.

But Chomsky has little expectation of being summarized fairly by papers like the New York Times on issues like Cambodia. As he and Edward Herman wrote in After the Cataclysm, their 1979 book on post-war Indochina, when it comes to Cambodia,

Critics of U.S. violence find themselves in a curious position…. Generally ignored by the press, they find that in this case, their comment is eagerly sought out in the hope that they will deny atrocity reports, so that this denial can be featured as ‘proof’ that inveterate apologists for Communism will never cease their sleazy efforts…. When no real examples can be found, the Free Press resorts to the familiar device of invention; the alleged views of critics of the propaganda barrage who do exist are known primarily through ritual denunciations rather direct exposure.

It’s as if Chomsky and Herman were responding to Lewis’ column—18 years before it was written.