Thursday, July 8, 2010

Chomsky's Views on the Khmer Rouge Distorted

Long time readers of this blog know that I've been heavily influenced recently by Noam Chomsky. Some tell me I focus on him too much. I need to branch out. It's probably true. But in my experience I can think of nobody that writes in such an effective way. In other words, when I read books on controversial topics I want to not just learn new things, but also learn how I can know that those things are true. Chomsky doesn't just tell you things that you didn't know. He tells you things you didn't know and tells you how he knows them. So you don't have to take his word for it. Glenn Greenwald is also like that, which is why I love him as well. It does me little good to hear an important claim. I need to have a reputable source for any claim.

Early on when I first started reading him I'd also look at criticisms, as I still do today. I often saw claims that he had defended the Khmer Rouge and/or denied the reality of the killings they perpetuated. I saw the claim so often initially I had to assume it was probably true. And so what. Suppose Chomsky made a mistake 40 years ago. Stranger things have happened. And suppose (as his critics allege) he never conceded it. OK. Could be. What do I care? It's not like he's my Dad or something. I don't care if people beat on him for that. The fact remains that many of his arguments today and in the past make a lot of sense and need to be considered on their own terms, not on whether or not he made a mistake years ago.

Still I was curious to see this alleged error and I had difficulty finding the real evidence. It was just an assertion. People would say this is what he did, but they didn't generally quote him. Here's David Horowitz offering that kind of thing. Once again more recently. Yeah, the assertion makes him look bad. But where is the actual evidence.

So a friend of mine turned me on to something from Brad DeLong. This guy has excellent credentials, so you'd have to think he'd know what he's talking about. And he's making the same points about Chomsky and the Khmer Rouge. OK. Probably they have merit. Still I want to understand them. So let's take a look at DeLong's specific arguments. Here's DeLong quoting Chomsky.

And uncovering the cynical crimes of mad governments? Take a look at Chomsky's 1979 After the Cataclysm:

If a serious study…is someday undertaken, it may well be discovered…that the Khmer Rouge programs elicited a positive response…because they dealt with fundamental problems rooted in the feudal past and exacerbated by the imperial system.… Such a study, however, has yet to be undertaken.

Reflect that it was published three full years after the Cambodian Holocaust of the Year Zero. Ask yourself whether this is an uncovering or a covering of the crimes of an abominable regime.

Sounds pretty bad. If only we'd study things we'd find that the Khmer Rouge programs elicited a positive response. But here's a weird thing. See all those ellipses? I wondered what was lacking. So I turned to google. Here's the full quote.

If a serious study of the impact of Western imperialism on Cambodian peasant life is someday undertaken, it may well be discovered that the violence lurking behind the Khmer smile, on which Meyer and others have commented, is not a reflection of obscure traits in peasant culture and psychology, but is the direct and understandable response to the violence of the imperial system, and that its current manifestations are a no less direct and understandable response to the still more concentrated and extreme savagery of a U.S. assault that may in part have been designed to evoke this very response, as we have noted. Such a study may also show that the Khmer Rouge programs elicited a positive response from some sectors of the Cambodian peasantry because they dealt with fundamental problems rooted in the feudal past and exacerbated by the imperial system with its final outburst of uncontrolled barbarism.

So notice that the ellipses are placed so as to omit Chomsky's references to the evil nature of the Khmer Rouge. We lose the "violence lurking behind the Khmer smile". We lose the whole tone of the statements, which is that the evil of the Khmer is likely a response to the great evil inflicted on them by the U.S. with it's savage bombing campaign. This is painted by DeLong in his bastardized quote as a defense. What it really is is an effort to understand the causes of the wickedness that was the Khmer Rouge. This is the same thing I'm told with regards to OBL. Because I attempt to understand the causes of his evil I'm painted as a defender of OBL. But many evils have been perpetuated against the Muslim world, and I do believe those evils help bring about OBL. If we look to Hitler and attempt to understand why this evil regime came to power and we look to the pain inflicted on the Germans after WWI I think people can recognize that this is not a defense of Hitler, but simply an attempt to understand the causes. This is Chomsky's sin. SOME SECTORS of the Cambodian peasantry REACTED POSITIVELY to the Khmer Rouge because of the suffering they had undergone, just as some Muslims react positively to Al Qaeda. This is very reasonable and probably truthful analysis and it is hardly a defense of Al Qaeda.

Well, it "gets worse" according to DeLong. Worse than the truthful analysis above apparently. Here's the next quote, and I'm going to **star** an additional section of a quote omitted by DeLong and also bold an important quote from the omitted section.

...there are many other sources on recent events in Cambodia that have not been brought to the attention of the American reading public. Space limitations preclude a comprehensive review, but such journals as the Far Eastern Economic Review, the London Economist, the Melbourne Journal of Politics, and others elsewhere, have provided analyses by highly qualified specialists who have studied the full range of evidence available, and who concluded that executions have numbered at most in the thousands; that these were localized in areas of limited Khmer Rouge influence and unusual peasant discontent, where brutal revenge killings were aggravated by the threat of starvation resulting from the American destruction and killing. **These reports also emphasize both the extraordinary brutality on both sides during the civil war (provoked by the American attack) and repeated discoveries that massacre reports were false. They also testify to the extreme unreliability of refugee reports, and the need to treat them with great caution, a fact that we and others have discussed elsewhere (cf. Chomsky: At War with Asia, on the problems of interpreting reports of refugees from American bombing in Laos). 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.**

DeLong then immediately quotes a commenter who writes of Chomsky (with my emphasis):

He claims that these are "conflicting reports" that justify disbelief in the alleged crimes of the Khmer Rouge....

Justify disbelief in the crimes. Think about that. Supposedly Chomsky thinks disbelief in the crimes is justified. But then that's only true if we don't consider the omitted portion, which I provide above, and with the bold lettering. We do not pretend to know where the truth lies amidst these sharply conflicting assessments. There are various reports, but it is interesting that what filters to the American public is the picture that suits US propaganda purposes. Once again we have truthful analysis that is not in any way an actual denial that the Khmer Rouge is guilty of crimes. How does this become "disbelief in the crimes is justified"?

DeLong continues quoting the commenter:

In the case of the Far Eastern Economic review the review did indeed publish an article that said almost, but not quite, what Chomsky represents it as saying.... Nayan Chanda ( Far Eastern Economic Review October 29 1976 ) does indeed doubt the refugees are telling the truth... but he... [presents no] evidence contradicting their stories. He does indeed say "thousands"... he does not say "at most in the thousands"... [he says] "the numbers killed are impossible to calculate."

So the presentation is that Chomsky is going beyond the evidence. The review says that "thousands" were killed, not "at most in the thousands" as Chomsky writes. I could be wrong here but I imagine this is just a misreading of Chomsky. DeLong is probably right that the review puts the death toll in the thousands. I assume Chomsky is replying to assertions that put the death toll in the 10's or 100's of thousands. So when he says "at most in the thousands" he's saying since the review talks about death tolls in the thousands we do sort of have an order of magnitude limitation. Talk of death tolls as high as 9,000 makes sense. But we're seeing claims of 10's and 100's of thousands. That's unreasonable based on the review.

Chomsky's claim was that the documentary record did not justify the level of atrocities that were being reported of Pol Pot while he was an enemy of the state. DeLong omitted the part about how Chomsky's source claimed that the refugee reports were shown to be extremely unreliable and that they needed to be treated with caution. Also the actual discoveries that the massacre reports were false. Delong does say that yes, these specialists did doubt the refugee reports, but they didn't provide evidence. But what are we supposed to do when the experts say the reports are doubtful? Are we to be faulted for thinking maybe the experts know something we don't? Or should we just accept the refugee reports and report them anyway because that's the desire of the propaganda machine?

Now, let's suppose that the analysis that Chomsky was relying upon turned out to be wrong. Let's suppose the death toll was beyond thousands and into the 10's and 100's of thousands. This does not make Chomsky a defender and lover of the Khmer Rouge. It makes him a responsible and rational person, following the scholarship the whole way. He accepts the lower figures when that was initially what the evidence suggested, then presumably he would later adopt the enlarged figures if reputable studies modified the earlier conclusions. This is in no way justification for any murderous regime. Extensive murder and limited murder are both awful. But let's be honest about the present state of the evidence of crimes even for enemies of the state.

So is this the basis on which people claim Chomsky defends the Khmer Rouge? The fact that he considers the causes of their violence? The fact that he notices that only the most heinous descriptions of the events of the Khmer are what filter through the US propaganda system? If so that's just plain weak. If it's something else and in fact Chomsky is in the wrong I'll be glad to have it pointed out to me. What do I care? I've still learned tons from him.


HispanicPundit said...

DeLong was being quick...and quick responses usually make for sloppy responses. There are better sources, like here and here.

HispanicPundit said...

Almost forgot this source as well.

Jon said...

Have you read any of these sources you are providing? What have you read at Paul Bogdanor?

HispanicPundit said...

Ive read the first two. The last one is just a compilation of other sources, some of them good, some of them not so good.

The first two links are my favorite though. :-)

Jon said...

They are your favorite, but you didn't say if you'd read them. Had you read them entirely when you posted them? You should provide sources that you've read and found to be useful. Otherwise you might be wasting my time.

And how is it that you know DeLong was being quick? DeLong apparently extensively reviewed the source material. He also posed his arguments to Chomsky's defenders, getting their feedback before writing. Like your claim that Perle didn't prepare you are inventing excuses you can't possibly know.

Did you forget that I'd started in to Paul Bogdanor's "Top Chomsky Lies" and found that everything that could be checked that I reviewed was completely false. You think it's useful to repeatedly spread his work? You should look his stuff over before recommending it.

Jon said...

In fact this is sort of why I think it's better to look at DeLong rather than Bogdanor. Bogdanor is a hack. DeLong is a respectable economist. I think it's understandable that a person would read what he writes and perhaps without checking assume that he's writing the truth. You say that Bogdanor is a better source than DeLong. I say no. I say reviewing DeLong is more useful.

HispanicPundit said...

I got that impression from what DeLong said, when he wrote:

And you suggested that I give him another chance.

So the next time I stopped by Cody's, I picked up one of Chomsky's books: his (1992) What Uncle Sam Really Wants (New York: Odonian Press: 1878825011).

But I only got to page 17. Then I put the book down--with my strong negative reaction confirmed.

The impression I get is this: Someone asks DeLong to look into Chomsky. DeLong, from memory, remembers that Chomsky is not worth reading but because someone asked to give him one more chance, he does. Picks up the book and gets appalled within the first few pages. He considers Chomsky so ridiculous that its not worth going past page 17 of the book.

That seems rather haste and non-exhaustive to me...doesnt it to you?

HispanicPundit said...

Oh, and yes I did read the first two links. Thats why I said they are my favorite.

They are rather short and provide direct citations.

Jon said...

The first link is not short. The second contains no evidence other than a link back to the first, which I haven't read because it's long. Can you give an excerpt from the first that you think is useful? I'd like to see if it's worth reading before investing all the time.

HispanicPundit said...

Its all good. Its exactly the way you like it to. It goes through what Chomsky says and contrasts it to what the truth is. Almost section by section. With sources provided and everything.

Just your cup of tea.

Jon said...

I'm asking you to be specific and you just continue being vague. Can you pull an example of Chomsky supporting the Khmer Rouge or denying that they committed atrocities? If you've read it and it's great give me something specific. I started reading it and it was going nowhere.

Posting Paul Bogdanor is the same thing. You're basically like "Here's a thousand articles. Probably one of them proves my case." That's really not rational.

You often say you just aren't interested in taking the time. But if you aren't interested in posting something useful or rational why post at all?

HispanicPundit said...

Fine. How about the second link? Its quite short and gets to the point.

Richard W. Symonds said...

"It's possible to add more.
Thus the quote that begins "there are many other sources on recent events" is from a review article about Vietnam and Cambodia, with no footnotes, in early 1977, when very little was known. The main source was Ponchaud, who in fact gave the most favorable account of the appeal of the Khmer Rouge than anyone else (as Herman and I quoted in 1979; no one else ever does).
Shortly after our 1977 article, State Department intelligence, who everyone agreed was the most knowledgeable source, testified to Congress condemning the charges of "mass genocide," reporting that very little was known, but that total deaths were probably in the tens to hundreds of thousand, mostly from rapid sudden change. Recall that high US officials had predicted in 1975 that a million would die under the best of circumstances because of the destruction left by the American war (Far Eastern Economic Review). In 1979, the Far Eastern Economic Review estimated that the population had risen by a million under the KR. The CIA demographic study in 1981 rejected almost all the of the major claims and gave the most positive account of the KR on record, long after all the facts were in -- a report that I cited and dismissed because it was far too positive and was probably related to the US shift by then towards supporting Pol Pot. Just a few years ago a scholarly review of the US bombing (Taylor and Kiernan, two leading specialists) discovered that it was far higher than announced and wrote that it turned the KR from a marginal scattered force to a huge army of enraged peasants seeking revenge. Etc. None of this, and much more like it, ever is mentioned or reported. Our own very cautious speculations early on are quite mild by comparison to expert testimony. DeLong and others know all of this, but suppress it".


Jon said...

HP, I already said that I read the second. It provided no evidence beyond a link to the same article that was your first link.

Thanks for the additional reference Richard. Very interesting.

Steven said...

Hi Jon,

Thanks for the post. Have you read this

Full disclosure, I have not. It does seem extensive and has 208 footnotes. This in of itself doesn't make it correct, I know.

Have you come across it? If so, what do you think

Richard W. Symonds said...


"There is an interesting (and suppressed) aspect to the huge industry seeking to show that Chomsky (in joint work with Edward Herman) justified Khmer Rouge crimes.

The main source is a long and detailed chapter in the two-volume study "Political Economy of Human Rights", which surveys a great many cases of atrocities and how they are dealt with in the mainstream culture; virtually all having to do with US crimes, and never mentioned.

There is one other long chapter, explicitly paired with the chapter on Cambodia: the one on East Timor. The comparison makes good sense. Two huge atrocities (in East Timor, perhaps 1/3-1/4 of the population killed), in the same part of the world, at the same time (though East Timor went on for another 20 years).

There was one crucial difference between the two cases. In the case of East Timor, the US was strongly supporting the crimes from the outset, and could have stopped them with a flick of the wrist (as was in fact demonstrated in Sept. 1999 which, under lots of pressure, Clinton finally called them off).
In Cambodia, the crimes were committed by an official enemy and no one had any suggestion as to what to do about them (and when Vietnam did finally end them, Vietnam was bitterly condemned - while the US supported a Chinese invasion to punish them).

By the most elementary moral standards, East Timor was vastly more important than Cambodia. That’s trivially obvious.

Compare that with the reactions, sampled and refuted here. It’s highly revealing, but of course cannot be discussed – though again, trivially obvious."


ResGestae said...

Can you not read what you posted from Chomsky? You add what you call the missing parts. So he blames "imperialism" and "savagery of the US" for the holocaust in Cambodia. Chomsky could not possibly have written anything more pathetic than that. The Red Khmer are responsible for their own actions, nobody else. Was the Khmer Rouge themselves who decided to grab children by the ankles and bash their against the tree(s) there at Choeung Ek.

Jon said...

He doesn't blame imperialism ONLY. An event can have more than one cause. A savage bombing campaign can have the effect of creating a vacuum that is ultimately filled by a brutal dictator. Do you deny it? The prior bombing campaign was causal and ALSO the Khmer was causal.

For Chomsky's critics he can say this, and yet for some strange reason they just cannot hear the words. "The Khmer is responsible" they say. Who denied that? If you aren't going to address what is actually stated why bother posting?

spinner42 said...

At the end of the day Chomsky can't get away from this comment in the Distortions at Fourth Hand paper.. The "slaughter" by the Khmer Rouge is a Moss-New York Times creation.

Actually it was not a creation but one of the saddest realities of the 20th century. That said, I don't think Chomsky was an apologist for the Khmer Rouge but a person who saw the horror of american foreign policy and was willing to fight against the propaganda of conservative elements on the west. Unfortunately in this case he was so determined to fight it that he went too far. He was wrong and consequently became one of Lenin's useful idiots

Anonymous said...

It seems like people go out of their way to find snippets and parts of the material they are debating. It's real easy, just read Chomsky's words as they were written. Try to read this and defend his words

Richard W. Symonds said...

Almost everyone who 'picks a fight' with Chomsky is guaranteed to lose:

Why? Because he has a moral and intellectual integrity beyond the understanding of almost everyone.

kropotkin said...

DeLong maybe a good economist", for whatever that's worth, but he knows squat about Chomsky. Bogdanor knows nothing about Chomsky. Horowitz knows nothing about Chomsky. I mean, I don't have any problems at all with folks being critical of someone's work AFTER they've demonstrated that they understand it in the first place. The thing is with these folks is that it's apparent to anyone having ever read Chomsky that they know nothing. I've been dealing with these folks for 25 years, and if there are universal truths, what I've just claimed is one of them.

Good work, PMW. Your observations are quite spot on.

kropotkin said...

DeLong maybe a good economist", for whatever that's worth, but he knows squat about Chomsky. Bogdanor knows nothing about Chomsky. Horowitz knows nothing about Chomsky. I mean, I don't have any problems at all with folks being critical of someone's work AFTER they've demonstrated that they understand it in the first place. The thing is with these folks is that it's apparent to anyone having ever read Chomsky that they know nothing. I've been dealing with these folks for 25 years, and if there are universal truths, what I've just claimed is one of them.

Good work, PMW. Your observations are quite spot on.

Robin Morrison said...

Jon: in my research into Chomsky and his critics, especially regarding Cambodia, I find that his critics usually excel at and surpass Chomsky in their ability and willingness to distort and obfuscate facts as they allege Chomsky did.

FWIW, the late C. Hitchens did a nice job of getting to the objective truths of the matter, most of which support Chomsky.

Anonymous said...

I'm in the same situation you describe at the outset (don't blog too much Chomksy). Thanks for this article. Khmer-Gate turned up in a recent news report I shan't even mention. Historians examining this situation might want to contrast NC's remarks with what other commentators at the time were saying. Due to the things he says and his stature, you can be sure that NC's every possible fauxpas will be scrutinised to the max. I am sure he'd support that.

Unknown said...

"Every fauxpas will be scrutinised to the max"

For example:

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