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.