A Critical Chomsky Reader
Daniel Simpson, and
When Chris Hedges
interviewed Noam Chomsky in Truthdig in April 2010, three activists who had
respect for his work were disappointed. The
article ignored Chomsky's persistent misrepresentation of Balkan war
crimes, even though
risked his life to report them.
There are broader
lessons for radicals here, about humanity,
solidarity, and complexity. Western involvement in
the wars of Yugoslav dissolution has confused many
anti-imperialists, who still distort the facts to
fit preconceptions. Though we’ve valued Chomsky’s
insights on other subjects, from Israel and
Palestine to propaganda, we’ve been forced to
reappraise his analysis.
We’re not saying ignore Noam
Chomsky. But from three different perspectives,
suggesting people read him as critically as he
suggests reading The New York Times.
A PROGRESSIVE ACTIVIST'S VIEW
By Roger Lippman
have great respect for the work of Chris Hedges, and there is much to
appreciate in the sentiments he expresses in his recent profile of Noam
Noam Chomsky Has ‘Never Seen Anything Like This'. But I find
his paean to Chomsky to be overdone.
Numbers of progressives, all of us having learned a lot from Chomsky
before, have been awakened to his limitations by his non-supportiveness
of the populations victimized by Serbia's aggressive wars, and by
Chomsky's tributes to deniers of that victimization - people like Diana
Johnstone, who is little more than a mouthpiece for Serbian propaganda,
and has told the worst lies about those wars, systematically denying
Serbian criminality. More than once Chomsky has tried to cast doubt on
the well-established facts about Serbian war crimes in Bosnia and
Kosovo. See my compilation of
Chomsky's misleading and false statements on the Balkan wars,
along with refutations of each statement. I also recommend
Professor David Campbell's e-mail exchange with Chomsky, which
links to Campbell's detailed
study of the concentration camps in Bosnia, "Atrocity, Memory,
Gradually, and painfully, I have come to perceive a strong current of
intellectual dishonesty on Chomsky's part. He has a record of speaking
off-handedly about things he doesn't really know - he is no expert on
ex-Yugoslavia - and then stubbornly refusing to concede when he is
caught out, attacking as imperialist tools those who would dare to
question him. Meanwhile, in a
Serbian media production
he reinforces murderous Serbian nationalism and war-crimes
This has gone on enough that I've lost my respect for him as a political
thinker and found myself compelled to re-examine what I previously
admired about him. Dig a little deeper, and it turns out this is not
only about Yugoslavia. Of course, he's not always wrong, especially
about Israel and Palestine, but he is often sophistic or dishonest.
Chomsky is far from the worst, but unfortunate numbers of leading Left
intellectuals ended up as deniers of, apologists for, or even defenders
of the Serbian genocidal project. (For those who haven't noticed, please
Deniers of Serbia's War Crimes.) Without losing our
anti-imperialist politics and our humane values, we are compelled to
re-evaluate what our erstwhile intellectual leaders have been telling
us. I call this "Learning the Lessons of Kosovo." This needs to happen
on a scale equivalent to 1939, 1956, and 1980, the latter being the
conflict between Vietnam and China over the Khmer Rouge regime in
Cambodia. In fact, it may be the same old battle - humane spirits vs.
Stalinists, neo-Stalinists, and crypto-Stalinists (including plenty of
Trotskyites, so don't get me wrong). It's a struggle with people who
can't hold two opposing ideas in their heads and find a way to reconcile
the complications of reality.
encourage Hedges to reconsider whether his unequivocal praise of Chomsky
is justified. There at least could have been the
traditional second-to-last paragraph that acknowledges that the movie's
plot is a bit thin, or the flavor of the tofu burgers was somewhat
The writer, a progressive activist since the 1960s, was a
defendant in the Vietnam-era Seattle
7 Conspiracy trial. He is the editor of
Balkan Witness, a compilation of reporting and opinion on the
wars in Kosovo and Bosnia. The site gives voice to the experiences of
the victims of Serbia's aggression, and it has no tolerance for those
Leftists who, being confused by NATO intervention on the side of the
besieged, have thus minimized or indeed endorsed Serbian war crimes.
A DISSENTING WRITER'S VIEW
Chomsky's Fateful Flaw
Like Chris Hedges, I was once a New York Times correspondent in
the Balkans. Having resigned in
disgust at what he
called "shameful cheerleading", I share his
views on the bankruptcy of corporate journalism, and I've
was less impressed, however, by his
ode to Noam Chomsky. That isn't to say that Chomsky hasn't inspired
me. His analysis of the media's propaganda function is compelling, and I
told an editor at the Times as much when I left, which didn't
endear me to him.
he's a far less convincing guide to foreign affairs, as I've learned
from his pronouncements on the Balkans. To borrow Hedges's words,
Chomsky's "moral and intellectual posturing" can "serve as a smoke
belittling war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Though his work is
influential, and prolific, it isn't consistently defined by "rigorous
scholarship", or "a remarkable grasp of detail".
my experience, Chomsky doesn't, as Hedges suggests, "defy the cant of
the crowd to speak the truth." When it suits him, he crowds out truth
with cant of his own. He casually, and needlessly, minimizes, ignores or
otherwise denies crimes that aren't being "minimized or ignored
in mass culture", if doing so helps to sell arguments about American
malevolence. This willfully
misleads activists who don't know better, because they think he's
telling them awkward truths.
Unlike his old co-author
Ed Herman, Chomsky doesn't pretend there wasn't a Srebrenica
"massacre". But he resolutely defends Diana Johnstone for sticking the
word in quotation marks, and asserting, as she
maintains today, that "the figure of 8,000 [victims] is certainly
exaggerated, since it includes men who died in ambush while trying to
escape, or even men who actually did escape".
Needless to say, she can't prove anyone escaped, or that any of the
identified to date weren't killed at Srebrenica. She even boasts of
not keeping abreast of this mounting evidence. Yet Chomsky
claims that Johnstone "argues - and, in fact, clearly demonstrates -
that a good deal of what has been charged has no basis in fact, and much
of it is pure fabrication." The fabrications are theirs; they
discredited sources. Freedom of speech isn't the issue here, unless
they're defending the freedom to falsify history. They're free to do
that, but if it's what they're doing, they should say so.
wrote to Chomsky after he
said that Johnstone's work "may be wrong; but it is very careful and
outstanding." I asked if he'd been quoted accurately, whether "may be"
meant "is", and if so what was "careful and outstanding" about being
wrong. I also asked if he thought he could have been clearer.
After 8,500 words of vituperative emails, which ducked my questions to
ask if I was a dupe, a timewaster or just arrogant, Chomsky deigned to
state plainly that he didn't dispute any of the established
facts about Srebrenica, and therefore that Johnstone was wrong. He
withheld permission to publish the exchange.
This is just the background to a bigger picture. Chomsky says we should
focus on crimes for which we ourselves are responsible, because our
governments commit them. Yet by minimizing other crimes in the process,
he undermines human rights activists elsewhere, for example in Serbia.
He ignores the evidence they gather, and insinuates it's bogus. And he
sees no hypocrisy here, because he's never claimed to write objective
history, even if some read it as gospel.
that means he does the same as the journalists he pillories: he fixes
facts around a policy of propagandizing. Unless people realize this,
they won't be equipped to do as Chomsky encourages, and "think for
themselves, to question standard assumptions," including the ones made
by Hedges about Chomsky's "example of intellectual and moral
independence", and his commitment to truth.
When challenged, Chomsky isn't "relentlessly self-critical", and he
shows no interest in busting his own "self-indulgent myths and
stereotypes". Instead, he abuses his critics, assuming they're
ideological enemies. As he
told a British professor, when asked to explain his peddling of
untruths, "the Balkans are a Holy Issue in England, far more sensitive
than Israel in the US". He implies some victims are less victimized than
others, torpedoing his own moral reasoning.
Again, Chomsky scorns this when others do it. He
criticizes states for double standards, enforced by apologists in
the media. So, the U.S. and its allies might admit to mistakes, he
argues, but only their enemies commit atrocities worthy of outrage,
which can be used to justify Western intervention. As Bill Weinberg
puts it, Chomsky draws a mocking "distinction between 'worthy
victims' (e.g. Bosnians and Kosovars) and 'unworthy victims' (e.g.
Palestinians). Yet Chomsky and his followers have merely reversed this
logic, rather than dispensing altogether with the hideous concept of
'unworthy victims.' The suffering of the Bosnian Muslims is as invisible
to them as that of the Palestinians and Iraqis is to the dominant
propaganda machine that Chomsky has dedicated his life to dissecting."
This is a tragic irony, and sadly insidious.
When interviewing Chomsky, Hedges passed up a chance to ask serious and
important questions. I'm frankly both surprised and disappointed.
There are pitfalls in defining journalism as a mission to comfort the
afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The world doesn't always divide
neatly into oppressors and the oppressed, and distortions neither speak
truth to power, nor comfort the powerless. "Being adversarial sounds
warns Samuel Freedman, in his Letters to a Young Journalist,
"except when it is a mere reflex, just one more way of imposing
black-and-white absolutism on a world washed in grays."
course, propagandists use nuance to conceal crimes. It "falls upon the
facts like soft snow," as George Orwell observed, "blurring their
outlines and covering up all the details". That doesn't give dissidents
license to do the same.
Most Chomsky fans aren't aware that he does. It would probably take a
Chomsky critique of Chomsky to change that, which seems improbable. I've
just read a
book called "Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)". Its conclusions on
cognitive dissonance are insightful. We're none of us immune from
Since leaving The New York Times to run a music festival, the writer has
been a multimedia activist. Last year he published a
fake Financial Times, and Barack Obama's spiked Nobel Prize
A SOLIDARITY CAMPAIGNER'S VIEW
Sticking to the Facts
By Owen Beith
I found Chris Hedges's
article uncomfortable reading. I was taken aback to find a
conscientious journalist with first-hand knowledge so impressed by an
academic who shows little more than instrumental concern for the facts
in his criticism of the reporters who alerted the world to the horrors
of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia.
I'm not a journalist or
academic. I first became aware of the controversy surrounding the
reporting of Bosnian Serb internment/concentration camps at the time of
a notorious libel case in the High Court in London. Living Marxism
(LM) magazine was being sued for accusing Independent Television
News (ITN) reporters of lying about conditions in the camp at Trnopolje.
An LM supporter tried to convince me that what I thought I knew
about the camps was wrong.
I read the original LM
article, which claimed that ITN had deliberately misrepresented the
situation in the camps to make them appear worse than they were, and
shape public opinion. When I looked for more information on the subject,
it became obvious to me that LM was misrepresenting the grim
lost the case. The court heard the
evidence of Dr Idriz Merdzanic, who had been responsible for
treating brutalised prisoners at Trnopolje. It was as clear to the jury
as it was to me that the camp had been part of a murderous strategy of
ethnic cleansing, and the ITN reporters had simply reported what they
I was puzzled when I came across
Professor Chomsky still arguing, long after the High Court judgment,
that I had got it wrong. Trnopolje was just a refugee camp, he said,
whose occupants were free to come and go. The images of emaciated
prisoners behind barbed wire were intentionally misleading; the libel
case result was an abuse of the law by a powerful media corporation
anxious to suppress free speech and demonise Serbs for political
reasons. Effectively, the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing were victims
of media manipulation.
Hedges says that Chomsky
"combines moral autonomy with rigorous scholarship, a remarkable grasp
of detail and a searing intellect" and quotes Norman Finkelstein's view
that Chomsky "cares about the lives of people and there the details
count." I don't understand how this squares with Chomsky's view of
Trnopolje, which Hedges himself has referred to as one of the three main
concentration camps around Prijedor. (Hedges knows the reality of ethnic
cleansing in Bosnia. He
reported the horrors of the Ljubija mine, where the bodies of
victims were passed through ore crushers before being limed and buried
under tons of rock and debris.)
In 1995, six months before
observed that "a great many Serbs ... desperately want to believe
that the crimes committed in their name were somehow ordinary and
therefore forgivable. Just as with the Germans after World War II, it
will take determined efforts by outsiders to persuade them otherwise."
Hedges's failure to challenge
Chomsky achieves the opposite. Denying victims' experience and
distorting the facts hurts survivors and comforts criminals. Perfunctory
expressions of sympathy don't change that. Chomsky rejects charges of
inconsistency and partiality, claiming that we have a duty to speak out
where we are in a position to take responsibility. He is a man of
influence. He is responsible for the way he uses the influence that
public respect gives him. It's surprising to find Hedges so uncritical.
Chomsky has in fact allowed
himself to become an apologist for aggressors. My lingering respect for
his analysis was destroyed when I
saw the interview he gave for RTS (Radio-Television Serbia) Online
in 2006. In it, the relentless critic of Western media support for the
U.S. power structure aligned himself with a broadcaster complicit in the
war crimes perpetrated in Bosnia by Serbia's corrupt and murderous power
interview made me aware how careful Chomsky is before an audience.
He is evasive as well as partial, sidestepping facts that hinder his
argument. The effect is that he seems to mesmerize people, paralyzing
their critical faculties. Intelligent listeners like Hedges seem to hear
what they want to hear him say, not what he actually says. It's only
when you try to pin down his argument that you realize there's a
What struck me about the RTS
interview was that for once Chomsky was quite unequivocal. He and his
interviewer agreed that ITN's image of the emaciated Fikret Alic behind
barbed wire was "fraudulent". Chomsky's explanation was hard to follow
but it reaffirmed his view that Trnopolje was an open camp. The only
acknowledgment of the mistreatment the "refugees" there received was his
dismissive references to Alic as the "thin man". He made no mention of
Omarska, the main focus of ITN's
The reality was that Fikret Alic
had arrived at Trnopolje from Keraterm, where brutal treatment,
starvation and disease-ridden conditions of imprisonment permanently
damaged his health. The broadcast footage of gaunt, intimidated
prisoners at Omarska gave a glimpse of terrible conditions there. Dr
testimony confirmed that at Trnopolje inmates were under constant
threat of brutalisation, torture, murder and rape by the camp's armed
guards. But all that counted for Chomsky was his thesis of a photograph
concocted by untrustworthy reporters.
Hedges hasn't confronted Chomsky over his attack on the honesty of
fellow journalists, nor has he held him to account for the message of
support that Chomsky's judgment sends out to war crimes apologists, not
least defence teams in The Hague. Chomsky may dismiss criticism as
"utter hysteria" but as Hedges knows, this is a deadly serious matter.
The writer works as a
translator, and campaigns for truth and justice in Bosnia.
By Owen Beith
For a detailed study of the camp
system, and a dissection of discredited claims see David Campbell's
study: Atrocity, memory, photography: imaging the concentration camps
of Bosnia – the case of ITN versus Living Marxism.
raw footage filmed by ITN at Omarska and Trnopolje is
available on YouTube. There are
seven further clips in the series (Srpski
logori smrti – Prijedor)
a description of the impact of Dr. Merdzanic's evidence at the libel
reports for the Guardian by Julia Hartley-Brewer.
Dr. Merdzanic appears in "A Town called Kozarac" (Ed Harriman's 1993 film
for Channel 4's Dispatches program),
parts on YouTube. His interview spans the end of Part 3 / start of
is worth comparing this with another interview of his in "Judgment", an
RTS joint production, which
purports to debunk the evidence for the camps while showing
emaciated prisoners, the reality of enclosure and the unspoken message
of Dr. Merdzanic's body language.
the ICTY Prijedor camp judgments (in particular those relating to
Milomir Stakic and
Dusko Tadic), are available
online with transcripts of the evidence.
Finally, "the thin man" Fikret Alic describes the reality of his
imprisonment and survival, in an
interview for Bosnian Television (with English subtitles).