Yesterday I was eating lunch with a friend at restaurant in Phnom Penh at a table out on the sidewalk. Another expat walked by and handed us a small little magazine booklet ("This Week" [LINK HERE] published by Lady Penh [LINK HERE]).
I leafed through it. Most of the booklet consisted of advertising. There were movie times for the local cinemas, and a calendar of events for local expat bars. The content of the magazine consisted of two articles: the best places to get coffee in Phnom Penh, and an editorial on Chomsky.
The PDF for this publication, including the article in question, can be read online [LINK HERE].
I read the Chomsky article first, and just sighed. “Look at how terrible this article is,” I said, pushing the booklet across the table to my friend.
“It is pretty bad,” my friend agreed.
Just around that time, the guy who had given us the booklet in the first place came back down the street. “You guys need another one?” he asked us.
“Look at this,” I said, calling him over to our table. “You’ve got an editorial here on Chomsky by someone who admits she hasn’t ever read any Chomsky.”
“So it’s a waste of paper! Why would I want to read what she thinks about Chomsky when she hasn’t read anything by Chomsky.” (I may have raised my voice at this point.)
“Okay, wow, um…”
“Look, there are about 3 or 4 articles Chomsky wrote on Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge time. You can find them all on-line. Go look them up and read them. Chomsky didn’t say any of this.”
“That wasn’t actually me that wrote that article.”
“Well tell her then. She’s got her facts all wrong. Chomsky never said any of this.”
“No he hasn’t”
“Yes he has. Recently.”
“No he hasn’t. Get your facts straight.”
He tried to change the subject at this point. “Okay, well you should check out her website. There are a lot of other interesting things there.”
As he walked away, I called out after him, “Go and read the original articles.”
After the guy walked away, my friend looked at me, put his drink down, and said, “Wow.”
“Was I a little bit too hard on the guy?” I asked.
“You sir, are a history bully,” my friend said to me.
“I probably was a bit over the top just then.”
“In that guy’s defense, there was a picture right above the article of the girl who wrote it, and it clearly was not him.”
“Yeah, I know, I just wanted to yell at someone and he was right there. But he was distributing a magazine in which the only other article was about coffee, so he’s got to take some of the responsibility.”
“You’re probably going to call him back and yell at him about the coffee article next?”
He added, “You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you get upset. And it’s over a history article. Well, I guess we all have our buttons. Some people yell at bad waiters or bartenders, you apparently like to yell at people in the streets over Chomsky articles.”
Okay, so I was probably a bit over the top. And it is always counter productive to yell at people. Calm, well reasoned arguments win people over to your side, not raised voices. If I ever see that guy again, I owe him an apology.
So let me take a few minutes to calmly explain my specific objections to the article in question. The Chomsky article in question appears on her blog here [LINK HERE]. If this was just someone’s blog, I wouldn’t bother. The fact that a print version of this article was being handed out up and down the streets of Phnom Penh makes me more motivated to write a rebuttal. (The print version of this article is slightly different than the blog form, but I’ll get into that more below.)
Let me start with a bit of background. Among the expat crowd in Cambodia it’s impossible to mention Chomsky’s name without someone bringing up the Khmer Rouge. I was recently discussing Chomsky’s theories with a co-worker, when another woman 3 desks down (who wasn’t even part of the conversation) yelled out, “Never forget he supported the Khmer Rouge. Never forget that.” And this is fairly typical.
Figuring out what Chomsky actually said about the Khmer Rouge is a bit of a headache. On the internet you can find lots of articles attacking Chomsky for his supposed support of the Khmer Rouge, and lots of articles defending him. For example you can read any number of articles by David Horowitz accusing Chomsky of supporting the Khmer Rouge. You can also read Christopher Hitchen's article "The Chorus and Cassandra" [LINK HERE] which defends Chomsky against Horowitz. Then you can read this article "The Chorus and Cassandra: A Response" [LINK HERE] rebutting Hitchens. There's also a very detailed article here which appears to go through everything Chomsky ever said on Cambodia with a fine tooth comb, "Averaging Wrong Answers" [LINK HERE]and Chomsky's response to that article [LINK HERE] and the author's response to Chomsky's response [LINK HERE].
Reading through all these articles and trying to figure out what Chomsky said when, what footnotes he used, and how reliable Chomsky’s sources were is a big mess. I was really having a hard time trying to make heads or tails about it.
Until I got a simple idea: go back and read the actual articles that Chomsky wrote about Cambodia during the 1970s. These articles are all available on line and easy enough to find, and in a couple hours you can read everything Chomsky ever wrote on Cambodia during the 1970s. You can read for example, “Cambodia” (1970), [LINK HERE] “The Cynical Farce that is Cambodia” (1978) [LINK HERE], and the one that Chomsky’s critics most frequently mention, “Distortions at Fourh Hand” (1977) [LINK HERE]. As for recent statements, you can find this 2009 interview with Chomsky on the Khmer Rouge [LINK HERE]. This blog here, which simply reprints without comment articles Chomsky has wrote on Cambodia over the years, is very useful [LINK HERE].
Once I had actually read these articles, I had a much clearer understanding of what Chomsky’s position had been.
You would be surprised how few people actually do this. 99% of the time whenever someone is going off about how Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge, they’ve never read the actual articles by Chomsky. They just read in somewhere in a Wall Street Journal editorial that Chomsky once supported the Khmer Rouge. (And the Wall Street Journal writer himself never read any Chomsky either. He just read somewhere that someone else said Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge and on and on it goes.)
Not surprisingly, this is the way distortions happen over time. The accusation goes from “Chomsky was insufficiently critical of the Khmer Rouge” to “Chomsky actively supported the Khmer Rouge” to “Chomsky still supports Khmer Rouge and believes they never did anything wrong.”
This last position is the one taken by Ms. Greenwood in her editorial. Despite the fact that Ms. Greenwood has not actually read anything written by Chomsky, as she admits in her 3rd paragraph.
“I have not bothered to read any of Chomsky’s work previously, and judging from Thayer’s description of his opinions, I doubt I will do so in the future.”
Okay, so she gets points for honesty by admitting this upfront. But why she would then feel the need to write an editorial on Chomsky I can’t fathom. And again, if this were just her blog, I would let it go. (I’m not proud of it, but if you search the archives of my blog, you’ll find me frequently spouting off about topics I’m ill informed on.) But this article was in print form as part of a professional publication being handed out on the streets.
Look, we’ve all talked jive about topics we were ill-informed on. But who takes the time to write up and distribute on the streets an editorial that essentially begins with “I’ve never read anything by this guy, but based on what so-and-so said he sounds like a real jerk.”
Then, based on her interpretation about what some other guy said about Chomsky, Ms. Greenwood goes on to make following claims, “He [Chomsky] still believes the Khmer Rouge atrocities were a mass fabrication, and he still believes that a vast media-and refugee?- came together to demonize the Khmer Rouge.”
Speaking as someone who has actually read what Chomsky wrote on the Khmer Rouge, I think if Ms. Greenwood were to actually read Chomsky she would find he had written nothing of the sort.
And then there’s the headline to this article. Noam Chomsky: “The Khmer Rouge Were Actually Pretty OK, Guys”
Now, this is serious. This would actually be a pretty damning quote if Chomsky had actually said this. But a Google search for these exact words indicates the only place they appear is on Ms. Greenwood’s blog. Which means this isn’t an actual Chomsky quote. This is her interpretation of what she thinks Chomsky believes (based on someone else’s editorial) which she decided to put in quotation marks next to Chomsky’s name.
To be fair, there is actually a difference here between the print version and the blog version. On her blog it’s not in quotation marks. In the print publication being distributed on the streets, it is. I suppose the charitable explanation would be that this was a mistake the printer made.
The less charitable explanation is that Ms. Greenwood does not understand that it goes against the ethics of journalism to make up quotes and attribute them to someone else.
Now this kind of mis-attribution is how rumors get started. Given how few people seem to read Chomsky’s actual articles, it means that there’s going to be several people on the streets of Phnom Penh who believe Chomsky actually said this. And perhaps will take Ms. Greenwood’s opinion that Chomsky is not worth checking out, and never read anything by Chomsky themselves. (Again, if this were just a blog article I would let it go. But this is in an actual magazine being actively distributed.)
It is true that Chomsky has refused to apologize for his media analysis articles written in the 1970s. That is, Chomsky still believes that in specific incidents reporters fabricated or exaggerated information about the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. And Chomsky still believes that the specific incidents of fabrication he mentioned in "Distortions at Fourth Hand" have not yet been proven false. This is what Chomsky is referring to when he says to the best of his knowledge no errors have been found in his writings.
This may be debatable. In some of the articles linked to above there are some questions raised about the accuracy of some of Chomsky's sources. (Go and read the articles yourself and make up your own mind.) But this is a separate discussion.
Ms. Greenwood misinterprets this to mean that Chomsky believes that the Khmer Rouge atrocities never took place. And this is plain wrong.
If a prominent intellectual did still believe that no Khmer Rouge atrocities took place, it would be quite something. This is the type of accusation you would think a person would want to double check very carefully before printing it off into fliers and passing it out to random people in the streets.
So what did Chomsky actually say about the Khmer Rouge? Well the best thing to do is not to take either my word or Ms. Greenwood’s word for anything, but to go read the actual articles Chomsky wrote at the time. To a certain extent I would only be adding to the white noise on this controversy by putting in my own opinion instead of simply redirecting people to the original articles.
However, that being said, my own reading of the whole controversy is as follows: when the Khmer Rouge were actually in power, Western journalists were not actually allowed into the country. Therefore Western Media had to rely mostly on second hand accounts and speculation as to what was actually going in the country. Noam Chomsky was critical of what much of the Western Media was reporting, and of their methods of obtaining information. He believed it was popular to exaggerate atrocities in Cambodia as a way to retroactively discredit the anti-war movement, and that at the same time the media was ignoring comparable atrocities going on in East Timor.
When the Vietnamese invaded in 1979 it turned out that the reports had not been exaggerated, and that things had actually been worse than people thought it was. So Chomsky was wrong.
But if you actually read the articles Chomsky wrote at the time, you will not find an endorsement of the Khmer Rouge. Read, for example, “The Cynical Farce that is Cambodia” and you’ll find him acknowledging that things my well be as bad as everyone says they are. Or if you read his much criticized article “Distortions at Fourth Hand,” you’ll find he has a lot of good reasons for being skeptical about the media reports. In the light of history we now know he was wrong, but he was wrong for some of the right reasons.
But don’t listen to me. Go and read his actual articles and form your own opinion.
The gentleman I met on the streets asserted to me that recently Chomsky has been saying all the things Ms. Greenwood has attributed to him. If so, I can’t find any examples on the Internet. If either of them are reading this, I would be happy to revise my position if you can show me where he Chomsky has actually said this. But don’t point me to an editorial someone else has written about Chomsky. Show me the actual Chomsky article or interview where he says all these things you’re attributing to him.
Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky Speaks to Occupy: If We Want a Chance at a Decent Future, the Movement Here and Around the World Must Grow