The Cambodia Industry

Below is an exchange that took place in the ZNet Sustainer Forums where Noam interacts with the forum users. The question posed to Noam, and related material cited, is further below in this blog post. Here is Noam's response to the question…

Noam Chomsky: I have no record or memory of the posting below, dated in January. And I'm confident that I did not receive it, because it is the kind of posting I would have answered at the first opportunity, not because of its merit (on which, below) but because of the significance of the general phenomenon of which it is yet another illustration — and, incidentally, an illustration that appears to have been dropped from the litany many years ago, I suspect out of embarrassment.

I know nothing about Bruce Sharp, and have no time to access the link or in fact anything from the huge torrent of charges about Cambodia that derive from one of many industries of denunciation, from many different quarters. They would take 48 hours a day if I bothered with them. No one does that, or is expected to, in professional life either. It would be an impossible and pointless task, for anyone who does anything in the least controversial. In the case of the Cambodia industry, I did respond to much of the hysteria and deceit elicited by what Edward Herman and I wrote (as did he), but I stopped paying attention years ago because the industry was simply re-cycling charges that we had already answered. However, if someone wants to bring something specific to my attention, I do respond. As I will show below, the one excerpt from Sharp's article below keeps to the standards of extreme dishonestly of the industry.

On the phrase "Cambodia industry," adapted from Norman Finkelstein, see below.

It is interesting that in the reams of industry denunciations brought to my attention, no one has found anything mistaken or even misleading in the 1977 review-article or in our follow-up chapter in Political Economy of Human Rights (PEHR) or in anything else we have written on the matter jointly or individually. If you (or anyone) thinks there is something else in Sharp's comments that merits attention, then I'll be happy to consider it and respond, if you send it to me, either here or privately, and I presume Ed Herman would be too. But no one, ever, can be expected to respond to what is posted somewhere or even appears in print. To repeat, no one ever is expected to do that, whether in professional or political life, and certainly not when it becomes an industry — in this case, an extremely interesting industry, casting a dazzling light on the deeply rooted imperial mentality and the dedication to serve state power and atrocities. I'll discuss the general context briefly below, as often before, after a few comments on the posting you included, which refers to a review-article by Chomsky and Herman, Nation, June 25, 1977.

Our article discussed commentary on postwar Indochina through 1976, all that was available at the time we wrote in early 1977. One part of the article was about Vietnam, reviewing the familiar pattern: material that was generally positive about early reconstruction efforts was completely ignored, even when it was from highly regarded specialists on Vietnam. Meanwhile the US role in destroying Vietnam was largely ignored or downplayed. An illustration is the NY Times report we cited about "substantial tracts of land made fallow" — to translate to English, utterly devastated by US bombing. To date, I have seen no comment on this part of our review-article.

The most striking case, perhaps, was the book on postwar Vietnam we cited co-authored by Jean Lacouture, based on direct observation as well as his specialist knowledge. Revealingly, though he was ignored in the area of his expertise (critical, but fairly positive about Vietnam, hence doctrinally unacceptable), he was very widely and prominently quoted on Cambodia, based on a review of Francois Ponchaud's Cambodge annee zero, in which every single reference to the book was grossly falsified, as he conceded — while he also added that he didn't think it mattered if his estimate of deaths in Cambodia was too large by a factor of 100, a statement that elicited no concern that I could detect (except ours). You can imagine the reaction if anyone were to say something like that about the crimes of the US or some other favored state.

The review-article then turns to Cambodia, discussing media reports and the three books that were then available: Hildebrand-Porter (H-P), Ponchaud, and Barron-Paul. The review of media reports reveals the same pattern: for example, eager repetition of what were conceded to be defamatory lies. Our review of Ponchaud was the first to appear in the US, though the book, as noted, was very widely cited on the basis of Lacouture's (conceded) falsifications. We praised the book as "serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited," also raising a few questions about it — in each case, later shown to be serious errors in the book. In the American translation a year later, Ponchaud thanked me for praising his book, and praised me in turn for "the responsible attitude and precision of thought" revealed in everything I had written (or co-authored with Herman) about Cambodia, including the review-article and subsequent correspondence, which revealed many errors that he corrected in the American translation. Note that I say "American": not "English," or "other translations." The reason is discussed in PEHR, revealing Ponchaud's extraordinary contempt for the reigning intellectual culture in England and the continent — justified, as it turned out. On Barron-Paul, we gave a few illustrations of how it was worthless, basically agreeing with reviewers who knew anything about the topic. We gave many further and quite remarkable illustrations in PEHR. Barron-Paul remained the main source on Cambodia for the general public, Lacouture's falsified review for the educated classes. See PEHR for much more on the topic.

One of the four questions we raised about Ponchaud's book in our review-article was his apparent serious exaggeration of deaths due to the US bombing. His book cited no sources, but H-P did, and by using their sources, we were able to suggest the probable cause of Ponchaud's error. It is interesting that in the flood of denunciations of the review-article, including the posting here, no one has ever criticized our correction of Ponchaud's exaggeration of US crimes, or faulted us for using the documentation in H-P to correct the error. That is instructive. It reveals, once again, that it is not only legitimate but essential to correct inaccurate charges against the US, while it is utterly criminal to correct false charges against an official enemy. And reliance on H-P for the worthy purpose of correcting charges against the US passes without notice on the part of those who denounce us for accurately and appropriately citing H-P. As in the posting below.

The posting, and excerpt from Sharp, express outrage over our citation of H-P, the only scholarly study then available. They omit the most crucial facts, among them our citation of H-P to correct exaggerations of US crimes, but others that are far more significant. Namely these:

As we noted, the foreword to H-P was written by the leading Southeast Asia scholar George Kahin, the founder of the modern scholarly discipline, who wrote that "anyone who is interested in understanding the situation obtaining in Phnom Penh before and after the (US-backed) Lon Nol government's collapse and the character and programs of the Cambodia Government that has replaced it will, I am sure, be grateful to the authors of this valuable study," which concentrates on the effects of "the heavy American bombing" and its consequences: "a significant amount of starvation," destruction of "many of the richest farming areas" (adding that Washington refused to allow food stocks to be replenished to the urban population), and other US crimes to which the new government reacted not by "some irrational ideology," but with "pragmatic solutions by leaders who had to rely exclusively on Cambodia's own food resources and who lacked facilities for its internal transport." The major contribution of the book, Kahin writes, apart from its account of living conditions at the end of the US assault in April 1975, is its "extensive analysis of how in the years leading up to the National United Front's assumption of power, it managed to turn a shattered rural economy into a strong enough base from which to wage a successful war against Lon Nol's American-supported regime, and then move rapidly on to develop the extensive additional agricultural resources that enable it to feed an urban populace nearly as large as the predominantly rural population previously under its control." That was the judgment of the leading Southeast Asia scholar concerning the book we dared to mention in reviewing all the books then available. And it is omitted from the posting, in standard industry style.

Also omitted is the crucial matter of timing: Kahin refers to the period before the Khmer Rouge takeover, and the few weeks that followed. The reason is that the book went to press shortly after the KR takeover, as the footnotes to which Sharp refers triumphantly make explicit. It was, in fact, the only study available — and may still be — of the state of Phnom Penh as the US assault came to an end, and what led to this miserable situation.. As we wrote, the book was ignored, given its topic, in accord with systematic practice.

When we wrote the review-article, it was too early to cite the analyses by the leading Asia specialist of the Washington Post, Lewis Simon, and the similar analyses by State Department intelligence, agreed on all sides to be the most knowledgeable source. In PEHR we cited these and other studies by recognized and respected specialists, all contradicting the standard stories that were circulating on the basis of falsified reports. Among others, we cited the report to Congress after our article appeared by the two leading State Department Cambodia watchers" (Charles Twining and Timothy Carney, confirmed by their superior Richard Holbrooke). They estimated that deaths were in the thousands or hundreds of thousands from all causes, primarily from "brutal, rapid change," not "mass genocide," etc.; see PHER for further details, invariably omitted by the Cambodia industry. In Manufacturing Consent we cited the astonishing analyses by the CIA and the government's leading Indochina scholar, Douglas Pike, downplaying Pol Pot crimes, well after the flood of refugees in 1979 made it clear how atrocities had mounted severely in 1978. By the time of Pike's statement and the CIA demographic study, the US had of course turned to direct support for the Khmer Rouge and severe punishment of Vietnam for the crime of having ended Pol Pot atrocities as they were peaking. Not of interest to the Cambodia industry, though it is to Cambodia scholars. Michael Vickery, for one, wrote about it.

We now know a lot more about what happened during the years before the KR takeover in 1975. Just a few weeks ago, Znet published a very important article reviewing new official documentation on the US bombing of Cambodia. I think it is the first time this has appeared in the US. The study, by Ben Kiernan and Taylor Owen, appeared in the Canadian journal The Walrus. Kiernan is one of the most prominent Cambodia scholars, also director of the Yale University Genocide Project, which focuses mostly on Khmer Rouge atrocities from 1975 through 1978, when they were finally ended by the Vietnamese invasion as they were peaking. The new documentation, they report, reveals that the bombing was five times as heavy as what was reported, "making Cambodia even today the most heavily bombed country in history." The massive US attack on the peasant society played a major role in creating the Khmer Rouge, they report, updating what was already known from other sources. It was instrumental in turning the KR "from a small force of perhaps 10,000 in 1970 to over 200,000 troops and militia in 1973," and more later as the US bombing continued, ferociously, via the Lon Nol government. These crucial revelations are of course of great interest to anyone concerned with the people of Cambodia. They also bear on what Kahin and H-P book record about their topic: Cambodia up to the end of the US war. The silence with which the Kiernan-Owen has been greeted provide yet another indication of the actual concern of the industry for the fate of Cambodians.

To summarize, we were exactly correct in our review-article in summarizing the basic content of the one scholarly source available, H-P, and the praise for it by the most respected Southeast Asia scholar, all referring throughout to the pre-takeover period and the few weeks afterward: that is, to the effects of US crimes in Cambodia, now known to be vastly greater than even what had been assumed at the time. So much for the posting and what it cites.

Turning to the more general context, I have been using the phrase "Cambodia industry," adapted from Norman Finkelstein's very important study The Holocaust Industry. Finkelstein distinguishes between "Holocaust studies" and the "Holocaust industry." The former consists of extremely valuable scholarly work, initiated by Raul Hilberg, which has brought to light the hideous truth of this incredible crime. The latter consists of those who exploit the tragic events for political or personal gain, caring little for the victims, as their behavior demonstrates. Similarly, we can distinguish Cambodia studies — a serious branch of scholarship from which we have learned a great deal about the terrible fate of Cambodia from the early days of the Indochina wars until today — and the Cambodia industry, which concentrates laser-like on the years of KR rule (1975-1978), ignoring the massive US crimes that led to the hideous circumstances of early 1975 (and contributed signicantly to the rise of the KR), and Washington's turn towards direct support of the KR, military and diplomatic, while punishing Vietnam for the crime of ending the atrocities. There are fairly simple criteria to distinguish the products of the industry from the work of those who care about the people of Cambodia. I have just given a few illustrations. In the review-article there are some others. We greatly amplified the account in PEHR, and reviewed and updated it a decade later in Manufacturing Consent. New and dramatic illustrations regularly appear, the Kiernan-Owen study and the reaction to it being the most recent.

It is also worth recalling the more general context. Here Edward Herman's distinction between "worthy" and "unworthy" victims is pertinent. The "worthy victims" are those whose fate we can attribute (often with distortion and deceit) to someone else, particularly official enemies. The "unworthy victims" are those for whose fate we are directly responsible. With a level of precision that is quite remarkable in complex human affairs, the worthy victims elicit most impressive laments, vast fabrications that are uncorrectable, and much posturing about the evil of others. The unworthy victims are either ignored, or their fate is minimized and attributed to their evil nature. The distinction is even more revealing when we consider the (obvious) fact that we can do something about the tragedy of the unworthy victims, very easily — namely, by ending our participation in their torment — while for the worthy victims we do very little if anything, so laments and posturing are a very safe stance. On the most elementary moral level, the unworthy victims who are ignored are far more important.

Cambodia illustrates the pattern quite well: when Cambodians were unworthy victims, pre-1975, their terrible fate elicited little media attention (we reviewed it in PEHR). When they switched to worthy victims after the KR takeover in mid-1975, there were instant charges of "genocide," and a torrent of fabrication and deceit — and no one proposed to do anything to help them. When Vietnam ended their torture in 1978, and the US switched to support for Pol Pot, they became worthy victims of the Vietnamese, who had rescued them, and who we therefore had to punish severely. The record is most revealing.

Also very revealing is the reaction to the exposure of these patterns, not just in the case of Cambodia. To mention just one of a great many examples we have documented, the major focus of PEHR is on two huge atrocities in the same part of the world during the same years: the KR crimes in Cambodia, and the US-backed Indonesian invasion of East Timor (which of course continued, with horrifying consequences and constant US support, until mid-September 1999, when Clinton, under enormous international and domestic pressure, informed the Indonesian generals that the game was over, and they instantly withdrew — teaching obvious lessons that cannot be comprehended). The comparison was quite fair. Our detailed study of East Timor and the reaction to our own crimes was completely ignored. The paired study of Cambodia under the KR and the reaction to the crimes of an enemy elicited enormous indignation in the Cambodia industries, and endless efforts to find at least something that could be criticized — so far, a complete failure to my knowledge, when mendacity such as that just reviewed is dismantled.

It is also intriguing to see how Cambodia industry enthusiasts pretend not to understand that their reaction demonstrates that they are miserable apologists for the violence of their own state. The logic is transparent. We (accurately) compared Cambodia and East Timor, so claims that we downplayed atrocities in Cambodia reveal that those who issue those claims are downplaying the atrocities in East Timor — crimes comparable to Cambodia in the years we reviewed, crimes for which they share responsibility then and later, and that they could have brought to an end, very easily, if the fate of human beings was their concern. The logic is elementary, but incomprehensible to the properly educated .There are innumerable other examples, reviewed elsewhere.

It is also useful to recall the (again obvious) point that the KR atrocities were highly functional for Western apologists for the violence of their own states. Within the Cambodia industry, the atrocities were exploited both to provide a depraved form of retrospective justification for the US wars in Indochina (including the crimes that were instrumental in creating the KR), and for the US atrocities then escalating in Central America — to protect the people from "the Pol Pot left," in the phraseology of supporters of the crimes of their own states. Again, we have reviewed the matter in print, and I won't repeat.

One last comment. The preceding illustrates one of the crucial functions of the various industries, in Finkelstein's sense. Their advocates surely understand very well that mendacity and deceit require merely a phrase, when one is lining up with power. But correction takes time and effort. One service of the industries, doubtless intended, is to immobilize critics of the crimes of concentrated power. And the effort would be successful, if anyone were to pay attention. I'll repeat again that as in the past, I'll respond to specific claims and charges, but not to a reference to some essay or posting somewhere. That is not an appropriate request.


ZNet Sustianer: Hi Noam,

I can't find a response from you on the question posed below and I had the identical query. I've been pressing acquaintances of mine to read your works and one of them sent me the same Bruce Sharp article that is mentioned in the attached posting: (http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/chomsky.htm#chii)
as an example of your doing precisely what you criticize: selection wrong or exaggerated data for the purposes of misleading people toward the conclusions you like.

If you've answered the challenge in previous work, just kindly point me there and I'll take it from there.. otherwise, your body of work will have at least one active challenge.

I know the Faurisson thing is a pure junk and I really enjoy having that one brought up for the fun of punching holes in it… But Bruce Sharp's work deserves a response in my opinion, either from you or Ed Herman.



On 1/28/2006 10:46:26 AM, Anonymous wrote:

In "Distortions at Fourth Hand" you and Ed Herman make the following comments about a book by George C. Hildebrand and Gareth Porter. Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution: The response to the three books under review nicely illustrates this selection process. Hildebrand and Porter present a carefully documented study of the destructive American impact on Cambodia and the success of the Cambodian revolutionaries in overcoming it, giving a very favorable picture of their programs and policies, based on a wide range of sources. Published last year, and well received by the journal of the Asia Society (Asia, March-April 1977), it has not been reviewed in the Times, New York Review or any mass-media publication, nor used as the basis for editorial comment, with one exception. The Wall Street Journal acknowledged its existence in an editorial entitled "Cambodia Good Guys" (November 22, 1976), which dismissed contemptuously the very idea that the Khmer Rouge could play a constructive role, as well as the notion that the United States had a major hand in the destruction, death and turmoil of wartime and postwar Cambodia. In another editorial on the "Cambodian Horror" (April 16, 1976), the Journal editors speak of the attribution of postwar difficulties to U.S. intervention as "the record extension to date of the politics of guilt." On the subject of "Unscrambling Chile" (September 20, 1976), however, the abuses of the "manfully rebuilding" Chilean police state are explained away as an unfortunate consequence of Allendista "wrecking" of the economy. In his article "Averaging Wrong Answers: Noam Chomsky and the Cambodia Controversy" Bruce Sharp is very critical of this.( http://www.mekong.net/cambodia /chomsky.htm#chiii ) He writes the following:

At only 124 pages, Starvation and Revolution is a slim volume. Describing the reports of atrocities in Cambodia as "systematic process of mythmaking," Hildebrand and Porter present a glowing depiction of the Khmer Rouge. The authors assert that the charges of starvation in Cambodia are unfounded: "It is the officially inspired propaganda of starvation for which no proof has been produced… Thus the starvation myth has come full circle to haunt its authors."(11) The Khmer Rouge, according to Hildebrand and Porter, were rebuilding the country quite effectively, implementing a "coherent, well-developed plan for developing the economy."(12) A few of the book's omissions should be noted. The book makes no mention of public executions. It makes no mention of the forcible separation of children from their families, no mention of the separation of husbands and wives, no mention of the repression of ethnic minorities, no mention of restrictions on travel, or the abolition of the mail system. Put simply, the book bears no earthly resemblance to the reality of communist Cambodia………

……..But what about the sections of the book dealing specifically with the Khmer Rouge? The primary sources for these chapters: The Khmer Rouge. The book's last fifty footnotes, from the chapter on "Cambodia's Agricultural Revolution," provide an excellent case in point. Out of these 50 citations, there are 43 that pertain to the Khmer Rouge regime. Of these, 33 can be traced directly to the Khmer Rouge sources. Six more come from Hsinhua, the official news agency of Communist China, i.e., the Khmer Rouge's wealthiest patron. Two come from an unnamed source, described only as "a Cambodian economist." And the remaining two references? Both come from Le Monde: one is a dubious estimate of future rice production, and the other simply notes that, in the future, large rice paddies would be subdivided, "giving the country the appearance of an enormous checkerboard." This criticism has been used by some to demonstrate that you were ignorant of what was happening in Cambodia at the time, and some have exaggerated this and said you were an apologist for the Khymer Rouge. The article itself is very critical, but this criticism seems to be the most significant. Would you agree that your decision to write a favorable article about this book at the time was a mistake?


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