One does not have to agree with Chomsky to recognise his enormous influence and prestige throughout the world.
Virtually every political essay Chomsky has written since the '60s has included harsh attacks on the New York Times. Yet one could read in the NYT that:
Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive.
Similarly, the Guardian noted that:
Chomsky ranks with Marx, Shakespeare and the Bible as one of the 10 most-quoted sources in the humanities – and is the only writer among them still alive.
After he was banned from visiting the country, liberal Israeli newspaper Ha'aretzeditorialised that other than Israel:
It is hard to imagine any country that would not feel honoured to be visited by Chomsky.
Ha'aretz went on to call the ban "harmful folly", noting that:
"One does not have to be an ardent supporter of Chomsky in order to agree with his view that Israel is behaving like South Africa in the 1960s"
Keith Windschuttle – no admirer of Chomsky – notes that Chomsky "is today the doyen of the American and much of the world's intellectual left". Chomsky began his life as a public intellectual with his trenchant essay, The Responsibility of Intellectuals. The most left-wing story permissible in mainstream political discourse in America is that because of overflowing benevolence, the US fought a war in Vietnam to protect its people from communist tyranny. However, because of some variety of blunders, it was unable to achieve this lofty goal, and perhaps committed some cruelties along the way.
Chomsky raised a different issue: that the US had no right to invade a country on the other side of the planet to install its own preferred puppet government, in defiance of the wishes of that country's population. In the leading journal of the American liberal intelligentsia, Chomsky basically accused America's liberal intelligentsia of moral bankruptcy.
In Chomsky's typical fashion, it was written in calm, rational manner, carefully documented, and was deeply revealing. It was politically courageous, and undoubtedly alienated the sober, serious-minded people who edit such journals, and who restrict themselves to the question of how countries like ours can most effectively crush resistance to American imperialism. The millions killed in the war, and the devastation of Cambodia and Laos were not considered moral questions, but tactical ones: American righteousness was presumed by right-thinking intellectuals.
Chomsky raised the fundamental moral question, and so, soon became unwelcome in mainstream American media. This exclusion from the Western media makes his continuing influence all the more remarkable.
As Chomsky is prevented from presenting his views, and refuses on principle to sue for defamation, it is easy to fabricate horrible charges against him, which have lingered for decades, despite easy refutation. As long ago as 1985, Christopher Hitchens went through the dull task of exposing the tedious and scurrilous lies that one finds circulating about Chomsky. The favourites of Chomsky's critics – who rarely show any sign of having read any of Chomsky's work – are that he ignored, downplayed or celebrated the atrocities of Pol Pot. The other is that he supported Robert Faurisson's Holocaust denial (the truth is simply that he supported the freedom of speech of a Holocaust denier).
The basic facts of the Cambodia issue are these: In June 1977, Chomsky and Edward Herman published a study in the Nation, in which they reviewed how scholarship and the mainstream media treated different reports of atrocities in Cambodia. One of the books they reviewed was in French, by Francois Ponchaud. They wrote that his "book is serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited. He gives a grisly account of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge". However, they did find it was flawed in many ways. They go on to critique a review of this book by Jean Lacouture, which Lacouture agreed was full of errors. Lacouture response in the New York Review of Books included considerable praise of Chomsky:
Noam Chomsky's corrections have caused me great distress. By pointing out serious errors in citation, he calls into question not only my respect for texts and the truth, but also the cause I was trying to defend. … I fully understand the concerns of Noam Chomsky, whose honesty and sense of freedom I admire immensely, in criticizing, with his admirable sense of exactitude, the accusations directed at the Cambodian regime.
Ponchaud, in the preface to the American version of the book (translated into English), wrote about the Lacouture review:
With the responsible attitude and precision of thought that are so characteristic of him, Noam Chomsky then embarked on a polemical exchange with Robert Silvers, Editor of the NYR, and with Jean Lacouture, leading to the publication by the latter of a rectification of his initial account.
It was dated September 20, 1977. The British version of the book – amazingly, contained a very different preface, dated for the same day. It began:
Even before this book was translated it was sharply criticised by Mr Noam Chomsky and Mr Gareth Porter. These two "experts" on Asia claim that I am mistakenly trying to convince people that Cambodia was drowned in a sea of blood after the departure of the last American diplomats. They say there have been no massacres, and they lay the blame for the tragedy of the Khmer people on the American bombings. They accuse me of being insufficiently critical in my approach to the refugees' accounts. For them, refugees are not a valid source…
Perhaps Ponchaud believed that the British version would escape their notice.
Let us consider the general tenor of Australian recapitulations of this. Robert Manne – in a 1979 essay for Quadrant, reprinted in Left, Right, Left, explained that Chomsky was part of a "campaign" to deny atrocities were taking place in Cambodia, instead atrocity stories could be explained "as deliberate fabrications of a corrupt and mendacious press in the service of the established order". To prove that Chomsky and Hermans' critique of Ponchaud's book was specious, Manne quoted from the British preface above, saying it "could not be bettered". Sadly, "the former supporters of Pol Pot" won't be "deflated by the fact that concerning their estimation of him and his odious regime they were wholly, shamefully and ludicrously wrong. Pol Pot has passed; Noam Chomsky, I fear, persisteth". In a 1982 follow-up essay, Manne again endorsed the preface which attacked Chomsky as "mild and utterly reasonable", expressing confusion as to why Chomsky and others regarded Ponchaud's attack in that preface as outrageous. Manne went on to claim that Chomsky does not "place any responsibility for mass murder on the ruling clique or cadres of the Cambodian Communist Party". Instead, "sole responsibility" for "the present suffering of the Cambodian people" belonged to the US. Remarkably, Manne wrote this in an article including Chomsky and Herman's comment: "a grisly account of what refugees have reported to him about the barbarity of their treatment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge". Internal consistency would undoubtedly have made the attack on Chomsky more difficult.
Though these polemics against Chomsky have been going on for decades, the intellectual and moral level of them has remained at about the standard set by Manne. Windschuttle, for example, explained that:
In 1975, Chomsky was the most prestigious and persistent Western apologist for the Pol Pot regime.
Presumably, he had the work above in mind: Windschuttle was presumably untroubled by the perhaps trivial fact that Chomsky didn't write anything on the subject until 1977. Funnily enough, Robert Manne later advanced the thesis – without any relevant quote – that Windschuttle was a "Pol Pot enthusiast". With good reason, Windschuttle regarded this as an outrageous slur.
Ben Naparstek, current editor of The Monthly, has also explained that "After Cambodia fell to the Khmer Rouge in 1975," Chomsky's "hatred of American foreign policy led him to write sympathetically about Pol Pot". Perhaps the most revealing thing about Australia's intelligentsia is how unremarkable such a casual remark is considered.
One might suggest that Chomsky's denunciation of much of the Western intelligentsia was never going to make him friends with, for example, what Miranda Devine has called "the vanity publication of a Melbourne property developer".
The latest issue of the Monthly carries an article by Nick Dyrenfurth on Chomsky. Characteristic of his style, Dyrenfurth wrote an article in 2009 with Dr Philip Mendes in which they claimed that an Australian call for an academic boycott on Israel "was directed at the victims of terror". That is, those who called for a boycott supported terrorism against the Israelis civilians blown up inside Israel.
With similar honesty Dyrenfurth sets out Chomsky's views and why they are terrible. Dyrenfurth gets even the most basic facts wrong (for example, attributing a quote to one essay which was actually written in a separate private letter). It is full of innuendos, such as speaking of "many Western leftists" who admire Trotsky, and describing Chomsky as Trotsky's "lineal successor", despite Chomsky's longstanding and well-known contempt for Lenin and Trotsky. Chomsky is also charged with the crime of meeting with Hezbollah (and allegedly issuing uncited praise for them: perhaps properly outrageous praise will be fabricated for the next attack). Unmentioned is the fact that Chomsky also met with Walid Jumblat, who at the time was fiercely anti-Hezbollah (Jumblat's politics swing wildly).
Perhaps one way of explaining the fury Chomsky evokes from the mildly progressive to the reactionary right, is his guiding moral philosophy. Chomsky applies the same moral standards to all atrocities and repression, but he focuses primarily on those for which his country is responsible, because he has the most power to stop them. In 1979, Herman and Chomsky published a two-volume study, The Political Economy of Human Rights. Their major case studies were East Timor and Cambodia. They documented at length that the media ignored evidence of atrocities committed by the West and its client states, whilst expressing enormous outrage at crimes of official enemies, fabricating evidence as needed to prove wrongdoing.
This is considered outrageous, because the respectable Western intelligentsia regards it as morally courageous and important to devote all their attention to denouncing the crimes of official enemies, and even fabricating evidence when needed for such purposes. At the same time, it is their duty to ignore or downplay crimes for which we are responsible, or share responsibility.
Almost 30 years later, Robert Manne wrote critically that:
The willingness of the Australian anticommunist camp to support, in one way or another, one of the great political crimes of the 20th century, the Indonesian mass murder of 1965-6, where approximately as many died as in the Armenian genocide of 1915 or in the Rwanda genocide of 1994 – has never before been discussed by anyone associated with the anticommunist camp. As readers of this exchange will see, Australian anticommunists supported one of the great crimes of the 20th century in a variety of ways – by turning a blind eye to the horror of what had occurred; by openly applauding the consequence of the crime; by failing to discuss the atrocity in an appropriate moral register; by supporting in words and deeds those who helped unleash the mass murder; by denying publicly that these people had been involved, and so on.
Anyone who reads Chomsky would find this very familiar: he has been writing about this for decades. Chomsky also was one of the leading campaigners against Indonesia's brutal occupation of East Timor, which resulted in the deaths of up to 183,000 people. This was almost a third of the population. The slaughter was given crucial military and diplomatic support by Australia and the US, among others.
One of Australia's leading experts on East Timor, Clinton Fernandes, reviewed Robert Manne's record on the issue whilst editor of Quadrant from 1989-1997. Having read "every issue of Quadrant during" these eight years, Fernandes commented on the "paucity of East Timorese voices": instead, space was extended to "a Perth lawyer and poet", Hal Colebatch, who had spent a few days in East Timor nearly 20 years before. Reviewing the handful of articles that addressed the issue, Fernandes concluded that:
Mr Manne railed against crimes that he had no ability to stop, while largely ignoring a privileged opportunity to struggle against crimes in which his government was complicit. This is morally comparable to a Soviet commissar denouncing racism in the USA while saying little about the USSR's support for tyranny in Eastern Europe. Perhaps the comparison is unfair… to the commissar, who had reason to fear for his physical wellbeing in a way that a Western intellectual did not.
This is contrasted with Chomsky's "prodigious and widely-read" speeches and publications "on this topic".
Naparstek, for the record, has claimed in 2008 that "by some accounts" the invasion and occupation "killed more than 100,000 civilians". Naparstek's remark was generally considered uninteresting and trivial, because grossly underestimating and casting doubt on the mass slaughter in East Timor isn't considered significant. Indeed, it was no obstacle to Naparstek becoming editor of the Monthly a few months later.
The lesson is instructive. Chomsky has consistently struggled against atrocities committed by his country and state terrorism by client states for decades. Chomsky has said that "the intellectual tradition is one of servility to power". It is this tradition which Chomsky has denounced repeatedly since his first essay about the Vietnam War. The herd of independent minds has not appreciated his exposure of their loyal service to Western power. However, there are some people who honour the work of a brave dissident and brilliant scholar. Surveying Chomsky's critics cannot begin to do justice to the sheer scope of Chomsky's activism, or the penetrating brilliance of his scholarship and his insight into international politics, Western democracy and the media.
It can simply suggest that Australia should give his writings a fairer hearing than they have received thus far from much of Australia's intelligentsia. Chomsky richly deserves the Sydney Peace Prize. Once again, I salute them for their excellent choice.
Michael Brull has a featured blog at Independent Australian Jewish Voices, and is involved in Stop The Intervention Collective Sydney (STICS).