Since Noam Chomsky’s “Fantasies” (July 21, 2013) present themselves as a reaction to my reply to his interview with a critical dismissal of my work, a brief clarification is needed. What Chomsky refers to as my “reply” is a non-authorized and not accurate transcription of my answer to a question from the public during a recent debate at Birkbeck college in London. As it would be clear from a full transcription, at that moment I didn’t even know about Chomsky’s attack on me—I was just asked what do I think about his total dismissal of my work (together with that of Lacan and Derrida) as a case of fanciful posturing without any foundation in empirical facts and scientific reasoning, and I improvised a reaction on the spot. Chomsky’s remark that I “cite nothing” to justify my claim about his inaccuracies is thus ridiculous—how could I have done it in an improvised reply to an unexpected question? Probably to illustrate my disrespect for facts, Chomsky also dwells on the characterization of Obama that I wrongly attributed to him; there is no mystery about it, upon learning about my mistake, I unambiguously apologized—here is the text of my apology (from Harper’s magazine):
In attributing to Noam Chomsky the statement that Obama is a white guy who took some sun-tanning sessions, I repeated an untrue claim which appeared in Slovene media, so I can only offer my unreserved and unconditional apology.
I would like to add that, even if the statement I falsely attributed to Chomsky were to be truly made by him, I would not consider it a patronizingly racist slur, but a fully admissible characterization in our political and ideological struggle. There are African-American intellectuals who allow themselves to be fully co-opted into the white-liberal academic establishment, and they are loved by the establishment precisely because they seem “one of us,” white with a darkened skin. This is why, I think, the statement I falsely attributed to Chomsky does NOT amount to the same as Silvio Berlusconi’s misleadingly similar characterization of Obama as beautiful and well tanned: Berlusconi’s remark dismissed Obama’s blackness as an endearing eccentricity, thus obliterating the historical meaning of the fact that an African-American was elected President, while the remark I falsely attributed to Chomsky, if accurate, would point towards the ambiguous way Obama’s blackness can be instrumentalized to obfuscate our crucial political and economic struggles.
I added the long second paragraph not to qualify my apology, but to make it clear that I never accused Chomsky of making a racist comment (as was Berlusconi’s quip). I find it a little bit mysterious why Chomsky dwells on this event which, if anything, proves my respect for empirical facts, i.e., my readiness to admit a mistake when I am empirically wrong! So is Chomsky ready to apologize when he reaches the lowest point of his attack in his claim that, in my reproaches to him concerning the way he deals with Khmer Rouge atrocities, I endorse the
distinction between worthy and unworthy victims. The worthy victims are those whose fate can be attributed to some official enemy, the unworthy ones are the victims of our own state and its crimes. The two prime examples on which we focused were Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in the same years. … to this day, those who are completely in the grip of western propaganda adhere religiously to the prescribed doctrine: a show of great indignation about the KR years and our accurate review of the information available, along with streams of falsification; and silence about the vastly more significant cases of ET and Cambodia under US attack, before and after the KR years. Žižek’s comments are a perfect illustration.
All I can say is that I simply agree with these lines (with the exception of the last sentence, of course). Not only do I agree, but I was making the same point repeatedly, even mentioning East Timor, as in the following passage from my Welcome to the Desert of the Real:
Why should the World Trade Center catastrophe be in any way privileged over, say, the mass slaughter of Hutus by Tutsis in Ruanda in 1999? Or the mass bombing and gas-poisoning of Kurds in the north of Iraq in the early 1990s? Or the Indonesian forces’ mass killings in East Timor? Or…
The claim that I in any way endorse the “distinction between worthy and unworthy victims” is thus patently wrong. I only have to add that I see an important difference between Cambodia and East Timor. In the latter case, we were dealing with a foreign military intervention and occupation (Indonesia with the US support) whose aim was simply to colonize and exploit the occupied country, while in the case of Cambodia, violence was perpetrated by a politico-military organization of Cambodian people themselves mobilized by a well-articulated radical Millenarian vision (to erase the ideological past and build a New Man, inclusive of closing all schools, liquidating intellectuals, prohibiting all religions, and undermining family ties). Furthermore, one should also bear in mind that the US attitude towards Khmer Rouge cannot be reduced to a demonizing condemnation: to counter the increased Soviet influence after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime by the Vietnamese intervention in 1979, the US and China together supported the Khmer Rouge regime as the sole legitimate representative of Cambodia in the UN—all of a sudden, Khmer Rouge were not so totally bad… But this seems to me also a relatively minor point. What brings us to the heart of the matter is Chomsky’s accusation that I rudely misrepresent his position: according to me, he (Chomsky) claims
that ‘we don’t need any critique of ideology’—that is, we don’t need what I’ve devoted enormous efforts to for many years. His evidence? He heard that from some people who talked to me. Sheer fantasy again, but another indication of his concept of empirical fact and rational discussion.
For me, on the contrary, the problem is here a very rational one: everything hinges on how we define “ideology.” If one defines and uses this term the way I do (and I am not alone here: my understanding echoes a long tradition of so-called Western Marxism), then one has to conclude that what Chomsky is doing in his political writings is very important, I have great admiration and respect for it, but it is emphatically not critique of ideology. Let me indicate what I mean by this. What I had in mind when I spoke about his stance towards Khmer Rouge was, among other passages, the following lines from Chomsky’s and Herman’s “Distortions at Fourth Hand” from the Nation (June 6, 1977):
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. … To give an illustration of just one neglected source, the London Economist (March 26, 1977) carried a letter by W.J. Sampson, who worked as an economist and statistician for the Cambodian Government until March 1975, in close contact with the central statistics office. After leaving Cambodia, he writes, he ‘visited refugee camps in Thailand and kept in touch with Khmers,’ and he also relied on ‘A European friend who cycled around Phnom Penh for many days after its fall [and] saw and heard of no … executions’ apart from ‘the shooting of some prominent politicians and the lynching of hated bomber pilots in Phnom Penh.’ He concludes ‘that executions could be numbered in hundreds or thousands rather than in hundreds of thousands,’ though there was ‘a big death toll from sickness’—surely a direct consequence, in large measure, of the devastation caused by the American attack. … If, indeed, postwar Cambodia is, as Lacouture believes, similar to Nazi Germany, then his comment is perhaps just, though we may add that he has produced no evidence to support this judgement. But if postwar Cambodia is more similar to France after liberation, where many thousands of people were massacred within a few months under far less rigorous conditions than those left by the American war, then perhaps a rather different judgement is in order. That the latter conclusion may be more nearly correct is suggested by the analyses mentioned earlier.
… 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. Evidence that focuses on the American role … is ignored, not on the basis of truthfulness or scholarship but because the message is unpalatable.
I think the quoted passage confirms that my improvised resume of Chomsky’s position about Khmer Rouge atrocities (“No, this is Western propaganda. Khmer Rouge are not as horrible as that.”) is a correct one. I do not agree in any way with those who accuse Chomsky of sympathizing with Khmer Rouge, although I find the parallel between Cambodia after the KR takeover and France liberated in 1944 very problematic. Did de Gaulle after the liberation of Paris order its complete evacuation? Did his government reorganize entire social life into collective communes run by military commanders? Did it close down schools? If anything, de Gaulle’s first government was way too tolerant, (among other problematic measures) admitting legal continuity between the Vichy years and the new republic, so that all laws enforced by the Vichy regime (and they were numerous!) remained valid if they were not explicitly revoked. But apart from this particular point, I have some further problems with Chomsky’s and Herman’s old text.