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Analysis: Chomsky should listen to his own advice and admit errors

Sophal Ear and Geoffrey Cain

Stuart Alan Becker’s trite interview of MIT linguist Noam Chomsky (‘Noam Chomsky maintains the rage,’ October 5), in which the reporter – rather than a quoted knowledgeable source – describes Chomsky as “an equal-opportunity critic of all groups with power” and “so popular and welcome in so many places”, fell far short of journalistic excellence.

Becker’s promotional reporting skews and gives inappropriate credence to the statements of a scholar who has downplayed Khmer Rouge atrocities, doubted the reports of refugees and has refused to apologise for his errors.

Giving such friendly coverage to Chomsky in a country like Cambodia is outrageous and inappropriate. In introducing Chomsky, Becker does not even attempt to grace the long history of criticisms against Chomsky’s half-truths about the Khmer Rouge, instead cloaking them with his accomplishments as a linguist.

When Becker starts the interview, however, he gives Chomsky an easy exit. He asks a paltry question about one book, Manufacturing Consent, published alongside Edward Herman in 1988, a work Chomsky boasts is “a rare study that does not contain errors”.

While Chomsky may think so, that is because he backed off of statements on Cambodia from previous books by reducing his coverage to a few pages.

Chomsky cleaned up the righteous rhetoric of his earlier books and articles that received no mention in the interview despite their importance.

In those works, Chomsky expressed na?ve sympathy for the Khmer Rouge revolution based on his selective use of “evidence” and ignorant disregard for the plight of refugees.

Chomsky’s statements speak for themselves. During Pol Pot’s reign, he wagged his finger at refugees in his article “Distortions at fourth hand”, published in The Nation in June 1977, and later in After the Cataclysm, published in 1979, he continues to quote selectively and to obfuscate.

Chomsky praised, for example, the report of a Vietnamese refugee who claimed to have walked 350 miles across Cambodia over a two-month period and arriving in Thailand in April 1976 as stating “Walking across the country for two months I saw no sign of killing or mass extermination and nobody told me of it. I still don’t believe it happened.”

Later, also in After the Cataclysm, Chomsky and Herman wrote: “In the first place, is it proper to attribute deaths from malnutrition and disease to Cambodian authorities?”

Incredibly, Chomsky and Ed Herman then claimed: “If a serious study … is someday undertaken, it may well be discovered … that the Khmer Rouge programmes elicited a positive response … because they dealt with fundamental problems rooted in the feudal past and exacerbated by the imperial system.… Such a study, however, has yet to be undertaken.”

Perhaps that study had already been undertaken but was ignored, as Chomsky and Herman intimate: “The situation in Phnom Penh resulting from the US war is graphically described in a carefully documented study by Hildebrand and Porter that has been almost totally ignored by the press.”

This is high praise for a book that contained a propaganda picture of a Khmer Rouge “hospital” operating room.

Becker’s blatantly promotional content can be explained by his snug relationship with Chomsky – a conflict of interest that should have been disclosed in the article.

The reporter runs a school in Bangkok called The Enlightenment Institute, a language training school that he describes on his website as a “Chomsky school” because it places the study of Chomsky at its core.

Becker adds that he’s grown close to the scholar in the past few years, having “exchanged hundreds” of emails with Chomsky.

Why Becker did not disclose his affiliations, as any ethical journalist should, raises questions about his agenda.

When it comes to allowing for honest error, Chomsky will have none of it.

He refers, for example, to Father Ponchaud’s differing American and British editions of Cambodia: Year Zero as evidence of duplicity.

If he had cared to check with the easily accessible French priest, he would have learned that the error was due to his translator, who submitted the wrong edition to the publisher.

Writing about American leaders in At War with Asia (Pantheon, 1970), Chomsky poignantly argued that: “Perhaps someday they will acknowledge their ‘honest errors’ in their memoirs, speaking of the burdens of world leadership and the tragic irony of history. Their victims, the peasants of Indochina, will write no memoirs and will be forgotten. They will join the countless millions of earlier victims of tyrants and oppressors.”

Indeed, perhaps someday Chomsky will acknowledge his “honest errors” in his memoirs, speaking of the burdens of academia and the tragic irony of history.

His victims, the peasants of Indochina, will write no memoirs and will be forgotten.

The views of the authors do not necessarily represent the views of the US department of the navy, the US department of defense, the US department of state or the US government.

Sophal Ear is a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and a TED Fellow. Geoffrey Cain is a Fulbright fellow in Vietnam and a journalist who has covered Asia for Time, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and others.



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