Wednesday, November 16, 2005
Emma Brockes has interviewed Noam Chomsky for al Guardian, in light of his being named today's top public intellectual in a poll of Foreign Policy magazine's readership. In an avuncular moment early in their exchange, Chomsky rebuffs Brockes' suggestion that his memory might be photographic:
It's the other way round. I can't remember names, can't remember faces. I don't have any particular talents that everybody else doesn't have.
Through the rest of the interview, Chomsky debunks this assertion by showing that his mendacity is preternatural. It is often discussed whether Chomsky is some sort of Holocaust-denier. This is fallout from his bizarre decision in 1979 to add his name to a petition defending Robert Faurisson, a vicious French anti-Semite and practitioner of this dark art. The petition lamented the "crude attempt to silence" Faurisson's "research into the 'Holocaust' question." Chomsky then added an avis to Faurisson's Memoire en defense that described him as a "relatively apolitical liberal of some sort." This, about a man whose "findings" (as they're called in the petition Chomsky signed) include the observation that in requiring Jews to wear the yellow star from the age of six, "Hitler was perhaps less concerned with the Jewish question than with ensuring the safety of German soldiers" (Faurisson, Vérité, p. 190).
In spite of this, Chomsky is not a Holocaust denier. He has explicitly affirmed its existence, referring to it as "the most fantastic outburst of insanity in human history". But although he is not a capital-H Holocaust revisionist, Chomsky has long vacillated between the minimization and denial of lower-case holocausts. His infamous attempts to downplay and delete the Khmer Rouge autogenocide are the piece de resistance of this disgusting pattern. His subordination of the 9/11 atrocities to Bill Clinton's silly decision to bomb Sudan's Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant is a lesser but still outrageous example (see Hitchens on this).
In the Brockes interview, we have a real treat: Chomsky's revisionist reflex fires repeatedly. Take this lunatic passage about Bosnia and Serbian national socialism:
These days, [Chomsky's wife] Carol accompanies her husband to most of his public appearances. He is asked to lend his name to all sorts of crackpot causes and she tries to intervene to keep his schedule under control. As some see it, one ill-judged choice of cause was the accusation made by Living Marxism magazine that during the Bosnian war, shots used by ITN of a Serb-run detention camp were faked. The magazine folded after ITN sued, but the controversy flared up again in 2003 when a journalist called Diane Johnstone made similar allegations in a Swedish magazine, Ordfront, taking issue with the official number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre. (She said they were exaggerated.) In the ensuing outcry, Chomsky lent his name to a letter praising Johnstone's "outstanding work". Does he regret signing it?
"No," he says indignantly. "It is outstanding. My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough. It may be wrong; but it is very careful and outstanding work."
How, I wonder, can journalism be wrong and still outstanding?
"Look," says Chomsky, "there was a hysterical fanaticism about Bosnia in western culture which was very much like a passionate religious conviction. It was like old-fashioned Stalinism: if you depart a couple of millimetres from the party line, you're a traitor, you're destroyed. It's totally irrational. And Diane Johnstone, whether you like it or not, has done serious, honest work. And in the case of Living Marxism, for a big corporation to put a small newspaper out of business because they think something they reported was false, is outrageous."
They didn't "think" it was false; it was proven to be so in a court of law.
But Chomsky insists that "LM was probably correct" and that, in any case, it is irrelevant. "It had nothing to do with whether LM or Diane Johnstone were right or wrong." It is a question, he says, of freedom of speech. "And if they were wrong, sure; but don't just scream well, if you say you're in favour of that you're in favour of putting Jews in gas chambers."
Chomsky's performance here, and its chilling recollection of the Faurisson affair -- the petition or letter in defense, the eager legitimation of a pseudo-scholar with evil motives, the navel-gazing about an unthreatened freedom of speech -- will be ably explored by other commentators, in particular the indefatigable Oliver Kamm, who has made a cottage industry out of incisive and readable critiques of Chomsky. I would rather focus on another part of the interview, in which Chomsky further succumbs to his revisionist reflex. I can only guess that he felt the comparative obscurity of the topic would enable him to so grossly distort it.
Brockes renders some biographical detail about Chomsky, in which his Jewish origins are discussed. It contains the following passage, which concludes with Chomsky making a startling aside:
Chomsky's activism has its roots in his childhood. He grew up in the depression of the 1930s, the son of William Chomsky and Elsie Simonofsky, Russian immigrants to Philadelphia. He describes the family as "working-class Jews", most of whom were unemployed, although his parents, both teachers, were lucky enough to work. There was no sense of America as the promised land: "It wasn't much of an opportunity-giver in my immediate family," he says, although it was an improvement on the pogroms of Russia, which none the less Chomsky can't help qualifying as "not very bad, by contemporary standards. In the worst of the major massacres, I think about 49 people were killed."
Chomsky is referring to the First Kishinev pogrom of 1903, which indeed killed between 47-49 Jews in what is modern-day Moldova. It is true that by ancient or contemporary standards of slaughter, this is not a high body count. But taken all together, the pogroms were probably the most devastating phenomenon in Jewish history besides the Holocaust. And as with many historical phenomena, they came to be associated with a signal event whose peculiar character positioned it to represent the whole. Although it shouldn't (you'll see why a few paragraphs later), Kishinev has filled this role. An account in the April 28, 1903 New York Times gives an idea why:
The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia, are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Russian Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, "Kill the Jews," was taken-up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.
New York Times reporters had accuracy issues then too -- the numbers are off -- but there is no doubt that this account is representative of the greater bloody ouevre. The randomness and savagery of these attacks on Jews, and the great length of time over which they were carried out, were major factors in both the spread of Zionism and the pioneering Jewish involvement in socialism. The impact of the pogroms on Jews was seminal.
Chomsky distorts the historical narrative by atomizing and thus decontextualizing a single event. This is a common feature in his argumentation, and perhaps not for nothing, a key technique used by professional revisionists like Faurisson. But Chomsky is also wrong in the particular claim that Kishinev was the "worst of the major massacres" in its harvest of dead. Consider these statistics:
During the years 1917-1920 (assuming 1095 days), if 49 Jews were killed by mobs every day the number of dead would amount only to 53,655. You would need at least 137 per day to reach the Figes figure. A daily tally of Chomsky's "worst" estimate doesn't even attain the Lewis number for the Ukraine.
On pages 677-679 of A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (Penguin), Orlando Figes describes the kind of violence that claimed those 150,000 Jews. An excerpt:
On seizing a town from the Reds, it was common for the White officers to allow their soldiers two or three days' freedom to rob and kill the Jews at will. This was seen as a reward for the troops and a just retribution for the part played by the Jews in supporting the Reds. There were no recorded cases of a White officer ever halting a pogrom, but several cases where even senior generals, such as Mamontov and Mai-Maevsky, ordered them. One of the worst pogroms took place in Kiev, right under the noses of the White authorities. From 1 to 5 October the Cossack soldiers went around the city breaking into Jewish homes, demanding money, raping and killing. The officers and local priests urged them on with speeches claiming that 'The Yids kill all our people and support the Bolsheviks.' Even Shulgin, an ardent anti-Semite was disturbed by the climate of 'medieval terror' in the streets and by the 'terrifying howl' of the 'Yids' at night 'that breaks the heart'. Yet General Dragomirov who ruled the city, did not order a stop to the pogtrom until the 6th, the day after the orgy of killing had finally burned itself out.
Very bad, by contemporary standards. There's more. Most people refer to an erroneously truncated epoch when they mention "the pogroms" -- roughly the years 1881-1917. They also focus on Russia. It is more accurate, however, to date and source the phenomenon in mid-17th Century Ukraine. At the time, that country was under a feckless and dying Polish rule. A local Cossack leader, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, led a successful rebellion with Muslim Tatar allies against the Poles. The ensuing chaos permitted the subjugation of Ukraine by Sweden and Russia. Jews had comprised a class of middlemen that interfaced between the Ukrainian peasants and their Polish masters, and were thus widely reviled. Seizing the opportunity, Khmelnytsky goaded his European forces on to the slaughter of between 50,000 and 200,000 Jews in Europe's first series of pogroms. (Khmelnytsky's Tatars were more inclined to sell their Jews into slavery.)
Chomsky's belittlement of Kishinev and the phenomenon of the pogroms is a continuation of a tendency to minimize the importance of anti-Semitism. As far as I know, Chomsky began doing this in a talk he gave to the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign about "Anti-Semitism, Zionism and the Palestinians" (again, see Oliver Kamm). In it, Chomsky described the status of anti-Semitism in American society today:
By now Jews in the US are the most privileged and influential part of the population. You find occasional instances of anti-Semitism but they are marginal. There's plenty of racism, but it's directed against Blacks, Latinos, Arabs are targets [sic] of enormous racism, and those problems are real. Anti-Semitism is no longer a problem, fortunately. It's raised, but it's raised because privileged people want to make sure they have total control, not just 98% control. That's why anti-Semitism is becoming an issue. Not because of the threat of anti-Semitism; they want to make sure there’s no critical look at the policies the US (and they themselves) support in the Middle East.
Chomsky is right that religious and racist-Right anti-Semitism are marginal in American society. Of course, he omits mention of the left-wing variety rife among intellectuals of whom he is a cynosure. Notice the callowness of his argument, reminiscent of his cheap facsimile Norman Finkelstein, that anti-Semitism, the one mirage among plenty of "real" racism today, is merely an arrow in the quiver of the ruling claque of Jews and their supporters!
The minimization of Jewish suffering and the traducement of Israel and Zionism combine to form a pattern wearily recognizable on the Left. Chomsky's revision of the pogroms is useful to this enterprise, because it blurs the historical record of the exigency driving the spread of Zionism. The pogroms might otherwise serve to arouse sympathy for the Jewish pioneers, or at least broaden the ambit of the Arab-Israeli conflict beyond the Manichaean passion play with which Chomsky seduces his followers. Over the pogroms, one can now easily patch the paleo-Left thesis that Israel is just an imperial cancer, a Middle East metastasis of the West, of America, of international finance and the Jews.
One might also consider this latest episode in Chomsky's troubled relationship with mainstream Jews in light of his psychology. Oliver Kamm, whose analyses of Chomsky have been helpful in the composition of this piece, rails against "adducing psychological explanations for political views". I understand and respect this position; as Kamm rightly points out, it is uncivil to force people to respond to unfalsifiable charges. On the other hand, I think psychology is the substrate of politics, and it would be dishonest and harmful to ignore this on principle.
I'll compromise by leaving the reader to make up his mind about what fuels Chomsky's animus against Israel (one that has expanded lately to include the notion of Jewish/Zionist control of American politics). I will conclude, however, with an observation. For a man who thinks Bill Clinton's bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in which one person died is worse than 9/11 -- because the downstream damage of lost medicine and monies theoretically resulted in "killing unknown numbers of people" -- it is telling that he views the Kishinev massacre in such an absurdly discrete fashion.