Noam Chomsky is doubly important: He is the world’s most famous and respected linguistic scientist in addition to being a well-known radical political writer.
The Chicago Tribune describes Chomsky as “the most cited living author.” At the same time, he has been characterized as a writer whose work has been suppressed “because the gentlemen who own the major media don’t want you to know about Noam Chomsky.” 1 It is paradoxical that such a well-known figure has trouble finding a publisher. The reason is that Chomsky’s name has been associated with the denial of one genocide and the minimization of another.
It would be inaccurate to call Chomsky a Holocaust denier. Chomsky knows the Holocaust took place, and he has repeatedly called it “the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history.” Nevertheless, Chomsky did in fact lend his reputation to the deniers of the Holocaust and participated directly in downplaying another genocide, the Cambodian massacres of 1975-78. While it is true that Chomsky himself never claimed that the Holocaust never happened, he did sign a petition in defense of Robert Faurisson, a Holocaust denier, saying that Faurisson
has been conducting extensive research into the ‘Holocaust’ question. Since he began making his findings public, Professor Faurisson has been subject to a vicious campaign of harassment, intimidation, slander, and physical violence in a crude attempt to silence him.2
This is much more than a call for freedom of speech. The use of the word “findings” for Faurisson’s book and the quotation marks around the word “Holocaust” are themselves a denial. Chomsky is in effect saying that although he happens to believe that the Holocaust took place, other reputable researchers may honestly come to different conclusions.
The petition was signed in 1979. Chomsky has had enough time to make it clear that he disapproves of what Faurisson said, even while defending his right to say it. Holocaust denial has an agenda. It is necessarily an expression of anti-Semitism. Those who deny that the Holocaust happened maintain that although it didn’t take place, it should have. The motivation—the deep structure, to use Chomsky’s terminology—of Holocaust denial is the belief that those who suffer are virtuous, and since the Jews are villainous, they couldn’t have suffered. There is no way in the world that a researcher could conclude there had never been a Holocaust. If Chomsky made a simple error in accepting the word “findings,” or if he felt the word has been misunderstood by his critics, he could have made it clear between 1979 and now that he considers Faurisson’s study an instance of hate literature while defending his right to advocate hatred. He can still do so.
In the case of Cambodia, it is Chomsky and his co-author Edward S. Herman themselves who try to shed doubt on the extent of the horrors that took place. In their “After the Cataclysm” we read, “The apparent uniformity of refugee testimony is in part at least an artifact reflecting media bias.” 3 And to think that we used to believe that independent reports confirmed each other.
Robert Barsky’s biography of Chomsky is dedicated to two people, Sam Abramovitch and Noam Chomsky. The first person thanked in the acknowledgments is Chomsky. Barsky is open about the fact that he has written a hagiography; it is, in fact, a great strength of the book. He quotes personal communications from Chomsky, which are generally informative, revealing, and occasionally damning.
Another aspect of Barsky’s honesty is his open discussion of the Faurisson and Pol Pot issues. He asks whether it was a mistake for Chomsky to sign a petition on behalf of Faurisson and tells us, “In light of the principle involved, Chomsky would say that it was not.” Chomsky, whose reputation was seriously damaged, sticks to his guns: “Because if one were to sign only statements that are formulated the way one thinks proper, no one would sign anything, except the author.” 4
Should one then sign everything? The petition, part of which is cited above, does not take the absolute freedom-of-speech view that Holocaust denial, or even Holocaust justification, should be protected as all speech should be. Instead, it mentions Faurisson’s “extensive independent historical research.” Defending an opinion is not the same thing as praising it.
Pierre Vidal-Naquet takes issue with Chomsky, who had characterized Faurisson as “a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort.” 5 In a personal communication to Barsky, Chomsky says, “Since Vidal-Naquet, Faurisson’s harshest and most knowledgeable critic, could come up with no evidence suggesting that he was an anti-Semite or had any political views at all, that charge seemed rather weak.” 6
Chomsky’s response is mystifying. Vidal-Naquet most certainly did come up with evidence that Faurisson was an anti-Semite: for example, Faurisson justified the imposition of the yellow star on six-year-olds, saying, “Hitler was perhaps less concerned with the Jewish question than with ensuring the safety of German soldiers.” 7 Faurisson, like any writer who denies the Holocaust, hates all Jews, whether six years old or ninety-six.
“After the Cataclysm” is not easy to obtain. However, I found one copy in the New York Public Library and another in the library of the College of Staten Island. This book has done Chomsky’s reputation even more harm than the Faurisson affair did. Chomsky argues that the genocide carried out by Pol Pot was not as bad as the one that took place in East Timor. Chomsky has done the world a service by bringing the East Timor situation to light. There is something he misses, however. The United States neither ordered nor carried out the murders there; Indonesia did. Pol Pot, on the other hand, did order and carry out the murders in Cambodia. The United States is not guiltless, but the sin is one of omission. The United States committed a sin of omission during World War II as well, by not publicizing the Holocaust or bombing the death camps. Nevertheless, it is Hitler who killed the Jews, not the United States; it is Indonesia that committed murder in East Timor, not the United States. Indonesia, a dictatorship and an Islamic country, is not America.
In order to minimize the extent of Pol Pot’s crimes, Chomsky asks, “In the first place, is it proper to attribute deaths from famine and disease to the Cambodian authorities?” 8 It is quite proper if those very authorities caused the famine and disease, which they did by evacuating the cities. He also asks, “Or, one might wonder, how can it be that a population so oppressed by a handful of fanatics does not rise up to overthrow them?” 9 If he were stupid, one could understand the question. According to Chomsky’s logic, there should be no oppressed people anywhere, since they all would have overthrown their oppressors. We must conclude his question is both dishonest and utterly heartless.
Why harp now on a petition and a book that both date from 1979? The reason is that they are part of a larger pattern. Chomsky ignored Faurisson’s racism because he feels that nationalism, especially Jewish nationalism and Zionism, are themselves examples of racism. In the case of Cambodia, Chomsky felt he had to show that the massacres were less serious than the crimes committed by the United States, the most powerful country in the world and the one that Chomsky considers the most destructive.
Let us first consider Chomsky’s anti-Zionism. Chomsky, whose parents were “deeply involved in Jewish culture, the Zionist movement, and the revival of the Hebrew language,” finds the idea of a Jewish state “deeply anti-democratic.” 10 He once lived on a kibbutz but left because “he was uncomfortable with the conformism and the racist principles underlying the institution.” 11 He is opposed to nationalism, except when it is anti-American. “In reality,” says Chomsky,”the ‘threat to [American] interests’ in the Middle East as elsewhere, had always been indigenous nationalism, a fact stressed in internal documents and sometimes publicly.” 12 Needless to say, he doesn’t describe this indigenous nationalism as racist.
Chomsky dismisses the peace process that was created by the Oslo Agreement as a diversionary tactic: “Probably 100,000 children or so have died after the [Gulf] war from the sanctions and so on. That’s not a pretty picture and it had to be suppressed pretty quickly. That’s one of the reasons why they took off all at once about a Middle East peace process, to try to turn the people’s attention away from it.” 13 Oh? Is that why? Did you think Chomsky would praise the bold, generous, controversial, dovish policies of Rabin and Peres? Think again. It’s as if the Israelis were not people who wanted to live, but merely things—weapons for America to exploit. Chomsky has objected to the theories of psychologist B. F. Skinner on the grounds that Skinner attempted to deal with human beings as though they were equivalent to inanimate objects (see below); nevertheless, he talks about Israelis as tools. Chomsky is selective in his sympathy.
Let us now go on to the case of Cambodia. Chomsky is ferociously anti-American. Chomsky is always characterized as a man of the left, but his political position is located in that area where extreme left meets extreme right. Let us consider the following summary of his views on those who control the world:
Who are these rulers? They are investment bankers, boards of directors, government office holders. The center of world power is in America, but it is not by any means exclusively American. It is an international elite.
Investment bankers? International elite? It is easy to imagine right-wing militia members using the same expressions. Furthermore, while Chomsky condemns the Islamic fundamentalism of pro-America Saudi Arabia, he has no problem with fanaticism that is anti-American: “The propaganda campaign about ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ has its farcical elements—even putting aside the fact that U.S. culture compares with Iran in its religious fundamentalism.” 14
Compares with Iran? Women in the United States are not required by law to wear the chador, nor do they run the risk of being stoned if they commit adultery. Saudi Arabia may be worse than Iran, but that is the way it has always been. The Khomeini revolution, on the other hand, was the greatest political setback to women in recorded history. Does it make sense to think of Chomsky as an man of the left?
If we are to talk about sheer numbers of innocent victims, the greatest killer who ever lived was Mao Zedong. During the Great Leap Forward, Chairman Mao ordered farmers to melt their tools in order to forge steel in backyard furnaces. Famine followed as the night the day, but China continued to export grain. Estimates of those who starved to death between 1959 and 1961 range from 20 to 60 million. This figure does not include the tens of millions who were killed during the Anti-Landlord Campaign, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, or the Cultural Revolution. Yet when Chomsky mentions “real human beings who are suffering and being tortured and starving,” he is referring only to the “actions of our government.”
According to Barsky, “The Soviet Union was, and still is, falsely referred to and condemned as a communist or Marxist state by historians, journalists and political scientists.” 15 He forgets that it was Marx who said history is the story of the class struggle. Stalin’s murder of the kulaks, Mao’s Anti-Landlord Campaign and Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot’s genocide were all explicitly undertaken as part of the class struggle. Pol Pot emptied the cities because the “Communist Manifesto” advocates the “combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equitable distribution over the country.” What Pol Pot did was part of a philosophical program. The worst famines of the 20th century were created by Communist regimes. The worst famine that ever took place—anywhere—was these Chinese catastrophe of 1959-61 mentioned above. There was no crop failure. Marx looked forward to the day when class differences would disappear and there would be no reason for anyone to disagree. Human beings, to their eternal credit, will always argue. A philosophy that hopes to achieve absolute harmony is necessarily one that leads to thought control and therefore to absolutism. Famine on a massive scale is taking place in North Korea, where innocent people are dying every day, but a government committed to stamping out free thought is willing to sacrifice their lives. It is no accident, Comrade.
Chomsky has never joined a political group; he refers to himself as a loner. Yet he supports the most popular cause in the world today: anti-Zionism. Barsky describes him as having a “passion for libertarian anarchism and political debate.” 16 There is an amazing discordance between Chomsky’s professed beliefs and his loyalties. Chomsky is as angry as Ayatollah Khomeini himself. His anger is directed against the same targets as Khomeini’s: Israel and the United States. He is always making comparisons showing how the United States is worse than some monstrous regime. He then is shocked when he is accused of supporting those very regimes.
Chomsky is the world’s most famous linguist. Living in the United States has not hurt him; indeed, it may be a factor contributing to his fame. A well-known American scholar is likely to be known all over the world, since America’s power automatically contributes to the renown of its noted citizens. Thus, Chomsky is the beneficiary of the country he attacks.
Chomsky changed the nature of linguistics. A very familiar example of his thinking is illustrated by a pair of sentences that differ by a single word: “John is easy to please,” and “John is eager to please.” The words “easy” and “eager” are both adjectives. Yet the grammatical structures of these sentences are quite different. We can rewrite the first as “It is easy to please John,” but any English-speaking child knows that it is ungrammatical to say, “It is eager to please John.” In other words, children know more grammar than grammarians do.
Chomsky came to the conclusion “that there is a universal grammar which is part of the genetic birthright of human beings, that we are born with a basic template that any specific language fits into.” 17 The similarities among languages, therefore, are much more significant than the differences.
Before Chomsky, the guiding spirit of American linguistic theory was Leonard Bloomfield, a behaviorist. Chomsky attacked behaviorism in his negative review of B. F. Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior”. The behaviorist view that learning language is the result of positive reinforcement is dismissed in a joke about Albert Einstein, who, according to legend, did not learn to speak until he was four:
Einstein: The soup is cold, Mommy.
Mrs. Einstein: Albert, you never spoke before!
Einstein: The soup was never cold before.
The anonymous author of this joke demolished Skinner’s theory of language acquisition. Sometimes the most important scientific discoveries are the result of common sense. Chomsky, to the best of my knowledge, was the first linguist to say, “The fact that all normal children acquire essentially comparable grammars of great complexity with remarkable rapidity suggests that human beings are somehow specially designed to do this, with data-handling or ‘hypothesis-forming’ ability of unknown character and complexity.” 18
Chomsky’s work opens the door to new research into the relationships between language and the mind. Opening one door, however, may lead to closing (though not locking) a different door. Since the Chomskyan revolution, we have become more aware of linguistic universals. Yet one universal—the fact that all languages are always changing—has gotten less attention. To take a single example, the work of Andre Martinet on the logical patterning of sound changes has been forgotten. Another unfortunate by-product of Chomsky’s ascendancy is the fact that despite the growth of interest in linguistics, the literature tends to be directed toward specialists and is hard to read. This unnecessary obscurity is odd, considering that it is Chomsky who has defined linguistics as a branch of a different are of research—psychology.
Human beings are designed to speak. Perhaps they are also designed to be loyal. It may be that humanity could not survive without loyalty to one’s family, one’s friends, one’s community, one’s country, one’s world. It is impossible to separate selfishness from altruism, despite Marx’s assumption that self-interest, as opposed to the interest of the proletariat, is harmful. Yet loyalty can be extremely destructive, as is shown by the persistence of war. Chomsky’s anti-Zionism is based on his hostility to nationalism. The late Isaiah Berlin understood “the right to self-expression, to personal relationships, to the love of familiar places or forms of life, of beautiful things, or the roots and symbols of one’s own, or one’s family, or one’s nation’s past.” Berlin knew something Chomsky needs to learn: “True internationalism must be based on mutual regard and respect between nations. To have internationalism you must have nations.”
Chomsky the linguist has redefined the meaning of linguistics. By viewing language as a creation of the human mind, he has changed linguistics into a tool for studying the mind, and indeed, the whole question of human intelligence. He is a scholar who has constantly modified and improved his theories. Chomsky the political activist, on the other hand, is a man who has never changed his views about anything. How can Chomsky, who saw through the silliness of Skinner’s theory of language acquisition, fall for the even sillier idea that Marxism is humane? How can he support liberty and yet compare Khomeini and Pol Pot favorably with the United States? How can an angry writer remain calm about fanaticism and genocide when carried out by anti-Americans? The human soul remains a mystery.
1. David Cogswell, “Chomsky for Beginners”. Illustrated by Paul Gordon. New York: Writers and Readers Publishing, Inc., and London: Writers and Readers Limited, 1996. p.3.
2. Cited in Pierre Vidal-Naquet, “Assassins of Memory: Essays on the Denial of the Holocaust”; translated and with a forward by Jeffrey Mehlman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. p. 69.
3. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, “After the Cataclysm”. The Political Economy of Human Rights, Vol. 2. Boston: South End Press, and Montreal: Black Rose Press, 1979. p. 147.
4. Robert F. Barsky, Noam Chomsky: A Life of Dissent”. Cambridge, MA, and London, England: The MIT Press, 1997. p. 186.
5. Vidal-Naquet, p. 69.
6. Barsky, p. 182.
7. Vidal-Naquet, p. 69.
8. Chomsky and Herman, p. 152.
9. Ibid., p. 152.
10. Cogswell, p. 15.
11. Ibid., p. 17.
12. Ibid., p. 133.
13. Ibid., p. 145.
14. Ibid., p. 133.
15. Barsky, p. 39.
16. Ibid., p. 23.
17. Cogswell, p. 54.
18. Cited in Randy Allen Harris, “The Linguistic Wars”. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. p. 58.
19. Cited in Leon Wieseltier, “When a Sage Dies, All Are His Kin.” The New Republic”, December 1, 1997.