Volume LV Number 7-8
Quadrant magazine is the leading general intellectual journal of ideas, literature, poetry and historical and political debate published in Australia.
You can subscribe to the print edition of Quadrant or Quadrant Online, or both versions. See our subscription page for more information.
I hope that some time in the future the Governor of New South Wales, Marie Bashir, mulls over her role last month in announcing the 2011 Sydney Peace Prize had gone to Noam Chomsky. She read a citation from the Sydney Peace Foundation at the University of Sydney, where she is also the Chancellor, saying Chomsky deserved the $50,000 award “for unfailing moral courage, for critical analysis of democracy and power, for challenging secrecy, censorship and violence and for creating hope through scholarship and activism to promote the attainment of universal human rights”. None of this is accurate. The truth is that, far from being a man of peace, Chomsky has throughout his life supported revolutionary violence, including some of the greatest mass homicides in human history.
Chomsky became a public figure during the 1960s anti-Vietnam War campaign. Initially he claimed to be an anarchist but soon endorsed the New Left’s favourite quartet of communist revolutionaries: Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. He did this fully aware that all had copious quantities of blood on their hands. At a 1967 New York forum he acknowledged “the mass slaughter of landlords in China” yet claimed Mao presided over a “relatively liveable” and “relatively just” society. Moreover, he was speaking only five years after the end of the great Chinese famine of 1958–62, the worst in recorded history, in which between 30 and 40 million people starved to death when Mao collectivised agriculture and confiscated harvests for export to eastern Europe in return for guns and armaments.
Chomsky also acknowledged “the slaughter of landlords in North Vietnam” that had taken place after the communists came to power there. His objective, however, was to justify the violence, especially that of the National Liberation Front then threatening South Vietnam. Chomsky revealed he was no pacifist:
I don’t accept the view that we can just condemn the NLF terror, period, because it was so horrible. I think we really have to ask questions of comparative costs, ugly as that may sound. And if we are going to take a moral position on this—and I think we should—we have to ask both what the consequences were of using terror and not using terror. If it were true that the consequences of not using terror would be that the peasantry in Vietnam would continue to live in the state of the peasantry of the Philippines, then I think the use of terror would be justified.
Chomsky’s calculus of justifiable terror was spurious. Thirty-five years after the Vietnamese communists took control, the state of the peasantry still hasn’t caught up with the Philippines. In 2010, the GDP per capita of Vietnam was $3100, compared to $3500 in the Philippines. Even some Vietnamese communists who had major roles in the transformation despaired at the outcome. In 1999, former Vietcong General Pham Xuan Am said:
All that talk about “liberation” twenty, thirty years ago, all the plotting, all the bodies, produced this, this impoverished broken-down country led by a gang of cruel and paternalistic half-educated theorists.
When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975 Chomsky welcomed it. And when news emerged of the extraordinary event that immediately followed, the complete evacuation of the capital Phnom Penh accompanied by reports of widespread killings, Chomsky offered a rationalisation similar to those he had provided for the terror in China and Vietnam: there might have been some violence, but this was understandable under conditions of regime change and social revolution.
In 1980, his book After the Cataclysm finally acknowledged that bad things had happened in Cambodia under Pol Pot: “There can be little doubt that the war was followed by an outbreak of violence, massacre and repression.” However, he mocked the suggestion that the death toll might have reached more than a million and attacked US Senator George McGovern’s call for military intervention to halt “a clear case of genocide”. Instead, Chomsky commended authors who still apologised for the Pol Pot regime. He approvingly cited their analyses that the forced march of the population out of Phnom Penh was probably necessitated by the failure of the 1976 rice crop. “The evacuation of Phnom Penh, widely denounced at the time and since for its undoubted brutality,” Chomsky wrote, “may actually have saved many lives.”
The reality, as even communist sympathiser Ben Kiernan recorded in his 1996 book, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide under the Khmer Rouge, was that the evacuation of Phnom Penh in 1975 killed tens of thousands of people. Almost the entire middle class was deliberately targeted and exterminated, including civil servants, teachers, intellectuals and artists. No less than 68,000 Buddhist monks out of a total of 70,000 were executed. Fifty per cent of urban Chinese were murdered. Kiernan argues for a total Cambodian death toll between April 1975 and January 1979, when the Vietnamese invasion put an end to the regime, at 1.67 million out of 7.89 million, or 21 per cent of the entire population. This is proportionally the greatest mass killing ever inflicted by a government on its own population in modern times, probably in all history. Chomsky has never recanted or apologised for being so wrong.
Chomsky has persisted with this pattern of behaviour right to this day. In response to the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, he was their most prominent apologist. He claimed that no matter how appalling the terrorists’ actions, the United States had done worse. He supported his case with arguments and evidence just as empirically selective and morally duplicitous as those he used to defend Pol Pot. On September 12, 2001, Chomsky wrote:
The terrorist attacks were major atrocities. In scale they may not reach the level of many others, for example, Clinton’s bombing of the Sudan with no credible pretext, destroying half its pharmaceutical supplies and killing unknown numbers of people.
Under pressure from critics who pointed out that Clinton’s attack on a Khartoum pharmaceutical factory, which made chemical weapons for Iraq’s Saddam Hussein regime, occurred after working hours to minimise loss of life and the only casualty had been the caretaker, Chomsky fleshed out his case:
That one bombing, according to estimates made by the German Embassy in Sudan and Human Rights Watch, probably led to tens of thousands of deaths.
However, one of his two sources, Human Rights Watch, immediately denied it had produced any such figure:
In fact, Human Rights Watch has conducted no research into civilian deaths as the result of US bombing in Sudan and would not make such an assessment without a careful and thorough research mission on the ground.
Moreover, the German ambassador was only guessing about the effects that the loss of three months’ supply of pharmaceuticals might have had on the civilian population. Anyone who makes an internet search of the reports of the Sudanese operations of the several Western aid agencies, including Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontieres and Norwegian People’s Aid, who have been operating in this region for decades, will not find any evidence of an unusual increase in the death toll at the time. Instead, their major concern, then and now, has been how the Muslim Marxist government in Khartoum was waging civil war by bombing the civilian hospitals of its Christian enemies in the south.
The idea that tens of thousands of Sudanese would have died within three months from a shortage of pharmaceuticals is implausible enough in itself. That this could have happened without any of the aid organisations noticing or complaining is simply unbelievable. Hence Chomsky’s rationalisation for the September 11 attacks is every bit as deceitful as his apology for Pol Pot and the Cambodian genocide.
Among Chomsky’s most provocative recent demands are for American political and military leaders to be tried as war criminals. He often couches this in terms of the failure by the United States to apply the same standards to itself as it does to its enemies.
For instance, America tried and executed the remaining Second World War leaders of Germany and Japan, but failed to try its own personnel for the “war crime” of dropping the atomic bomb on Japan. Chomsky claims the American bombing of dams during the Korean War was “a huge war crime … That’s just a couple of years after they hanged German leaders who were doing much less than that.” The worst current example, he claims, is American support for Israel:
… virtually everything that Israel is doing, meaning the United States and Israel are doing, is illegal, in fact, a war crime. And many of them they defined as “grave breaches”, that is, serious war crimes. This means that the United States and Israeli leadership should be brought to trial.
Chomsky’s moral perspective is completely one-sided. No matter how great the crimes of the regimes he has favoured, such as China, Vietnam and Cambodia under the communists, Chomsky has never demanded their leaders be captured and tried for war crimes. Instead, he has defended these regimes for many years with evidence he knew was selective, deceptive and invented.
So when the University of Sydney now rewards Chomsky for his “moral courage”, his “critical analysis” and his “scholarship”, it makes a mockery of concepts an institution of this kind is supposed to guard. When he arrives in November to collect his prize money, the university will give him what its PR department calls a “gala dinner”. Chancellor Marie Bashir will host the function. I hope that, when called upon to toast her guest, she spares a thought for the prospect that her flattering words will do very little to foster peace and a great deal more to trash her university’s former good name.
Subscribe to Quadrant magazine here…
The Quadrant Book of Poetry: 2001 - 2010
edited by Les Murray