Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix I Segment 7/15
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The first-order predictions of the model are systematically confirmed. The constructive bloodbaths were welcomed and approved, the benign bloodbaths were ignored, and the nefarious bloodbaths were angrily condemned on the basis of evidence and charges of a kind that would be dismissed with ridicule if offered against the U.S. or its allies. Turning to the second-order predictions, as the propaganda model predicts, such inquiry is regarded as completely out of bounds and is not to be found within the mainstream.24 Turning finally to the third-level predictions, these too are confirmed. Our discussion of constructive bloodbaths has been entirely ignored, the discussion of benign bloodbaths has merited an occasional phrase in a context that exculpates the United States, and our exposure of the handling of nefarious bloodbaths has elicited a huge literature of denunciation.
These reactions are worth exploring; they have definite implications for the study of ideological institutions. To see why, let us look at the two cases that we investigated in most detail: the U.S.-backed Indonesian invasion of East Timor (benign) and the terror in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge (nefarious).
These two cases are well chosen for the purpose of testing the propaganda model. In both cases it was clear that there were horrendous massacres. Furthermore, they took place in the same part of the world, and in the very same years -- though the Indonesian violence and repression in Timor continue, with the support of the United States and other industrial democracies. The evidence in the two cases was comparable in accessibility, credibility, and character. This evidence also indicated that the atrocities were comparable in absolute scale for the time period under review, though larger in Timor relative to the population.25 The crucial difference was that the slaughter in Timor was carried out by a U.S. client with critical U.S. diplomatic and military support that mounted along with escalating atrocities, while the slaughter in Cambodia was conducted by an official enemy and was, furthermore, highly functional at that time in helping to overcome the "Vietnam syndrome" and to restore popular support for U.S. intervention and violence in the Third World "in defense against the Pol Pots." In fact, a few months after we wrote about this prospect, the deepening engagement of the U.S. government in Pol Pot-style state terror in El Salvador was being justified as necessary to save the population from the "Pol Pot left."
In our comparative study of the response to the Cambodia and Timor massacres, we drew no specific conclusions about the actual facts. As we reiterated to the point of boredom, an attempt to assess the actual facts is a different topic, not pertinent to our specific inquiry. That is a simple point of logic. The question we addressed was how the evidence available was transmuted as it passed through the filters of the ideological system. Plainly, that inquiry into the propaganda system at work is not affected, one way or another, by whatever may be discovered about the actual facts. We did tentatively suggest that in the case of Timor, the church sources and refugee studies we cited were plausible, and that in the case of Cambodia, State Department specialists were probably presenting the most credible accounts. Both suggestions are well confirmed in retrospect, but the accuracy of our suspicions as to the facts is not pertinent to the question we addressed, as is evident on a moment's thought, and as we repeatedly stressed.
Our goal, then, was to consider the relation between the evidence available and the picture presented by the media and journals of opinion; to determine the actual facts is a different task. The latter task, we emphasized, was well worth undertaking (it simply wasn't ours). Thus we took issue with the assertion of Jean Lacouture in the New York Review of Books that facts do not matter; we did not accept his contention that it is of no consequence whether killings under Pol Pot were in the thousands or millions (he had originally claimed that the Khmer Rouge boasted in 1976 of killing 2 million people, but in corrections a few weeks later stated that deaths might be only in the thousands, adding that the reduction of his estimate by perhaps a factor of 1,000 was of no significance26). We pointed out that this position, while widely praised and respected in this case, would be rejected with scorn if applied by others to the U.S. or its clients and allies; imagine the reaction if some critic of Israel were to allege that Israel boasted of killing several million people during its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, then conceding that perhaps the number was in the thousands, but that the difference is of no consequence.
Turning to the first-order predictions of the propaganda model, in the case of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge27 there were denunciations of genocide from the first moment, a huge outcry of protest, fabrication of evidence on a grand scale, suppression of the some of the most reliable sources (including State Department Cambodia watchers, the most knowledgeable source at the time) because they did not support the preferred picture, reiteration of extraordinary fabrications even after they were openly conceded to have been invented, and so on. In the case of Timor, coverage declined from a substantial level before the U.S.-backed Indonesian invasion to flat zero as the atrocities reached their peak with increasing U.S. support.
The importance of this suppression cannot be too strongly stressed. Because of it, few knew what was happening, or paid sufficient attention to the little that did seep through. As should be obvious, this is a criticism of great severity. I do not exempt myself from it, I must say with regret. The atrocities in Timor and Cambodia under Pol Pot began at about the same time, but I published my first word about the former nineteen months after writing about Khmer Rouge atrocities, though the Timor massacres were far more important by any moral criterion for the simple and sufficient reason that something could be done to terminate them. Thanks to media self-censorship, there were no substantial efforts to organize the kind of opposition that might have compelled the U.S. to desist from its active participation in the slaughter and thus quite possibly to bring it to an end. In the case of Cambodia, in contrast, no one proposed measures that could be taken to mitigate the atrocities. When George McGovern suggested military intervention to save the victims in late 1978, he was ridiculed by the right wing and government advisers. And when Vietnam invaded and brought the slaughter to an end, that aroused new horror about "the Prussians of Asia" who overthrew Pol Pot and must be punished for the crime.
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24 In fact, an early 1974 version of this study was suppressed by the conglomerate that owned the publisher, which even went to the extent of putting the publisher out of business to prevent distribution; see the prefatory note to the 1979 published version of Political Economy of Human Rights for details. The matter was brought to the attention of some noted civil libertarians, but they found it of no interest, presumably, because no state censorship was involved, only corporate censorship that is considered legitimate on the assumption that the distribution of power in the civil society is legitimate.
25 Recall that the book went to press immediately after the Vietnamese invasion that overthrew Pol Pot, just before a flood of refugee testimony became available. At the time we wrote, virtually all evidence had to do with the years 1975-77, and almost nothing was known about the 1978 massacres in the Eastern Zone, by far the most extensive of the Pol Pot period, according to the current scholarly literature. See Michael Vickery, Cambodia (South End, 1983), the most detailed scholarly source, widely and favorably reviewed in England by Indochina scholars and journalists, virtually ignored in the United States. On other studies, see my review in Inside Asia, reprinted in The Chomsky Reader, 289f. As Vickery observes, the great mass of evidence that subsequently appeared, while enriching understanding of the period, suggests no significant revision of what we published in 1979. Although the parallels between Timor and Cambodia, and the assessments by relief officials, other observers, and area specialists, were widely recognized by the early 1980s, it is unlikely that these facts will be permitted to survive the historical engineering of the future.
26 In fact, this was only one false claim. Lacouture's article was presented as a review of François Ponchaud's Cambodge année zéro, but there was barely a reference to the book that was near accurate. In a sequel that far transcends the predictions of a propaganda model, Lacouture's false claims were widely quoted as established truth long after his retraction appeared. See Political Economy of Human Rights for details on these revealing facts.
27 I stress: under the Khmer Rouge. Atrocities in the first half of the decade for which the U.S. bore primary responsibility were very much downplayed, and still are. See Manufacturing Consent, chapter 6, for details.