Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix I Segment 8/15
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The first-order predictions, then, are well confirmed. The second-order predictions were not only confirmed, but far surpassed; the doctrine that was concocted and quickly became standard, utterly inconsistent with readily documented facts, is that there was "silence" in the West over the Khmer Rouge atrocities.28 This fantasy is highly serviceable, not only in suppressing the subordination of educated elites to external power, but also in suggesting that in the future we must focus attention still more intensely and narrowly on enemy crimes. The third-order predictions are also confirmed. Our discussion of Cambodia under Pol Pot aroused a storm of protest.29 The condemnation is, to my knowledge, completely lacking in substance, a fact that has not passed without notice in the scholarly literature,30 and I am aware of no error or misleading statement that has been found in anything that we wrote. Much of the criticism is absurd, even comical; there was also an impressive flow of falsehoods, often surely conscious. But I will not pursue these topics here.31 Much more interesting was a different reaction: that the entire enterprise is illegitimate. It is improper, many felt, perhaps even inhuman, to urge that we keep to the truth about the Pol Pot atrocities as best we can, or to expose the ways in which the fate of the miserable victims was being crudely exploited for propaganda purposes.
Very strikingly, the second term of the comparison -- our discussion of the media reaction to the U.S.-backed atrocities in Timor -- was virtually ignored, apart from apologetics for the atrocities and for the behavior of the media, or a few words of casual mention. Again this confirms the third-order predictions, in close detail.
In short, the model is confirmed at every level.
Let us now examine the logic of the reaction that alleges it to be improper, inhuman, to expose the fabrications of the ideological system in the case of the Pol Pot atrocities. Evidently, it either is or is not legitimate to study the U.S. ideological system. Assume that it is legitimate. Then it is legitimate to formulate the propaganda model as a hypothesis, and to test it by investigating paired examples: media treatment of Cambodia and Timor, for example. But, the critics allege, the study of media treatment of Cambodia is illegitimate. Therefore, unless there is something special about this case that has yet to be pointed out, their position must be that it is not legitimate to study the U.S. ideological system. The fact that the reaction has been marked by such extraordinary dishonesty, as repeatedly exposed, merely underscores the obvious: the right to serve the state must be protected; the ideological system cannot be subjected to inquiry based on the hypothesis that its societal function is to serve external power. The logic is very clear.
To establish this conclusion even more firmly, we may take note of the fact that no objection is raised to exposure of false or misleading accounts of atrocities by the United States and its clients, whether in retrospect or when they are in progress. It is only exposure of fabrications about official enemies that is subject to general opprobrium. Thus, none of those who are scandalized by exposure of the vast flood of deceit concerning Cambodia raise a peep of protest over exposure of false charges against Israel; that is considered an entirely legitimate and praiseworthy effort. Or take a case involving Cambodia itself. Our 1977 review-article, mentioned above, included a review of Francois Ponchaud's French study of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, the first review that attended to the text, to my knowledge. We praised the book as "serious and worth reading" with its "grisly account" of the "barbarity" of the Khmer Rouge. We also raised several questions about it. We noted that some of the quotes Ponchaud attributed to the Khmer Rouge seemed dubious, since he had given them in radically different wording elsewhere and had attributed them to a variety of conflicting sources; it was later shown that his alleged quotes, widely and prominently repeated throughout the world, were either gross mistranslations or had no source at all. We also pointed out that Ponchaud had apparently misread figures and considerably exaggerated the scale of U.S. atrocities in Cambodia in the early 1970s. Our questioning of his quotes has elicited much outrage, but not a word has appeared on our questioning of his charges about U.S. atrocities; to challenge misrepresentation on this matter is taken to be quite obviously legitimate. The proper conclusion seems equally obvious: it is all a matter of whose ox is being gored.
To reinforce the conclusion still further, we can turn to other examples. I doubt that the New York Times Book Review has ever published a longer and more detailed study than Neil Sheehan's analysis in 1970 of Mark Lane's Conversations With Americans,32 a book that presented testimony of American soldiers on war crimes in which they said they had participated. Sheehan denounced this "wretched book" as based on unevaluated evidence, statements contradicted by Pentagon sources, conflicting accounts, failure to distinguish "understandable brutalities of war, such as killing prisoners in the passion of battle" from far graver atrocities, and other flaws that undermine its credibility. He went on to condemn the "new McCarthyism, this time from the left," that permits "any accusation, any innuendo, any rumor" to be "repeated and published as truth," while "the accused, whether an institution or an individual, has no right to reply because whatever the accused says will ipso facto be a lie." He bitterly denounced Lane for allegedly claiming that the details didn't matter, only the general picture of atrocities -- exactly the position that Lacouture and others were later to endorse, to much approval and acclaim, with regard to the Khmer Rouge.
Sheehan's detailed exposure appeared at the height of U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, at a time when such atrocities were being vigorously denied (as they still are). No objection was raised to his exposure, or his condemnation of those who claim that facts do not matter in a worthy cause.
Another relevant case is that of Bertrand Russell. Then well into his eighties, Russell had the courage and integrity to condemn the Vietnam war and its mounting atrocities when this was unfashionable, and to warn of what lay ahead.33 In retrospect, his commentary stands up well, certainly as compared to the falsehoods, evasions, and apologetics of the time, and it is a model of probity and restraint in comparison to standard condemnations of official enemies, as has been documented beyond serious question. Some of Russell's comments, however, were unjust, exaggerated, and incorrect. To criticize these statements would have been appropriate. What happened, however, was different. Russell became an object of contempt and obloquy; one would be hard put to find a word in his defense against the venom of the commissars. The denunciations were only heightened by Russell's willingness to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience in protest against the nuclear arms race, unlike others who shared his perceptions about the threat but contented themselves with occasional sage comments, then retreated to their work and personal lives. The attacks are not, of course, a reaction to Russell's errors and excesses. Rather, to the fact that he stood virtually alone against the herd and dared to tell truths that were then, and remain now, unacceptable, exposing by his example the behavior of those who chose the normal path of submissiveness to the state and support for its violence.
Putting aside the vulgar hypocrisy, we note again that no objection is raised to exposure of false or exaggerated charges against the United States, at the moment when it is perpetrating awesome crimes with near immunity from comment or critique. Nor should an objection be raised. Truth is worth the effort to uphold. For such reasons as these, it is hard to take seriously the show of indignation over the exposure of fabrications concerning enemy atrocities. If some error can be found in such exposures, that is a different matter, though one not relevant here, for no such errors have been found. But let us look further. If, indeed, such exposures are deemed illegitimate, then comparative study of paired examples is also illegitimate, and one promising avenue of study of the U.S. ideological system is barred. We see again the real issue lurking behind the barrage of rhetoric: it is the need to protect the ideological institutions and those who participate in them from analysis of their service to power. That intellectuals should adopt this stance will hardly come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the lessons of history and the nature of contemporary social institutions.
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28 Ibid., for discussion.
29 There are actually two such discussions, a lengthy one in Political Economy of Human Rights, volume II, and a a 1977 review-article in the Nation that briefly raised similar points.
30 See Vickery, op. cit., 308, 310.
31 For examples of both absurdity and lies, see the Political Economy of Human Rights, vol II, chapter six, and Manufacturing Consent, chapter six, section 6.2.8; also appendix V, section 5, below. For an example of a weird array of inventions and falsehoods in what some regard as "scholarship," see Leo Labedz, "Chomsky Revisited," Encounter, July 1980; the article is also notable for its apologetics for the Western-backed atrocities in Timor. That the lies were conscious in this case is indicated by the fact that the journal refused to permit a response that exposed the falsifications point by point, so that the article can therefore be quoted, reprinted with acclaim, etc. It is standard for dissidents to be denied the right of response to personal attacks, and it is reasonable to suppose that in such cases the journal recognizes the need for protection of fabrications that would be all too readily exposed if response were not barred.
32 NYT Book Review, Dec. 27, 1970.
33 For some examples, see Russell, War Crimes in Vietnam (Monthly Review, 1967); Barry Feinberg & Ronald Kasrils, Bertrand Russell's America: 1945-1970 (South End, 1983). The books also contain material on the hysterical abuse elicited by his exposure of unwelcome truths, for which he was never forgiven by the commissars.