Criticising Chomsky on the Balkans: Three activists speak out
Don’t ignore Noam Chomsky. Just read him as critically as he suggests reading The New York Times. His persistent misrepresentations of Balkan war crimes have forced three activists to reappraise his analysis.
By Daniel Simpson on Sunday, May 30th, 2010 - 2,898 words.
Shattering unnecessary illusions
When Truthdig interviewed Noam Chomsky in April, three activists who had respect for his work were disappointed. The article ignored how Chomsky persistently misrepresents Balkan war crimes, even though its author had risked his life to report them.
There are broader lessons for radicals here, about humanity, solidarity, and complexity. Western involvement in the wars of Yugoslav dissolution has confused many anti-imperialists, who still distort the facts to fit preconceptions. Though we’ve valued Chomsky’s insights on other subjects, from Israel and Palestine to propaganda, we’ve been forced to reappraise his analysis.
A PROGRESSIVE ACTIVIST’S VIEW
By Roger Lippman
I have great respect for the work of Chris Hedges, and there is much to appreciate in the sentiments he expresses in his recent profile of Noam Chomsky, Noam Chomsky Has ‘Never Seen Anything Like This’. But I find his paean to Chomsky to be overdone.
Numbers of progressives, all of us having learned a lot from Chomsky before, have been awakened to his limitations by his non-supportiveness of the populations victimized by Serbia’s aggressive wars, and by Chomsky’s tributes to deniers of that victimization – people like Diana Johnstone, who is little more than a mouthpiece for Serbian propaganda, and has told the worst lies about those wars, systematically denying Serbian criminality. More than once Chomsky has tried to cast doubt on the well-established facts about Serbian war crimes in Bosnia and Kosovo. See my compilation of Chomsky’s misleading and false statements on the Balkan wars, along with refutations of each statement. I also recommend Professor David Campbell’s e-mail exchange with Chomsky, which links to Campbell’s detailed study of the concentration camps in Bosnia, “Atrocity, Memory, Photography.”
Gradually, and painfully, I have come to perceive a strong current of intellectual dishonesty on Chomsky’s part. He has a record of speaking off-handedly about things he doesn’t really know – he is no expert on ex-Yugoslavia – and then stubbornly refusing to concede when he is caught out, attacking as imperialist tools those who would dare to question him. Meanwhile, in a Serbian media production he reinforces murderous Serbian nationalism and war-crimes denial.
This has gone on enough that I’ve lost my respect for him as a political thinker and found myself compelled to re-examine what I previously admired about him. Dig a little deeper, and it turns out this is not only about Yugoslavia. Of course, he’s not always wrong, especially about Israel and Palestine, but he is often sophistic or dishonest.
Chomsky is far from the worst, but unfortunate numbers of leading Left intellectuals ended up as deniers of, apologists for, or even defenders of the Serbian genocidal project. (For those who haven’t noticed, please see Deniers of Serbia’s War Crimes.) Without losing our anti-imperialist politics and our humane values, we are compelled to re-evaluate what our erstwhile intellectual leaders have been telling us. I call this “Learning the Lessons of Kosovo.” This needs to happen on a scale equivalent to 1939, 1956, and 1980, the latter being the conflict between Vietnam and China over the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. In fact, it may be the same old battle – humane spirits vs. Stalinists, neo-Stalinists, and crypto-Stalinists (including plenty of Trotskyites, so don’t get me wrong). It’s a struggle with people who can’t hold two opposing ideas in their heads and find a way to reconcile the complications of reality.
I encourage Hedges to reconsider whether his unequivocal praise of Chomsky is justified. I suggest that there at least could have been the traditional second-to-last paragraph that acknowledges that the movie’s plot is a bit thin, or the flavor of the tofu burgers was somewhat lacking.
The writer has been a progressive activist since the 1960s, and he was a defendant in the Vietnam-era Seattle 7 Conspiracy trial. He is the editor of Balkan Witness, a compilation of reporting and opinion on the wars in Kosovo and Bosnia. The site gives voice to the experiences of the victims of Serbia’s aggression, and it has no tolerance for those Leftists who, being confused by NATO intervention on the side of the besieged, have thus minimized or indeed endorsed Serbian war crimes.
A DISSENTING WRITER’S VIEW
Chomsky’s Fateful Flaw
By Daniel Simpson
Like Chris Hedges, I was once a New York Times correspondent in the Balkans. Having resigned in disgust at what he called “shameful cheerleading”, I share his views on the bankruptcy of corporate journalism, and I’ve echoed them.
I was less impressed, however, by his ode to Noam Chomsky. That isn’t to say that Chomsky hasn’t inspired me. His analysis of the media’s propaganda function is compelling, and I told an editor at the Times as much when I left, which didn’t endear me to him.
But he’s a far less convincing guide to foreign affairs, as I’ve learned from his pronouncements on the Balkans. To borrow Hedges’s words, Chomsky’s “moral and intellectual posturing” can “serve as a smoke screen” for belittling war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Though his work is influential, and prolific, it isn’t consistently defined by “rigorous scholarship”, or “a remarkable grasp of detail”.
In my experience, Chomsky doesn’t, as Hedges suggests, “defy the cant of the crowd to speak the truth.” When it suits him, he crowds out truth with cant of his own. He casually, and needlessly, minimizes, ignores or otherwise denies crimes that aren’t being “minimized or ignored in mass culture”, if doing so helps to sell arguments about American malevolence. This willfully misleads activists who don’t know better, because they think he’s telling them awkward truths.
Unlike his old co-author Ed Herman, Chomsky doesn’t pretend there wasn’t a Srebrenica “massacre”. But he resolutely defends Diana Johnstone for sticking the word in quotation marks, and asserting, as she maintains today, that “the figure of 8,000 [victims] is certainly exaggerated, since it includes men who died in ambush while trying to escape, or even men who actually did escape”.
Needless to say, she can’t prove anyone escaped, or that any of the 6,500-odd corpses identified to date weren’t killed at Srebrenica. She even boasts of not keeping abreast of this mounting evidence. Yet Chomsky claims that Johnstone “argues – and, in fact, clearly demonstrates – that a good deal of what has been charged has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication.” The fabrications are theirs; they selectively rely on discredited sources. Freedom of speech isn’t the issue here, unless they’re defending the freedom to falsify history. They’re free to do that, but if it’s what they’re doing, they should say so.
I wrote to Chomsky after he said that Johnstone’s work “may be wrong; but it is very careful and outstanding.” I asked if he’d been quoted accurately, whether “may be” meant “is”, and if so what was “careful and outstanding” about being wrong. I also asked if he thought he could have been clearer.
After 8,500 words of vituperative emails, which ducked my questions to ask if I was a dupe, a timewaster or just arrogant, Chomsky deigned to state plainly that he didn’t dispute any of the established facts about Srebrenica, and therefore that Johnstone was wrong. He withheld permission to publish the exchange.
This is just the background to a bigger picture. Chomsky says we should focus on crimes for which we ourselves are responsible, because our governments commit them. Yet by minimizing other crimes in the process, he undermines human rights activists elsewhere, for example in Serbia. He ignores the evidence they gather, and insinuates it’s bogus. And he sees no hypocrisy here, because he’s never claimed to write objective history, even if some read it as gospel.
But that means he does the same as the journalists he pillories: he fixes facts around a policy of propagandizing. Unless people realize this, they won’t be equipped to do as Chomsky encourages, and “think for themselves, to question standard assumptions,” including the ones made by Hedges about Chomsky’s “example of intellectual and moral independence”, and his commitment to truth.
When challenged, Chomsky isn’t “relentlessly self-critical”, and he shows no interest in busting his own “self-indulgent myths and stereotypes”. Instead, he abuses his critics, assuming they’re ideological enemies. As he told a British professor, when asked to explain his peddling of untruths, “the Balkans are a Holy Issue in England, far more sensitive than Israel in the US”. He implies some victims are less victimized than others, torpedoing his own moral reasoning.
Again, Chomsky scorns this when others do it. He criticizes states for double standards, enforced by apologists in the media. So, the U.S. and its allies might admit to mistakes, he argues, but only their enemies commit atrocities worthy of outrage, which can be used to justify Western intervention. As Bill Weinberg puts it, Chomsky draws a mocking “distinction between ‘worthy victims’ (e.g. Bosnians and Kosovars) and ‘unworthy victims’ (e.g. Palestinians). Yet Chomsky and his followers have merely reversed this logic, rather than dispensing altogether with the hideous concept of ‘unworthy victims.’ The suffering of the Bosnian Muslims is as invisible to them as that of the Palestinians and Iraqis is to the dominant propaganda machine that Chomsky has dedicated his life to dissecting.”
This is a tragic irony, and sadly insidious.
When interviewing Chomsky, Hedges passed up a chance to ask serious and important questions. I’m frankly both surprised and disappointed.
There are pitfalls in defining journalism as a mission to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The world doesn’t always divide neatly into oppressors and the oppressed, and distortions neither speak truth to power, nor comfort the powerless. “Being adversarial sounds righteous,” warns Samuel Freedman, in his Letters to a Young Journalist, “except when it is a mere reflex, just one more way of imposing black-and-white absolutism on a world washed in grays.”
Of course, propagandists use nuance to conceal crimes. It “falls upon the facts like soft snow,” as George Orwell observed, “blurring their outlines and covering up all the details”. That doesn’t give dissidents license to do the same.
Most Chomsky fans aren’t aware that he does. It would probably take a Chomsky critique of Chomsky to change that, which seems improbable. I’ve just read a book called “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)”. Its conclusions on cognitive dissonance are insightful. We’re none of us immune from self-delusion.
Since leaving The New York Times to run a music festival, the writer has been a multimedia activist. Last year he published a fake Financial Times, and Barack Obama’s spiked Nobel Prize speech. He maintains an occasional untitled blog.
A SOLIDARITY CAMPAIGNER’S VIEW
Sticking to the Facts
By Owen Beith
I found Chris Hedges’s article uncomfortable reading. I was taken aback to find a conscientious journalist with first-hand knowledge so impressed by an academic who shows little more than instrumental concern for the facts in his criticism of the reporters who alerted the world to the horrors of “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia.
I’m not a journalist or academic. I first became aware of the controversy surrounding the reporting of Bosnian Serb internment/concentration camps at the time of a notorious libel case in the High Court in London. Living Marxism (LM) magazine was being sued for accusing Independent Television News (ITN) reporters of lying about conditions in the camp at Trnopolje. An LM supporter tried to convince me that what I thought I knew about the camps was wrong.
I read the original LM article, which claimed that ITN had deliberately misrepresented the situation in the camps to make them appear worse than they were, and shape public opinion. When I looked for more information on the subject, it became obvious to me that LM was misrepresenting the grim reality.
LM lost the case. The court heard the evidence of Dr Idriz Merdzanic, who had been responsible for treating brutalised prisoners at Trnopolje. It was as clear to the jury as it was to me that the camp had been part of a murderous strategy of ethnic cleansing, and the ITN reporters had simply reported what they had seen.
I was puzzled when I came across Professor Chomsky still arguing, long after the High Court judgment, that I had got it wrong. Trnopolje was just a refugee camp, he said, whose occupants were free to come and go. The images of emaciated prisoners behind barbed wire were intentionally misleading; the libel case result was an abuse of the law by a powerful media corporation anxious to suppress free speech and demonise Serbs for political reasons. Effectively, the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing were victims of media manipulation.
Hedges says that Chomsky “combines moral autonomy with rigorous scholarship, a remarkable grasp of detail and a searing intellect” and quotes Norman Finkelstein’s view that Chomsky “cares about the lives of people and there the details count.” I don’t understand how this squares with Chomsky’s view of Trnopolje, which Hedges himself has referred to as one of the three main concentration camps around Prijedor. (Hedges knows the reality of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. He reported the horrors of the Ljubija mine, where the bodies of victims were passed through ore crushers before being limed and buried under tons of rock and debris.)
In 1995, six months before Srebrenica, Hedges observed that “a great many Serbs … desperately want to believe that the crimes committed in their name were somehow ordinary and therefore forgivable. Just as with the Germans after World War II, it will take determined efforts by outsiders to persuade them otherwise.”
Hedges’s failure to challenge Chomsky achieves the opposite. Denying victims’ experience and distorting the facts hurts survivors and comforts criminals. Perfunctory expressions of sympathy don’t change that. Chomsky rejects charges of inconsistency and partiality, claiming that we have a duty to speak out where we are in a position to take responsibility. He is a man of influence. He is responsible for the way he uses the influence that public respect gives him. It’s surprising to find Hedges so uncritical.
Chomsky has in fact allowed himself to become an apologist for aggressors. My lingering respect for his analysis was destroyed when I saw the interview he gave for RTS (Radio-Television Serbia) Online in 2006. In it, the relentless critic of Western media support for the U.S. power structure aligned himself with a broadcaster complicit in the war crimes perpetrated in Bosnia by Serbia’s corrupt and murderous power structure.
Watching the interview made me aware how careful Chomsky is before an audience. He is evasive as well as partial, sidestepping facts that hinder his argument. The effect is that he seems to mesmerize people, paralyzing their critical faculties. Intelligent listeners like Hedges seem to hear what they want to hear him say, not what he actually says. It’s only when you try to pin down his argument that you realize there’s a problem.
What struck me about the RTS interview was that for once Chomsky was quite unequivocal. He and his interviewer agreed that ITN’s image of the emaciated Fikret Alic behind barbed wire was “fraudulent”. Chomsky’s explanation was hard to follow but it reaffirmed his view that Trnopolje was an open camp. The only acknowledgment of the mistreatment the “refugees” there received was his dismissive references to Alic as the “thin man”. He made no mention of Omarska, the main focus of ITN’s broadcast.
The reality was that Fikret Alic had arrived at Trnopolje from Keraterm, where brutal treatment, starvation and disease-ridden conditions of imprisonment permanently damaged his health. The broadcast footage of gaunt, intimidated prisoners at Omarska gave a glimpse of terrible conditions there. Dr Merdzanic’s testimony confirmed that at Trnopolje inmates were under constant threat of brutalisation, torture, murder and rape by the camp’s armed guards. But all that counted for Chomsky was his thesis of a photograph concocted by untrustworthy reporters.
Hedges hasn’t confronted Chomsky over his attack on the honesty of fellow journalists, nor has he held him to account for the message of support that Chomsky’s judgment sends out to war crimes apologists, not least defence teams in The Hague. Chomsky may dismiss criticism as “utter hysteria” but as Hedges knows, this is a deadly serious matter.
The writer works as a translator, and campaigns for truth and justice in Bosnia.
For a detailed study of the camp system, and a dissection of discredited claims see David Campbell’s two-part study: Atrocity, memory, photography: imaging the concentration camps of Bosnia – the case of ITN versus Living Marxism.
The raw footage filmed by ITN at Omarska and Trnopolje is available on YouTube. There are eight further clips in the series (Srpski logori smrti – Prijedor)
Dr Merdzanic appears in “A Town called Kozarac” (Ed Harriman’s 1993 film for Channel 4′s Dispatches program), available in five separate parts on YouTube. His interview spans the end of Part 3 / start of Part 4.
It is worth comparing this with another interview of his in “Judgment”, an RTS joint production, which purports to debunk the evidence for the camps while showing emaciated prisoners, the reality of enclosure and the unspoken message of Merdzanic’s body language.
Finally, “the thin man” Fikret Alic describes the reality of his imprisonment and survival, in an interview for Bosnian Television (with English subtitles).
Daniel Simpson is a recovering correspondent, who once worked for Reuters and The New York Times. He's now an itinerant renegade, and the author of A Rough Guide to the Dark Side.
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