In Guernica magazine, Professor Noam Chomsky not only accuses me of being a maniac, an insult I can live with, but a maniac who does not check his sources, which I find uncalled for.
During a remarkably soft interview, the magazine’s editor rises from his knees only once to deliver what by his standards is a tough question,
‘Here’s one critic of your work, Nick Cohen in the Guardian: “The lesson of 11 September is that no constraints of morality or conscience would stop al-Qaeda exploding a nuclear weapon. If however, it is all our fault, as Chomsky says, perhaps we can avert catastrophe by being nicer and better people. Perhaps we can, but Chomsky is as reluctant to admit that al Qaeda is an autonomous movement as he is to admit the existence of the democratic and socialist opposition to Saddam Hussein’.”
Noam Chomsky: They’re mentioning somebody with my name. But it doesn’t relate at all to anything I’ve ever said or believe. Who did you say you’re quoting?
Guernica: Nick Cohen in the Guardian.
Noam Chomsky: Oh, Nick Cohen’s a maniac. If you’ll notice, he never cites anything. Does he cite anything? That already gives you the answer. Go back and check. He doesn’t cite anything. These are just diatribes, tantrums. I’m not interested in them.
A small point is that I work for the Observer not the Guardian. A larger one is that I am disgusted to say that I can cite vast amounts of detail on the malign influence of Chomsky and his kind on the wider left. Below is an extract from my What’s Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way.
I hope it explains why I believe that it is a disaster that the ideas that Chomsky and the postmodernists pioneered in the late 20th century have come to dominate left-wing thinking in the 21st; and where their characteristic failure to stand by comrades and concomitant willingness to make excuses for any maniac, as long as he is anti-American, lead.
It follows on from a discussion of how John Major’s Tories stood back while the Serbs massacred the Bosnian Muslims even after had revealed that concentration camps were back in Europe for the first time since the age of the dictators.
You will note that there are citations aplenty.
NOAM CHOMSKY WAS BORN in 1928 into an American-Jewish family. He grew up in a working-class district of Philadelphia where the politics of the post-Bolshevik far left weren’t curiosities but live debates. Arguments about communism and Nazism, capitalism and anarchism, swirled around him. ‘Growing up in the place I did I never was aware of any other option but to question everything,’ he remembered.
‘The first article I wrote, at the age of 10, was concerned with the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism in Europe. Even as a child I would haunt second-hand bookshops for radical pamphlets.’ At 13, he decided he believed in anarchism, an honourable political philosophy that did not implicate itself in any of the criminal ideologies of the twentieth century from colonialism to Islamism, but also a facile one because its supporters could never put its theories into practice. On 6 August 1945, the teenage Noam had his epiphany. A burst of light from beyond the ocean revealed the true horror of his country and the blindness of its people. Enola Gay, a US Air Force B-29 bomber, dropped ‘Little Boy’ on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, the first of only two nuclear bombs exploded in anger to date.No one bothered to pretend that Hiroshima was a military target and the 80,000 dead were anything other than civilians. Yet all around him the young Chomsky saw Americans celebrating.
‘I remember that I literally couldn’t talk to anybody,’ he said decades later. ‘There was nobody. I was at a summer camp and I walked off into the woods and stayed alone for a couple of hours when I heard about it. I could never talk to anyone about it and never understood anyone’s reaction. I felt completely isolated.’ His upbringing in revolutionary politics had prepared him to draw two conclusions from his moment of utter loneliness in the forest. He was to cling to them for the rest of his life. The first was that democracy was a sham: the plaything of militarists and corporations. Here was the United States, the greatest democracy on earth, committing a war crime – the deliberate targeting of civilians is always a war crime – with a new weapon of previously unimaginable destructive power in the name of freedom and justice. A quarter of a century on, in his first book on politics, American Power and the New Mandarins, he was emphatic on the worthlessness of system of government. America was a quasi-fascist state and ‘to me it seems that what is needed is a kind of denazification’. The bombs haunted him, as they haunted many others. The Japanese were about to surrender, he maintained. The American military’s claim that Japan would have fought on for months or years if it had not dropped the atom bombs was a lie spread by the propagandists of the new nuclear age. The truth was that the bombs were a part of a sordid scramble for money and power. Rather than trying to save the lives of US troops by bringing the war in the Far East to an early end, American militarists had incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki to intimidate Stalin so they could grab as much of the post-war world as possible for their friends in the corporations. ‘Two atom bombs were used against a beaten and virtually defenceless enemy,’ he said, in ‘history’s most abominable experiment.’ When evidence from the archives in Tokyo and Washington DC contradicted him by showing that the Japanese army had been ready to fight on for months or years until the atom bombs forced a capitulation, Chomsky, characteristically, did not change his mind.
He couldn’t confine himself to saying that Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been crimes against humanity. There had to be more to them than that. His second conclusion was that the peoples of the democracies didn’t realize that their freedom was a fraud because they were duped by the ‘propaganda’ of the corporate media. The jubilation of all the Americans around him on the day the news of Hiroshima broke could not be sincere; it had to have been ‘manufactured’ by the real rulers of the world. Chomsky was thin-skinned and vituperative, but not without redeeming features. A bored friend of mine who was working through the night as a security guard once emailed him on a whim. To his astonishment, he received a long and careful answer to his off-the-cuff questions – a respect for debate that showed Chomsky didn’t mind if his interrogators were professors in a Harvard lecture hall or janitors twiddling their thumbs in an empty office block. An academic colleague who had known him for forty years said that ‘when you send him five pages of criticism, he sends 10 pages back, whoever you are. It’s not ego, it’s the substance of the criticism that’s the issue.’ Nor do you become the most feted left-wing pundit of your time – ranked ‘with Marx, Shakespeare and the Bible as one of the 10 most quoted sources in the humanities’ – by talking complete twaddle. It is obviously true that much of what appears in the media is nonsense, and on occasion self-serving nonsense.
Chomsky’s mistake was to confuse corporate interests with political interests. Corporate bias is everywhere. Newspapers and radio and TV stations cover each other with rank dishonesty. Chomsky’s notion of media propaganda went way beyond the usual critiques of media folly and bias and revived the old notion of false consciousness that Friedrich Engels invented in 1893 after Karl Marx’s death. The Marxists of the early twentieth century took it up to explain away the discomforting fact that the workers of the most advanced societies were not organizing socialist revolutions as Marx had insisted they would. The reason for the failure of Marxist theory could not possibly be that it was wrong and the workers didn’t want communism. It had to be that a ‘hegemonic’ capitalist media befuddled them and stopped them understanding their real interests. At its worst, the theory of false consciousness legitimized tyranny. If the stupid masses swallowed lies, then middle-class intellectuals, who could see through the propaganda because of their superior education, were entitled to seize power in the people’s name.
By Chomsky’s time, the age of socialist revolution was dying. In his hands, false consciousness became less of an excuse for a coup d’et at than a consoling explanation for defeat. The Left lost because democracies fooled their electorates with subtle media propaganda rather than subjugating them with the tear gas and jackboots of the dictatorships. To Chomsky there was no difference between the two. ‘Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state,’ he declared. The theory of false consciousness assumes their rival media owners unite in a political pact to brainwash the masses and keep the elite in power. George Orwell subscribed to it. In his essay on boys’ comics he said that their tales of upper-class boarding schools and ripping adventures in the service of the British Empire were part of a plot ‘by capitalist newspaper proprietors’ to indoctrinate the young ‘in the interest [of maintaining] the class structure of society’. An amused Evelyn Waugh replied that ‘a study of those noblemen’s more important papers reveals a reckless disregard of any such obligation’. The same applies today. The majority of British newspaper proprietors are as right wing as they were in the Forties. Yet they turned on John Major’s Conservative government when its popularity vanished and allowed their reporters to reveal as many of the sexual secrets of its members as they could find. They based their treachery on the sound commercial grounds that their readers had had enough of the Tories and sex sold.
Owners and editors, including the senior management of the publicly funded BBC, are true capitalists because they will put the interests of increasing market share before the interests of their class. If that entails turning on the governing elite, so be it. A study for the Columbia Journalism Review of why American reporters censor themselves said that the third most common reason reporters gave for ignoring newsworthy stories was the one many would have put first: important information conflicted with the commercial interests of their organization or its advertisers. The second surprised the researchers: peer pressure and the ‘fear of embarrassment or potential career damage’ the decision to step out of line with other reporters would bring. It wasn’t so surprising a finding. What matters to most people in work is the status accumulated by the approval of colleagues. If the pack is howling off in one direction, very few journalists want to break ranks and head off on their own. Peer pressure isn’t always bad. One reason reporters go to places such as Omarska is that war reporting is a form of journalism other journalists admire. Their colleagues will applaud their bravery, even if the public doesn’t care about crimes in faraway countries. That it may well be more interested in the sex tips of celebrities and sex lives of sportsmen was suggested by the most popular reason journalists gave for self-censorship. Eight out of ten said they came across stories they knew were newsworthy and believed should be told but dropped them because they thought the audience would find them ‘boring’ or ‘complicated’.
The report made dismal reading but remained a rebuke to all those who thought the masses would embrace the radical left if it wasn’t for those darned media magnates uniting to manufacture consent for the powerful. Chomsky was determined, however, that the messy trade of journalism with its many failings and occasional glories was a propaganda operation that covered up the crimes of the elites of the democratic world. He wasn’t all wrong about the crimes. To pretend as many did after the Cold War that the West was always for freedom was to rewrite history. Highlights from the list of Western felonies between 1945 and 1989 include: the British and French imperial wars in Kenya, Malaysia, Algeria and Vietnam; the American takeover of the French war in Indochina and the saturation bombing of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; Western backing for the Falangist regimes of Spain and Portugal; simultaneous support for the Greek colonels and the Turkish military dictatorship; the American-backed overthrow of the democratic governments of Iran, Guatemala and Chile; acquiescence in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor; and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The promotion of democracy was not always the first priority in these conflicts, to put it charitably.
I AM NOT SAYING there was moral equivalence. You were born lucky in the twentieth century if you were born American rather than Russian, or British rather than Chinese. Nevertheless, it was far from clear if fortune was smiling on you if you were born Timorese rather than Polish during the Cold War. A few of Chomsky’s denunciations of what the West would rather forget stand up well. But it is not a competition, as I said. Chomsky’s fault was that he thought it was, and one the American elite must always lose. In this, he was ahead of his time. Rock stars, political activists and students came to adore him because he anticipated the themes of the supposed left of the twenty-first century in the late twentieth.
It was all there in his writings. The empty belief that you can be serious about politics without a coherent and practical plan for society. (Neither Chomsky nor his millions of admirers found it remarkable that he deplored the Indonesian invasion of East Timor on America’s nod in 1975, but had nothing to say to the East Timorese on what they should do after Australian and British troops infuriated Osama bin Laden by ending the terror in 1999.) The dissection of hypocrisy rather than the promotion of the common good was there as well, as was the overwhelming emphasis on the overweening power of the United States. His critics on the Right accused him of being a fellow traveller of communism. Chomsky, however, had no time for the Soviet Union, and although he offered gruesome and gormless support to the Chinese and Vietnamese communists, my overall impression is that he wasn’t interested in evils which could not be linked to America. In this narrow-mindedness, he was closer to the caricature of the parochial American than he liked to admit.
He wasn’t an anarchist: a true anarchist is against all governments. Nor was the most influential modern theorist of linguistics a political theorist. If you can’t explain why subjugation is worse in East Timor than Poland, you descend into the relativism which Chomsky deplored in his serious work on linguistics. Your mind is also ready to deny.Not to embrace the outright denial of totalitarianism, but to accept a denial of which Dr Arbuthnot would have approved: plausible denial – deniable denial, if you wish; the denial of a boy on the edge of a gang of bullies who can step back and smile innocently when the teacher storms into the playground. Every political, national or religious ideology engages in denial in weak forms. The British rarely discuss the millions who died in the famines which ravaged India right up to 1943 but stopped as soon as we left in 1947 and India became a democracy. We don’t like to talk about them because they destroy the complacent belief that the Empire always brought efficiency and know-how to benighted corners of the world. In 2005, Turkey was still prosecuting authors such as Orhan Pamuk who remembered the Armenian genocide of 1915. A confrontation with the historical record still threatened Turkish nationalists’ self-assurance. For modern fascists, however, denial is essential.
It may seem that the slaughtered innocents of Europe died because of an insane and pointless ideology. Yet their deaths were not entirely futile because they destroyed fascism as an idea in Europe, if not elsewhere. Whenever Europeans were tempted to try it again they ran up against the horror of the gas chambers and shied away. For the remaining fascists there was only one option if they were ever to make ground: they had to deny the horror. Naturally, their denial concentrated on destroying the abiding image of fascism: the gas chambers at the end of the railway line to Auschwitz.
Thirty years ago, a French lecturer called Robert Faurisson was the most fervent of the deniers. In the mid-Seventies he began to propagate the notion that everything you thought you knew about fascism was a lie. The Nazis had not run extermination camps. The judges at Nuremberg coerced the testimony of alleged camp survivors out of them. The Diary of Anne Frank was a fake. All accepted history was a gigantic fraud that covered up a plot by scheming Jews to get their hands on German gold and Palestinian land. The alleged Hitlerite gas chambers and the alleged genocide of the Jews form one and the same historical lie, which opened the way to a gigantic political-financial swindle, the principal beneficiaries of which are the State of Israel and international Zionism, and the principal victims of which are the German people – but not its leaders – and the entire Palestinian people. Obsessional racism underpinned the work of Faurisson and the other Holocaust deniers. It is hard to squeeze into their tiny minds, but maybe race hatred mattered more to them than the political calculation that denial was essential if fascism was to be rehabilitated. People throw the charge of ‘racist’ around far too freely today and fail to separate inconsequential prejudice from all-consuming intolerance.
The Frenchman who defines himself by his fixation on Jews or the Serb whose hatred of Bosnian Muslims is at the core of his identity wants to humiliate the objects of his loathing beyond endurance. What could be more degrading to the Jew or Bosnian than to scream that their parents had not been gassed in Auschwitz or their daughter had not been gang-raped at Trnopolje? If they protest, what could be more satisfying than to turn to them and say that they are filthy swindlers exploiting the decency of their credulous audience the better to take its money?
The Left of the Seventies was generally against antisemitism – with the perhaps predictable exception of the terrorist wing of the German far left – and there was uproar in France when Faurisson published. Demonstrators roughed him up, critics brought court actions and the administrators of his University suspended him. At moments such as these principled people must ask themselves a hard question. Voltaire never said, ‘I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it’ – a biographer put the words in his mouth in 1906 – but it remains true. Freedom of speech includes the freedom to lie and defame, and if Noam Chomsky had merely signed a petition that defended Faurisson’s freedom there would have been no complaint. What happened, however, was that the admired leftist, the scholar whose first political writings were against fascism, went way beyond a statement of elementary principle and gave comfort to neo-Nazi groups around the world.
The petition Chomsky signed was a work of real propaganda that painted Faurisson as a seeker of truth who was being unjustly targeted for reputable research. He was ‘a respected professor of twentieth century French literature and document criticism’, it read, who ‘has been conducting extensive research into the “Holocaust” question’. The scare quotes around ‘Holocaust’ and the petition’s assertion that the Jew-baiter was a historian who had made reputable ‘findings’ infuriated French leftists. They assumed Chomsky was a busy man who had added his name to the petition without realizing what he was signing. Not so. When pained fans contacted their idol and filled him in on the background, he refused to think again. Despite being given chapter and verse on Faurisson’s belief that Europe’s greatest crime hadn’t happened and that the Jews had declared war on Hitler, Chomsky insisted that as far as he could determine he was ‘a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort’.
When the criticism of his dalliances with neo-fascists grew more intense, the world’s most acclaimed linguist descended into sophistry. Chomsky opined that not believing in the Holocaust was not in itself proof of antisemitism because ‘if a person ignorant of modern history were told of the Holocaust and refused to believe that humans are capable of such monstrous acts, we would not conclude that he is an anti-semite. That suffices to establish the point at issue.’ The hell it does. What of those people who have studied modern history but still prefer poisonous fantasy to fact? A child who has never been to school and says the world is flat isn’t a fool. But if she studies geography for years and doesn’t change her mind she is.
The French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet, who had exposed the abuses of French forces in Algeria and thought Chomsky an ally in the struggle against oppression, wrote in disgust:
The simple truth, Noam Chomsky, is that you were unable to abide by the ethical maxim you had imposed. You had the right to say: my worst enemy has the right to be free, on condition that he not ask for my death or that of my brothers. You did not have the right to say: my worst enemy is a comrade, or a ‘relatively apolitical sort of liberal’. You did not have the right to take a falsifier of history and to recast him in the colours of truth.
I think I can understand why Chomsky had to do just that. If you believe that America is in need of ‘denazification’ and that a corrupted corporate media covers up this truth with lies, you are bound to have difficulties with real fascism. All around you, mainstream defenders of America say that she has fought the worst systems the human race has produced and point to the evidence in the media and elsewhere which proves the moral superiority of democracy. The danger when you reject the mainstream is that you defend anyone else who is against the mainstream and challenges its version of history. Maybe I’m trying too hard on his behalf. Maybe Chomsky was just a shallow dogmatist who could never own up to a mistake. He certainly wasn’t a fascist. Like his successors in the twenty-first century who made excuses for Islamism, Baathism and wife burning, he couldn’t join the gang but couldn’t denounce it either for fear of the psychic consequences the admission there were worse ideas in the world than Western democracy would bring.
So he dabbled on the fringes of the totalitarian right, and the fringes of the totalitarian left as well.When America pulled out of Indochina and Pol Pot’s armies took over Cambodia, Chomsky and his collaborator Edward S. Herman poured scorn on the journalists who pointed out that there were even worse ideas than the disastrous American campaign in Southeast Asia. It took most outside observers a few months to grasp that they were right because the reports of what the Paris-educated Marxists who led the Khmer Rouge were doing to Cambodia were incredible. The communists emptied the cities and killed anyone who excited the smallest paranoid suspicion. They murdered the literate and the numerate for being dangerous intellectuals and town dwellers for being bourgeois reactionaries. They went on to wipe out Vietnamese, Chinese and Laotian ethnic minorities for being agents of foreign powers, Buddhists and Muslims for being religious subversives and the old and the frail for failing to work hard enough on the collective farms. Overall, they killed about one-fifth of the population.
Exposing the terror was a ferociously hard task as the communists sealed Cambodia’s borders and made it a giant prison. Francis Ponchaud, a French priest, painstakingly assembled the first reliable account by interviewing thousands of refugees who had made it over the border. Ponchaud was hardly a conservative. He was a Khmer-speaking man of the Left who had initially welcomed Pol Pot’s victory. What he heard forced him to change his mind. He came up with a book whose title has entered the language, Cambodia: Year Zero. If there was any doubt, his findings were supported by the reports of Jon Swain of the London Times and Sydney Schanberg of the New York Times, who saw the Khmer Rouge force the sick to crawl out of hospitals to the collectivized countryside. Once again, neither Swain nor Schanberg was a supporter of the American war effort.
Chomsky found the patient uncovering of an uncomfortable truth intolerable. While conceding that Year Zero was a ‘serious’ he and Edward Herman accused the priest of playing ‘fast and loose with quotes and with numbers’ and of having ‘an anti-communist bias and message’. The New York Review of Books, which had given Ponchaud deserved praise, was guilty of ‘extreme anti-Khmer Rouge distortions’. Its articles were a living example of how history was ‘manufactured’ to lull the masses into accepting capitalist propaganda as fact. By contrast, Chomsky and Herman hailed as brave dissidents two authors who reprinted the propaganda broadcasts of Pol Pot’s radio station. Chomsky concluded that if there were crimes in Cambodia, they were a reaction to the US saturation bombing campaign.
That Marxism had proved over the decades that it had a genocidal life of its own was an idea Chomsky couldn’t contemplate. It was too much to hope that such a man could allow the dead of the Balkans to rest in peace. Most liberal-minded people couldn’t bring themselves to oppose the wars against Milosevic, and many were strong supporters of the interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. The job of endorsing the Major government’s appeasement fell to a motley collection of splenetic Trots, ageing Stalinists, older Quakers, anti-capitalists who forgot about global justice in Bosnia’s case, and Greens more interested in saving the whale than saving the Bosnians. Bringing up the rear was Harold Pinter, the future Nobel Laureate. He wept buckets for the ‘Mountain People’ of Kurdistan, and then joined the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, the murderer of the ‘Mountain People’ of the Balkans. The Tories’ friends on the Left made a rickety bridge between the old and the new protest movements.
On the one hand, they bellowed the last hurrah of the Marxists of the twentieth century. Milosevic said he was a socialist, and they took him at his word, and insisted that capitalists were using crimes manufactured by the media to justify the break-up of Yugoslavia because it was the last corner of Europe holding out against market economics after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their conspiracy theory didn’t make the slightest sense. The published diaries of Milosevic lieutenants show that they, not the ‘capitalist’ West, planned the break-up of Yugoslavia. The idea that Serb nationalists were the last socialists in Europe fighting a desperate rearguard action against the forces of the ‘hegemonic’ market was dished by the fact that the Conservative administration of John Major and the equally right-wing Republican administration of George Bush senior refused to stop their ethnic cleansing. In any case, Karadzic’s Serb Democratic Party in Bosnia identified with the monarchist and Nazi-collaborationist Chetnik movement of the Second World War rather than the Left. In its own way, so did Milosevic’s ‘socialist’ Serbia, which was, in reality, a gangsters’ paradise where pimps and profiteers flourished, the gap between rich and poor widened and free health care vanished.
The most telling comment on the true nature of the ‘socialist’ regime the anti-war movement of the Nineties was so anxious to defend came from Douglas Hurd. After leaving office, he accepted a large retainer from the NatWest Bank, and flew to meet Milosevic in Belgrade and negotiate the privatization of the Serb telecommunications network. I doubt if the theory and practice of workers’ power topped the agenda when those two gentlemen got down to business. Those who pretended otherwise were lost in a late-socialist delusion. On the other hand, much of what dominates left and liberal thought today was breaking out all over the anti-war movement of the Nineties. Marko Attila Hoare, a Cambridge Balkan specialist, looked at its fantasies and apologias and noticed a new indifference on the Left.
As well as talking about solidarity with our ‘Serbian comrades’ or praising the glorious socialists of Belgrade, the anti-war movement huffed and puffed about international law and UN approval. Once these would have been strange subjects for revolutionaries, but the defenders of Slobodan Milosevic were as stranded by the collapse of socialism as the post-modern theorists and the former friends of Kanan Makiya. Once again, there was the signature absence of any principled practical policy. They offered nothing to the Bosnians, Croats or, as Marko Attila Hoare noticed, the Serbs.
More striking even than the defence or denial of crimes against humanity carried out by the Left revisionists is their sheer lack of any positive vision for the future or political raison d’etre whatsoever. They should not be seen as ‘pro-Serb’, for the Serb people are unlikely to benefit from their actions. They are offering precisely nothing to the long-suffering people of Serbia in return for suffering sanctions and isolation. Rather, they appear to view ‘resistance to Western imperialism’ as something worthwhile for its own sake, no matter how much self-destruction it results in for Serbia and how much misery it inflicts.
Nor, as Chomsky proved, could they provide a guide to their own countries’ foreign ministers. After their Cambodian triumph, he and Edward S.Herman teamed up again to condemn the hypocrisy of the Kosovo war of 1999. Turkey was guilty of ‘massive atrocities’ against the Kurds, they said. Indonesia had perpetrated ‘aggression and massacre’ of ‘near-genocidal levels’ in East Timor, while Israel had organized ‘murderous and destructive’ operations in Lebanon. Typically, words failed the linguist when he came to discussing the Serb nationalist crimes in Kosovo – they weren’t ‘massive atrocities’ at ‘near genocidal’ levels but a ‘response’, as he cutely put it, to attacks by the Muslim Kosovo Liberation Army. Like Pol Pot’s alleged ‘response’ to the American bombing of Indochina, the massacres were, by implication, not the responsibility of the put-upon Serb nationalists. Yet for all his circumlocutions and double standards, what Chomsky said about the treatment of the Kurds, Lebanese and Timorese was true, and prompted the question: what should the West do instead?
Answer came there none, for in Chomsky’s universe the West was at fault whatever it did. If it intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo, it was wrong. If it imposed sanctions against Saddam’s Iraq, it was wrong. And if it colluded with Turkish, Israeli or Indonesian oppression, it was wrong again.
A dazzled Attila Hoare said such freewheeling denunciation left foreign ministers with no options, as ‘it is clear that ultimately the West cannot easily reject military intervention, sanctions, and appeasement all at the same time’. The ignoble and inevitable terminus of the reasoning of Chomsky and his comrades was denial.
It had to be. Without denial, they would have to admit that liberal democracies weren’t solely motivated by the dictates of the corporations but had on occasion a reasonable desire to end conflicts. As with the Holocaust deniers, the anti-war revisionists went for the abiding memories. The Yugoslav equivalents of the gas chambers at Auschwitz were Srebrenica and the pictures of the wild-eyed starving men behind the barbed wire at Trnopolje. Both had to be denied if the project of blackening the belated interventions in the Balkans was to stand a chance of succeeding. Its prime movers weren’t Western leftists but their Serbian allies. Bosnia was partitioned, as the Foreign Office wanted, and partition held out the prospect of a new conflict, as it always did.
If Serb nationalists could deny the crimes of the previous war successfully, the crimes of the next would be easier to contemplate. In 2004, Nerma Jelacic went up the mine roads to Omarska and found that a protective scab had covered the old wounds. She was a stranger in her own country. In 1991, when she was 15 years old, she had celebrated New Year’s Eve with Muslim and Orthodox friends in her home town of Visegrad. As a bright teenager from a secular family, she watched the partygoers and assumed that religious differences were the least important thing about them and her. Three months later she woke up and learned a basic lesson of totalitarian politics: you are who your assassins say you are.
In the deep of a warm spring night, a light and a crackling sound awoke me. Through a blind, I saw dozens of houses belonging to my Muslim neighbours on fire, male inhabitants rounded up by men in uniforms. Some would come back beaten and bruised; others were never heard from again. Checkpoints sprang up across town, manned by a mix of drunken paramilitaries and regular army units. The war was not official yet – but in Visegrad it had started, with murders in surrounding villages and beatings of influential Muslims from the town.
Many among her family and friends were raped or murdered or both. Jelacic and her parents got out and into Britain as part of the Major government’s token attempt at refugee relief. She learned English fast and well, and my employers at the Guardian and Observer took her on. I thought she would surely stay but she returned home because she had to know what happened next to the survivors. She went to Omarska with Vulliamy.
Bosnian children shyly thanked him for saving their parents’ lives, but local Serb nationalists were in furious denial. ‘There was no camp here,’ security guards at the entrance to Omarska told them. ‘It was all lies, Muslim lies, and forgery by the journalists.’ A Bosnian Muslim woman told them no one had apologized or even admitted that crimes against humanity had taken place. ‘They say they know nothing about the camps. There are 145 mass graves and hundreds of individual graves in this region, and we invite the local authorities to our commemorations, but they never come.’
Denial in the rich world began with the British Revolutionary Communist Party. It was once the most ultra of the ultra-left groups, which attracted wealthy but not very bright recruits who provided the funds to allow the party to operate in some style. What the RCP hated was reform that would prolong the ‘capitalist’ system and avert the glorious day when communism came. RCP activists would disrupt demonstrations to protect the National Health Service or against apartheid and cry that saving hospitals from closure and ending white rule in South Africa were distractions from the revolution. In the Nineties, they belatedly gave up on communism and accepted market economics. Nothing unusual in that, you might think, except that the party moved as a disciplined unit. The politburo instructed the rank and file to abandon Leninism, and as good Leninists, the rank and file obeyed and U-turned as one.
The comrades regrouped first around the magazine LM (previously Living Marxism) and then a successful think tank called the Institute of Ideas. The British media loved the LM crowd because they were ‘contrarians’who could be relied on to fill space and generate controversy by saying the opposite of what everyone else was saying – an affectation most people get over around puberty. If the majority of progressive opinion was against genetically modified foods, the RCP was for them. If the majority of progressive opinion was against the Rwandan and Balkan genocides, the RCP denied them.
It hadn’t really changed. To deny the Bosnian camps the RCP reached for classic technique of the conspiracy theorist. Professor Werner Cohn defined it as the Method of the Critical Source. It is a ‘favourite among cranks’, he explained, and ‘consists of seizing upon a phrase or sentence or sometimes a longer passage from no matter where, without regard to its provenance or reliability to “prove” a whole novel theory of history or the universe’.
The crank LM welcomed was one Thomas Deichmann, a German leftist and apologist for Serb irredentism who tried and failed to discredit the testimony of camp survivors when he helped the defence team for Dusko Tadic, one of the organizers of the Omarska and Trnopolje atrocities, during the war crimes trials at The Hague. One night as he was sitting at home, he had a Chomskyan epiphany of his own. For the umpteenth time he was poring over the pictures that had convinced the public that Bosnia had seen real crimes against humanity. They stood like a lion in the path of all who wanted to enjoy denial. Deichmann’s wife glanced at the familiar faces of Fikret Alic and his fellow prisoners and asked: ‘Why was this wire fixed to poles on the side of the fence where they were standing? As any gardener knows, fences are, as a rule, fixed to the poles from outside, so that the area to be enclosed is fenced-in.’ That was it. That was enough to produce Deichmann’s eureka moment.
If Deichmann had wanted to test his wife’s theory, he might have examined the evidence collected by the International Criminal Court, talked to refugees or tracked down Fikret Alic, who was living in exile. Alic no longer looked a handsome young Bosnian after camp goons had broken six of his ribs, his jaw and nose, kicked out all his teeth and left his body with around a hundred scars from stab and burn wounds, but he was available for interview. Deichmann saw no need to talk to survivors. He had his key to all the mythologies: an old wives’ tale from his own wife about how gardeners fixed wire to fences.
The truth flooded in on him and he realized how the cunning reporters had produced one of the most outrageous lies in the history of journalism with the aid of trick photography. In a piece LM ran under the headline, ‘The Picture that Fooled the World‘, he explained the significance of the fixing of the barbed wire on the posts.
The prisoners weren’t prisoners at all, but free men standing outside the camp’s perimeter fence. The double-dealing journalists had gone into the camp and filmed them from the inside looking out, then pretended that their cameras were on the outside looking in. They had made black white and free men captives with camera angles so they could ‘manufacture consent’ for a war of free-market aggression. He double-checked with Serb guards who assured him that Trnopolje was a ‘collection centre for refugees, many of whom went there seeking safety and could leave again if they wished’. A few of the reports of rapes and murders may not have been invented, he conceded, but the truth was that without the protection of selfless Serb soldiers there would have been many more. Such was the critical source for LM. ITN sued and the jury awarded punitive damages for malicious libel. There is no disgrace about fighting a libel case in London and going down with all guns blazing.
The High Court has on occasion ignored honestly collected evidence and awarded enormous damages to Robert Maxwell, Jeffrey Archer and many another brazen crook. However, in his study of the Trnopolje case Professor David Campbell of Durham University, noted that LM didn’t fight. It couldn’t because it had no honest evidence. Once the former Trotskyists were hauled out of the murk of conspiratorial politics and required to justify themselves in open court, Deichmann and Mick Hume, the editor of LM, accepted that what they said wasn’t true. They agreed that inmates could not come and go as they pleased. When a brave Bosnian doctor who had risked his life to pass film to ITN and the Guardian took to the witness box, they and their lawyers sat as quiet as church mice and didn’t bother to cross-examine him when he said that far from protecting ‘refugees’ camp guards murdered and raped their wretched captives.
‘Lies have gone faster than a man can ride post,’ wrote Dr Arbuthnot, and the new technology of the Internet made them fly faster still. Once the lie about the faked massacres in Bosnia was up and running, the public demonstration of the malice of LM had no effect whatsoever. Hate mail flew in at the reporters – one writer told Vulliamy he was a ‘piece of shit’ who was ‘probably a nasty little Jew’.
Cries of ‘lies’ echoed around the Net like screams in a madhouse as hundreds of Serb and leftist websites and magazines claimed the concentration camps had never existed and the Bosnians had murdered themselves. Meanwhile, leftish publishers denounced the belief that Muslims needed rescuing as a ‘humanitarian illusion’ and the prosecution of war criminals as nothing more than ‘victors’ justice’. Among their offerings was Fools’ Crusade by Diana Johnstone. It carried praise from Chomsky’s collaborator Edward S.Herman and purported to show how ‘massive deception and self-deception by the media and politicians’ allowed the wars against Milosevic to reinforce the ‘hegemony’ of the United States.
It feels superfluous to note that far from dismissing Thomas Deichmann as a loon who preferred his wife’s views on the correct hanging of garden fences to the verifiable accounts of survivors, Johnstone accepted without comment his account of the taking of the camp pictures, and treated him as a reliable source whose work ‘provided the background to this famous image’.
She then moved on to the second abiding memory – the dead of Srebrenica – and wondered whether they were really dead at all and not living somewhere else and laughing at the stupidity of the idiots who mourned them. Johnstone first put scare quotes around the ‘Srebrenica massacre’ and then spat it out. There had been no deliberate attempt at genocide, she said, and many of those among the alleged 8,000 Muslim dead ‘were presumed to have made it safely into Muslim territory’. As she later explained, the duplicitous ‘Muslim authorities never provided information about these men, preferring to let them be counted among the missing, that is, among the massacred’. She was prepared to condemn Serb nationalists for killing only 199 Muslims in Srebrenica. As for the remaining 7,800 or so, ‘there is still no clear way to account for the fate of all the Muslim men reported missing in Srebrenica. Insofar as Muslims were actually executed following the fall of Srebrenica, such crimes bear all the signs of spontaneous acts of revenge rather than a project of “genocide”.’ Bosnians may have been swapped in prisoner exchanges; maybe they made it to other Yugoslav towns; maybe they moved abroad. . . who knew?
Lots of people, actually. The court in The Hague had thousands of pages of witness statements, and in 2003 the Bosnian Serb leadership admitted responsibility and gave a hideous picture of the mechanics of the massacre. Colonel Dragan Obrenovic, the deputy commander of the Srebrenica pogrom, said, ‘I’m guilty for what I did and did not do. Thousands of innocent people were killed, only the graves remain.’ His confession had as much effect as the capitulation of LM. Evidence had no place in the developing nihilist mentality.
When the staff and readers of Ordfront, a left-wing Swedish magazine, revolted after its editor gave Johnstone a platform, the heroes of the new left rallied to Johnstone. Tariq Ali – whom we last saw hastily dropping the opponents of Saddam Hussein – Arundhati Roy, the future Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter and – inevitably – Noam Chomsky defended her in an open letter to the Swedish magazine.
As with the Faurisson and the Holocaust deniers, Chomsky couldn’t confine himself to upholding Johnstone’s freedom to write and speak, which no court or police officer was denying her. He and his friends built up her credentials and said they regarded Johnstone’s Fools’ Crusade as ‘an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition’. When the gang surrounded the Bosnians, the boy was back on the edge again, not denying genocide but darting in with praise for the ‘outstanding’ Johnstone and then stepping back.
The conspiracy theory was kept going, not with outright denial of massacres but with morsels of doubt to whet the appetites of those who would move on to stronger meat. Srebrenica wasn’t the end of it. Chomsky joined the apologists for the Serbs who were saying that the pictures of the Bosnian camp inmates were an outrageous forgery. He told an interviewer from Serb television that, ‘there was one famous incident which has completely reshaped Western opinion, and that was the photograph of the thin man behind the barbwire’. ‘A fraudulent photograph, as it turned out,’ the Serb interrupted. ‘You remember!’ the pleased Chomsky replied. ‘The thin man behind the barbwire, so that was Auschwitz and we can’t have Auschwitz again.’ All Holocaust deniers are antisemites, and some might say that those on the far-left who discounted the serb camps were motivated by an Islamophobic hatred of Bosnian Muslims.
This view fails to get to what ailed the radical left at the turn of the millennium. They lacked the steadiness of purpose to be consistent, and even racism requires consistency. Their phobia was a fear of America and the West and modernity. If the West had ended up being for the Serbs and against the Bosnians, they would have been for the Bosnians and against the Serbs. Theirs was a rootless affliction.
In November 2005 the readers of Prospect, Britain’s most intellectually rigorous current affairs magazine, voted Noam Chomsky ‘The World’s Top Public Intellectual’ by a large margin. A few days later, Ian Mayes, the Readers’ Editor of Ed Vulliamy and Nerma Jelacic’s own paper, the Guardian, responded to complaints from Chomsky and Johnstone about an admittedly poorly subbed piece on leftist denial of crimes against humanity with an apology. Mayes maintained that neither of them had ever denied the Srebrenica massacre. He agreed that Chomsky’s support for Johnstone ‘related entirely to her right to freedom of speech’. Journalists, survivors of the camps, UN workers in the Balkans and Britain’s foremost academic authorities in the former Yugoslavia were appalled and sent Mayes copies of what Chomsky and Johnstone had written.
The Guardian was one of the world’s leading liberal newspapers and Mayes was its ombudsman charged with upholding the highest standards of liberal journalism. He appeared a judicious and well-educated man, whose dry wit and appealing line in self-deprecation seemed to continue the best traditions of middle-class English liberalism.
‘None of the material sent to me has convinced me,’ he said. He slapped down the survivors and their allies – then the paper’s external ombudsman reviewed the case and slapped them down again.
So far, I’ve been talking as if there were neat dividing lines between mainstream liberals and the far left. But by the early twenty-first century with the Cold War over and the world in flux, it was foolish to think that there were little boxes in which you could plonk different types. People shifted between positions, pushed by fashion and the pressure of events. When what it meant to be on the Left was beset with confusion and disappointment, what immunity genteel liberals had from the fevers of the age collapsed.
From Chapter Six of What’s Left