CHOMSKY - Defending the truth

Tawfiq Chahboune


A curious letter arrives at the Guardian. Although entitled "Srebrenica - defending the truth" (henceforth "SDTT"), the letter has very little to do with Srebrenica or the truth of what happened there, especially when the subject of the letter, Noam Chomsky, agrees that a terrible crime against humanity did occur at Srebrenica. In actuality, the letter concerns itself almost wholly with defending the professional integrity of Emma Brockes, a Guardian journalist, and claims that Noam Chomsky has been ambiguous in accepting what happened at Srebrenica and is involved in "revisionist attempts to deny the Bosnian genocide and minimise the Srebrenica massacre."

After much back and forth, the Guardian chose not to publish; instead, the letter appears on the website of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). Signed by twenty-four - although I count twenty-five - journalists, writers and analysts, some of whose work I greatly admire and value (for example, Ed Vulliamy, Francis Wheen and Nick Cohen), it concerns Emma Brockes's "besmirched reputation" and the perceived insult to a Kemal Pervanić. They end: "We call upon The Guardian to withdraw its 'correction' of 17 November [2005]; to apologise unreservedly to Emma Brockes for its unjust impugning of her professional reputation; and to apologise unreservedly to Kemal Pervanić for misrepresenting his argument and insulting his intelligence."

The attempt was to portray the issue as one of respectable and knowledgeable figures on one side "defending the truth" about what happened in Srebrenica, and on the other side a crank, who has for some reason a wide following and been acknowledged the world's leading intellectual and who, they claim, is defending a lie. Except the letter is not actually about Srebrenica. It is about defending the reputation of Emma Brockes. They themselves make this clear.

 

THE STORY SO FARů

Emma Brockes interviews Noam Chomsky for the Guardian. Chomsky then complains that what appeared in the Guardian had little bearing to the interview. The Guardian investigates and finds in favour of Chomsky, apologises and prints a correction to the offending article, before finally withdrawing the piece from its website. The Guardian do not demur when Chomsky says that the interview was taped. The issue can be resolved by releasing the tape, but the Guardian, having reviewed all the evidence, to accept guilt, apologise to Chomsky and, of course, not refer to the tape. One would have expected the signatories - so sure is their bluster - to demand the release of the tape and prove Chomsky a liar and all the other fanciful things they charge him with. Here is their opportunity to burst the Chomsky bubble. What is their reaction? Silence. That they do not refer to the tape, and actually stay well clear of it, tells us much about their arguments and indeed their standards.

The issue here is Brockes's interview. If Brockes's reputation is the issue, as the signatories have made it, and the handling of the interview is what has "besmirched" her professional reputation, then it is, by definition, what one should concentrate on. Therein lies the truth. Nothing else is pertinent to the controversy. Indeed, one can even know nothing about any of the protagonists and Srebrenica and still come to an informed decision.

 

A "BESMIRCHED REPUTATION" AND AN "INSULT"

The letter starts: "We are writing to protest at the 'correction' published by The Guardian on 17 November, in relation to Emma Brockes's interview with Noam Chomsky of 31 October and the Bosnian concentration-camp survivor Kemal Pervanić's letter to The Guardian of 2 November. We believe that by issuing this 'correction', The Guardian has unjustly besmirched Brockes's reputation, misrepresented and insulted Pervanić [a survivor of Serb atrocities] and bestowed a stamp of legitimacy on revisionist attempts to deny the Bosnian genocide and minimise the Srebrenica massacre." It goes on: "we believe that neither of Chomsky's complaints against Brockes is valid; that Brockes's presentation of his views was essentially fair."

Note that they are not saying that Brockes's representation was accurate - but that, to them, it was "essentially fair". They have made it clear that they are not concerned with the truth. The truth is completely irrelevant. The signatories reference Brockes's interview only once (not to defend Brockes but Pervanić) and for the good reason that they cannot defend the interview itself.

The Guardian responded to the controversy thus: "At the time the correction was published, the author of the interview, Emma Brockes, her immediate editor, Ian Katz, and Noam Chomsky, the complainant, all expressed their acceptance of the way in which the matter had been dealt with and resolved." Mayes goes on to say: "The Guardian journalists have repeated their acceptance of the correction in conversations with me in the past few days." That is, Brockes repeatedly accepted that her reporting was inaccurate. Evidently, the signatories are unaware that by demanding the Guardian retract their correction they are also demanding Brockes retract the correction she herself thinks is warranted. What does that say about Brockes? That she has no idea what she is doing?

Chomsky objected to the headline of the article: "Q: Do you regret supporting those who claim the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated? A: My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough." The Guardian accepted that that question was never put to Chomsky and apologised: "No question in that form was put to Prof Chomsky." Furthermore: "The Guardian also accepts that and acknowledges that the headline was wrong and unjustified by the text. Ms Brockes's misrepresentation of Prof Chomsky's views on Srebrenica stemmed from her misunderstanding of his support for Ms Johnstone."

The signatories imply that the question was asked and answered as the Guardian originally stated. Given that they were not party to the original interview or the discussions concerning the "correction", how can they judge on the very specific matter (Brockes's reporting of the interview) they're writing to complain about? Brockes, Ian Katz (Brockes's editor), and the Guardian accept that Chomsky's complaints are valid, but the signatories, who are in no position to judge the matter, do not.

 

THE CASE FOR BROCKES BACKFIRES

The signatories are of the opinion that Brockes's integrity is in tatters by acknowledging that a correction was in order when it was not. Indeed, by demanding this retraction, when Brockes herself repeatedly accepted that an apology and correction was in order, they are themselves intimating that she is unethical, unprofessional and incompetent for accepting that one was in order. Apparently, Brockes is incapable of deciding whether she has or has not made a mistake, the poor dear. In which case, Brockes has no business interviewing anyone if she is so inept that she cannot rely on her reporting or judgement.

The signatories then set out a series of allegations. Before coming to these, however, the important thing to notice is that this list of complaints does not fundamentally address the accuracy of Brockes's interview, which the Guardian and Brockes admit is flawed. They are trying to defend the integrity of the interview by referring to other quotes, which were not quoted in the interview and are not germane to Brockes's "besmirched reputation". So while Brockes and the Guardian accept that Chomsky did not deny a massacre at Srebrenica, the signatories seem to conclude that he must have done, because elsewhere, certainly not in the Brockes interview he says that this massacre was not genocide. Notwithstanding his acknowledgement that there was a massacre. Their argument is so profound that it doesn't make any sense.

 

THE FATUOUS FIVE...

The signatories make five charges against Chomsky. However, they do not reference where it is Chomsky has written or said what they report, but one will take them at their word, though the context and full quotation is important and may change the appearance of what is quoted. Reason 4 concerns the alleged insult to Kemal Pervanić, someone Chomsky is unaware of. The other reasons concern Brockes's "besmirched" integrity.

REASON 1. The letter calls as first witness Diana Johnstone's book Fools' Crusade. That's right, the defence of Brockes's interview is not the interview itself but quotes from someone else's printed word. And someone who has nothing to do with what Chomsky did or did not say in the interview. Brilliant.

REASON 2. The writers then turn to Chomsky's support for Johnstone, which is irrelevant to the accuracy of the interview that has "besmirched" Brockes. The writers quote Chomsky as saying that the book is: "quite serious and important" and "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." This is the "proof" that Chomsky denies the massacre at Srebrenica: "This goes beyond support for Johnstone's right to free speech, and amounts to an endorsement of her arguments." Is saying that a book is "quite serious and important" an "endorsement of its arguments"? Or all?

For instance, Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes is generally considered to be an excellent history of the twentieth century. Many of the signatories would probably agree. Do they therefore endorse all of Hobsbawm's arguments? Now, do all those who reviewed the book favourably therefore agree with Hobsbawm's own opinion, which he states in the book, that the Holocaust did not claim six million Jews? Hobsbawm believes that the true figure is closer to five million (and others believe it to be in excess of six million). By the signatories' standard, anyone who states that Hobsbawm's book is "quite serious and important" must be "ambiguous" in their recognition of the Holocaust.

Hobsbawm makes a pertinent point: "Would the horror of the holocaust be any less if historians concluded that it estimated not six millions (the rough and certainly exaggerated original estimate) but five or even four?" Quite. Now, would the horror of Srebrenica be any less if it were determined that a few hundred less people were murdered? Or a couple of thousand? Or even half the numbers stated? Of course not. The crime itself is the issue. Hobsbawm is recognised as a serious and brilliant historian. But here Hobsbawm is explicitly stating that the worst crime in history (the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews) has been "exaggerated". Would any of the signatories care to call Hobsbawm a Holocaust denier? The Guardian called the book "A masterpiece"; Financial Times "Dazzling"; Independent "Magnificent"; John Simpson "The best account of our calamitous century"; etc. How to judge their comments? Are they "diminishing" or "revising" the Holocaust?

REASON 3. No surprises that this has nothing to do with the content of the "interview" they wish to defend The charge is that: "It is untrue that Chomsky has been as unambiguous in his recognition of the Srebrenica massacre as he now claims." One will wait in vain for the killer quote from Chomsky that there was no massacre. But read on. The allegation is that Chomsky's use of the word "estimate" for the massacred Muslims at Srebrenica is indicative of his denial or ambiguous attitude that such a massacre even happened. Is that it? Well, given that no one actually knows the exact number of how many people were murdered at Srebrenica, is it not reasonable to use the word "estimate"? Exact figures are impossible. Only estimates are possible. If one says an estimated six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, is one denying the crime? Of course not. Or are we expected to accept that exactly six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis? Not one more, not one less? Similarly with Srebrenica.

But the signatories continue: "If Brockes's depiction of Chomsky's position on Srebrenica was inaccurate, then it was an inaccuracy for which his own ambiguity on the subject was entirely responsible," not the invented question and answer, which the Guardian has accepted was invented. It is manifestly the case that they have not shown or proven any "ambiguity". Indeed, they themselves have been "ambiguous" by referring to Srebrenica as a massacre and genocide. In any case, what the writers seem to be defending is that the interview has every right to be incorrect, even invented, because in the past Chomsky may have led people to believe that he was ambiguous on the matter. Their defence of Brockes is that she is entitled to write anything because it could be true. In which case, why interview the man?

REASON 4. This is essentially a question of defining the term "genocide". Chomsky's position is that mass murder is not of itself genocide and thus does not believe the Srebrenica massacre falls within his understanding of the term genocide. So, for example, the Holocaust was genocide. As was Rwanda. There was an intent to destroy a people because of their race or ethnicity. But other mass murders, though horrific and may indeed claim more lives than those coming under the definition of genocide, say the Russian destruction of Grozny or Afghanistan, or the US war on Vietnam, which do not intend to wipe out an ethnic or racial group of people are, to his mind, not genocide. One would think that that would be the basis of an honourable disagreement, not the cause of slandering people as genocide deniers. Chomsky is disagreeing on definitions, not the crime, which is what the signatories are alluding to. Those who deny the crime are another matter. Those who query the definition, not the crime, should not be classed in the same way as the deniers of the crime. Chomsky is sympathetic to Johnstone's factual claim: "However, one thing should be obvious: one does not commit 'genocide' by sparing women and children." That would come under mass murder, not "genocide". Not unreasonably, Chomsky agrees. We can therefore dismiss this as proof of any intent to diminish the crime. Again, yet again, note that this is irrelevant to the conversation Chomsky had with Brockes.

REASON 5. This concerns Chomsky's complaint about a letter from Kemal Pervanić, who writes that he is a "survivor of the [Serb-run] Omarska concentration camp". This does not directly concern Brockes's integrity. The signatories demand that the Guardian "apologise unreservedly to Kemal Pervanić for misrepresenting his argument and insulting his intelligence".

Given that Brockes's interview is fundamentally flawed, one should discount any quote attributed to Chomsky. But we'll see how far their argument flies on the basis of what Chomsky is reported to have said. Mr Pervanić writes: "I was shocked by some of the views of Noam Chomsky in the article by Emma Brockes." "If Srebrenica has been a lie, then all the other Bosnian-Serb nationalists' crimes in the three years before Srebrenica must be false too." Chomsky's comments have the "effect of excusing these crimes" and insinuating that "I am also a liar".

Apparently, Chomsky has no reason to complain about a letter that claimed that he believes that "Srebrenica has been a lie" and that "all the other Bosnian-Serb nationalists' crimes in the three years before Srebrenica must be false too" or "excusing these crimes", although at no point has he ever claimed this. Nor has Chomsky indicated in any way that Mr Pervanić is "a liar". At no stage has Chomsky ever claimed Srebrenica is "a lie".

The only basis for Mr Pervanić believing this is the interview that the Guardian and Brockes accepts misrepresented Chomsky. The Guardian upholds Chomsky's complaint: "Prof Chomsky believes that publication was designed to undermine his position, and addressed a part of the interview which was false." What exactly are the signatories complaining about? Well, the above quotes from Pervanić can't be it, because it is absolutely clear Chomsky said nothing of the sort Pervanić claims. In what way does a letter from a concentration camp survivor damning Chomsky for statements he never made not undermine Chomsky's position?

According to the signatories, "Chomsky has at no time claimed that Brockes misrepresented his view on this matter" concerning his defence of Living Marxism. They claim that "Pervanić's letter in The Guardian condemned Chomsky above all for his defence of Living Marxism's discredited claims. The Guardian has therefore misrepresented Pervanić and insulted his intelligence." (Not that they are concerned with the misrepresentations the Guardian and Brockes accept! So why bring make a virtue of this red herring? This is the comical level the signatories have descended to so as to defame Chomsky.) Well, no, Pervanić's main complaint is: "The importance of this issue is not about the number of people who were killed in and around Srebrenica, but about deliberate attempts to at best trivialise, at worst deny, genocidal acts committed by Serb nationalists in Bosnia." Chomsky has never trivialised or denied these atrocities. If he had, the signatories would have disclosed the damning evidence. He does not deny the crime but whether the term "genocide" is applicable.

In connection to the above, the signatories refer to Chomsky's defence of "Living Marxism's discredited claims", even "though Living Marxism's claim was proven to be false in a British court of law". They are alluding to ITN's libel case against Living Marxism, which put the magazine out of business. What this has to do with Srebrenica is a mystery. But then Srebrenica (or indeed any other crimes against humanity) has nothing to do with any of what is being levelled at Chomsky. As the signatories should be aware, Living Marxism's claims were not discredited in a court of law. Diana Johnstone sums it up rather nicely:

"Ms Brockes writes that the LM report was 'proven' to be false in a court of law. In fact, ITN put LM out of business by winning a libel suit against the magazine. But due to the quaint nature of British libel law, the decisive issue in court was NOT the truth about the wire fence. Rather, it was whether or not the ITN reporters had 'deliberately' sought to deceive the public. The issue become one of intentions and emotions. The judge, in his summing up, acknowledged that the ITN team reporters were mistaken as to who was enclosed by the old barbed-wire fence, adding, 'but does it matter?' The jury decided it did not."

That is not the same as having one's claims "discredited". Reporting from Trnopolje, the camp at the heart of the ITN-LM libel case, Ed Vulliamy, one of the signatories, wrote: "Trnopolje cannot be called a 'concentration camp' and is nowhere as sinister as Omarska: it is very grim, something between a civilian prison and transit camp."

 

CONCLUSION

The signatories' arguments are utterly ridiculous. So much so that one wonders whether they read what they signed. Chomsky comes out of all this in excellent moral health, his integrity unblemished. The signatories, meanwhile...well...isn't it obvious? "SDTT" joins a long line of critiques of Chomsky. All of which find a place in the categories of unbelievably stupid, hilariously ill-informed or fantastic knowing lies. The reader is left to judge which category "SDTT" fits. If there are sound critiques of Chomsky, I've yet to read one. The fatuously titled "SDTT", however, is certainly not one of them. The signatories have impugned and besmirched Brockes's integrity when, by her acceptance that she had seriously misrepresented and misunderstood Chomsky's comments, it had been arguably redeemed. Congratulations. Although it is certainly curious that Brockes, having played and replayed the tape so as to accurately quote Chomsky, did not realise that she was making a dog's breakfast of the "interview" until a complaint from Chomsky came her way. But one must always be willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

Postscript, March 2006: Oliver Kamm and Francis Wheen, two of the "SDTT" signatories, have joined with David Aaronovitch and written to the Guardian to complain about the apology afforded to Chomsky. Their letter, after more back and forth, was also, like "SDTT", not printed. Aaronovitch posted it on his Times' weblog and Kamm posted it on his website, which is almost exclusively dedicated to Chomsky; nearly all of Kamm's political commentary is either manifestly false or manifestly and laughably false. The letter goes over exactly the same turf as "SDTT", or, as it should be accurately called, "Chomsky - any nonsense will do". Raking over the same garbage was the best they could muster. One does wonder how it is that all these writers, journalists and academics can go to the trouble of defaming an innocent man and not feel the slightest guilt. Some repeat the offence again. Extraordinary! Aaronovitch, for instance, is a gem. He doesn't even take his own journalism seriously. Although this is normally an impossibility for anyone with an ounce on integrity and decency, Aaronovitch's complete lack of these qualities means that he is capable of anything. With respect to Iraq's supposed WMD, Aaronovitch blustered: "If nothing is eventually found, I - as a supporter of the war - will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again." Why believe what he says when he himself doesn't? Knowing that the whole thing is built on a monstrous lie, it was no surprise to see Andrew Sullivan cheer the Aaronovitch-Kamm-Wheen letter as a wonderful and systematic demolition job. Sullivan, lest we forget, advocated a Nazi-like holocaust of Iraqis for, er, the American anthrax attacks on Washington!
 

 

 

 

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