Mondoweiss

Chomsky and his critics

Bertrand Russell

When the Swedish Academy awarded Bertrand Russell a Nobel Prize, the philosopher was uneasy. I have always supposed, he wrote, that one cannot be respectable without being wicked. He conducted his life out of step with the creed of authority. Twice imprisoned and twice removed from his academic post for his broadsides against war and religion, the aristocratic radical actively courted the displeasure of an elite that made his grandfather prime minister of England. And when, of late, it was disclosed that the CIA had spied on Noam Chomsky, it was not much of a revelation that he too is a prime target for the respectable.

An extensive literature has grown up over the years that pegs him as, variously, a Holocaust denier, a neo-Nazi fellow traveller, a Stalin admirer, a Hezbollah adviser, a Saddam Hussein defender, and a Pol Pot sympathiser. These indictments come not just from the remote wilds of the rightwing media. They come from liberal sectors of the press.

What accounts for the obsession? One has long suspected that his critics work in teams to revile him. But the full extent of their collusion has remained unclear. Documents that have come to light reveal that it is a tightly orchestrated network of foreign policy hawks in the press, academia, and politics, some connected with the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), a neoconservative think tank with links to political officials in the United States and Great Britain. The remarks that follow will trace the connections between the key figures of this circle, past and present.

It all started with a feud. In May 2013, Marko Attila Hoare, an academic who writes on Bosnia and a member of the HJS, in a running dispute with its leadership, published documents revealing the inner workings of the Society in response to its efforts to deny he had ever held a position in the group. The material proves that he was a staff member from the start, but it sheds light on the anti-Chomsky lobby too.

The documents are the minutes of the HJS. The internal memos, dated November 2005, outline the newly-formed outfit’s main agenda at their first post-launch meeting. One of the items on the minutes, listed prominently in fourth place, was to discredit Chomsky. Their tack was to allege that he is a “denier” of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia. In the art of controversy, slapping the label “denier” on someone is meant to evoke the Holocaust. Chomsky, the furtive charge proceeds, is a kind of Nazi.

Brian Leiter reviewed the merits of this allegation when elements of the HJS launched it, and the blog Indecent Left has combed through what Chomsky has written on the Balkans in painstaking detail. The only conclusion possible after surveying the material is that the evidence for this “denial” has all the merits of the evidence for chastity in a brothel.

But if you cannot argue with critics of militarism on the plane of facts and findings, you do what’s second best, allege they work in the service of foreign powers. In the run up to the Iraq war, it was Saddam for whom the Left was said to swoon. In the Balkan wars, it was Milosevic.

The moment would come to press the attack. When Chomsky was voted by readers of Prospect magazine in 2005 as the most important intellectual alive, a journalist sympathetic to their cause interviewed Chomsky for the Guardian in which, amid a litany of sneering comments about her interview subject, he was quoted as saying that no massacre took place in Srebrenica. The quote was a fake. After complaints from readers and Chomsky alike, the Guardian retracted the piece, pulled it from its website, and disowned the accusation as baseless.

The HJS sprang to action. It sought to overturn the Guardian’s decision and spread the story to other publications. The record of the HJS meeting shows its tactic was to feed damaging allegations to friendly journalists, newspapers, magazines, and, in a novel twist to the methods of neoconservatives, leaders of Muslim organisations, putting it about that Chomsky is a pro-Serb propagandist who covers up crimes against Bosnian Muslims.

The task of getting this slur into circulation was delegated to Marko Attila Hoare and Oliver Kamm. Among the papers chosen to carry the charge were the Guardian, the Times and the Spectator magazine. The individuals to be approached were then Independent columnist Johann Hari, former political editor of the Spectator Bruce Anderson, and the leader of the Muslim Council of Britain at the time, Sir Iqbal Sacranie. The memo, written in shorthand, states:

Push forward on Chomsky / Srebrenica issue: Approach Guardian, Johann Hari, Bruce Anderson, THES, Spectator. Approach Sacranie and ask what he is to do about it. (Marko: coordinate with Oliver Kamm) Marko Atilla Hoare outlines the Chomsky case in the Guardian. In effect, this newspaper endorses genocide denial. Gideon Mailer mentions Jonathan Steel’s piece in the Guardian also. It was agreed that Marko Atilla Hoare would get in touch with Iqbal Sacranie (for example) and ask what can be done about the denial of genocide against Muslims in Europe during the Balkan wars. It was also thought that this should be mentioned to Johann Hari and the THES

The efforts of Kamm, Hoare and their colleagues to win over the Guardian bore no fruit. How could it? In their eyes “this newspaper endorses genocide denial”. It is an evil newspaper. By toiling so manically year after year, polemic after polemic, to vilify Chomsky, they succeeded only in extracting a formal repudiation of their efforts by responsible journals of opinion. In a tribute to the dishonest interview the Guardian was too ashamed to longer host on its website, the piece now enjoys a proud spot on Chomsky’s, there to serve as an object lesson to the scribbler with a creative streak.

The HJS memo puts to rest the mystery of why Michael Gove, the Minister of Justice in the British Conservative Government, and a trustee of the think tank, has accused Chomsky of denying the Srebrenica massacre on TV. It’s all about the oppressed Bosniaks for them, you appreciate, not about leveraging the debatable humanitarian motives of Western intervention in the Balkans as a precedent for invading Iraq and Syria and Iran and whatever enemy of the year beckons after that. It’s a carefully devised strategy to bash NC.

If a network of Pentagon ultras hatching schemes to denigrate Chomsky sounds familiar, it is because it is. The Anti Defamation League maintained a thick file on Chomsky of reports by its operatives sent to monitor his speeches, of newspaper clippings, and of snatches of personal correspondence they had managed to obtain. A copy was supplied to Alan Dershowitz in preparation for a debate he was set to have with him. Some of the leaked contents of the ADL file have since been published by the Electronic Intifada. On a further occasion, an editor of The Partisan Review offered the ADL print space to proceed against him.

Chomsky once spoke of the “defamation industry”. It sounded like rhetoric. But these revelations put things in a new light. An industry of books, websites, magazines, think tanks and organisations have formed to mount an unsurpassable onslaught. So many resources devoted to one man. A testament to how much he is feared.

Marko Hoare, in his entertaining campaign against the HJS– for apostasy wars are always a treat to behold– proves that his gifts in autobiographical revisionism are as well honed as his raillery against Chomsky. He identifies himself as a liberal who, though admiring of the muscularity of US foreign policy, does not like what he sees as the Henry Jackson Society’s lurch to the extreme right. The creeping signs of this rightward lurch were consummated, we are informed by our lurch resistant academic, by the arrival to the think tank of Douglas Murray, a rightwing critic of Islam.

These are strange sounds for Hoare to be making.

He affects not to have known the HJS was a neocon operation, and that only lately, seven years after he lent a hand in founding it, has this tendency emerged. The fact it is named for a senator, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who backed the Vietnam war told him nothing. The presence of Richard Perle, Bill Kristol, Cliff May and the former CIA director James Woolsey among its patrons rang no alarm bell either.

And if he was uncomfortable with criticism of Islam, for which he has no reason, theology not being just a game for theophiles, he failed to indicate that such was the case when he argued that “Anti-Muslim bigotry is NOT to be confused with criticising Islam as a religion or opposing special privileges for Muslims, both of which are entirely legitimate.” (Emphasis in original.) And quite right too. Evidence of his aversion to the “Islamophobia” charge which he levels against Murray was in short supply when he informed us that “Christopher Hitchens correctly points out that the term ‘Islamophobia’ has been used to stifle criticism of Islam. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the indiscriminate use of the term by paranoid, self-pitying Muslims and guilt-ridden, self-hating Western liberals”.

Not quite the interfaith dialogue type, Hoare. Hints of a more realistic motive for the infighting between our muscular Jacksonians emerge when Hoare relates the shakeup of the organisation’s staff that saw him shafted from a senior role in the team, his position downgraded, his posting privileges on their website withdrawn unceremoniously, his articles rejected for submission, all this coinciding with the arrival of Douglas Murray, instantly promoted over Hoare in spite of his much longer tenure with the anti-Chomsky veterans. Might this be the cause of his enmity against the neocons? More plausible. Always count on a man to discover his principles when his ego is wounded.

Hoare is a mild mannered fellow as measured against the antics of his confederate, Oliver Kamm, a leader writer for the London Times, and the man tasked by the HJS to conspire with him against Chomsky.

A little history about Kamm is in order. The intellectual he most admires, Sidney Hook, true to the pro-military path of so many former Marxists, repaid his debts to patriotism by waging a determined campaign against leftists that his disciple has continued with gusto. Not only did Hook favour that America should stay in Vietnam to the finish once the war began, even if, in his view, the original deployment was a “mistake” (Hook liked the application of that anodyne word to mass murder by the United States), it should also commit to the covert wars in Central America, in support of the Contras in Nicaragua and the military junta of El Salvador.

The iconic symbol of the latter intervention was the El Mozote massacre, in which US-trained death squads rounded up 800 civilians in the town square, half of them children, and went about slitting the throats of men, women and children. Torture and rape in the presence of CIA officers were common. 70,000 would die, but Hook was unrepentant. Kamm applauded these views, published in Hook’s letters, as a defence of the free world against communism, just as he applauded the US sponsored overthrow of the democratically elected leader of Chile, Salvador Allende, whom he describes as a “totalitarian”.

Hook would go on to denounce Chomsky in his memoir for his protest against the Vietnam War, indignant that Chomsky should compare the mass killing of two million Vietnamese civilians to Nazi-like behaviour, a charge that Kamm would borrow frequently from Hook in his attacks on Chomsky to make it appear as though Chomsky said that the US and Nazi Germany are equal in every respect. By career’s end Hook was awarded the Medal of Freedom by Ronald Reagan for his services to anti-communism. It was well earned.

Decades later, the intellectual protege of old Sidney would carry on a Homeric obsession with the intellectual heir to Russell. And thus we have the saga of Kamm’s one sided feud with Chomsky.

Since 1998, the earliest record on cyberspace to one’s knowledge of his preoccupation with Chomsky, Kamm trailed him round and round the Web; he intruded on Usenet groups about his work to deposit taunting remarks culminating in eloquent putdowns like “ha ha”; he left one star Amazon reviews on seemingly all of Chomsky’s books, even when it was demonstrable that his knowledge of the contents consisted merely of its author’s name; he maintained a blog consecrated to the denunciation of all things and persons connected to Chomsky.

In view of the foregoing, it will be seen that “obsession” is a descriptive, not a pejorative, term for Kamm’s online behaviour, altogether distinct from the less excitable Marko Attila Hoare’s.

After long years of failing to break Chomsky’s monastic vow of silence, and forced to content himself with fielding derision from leftists not convinced that his prescription for re-electing George Bush was the best use of their ballot, Kamm got what he so infernally desired, a battle of wits with Chomsky in a polemical exchange in the pages of Prospect; and in so getting, left to his family name the distinction, unique in the annals of medical science, of being guillotined and surgically reattached to his shoulders and guillotined again so many times that no miracle known to God could patch up the vulgarian.

This too, it will be admitted by the impartial and disinterested, is only descriptive.

For the exchange see Kamm here and Chomsky here. After the spectacle one feels a little sorry and a little obscene for taking relish in the whole thing when the realisation hits that Kamm is a vigorous booty-clapper for the war lobby not, perhaps, because he enjoys gyrating pornographically to wild applause, though one might be easily fooled by the talent with which he swings from the dance pole, a G-string the only garment in sight, but simply and unavoidably to ward off starvation.

If getting humiliated by Chomsky was not punishment enough, Kamm, lusting after peaks of humiliation still grander, was demolished by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson in the most comprehensive and forensic critique of his work. Kamm likes to scream “genocide denier”, but Herman and Peterson prove that when Kamm is not denying Western backed genocides of his own, he is an active proponent of genocidal policies against official enemies.

Not since the fate which befell Richard Perle when he made the mistake of consenting to debate Chomsky, was a man so ritually dismembered. It is fitting that Perle is a patron of the HJS, and thus an elder statesman to Kamm, because it was the fate of Perle all over again. A man needs someone to commiserate with.

Perle’s involvement with the HJS is significant: he had served as an aide to Scoop Jackson, and after the way Chomsky toyed with him in 1988, had rather a more personal reason for getting even with his tormentor. It is beyond the power of speech to describe how bruising that encounter was. Perle will suffer other indignities in his life, but he can draw solace from the fact that he will not suffer quite like that again.

The greatest eruption of imbecilities in the anti-Chomsky industry, the most gorgeous and ornate buffooneries, come from Sam Harris whose book jacket for The End of Faith triumphantly announces that he has exposed “the secular fanaticism of Noam Chomsky” in a blurb supplied by Alan Dershowitz, which has Chomsky compared to the “fanaticism of Islamic suicide bombers”.

We are fortunate beyond words, are we not, to have these sages for all the ages protect us from the “secular fanaticism” of Mr Chomsky? Humanity shall not forget their dauntless sacrifice. Where else but in a pop atheist book is the fight against secular fanatics to be waged? Where else indeed.

Given that Sam Harris confides that “At various points I was a dogmatic Buddhist and a dogmatic Hindu believing in all manner of nonsense”, it is delightful to hear a convert not just to one religious fundamentalism, but fully two, speak of other people’s fanaticism, all the more so when he states that he was born into a “very secular household”.

Professor Dershowitz continues the gushing praise for Harris: “The End Of Faith shows how the perfect tyranny of religious and secular totalitarianism demonizes imperfect democracies such as the United States and Israel. A must read for all rational people.” Secular totalitarians who demonise imperfect democracies you say. Truly a must read for all rational people.

The odds are good that Dershowitz, known to conspire with anyone he can find against Chomsky, was an influence on Harris’s attack on him in light of the book’s fulsome tribute to the brilliance of Dershowitz’s moral arguments for torture and the unique humanity of the Israeli Defense Force’s treatment of Palestinians. Perhaps it is the bit on how Bush’s Iraq invasion was unfairly stigmatised by Chomsky. Like many pro-war liberals Harris would later deny he favoured the Iraq War once it could no longer be defended, preferring to say that he was agnostic, but as noted before in these pages, Harris argued in this speech at University Synagogue that we should have invaded Iraq with international support because civilisation has to be defended from its Muslim enemies:

Intelligent people could disagree about whether it was the right thing to do to go into Iraq. But one thing is pretty clear, going in we should have gone in with everybody. We need a truly international effort. We need to convince civilised democracies everywhere that civilisation itself has genuine enemies. These totalitarian, theocratic, tribal eruptions on many parts of the globe on a hundred fronts, many if not most of them are Muslims.

So much for our man of reason and science. You start off making funny gags about religion and you end in the gutter. As is the case with Hook and Kamm, the Harris-Dershowitz nexus is an example of the defamation industry’s generations-spanning enmity against the M.I.T. scholar.

Attacks on Chomsky that seem isolated and unconnected are often the handiwork of journalists and authors who move in the same circles. Kamm for instance is an associate of Nick Cohen’s; he admits to having advised Cohen on how to frame his denunciation of Chomsky in his apostasy book, What’s Left?. Cohen in turn is an ally of Christopher Hitchens who gave him a rave review. In many ways Hitchens was the centre of gravity in this circle around which the rest orbited, its most admired and leading member, a friend to Kamm, Cohen, Francis Wheen, David Aaronovitch, Norman Geras and other contributors to the anti-Chomsky genre of the national letters, in a mutually supportive club of hate against not just him, but against all dissenters on both sides of the Atlantic.

What the last named have in common is they are nearly all British former Trotskyists. Chomsky would not be surprised. He was speaking of the habit of Leninism to inspire waves of apostates because of its despotism and moral vacancy while the USSR was still a force to reckon with. As Chomsky was getting himself banned from the Soviet Union however, these fellows were still in thrall to Comrade Trotsky.

A recanted Marxist is not content to leave error behind. He must devote the rest of his life to harrying those who remain on the Left. Some of them, mindful of this well trodden path, try to evade cliche by still calling themselves Marxists whilst advocating the same policy objectives as the Republican Party. Hook did this. Hitchens did this. And Geras did this. The rest are too full of horror of old Karl to bear his name and are satisfied with passing themselves off as Leftists. Well, gentlemen, good luck with that.

Chomsky, more sensible, says that Marxism-Leninism is a religion and has always favoured a libertarian credo. What is notable is that although Chomsky is a critic of Bolshevism, he is not a Red-baiter, provocations from some of their number over the years notwithstanding. But you cannot read the work of an ex-Marxist without endless sneers about the “far left”.

The members of the HJS, in particular, are a marvel of nature. An all too common jibe of theirs is that the antiwar Left makes common cause with Muslim fundamentalists in opposing US foreign policy; and yet when it favours their cause they clamour to rope in just such a fundamentalist to assist their castigation of the peace movement. The man they chose to be their Muslim figleaf, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, former head of the Muslim Council of Britain, invited mockery when he was knighted by Tony Blair for having said that death is too easy for Salman Rushdie, from whose Satanic Verses publishers he made four demands: “One, to withdraw and pulp the remaining copies of the book. Two, to undertake not to publish in any form or manner any further additions or translations of the novel. Three, to tender an unqualified apology to all the followers of Islam. And four, to pay damages to an agreed Muslim charity.”

In addition, Sacranie’s view on homosexuality is that it is not acceptable because “it spreads disease” and that gay civil partnerships are “harmful”. The Henry Jackson Society’s desired outreach to this bigot, a man who championed a parliamentary bill to make expression of “religious hatred” concerning Islam a crime, what civilised people call free speech, is now a matter of public record. If Kamm and Hoare must throw free speech and gay rights under the bus to spite Chomsky, under the bus let them go.

The HJS memos show they wanted to recruit Johann Hari to their anti-Chomsky fraternity. Their attraction to Hari was during his hawkish phase, it must be said, before his retraction of liberal interventionism and his public disavowal of the war lobby. He has since gone on to produce some of the finest journalism on the subject of empire, the failed war on drugs, the obscenities of religion, and on much else besides. Far from joining their sect, it’s not uncommon for militarists to come to grief at the hands of Mr Hari.

It’s unlucky days for the HJS. Its infighting has forced an exodus of sponsors from the Labour party that gave it the flimsiest pretence of a cross-party think tank. It was a cross-party merely of neocons and neolibs without any leftwing pedigree.

Honest critiques of Chomsky are not to be confused with the defamation industry. It would be nothing short of a miracle if a man of Chomsky’s prolific output and breadth did not invite disagreement. He has published in excess of a hundred books on multiple disciplines, on science, on philosophy, on government, on economics, on the media, on history, often with a view to upset conventional platitudes. A critical appraisal of his work is useful to the student of political science, and the first to undertake such a critique ought to be those who share his ideals to make his analysis more effective.

What is salient about the professional Chomsky hounders though is how little error they uncover. It is because they are not engaged in criticism, in the inspection of whether his arguments hold up against the evidence. They are simply practitioners of vilification.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Bertrand Russell ruminated that “I think every big town should contain artificial waterfalls that people could descend in very fragile canoes, and they should contain bathing pools full of mechanical sharks. Any person found advocating a preventive war should be condemned to two hours a day with these ingenious monsters”. Well, it’s never too late.

In the end I think of those two men, Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky, those crowning ornaments of our moral age, those benefactors of humanity, those models of integrity, and reflect on the crooks who defame them and who aspire to be their equals, and a deep roar of laughter escapes from the depths of my being.

Correction: This article originally failed to state that David Peterson was co-author of “The Oliver Kamm School of Falsification: Imperial Truth-Enforcement, British Branch”, cited as “the most comprehensive and forensic critique” of Oliver Kamm’s work. Our apologies ~ Ed.