Chomsky and the Khmer Rouge
February 8, 2010
In his prickly response Letters, 17 January to Andrew Anthony’s “Lost in Cambodia,” OM, 10 January 2010 Noam Chomsky does precisely what he accuses Anthony of doing:
“Vilify the messenger, to ensure that unwanted history is forgotten.”
That unwanted history is of Chomsky himself casting aspersions on critics of the Khmer Rouge. During Pol Pot’s reign, Chomsky disputed the refugees themselves. Since Cambodia, he has expanded his game to North Korea and Bosnia. I must hand it to him – more than three decades after wagging his finger at refugees like myself in “Distortions at fourth hand” The Nation, 6 June 1977, and later in After the Cataclysm South End Press, 1979, he continues to quote selectively and to obfuscate. Chomsky’s formula is straightforward: 1 quote a critic saying something supportive of one little piece of an argument you wish to make; 2 needle other critics with it; and 3 repeat ad infinitum until you weave an entire tapestry with this flimsy thread. It is a game that only a linguist of Chomsky’s calibre can master.
I am merely a former Cambodian refugee, for whom English is my fourth language. Yet it does not take much effort to find precisely what Chomsky wrote in 1979 After the Cataclysm and to let it speak for itself:
“In the first place, is it proper to attribute deaths from malnutrition and disease to Cambodian authorities?”
Since my father died of malnutrition and disease, I am especially outraged by this question. While my family worked and died in rice fields, Chomsky sharpened his theories and amended his arguments while seated in his armchair in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I believe that he would probably have me blame the Americans and their bombs for causing everything around the Khmer Rouge to go wrong.
Incredibly, Chomsky and Ed Herman did precisely that when they claimed:
“If a serious study… is someday undertaken, it may well be discovered… that the Khmer Rouge programmes elicited a positive response… because they dealt with fundamental problems rooted in the feudal past and exacerbated by the imperial system.… Such a study, however, has yet to be undertaken.”
Perhaps that study had already been undertaken but was ignored, as Chomsky and Herman intimate: “The situation in Phnom Penh resulting from the US war is graphically described in a carefully-documented study by Hildebrand and Porter that has been almost totally ignored by the press.” This is high praise for a book that contained a propaganda picture of a Khmer Rouge “hospital” operating room.
It just so happens that my father died in a mite-infested Khmer Rouge “hospital”. Nam Mon, an illiterate Khmer Rouge “nurse”, testified in July 2009 at the Khmer Rouge tribunal now taking place in Phnom Penh that all she did was hand out paracetamol and aspirin, no matter the malady. To be sure, her patients got the special treatment; they were prisoners at S-21, the Khmer Rouge killing machine that produced more than 17,000 deaths.
When it comes to allowing for honest error, Chomsky will have none of it. He refers for example to Father Ponchaud’s differing American and British editions of Cambodia: Year Zero as evidence of duplicity. If he had cared to check with the easily accessible French priest, he would have learned that the error was due to his translator, who submitted the wrong edition to the publisher.
Writing about American leaders in At War with Asia (Pantheon, 1970), Chomsky poignantly argued that:
“Perhaps someday they will acknowledge their ‘honest errors’ in their memoirs, speaking of the burdens of world leadership and the tragic irony of history. Their victims, the peasants of Indochina, will write no memoirs and will be forgotten. They will join the countless millions of earlier victims of tyrants and oppressors.”
Indeed, perhaps someday Chomsky will acknowledge his “honest errors” in his memoirs, speaking of the burdens of academia and the tragic irony of history. His victims, the peasants of Indochina, will write no memoirs and will be forgotten. They will be joined by his North Korean and Bosnian victims.
For decades, Chomsky has vilified his critics as only a world class linguist can. However, for me and the surviving members of my family, questions about life under the Khmer Rouge are not intellectual parlour games. While he is a legend in linguistics, in international affairs Noam Chomsky consistently falls short of Thomas Jefferson’s maxim that universities are “based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Professor Sophal Ear
National Security Affairs
US Naval Postgraduate School