Noam Chomsky Embarrassed by George Monbiot

Ben Cohen
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Noam Chomsky.

Noam Chomsky: A rare case when the esteemed professor is clearly wrong. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was extremely saddened to see a bad tempered back and forth between two  important intellectual figures, Noam Chomsky and George Monbiot over an article written by Monbiot on the definition of genocide. The two men, particularly Chomsky, have made enormous contributions to their respected fields and broadly speaking, they agree far more than they differ, making their public spat all the more disheartening.

To cut a long story short, Monbiot penned an article criticizing a book written by Left wing heroes Edward Herman and David Peterson on the misuse of the word 'genocide'. Monbiot accused the writers of downplaying genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica and had four genocide scholars take apart their thesis. It's fairly devastating stuff, and Herman and Peterson's book is exposed as having at the very least, some very serious flaws.

Noam Chomsky wrote the foreword for the book and Monbiot emailed to him to ask if he would distance himself from their work. What transpired was a pretty vicious back and forth that unfortunately exposed Chomsky for not actually having read the book. Chomsky then when to great lengths to deliberately avoid Monbiot's questions through a mixture of convoluted logic and pointless counter attacks.

It's an interesting dialogue between two formidably bright thinkers, and you do get to see how seriously they take their work. Reading both men is often like reading a maths equation - their logic is almost always flawless and their assertions substantiated with a wealth of evidence. But this time, Chomsky has seriously let himself down and deserves to raked over the coals for his intellectual dishonesty. I felt a great deal of sympathy for Monbiot when reading it, as he was clearly pained to be at odds with a man he has described as a personal hero - a feeling I have myself as I type these words. I have dedicated a great deal of time reading Chomsky's work, and I rarely find cause to disagree. However, reading his correspondence with Monbiot, I was shocked by his evasive, obfuscating responses that were not only demonstrably wrong, but extremely rude and dismissive.

Monbiot's basic argument was that by putting his name, photograph and a foreword in a book that was using his credentials to sell copies, Chomsky was implicitly endorsing the academia inside it. Monbiot accused Chomsky of not actually reading the book either, and if you read between the lines, you'll see that he most likely didn't. Here's Chomsky on his support for the book:

I purposely mentioned only one aspect of the book, which I do think is important, particularly so because of how it is ignored: namely the vulgar politicization of the word “genocide,” now so extreme that I rarely use the word at all. The mass slaughter in Srebrenica, for example, is certainly a horror story and major crime, but to call it “genocide” so cheapens the word as to constitute virtual Holocaust denial, in my opinion. It amazes me that intelligent people cannot see that.

Chomsky's argument was that he wasn't endorsing the facts in the book, merely supporting the thesis that the term 'genocide' is overused in intellectual circles and can grossly distort history. Chomsky also accused Monbiot of willfully ignoring more serious cases of genocide and focusing on smaller ones because he is part of  a cultish liberal elite:

Did you read my article before writing about it? If not, then we can drop the discussion. If you did, then you know that it brought up colossal cases of genocide denial, vastly beyond anything that concerns you, and vastly more important as well for obvious reasons. I’ll keep just to the one case we’ve discussed – there are others — but that you don’t seem to comprehend, for reasons that escape me: the denial of the slaughter of tens of millions in the Western hemisphere, about 10 million in the territorial US alone.

As to why it’s vastly more important than what concerns you, the reasons should be clear. First, the denial of genocide appears (without a single published reaction) in one of the most prominent intellectual journals of left-liberalism; so we are discussing easy tolerance of denial of colossal genocide (by “our side”) by your associates and friends.

If you're confused, here's what I think Chomsky is trying to say: Liberal commentators focus on small and basically irrelevant crimes committed by foreign despots because it detracts from the major crimes their own countries have, or are committing.

This is where Chomsky's argument completely falls apart. Monbiot wasn't in anyway disagreeing with this assertion - in fact, he agreed and provided multiple links to his own articles arguing the same point. Monbiot was simply saying that regardless of who commits the crime, it is still a crime and should be treated accordingly. Just because the crimes in Rwanda and Srebrenica may pale in comparison to the genocide of Native Americans (and that's still debatable) doesn't mean they aren't important and Western journalists can't draw attention to them.

Here's Monbiot's response (NB: the points are not in exact chronological order - I've edited to give the general thrust of the back and forth):

I understand your point about the vulgarization of the term genocide. But I contend that it has a specific and well-understood meaning: acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. The intent behind the crime bears no necessary relationship to its scale or success. In fact far greater mass atrocities, in terms of the numbers killed, have been committed which do not meet the strict definition of genocide. But this does not mean that they shouldn’t be exposed and prosecuted as rigorously as genocide is. - You say that what I have published on this topic illustrates “the reigning moral/intellectual culture in which we largely live”, in which the crimes of the West are minimised or dismissed and those of its opponents are magnified. I believe that this can only be a wilful mischaracterisation of my work. I know that you are, or were, aware of what I have published on this topic: we have discussed it in person, and you congratulated me on it....

I asked you whether you would make a statement distancing yourself from the demonstrably false claims in Herman and Peterson’s book. You replied “No, I won’t. It would be sheer cowardice.” On the contrary, it would be an act of courage. Taking on allies is a far tougher call than taking on opponents, as I’ve found whenever I have done so – indeed as I find right at this moment, as I argue with a man whom I have admired perhaps more than anyone else on earth. But doesn’t intellectual honesty sometimes mean that it is necessary? Should our principles not be consistent, whoever they might offend?

Without responding to any of Monbiot's questions, Chomsky instead chose to attack Monbiot on his use of the term 'implicit endorsement', somehow finding a way of comparing writing a clearly supportive foreword in a book to the denial of genocide by omission:

In your (disparaging) published comments you mention absolutely none of this [the genocide of Native Americans]. Therefore, adopting your concept (not mine) of “implicit endorsement” you endorse denial of horrendous crimes that is incomparably worse than anything that you focus your attention on. And when this is repeatedly brought to your attention, you still don’t see it.

After this extraordinary leap of logic, Monbiot chose to stop the correspondence, writing:

At this point, faced with Professor Chomsky’s repeated and apparently wilful failure to grasp the simple points I was making or answer the simple questions I was asking, I almost lost the will to live.

And as a huge fan of Noam Chomsky, I almost did too.

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