I received a fair few emails about my piece defending George Monbiot against Noam Chomsky, most of them supporting Chomsky’s point of view. My take was pretty one sided – I believe that Chomsky was way off the mark and was completely unfair to Monbiot, who was asking him a relatively straight forward question that Chomsky didn’t seem to want to answer.
A friend of mine, Jan Frel (former editor of Alternet) engaged in a conversation with me about the article on the comments section, and I think he brought up some pretty good points. I will always look for ways to be lenient with Chomsky given his extraordinary contribution to human knowledge, and I think Jan’s explanation at least helps understand Chomsky’s side. Here’s the dialogue:
Jan: Monbiot is good sometimes, fishy others. I emailed him some simple questions about his support for the nuclear industry after he endorsed it, and he couldn’t answer them, as in: he didn’t. Monbiot disappoints often, but is also often good. Chomsky, at age 82 or whatever he is, I have a lot of charity for, especially on the question of genocide, especially when it comes to questions of genocide in former Yugoslavia, since there is an ongoing geopolitical campaign to overstate the number of corpses created there. There’s a lot of back story on that one, and one constant trend is to instill in our memories that pre-NATO/US political-military intervention, there was the potential for enormous horrific bloodshed, and that this was in full swing until the US came in there.
Me: Interesting point Jan – I do agree that Chomsky is worthy of a lot of charity – he’s done an inhuman amount of good work and can be forgiven for taking his eyes off the ball at his age. I just think that this time, he was way off the mark and was clearly not answering Monbiot’s questions because he probably knew he was wrong.
Jan: Right, there is that point that the guy may well not have read the book, but there’s a fairly involved history here. It becomes apparent if you watch a handful of Chomsky talks on YouTube and his article archive on Chomsky.info, and his essays available on Nexis on state terror and genocide denial and the fairly sophisticated and counter intuitive methods of undermining scholarly work on the topic that he and his colleagues endured since he got in the business starting with Vietnam, proceeding to East Timor, and then in Nicaragua and beyond. Scholars and journalists did employ exactly the method that Monbiot did, and many of its cousins, and when Chomsky was fully on his game, he refuted them. At this point it’s probably reflexive for Chomsky to respond the way he did, and meanwhile, he very well may not have read the book he blurbed, which is quite a common thing. I think Chomsky felt secure about the book because he and Herman did a book together I believe.
I think Jan is probably right – I’ve seen Chomsky refute a lot of journalists for completely ignoring the crimes of their own country while focusing on those on the ‘official enemies’ list (his take down of the BBC’s Andrew Marr for example, was absolutely devastating) – and I think he just reverted to type when dealing with Monbiot. The thing is, he completely underestimated his subject and got caught out. Rather than back track and apologize, Chomsky continued his attack and came off looking petty and arrogant.
Still, it doesn’t undermine the work Chomsky has done over the years, and that’s why his spat with Monbiot is probably best put down to a bit of age weariness.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.