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Anti-Chomsky Blog, Part III By: Oliver Kamm
oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog/ | Thursday, September 16, 2004

September 10, 2004

Lying about history

I ought to leave the subject of Noam Chomsky for the time being, but the man's output is so vast and his distortions so consistently applied that there's always something to add. And I haven't yet started on his notions about economics. A flavour of that last subject was noted by the Berkeley economist Brad DeLong, in a post that a number of my correspondents have sent me:

And then there are Chomsky's casual lies [in his pamphlet What Uncle Sam Really Wants]:... [e.g.] that "free trade is fine for economics departments and newspaper editorials, but nobody in the corporate world or the government takes the doctrines seriously" (I was in the government, and will be again. How dare he lie about what I take seriously?).

Likewise: I've never been in government and never will be, but I have a fair amount of experience in the corporate world, and have also occasionally lectured to MBA students and written newspaper op-ed columns. There is no difference in my view of free trade, which I take very seriously indeed, when held in any of these capacities.

Chomsky is of course not making a serious claim about economics. Rather, he is employing a rhetorical tick of the form "the person I'm attacking can't possibly believe what he says". He does this often, and even had the gall to try the tactic explicitly when supposedly responding to Christopher Hitchens' criticisms of his stance on the destruction of the Twin Towers:

I have been asked to respond to recent articles by Christopher Hitchens, and after refusing several times, will do so, though only partially, and reluctantly. The reason for the reluctance is that Hitchens cannot mean what he is saying.

This is a dual-purpose expedient of arrogance and intellectual disrepute - a means whereby Chomsky can avoid difficult questions in favour of attacking his critics' probity. What is less often noted, and compounds his dishonesty, is that it's a method Chomsky reverses completely when he chooses. In some cases he takes the line that an argument he's commenting on can't be sincerely meant. In others, he interprets statements in such a way that their political character is disregarded in favour of a strict literalness. (Rather like proving that the Government is united by adducing as evidence a statement of support for the Prime Minister by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.)

These are not the methods of a careful political analyst or historian, who makes interpretative judgements based on context. As Richard Evans, one of the expert witnesses for the defence (i.e. for Penguin Books) in David Irving's disastrous libel suit, wrote in his account of that case, Lying About Hitler:

What a professional historian does is to take the whole of the source in question into account, and check it against other relevant sources, to reach a reasoned conclusion that will withstand critical scrutiny by other historians who look at the same material.... Argument between historians is limited by what the evidence allows them to say.

As I explained in my earlier posts this week, Chomsky doesn't "take the whole of the source into question", and he doesn't "check it against other relevant sources". On the contrary, he removes context that would enable the reader to come to a reasoned conclusion. Once that context is put back in, and the outright fabrications (e.g. that Daniel Patrick Moynihan boasted of "success" with regard to the killings in East Timor) are corrected, there is only limited scope for serious interpretative disagreement, and none at all for the conclusions Chomsky adduces. In order to arrive at those conclusions Chomsky has one technique to fall back on, which is to retain for himself the privilege of interpreting the statements made by others and to present those interpretations as revealed truth. And this is the case whether he takes a statement as evidence of disingenuity, or as evidence of unwitting candour. The choice is Chomsky's to make, and he makes it with apparent arbitrariness but in reality complete consistency: to force the conclusion that he has already arrived at, and which will reveal the presumed iniquity and rapaciousness of the United States and its allies.

As we've seen, Chomsky will simply announce, with no evidence cited, that a particular stated position (on trade, for example) is not genuine. But when it suits him he'll take the opposite tack. This was one of the most revealing features of his rearguard action once the historian Arthur Schlesinger had debunked the "quotations" from President Truman in Chomsky's first book, which I discussed in my earlier post. I now return to that example. Let me recap for sake of clarity, before discussing it further.

In his letter in the December 1969 issue of Commentary Schlesinger cited at length the Truman speech at Baylor that Chomsky had flagrantly misquoted. Having been caught in false quotation, Chomsky then reverted to the claim that his account from two commentators (whom Chomsky described as "eminent" - you can always tell someone's unsure of his ground when he resorts to obsequious honorifics under fire) was an accurate paraphrase. And he then carried on with his free and creative interpretations. Schlesinger cited this passage from Truman's speech:

There is one thing that Americans value even more than peace. It is freedom. Freedom of worship - freedom of speech - freedom of enterprise. It must be true that the first two of these freedoms are related to the third. For, throughout history, freedom of worship and freedom of speech have been most frequently enjoyed in those societies that have accorded a considerable measure of freedom to individual enterprise. Freedom has flourished where power has been dispersed. It has languished where power has been too highly centralized. So our devotion to freedom of enterprise, in the United States, has deeper roots than a desire to protect the profits of ownership.

The way Chomsky rendered this, in the October 1969 edition of Commentary was:

Truman argued that freedom of enterprise is one of those freedoms to be 'valued even more than peace'.

This is, as Schlesinger points out, a distortion of Truman's words; according to Truman, Americans value freedom more than peace:

... and he made it clear that he meant above all intellectual and religious freedom. His sentence relating freedom of speech and freedom of worship to freedom of enterprise is moderately stated and historically defensible. Does Dr Chomsky really quarrel with such platitudes as "Freedom has flourished where power has been dispersed. It has languished where power has been too highly centralized"?

In his reply to Schlesinger, published in the February 1970 issue of Commentary, Chomsky attempted to evacuate his interpretations to impregnable ground (emphasis added):

The remarks at issue are not theorems deduced from Truman's text; rather, they are efforts to formulate concisely the essence of his remarks. By any reasonable standards, their accuracy seems to me undeniable.

Chomsky has gone from spurious quotation to tendentious interpretation; he now defends his interpretation with reference to himself ("seems to me..."). He invokes "any reasonable standard", but doesn't say what reasonable standards comprise; we're left with the inference that a reasonable standard is whatever accords with Chomsky's conclusions.

There is in fact a "reasonable standard" that any competent historian would adopt in this matter. It is Richard Evans's criterion of checking a historical interpretation "against other relevant sources, to reach a reasoned conclusion that will withstand critical scrutiny". This is a scholarly procedure that Chomsky will not adopt. He extracts the pro-enterprise tenor of Truman's comments, twists it to yield the conclusion he desires, and brandishes it as a triumphant discovery of unambiguous purpose. In short, he takes things out of context, whereas the context is essential to historical understanding.

(The importance of context to political history obviously ought not to need saying, but it does where Chomsky's admirers are concerned. Brad DeLong states the problem exactly: "The Chomsky defenders--and there seem to be a surprisingly large number of them--seem to form a kind of cult. Arguing with them seems to be a lot like trying to teach Plato's Republic to a pig: it wastes your time, and it annoys the pig." Without apparently the deliberate intent of proving DeLong's point, one of my correspondents has sent me an angrily incoherent exegesis that proves to his satisfaction that Chomsky's "paraphrase" of Truman's Baylor speech was accurate. Unsurprisingly, my correspondent manages this feat without at any time referring to President Truman, his administration, or his policies, as if history were a branch of Practical Criticism. And indeed if you start without the encumbrance of historical background and relevant sources, that's pretty much what you're left with. It's all you're left with if you rely on Noam Chomsky's analyses, which consist in dogmatic assertions handed down. Frequently these assertions are drawn from a single newspaper article and no other material, primary or secondary, and with absolutely no context. I draw readers' attention once more to his claims concerning the Nixon administration's supposed outdoing of Nazi Germany in issuing "the most explicit call for what we call genocide when other people do it that I’ve ever seen in the historical record". This type of thing may be good enough for CounterPunch and Z magazine, but it won't impress anyone who has consulted such secret documents as the memoirs of members of the Nixon administration, notably Al Haig and Henry Kissinger, who were accustomed to the bizarre assertions of the President. Kissinger, for example - Years of Upheaval, p. 581 - refers to Nixon's conviction of his opponents' desire "to kill the President. I may physically die." Haig prevented Nixon from attending the National Security Council meeting that raised the alert status of US forces worldwide after the Yom Kippur War, on the grounds that Nixon was too distraught after surrendering the Watergate tapes.)

In the case of President Truman's pronouncements on economic diplomacy, the context could hardly be less conducive to Chomsky's forced interpretations. Truman adopted a tone of sympathy for free enterprise in his Baylor speech, because he was speaking to a business audience and wanted to gain their support for a policy proposal - namely to persuade the Senate to ratify the charter of the proposed International Trade Organisation. That isn't evidence of a scheme to get the world to adopt the American system; it's evidence of a politician playing politics, to try to get an unsympathetic audience on his side. Truman failed. Largely because of business opposition, the Senate refused to ratify the Charter, and the ITO never came into existence.

In the wider context of domestic as well as international policy, there has never been a President as hostile to business as Harry Truman. In November 1947, he proposed an economic programme of extensive price and credit controls, federal direction of capital to business, and rationing of consumer goods. The next year - Congress having refused to go along with the programme - he sent one bill after another to what he termed a "do nothing Congress" proposing price controls, a massive federal housing programme, a law requiring the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low, and subsidised utilities.

Readers of Chomsky's political writings will miss this, because Chomsky goes out of his way to omit the context that allows reasoned conclusions to be drawn. All that those readers have to go on is Chomsky's ex cathedra judgements and the appearance of scholarship generated by innumerable foot-notes. Examine those foot-notes more closely and the careful reader will find (as in the absence of page references in the citation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's memoirs) that the appearance is misleading. To those without background in the subjects covered, the argument may well appear convincing, and because the method of misdirection is to take things out of context it is not a quick and easy task to refute Chomsky; one has first to put back the material that Chomsky has taken out. With that material in place, a dispiriting conclusion emerges. In the words of Arthur Schlesinger, in the exchange I have cited, Chomsky "is an ignorant man who has read superficially in American history". The same could be said of Chomsky's coverage of much else besides, but I trust the point has been made. Next week I'll return to more interesting subjects.

Read Oliver Kamm's weblog at http://oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog.

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