Jacoby versus Chomsky

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Dec 2 12:00:38 MST 2002

(Russell Jacoby is a history professor at UCLA who has joined the ranks
of the Chomsky bashers in the bourgeois press, alongside Michael Berube
and other scoundrels. I suspect that he is now polishing up a piece on
Ramsey Clark and the Workers World Party for the Wall Street Journal
editorial page. That's how you launch a career path as a professional
red-baiter in the Year of our Lord 2002. Jacoby is best known as the
author of "The Last Intellectuals", a not-bad book about the decline of
American civilization, although I suppose one needn't read a book to
find this out. His most recent tome is titled "The End of Utopia:
Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy", which puts forward some
rather boneheaded ideas about the need for the left to think in utopian
terms, as if we needed more philosophical idealism rather than less from
the leftwing academy.

Here are excerpts from Jacoby's attack on Chomsky ("The Dissident We
Deserve") that appeared in the Dec. 1 Long Island Newsday. My comments
are interspersed.

JACOBY: Over the next decades, however, the Zeitgeist zigged and Chomsky
did not zig with it. While other critics moved on, Chomsky kept tracking
American misdeeds, but he lost favor on a series of issues. He believed
that the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Kosovo, nominally protecting its
residents from Serbian genocide, simply signaled bloodletting by the
West. He both doubted the human toll of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia
and attributed it to the United States; and he wrote a preface defending
freedom of speech for a book by Robert Faurisson, a French
Holocaust-denier. Even sympathizers saw Chomsky as too inflexible or too
anti-American. The mainstream press withdrew the welcome mat.

COMMENT: The mainstream press withdrew the welcome mat? What on earth is
Jacoby talking about? Chomsky was never sought out by the NY Times, nor
McNeil-Lehrer. It is also too bad that Jacoby takes no position on the
questions which ostensibly turned Chomsky into some kind of outcast.
While it is beyond the scope of this rebuttal to fully examine these
questions in their proper context, suffice it to say that the charge on
Cambodia is a disgusting canard.

Chomsky's sin was to compare the relative indifference to the slaughter
in East Timor to that in Cambodia, just as it was more recently in
comparing the September 11th attacks to the Khartoum bombing. A
statement such as this, contained in "The Political Economy of Human
Rights," was unacceptable to mainstream critics, whom Jacoby seems to
take seriously:

"In the case of Cambodia reported atrocities have not only been eagerly
seized upon by the Western media but also embellished by substantial
fabrications--which, interestingly, persist even long after they are
exposed. The case of Timor is radically different. The media have shown
no interest in examining the atrocities of the Indonesian invaders,
though even in absolute numbers these are on the same scale as those
reported by sources of comparable credibility concerning Cambodia, and
relative to population, are many times as great."

Furthermore, Chomsky (and writing partner) Herman had the temerity to
question the casualty statistics in Francois Ponchaud's "Année Zéro," a
book that had a major impact on the Western intelligentsia in the
mid-1970s, particularly through a review of it by Jean Lacouture that
appeared in the New York Review of Books, a journal that has been
responsible for demonizing one enemy of US imperialism after another for
over three decades. While not questioning the cruelty of the Khmer
Rouge, Chomsky observed that Lacouture had inflated Ponchaud's estimates
of civilian casualties to the tune of two million. In a correction
published subsequently in the NY Review, Lacouture withdrew his claim
and confessed that he "should have checked more accurately the figures
on victims, figures deriving from sources that are, moreover,
questionable." In "Chomsky's Politics," Milan Rai observes that the two
million figure--despite the correction--became part of official history.

JACOBY: But, alas, Chomsky often sounds like George W. Bush in reverse.
For Bush, the United States can do no wrong. For Chomsky, it can do no
right. Chomsky is a charter member of the "told-you-so" school of
leftism. The United States had the September attacks coming. The
violence is "new" only in that the guns are directed at and from the
United States, which throughout its history has used them against other
nations and peoples.

COMMENT: Well, another member of the "told-you-so" club was Malcolm X,
who described the JFK assassination as "chickens coming home to roost".
Makes sense to me. One has to wonder how Jacoby concluded that Chomsky
believed "The United States had the September attacks coming." By and
large, critics of Chomsky like Jacoby, Marc Cooper and Michael Berube
take great relish in characterizing Chomsky in this fashion but feel no
obligation to actually *quote* him. Isn't it possible that this aversion
to the printed word might be related to the malaise described in "The
Last Intellectual"? Perhaps Russell Jacoby should turn off his TV and
actually read a little Chomsky. If he did, he'd discover that Chomsky
referred to the attacks as "horrifying atrocities" and not as punishment
for past behavior.

JACOBY: Chomsky responds to Sept. 11 by telling us that in the 16th- and
17th centuries the Americans "annihilated the indigenous population" of
North America as if this were pertinent or even accurate. He believes it
"instructive" to compare the massive reaction to the toll from Sept. 11
to the non-reaction to the toll from President Bill Clinton's bombing of
a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory in August 1998.

COMMENT: It *isn't* accurate that the indigenous population was
annihilated? What an appalling remark from a tenured history professor.

JACOBY: For those with a hazy memory, after two American embassies in
Africa were bombed and hundreds killed, Clinton sent missiles to destroy
the factory he believed was producing nerve gas for the Sudanese, who
were also harboring members of al-Qaida. In fact U.S. intelligence was
miserable or nonexistent. The factory was a legitimate facility
producing essential medicines for a desperate population. According to
Chomsky, many thousands of people who lacked life-saving medicines have
died as a consequence of this act by a "leading terrorist state, the
United States."

Yet no one died in the immediate destruction and however criminal or
botched, there was no intention to kill. Is this comparable to blowing
up the workplace of 50,000 with no explicit motive but to maximize death?

COMMENT: What garbage. Probably most people die in US imperialist
interventions as a result of "collateral damage" rather than direct
military action. This is especially true with respect to Iraq, which has
experienced a mass infanticide because of US sanctions. If Russell
Jacoby gets sick, he can go to a doctor and get treated immediately. If
you are in a country like Sudan, the loss of the only medicine-producing
plant in the nation has dire consequences. Let Jacoby get dysentery and
see how forgiving he would be when it comes to the lack of an "intention
to kill".

JACOBY: Hitchens, himself long a critic of U.S. foreign policy, broke
ranks with Chomsky and his politics. Rather than recognizing "fascism
with an Islamic face," Hitchens charges, Chomsky slips Sept. 11 into his
"preexisting worldview."

Hitchens may be right, and yet with tough-minded dissenters to American
foreign policy in such short supply, we need Chomsky more than ever.

COMMENT: Note the journalistic trick "Hitchens may be right". It allows
the author to take sides without appearing to do so. Well, this fools
nobody. Jacoby obviously agrees with Hitchens. And both are full of
shit. September 11th happened not because of an aggressive Islamic
fascism bent on world conquest. It happened because Arab and Islamic
peoples used counter-productive tactics to address legitimate
grievances. Al-Qaida was correct. The USA has no business keeping the
Marines in Saudi Arabia, nor killing innocent Iraqi children. However,
the way to stop US imperialism is through revolutionary mass action, not
flying jets into buildings filled with innocent office workers. In the
political line-up we see operating here, Hitchens supports Bush and
Chomsky opposes him. By attacking Chomsky in the fashion he does, Jacoby
plays "soft cop" to Hitchens's "hard cop". Obviously, we don't need
cops. We need intellectuals and activists committed to opposing imperialism.


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