Correspondence with Noam Chomsky

This is supporting material for the article See No Evil.

Posted on monbiot.com, 21st May 2012

From: George Monbiot
Sent: Monday, June 13, 2011 10:10 AM
To: Noam Chomsky
Subject: foreword to Politics of Genocide

Dear Noam,

I hope you are very well. I’m writing a column for the Guardian today about genocide denial, in which Edward Herman will feature prominently. I have just finished reading his book The Politics of Genocide. It contains a revisionist and wildly inaccurate account of the Rwandan genocide, as well as some eminently contestable statements about the massacre at Srebrenica.

I note that in your foreword you neither endorse nor disown the specific statements the book contains. But I think most readers would see the fact that you wrote the foreword as an endorsement of the book.

Is that how you see it? Do you accept the accounts it contains of the Rwandan genocide and the massacre of Srebrenica? If not, in what respects do you reject them?

I know that the time difference doesn’t give you a great deal of time to respond, so I’ll ask the Guardian to stretch the opportunity to the last minute: namely 1730 British summer time today. I would need only a couple of sentences from you, if you wanted to respond.

Many thanks,

With my best wishes, George

From: Noam Chomsky
Sent: 14 June 2011 03:27
To: ‘George Monbiot
Subject: RE: foreword to Politics of Genocide

At work all day and evening, and just found your letter.

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.

In that connection, I’ve been rather intrigued by the responses to my piece on the politics of genocide. No one seems to care in the slightest about the really extraordinary genocide denial reported there, not by some remote figure, but by a respected commentator in a leading journal of the left-liberal intellectuals, the New York Review. And not denial of tens or hundreds of thousands of deaths, but of some 10 million in the territorial US alone, and many times that many in the continent. And not in the past, but right now. The most sympathetic interpretation is that the revelation was new to readers: if they’d noticed it themselves and had not expressed their outrage and amazement, the moral disgrace is even more profound. The only plausible conclusion is that extraordinary denial of genocide – or worse in some ways, not even caring about it – simply doesn’t matter when it’s the core part of the history of England and its offshoots.

I’m so disgusted by these performances, frankly, that I wouldn’t respond, certainly not to the Guardian with its generally shameful record on not only these matters but on elementary respect for freedom of speech, as Philip Knightley pointed out in commentary that probably did not appear in print in England.

Noam

From: George Monbiot
Sent: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 10:53 AM
To: Noam Chomsky
Subject: RE: foreword to Politics of Genocide

Dear Noam,

Thank you for your message.

I strongly agree with your comments about the American genocide, and have written something similar myself, drawing heavily on David Stannard’s excellent and horrifying book American Holocaust:

http://www.monbiot.com/2010/01/11/the-holocaust-we-will-not-see/

But denying the scale and nature of the atrocities in Srebrenica and Rwanda does nothing to address the widespread and outrageous revisionism concerning the American genocide. Far from it: it damages the credibility of those who would draw it to our attention, ensuring that their views are marginalised even further.

This is one of the reasons why I am puzzled by the implicit endorsement of Herman and Peterson’s book you provided by writing the foreword. Did you read their manuscript before you wrote it? If so, did you not have concerns about their unsupportable claims in the sections on Srebrenica and Rwanda? Would it not have been wise, if you were to write the foreword, to have distanced yourself from those claims?

I understand your reluctance to engage with the Guardian after the Emma Brockes affair. Like many of us who work for the paper, I was deeply concerned about the way you were treated then, and I was glad to see that the Guardian retracted the unjustifiable claims she made. But this paper is a broad church, whose members are often sharply at odds with each other. Don’t judge us all by what she wrote.

My own effort in this case is to do what I’ve always sought to do: to stand up for the victims, whoever they might be, against the aggressors, whoever they might be. I haven’t always got it right, by any means, but it’s always the same struggle: to work out who has been been wronged and who has wronged them, and to expose and confront the oppressors. In this case, to my astonishment, as their denial of the events in Srebrenica and Rwanda aligns them with the interests of those who carried out the massacres, I find that Herman and his co-authors are supporting the oppressors. I know you have worked with him in the past, but that surely should not have prevented you from seeing it too.

I rate you very highly. That has not changed, despite my concerns in this case. But for the sake of all those of us who follow you, and – much more importantly – for the sake of the victims of the genocidal acts at Srebrenica and in Rwanda, could you not now make a statement distancing yourself from the demonstrably false claims in Herman and Peterson’s book?

With my best wishes,

George

From: Noam Chomsky
Sent: 15 June 2011 17:44
To: ‘George Monbiot
Subject: RE: foreword to Politics of Genocide

I am sorry that you did not understand my letter. I’ll try once more, and apologize in advance if this turns out to be blunt, since simply stating the facts evidently did not work.

In the background are two striking facts, which reveal quite a lot about the intellectual/moral culture of the circles in which we mostly live. One is an obsessive concern that certain articles of faith about crimes of official enemies (or designated “others”) must never be questioned, and that any critical analysis about them must elicit horror and outrage (not mere refutation). A second is that critical analysis of charges about our own crimes is a most honorable vocation (for example, questioning of the Lancet studies of Iraqi deaths and claims that the true figure is 1/10th as high), and minimization or outright denial of these crimes, however grotesque they are, is a matter of utter insignificance (e.g., that 3.8 million Vietnamese died in the course of US aggression in Vietnam – McNamara’s figures – or that Bush and Blair should be hanged by the standards of Nuremberg). Examples are too numerous and familiar to mention.

These two facts, virtually definitive of the reigning moral/intellectual culture in which we largely live, are illustrated lucidly in this so far failed correspondence, and by what you have published about the topic – but, as I wrote to you, by every reference I have seen to my article on politics of genocide, the introduction to Herman-Peterson; and again, as you know, this article kept scrupulously to their general point, which is accurate and extremely important, and avoided any reference to their particular discussions.

The first fact, the obsessive concern, is illustrated by the desperate and convoluted attempts to show that by not mentioning or even hinting about the issues taken to be sacred, I am legitimizing “genocide denial” – of crimes of enemies. The second, the easy tolerance of genocide denial on a colossal scale right in our own circles, in fact inability even to notice it, is illustrated by the reaction to the actual content of the article.

To repeat, in that article there is not a word, not a hint, about the two issues of obsessive concern to western intellectuals – 8000 outright murders without provocation in Srebrenica, and assignment of responsibility for perhaps 1 million deaths in Rwanda. But even the most casual glance at the article reveals that it gives a dramatic example of the second fact: the publication, in a leading journal of left-liberal intellectual opinion, of an article by a highly-regarded political analyst praising a respected historian for denying the slaughter of some 10 million people in the territorial US, and tens of millions more elsewhere. That’s genocide denial with a vengeance, and it has, so far, passed completely without comment apart from what I’ve written (to my knowledge – please correct me if I’m wrong).

To illustrate the second fact still more dramatically, in references to my article, this is considered unworthy of mention — in your case, even after it is specifically brought to your attention. Recall again that all of this is right now, right in our circles, known to every literate reader, but considered entirely insignificant, even ignored in condemning (on ridiculous grounds) the first article to bring it to attention.

I should add that there are many other examples in the article, but in writing to you I kept to this one so as not to obscure the crystal clarity of conclusions.

Your response simply provides a further illustration of my points. You say that you wrote about the extermination of native Americans, citing Stannard. Very glad to know that, but it is completely irrelevant. The issue under discussion is genocide DENIAL – that’s the issue you raised in the first place, and the one discussed in my article. You completely avoid it in your two letters to me and what you published, though it is a prime topic in my article.

A second point raised in my letter to you (and in the article) is the vulgarization of the phrase “genocide,” so extreme as to amount to virtual Holocaust denial, and the reason why I rarely use the term. Take a concrete case: the murder of thousands of men and boys after women and children are allowed to flee if they can get away.

I’m referring to Fallujah, different from Srebrenica in many ways, among them that in the latter case the women and children were trucked out, and in the former case the destruction and slaughter was so extreme that current studies in medical journals estimate the scale of radiation-related deaths and diseases at beyond the level of Hiroshima. I would not however call it “genocide,” nor would you, and if the word were used, the more extreme apologists for western crimes, like Kamm, would go utterly berserk. Another of many illustrations of the two basic facts.

Finally, you also completely misunderstood my reference to the Guardian. I don’t care one way or another that they published an interview that they regarded as so dishonest that they removed it from their website (over my objections, incidentally). I’ve had interviews and articles in the journal since, and expect to continue to do so. I was referring to something totally different: namely, the exultation when a huge corporation, ITN, was able to put a tiny journal out of business by relying on Britain’s libel laws, which as you know are an international scandal. It was that remarkable fact, not limited to the Guardian, that occasioned the bitter condemnation of the British press by Philip Knightley, to which I referred you, in which he repeats elementary principles of freedom of speech/press that should be second nature, but that are evidently not understood in left-liberal intellectual circles in the UK.

I hope this is now clear. Some further comments interpolated below.

Noam

I strongly agree with your comments about the American genocide, and have written something similar myself, drawing heavily on David Stannard’s excellent and horrifying book American Holocaust:

http://www.monbiot.com/2010/01/11/the-holocaust-we-will-not-see/

Glad you wrote it, but it should be clear it is completely irrelevant to what we are discussing, as noted above.

But denying the scale and nature of the atrocities in Srebrenica and Rwanda does nothing to address the widespread and outrageous revisionism concerning the American genocide. Far from it: it damages the credibility of those who would draw it to our attention, ensuring that their views are marginalised even further.

True, but not relevant to what we are discussing.

This is one of the reasons why I am puzzled by the implicit endorsement of Herman and Peterson’s book you provided by writing the foreword. Did you read their manuscript before you wrote it? If so, did you not have concerns about their unsupportable claims in the sections on Srebrenica and Rwanda? Would it not have been wise, if you were to write the foreword, to have distanced yourself from those claims?

There’s no “implicit endorsement.” I made no reference to their claims about these or other matters, but kept to their main thesis, which is extremely important and not understood at all. It would, in my opinion, have been totally inappropriate to comment on these or many other claims in the book. I was not writing a review, but pickup the main thesis and elaborating on it. True, it might have been “wise” — if my goal were to appease British intellectuals. It wasn’t.

I understand your reluctance to engage with the Guardian after the Emma Brockes affair. Like many of us who work for the paper, I was deeply concerned about the way you were treated then, and I was glad to see that the Guardian retracted the unjustifiable claims she made. But this paper is a broad church, whose members are often sharply at odds with each other. Don’t judge us all by what she wrote.

I hope the misunderstanding is now clear.

My own effort in this case is to do what I’ve always sought to do: to stand up for the victims, whoever they might be, against the aggressors, whoever they might be. I haven’t always got it right, by any means, but it’s always the same struggle: to work out who has been been wronged and who has wronged them, and to expose and confront the oppressors. In this case, to my astonishment, as their denial of the events in Srebrenica and Rwanda aligns them with the interests of those who carried out the massacres, I find that Herman and his co-authors are supporting the oppressors. I know you have worked with him in the past, but that surely should not have prevented you from seeing it too.

I rate you very highly. That has not changed, despite my concerns in this case. But for the sake of all those of us who follow you, and – much more importantly – for the sake of the victims of the genocidal acts at Srebrenica and in Rwanda, could you not now make a statement distancing yourself from the demonstrably false claims in Herman and Peterson’s book?

No, I won’t. It would be sheer cowardice. I haven’t written about these cases, and see no reason to take a stand just because they are Holy Causes among British left intellectuals, who have ample opportunities to refute what they think is wrong. And have ample opportunities to discuss vastly worse cases, which they ignore, such as those I mentioned (a tiny sample): genocide denial in their own circles on a colossal scale, for one.

From: George Monbiot
Sent: Monday, June 20, 2011 10:33 AM
To: Noam Chomsky
Subject: RE: foreword to Politics of Genocide

Dear Noam,

Thank you very much for your response.

I understand very well what you are saying, and understood it the first time round, except for your reference to the Guardian, which I misinterpreted as a comment about the Emma Brockes interview. But I am not convinced that you have fully grasped my points.

To avoid any further misunderstanding, let me begin by spelling out where we agree.

- I agree that attempting to dismiss the crimes of our own states (and corporations) is perceived as “a most honorable vocation” by a large number of journalists and intellectuals in the West, both conservative and liberal, who refuse to apply the same analysis to the alleged crimes of official enemies or designated “others”.

- I agree that the same people (alongside governments and most of the political class) have engaged in the “minimization or outright denial” of the crimes of the US, the UK and their allies and that they are seldom held to account for this minimisation or denial.

- I agree that Bush and Blair should be – well, not “hanged” exactly – but prosecuted “by the standards of Nuremberg”. In fact I think it’s fair to say that I have done more than almost anyone else to try to make this a reality in Blair’s case, with the launch of www.arrestblair.org, and the articles accompanying it. Please read these BEFORE you dismiss them as “completely irrelevant”:

http://www.monbiot.com/2009/10/26/arresting-blair/

http://www.monbiot.com/2010/01/25/a-bounty-for-blairs-arrest/

http://www.monbiot.com/2010/02/02/the-reckoning/

http://www.monbiot.com/2011/01/20/blair-at-large/

http://www.arrestblair.org/blairs-crimes

- I agree, as I said in my article, with Herman and Peterson’s “general point”, even though I strongly disagree with their publication of obvious falsehoods.

- I agree with your exposure of the outrageous genocide denial practised, as you rightly say “by a highly-regarded political analyst praising a respected historian” in “a leading journal of left-liberal intellectual opinion”. It’s a shocking and disgusting example of a phenomenom which greatly concerns us both. As you rightly say, it is “genocide denial with a vengeance”.

Here’s where we disagree:

- Forgive me if I am wrong, but you appear to be characterising Herman and Peterson’s work on Srebrenica as “critical analysis” of the crimes committed by the West’s opponents. I repeat a question you have not yet answered: did you read their book before your wrote the foreword? I mean the whole book, not just the introduction in which they lay out their “general point”? If so, would you really characterise their blatant falsehoods about Srebrenica and Rwanda, which their notes utterly fail to justify, as “critical analysis”? How do you respond to the specific claims they make, such as those I mentioned in the article, namely:

The Serb forces “incontestably had not killed any but ‘Bosnian Muslim men of military age’.”

“[T]he great majority of deaths were Hutu, with some estimates as high as two million”.

The 800,000 “largely Tutsi deaths” caused by genocide “appears to have no basis in any facts”?

All these claims and many more are flat wrong and demonstrably so. They amount to outright denial – with a vengeance.

- 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. To refresh your memory, let me give you just a few out of many examples:

My first book, which nearly had me killed, was written about West Papua, and the mass killings carried out by the USA’s client state – Suharto’s Indonesia – with the connivance and assistance of the US and the World Bank.

I think I was the first journalist in the UK to draw attention to the atrocities being committed by Paul Kagame’s RPF in Congo, and the way we in the West refused to see them: http://www.monbiot.com/2004/04/13/victims-licence/.

I have repeatedly drawn attention to the way we have airbrushed from history the famines that Britain manufactured in India, beginning with an article entitled “How Britain Denies its Holocausts”: http://www.monbiot.com/2005/12/27/how-britain-denies-its-holocausts/

I have written many times about the atrocities that took place on home soil, which again we ignore. Here is one of many examples: http://www.monbiot.com/2009/02/24/the-propaganda-of-the-victor/

I could go on. But let me draw your attention in particular to the article which you dismiss, evidently without having read it, as “completely irrelevant. The issue under discussion is genocide DENIAL”.

Had you bothered to read it, you would have discovered that the article is entirely relevant, because its theme is … genocide DENIAL. In fact you didn’t even have to read it – the title alone was a bit of a giveaway: “The Holocaust We Will Not See”. Here are some extracts:

“But this is a story no one wants to hear, because of the challenge it presents to the way we choose to see ourselves. Europe was massively enriched by the genocides in the Americas; the American nations were founded on them. This is a history we cannot accept.”

“Yet the greatest acts of genocide in history scarcely ruffle our collective conscience. Perhaps this is what would have happened had the Nazis won the second world war: the Holocaust would have been denied, excused or minimised in the same way, even as it continued. The people of the nations responsible – Spain, Britain, the US and others – will tolerate no comparisons, but the final solutions pursued in the Americas were far more successful. Those who commissioned or endorsed them remain national or religious heroes. Those who seek to prompt our memories are ignored or condemned.”

“But at least the right knows what it is attacking. In the New York Times the liberal critic Adam Cohen praises Avatar for championing the need to see clearly. It reveals, he says, “a well-known principle of totalitarianism and genocide – that it is easiest to oppress those we cannot see”. But in a marvellous unconscious irony, he bypasses the crashingly obvious metaphor and talks instead about the light it casts on Nazi and Soviet atrocities. We have all become skilled in the art of not seeing.”

How much more relevant could my article have been to the point you are making?

- You say that “there’s no ‘implicit endorsement’” of Herman and Peterson’s book in the fact that you wrote the foreword. You justify this statement by pointing out that the foreword makes “no reference to their claims about these or other matters”. You are the last person to whom I thought I would ever have to explain the meaning of the word implicit. Your name appears on the front cover, in the same font and size as the names of the authors. Most readers would surely conclude that by agreeing to write the foreword, you were giving the book your seal of approval. Your name on the cover may well be the book’s main selling-point, as you are so much better known than either of the authors.

- You say “It would, in my opinion, have been totally inappropriate to comment on these or many other claims in the book.” Why would it have been inappropriate? The only reason you give is that you were not “writing a review”. Are reviews the only places in which you can comment on claims made in books? Is a foreword not a rather appropriate place in which to do so?

- 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?

- It is not “because they are Holy Causes among British left intellectuals” that I believe you should distance yourself from the evidently false claims made by Herman and Peterson about Rwanda and Srebrenica. Far from it. It is because of their shocking disavowal of the victims. You care about the victims of the West’s atrocities, and you insist that we don’t airbrush them from history. You are right to do so. Yet you appear to believe that the only reason why anyone would “take a stand” on behalf of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre and the Rwandan genocide against those who deny their very existence would be “because they are Holy Causes among British left intellectuals”. How do you explain this remarkable double standard?

I have gone on for far too long, but I hope you now better understand our areas of agreement, our common ground and our points of difference.

With my best wishes,

George

From: Noam Chomsky
Sent: 27 June 2011 16:25
To: ‘George Monbiot
Subject: RE: foreword to Politics of Genocide

I’m sorry that you apparently do not appreciate how grotesque the reaction of Guardian writers was to the shameful LM affair. I presume Knightley’s very cogent critique was not published. That’s too bad. But since you want to drop it without comment, I’ll drop it too.

On the rest, I have no doubt that there is a very wide area of agreement between us. And I constantly read your work with much profit and appreciation. About the disagreement, I’m sorry I have not been able to make my point by just stating the facts. So let me try again, adopting the procedure you recommend, beginning with the questions.

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. Second, the denial of the slaughter bears directly on events taking place right now, before our eyes. To mention just the most obvious, at this very moment miserable refugees are still fleeing from the wreckage of the virtual genocide (and in this case the term is accurate) in the Guatemalan highlands under Reagan and with British support and probably participation, never acknowledged, and part of the general denial of extraordinary crimes. And they are being subjected to horrifying treatment, which I presume I need not detail. That’s right now, this minute. I happen to have very direct familiarity with it, but it’s well enough known so that denial becomes even more grotesque. We witnessed more casual denial with the shameful choice of the name “Operation Geronimo,” which elicited anger and disbelief in civilized countries like Mexico, though I saw virtually nothing here or in England. And the remnants of these programs of “extermination” (to use the word of the most distinguished perpetrator) are surviving in misery in reservations, right now.

All of that is incomparably more significant than the question of how many people Serbs “executed” at Srebrenica as distinct from killing them in combat (the issue between you and Herman, once your misquotation is corrected: and the fact is that you don’t know, he doesn’t know, and we will probably never find out) and whether the huge number slaughtered in Rwanda (Herman’s estimate is higher than yours) were mostly Hutu or mostly Tutsi.

I might add that in the sister journal of the NYRB, the LRB, denial of colossal atrocities by “our side” is also familiar, and also passes without comment. E.g., Mark Mazower, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n07/mark-mazower/short-cuts, who casually refers to the “mistreatment” of Native Americans in the US. Would you or your associates so easily ignore a far less egregious reference to the “mistreatment” of Bosnians or Tutsis? No need to answer, but this as usual passes without comment in your circles.

In your (disparaging) published comments you mention absolutely none of this. 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.

Though this is a side matter, I’m sure you also see why Srebrenica became a Holy Cause to British (and to a lesser extent American) intellectuals. If that wasn’t obvious before, it became so in 1999, when as a last resort to cover up their disgraceful behavior concerning Kosovo, with remarkable lies, and simultaneous silence over their participation in crimes in East Timor in 1999 that went far beyond even the most extreme claims about Kosovo (much worse in the case of Britain than the US), they retreated to “don’t forget Srebrenica” – once again engaged in extraordinary denial of their own crimes, since of course what the US-UK had done in East Timor in earlier years far exceeded anything charged to the Serbs.

I don’t accept your notion of “implicit endorsement,” so don’t accuse you of easy tolerance of denial of truly colossal genocide, with terrible consequences continuing before our eyes. And I certainly don’t publish comments accusing you of this. I presume it’s not necessary to spell out the rest.

Noam

GM’s note: 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. I have not replied. I have to say that I found this paragraph in particular utterly depressing, as it appears to confirm my suspicion that Professor Chomsky, whose research is usually so thorough, is deliberately ignoring a vast weight of evidence which conflicts with his political beliefs:

“All of that is incomparably more significant than the question of how many people Serbs “executed” at Srebrenica as distinct from killing them in combat (the issue between you and Herman, once your misquotation is corrected: and the fact is that you don’t know, he doesn’t know, and we will probably never find out) and whether the huge number slaughtered in Rwanda (Herman’s estimate is higher than yours) were mostly Hutu or mostly Tutsi.”

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