Alterman on Chomsky

Chip Berlet cberlet at
Tue Jun 18 10:59:07 PDT 2002

Here is a version of the article I wrote. It was a sidebar to an article on Holocuast Denial in The Public Eye.

The Great Chomsky Debate

Noam Chomsky, a linguist and professor at MIT (and leading U.S. dissident) was the focus of an international storm of controversy after a document he wrote defending free speech was used as a preface to a book by Holocaust revisionist Robert Faurisson and published by The Old Mole (La Vieille Taupe), a formerly leftist anarchist group that had veered into promoting anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. Faurisson's book described his travails after he wrote in 1978 and 1979 that there was no proof of Nazi homicidal gas chambers.

Two sets of attacks on Chomsky seem insufficient on their face: those that equate Chomsky's criticism elsewhere of Israeli and U.S. policies with anti-Jewish bigotry or totalitarian sympathies; and those that presume Chomsky's defense of free speech rights for Faurisson means Chomsky embraces Faurisson's ideas.

Chomsky did not set out to write a preface for Faurisson's book. Chomsky wrote a commentary in response to criticisms of his signing a 1980 petition that, absent some quibbling over wordings (such as describing Faurisson as respected), is a straightforward defense of Faurisson's rights to free speech and academic inquiry. Chomsky has repeatedly said this was his only intent. The publisher, however, told Faurisson and others that Chomsky's text would appear as the preface. Chomsky at first questioned the unilateral decision (prophetically fearing a controversy that would misrepresent his actions and views) and then decided to stand on the principle of freedom of expression. The book's cover says "Proceeded by an opinion of Noam Chomsky," but the title page reads "Preface by Noam Chomsky."

After discarding the bulk of published attacks on Chomsky as based on lapses of logic, misinformation, political vendetta, or guilt by association, there remain two criticisms of Chomsky's actions that merit attention.

First, Chomsky's name on the book's cover creates the appearance of an impropriety. Chomsky argues persuasively that he is intellectually and linguistically innocent, but this avoids the question of whether or not he has a moral obligation to explicitly condemn the views of Faurisson and Holocaust Revisionism given the implicit imprimatur. Chomsky appears to dismiss the idea that Faurisson and Holocaust Revisionism have any effect outside a tiny handful of marginal characters. He also notes that as a matter of principle, defenders of a dissident's civil liberties often refuse to take a public position on the views of the dissident. Chomsky argues accurately that elsewhere in his vast body of published work are clear indications that he views the Holocaust as a horrific event and opposes Holocaust Revisionism, but most persons who see the Faurisson book with Chomsky's name on the cover will not take the time to discover this, and will most likely assume otherwise.

Second, Chomsky's written description of Faurisson as an "apolitical liberal" is clearly based on anecdote, misrepresentation, or lack of full knowledge. Chomsky is reluctant to revisit his original description of Faurisson. At the time of Chomsky's defense of his free speech, Faurisson had already been published in IHR's English language Journal of Historical Review, and served on its editorial advisory committee. Faurisson now cracks jokes about Jews and gas chambers at IHR conferences, and Chomsky's erstwhile friends at the Old Mole have burrowed blindly toward promoting anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. Even if one argues that Chomsky's misplaced loyalty to acquaintances at the Old Mole or supporters of Faurisson was based on lack of knowledge, Chomsky's description of Faurisson was, at the time it was written, innacurate and misleading.

A crisp Chomsky paragraph could easily erase these two complaints. On balance, however, while he can be chided for having been gullible and aloof, there is no evidence that Chomsky is an anti-Semite, Holocaust Revisionist, or an intentional apologist for these points of view.

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