Beat the devil.
Here's a peculiarly disgusting case of misrepresentation, leading to the traducing of a decent man's reputation. I hardly need say that Martin Peretz, who recently marked a sojourn of infamy as owner of The New Republic by celebrating the seventieth anniversary of that awful magazine, has been an accomplice in these calumnies.
The affair concerns Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the few genuinely dissident intellectuals in this country--a role that has made him the target of unremitting slanders. The October issue of The New Criterion had a long article on Chomsky which caused disquiet to his admirers, even though one could
scarcely have expected a friendly treatment of the man in a magazine edited by Hilton Kramer and financed by right-wing corporations.
The article was written by Geoffrey Sampson and was titled "Censoring 20th-Century Culture: the case of Noam Chomsky." Sampson is a professor of linguistics at the University of Lancaster, in England, and the burden of his lengthy article, as signaled by its title, is that Chomsky, a self-declared advocate of untrammeled free speech, is in fact an enemy of free expression.
How had Sampson determined that Chomsky was a consummate hypocrite in this matter? He relates how he had been asked to contribute an entry on Chomsky to a dictionary of twentieth-century thinkers to be published in Britain by Fontana/Collins under the title Biographical Companion to Modern Thought, edited by Lord Bullock with the assistance of R.B. Woodings. In one portion of his 550-word entry, he observes that Chomsky had "forfeited authority as a political commentator by a series of actions widely regarded as ill-judged (repeated polemics minimizing the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia; endorsement of a book--which Chomsky admitted he had not read--that denied the historical reality of the Jewish Holocaust)."
Sampson says that in the British edition the entry was printed as he had written it, but before the American edition (titled Twentieth-Century Culture) could be published by Harper & Row, the editors changed it. Sampson says he was told by Woodings that Chomsky had complained to the British publisher and had told the American one that he would sue if those words appeared. Sampson refused to permit his entry to be altered, so, says Sampson, Bullock, Woodings and Harper & Row, bowing before the menance of litigation, substituted a noncontentious entry written by Bullock and Woodings.
After further furious abuse of Chomsky for his intellectual crimes, Sampson concludes his New Criterion essay with volleys of scorn for Harper & Row (whose books he announces he will not buy because to do so "would feel too much like spitting on the graves of millions of victims of Nazi and Cambodian genocide") and for Chomsky, who preaches freedom of expression as "an absolute value" but who "rushes to law in order to suppress freedom of expression, when it is a question of the truth about Noam Chomsky." Peretz Most Foul
Those who read The New Republic will know that Martin Peretz has made it one of his peculiar pleasures to heap Chomsky with slanders. The reason for Peretz's hatred is that Chomsky has dared to be critical of Israel, a record in sharp contrast to Peretz's own abject exoneration of every deed perpetrated in that nation's name.
The October issue of The New Criterion had not long been in the mail before Peretz hastened to give Sampson's slurs wider dissemination, in the October 29 New Republic. Why did Harper & Row move to protect Chomsky's reputation "from his own intellectually and morally reckless acts?" Peretz asked. "One answer, at least, is obvious. Mr. Chomsky, who has often threatened to put himself forward as a free speech absolutist, threatened to initiate libel action."
In fact, it was not obvious at all to anyone innocent of Peretz's vindictiveness. There is one major flaw in all these charges. Chomsky never threatened litigation in any form. He was never in communication with Harper & Row, nor with Fontana/Collins. That is what Chomsky asserts and what is borne out by conversations I have had with all the principals in the case.
Simon King, managing director of Fontana/Collins, has confirmed to me that Chomsky "never wrote to this company, nor threatened legal action." Hugh Van Dusen of Harper & Row says Chomsky never communicated any threat either personally or through an intermediary. Lord Bullock says that in neither of the two letters Chomsky wrote to him did he threaten to sue. And, finally, Sampson acknowledges that he never saw any direct evidence of Chomsky's "rush to law." Adding all this up, we find that Chomsky has indeed been the victim of outrageous lies. Genealogy of Lies
What went on? In the first place, Sampson was being less than generous with the truth when he wrote in The New Criterion that his qualifications for writing about Chomsky were that "I too am a professional linguist with radical political interests" and "in 1979 I published a book analyzing the links between Chomsky's linguistic and political ideas." That book, Liberty and Language, is a polemic against Chomsky, seeking to link his linguistic theories with his political views. The word "radical" should be qualified by the fact that in this same book--described in 1981 in the Journal of Linguistics as "a right-wing tract" of "no intellectual value"--Sampson inter alia extols the "principled liberalism of Margaret Thatcher"; asserts that trade unions should be outlawed, that "there should be no laws forbidding the employment of young children in coalmines" and that British imperialism was justifiable because "Britons only came to rule alien nations in the first place because of the absence in their cultures of the institutions on which a liberal economy depend."
Chomsky became aware of Sampson's entry in the Biographical Companion when it was cited in a letter to a campus newspaper at the University of Victoria, in Canada, denouncing his appearance there as a lecturer on international affairs. (An irony with regard to free speech, which Sampson will presumably savor.) Chomsky wrote two letters to Lord Bullock at St. Catherine's College, Oxford, disputing at considerable length Sampson's assertions about his record on Cambodia and Robert Faurisson's book about the Holocaust, and requesting Bullock to remove "the shameful lies." Chomsky says that he did not even know an American edition of the book was planned and that he hoped the British editors would issue a statement deploring the entry and correct any future editions.
Bullock agrees that Chomsky made no legal threat but admits that he and Woodings were sufficiently impressed by the vehemence of the letters to fear unwelcome legal consequences. (He says that Sampson had not apprised them of his previous controversy with Chomsky.) Woodings says that he forwarded Chomsky's letters to lawyers for Fontana/Collins and for Harper & Row and that these lawyers warned they could be held liable. Bullock, in a separate conversation I had with him, says that at first they proposed to Sampson that the American entry say that Chomsky had "forfeited authority as a political commentator" but that the assertions about Cambodia and the Holocaust be omitted. Sampson refused. Bullock says further that Harper & Row told him the entry could be printed as it stood only if it could be substantiated and that, quite apart from time factors, "I felt no great confidence we could have substantiated" Sampson's charges. At Harper & Row, Van Dusen says that the legal department had told the publishers they would be on shaky ground and that anyway "Chomsky had made . . . a good case on the inaccuracy of Sampson's remarks." The case is simple enough. On the matter of Cambodia, soon after the Khmer Rouge took over, Chomsky had questioned the reporting of what was happening there. To suggest that he was an apologist for Pol Pot is ludicrous. On the matter of the book--another irony with regard to free speech--Chomsky upheld Faurisson's right to free expression. He never endorsed Faurisson's views.
Sampson insists to me that Woodings told him in a telephone conversation that Chomsky had made an explicit written libel threat to Harper & Row. Sampson says that he noted the issuing of this threat in a memorandum of record to Woodings and that Woodings never corrected him. The reader should remember that both Woodings and Bullock have told me that in neither of Chomsky's two letters was there a libel threat. Hilton Kramer's Failure
When I asked Hilton Kramer, editor of The New Criterion, whether he had made any independent effort to confirm Sampson's claim about Chomsky's intellectual censorship, Kramer replied confidently, "Everything Sampson says about the libel suit was confirmed." This is entirely untrue. The New Criterion attempted to verify the libel allegation only after Sampson's article appeared, and in reaction to Chomsky's protest. All Kramer had by way of confirmation was Sampson's memo of the conversation with Woodings. Kramer says that a letter of protest from Chomsky will be printed in the magazine's January issue, along with a short comment from Sampson. Sampson tells me that in this comment he maintains that he cannot believe Bullock or Woodings would have misled him and insists on Harper & Row's complicity with Chomsky's censoring proclivities. Sampson has reviewed the statements Bullock and Woodings made to me, as well as Van Dusen's categorical denial, and now acknowledges that his charges of Chomsky's intellectual censorship depended on an unverified remark by Woodings that has turned out to be false. He says he will communicate this new awareness to The New Criterion.
But the final fallback position of Sampson and Kramer in seeking to justify their slanders of Chomsky are both mendacious and comical. They now belittle the "censorship" section of Sampson's attack in The New Criterion, a distortion obvious at once to anyone looking at the article and its title; and they say that meely by writing in strong terms to Bullock, Chomsky was exercising censorship. This is reminiscent of the British police officers' time-honored technique of kicking their victim savagely until he raises an arm in self-defense, whereupon they charge him with assault of a police officer. Intellectual Cowardice
What of Peretz? The grotesque distortions of Chomsky's record on Cambodia and on Faurisson aside, there is something peculiarly repugnant in Peretz's charing Chomsky with censorship by legal threat, since he knows very well that Chomsky has disdained suing for libel as a matter of principle. Chomsky told me that if he had not been opposed to such suits he would have become a millionaire many times over just from the libels published in The New Republic. Peretz displayed all the courage of someone challenging a pacifist to a duel.
The December 24 issue of The New Republic carried an edited version of a letter from Chomsky contradicting Peretz's allegations, and a blustering reply by "the editors" which maintains that the utterly imaginary libel threat had "palpableness," that Chomsky's letters to Bullock were "bullying" and, preposterously, that it is unusual for a publisher to seek legal advice.
Displaying his usual parsimony with the truth, Sampson cited in his New Criterion article "Fred Halliday, a leftist political writer," as saying that Chomsky is now a "pariah" in certain quarters. Sampson should have given Halliday's reasons for that conclusion. His unpopularity, wrote Halliday in New Society for May 27, 1982, "seems to be a response to the . . . comprehensive critique which he has developed on the assumptions of the foreign policy debate in the United States. . . . Chomsky's critique is directed at three central and sensitive issues--namely, Vietnam, the foreign policy intelligentsia and Israel."
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||the misrepresentation of Noam Chomsky|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1984|
|Previous Article:||Whither freeze?|
|Next Article:||Another opening, another showcase for the right.|