Noam Chomsky replies to Žižek’s “fantasies”

  • July 22, 2013

Intellectuals & Ideas

In the ongoing spat between the two giants of the intellectual left, Chomsky accuses Žižek of finding “literally nothing that is empirically wrong.”

This is the latest reply by Noam Chomsky to Slavoj Žižek. The debate between the two was kicked off late last month when Professor Chomsky remarked that Žižek is the “most extreme example” of the empty intellectual “posturing” of the European continental philosophers. A few days ago, Žižek in turn shot back that he “doesn’t know a guy who has been more empirically wrong” than Chomsky. Now Chomsky replies to Žižek’s allegations in an open letter originally published by Znet.

I’ve received a number of requests to comment on the post: “Slavoj Žižek Responds to Noam Chomsky: ‘I Don’t Know a Guy Who Was So Often Empirically Wrong’”.

I had read it, with some interest, hoping to learn something from it, and given the title, to find some errors that should be corrected — of course they exist in virtually anything that reaches print, even technical scholarly monographs, as one can see by reading reviews in the professional journals. And when I find them or am informed about them I correct them.

But not here. Žižek finds nothing, literally nothing, that is empirically wrong. That’s hardly a surprise. Anyone who claims to find empirical errors, and is minimally serious, will at the very least provide a few particles of evidence — some quotes, references, at least something. But there is nothing here — which, I’m afraid, doesn’t surprise me either. I’ve come across instances of Žižek’s concept of empirical fact and reasoned argument.

For example, in the Winter 2008 issue of the German cultural journal Lettre International, Žižek attributed to me a racist comment on Obama by Silvio Berlusconi. I ignored it. Anyone who strays from ideological orthodoxy is used to this kind of treatment. However, an editor of Harper’s magazine, Sam Stark, was interested and followed it up. In the January 2009 issue he reports the result of his investigation. Žižek said he was basing the attribution on something he had read in a Slovenian magazine. A marvelous source, if it even exists. And anyway, he continued, attributing to me a racist comment about Obama is not a criticism, because I should have made such remarks as “a fully admissible characterization in our political and ideological struggle.” I leave it to others to decode. When asked about this by Slovene journalist/activist Igor Vidman, Žižek answered that he had discussed it with me over the phone and I had agreed with him. Of course, sheer fantasy.

It’s not the only case. In fact, he provides us with a good example of his practice in these comments. According to him, I claim that “we don’t need any critique of ideology” — that is, we don’t need what I’ve devoted enormous efforts to for many years. His evidence? He heard that from some people who talked to me. Sheer fantasy again, but another indication of his concept of empirical fact and rational discussion.

Accordingly, I did not expect much.

Žižek’s sole example is this: “I remember when he defended this demonstration of Khmer Rouge. And he wrote a couple of texts claiming: ‘No, this is Western propaganda. Khmer Rouge are not as horrible as that.’ And when later he was compelled to admit that Khmer Rouge were not the nicest guys in the Universe and so on, his defense was quite shocking for me. It was that ‘No, with the data that we had at that point, I was right. At that point we didn’t yet know enough, so… you know.’ But I totally reject this line of reasoning.”

Let’s turn the empirical facts that Žižek finds so boring.

Žižek cites nothing, but he is presumably referring to joint work of mine with Edward Herman in the ’70s (The Political Economy of Human Rights) and again a decade later in Manufacturing Consent, where we review and respond to the charges that Žižek apparently has in mind. In PEHR we discussed a great many illustrations of Herman’s distinction between worthy and unworthy victims. The worthy victims are those whose fate can be attributed to some official enemy, the unworthy ones are the victims of our own state and its crimes. The two prime examples on which we focused were Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in the same years. A long chapter is devoted to each.

These are very telling examples: comparable atrocities, in the same region, in the same years. Victims of the Khmer Rouge are “worthy victims,” whose fate can be blamed on an enemy. The Timorese are “unworthy victims,” because we are responsible for their fate: the Indonesian invasion was approved by Washington and fully supported right through the worst atrocities, labeled “genocidal” by a later UN investigation, but with ample evidence right at the time, as we documented. We showed that in both cases there was extraordinary lying, on a scale that would have impressed Stalin, but in opposite directions: in the case of the Khmer Rouge vast fabrication of alleged crimes, recycling of charges after they were conceded to be false, ignoring of the most credible evidence, etc. In the case of East Timor, in contrast, mostly silence, or else denial.

The two cases are of course not identical. The East Timor case is incomparably more significant, because the atrocities could have easily been brought to an end, as they finally were in September 1999, merely by an indication from Washington that the game is over. In contrast, no one had any proposal as to what might be done to end Khmer Rouge atrocities. And when a Vietnamese invasion brought them to an end in 1979, the Vietnamese were harshly condemned by the government and the media, and punished, and the US turned at once to diplomatic and military support for the Khmer Rouge.

At that point commentary virtually ceased: the Cambodians had become unworthy victims, under attack by their Khmer Rouge torturers backed by Washington. Similarly, they had been unworthy victims prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover in April 1975 because they were under vicious assault by the United States in the most intensive bombing in history, at the level of all allied bombing in the Pacific theater during World War II, directed against the defenseless rural society, following the orders transmitted by Henry Kissinger: “anything that flies on anything that moves.” Accordingly little was said about their miserable fate, then or until today.

Cambodia scholars have pointed out that there has been more investigation of Cambodia from April 1975 through 1978 than for the rest of its entire history. Again, not surprising, given the ideological utility of the suffering of worthy victims, another topic that we discussed.

In these books and elsewhere we compiled extensive documentation showing that the pattern is quite normal: Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge (but, crucially, not before and after) and East Timor constitute a particularly dramatic example. We also observed that the pattern cannot be perceived, giving many examples and offering the obvious explanation.

What we wrote about the vastly more important case of East Timor, then and since, has been virtually ignored. The same is true of what we and others have written about Cambodia during the periods when they were unworthy victims, under US attack. In contrast, a considerable industry had been created, with much hysteria, seeking to find some errors in our review of the evidence on Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and how it was treated — so far, without success. I am sure I speak for Ed Herman in saying that we’d be glad to have it reprinted right now, along with the much more important work on the unworthy victims, just as we were happy to review the facts and the storm of criticism a decade later.

It is not too surprising that no errors have been found. We did little more than review what was in print, making it very clear — as one of the commentators on Žižek quotes — that “our primary concern here is not to establish the facts with regard to postwar Indochina, but rather to investigate their refraction through the prism of Western ideology, a very different task,” and a far simpler one. We wrote that we cannot know what the actual facts are, but suggested that commentators keep to the truth, and that they pay attention to the documentary record and the most qualified observers, in particular to the conclusions we quoted from US State Department intelligence, recognized to be the most knowledgeable source. Furthermore, the chapter was carefully read by most of the leading Cambodia scholars before publication. So the lack of errors is no great surprise.

Of much greater general interest is the fact that to this day, those who are completely in the grip of Western propaganda adhere religiously to the prescribed doctrine: a show of great indignation about the Khmer Rouge years and our accurate review of the information available, along with streams of falsification; and silence about the vastly more significant cases of East Timor and Cambodia under US attack, before and after the Khmer Rouge years. Žižek’s comments are a perfect illustration.

As the reader can easily determine, Žižek provides not the slightest evidence to support his charges, but simply repeats what he has probably heard — or perhaps read in a Slovenian journal. No less interesting is Žižek’s shock that we used the data that were available. He “totally rejects” this procedure. There is no need to comment on a remark that gives irrationality a bad name.

The remainder of Žižek’s comments have no relation to anything I’ve said or written, so I will ignore them.

A question remains as to why such performances are taken seriously, but I’ll put that aside as well.

Noam Chomsky

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