Noam Chomsky is probably the most polarising intellectual of our time. As Sam Harris wrote in the introduction to his contentious email exchange with him ‘the further left one travels along the political spectrum, the more one feels his influence’. Chomsky has his critics, both on the right and left. To use current political language, some would see Chomsky as the king of the regressive left, who spawned the likes of Glenn Greenwald and Chris Hedges.
Some criticism of him is hysterical (anti-American, self-hating Jew), but supporters should also acknowledge there is legitimate criticism of positions he has taken. These questionable positions include Cambodia under Pol Pot. Chomsky did not explicitly support Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but he wrote books that nit-picked critical Khmer Rouge books and praised another that was blind to the horrors in Cambodia. This lengthy article discusses severe issues with Chomsky’s writings on Cambodia.
Another area of valid criticism of Chomsky is the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. For Chomsky and others, Milosevic and his regime in Serbia were the last socialists, bravely battling the evil capitalists and NATO. Chomsky accused the west of blindness, they focused on Yugoslavia but ignored crimes against the Kurds in Turkey and the continuing slaughter in East Timor.
He had a point, the Kurds in Turkey and the East Timorese were ignored, and as such were unworthy victims. But as Marko Attila Hoare argued, Chomsky simply reversed this position, making Bosnians unworthy victims. For discussion and criticism of the far left and Yugoslavia, Balkan Witness is a great resource.
Despite these glaring problems, there is still much of Chomsky’s work to admire. When he knows what he is talking about, he’s good. Chomsky is best when criticising extreme state power, mostly the United States, and others as well.
As I mentioned earlier, he has been a strong supporter of the Kurdish struggle for many years. This has made headline news recently, as he along with many Turkish intellectuals, signed a statement calling on Turkey to end its current repression in Kurdish areas.
The increasingly authoritarian Turkish state has cracked down on the signatories, detaining 27 of them, labelling them as terrorist supporters. Other signatories of the statement have been threatened as well.
‘If I decide to go to Turkey, it will not be on his invitation, but as frequently before at the invitation of the many courageous dissidents, including Kurds who have been under severe attack for many years’
Chomsky is absolutely right in this respect, he also recently wrote this article in the Washington Post criticising Turkey’s horrendous record in imprisoning journalists. It should help to dispel the lazy notion that he only condemns the United States. Chomsky is often said to lack nuance in his writings, we should at the least be nuanced when assessing his.