Nation article, Chomsky Noam

See also Werner Cohn’s “Partners in Hate”
Broken link


Noam Chomsky

The Nation, Feb. 28, 1981, p. 231

An article in the _New York Times_ concerning my involvement in
the “Faurisson affair” was headlined “French Storm in a Demitasse.”
If the intent was to imply that these events do not even merit being
called “a tempest in a teapot,” I am inclined to agree. Nevertheless,
torrents of ink have been spilled in Europe, and some here. Perhaps,
given the obfuscatory nature of the coverage, it would be useful for
me to state the basic facts as I understand them and to say a few
words about the principles that arise.

In the fall of 1979, I was asked by Serge Thion, a libertarian
socialist scholar with a record of opposition to all forms of
totalitarianism, to sign a petition calling on authorities to insure
Robert Faurisson’s “safety and the free exercise of his legal rights.”
The petition said nothing about his “holocaust studies” (he denies the
existence of gas chambers or of a systematic plan to massacre the Jews
and questions the authenticity of the Anne Frank diary, among other
things), apart from noting that they were the cause of “efforts to
deprive Professor Faurisson of his freedom of speech and expression.”
It did not specify the steps taken against him, which include
suspension from his teaching position at the University of Lyons after
the threat of violence, and a forthcoming court trial for
falsification history and damages to victims of Nazism.

The petition aroused considerable protest. In _Nouvel
Observateur_, Claude Roy wrote that “the appeal launched by Chomsky”
supported Faurisson’s views. Roy explained my alleged stand as an
attempt to show that the United States is indistinguishable from Nazi
Germany. In _Esprit_, Pierre Vidal-Naquet found the petition
“scandalous” on the ground that it “presented his ‘conclusions’ as if
they were actually discoveries.” Vidal-Naquet misunderstood a
sentence in the petition that ran, “Since he began making his findings
public, Professor Faurisson has been subject to….” The term
“findings” is quite neutral. One can say, without contradiction: “He
made his findings public and they were judged worthless, irrelevant,
falsified….” The petition implied nothing about quality of
Faurisson’s work, which was irrelevant to the issues raised.

Thion then asked me to write a brief statement on the purely
civil libertarian aspects of this affair. I did so, telling him to
use it as he wished. In this statement, I made it explicit that would
not discuss Faurisson’s work, having only limited familiarity with it
(and, frankly, little interest in it). Rather, I restricted myself to
the civil-liberties issues and the implications of the fact that it
was even necessary to recall Voltaire’s famous words in a letter to M.
le Riche: “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make
it possible for you to continue to write.”

Faurisson’s conclusions are diametrically opposed to views I hold
and have frequently expressed in print (for example, in my book _Peace
in the Middle East_?, where I describe the holocaust as “the most
fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history”). But it
is elementary that freedom of expression (including academic freedom)
is not to be restricted to views of which one approves, and that it is
precisely in the case of views that are almost universally despised
and condemned that this right must be most vigorously defended. It is
easy enough to defend those who need no defense or to join in
unanimous (and often justified) condemnation of a violation of civil
rights by some official enemy.

I later learned that my statement was to appear in a book in
which Faurisson defends himself against the charges soon to be brought
against him in court. While this was not my intention, it was not
contrary to my instructions. I received a letter from Jean-Pierre
Faye, a well-known anti-Fascist writer and militant, who agreed with
my position but urged me to withhold my statement because the climate
of opinion in France was such that my defense of Faurisson’s right to
express his views would be interpreted as support for them. I wrote
to him that I accepted his judgment, and requested that my statement
not appear, but by then it was too late to stop publication.

Parts of my letter to Faye appeared in the French press and have
been widely quoted and misquoted and subjected to fantastic
interpretations. It was reported, for example, that I repudiated my
comments after having learned that there is anti-Semitism in France,
and that I was changing my views on the basis of clippings from the
French press (in the same letter, I had asked Faye to send me
clippings on another matter). My personal letter to Faye was
incomprehensible to anyone who had not read Faye’s original letter to
me; a telephone call would quickly have clarified the facts.

The uproar that ensued is of some interest. In _Le Matin_
(socialist), Jacques Baynac wrote that my fundamental error was to
“defend, in the name of freedom of expression, the right to mock the
facts” — “facts” determined, presumably, by some board of commissars
or a reconstituted Inquisition. My lengthy discussion on the
implications of this doctrine was from the occasionally recognizable
version of the interview with me published in _Le Matin_. In _Le
Monde_, the editor of _Esprit_, Paul Thibaud, wrote that I had
condemned “the entire French intelligentsia,” launching a “general
accusation” against “les Francais” without qualifications. Alberto
Cavallari, Paris correspondent for the _Corriere della Sera_ went
further still, claiming that I had condemned all of “French culture.”
The article is notable for a series of fabricated quotes designed to
establish this and other allegations. What I had written was that
though I would make some harsh comments about “certain segments of the
French intelligentsia … certainly, what I say does not apply to many
others, who maintain a firm commitment to intellectual integrity … I
would not want these comments to be misunderstood as applying beyond
their specific scope.” Similar qualifications are removed from the
doctored “interview” in _Le Matin_, enabling the editors to allege
that I describe france as “totalitarian.”

Cavallari went on to explain that my rage against “french
culture” derives from its refusal to accept the theory the linguistics
proves that “the Gulag descends directly from Rousseau” and other
imbecile ideas he chooses to attribute to me for reasons best known to
himself. In _Nouvel Observateur_, Jean-Paul Enthoven offers a
different explanation: I support Faurisson because my “instrumentalist
theory of language, the ‘generative grammar’ … does not allow the
means to think of the unimaginable, that is the holocaust.” He and
Cavallari, among others, explain further that my defence of Faurisson
is a case of the extreme left joining the extreme right, a phenomenon
to which they devote many sage words. In _Le Matin_, Catherine
Clement explains my odd behavior on the ground that I am a “perfect
Bostonian,” “a cold and distant man, without real social contacts,
incapable of understanding Jewish-American humor, which relies heavily
on Yiddish.” Pierre Daix explains in _Le Quotidien de Paris_ that I
took up left-wing causes to “clear myself” of the reactionary
implications of my “innatism.” And so on, at about the same level.

To illustrate the caliber of discussion, after I had noted that
Vidal-Naquet’s comment cited above was based on a misunderstanding, he
reprinted his article in a book (_Les Juifs_, F. Maspero), eliminating
the passage I quoted and adding an appendix in which he claims falsely
that “the error in question had appeared only in an earlier draft,
which I am accused of having illegitimately quoted. The example is,
unfortunately, quite typical.

A number of critics (for example Abraham Forman of the
Anti-Defamation League in _Le Matin_) contend that the only issue is
Faurisson’s right to publish and that this has not been denied. The
issue, however, is his suspension from the university because of
threats of violence against him, and his court trial. It is of
interest that his attorney, Yvon Chotard, who is defending him on
grounds of freedom of expression and the right to an attorney of one’s
choice, has been threatened with expulsion from the anti-Fascist
organization that is bringing Faurisson to trial.

As Faye predicted, many showed themselves incapable of
distinguishing between defense of the right of free expression and
defense of the views expressed — and not only in France. In _The New
Republic_, Martin Peretz concluded from my expressed lack of interest
in Faurisson’s work that I am an “agnostic” about the holocaust and “a
fool” about genocide. He claims further that I deny freedom of
expression to my opponents, referring to my comment that one degrades
oneself by entering into debate over certain issues. In short, if I
refuse to debate you, I constrain your freedom. He is careful to
conceal the example I cited: the holocaust.

Many writers find it scandalous that I should support the right
of free expression for Faurisson without carefully analyzing his work,
a strange doctrine which, if adopted, would effectively block defense
of civil rights for unpopular views. Faurisson does not control the
French press or scholarship. There is surely no lack of means or
opportunity to refute or condemn his writings. My own views in sharp
opposition to his are clearly on record, as I have said. No rational
person will condemn a book, however outlandish its conclusions may
seem, without at least reading it carefully; in this case, checking
the documentation offered, and so on. One of the most bizarre
criticisms has been that by refusing to undertake this task, I reveal
that I have no interest in six million murdered Jews, a criticism
which, if valid, applies to everyone who shares my lack of interest in
examining Faurisson’s work. One who defends the right of free
expression incurs no special responsibility to study or even be
acquainted with the views expressed. I have, for example, frequently
gone well beyond signing petitions in support of East European
dissidents subjected to repression or threats, often knowing little
and caring less about their views (which in some cases I find
obnoxious, a matter of complete irrelevance that I never mention in
this connection). I recall no criticism of this stand.

The latter point merits further comment. I have taken far more
controversial stands than this in support of civil liberties and
academic freedom. At the height of the Vietnam War, I publicly took
the stand that people I regard as authentic war criminals should not
be denied the right to teach on political or ideological grounds, and
I have always taken the same stand with regard to scientists who
“prove” that blacks are genetically inferior, in a country where their
history is hardly pleasant, and where such views will be used by
racists and neo-Nazis. Whatever one thinks of Faurisson, no one has
accused him of being the architect of major war crimes or claiming
that Jews are genetically inferior (though it is irrelevant to the
civil-liberties issue, he writes of the “heroic insurrection of the
Warsaw ghetto” and praises those who “fought courageously against
Nazism” in “the right cause”). I even wrote in 1969 that it would be
wrong to bar counterinsurgency research in the universities, though it
was being used to murder and destroy, a position that I am not sure I
could defend. What is interesting is that these far more
controversial stands never aroused a peep of protest, which shows that
the refusal to accept the right of free expression without
retaliation, and the horror when others defend this right, is rather

The reaction of the PEN Club in Paris is also interesting. PEN
denounces my statements on the ground that they have given publicity
to Faurisson’s writing at a time when there is a resurgence of
anti-Semitism. It is odd that an organization devoted to freedom of
expression for authors should be exercised solely because Faurisson’s
defense against the charges brought against him is publicly heard.
Furthermore, if publicity is being accorded to Faurisson, it is
because he is being brought to trial (presumably, with the purpose of
airing the issues) and because the press has chosen to create a
scandal about my defense of his civil rights. On many occasions, I
have written actual prefaces and endorsements for books in France —
books that are unread and unknown, as indeed is the case generally
with my own writings. The latter fact is illustrated, for example, by
Thibaud, who claims that I advocated “confiding Vietnamese freedom to
the supposed good will of the leaders of the North.” In fact, my
writings on the war were overwhelmingly devoted to the U.S. attack on
the peasant society of the South (and later Laos and Cambodia as
well), which aimed to undermine the neutralization proposals of the
National Liberation Front and others and to destroy the rural society
in which the N.L.F. was based, and I precisely warned that success in
this effort “will create a situation in which, indeed, North Vietnam
will necessarily dominate Indochina, for no other viable society will

Thibaud’s ignorant falsifications point to one of the real
factors that lie behind this affair. A number of these critics are
ex-Stalinists, or people like Thibaud, who is capable of writing that
prior to Solzhenitsyn, “every previous account” of “Sovietism” was
within the Trotskyite framework (_Esprit_). Intellectuals who have
recently awakened to the possibility of an anti-Leninist critique
often systematically misunderstand a discussion of revolutionary
movements and efforts to crush them that has never employed the
assumptions they associate with the left. Thibaud, for example,
cannot understand why I do not share his belief that Lenin, Stalin and
Pol Pot demonstrate “the failure of socialism.” Many left or ex-left
intellectuals seem unaware that I never have regarded Leninist
movements as having anything to do with “socialism” in any meaningful
sense of the term; or that, having grown up in the libertarian
anti-Leninist left, familiar since childhood with works that Thibaud
has still never heard of, I am unimpressed with their recent
conversions and unwilling to join in their new crusades, which often
strike me as morally dubious and intellectually shallow. All of this
has led to a great deal of bitterness on their part and not a little
outright deceit.

As for the resurgence of anti-Semitism to which the PEN Club
refers, or of racist atrocities, one may ask if the proper response to
publication of material that may be used to enhance racist violence
and oppression is to deny civil rights. Or is it, rather, to seek the
causes of these vicious developments and work to eliminate them? To a
person who upholds the basic ideas professed in the Western
democracies, or who is seriously concerned with the real evils that
confront us, the answer seems clear.

There are, in fact, far more dangerous manifestations of
“revisionism” than Faurisson’s. Consider the effort to show that the
United States engaged in no crimes in Vietnam, that it was guilty only
of “intellectual error.” This “revisionism,” in contrast to that of
Faurisson, is supported by the major institutions and has always been
the position of most of the intelligentsia, and has very direct and
ugly policy consequences. Should we then argue that people advocating
this position be suspended from teaching and brought to trial? The
issue is, of course, academic. If the version of the Zhdanov doctrine
now being put forth in the Faurisson affair were adopted by people
with real power, it would not be the “Vietnam revisionists” who would
be punished.

I do not want to leave the impression that the whole of the
French press has been a theater of the absurd or committed to such
views as those reviewed. There has been accurate commentary in _Le
Monde_ and _Liberation_, for example, and a few people have taken a
clear and honorable stand. Thus Alfred Grosser, who is critical of
what he believes to be my position, writes in _Le Quotidien de Paris_:
“I consider it shocking that Mr. Faurisson should be prevented from
teaching French literature at the University of Lyons on the pretext
that his security cannot be guaranteed.”

In the Italian left-liberal journal _Repubblica_, Barbara
Spinelli writes that the real scandal in this affair is the fact that
even a few people publicly affirm their support of the right to
express ideas that are almost universally reviled — and that happen
to be diametrically opposed to their own. My own observation is
different. It seems to me something of a scandal that it is even
necessary to debate these issues two centuries after Voltaire defended
the right of free expression for views he detested. It is a poor
service to the memory of the victims of the holocaust to adopt a
central doctrine of their murderers.

(Transcribed by Don Bashford )