By **Joel Whitney**
In November here in Guernica, I interviewed Noam Chomsky, who called one of his critics, Nick Cohen, “a maniac” who never cites sources. Two months later, in a blog in Standpoint Magazine, Cohen responded calling my interview “remarkably soft” and pointing to his previously published book as a source. [He points out, too, that I called him a writer for the Guardian; he actually writes for the Guardian’s sister paper, The Observer. My fault. The Observer’s URL is under the Guardian’s.]
But after reading Cohen’s response, I wondered if he proved Chomsky’s point for him. The problem was that Cohen’s response only weighed in on the very general question of Chomsky’s “influence.” Any journalist who can read should be able to see that the actual question, of course, was very specific: did Chomsky ever claim that as a response to al Qaeda wanting to kill westerners with a nuclear device, we should be “nicer and better people”? I searched the excerpt Cohen cites (from chapter 6 of his book, What’s Left). In all 7500 or so words of it, I couldn’t find the phrase “al Qaeda.”
Then I asked Chomsky what he thought of Cohen’s response. Despite some testy moments between Noam and me in the interview, I think he has Cohen nailed perfectly below:
“[Cohen’s blog] is not a response,” Chomsky writes back. “Rather, it’s a concession: that he cannot back up his charge.
“Interesting that he can get away with this sort of deceit.”
Here’s the relevant extract:
Guernica: Here’s one critic of your work, Nick Cohen in the Guardian: “The lesson of 11 September is that no constraints of morality or conscience would stop al-Qaeda exploding a nuclear weapon. If however, it is all our fault, as Chomsky says, perhaps we can avert catastrophe by being nicer and better people. Perhaps we can, but Chomsky is as reluctant to admit that al Qaeda is an autonomous movement as he is to admit the existence of the democratic and socialist opposition to Saddam Hussein.”
Noam Chomsky: They’re mentioning somebody with my name. But it doesn’t relate at all to anything I’ve ever said or believe. Who did you say you’re quoting?
Guernica: Nick Cohen in the Guardian.
Noam Chomsky: Oh, Nick Cohen’s a maniac. If you’ll notice, he never cites anything. Does he cite anything? That already gives you the answer. Go back and check. He doesn’t cite anything. These are just diatribes, tantrums. I’m not interested in them.
[Cohen] A small point is that I work for the Observer not the Guardian. A larger one is that I am disgusted to say that I can cite vast amounts of detail on the malign influence of Chomsky and his kind on the wider left. Below is an extract from my What’s Left: How Liberals Lost Their Way.
“A person with minimal integrity,” Chomsky writes, “if asked to provide a source for specific charges, would either give them, or would concede that he doesn’t have any. Someone lacking minimal integrity will refer to a book he wrote—thus conceding that he cannot provide sources for the charges he made while trying to sneak out of the concession, hoping people won’t notice.
“It’s pretty obvious. Suppose I were to issue those same charges against Cohen, and when asked to substantiate the charge, wrote back saying ‘read my book…’ It would simply elicit justified ridicule.”
In asking Chomsky what I thought was a provocative challenge question, I’m afraid I gave Cohen too much credit; he had no source, it seems, but rather a general impression of how “Chomsky and his kind” view the world.
Joel Whitney is a founding editor of Guernica Magazine. Read his interview with Noam Chomsky here.