Paris, June 12, 2010.
It was a long-awaited pleasure for your many friends and admirers to see you in Paris. I know it was tiring, but you mustn’t think you wore out your voice for nothing. I’m afraid you might get such a negative impression from certain media which seemed to have “learned nothing and forgotten nothing”. However, I think that the rude treatment you received from Le Monde in particular merely highlights the importance of your visit and the deep geopolitical significance that Chomsky has in France.
Excuse me for neglecting your primary field, linguistics, in my analysis. I am not qualified to speak about that. But I tend to believe that the animosity you have aroused in certain circles in France may have less to do with linguistics than with your role as the most prominent American critic of US foreign policy. Yes, we know there are many more, but Chomsky is by far the best-known the world over. My own opinion is that this role as virtual symbol of systematic moral criticism of American foreign policy is the fundamental cause of the campaign against you that began over thirty years ago. To my mind the uproar first over Cambodia and then over the defense of Professor Robert Faurisson’s right to express his views freely was essentially a means to the end of discrediting the leading American critic of United States imperialism.
I need to put this argument in context.
The end of the Second World War split Europe between two groups of satellites of the two major victorious powers. The political methods of the Soviet Union made the satellite status of Eastern Europe obvious to everybody, and notably to the citizens of those countries, who were aware of the coercion keeping them in the Communist bloc.
In the West, American wealth, the ready complicity of native ruling classes and the far more sophisticated methods of political persuasion, dramatizing a largely imaginary “Soviet threat”, succeeded in convincing the satellite countries that they were voluntary allies of the United States.
This worked most of the time. There were a very few temporary exceptions. Sweden, never having been conquered or liberated, had moments of fairly genuine independence, notably under Olof Palme (whose timely assassination has brought Sweden gradually into the arms of NATO). In the 1960s, Charles de Gaulle took major steps to regain political independence for France, notably by criticizing the US war in Indochina and seeking to strengthen relations with Third World countries. This drive was shattered by the events of May 1968, and after the fall of de Gaulle, a normalization process got underway to secure US hegemony in France once and for all.
Now, it is precisely because France was the scene of the strongest impulses for independence that the normalization process had to be the most vigorous.
The vanguard of this process was the media operation called “les nouveaux philosophes” launched in the mid-1970s. I was in Paris at the time and saw this happening. The attacks on Chomsky were an integral part of this campaign, designed to discredit the large international movement against the US war in Vietnam as “naïve” or as “apologists for the Gulag”, etc. This was a broad and many-faceted political campaign led by the media to turn the public, especially the youthful left, away from the Communist Party, from social Gaullism (Chaban-Delmas), from solidarity with the third world, toward “human rights”, meaning especially the human rights of dissidents in countries whose governments were opposed by the United States.
The role of French intellectuals in this process is quite varied and sophisticated.
To start with, the nature and role of “power intellectuals” is very different, sometimes even opposite, in the United States and in France.
In the United States, the power intellectuals (the “new mandarins”), and they are numerous, work directly for the government, in think tanks or as advisers and editorialists. Their “thinking” aims to enforce the power of the United States in the world.
In France, the situation is nearly opposite, because the real “power” for which the French power intellectuals are working is not France, but the United States, considered the necessary protector of “the West”, including Israel.
In France, intellectuals working for the government traditionally come from the best schools and indeed usually are concerned with French interests. In private, they often express discontent with France’s subservience to US policy. But they are largely invisible to the general public and their advice on international affairs tends to be overruled by politicians.
Instead, the real “power intellectuals” in France are media stars who, in one way or another, justify France’s subservience to the United States. The basic idea of the old “new philosopher” Bernard-Henri Lévy is that fascism is “the French ideology” and that the French people and government are not to be trusted. Thus the basic political aim of the French power intellectuals is to render France impotent by inserting it firmly into the Atlantic Alliance, NATO and the European Union.
Whereas American power intellectuals tend to be pro-US nationalists, French power intellectuals are essentially anti-French. In cartoons and films, the French working class are portrayed as racist boors. Since the 1969 film “Le Chagrin et la Pitié”, the pendulum has swung away from celebration of the French Resistance to self-flagellation for crimes against Jews committed under Nazi occupation. The very existence of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front have, for nearly thirty years, contributed mainly to strengthening an opposing attitude of anti-nationalism. Justified criticism of the European Union for tearing down social welfare in favor of globalized finance capital is stigmatized as archaic and unacceptable French nationalism. The dominant center left has abandoned both economic issues and anti-militarism in favor of a human rights ideology more concerned with the Dalai Lama (about which France can do nothing) than with the deindustrialization of France. The human rights left has largely abandoned economic policy to the EU and military policy to NATO and its boss, the United States.
In various ways, the “humanitarian” power intellectuals exemplified by Bernard Kouchner work to promote the American “three Vs” division of humanity: Villains, Victims and Victorious Saviors. This particular fateful triangle serves as the procrustean bed for all major world events, starting of course with World War II as it is now taught in most schools: the drama of a Villain (Hitler), Victims (the Jews) and the Victorious Savior (the United States armed forces). (Increasingly neglected are the Versailles Treaty, the economic depression, Hitler’s anti-bolshevism, the battle of Stalingrad and numerous other not insignificant details.)
Forced into the same mould, with perhaps even more distortion of reality, the Yugoslav crisis served to enforce the basic model. The French power intellectuals were in the front lines of this media war, eager to strengthen the image of peoples as mere passive victims of “genocidal dictators” with their only hope of salvation lying in rescue by NATO.
The Euston group in Britain performs the same function, with less brio. Everywhere, the point is to hold together the Western Alliance against the rest of the world.
Of course, some contemporary French essayists do criticize the United States from time to time. “Le Monde des livres” listed some of these – Pierre Bourdieu, Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek, Antonio Negri, et alia – as proof that the French have such great intellectuals that they have no need to hear what Chomsky has to say.
Even though they are of course very different from each other, certain differences between contemporary French philosophers on the one hand and Chomsky on the other deserve mention.
First and foremost is the question of facts. Chomsky’s criticism is laden with facts, a substance that seems to elicit ennui among contemporary French thinkers. No doubt the importance of the essay in the French educational system has bred a world of “philosophers” whose skill at manipulating fact-free ideas was the guarantee of a distinguished career. Louis Althusser confessed as much in his autobiography, admitting that he not only knew few facts but that he knew few works of philosophy – but he had learned how to synthesize. This raises the question of the social usefulness of such philosophy. If the social object is to entertain, then the French school reaches its goal – mystification is often far more entertaining than straightforward descriptions of reality. On the other hand, if the object is to help readers reach their own understanding of reality, especially political reality, then their first need is to be provided with the basic relevant facts, which most people do not have time to ascertain through their own research. Thus Chomsky is useful to citizens by providing them with the raw material to develop their own ideas in a way that the purveyors of ready-made but flimsily supported ideas are not.
Two other differences concern ethics and clarity of thought.
Chomskian ethics focus on critique of the abuse of power in one’s own society. This does not imply rejection of that society, as in some ways Chomsky is very pro-American. But the basic attitude is that one has both the duty and the possibility to combat abuse of power in one’s own society, whereas this is difficult if not impossible regarding foreign, and especially antagonistic societies.
In recent decades, French intellectuals have, in contrast, tended to adopt a dualistic ethics, and to take sides between “camps”. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp”, this dualism has centered on the West, “home of human rights”, versus the rest of the backward world. This has led to total misunderstanding of Chomsky, whose criticism of the United States has nothing to do with choosing some opposing “camp”.
As for clarity, the emphasis on stylistic complexity in the elite French school system has led to the notion that whatever is clear is not “deep”. A certain obscurity is supposed to suggest profundity (Pierre Bourdieu made deliberate use of this prejudice by using long sentences for simple thoughts. He once told American philosopher John Searle that to be taken seriously in France, at least twenty percent of what one writes needs to be incomprehensible
In part because of these differences, there is a natural antagonism between Chomsky and his French contemporaries. This has become intertwined with the political controversies. First, in the case of Cambodia, Chomsky’s concern for getting the facts straight and avoiding exaggeration was grossly misinterpreted as an expression of sympathy or support for the Khmer rouge. This was a clash between someone for whom facts are the basis of opinion and others for whom opinion comes first, and facts are of minor significance.
Next, in the more explosive Faurisson case, the simple fact of defending the principle of free speech was interpreted as support for Robert Faurisson’s theses, despite Chomsky’s insistence that the two things were quite separate. In this case, it is impossible to determine where honest philosophical difference leaves off and exploitation for the purposes of discrediting Chomsky as critic of US imperialism picks up.
The “Gayssot law” and State Religion
Nobody could have been fully aware at the time, around 1980, of where the “Faurisson affair” would lead. The uproar over the literature professor who undertook to challenge the accepted historic fact that gas chambers were used to exterminate Jews in Nazi concentration camps turned out to be a key event in a process that has led to the establishment of the Holocaust, or “Shoah” (the Hebrew religious term now commonly used in France) as a sort of religion of memory and repentance, raised to the status of official dogma.
Far from following Chomsky’s advice to let issues be settled by free debate, the French National Assembly in July 1990 adopted an amendment to an 1881 law on press freedom known as the “Gayssot law”, after the Communist member who introduced it. This amendment specifically calls for punishment of anyone who publicly “contests” (questions or disputes) “the existence of one or several crimes against humanity” as defined by the 1945 Nuremberg Tribunal statute and which have been committed “either by members of an organization declared criminal” under that statute or “by a person found guilty of such crimes by a French or international jurisdiction”. The Nuremberg crimes against humanity are listed as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and all other inhuman acts committed against civilian populations” as well as “persecutions for political, racial or religious motivations”.
Generally, this law has been used to prosecute or silence persons who do not in fact contest, dispute or question the existence of the above-named crimes in general, but who question the use of gas chambers to commit mass genocide. Since actual “negation” of Nazi persecution of Jews is nearly nonexistent, the law has been brought to bear especially on persons who, because of their general political orientation, are suspected of concealed anti-semitism. Such was the lawsuit brought against Bruno Gollnisch, a leading member of the National Front. Gollnisch, a professor of Asian studies at the University of Lyon, merely dodged a question about the Holocaust during an interview, saying that it was an issue for experts. The case against him was finally dismissed on appeal to the highest court in France, but meanwhile he had been suspended for five years from his university position.
This sort of law has effects that go beyond its immediate application.
First, it has contributed to the sacralization of the Holocaust, or “Shoah”, which has increasingly been regarded less as an historic event than as a sacred dogma. In a secular state where traditional religions are excluded from public schools, only the Shoah demands both the mental and emotional adherence traditionally reserved for religion. Its place in the school curriculum grows as the teaching of history in general shrinks.
Initially, Nazi crimes were taught as contrary to humanity in general, but as identification of victims has been increasingly centered on Jews, the effect is to implicitly divide school children between potential victims, namely the Jews, and everyone else, whose innocence is less assured. This amounts to a reversal of the much-decried Medieval stigmatization of Jews as “Christ-killers”. Today, non-Jews are in the uncomfortable position of being the descendants of “Jew-killers” (or perhaps of those who failed to save Jewish children from deportation to Auschwitz).
One inevitable effect is to encourage other ethnic communities to stress their own status as historic victims, especially victims of “genocide”. Africans, Armenians, Muslims and others all feel that the tragedies of their own ancestors deserve comparable respect and commemoration. This rivalry in victimhood may lead to extensions of the Gayssot law, or of an earlier law against incitement to racial hatred, to prosecute persons who consider the term “genocide” inappropriate in regard to tragic events in the Ukraine, Armenia, Bosnia, etc.
Making history an object of reverence rather than of curiosity marks a subtle but serious regression from the secular values of free inquiry. It contributes to an atmosphere of self-censorship, of “political correctness” that encourages intellectual timidity rather than boldness. The political effect is to instill in children the world view of the Three Vs, in which the Victorious Savior is represented by the United States, and France is a semi-culpable bystander.
Times Are Changing
For much of the younger generation, the Shoah cult, with annual obligatory commemorations and constant reminders of the “duty of memory”, is getting to be as boring as any other imposed religion. It cannot inhibit criticism of Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. The guilt trip may be coming to an end.
Your visit to Paris during the last five days of May came at a time when there are signs that the ideological winds are changing, and one such sign was the generally youthful turnout for your talk at the Mutualité hall, sponsored by the monthly newspaper, Le Monde diplomatique.
Contrary to Le Monde diplomatique, Le Monde, once a respected newspaper of reference, has become the flagship of “la pensée unique” and pro-Atlanticist subservience to the United States and the EU. First the daily published a silly report by its reporter who failed to get into the College de France to hear Chomsky’s main speech and wrote a complaint about being left outside. A few days later, Le Monde went on to publish a hatchet job in its weekly books section, ignoring important new books and digging up the Faurisson affair in order to pile heaps of praise on Chomsky’s critics, without the slightest echo of Chomsky’s own arguments in favor of free speech.
But on the other hand, at the end of your visit to Paris, you were interviewed on the popular late night show, Ce soir ou jamais, which gave you a chance, after all these years, to answer the leading questions put by the host, Frédéric Taddei. The show is popular, and viewers who went to bed early can easily find it on the internet.
This TV interview was favorably commented on by Marianne, which in recent years has become France’s most widely read weekly magazine. Marianne stressed the “strange silence of the media” concerning Chomsky’s visit, and in particular their failure to cite his sharp criticism of the Israeli attack on the Free Gaza flotilla, which had occurred that morning. The magazine cited Chomsky’s own words to explain this media neglect: sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, we tend to filter out what we don’t want to see or hear if it makes us uncomfortable.
Chomsky clearly still makes some people in the French media uncomfortable.
But not all. There was, of course, a big spread in Le Monde diplomatique, a co-host of the visit, with a long article by Professor Jacques Bouveressse, Chomsky’s host at the Collège de France. Daniel Mermet of the popular afternoon radio program “là-bas si j’y suis” broadcast Chomsky’s meeting with labor leaders. The Catholic newspaper La Croix ran an informative article on the visitor.
Back in February 2003, then foreign minister Dominique de Villepin gave a speech to the UN Security Council opposing the US attack on Iraq. His speech won enthusiastic international applause. It seemed that France might recover an independent voice. But fear of US retaliation for such impertinence was a factor in the subsequent Sarkozy alignment with the US and Israel. However, this brings no visible rewards, other than to share in the Afghan quagmire, and to alienate much of France’s own Arab population. Years of George W. Bush, the war in Afghanistan, uncritical U.S. support for Israel’s serial crimes, the financial crisis and growing disillusion with the European Union are undermining popular acceptance of France’s passive allegiance to US imperialism.
The pendulum swings. Sarkozy’s fiercest political enemy, Villepin, is back on the scene, calling for France to “learn the lessons of Vietnam, of Algeria, of colonialism”, to withdraw from Afghanistan, and recognize that the world is changing. The West can no longer dictate its will to the world, where new powers are emerging, Villepin insists. He is far out of power, but his words resonate. The paradox is that Chomsky, who is considered anti-French because of his disdain for French intellectuals, actually provides support to those who want to recover French national independence in order to play a constructive and peaceful role in the multipolar world of tomorrow. At least, he helps to free speech.
With best regards,
A French version of this text can be obtained from the author at
DIANA JOHNSTONE is author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Monthly Review Press). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org