Reply to Werner Cohn

Noam Chomsky

Outlook, June 1, 1989

Dear Sir,

Observing the performances of Werner Cohn is a curious experience. An occasional phrase has a relation to reality, but it takes an effort to imagine what may lie behind the discourse.

In Outlook, May, Cohn presents a fevered account of a second existence that he has conjured up for me, in France, where I pursue my secret life as a neo-Nazi, hoping that no one outside of Paris will notice. He gives two proofs. The first is what he calls his ‘most crucial source’: ‘a joint article by Chomsky and his friend Pierre Guillaume, “Une mise au point”,’ in Guillaume’s book Droit et Histoire. The second is that ‘Chomsky could have published the French version of his Political Economy of Human Rights (written with Edward Herman) with a commercial publisher, but, in order to show solidarity with VT [Vielle Taupe], Chomsky insisted on publishing the book with it.’

Since I never wrote a ‘joint article’ with Guillaume, I was curious, and after a search, found the book in question. Indeed, it contains the chapter ‘Une mise au point’, written in first-person singular by Guillaume, with no hint of any collaboration with me. I am mentioned in it, and fragments of a letter of mine are quoted in which I discuss changes in the U.S. intellectual climate since the 1960’s (with typical veracity, Cohn describes this as my ‘comments on Guillaume’s version of the Chomsky-VT relationship’, which is nowhere mentioned). By Cohn’s intriguing logic, I am also the co-author of his various diatribes — perhaps in my third life, which he will expose in the next instalment. Cohn asserts that I found ‘nothing to correct in Guillaume’s’ account. He has not the slightest idea what my reaction to the article is. Recall that this ‘joint article’ is his ‘crucial source’.

Let us turn to his second decisive piece of evidence. When I learned of Cohn’s fairy tales about the French translation of the book of Herman and mine, I was intrigued. Of course, it is obvious even without further inquiry that his claims are outlandish. There is no possible way that he could know of my intentions (and those of my co-author, Edward Herman, who somehow seems to have disappeared from the tale; perhaps I invented him as a cover). But we need not speculate on Cohn’s mystical ability to read minds.

Standard procedure is to leave translations in the hands of the publisher. I make no attempt to keep track of the innumerable translations of books of mine in foreign languages. Curious about Cohn’s allegations, I contacted the publisher, who checked their files and located the contract for the French translation — with Albin-Michel, a mainstream commercial publisher, to my knowledge. They did not know whether the translation had appeared, never having received a copy. The same is true of my co-author and me.

Note that these are the examples that Cohn selects as the decisive proof of his theses. A rational person will draw the obvious conclusions about the rest. Cohn makes two further claims. He says that in defending the right of freedom of expression in the case of Robert Faurisson, I have always ‘indicated’ that my ‘”diametrically opposed” view was more a matter of opinion than of scientific knowledge’ (a statement that he appears to attribute to Guillaume); and I have always defended freedom of expression ‘in terms that are absolutely incapable of hurting Faurrison [sic].’ Consider these allegations.

In Cohn’s ‘crucial source’, cited above, Guillaume quotes my statement that ‘there are no rational grounds that allow any doubt about the existence of gas chambers.’ Thus Cohn is refuted by his own ‘crucial source.’ In my own writings, from the earliest until the present, the conclusions of standard Holocaust studies are taken simply as established fact, as Cohn knows perfectly well. In the introduction to my first collection of political essays, 20 years ago, I add that we have lost our humanity if we are even willing to enter into debate over the Nazi crimes with those who deny or defend them. The only particle of truth in Cohn’s absurd charge is that I never use the phrase ‘scientific knowledge’ in dealing with any questions of history; my book with Herman, for example, which is neither science nor mere opinion.

Turning to Cohn’s second point, it is taken for granted by civil libertarians that defense of freedom of expression is independent of the views expressed. Thus when I sign petitions (and go far beyond that) in the case of Soviet dissidents, some of whom have absolutely horrendous views, I never allude to this fact in the slightest way. In signing petitions supporting Salman Rushdie, I make no comment about whether his book slanders Muslims. I have no doubt that this practice enrages mullahs in Qom and commissars in the Kremlin as much as it does Werner Cohn, and for the same reasons. Where no civil liberties issues arise, I have been quite explicit about the fact that the views of Faurisson and others are diametrically opposed to my own firm conclusions about the facts, as in the statement quoted in Cohn’s ‘crucial source’.

The remainder of Cohn’s ranting has to do with the alleged views of others, and fanciful comments about France. His conceptions on these matters are, naturally, of no concern to me.

That Cohn is a pathological liar is demonstrated by the very examples that he selects. Knowing nothing about him, and caring less, I am in no position to comment further on what may lie behind this odd and pathetic behavior.

Sincerely yours,

Noam Chomsky