Honduras makes the SMH, Robert Manne shows his characteristic style

Okay, so the smh has yet to send someone to Honduras, but AFP is about as good as they get. Compare it to serious coverage here.

Robert Manne: The Master of Sleaze and Innuendo

Kiernan, McCormack et al wrote a devastating review of Manne on Burchett a while ago. Manne is a polemicist, and utterly unreliable on the subject of his ideological adversaries. He has an op ed in the Australian which is characteristic of his style.

Of one thing only am I certain. If the Left is to have a future it will not be through muddled attempts to resurrect old socialist programs, let alone through morally disgusting nostalgia for communism. On the central, bafflingly complex economic issues of the day, the voices that are worth listening to are not the far Left but the contemporary social democrats – Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman not Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein.

The sleaze is this: Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein are indirectly suggested to either seek to “resurrect old socialist programs”, or have “morally disgusting nostalgia for communism”. This is nonsense: if Manne has ever read Chomsky on the subject (doubtful), he would know Chomsky is a scathing critic of Soviet tyranny, right back to what he (rightly) calls the Bolshevik “coup” in 1917. And unlike Manne, he’s written knowledgably on the subject for decades, rather than just pointing to Stalin. Naomi Klein, of course, is also openly contemptuous of Soviet tyranny (which, in my view, it’s simplistic to call communism, but I think this reflects that in the corporate media and establishment left, it is unnecessary to have good reasons to criticise Marx, Lenin, Trotsky et al. Serious and intelligent criticisms (Bakunin, Rocker, Voline, Goldman, Russell et al) are unknown, with people like Koestler preferred with their simplistic analysis and things like psychological accounts of errors, rather than any analysis of any justice to complaints about capitalism (which in many ways apply equally to the system set up under Lenin and Trotsky, bizarrely called socialist))

Besides this, Manne advocates we listen to the advocates of social democracy, not Chomsky or Klein. Of course, I think this is just ideological name-calling. If he read them, he’d know that they advocate social democratic measures (in the short term at least). Klein expected that people would be disappointed with Shock Doctrine because it wound up so Keynesian. Indeed, we can find reviews by leftists (such as here) disappointed that she was advocating Keynesianism.

Of course, there are worse things in the world to call someone than an advocate of socialism, though Manne doesn’t seem to have any idea what socialism would mean to libertarian socialists (that is, socialists). The ugly thing is the smear: Klein and Chomsky supposedly are nostalgic for something like Stalinism.

Of course, this is characteristic of Manne, who has said things like this for decades. He has accused Windschuttle and Chomsky both of somehow or other being Pol Pot apologists. Of course, he had no meaningful evidence for either claim, which should give pause to any rational or decent person: accusing someone of supporting Pol Pot is a pretty major charge.

Consider Manne on Chomsky (Left Right Left, pp 22-3). Manne is greatly impressed by Ponchaud’s criticism of  Chomsky and Herman: this short reply by Ponchaud “could not be bettered”.

After an investigation of this kind, it is surprising to see that ‘experts’ who have spoken to few if any of the Khmer refugees should reject their very significant place in any study of modern Cambodia. These experts would rather base their arguments on reasoning: if something seems impossible to their personal logic then it doesn’t exist. Their only sources for evaluation are deliberately chosen official statements. Where is that critical approach which they accuse others of not having?

Okay, so what do Chomsky and Herman have to say about this? On pp 278-9, they reproduce the quote in full. It is from the British version of Ponchaud’s book, at the beginning, dated September 20 1977. The British version also includes the following passage

Even before this book was translated it was sharply criticised by Mr Noam Chomsky [reference to correspondence with Silevers and the review cited in note 100] and Mr Gareth Porter [reference to May Hearings]. These two “experts” on Asia claim that I am mistakenly trying to convince people that Cambodia was drowned in a see of blood after the departure of the last American diplomats. They say there have been no massacres, and they lay the blame for the tragedy of the Khmer people on the American bombings. They accuse me of being insufficiently critical in my approach to the refugees’ accounts. For them, refugees are not a valid source…

Okay, so Chomsky and Herman recognise Ponchaud said this, Manne could have read this in their book. What Manne didn’t notice is that they also cite how the American version of the same book began, which was dated for the same day, September 20 1977:

On March 31, 1977, The New York Review of Books published an account of my book under the signature of Jean Lacouture, which provoked considerable reaction in all circles concerned about Asia and the future of socialism. With the responsible attitude and precision of thought that are so characteristic of him, Noam Chomsky then embarked on a polemical exchange with Robert Silvers, Editor of the NYR, and with Jean Lacouture, leading to the publication by the altter of a rectification of his initial account. Mr Chomsky was of the opinion that Jean Lacouture had substantially distorted the evidence I had offered, and, considering my book to be “serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited” [reference ot the review cited in note 100], he wrote me a personal letter on October 19, 1977 in which he drew my attention to the way it was being misused by anti-revolutionary propagandists…

Surely, Manne not mentioning the contrasting texts reflects either an incredible ignorance of the debate being conducted, or an incredible dishonesty. Manne’s article was writte in 1979. Yet in 1982, he still didn’t acknowledge these basic facts. Perhaps he still doesn’t know them.

The striking thing is: Manne cites PEHR 2 (After the Cataclysm) in the essay in Quadrant I’ve just linked to. He cites p 44, citing a quote about Ponchaud that I would like to check, except nothing relevant occurs on that page. The quote is actually p 274 (note its proximity to the two prefaces, only one of which Manne cites). The paragraph reads in full, I’ll embolden what Manne included:

One may, perhaps, be skeptial that Ponchaud has reviewed the scenario “for every town and village in the country” as is claimed in the cited remark. As for the “exact instructions issued by the highest authorities,” this is presumably his reconstruction from the alleged similarity of refugee accounts – he offers no direct evidence – and is as trustworthy as these accounts, his report of them, his interpretations of what he reports, and his judgement about the similarity of account of which, naturally, he can offer only a sample. The cautious reader, bearing in mind the serious inaccuracies of his quotes and citations where they can be checked and his careless treatment of historical fact, may want to reserve judgement on the question at issue. Ponchaud’s own conclusions, it is by now clear, cannot be taken very seriously because he is simply too careless and untrustworthy. It is hardly in doubt that work of this calibre would be dismissed out of hand, if it were critical of the United States.

What Manne never noticed is that this was not a study of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, but a study of media treatment of allegations of war crimes, genocide and so on. The first volume explored in depth the question of East Timor, apparently a topic that Manne found uninteresting. Manne says that this quote (what is boldened is in his article) shows that Chomsky (and Herman) had become “harsher” in their views of Ponchaud’s work. If we turn to p 283, we learn that “despite flaws that seem to us quite significant, we still believe, as we wrote in the earlier review cited, that it is “serious and worth reading, as distinct from much of the commentary it has elicited””. The book (p 284) is a “serious though also seriously flawed and obviously unreliable contribution”. They suggest that on matters that can be independently verified, Ponchaud is unreliable. Consequently, as they cannot test the testimonies Ponchaud accumulated, they cannot entirely trust his reports, though the reports should be seriously considered (and they acknowledge it establishes serious atrocities and so on). This is hardly a radical position.

As it so happens, in the essay from 1982: years after the publication of PEHR 2, in an essay which CITED PEHR 2 (incorrectly), Manne quotes the above passage from Ponchaud again which criticised Chomsky. Chomsky, Manne said, was “beside himself with rage”. Ponchaud’s rendition was, however, in Manne’s view, “mild and utterly reasonable”. He says Gavan McCormack suggested a lawsuit was warranted, regarding this as completely unwarranted. What Manne didn’t notice, or mention, was that Ponchaud had in the same book dated the same day (but a different edition) refuted exactly the charges Manne regards as so straightforward and impressive.

Manne goes on to suggest that Chomsky held the US as bearing “sole responsibility” for Cambodian suffering. Considering the quotes Manne provides of Chomsky condemning Khmer Rouge atrocities in the very article where Manne reasserted this charge, I think the only conclusion is that Manne is stupid and doesn’t realise he disproves his own charge. Unless, of course, Manne holds that writing of the “barbarity” of the treatment of refugees by Khmer Rouge forces is a criticism of the US. Perhaps the real problem was that Chomsky condemned the US war and Pol Pot, and for Manne sole responsibility had to be attributed to the Pol Pot regime.

Manne goes on to say that Chomsky saying he held similar views on careful treatment of refugee testimony to Ponchaud was disproven by…. the Ponchaud comments cited above. Again, this is 3 years after Chomsky and Herman published PEHR 2, juxtaposing the two quotes, and in an essay which quotes (wrongly) from PEHR 2, in a quote that appears a few pages before the two Ponchauds.

I enjoyed In Denial and Sending them Home. They were both humane interventions by Manne. But though he has an earnest tone, I think he is a dishonest and unreliable polemicist.


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