© Michel Fingerhut 1996-8 ^  


Pierre Vidal-Naquet:
On Faurisson and Chomsky
in Assassins of Memory (NY: Columbia University Press 1992),
English translation copyright 1992 Columbia University Press
No reproduction except for personal use only -

We are very grateful to Pierre Vidal-Naquet and his american publisher, Columbia University Press, for allowing us to make this text available here.

Pursuing his crusade --whose theme may be summarized as follows: the gas chambers did not exist because they can not have existed; they can not have existed because they should not have existed; or better still: they did not exist because they did not exist-- Robert Faurisson has just published a new book.[1]

This work is neither more nor less mendacious and dishonest than the preceding ones. I am not at the disposal of R. Faurisson, who, moreover, has not devoted a single line to attempting to respond to my dismantling of his lies in a text that he clearly is familiar with if we may judge from certain editorial details (such as the rectification of all too obvious cases of falsification).[2] If every time a "revisionist" trotted out a new fable it were necessary to respond, all the forests of Canada would not suffice. I shall simply observe the following point: Faurisson's book is centered on the diary of the SS physician J. P. Kremer, a text I dealt with at length, showing that not once in the diary do the "special actions" in which the doctor participated have any relation with the struggle against typhus. Faurisson is unable, and for good reason, to supply a single argument, a single response on this subject. I have said as much, and will repeat it: his interpretation is a deliberate falsehood, in the full sense of the term.[3] If one day it becomes necessary to analyze the rest of his lies and his falsifications, I shall do so, but such an operation seems to me to be of little interest and would be futile in the face of the sect whose prophet he has now become.

More troubling, because it comes from a man whose scientific stature, combined with the just and courageous fight he waged against the American war in Vietnam, have granted him great prestige, is the preface to Faurisson's book, which is by Noam Chomsky. An extraordinary windfall indeed: to maintain that the genocide of the Jews is a "historical lie" and to be prefaced by an illustrious linguist, the son of a professor of Hebrew, a libertarian and the enemy of every imperialism is surely even better than being supported by Jean-Gabriel Cohn- Bendit.

I read the text carefully and with an increasing sense of surprise. Epithets came to my pen, expressing, progressively, the extent of my surprise and my indignation. Finally, I decided to remove those adjectives from my text. Linguists, and even non-linguists, will be able to restore them without difficulty.[4] I shall proceed in order.

1. The preface in question partakes of a rather new genre in the republic of letters. Indeed, Noam Chomsky has read neither the book he prefaced, nor the previous works of the author, nor the criticisms addressed to them, and he is incompetent in the field they deal with: "I have nothing to say here about the work of Robert Faurisson or his critics, of which I know very little, or about the topics they address, concerning which I have no special knowledge."[5] These are indeed remarkable qualifications. But since he needs to be able to affirm a proposition and its opposite, Chomsky nonetheless proclaims, a few pages further on, his competence. Faurisson is accused of being an anti-Semite: "As noted earlier, I do not know his work very well. But from what I have read --largely as a result of the nature of the attacks on him-- I find no evidence to support [such conclusions]" (Preface, p. xv). He has also read his critics, specifically my article in Esprit (September 1980), and even the personal letters I sent to him on the subject, "a private correspondence which it would be inappropriate to cite in detail here." A fine case of scruples, and a fine example as well of double language, since Chomsky did not realize that the book he was prefacing contained unauthorized reproductions of a series of personal letters,[6] and he himself does arrogate the right of summarizing (while falsifying) my own letters. I shall simply say to him: "Kindly publish-- I give you my authorisation-- the entirety of that correspondence. It will then be possible to judge whether you are qualified to give me lessons in intellectual honesty."

2. Chomsky-the-Janus-faced has thus read Faurisson and not read him, read his critics and not read them. Let us consider the issues in logical order. What has he read of Faurisson which allows him to bestow so fine a certificate? For is he not "a relatively apolitical liberal of some sort" (pp. xiv- xv)? Since Chomsky refers to nothing in support of this, it is impossible to know, and I shall simply say: Faurisson's personal anti-Semitism, in fact, interests me rather little. It exists and I can testify to it, but it is nothing compared with the anti- Semitism of his texts. Is it anti-Semitic to write with consummate calm that in requiring Jews to wear the yellow star starting at the age of six "Hitler was perhaps less concerned with the Jewish question than with ensuring the safety of German soldiers" (Vérité, p. 190) ? Certainly not, within Faurisson's logic, since in the final analysis there is no practical anti-Semitism possible. But within Chomsky's logic? Is the invention of an imaginary declaration of war against Hitler, in the name of the international Jewish community, by an imaginary president of the World Jewish Congress,[7] a case of anti-Semitism or of deliberate falsification? Can Chomsky perhaps press linguistic imagination to the point of discovering that there are anti-semitic falsifications?

Let us now pose the other side of the question. What does Noam Chomsky know of the "criticisms" that have been addressed to Faurisson, and specifically of the study that he refers to, which I published in Esprit and which attempts to analyze "historically" the "method" of Faurisson and of several others? The answer is simple. "Certain individuals have taken Faurisson's defense for reasons of principle. A petition with several hundred signatories, led by Noam Chomsky, protested against the treatment Faurisson has received by presenting his 'conclusions' as though they were in fact discoveries Vérité, p. 163). That petition seems to me to be scandalous."[8]

The content of those lines leaves no doubt about Chomsky's motives. It is not a question of the gas chambers; it is very little a question of Faurisson, and only secondarily of freedom of speech. It is above all a question of Noam Chomsky. It is as though, by anticipation, Jacques Prévert were speaking of him, and not of Andre Breton, when he wrote in 1930: "He was, then, quite thin-skinned. For a press clipping, he would not leave his room for eight days."[9] Like many intellectuals, Chomsky is scarcely sensitive to the wounds he inflicts, but extremely attentive to whatever scratches he is forced to put up with.

But what is his argument? He signed, we are told, an innocent petition "in defense of Robert Faurisson's freedom of speech and expression. The petition said absolutely nothing about the character, quality, or validity of his research, but limited itself quite explicitly to defending elementary rights which are "taken for granted in democratic societies." My mistake, he contends, stems from my having made an error in English. I believed that the word "findings" meant "discoveries," whereas its meaning is "conclusions." I will not quibble on this last --insignificant-- point, concerning which Chomsky's position is all the stronger in that he had received my own admission in a letter. But he forgot to specify that the error in question, which had appeared in my original manuscript, had been corrected prior to publication. The text that appeared in Esprit does not include it, and if Chomsky, rather bizarrely, reproaches me for it, it was because he was drawing on my correspondence with him. Moreover, the error was infinitesimal: findings is a scientific term, and it was legitimate for me to play on its etymological meaning, which is indeed "discoveries." Here, in addition, is what was written to me on this minuscule subject by a professor of Cambridge University, who is a native New Yorker, and who presumably knows the language spoken in Cambridge, Massachusetts: "Chomsky's bad faith in playing with words is alarming. To be sure, if one opens a dictionary to the word findings one will find, among other meanings, that of conclusions. And yet no one, and Chomsky knows this perfectly well, would ever make use of findings, or discoveries, or even conclusions, in this context, in the strictly neutral sense now invoked by Chomsky. Those words, and particularly the first two, imply absolutely that they be taken seriously as designating the truth. There are more than enough neutral words at the disposal of whoever needs them: one might, for example, use views or opinions."

But let us return to the heart of the matter. Is the petition an innocent declaration in favor of a persecuted man that everyone, and first of all myself, could (or should) have signed?

Let us read:

Dr. Faurisson has served as a respected professor of twentieth-century French literature and document criticism for over four years at the University of Lyon 2 in France. Since 1974 he has been conducting extensive independent historical research into the "Holocaust" question. Since he began making his findings public, Professor Faurisson has been subject to a vicious campaign of harassment, intimidation, slander, and physical violence in a crude attempt to silence him. Fearful officials have even tried to stop him from further research by denying him access to public libraries and archives.

Let us pass over what is excessive or even openly false in the petition. Faurisson has been forbidden from neither archives nor public libraries.[10] Does the petition in fact present Robert Faurisson as a serious historian conducting genuine historical research? To ask that question is to supply an answer.[11] The most droll aspect of it all is that one finds the following adage, which has become something of a motto, preceding works published by La Vieille Taupe: "What is terrible when one sets out after the truth is that one finds it." For my part, I maintain --and prove-- that with the exception of the quite limited case of the Diary of Anne Frank,[12] Faurisson does not set out after the truth but after falsehoods. Is that a "detail" which does not interest Chomsky? And if one is to understand that poorly informed, he signed on trust a genuinely "scandalous" text, how are we to accept his willingness to underwrite today the efforts of a falsifier?

3. But there is more still: regarding himself as untouchable, invulnerable to criticism, unaware of what Nazism in Europe was like, draped in an imperial pride and an American chauvinism worthy of those "new mandarins" whom he used to denounce, Chomsky accuses all those who hold a different opinion from his own of being assassins of freedom.

That issue of Esprit (September 1980) must have driven him mad. Along with my five lines in which Chomsky's name was mentioned with reference to Faurisson, there were twelve pages by Paul Thibaud,[13] who took the liberty of criticizing the inability of Chomsky (and Serge Thion) to gauge, in the case of Cambodia, the dimensions of the totalitarian phenomenon. Those pages are commented on as follows by Chomsky: "I omit discussion of an accompanying article by the editor that again merits no comment, at least among people who retain a commitment to elementary values of truth and honesty" (Preface, p. x). But would not an "elementary respect for honesty and the truth" have obliged Chomsky to indicate the following fact, which is also elementary: Thibaud's article (of twelve pages)[14] was a response to an article by Serge Thion, which was seventeen pages and entirely devoted to the defense and illustration of the theses of . . . Noam Chomsky? Is that how the editor of Esprit revealed his intolerance and dishonesty?

"I do not want to discuss individuals," Chomsky writes, and immediately thereafter, in accordance with the same double discourse with which we are beginning to be familiar, he attacks an imaginary "person" who "does indeed find the petition 'scandalous' [which was indeed the word I used], not on the basis of misreading, but because of what it actually says" (p. xi). An elegant way of not saying --and, at the same time, saying-- that I assault the freedoms of my enemies. For Chomsky goes on to say: "We are obliged to conclude from this that the individual in question believes that the petition was scandalous because Faurisson should in fact be deprived of the normal right to self- expression, that he should be harassed and even subjected to acts of physical violence, etc." It happens that what I wrote was precisely the opposite, and that in the very page on which Chomsky did such a poor job of deciphering the five lines that so disturbed him. Was it really impossible to read that page through? The conditions under which Faurisson was brought to request leave of Lyon and enter the National Center of Broadcasted Instruction were certainly regrettable, and I have said as much, but his freedom of expression, subject to extant law, has not been threatened at all. He was able to be published on two occasions in Le Monde. Thion's book, in which his theses are vented, was not the subject of any lawsuit, and if Faurisson is the target of a civil suit, brought by various antiracist associations, which do not all have freedom as their primary goal,[15] such lawsuits do not prevent him from writing or being published. Is not the book prefaced by Chomsky --with the exception of instances of libel toward specific individuals that it may contain-- proof? Would he like a law passed by the republic requiring that Faurisson's works be read in public schools? Is he asking for all history books to be rewritten in accord with his discoveries --I mean, conclusions ( findings) ? Is he requesting at the very least that they be advertised and sold at the entrance to synagogues? Is every French intellectual required to assume in turn the roles of his exegete, like Serge Thion, his psychiatrist, like Pierre Guillaume, or his buffoon?

The simple truth, Noam Chomsky, is that you were unable to abide by the ethical maxim you had imposed. You had the right to say: my worst enemy has the right to be free, on condition that he not ask for my death or that of my brothers. You did not have the right to say: my worst enemy is a comrade, or a "relatively apolitical sort of liberal." You did not have the right to take a falsifier of history and to recast him in the colors of truth.

There was once, not so long ago, a man who uttered this simple and powerful principle: "It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies." But perhaps you know him?[16]

Postscript (1987)

This text, which was written six and a half years ago, could be prolonged indefinitely. Barely had I completed it when the affair took a rather droll turn, since, in a letter of December 6 addressed to Jean-Pierre Faye, Chomsky somehow disavowed not his text but the use that had been made of it with his agreement as a preface to Robert Faurisson's book. The book was nonetheless printed with the preface in question, which was dated October 11, 1980. On that same December 6, he wrote to Serge Thion concerning the same text: "If publication is not under way, I strongly suggest that you not put it in a book by Faurisson," which did not prevent him from maintaining his fundamental position.[17]

Let us restate the point with due calm: the principle he invokes is not what is at stake. If Chomsky had restricted himself to defending Faurisson's right to free speech, from my point of view there would not be any Chomsky problem. But that is not the issue. Nor is the issue for me one of responding to the innumerable proclamations, articles, and letters through which Chomsky, like some worn-out computer reprinting the same speech, has spewed forth his outrage at those who have been so bold as to criticize him, and specifically at the author of these pages.[18]

It will suffice for me to observe: 1) that he went considerably further than was generally believed in his personal support of Faurisson, exchanging friendly letters with him,[19] accepting even to be prefaced by the leader of the revisionist league Pierre Guillaume[20] (while claiming --mendaciously-- that he had not written a preface for Faurisson),[21] characterizing Guillaume as "libertarian and antifascist on principle"[22] (which must have provoked some hilarity from the interested party, since he regards antifascism as fundamentally mendacious); 2) that he has not remained faithful to his own libertarian principles since he --whom the slightest legal action against Faurisson throws into a fit-- went so far as to threaten a publisher with a lawsuit over a biographical note concerning him in which several sentences had the misfortune of displeasing him. And in fact, he succeeded in having the biographical note in question assigned to a more loyal editor.[23]

To be sure, it is not the case that Chomsky's theses in any way approximate those of the neo-Nazis.[24] But why does he find so much energy and even tenderness in defending those who have become the publishers and defenders of the neo- Nazis,[25] and so much rage against those who allow themselves to fight them?[26] That is the simple question I shall raise. When logic has no other end than self-defence, it goes mad.


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