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“I’m using this column to pursue a battle which might be hopeless, and which many of you might regard as obscure,” the crusading journalist George Monbiot admits in yesterday’s Guardian. “Perhaps I have become obsessed, but it seems to me to be necessary.” I doubt that the average man on the street will be following the spat between Monbiot and the philosopher and activist Noam Chomsky, who is now so old that every few years I am astonished anew that he is still alive. But in summary, two of the fashionable Left’s biggest guns have ended up blasting great chunks out of each other in an entirely unnecessary and painfully embarrassing debacle.

In 2010, Chomsky wrote a foreword to Edward S Herman and David Peterson’s anti-imperialist polemic The Politics of Genocide, which apparently raises a number of pointed questions about how the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre were represented in the Western media. In yesterday’s article, Monbiot indicts Herman and Peterson for repeating “obvious falsehoods,” and he demands to know why he finds Chomsky endorsing them. Monbiot has dumped the entirety of his related correspondence with Chomsky on his own website.

Although Chomsky agrees that there was a “mass slaughter in Srebrenica” Monbiot construes this as “denying the scale and nature of the atrocities in Srebrenica.” Chomsky seems to believe that giving prominence to these atrocities robs far greater crimes – such as the annihilation of America’s indigenous population – of their magnitude. He reasons that Monbiot’s reverence for the Srebrenica Massacre endorses an implicit “denial of horrendous crimes that is incomparably worse than anything that you focus your attention on.”

Yet Chomsky blinks. He concedes that he had championed the “general point” of Herman and Peterson’s book, whilst avoiding “any reference to their particular discussions.” It would not have been “totally inappropriate to comment on these or many other claims in the book. I was not writing a review…” Monbiot does not accept that admirable ends may justify morally careless means, and he thereby demands, “Would you really characterise their blatant falsehoods about Srebrenica and Rwanda… as “critical analysis”?” He adds that, “Your name appears on the front cover, in the same font and size as the names of the authors. Most readers would surely conclude that by agreeing to write the foreword, you were giving the book your seal of approval.”

The correspondence degenerates into some immature and rather lame smears. Chomsky implies that Monbiot is some sort of establishment lackey, who switches off his scepticism when it comes to Rwanda and Srebrenica, “because they are Holy Causes among British left intellectuals.” Monbiot damns Chomsky et al with the word “deniers,” a blood descendant of “Holocaust Denier” which implies some deranged neo-Nazi refusal to accept the self-evident. The correspondence consequently peters out.

What is really going on here? As far as I can see, it all boils down to a single word: Genocide. Monbiot accepts the U.N. Convention’s definition of this word as if it was objectively descriptive. For him, genocide amounts simply to, “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” Chomsky may regard such an acceptance of this definition as naïve or gullible, although he himself allows for some possibility of an objective measure of genocide. He reasons that the “mass slaughter in Srebrenica… is certainly a horror story and major crime, but to call it “genocide” so cheapens the word as to constitute virtual Holocaust denial…”

Once evidence of genocide has been established, it logically and perhaps legally follows that the international community has to intervene. And the recipient of intervention will be invariably a weak and isolated country. A nation can never solve a genocide by itself. It always has to be redressed by outsiders, who usually arrive with exploitative agendas of their own. Monbiot seems to fancy that such intervention may be benevolent and disinterested; Chomsky apparently believes that this can be rarely so, or at least only in apocalyptic circumstances.

But if this is the case, then why do Chomsky et al concern themselves with the details – in trying to relegate certain genocides to atrocities – and instead argue from a point of principle, that intervention is wrong and that a sovereign people should take responsibility for their own crimes? In siding with apologists and conspiracy theorists rather than conceding that countless people may have died horrifically in Rwanda without any strings attached, Chomsky is perhaps guilty of conducting a good argument incompetently, or complicating and discrediting his own case.

Chomsky’s argument is occasionally suspicious in its details – can he really imagine that more Hutus than Tutsis may have died in the genocide? – whilst Monbiot incites mistrust by disowning the details altogether. In their correspondence, the great men are almost on the verge of putting some of the details to bed. Chomsky alludes to a distinction between “executed” Bosnian Muslims and those killed in combat, but Monbiot fails to respond. He wishes to give an impression of defending journalistic integrity, without affirming or refuting any of the contested facts. In the Guardian, he maintains that his position, “does not make us apologists for western power, or establishment flunkies or thought police. It means only that we care about the facts.” Yet the truth – as either morality or facts – seems to be otherwise unworthy of defence.

Herman and Peterson themselves put their fingers on Monbiot’s weakness in an article for Znet Magazine:

Monbiot believes (as does the Guardian-Observer) that the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals have been trustworthy searchers for truth and unbiased dispensers of justice, and that the narratives of the conflicts each of them codifies are beyond reproach. The contrast between our view and theirs could not be more stark or clear.

Yet rather than defending his reliance upon these authorities, Monbiot pointlessly cites them afresh:

I consulted four of the world’s leading genocide scholars: Martin Shaw, Adam Jones, Linda Melvern and Marko Attila Hoare. I asked them each to write a brief response to the claims the two men made on Znet. Their statements, which I have also posted on my website, are devastating. They accuse Herman and Peterson of obfuscating, distorting and misrepresenting the evidence, and of engaging in genocide denial… For Edward Herman and David Peterson to be right, the entire canon of serious scholarship, human rights investigations, exhumations and witness statements would have to be wrong.

In the bear pit underneath Monbiot’s article, the journalist James Heartfield finally drags Monbiot towards the matter at hand:

You can say that thousands were killed at Srebrenica, that it was an atrocity, that civilians were targeted, that it should not have happened. But you cannot say that it was a genocide. There was a civil war in Bosnia at the time. There was a Bosnian Muslim army in the field. The Bosnian Serb forces were at war with both the Croat and Muslim armies. When you say it was a genocide, you air-brush the conflict out of existence, and misrepresent the Serb forces as if they were Nazis persecuting Jews. The war might well have been unequal, but it was a war. More… the categorisation ‘genocide’ is ideologically loaded. Under UN rules, where a conflict is labelled a genocide, the UN’s forces have an obligation to intervene.

This proves too difficult for Monbiot and so he simply ducks it:

Yes, you guys from the LM [a Marxist magazine that lost a libel battle over its coverage of the Bosnian war] network have been even more active in downplaying/airbrushing/denying what happened in the Balkans than the people I’ve discussed in this article. Here’s the previous piece I wrote, in which I detail some of it…

Monbiot and Chomsky appear to have both lost, even though they are both mostly right. Whilst the war in question ended over a decade ago, why cannot we reconcile histories which condemn those behind the Srebrenica Massacre and those imperialists who used it as an excuse to meddle in Bosnia? Lesson number one about being on the Left: Solidarity!