Chomsky at the Bit

On June 22, after flaming Jonathan Alter for two weeks on the subject of Noam Chomsky, Dennis Perrin challenged his opponent to a public debate. "Let's do it on the air," he wrote, "face to face."

Perrin, a former comedy writer turned author, is also an anarchist who cites Chomsky and Christopher Hitchens as mentors. He is comfortable on the air, having hosted a WBAI radio show for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and made frequent appearances on the Allan Colmes radio show on WEVD. Alter, a longtime political columnist for Newsweek, is ubiquitous on MSNBC.

So did he bite? "Sure, I'll talk to him on the radio," Alter says. "It's not a major debate." Perrin is still seeking a venue, which shouldn't be hard, given the fusillade of hard facts and sarcasm he is ready to fire.

The issue? Chomsky, the legendary linguist and political dissident, has been tarred of late by mainstream liberals, who accuse him of being an apologist for Pol Pot.

Chomsky sparked the flame wars when he appeared on the Charles Grodin show May 21, questioning NATO's intervention in Kosovo and asserting that if the justification had really been humanitarian, "They'd stop contributing right now to comparable or worse atrocities elsewhere." Grodin played the tape the next week for Jonathan Alter, who said Chomsky lacked credibility, given his stance on Cambodia.

Enter Dennis Perrin, who believes Chomsky is being cut out of the debate not because his arguments are shoddy, but, on the contrary, because "his critique is so good and so precise." Perrin praises Chomsky for applying the same standard to all acts of genocide, and calls The New York Times's Anthony Lewis a "liar" for branding Chomsky an apologist for Pol Pot.

Here's where the plot thickens. Lewis published a column on June 23, 1997, shortly after the capture of Pol Pot, which chastised "a few Western intellectuals, notably Prof. Noam Chomsky" for refusing "to believe what was going on in Cambodia." Chomsky sent a letter to the Times defending himself, which the paper did not publish. Lewis declined to comment for this article.

The Rosetta Stone of the debate is a June 25, 1977, article in The Nation by Chomsky and Edward Herman. In a review of several books on postwar Cambodia, the authors advance what they call the Case of the Missing Bloodbath. Roughly stated, the idea is that after the Communist capture of Phnom Penh in 1975, the Western media exaggerated atrocities by the Khmer Rouge from a few hundred thousand to 1 or 2 million. According to Chomsky's ongoing critique, Pol Pot's gruesome "massacre," most of which occurred after mid 1977, can only be properly understood in the context of U.S.-backed aggression in Southeast Asia, including the five-year bombing of Cambodia, which itself killed a half-million plus.

Perrin expected Alter to apologize to Chomsky. Instead, after rereading the Nation piece, Alter says he realized anew that "Chomsky is a brilliant linguist and a menace to rational analysis of American foreign policy." In e-mail to Perrin, he called the article a "piece of shit" that belongs in the "annals of wrong predictions," because after mid 1977, the killings increased, vindicating publications like the Times that initially understated the body count. "Chomsky is the one who should apologize," he wrote. "Your guy proved wrong. . . . Why can't you admit even that?"

Highlights from the rest of the flame wars: at one point, Perrin forwarded the entire exchange to Chomsky, who responded with what Press Clips considers convincing documentation to back up his claims. (It's also instructive to read his 1985 essay, "Decade of Genocide in Review"­reprinted in The Chomsky Reader­in which he revisits Cambodia.) The Nation piece "must be one of the most intensely scrutinized articles in history," Chomsky wrote his protégé, adding, "No one has yet found even a phrase, even a comma, that should be changed."

But Alter was unmoved. He accused Chomsky of "wrapping his mistakes in a lot of wordy horseshit" and called his nitpicking about sources irrelevant from a historical perspective. Perrin countered that Alter evades the evidence: "Both Chomsky and I cited sources, gave dates, compared points, and so on, while you backed away from arguments when the facts went against you." At another point, with his back against the wall, Alter pulled rank. He is the pundit, after all.

"You think you aren't on TV much," Alter wrote, "because your views are too 'far out there,' or that you are smarter than the rest of the universe. But the real reason is that you never, ever seem to admit error of any kind."

Perrin calls that a non sequitur. "I don't know if he was willfully misreading the text, or he's just dumb. His problem is that I refuse to be part of his consensus." Stay tuned.


Spin the Coke Bottle

Shortly after July 1, when the Coca-Cola Company began reintroducing its recalled products to the Belgian market, the conventional wisdom on the Coke scare took a 180-degree turn. In the previous week, business reporters at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal had been blasting the company for sloppy damage control, but now it was time to expose all those silly schoolgirls who thought drinking Coke made them sick.

The new spin appeared in headlines on both side of the Atlantic: "Watch Out: Hysteria About," "Mass Hysteria Blamed in Coke Safety Scare," "It seems the problem was all in the mind." The cover line on the July 12 New Yorker took it to the extreme: "Malcolm Gladwell on the Belgian Coke myth." Of course, calling the scare a "myth" was a slight overstatement of the text, in which the author opined, "Whatever went on in Belgium . . . probably wasn't Coca-Cola poisoning. So what was it? Maybe nothing at all."

As Press Clips has previously reported, The New Yorker can now be counted on to champion the infallibility of U.S. products such as electromagnetic radiation, breast implants, and psychoactive drugs. While rhetorical in nature, these arguments are variously presented under the rubric of editorial comment, reporting, or criticism.

In the July 12 piece, Gladwell's scientific analysis draws on two assertions: the low incidence of sulfides in the contaminated Coke, and the high incidence of psychosomatic reactions among the sick students. Without informing the reader as to the source or context of those facts, Gladwell turns the piece over to an interview with British psychiatrist Simon Wessely, an expert on mass hysteria who is filled with stories and eager to speculate.

"When this Coke business started I bet two of my friends a bottle of champagne each that I knew the cause," Wessely told The New Yorker. "It's quite simple. It's just mass hysteria. These things usually are."

Cheers! To be sure, the media exaggerated the Coke scare in Belgium, despite its irregular epidemiology. But was it really "nothing at all," or is it possible that, at the same time many of the poisoning reports turned out to be psychosomatic, the company whitewashed the cause of the legitimate complaints?

The crisis started June 8, when about 40 students in Bornem, Belgium, were hospitalized, complaining that drinking Coke had given them stomachaches, dizziness, and nausea. Soon, students in four other cities developed similar symptoms. In response, Coca-Cola hired three research institutes to test the product and a European toxicologist to analyze their results. After spending a reported eight hours with the evidence, sipping Coke, the toxicologist issued his conclusion: a fungus on the cans had caused an "off-odor," and a few sulfides in the product gave it an "off-taste," but the level of sulfides was so low, there was never any health risk at all. Around June 20, the company released the collected summaries, some of which suggested that many of the illnesses were psychosomatic. (The company says these reports are no longer available.)

Meanwhile, Belgian government epidemiologists interviewed the students, and on June 30 announced they had found not one, but two problems: In Bornem, the complaints were clearly caused by a toxic product, while in the other four cities, about half the complaints were psychosomatic.

That ambiguous premise was followed by an onslaught of spin. In a letter published in the July 3 issue of Lancet, four Belgian doctors advanced the diagnosis of mass hysteria. One of them, Dr. Benoit Nemery, told Press Clips they had formed their "hypothesis" based on "reported clinical features, the erratic epidemiological spread of the outbreak, the absence of a credible toxicological explanation . . . the published literature in the field, the apparent influence of the media reporting, and the ongoing dioxin crisis." Which sounds credible enough. He said he and his colleagues have no financial ties to the Coca-Cola Company.

Dr. Nemery and others are calling for further inquiry, including the company, which wants to see the medical reports, and the Belgian government, which wants to conduct its own tests on the product. But stonewalling has turned to stalemate. Even The Wall Street Journal remains skeptical, noting that the company has yet to release its test data or to make its hired guns available for interviews.

But Gladwell considers the case closed. He said he would not trust the Belgian government to run toxicology tests because, in the wake of the dioxin scare, it's "hard to get an objective reading from them." (So, Coke's objectivity was never in doubt?) He believes the country owes Coca-Cola an apology, and likens the controversy to the Halcion scare in the early 1990s, when consumers reported widespread adverse reactions to the popular sleeping pill. "At the end of the day, there was nothing wrong with Halcion," only the manner in which it was prescribed.

Thus, at the hands of a master, the conventional wisdom is born.

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