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Intellektulle er forfengelige, vet vi. Intellektuelle i opposisjon vekker likevel beundring hos unge på leting etter idealer og helter. Det er litt av en nedtur, hvis det viser seg at deres ego betyr mer enn sannheten. Slik det gjør i en samtale mellom Noam Chomsky og Guardians Emma Brockes.

Temaet er attpåtil noe så følsomt som Srebrenica. Chomsky støttet bladet Living Marxism, som skrev at ITNs nyhetsinnslag fra Trnopolje-leiren var manipulert. Tidsskriftet ble dømt i retten, og gikk konkurs. «Saken» ble ført videre av svenske Ordfront.

Chomsky gjentar at massakrene på bosniaker var overdrevet, og at det var et religiøst hysteri rundt Bosnia. Når Brockes konfronterer ham med at hennes kollega Ed Vulliamy var til stede i Trnopolje da ITN-opptaket ble gjort, blir han krakilsk. Det er tydelig at Brockes mister all respekt for ham.

Chomsky er nylig kåret til den viktigste intellektuelle i en missekonkurranse i bladet Prospect. Tittelen på intervjuet sier sitt:

The greatest intellectual?

Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated?
A: My only regret is that I didn’t do it strongly enough.

These days, Carol accompanies her husband to most of his public appearances. He is asked to lend his name to all sorts of crackpot causes and she tries to intervene to keep his schedule under control. As some see it, one ill-judged choice of cause was the accusation made by Living Marxism magazine that during the Bosnian war, shots used by ITN of a Serb-run detention camp were faked. The magazine folded after ITN sued, but the controversy flared up again in 2003 when a journalist called Diane Johnstone made similar allegations in a Swedish magazine, Ordfront, taking issue with the official number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre. (She said they were exaggerated.) In the ensuing outcry, Chomsky lent his name to a letter praising Johnstone’s «outstanding work». Does he regret signing it?

«No,» he says indignantly. «It is outstanding. My only regret is that I didn’t do it strongly enough. It may be wrong; but it is very careful and outstanding work.»

How, I wonder, can journalism be wrong and still outstanding?

«Look,» says Chomsky, «there was a hysterical fanaticism about Bosnia in western culture which was very much like a passionate religious conviction. It was like old-fashioned Stalinism: if you depart a couple of millimetres from the party line, you’re a traitor, you’re destroyed. It’s totally irrational. And Diane Johnstone, whether you like it or not, has done serious, honest work. And in the case of Living Marxism, for a big corporation to put a small newspaper out of business because they think something they reported was false, is outrageous.»

They didn’t «think» it was false; it was proven to be so in a court of law.

But Chomsky insists that «LM was probably correct» and that, in any case, it is irrelevant. «It had nothing to do with whether LM or Diane Johnstone were right or wrong.» It is a question, he says, of freedom of speech. «And if they were wrong, sure; but don’t just scream well, if you say you’re in favour of that you’re in favour of putting Jews in gas chambers.»

Eh? Not everyone who disagrees with him is a «fanatic», I say. These are serious, trustworthy people.

«Like who?»

«Like my colleague, Ed Vulliamy.»

Vulliamy’s reporting for the Guardian from the war in Bosnia won him the international reporter of the year award in 1993 and 1994. He was present when the ITN footage of the Bosnian Serb concentration camp was filmed and supported their case against LM magazine.

«Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true.»

But Karadzic’s number two herself [Biljana Plavsic] pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity.

«Well, she certainly did. But if you want critical work on the party line, General Lewis MacKenzie who was the Canadian general in charge, has written that most of the stories were complete nonsense.»

And so it goes on, Chomsky fairly vibrating with anger at Vulliamy and co’s «tantrums» over his questioning of their account of the war. I suggest that if they are having tantrums it’s because they have contact with the survivors of Srebrenica and witness the impact of the downplaying of their experiences. He fairly explodes. «That’s such a western European position. We are used to having our jackboot on people’s necks, so we don’t see our victims. I’ve seen them: go to Laos, go to Haiti, go to El Salvador. You’ll see people who are really suffering brutally. This does not give us the right to lie about that suffering.» Which is, I imagine, why ITN went to court in the first place.