Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Oliver Kamm and his Scholarly Scruples

Oliver Kamm takes scholarly standards seriously. He is a stickler for correct handling of source material. There is no difficulty in finding, among his many ponderous denunciations, a consistent rhetorical front against sophistic interpretations and misrepresented citations.

A favoured target is Noam Chomsky. In recent years, Kamm has asserted that this “undeservedly influential writer on politics” is guilty of “dishonest handling of source material” that is “demonstrable and persistent”. He fails to adhere to “scholarly standards” — indeed, his political output is an “affront to the notion scholarship”.

So disgraceful are Chomsky’s tactics that Kamm has devoted, at a conservative count, seventy separate blog articles to the subject, along with an assortment of incidental jibes, with the consistent theme being Chomsky’s misrepresentations. These postings are largely of a piece with his identikit Amazon “reviews” and tireless newsgroup efforts to educate “the Professor’s undergraduate admirers” that Chomsky is “an ignorant, innumerate crank”. (The latter are chiefly distinguished by Kamm’s adoption of a peculiar pseudo-Wodehousian, blazer-jacketed style, only partially abandoned since: “There's nothing to stop you incriminating you further as an ignoramus, old bean...”)

So we can be in no doubt that Kamm takes scholarly probity seriously. Why, then, have several of his attacks on Chomsky exhibited, and indeed relied upon, the exact flaws that he decries in others?

The most recent example was pointed out by Steven Poole. In his posting, “Chomsky bamboozles on the Balkans III”, Kamm quotes a paragraph about Kosovo from pages 56-57 (note the numbers) of Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival:

“Nicholas Wheeler ... estimates that Serbs had killed 500 Albanians before the Nato bombing, implying that 1,500 had been killed by the KLA.” (pages 56-57)

Chomsky cites Wheeler’s book, Saving Strangers, in support of his 500 figure, having given the 2000 number earlier. Kamm denies Wheeler says 500 Albanians were killed before the bombing:

“On p. 269 he says: ‘It is estimated that some 500 Kosovars had been killed and 400,000 displaced in the year leading up to NATO's action, but the justification for intervention was that without it many more Albanians would have been killed and forcibly driven from their homes.’ Note the term Wheeler uses: he says 500 Kosovars (i.e. residents of Kosovo, both Serb and Albanian) were killed; he does not say or imply there were more Serb than Albanian casualties.” (Kamm’s emphasis)

Kamm has previously complained that “Chomsky goes out of his way to omit the context that allows reasoned conclusions to be drawn”, so how to understand what he has done here? With context re-inserted, Wheeler said this:

“The difficulty with this criticism [that the bombing accelerated Serbian ethnic cleansing] is that it relies on the assumption that, in the absence of NATO bombing, the Serbs would have ended their killings and forced expulsion of ethnic Albanians. It is estimated that some 500 Kosovars had been killed and 400,000 displaced in the year leading up to NATO's action, but the justification for intervention was that without it many more Albanians would have been killed and forcibly driven from their homes.”

That is, Wheeler was talking about killings by Serbs, not of “both ethnic Serb and Albanians”, but specifically ethnic Albanian Kosovars. Lest there be any doubt on this, Steven Poole gave a list of pages where Wheeler clearly means “Albanians” when he writes “Kosovars” (245, 258 and 284). As Poole says, on this count, Kamm is “plain wrong”.

On the second charge — that Wheeler does not specify the relative numbers of Serbian and Albanian deaths — Kamm is simply irrelevant, because Chomsky does not claim this of Wheeler. He is comparing Wheeler’s 500 figure with a separate 2000 figure — a fact clear from the surrounding discussion. Whether this is a valid comparison is a different matter, not addressed by Kamm.

This inept pedantry was preceded by an equally false prequel, about which I’ve already written. Here Kamm claimed Chomsky had misrepresented Phillip Knightley’s testimony regarding the Trnopolje camp, and an inmate there, Fikret Alic, pictured behind barbed wire. In an interview Chomsky suggested Knightley had “determined that it was probably the reporters who were behind the barb-wire, and the place was ugly, but it was a refugee camp”.

Not so, said Kamm, quoting as proof a pre-trial Guardian report carrying some general comments from Knightley about the general nature of war photography — no mention among them of refugee camps or barbed wire at all. He characterised this as “what Knightley really said about the case”.

Except it wasn’t. Knightley said more, as one would expect, given that he was a defence witness in a libel case hinging on the photograph in question. He confirmed that Trnopolje was probably partly a refugee camp, and that the footage “was misleading because it implied that they [the pictured inmates] were detained by the barbed wire”, which was “symbolic”.

In this case, if anyone’s “handling of source material is fundamentally untrustworthy” it is Kamm’s. He has expended 1427 words analysing a single point made during a wide-ranging interview, and is shown to have either a comically poor understanding of the material under discussion (even with the Internet to help, and Nick Cohen passing him references), or a simple lack of concern for the truth.

His penchant for microscopic analysis of interviews also led to his first “bamboozles on the Balkans” post. He quotes Chomsky in a New Statesman interview referring to a British parliamentary inquiry that “reached the astonishing conclusion that, until January 1999, most of the crimes committed in Kosovo were attributed to the KLA guerrillas.”

Kamm then makes a big play of investigating which “unnamed parliamentary inquiry” Chomsky is citing. “I believe I have found what Chomsky is referring to,” he announces. It was, he reveals, a quotation of Robin Cook in a Defence Select Committee report.

But that wasn't all:

“[W]hat makes Chomsky's use of this quotation disgraceful and dishonest is that, as well as attributing it to the inquiry rather than the Foreign Secretary, he omits what it refers to and why it was said.”

He goes on to flail Chomsky for only implicitly referring to the Racak massacre as a “single exception”:

“It is, to say the least, highly relevant ... to the reckoning of moral culpability by the protagonists in the conflict, and to the reasons that Nato resolved upon a bombing campaign to repulse Serb aggression.”

Consequently, Kamm concludes, he “leaves it out, the better to misrepresent his material and prettify his political record.”

The reader comes away with the impression that Chomsky has consistently misrepresented the Defence Select Committee report and remained quiet about the Racak massacre Chomsky makes reference to this inquiry, we are informed, “quite often”. Only through the sedulous detective work of Oliver Kamm was the truth brought to light.

But the strange thing is, Kamm didn't need to conduct any extensive researches to find a more precise and detailed statement of Chomsky's position on the report. All he needed to do was read the rest of page 56 of Hegemony or Survival, where both his complaints are answered.

First, Chomsky quite explicitly sources the statement to Robin Cook:

“A subsequent parliamentary inquiry revealed the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook had told the House on January 18 that the KLA had “committed more breaches of the ceasefire, and until this weekend were responsible for more deaths than the [Yugoslav] security forces.”

Then he addresses the Racak massacre in the next sentence:

“Robertson and Cook are specifically referring to a massacre carried out by the security forces at Racak on January 15, in which forty-five people were reported killed.”

Chomsky goes on to explain why Racak was not a key justification for bombing, as Kamm implies, because “Western documentation reveals no notable change in the distribution of violence after Racak”, among other reasons. (The bombing began over two months after the 15th January Racak massacre and crucially after the Rambouillet conference.)

There is little evidence Chomsky was being deliberately silent about Racak in the New Statesman interview. It isn't even certain he was silent, given the ellipsis before his mention of a “single exception”. But regardless, it was an interview, and inevitably limited in detail. The only fair thing to do, when considering why Chomsky didn't mention something in an interview, is to consult his written work, which shows that he has not shied from discussing what Kamm says he's trying to conceal.

By contrast, it is quite clear that Kamm has remained silent on crucial context, and in a distinctly more discreditable fashion. He must know that Chomsky has discussed the Racak massacre in print because that discussion appeared on a page of Hegemony or Survival that he quoted. It is also discussed in earlier books, A New Generation Draws the Line and The New Military Humanism, with which Kamm is familiar if he was correct in his 2005 boast that he believed he had read all Chomsky's political books, and which are cited in the endnote immediately following the one he quotes from Failed States. Nor is it hard to find interviews and articles in which Chomsky mentions Racak.

But instead of mentioning these “to say the least, highly relevant” facts, Kamm alerts his readers to silence on Racak in Failed States in his third “bamboozles on the Balkans” posting. As discussed, the third posting's primary theme was an erroneous allegation about Wheeler's book, raised in the context of Chomsky's discussion of Kosovo. Kamm knows that the section of Failed States in question cites page 56 of Hegemony or Survival, because he quotes the citation. And he knows that on page 56 of Hegemony or Survival there is a discussion of Racak. Yet he “leaves it out, the better to misrepresent his material”.

Is it fair to quote Kamm now and say that “[t]he further you penetrate, the greater are the evasions, short cuts and falsehoods”? I haven't even mentioned here his bizarre defence of an interview, not on the grounds that the factual claims it made were correct (they weren't), but that its author was “entitled” to her “interpretation”. Nor have I gone into his persistently extravagant accusations regarding Chomsky's quoting of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's memoirs.

How does one evaluate such a collection of distorted analyses? Are they all just slips? Is Kamm, nonetheless, a fair commentator on Chomsky? Let's consult, once again, Oliver Kamm, defender of scholarly scruple:

“When the 'errors' are all in the same direction... then something more is involved.”