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« Politics, home and abroad | Main | Blair's greatest error »

May 09, 2008

Comments

Richard

It's like watching a 1950's Hollywood 'Cowboy & Indian' film...

The cowboys (USraelUK Neo-Cons) are the good guys, and the Indians (The Left/or anybody who opposes the cowboys) are the 'baddies'.

You are becoming so transparent, Mr Kamm; it's not just dangerous, but also embarrassing...and boring.

Oliver Kamm

Mr Symonds, I'm relieved to see that, in response to my request, you no longer send crank antisemitic conspiracy material to my email address, but now entertain a wider audience. Long may your resolution to that effect continue.

Chris Bertram

Yes, I did indeed copy Norman Geras into our correspondence about Monty Johnstone. That was for the not at all puzzling reason that Geras served alongside Johnstone on the NLR editorial committee for several years. Your comment on the mild-mannered Johnstone was

"The man has thus turned cold in his grave before I have got round to declaring publicly that his death in no wise diminishes me, or you."

Nasty stuff.

Oliver Kamm

And as I explained to you at the time, I don't doubt that Monty Johnstone had an amiable personality. I'm also willing to accept, albeit with complacence, that I have a nasty one. My interest in Johnstone's personal characteristics is, at least for the purposes of this blog, zero.

I am, on the other hand, monomaniacally interested in Johnstone's publicly stated belief that British Communists were right to defend the Nazi-Soviet pact. That fact makes him a scoundrel. It didn't appear in Hobsbawm's obituary for him in The Guardian. It appears on this site, and nowhere else on the Web. The reason it's published here is that (a) I'm not susceptible to "Hearts of Gold" mush whether published in the Daily Mail or the Morning Star, and (b) I'm accustomed to researching confidently expressed political assertions before making them, as (see above) you are not.

Louis Proyect

I am not sure why Chris Bertram has so much animosity toward Oliver Kamm since they have so much in common when it comes to Serb-bashing. It reminds me a bit of the contretemps between Ian Buruma and Paul Berman after Buruma trashed his fellow Islamophobe's book in the NY Review. As a rule of thumb in politics, you tend to reserve your deepest spleen for those you are closest to. Just look at Clinton's spittle dripping from Obama's face as another case in point.

Oliver Kamm

Mr Proyect, there's in fact also some similarity between you and Bertram, in that neither of you reads books that would have been helpful to you before, respectively, you ventilated confident historical judgements that turned out not to be true. Bertram, however, is the lesser fool in that respect, because he didn't claim to have read the relevant work in the first place, as (on a different subject) you did. It's been a while since you turned up on this blog after that unfortunate experience, and I'm pleased to see you've recovered sufficiently from your discomfiture to resume your contributions.

Chris Bertram

Bu the way, I'd advise anyone in doubt about the content of the SR paper to read it and make up their own minds about whose description of its meaning and purpose is the more accurate.

Chris Bertram

"confident historical judgements that turned out not to be true".

As far as I can tell from your convoluted prose above, the judgement that "turned out not to be true" was a judgement about how the SR piece would have been read at the time: specifically the judgement that the piece would have been received as a critique of Soviet tankism rather than as an apologia for massacre. (Cambodia, after all is not the main subject of the article.)

Your claim to have falsified my judgement appears to rest on Newman's discussion of Lukes's response to Miliband's reaction to an article by Lukes. Not, therefore, compelling evidence of the truth or falsity of the proposition you dispute.

Since I was politically active in 1980 and the sort of person who read the Socialist Register at the time and mixed with other, similar, readers, I think I can claim some (fallible) authority about how that text would have been read by the typical member of its intended audience.

David Boothroyd

'De mortuis nil nisi bonum' has always been voluntary, not compulsory. In 1971, when the reactionary former Lord Chief Justice Lord Goddard was given a good kicking in Bernard Levin's Times column, there was a loud protest by Goddard's friends over the unfairness of attacking a man who could not answer back, and the poor taste of doing so just after Goddard's death. Levin responded that he had said everything in his column, and more, while Goddard was alive.

Oliver Kamm

Chris Bertram, if that's the best you can do, then we can pronounce the discussion closed and accord you the status of "retired hurt".

You made a confident assertion about how Miliband's argument "would have been read at the time" and "how a fair-minded person would read it now". I specifically said that my readers need not take my word on this to understand that you were talking off the top of your head, having done not a stroke of research into the matter, and possessing no familiarity with the directly relevant literature. It has accordingly come as news to you that Miliband's own, highly sympathetic biographer considers that: "Without any real expertise on the area, he had understated the enormity of the crimes and endorsed a particular interpretation which appeared to minimise the responsibility of the Pol Pot regime itself."

In addition, the same point was made more vigorously, at the time, directly to Miliband, and publicly to the malevolent figure from whom Miliband got this rubbish, by Steven Lukes. Lukes is not a minor figure in the world of letters, the THES (where he made his critique) is not an obscure journal, and he is not some reactionary stooge.

The comparison with Louis Proyect may have one additional application. At least when Proyect gets into difficulties on matters of political history, he eventually realises that it would be prudent for him to withdraw quietly from the scene of the debacle. You've conducted yourself in a manner that - were you to do likewise in any field other than blogging, such as journalism or the academy - would have real costs for your credibility. You're not going to recover by persisting.

David, thanks for that reference. I agree; and I recall that Levin made a similar argument in The Times after the death of the literary critic Arnold Kettle, a longstanding member of the CPGB executive. I regret that I don't have that article (I don't think it's in any of Levin's collected volumes of journalism), but it's worth seeking in the London Library. Hobsbawm huffed about it, as I recall.

Chris Bertram

Fantastic!

My charge was that you gave a misleading account of the substance of Miliband's article. That you did so is plain to anyone who will consult it. What you seek to do now is to deflect attention from this point to another, namely, whether Miliband, under the influence of Chomsky, held false beliefs about the extent of Khmer Rouge atrocities. But since I never disputed that he held such false beliefs, myself described that regime as "horrific" and said that Miliband was wrong to hold them, your characteristic bluster is entirely beside the point.

I note also your irrelevant rhetorical introduction of various possible opinions about Lukes (who is quite a minor figure, actually) and the THES.

It seems that you are not just a scoundrel but also a bullshitter of the worst kind. Credibility indeed!

Bartholomew

I take issue with Bertram's description of me as "a vicious little merchant banker".

I'd take issue with it as an over-obvious double entendre. If you wish to respond at the same elevated level, you could somehow link Bertram with the Berkshire Hunt.

Oliver Kamm

Credibility, indeed. I'm sorry to my readers for banging on about this, but I clearly must repeat myself. I specifically pointed out that no one need take my word on the character of Miliband's argument and its disrepute. The same point is made by the personalities whose existence you were unaware of and assumed could not exist, namely a fair-minded current observer, Miliband's enthusiastic biographer, and a fair-minded contemporary commentator, Steven Lukes (who, if he be "quite a minor figure", is still unaccountably better known in discussions of international politics than - let's take a random example - you are).

The sources I have told you about are demonstrably new to you, though they are hardly esoteric or tangential material. I note that the Berkeley economist Brad DeLong recently pronounced you to be an impressive candidate for the crown of stupidest man alive, but on the evidence of this discussion it's worse than that. If, say, I were to behave this way in an article for The Times or The New Republic, my editors would have something to say about the practice of making confident and aggressive historical assertions that I hadn't checked, and in subjects I demonstrably wasn't familiar with.

Chris Bertram

Clear signs of desperation there Oliver!

I note also that at least one of the commenters on the Crooked Timber thread (a person unknown to me) has read Miliband's article in order to decide for himself who gave the fairest and most accurate account of it.

Chris Bertram's nanny

Quit while you're behind, dearest!

andy

"Clear signs of desperation there Oliver!". No. The desperation is all yours.

Bertram's revolutionary advisor

Comrade Bertram, perhaps you should retreat behind your bush, though I fear it provides little cover.

Hasta la victoria siempre!

Oliver Kamm

Chris Bertram, you remind me of a remark by Roy Jenkins, concerning a debate he held with Tony Benn in the European referendum campaign of 1975 (from A Life at the Centre, 1991, p 410): "His methods were to my mind illegitimate in that he never replied to any argument, but merely moved on to a still more extravagant statement when the previous one was challenged."

I do not consider you to be a denier or minimiser of the crimes of Pol Pot, and have made no statement or implication to that effect. It is clear, however, that the revulsion I feel at those who do take such a position is not one you share. This may be because - as was the reason for DeLong's caustic judgement on your intellect - you are a declared supporter of Communist autocracy of a less murderous stripe. But in any event, your indulgence of political positions that stand far outside the canons of civilised debate is not an answer to the points I and others have raised.

The most revealing thing you've said in this thread is to make an appeal to the typical reader of the Socialist Register, where Miliband's essay was published. I had understood you to be referring in your post - because this is, after all, what you said - to fair-minded readers and commentators. If your standard of fair-minded readers comprises those who happen to agree with Miliband's politics in the first place, then your conception of the range of political debate is as comically attentuated as the depth of your political research. The same point might be made of your appeal for help to that most disinterested and informed of parties, the readers of your blog.

I don't see I can put this any more clearly than I have done already, but I'm happy to repeat it. If you believe (like Miliband) that the crimes of Pol Pot have been exaggerated by Western corporate media, and if you believe (like Johnstone) that British Communists were right to support the Nazi-Soviet pact, then you're a scoundrel. The fact that you can't see this point makes your interventions in this thread rather futile, as it is for me to explain the matter to your blog's readers. The Nazi-Soviet pact isn't some obscure theological dispute to be judged alongside (so help me) Johnstone's "mild manners": it's an issue of essential political hygiene.

As I have said, my readers do not need to take my word on the disrepute of Miliband's interventions. All they need do is consider the judgements of Miliband's own highly sympathetic biographer and the contemporary observations of Steven Lukes. These sources were crashingly obviously unknown to you before you made your confident assertions about what a fair-minded reader would have made of Miliband's treatment of Pol Pot at the time, and what they would make of it now. In short, you wrote off the top of your head with no expertise and - which is worse - no conception of the need to research political judgements before making them. You are not, as it happens (and as I've had discreet cause to note in the past), the least competent of your blog's contributors in the field of political history, but you are nonetheless a bluffer.

I note with complacence that neither you nor anyone else has taken up my invitation to explain what's "nasty" about my treatment of the elderly or deceased figures I've written about, nor has anyone been able to fault me on the accuracy of my citations. (Your readers who disputed my account of Johnstone's position on the Nazi-Soviet pact speedily abandoned that complaint once I gave them chapter and verse on it. This happens a lot.)

Chris Bertram

There's a good deal of your usual obfuscation there, Oliver. You made a claim about Miliband and cited the SR article from 1980 in support of your claim. My expertise in international politics may be as limited as you say, but I am capable of reading texts and understanding what they say. The SR article does not support your characterization of Miliband and no amount of additional information about what Lukes wrote subsequently in the THES etc can alter that fact.

You object to me invoking the typical reader of the SR. It is, actually, a pretty commonplace notion (post-Austin at any rate) that an act of communication is best understood not simply by looking at what is said but also by examining what is being done in saying that thing. To grasp the latter it does, indeed, help to have a sense of Miliband's intended audience. I can see how that would be hard for someone as radically out of sympathy with them as you are.

You also refer to me as "a declared supporter of a communist autocracy of a less murderous stripe". I take it that you are referring to a recent post of mine on Cuba. You aren't entitled to draw the conclusion that you draw about that piece of writing either. The post was deliberately (and perhaps excessively) rhetorical, but did, as a point of fact, deplore the human rights abuses in Cuba.

Finally, you complain that "that neither you nor anyone else has taken up my invitation to explain what's "nasty" about my treatment of the elderly or deceased". Well, of course, you can say what you like about whomever you like. But these are, unlike Falwell, minor figures, whose misjudgements and self-deceptions, however deplorable, were without great effect. Yet here you are, decades after the events in question obsessing about the fact that some obscure persons you never met once made statements you deplore in some small-circulation journal. It is an unusual hobby to have, but you are quite right that the correct reaction to a person who chooses such an activity is not indignation. I shall not be condemning you in future.

(This correspondence is now closed - from my side, anyway.)

Chaim

Oliver,

Re. that earlier post of yours re. “revisionism,” the following sentence appears in this piece by Josef Joffe in today’s New York Times Book Review:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/books/review/Joffe-t.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=josef+joffe+&st=nyt&oref=slogin

“China is more subtle in its ambitions, but still a classic revisionist that wants more for itself and less for the whole.”

I wonder whether the academic you mention would take Joffe to mean that China was a Holocaust-denying state.

Chaim

..And I'd also like to know what s/he'd make of Revisionist Zionism:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revisionist_Zionism

I mean: I've got my own criticisms of it, but I wouldn't exactly charge it w/Holocaust denial.

Ann

"USraelUK Neo-Cons" - this piece of hysterical nonsense needs no further comment, does it?

Oliver Kamm

Chris Bertram, your responses are increasingly bizarre as well as precious. I recoil from the word "texts", but I too am well able to read and interpret articles, essays and books. In recognition, however, of my being "radically out of sympathy" with the type of politics represented by Ralph Miliband's Svengali, Noam Chomsky, I deliberately presented instead the judgement of a writer deeply in sympathy with Miliband's views. Miliband's biographer, Michael Newman, is in my judgement absurdly eager to impute wisdom to his subject's essay, even to the point of claiming that "Miliband's general points were important and have considerable relevance for the post-Cold War interventions by Nato". But Newman, unlike you, is intellectually honest. He does not evade or obscure the scandal that his hero "understated the enormity of [Pol Pot's] crimes and endorsed a particular interpretation which appeared to minimise the responsibility of the Pol Pot regime itself".

Your obfuscation of this point would be enough in itself to justify Brad DeLong's description of you as the stupidest man alive, without invoking your support for Castro's autocracy (which I'm unimpressed to find that you regard as all a bit of a giggle). And as you had never come across Newman's biography of Miliband before I referred you to it, I'm pleased to have advanced your understanding of the prudence, in future, of researching declaratory statements about politics before making them.

On the matter of my disobliging remarks about elderly or deceased figures of the far Left, I'm unamazed at your failure to find anything factually amiss in them. As I understand your objection, it is merely that these figures are minor and obscure, and that my criticising them is obsessive.

In fact, my coverage is catholic: some of my targets, such as Eric Hobsbawm CH, are well known and honoured public intellectuals. If I had not written of the detail of Hobsbawm's apologetic for Soviet tyranny, it would not have appeared on the public record, in print or online. (My research is, you will acknowledge, original rather than derivative.)

Monty Johnstone is indeed a minor figure - but he still merited a Guardian obituary by Hobsbawm, which did not mention some important facets of his work. Again, if I had not filled this gap, then no one else would have done. Was this worthwhile? I would say so, for two reasons. First, the cause of historical truth - and in this case, the truth that Johnstone believed that British Communists were right to support the Nazi-Soviet pact - is more important to me than the genteel hypocrisy of speaking no ill of a dead scoundrel. Secondly, as the examples I have given demonstrate, if I don't raise these points, then they will remain off the record. I can't see the virtue in that, and you certainly haven't explained it.

If you feel constrained, as I would not, by personal affection for the late Monty Johnstone, then consider instead the case of another highly obscure figure, Neil Clark. You will certainly agree that Clark's support for Milosevic and his advocacy of "Srebrenica denial" are not parts of legitimate public debate. Yet the man still got away with occasional columns in reputable outlets espousing such material until I got on his case. I exposed his reliance on crank sources, his misrepresentation of those sources, and his fakery perpetrated against a national newspaper in an attempt to cover up that misrepresentation. If I hadn't done this, then Clark's material would have stood uncorrected in the public record. It's a minor achievement in the world of letters, and I am a minor figure within that milieu; but I can reasonably claim to have done more than anyone in destroying Clark's career as a political commentator (his role as a racing tipster is no concern of mine). I am not a commentator whose work will last, but I'm effective in my own way. And I remain uncomprehending of your assertion (for you still haven't done more than assert it) of my nastiness.

Lou

Chris Bertram is a rather unpleasant little man who regularly used to soil the comment threads of Harry's Place with his presence.

It never did him much good though. He was always retreating battered and bruised quite quickly. His brand of idiotic student poitics was easily despatched by the rather sharper minds than his that frequented that blog.

I suspect Oliver you might better spend your time on people of a little more significance.

Putzi

Oliver (in first reply) said: "And as I explained to you at the time, I don't doubt that Monty Johnstone had an amiable personality. I'm also willing to accept, albeit with complacence, that I have a nasty one."

Oliver (in most recent reply) said: "And I remain uncomprehending of your assertion (for you still haven't done more than assert it) of my nastiness."

You don't comprehend it, although you already concede the point? Strange!

John Meredith

Excellent demolition of the squalid Chris Bertram, although I tend these days more towards David T's view that Bertram is rather to be pitied than despised. I wondered at the time whether his panting enthusiasm for Castro (while, rather queasily, admitting that he had committed his 'fair share' of human rights violations) was a sign of some sort of breakdown and this thread seems to confirm the thesis.

Adrian

To summarise...

Chris, You said that the SR article could not have been interprteted by a fair-minded reader in the way Oliver Kamm did.

Oliver Kamm then provided two examples of respected commentators, one actually the biographer of its author who, at the time, interpreted the article in exactly the way he did.

Chris, you're in a hole. Stop digging.

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