Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Cohen and Said (and, oh joy, Kamm)

You've probably seen that there's been a renewed fuss about Nick Cohen's book, What's Left?, occasioned by Johann Hari's review of it in Dissent. Cohen produced a response, to which Hari responded. While some of their discussion was about "root causes", a surprising amount of it was a largely irrelevant argument about Nick Cohen's alleged Orwellian aspirations.

Oliver Kamm's pompous, voluminous and tedious spew on the subject similarly avoided the larger issues, consisting instead of a self-parodic English lesson and absurd hair-splitting about imperceptible shades of neo-conservative opinion. Some of his bizarre claims were dealt with by Tim Holmes here, although Kamm has continued to tie himself in knots since. The "intellectual sledgehammer" apparently believes that the presence of Elliott Abrams in the Reagan administration demonstrated a new found zeal for democracy. The fact that Abrams was notoriously involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the US sold arms to the Iranian theocracy in order to fund attacks on the elected government of Nicaragua is irrelevant... somehow. Abrams's enthusiasm for the human rights-challenged regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala can also be ignored when assessing whether Abrams's appearance marked a shift from Jeane Kirkpatrick's advocacy of "working with authoritarian regimes".

Not, you understand, that Abrams is someone whom Kamm anoints as "a neoconservative of the school I identify as consistent with the Left's ideals". No. But Abrams "marked a turn in policy" in that he opposed Kirkpatrick on Chile by apparently supporting "democratic political movements" there. (Quite what Kamm means by "democratic political movements" in Chile is unclear, given his peculiar asseveration in 2001 that "any democrat" would be "glad" that the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, had been deposed in a coup.) And that proves neo-conservatism is a "variegated phenomenon", which means Kamm isn't a supporter of all neo-conservatism, even if he did write that book subtitled "The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy". Indeed, he isn't a supporter at all, but merely keen to appropriate the label "for [his] own uses". Utterly compelling, as Stephen Pollard says.

Anyhow, upon reading Nick Cohen's retort to Hari, my first thought was of the hypocrisy it displayed. Readers of Hari's review, Cohen said, "were not given an honest account" of his book. Hari "from almost the first paragraph of his piece in your last issue, misleads your readers", he told Dissent. After the Orwell talk, Hari "goes on to misrepresent my book", Cohen said. (Strangely, given the strength of criticism levelled by Cohen, Hari threatened the Harry's Place blog with legal action if they didn't remove apparently related accusations published there. There are few mentions of internet libel law that don't prompt Oliver Kamm to trumpet his glorious victory in that arena. He has already twice promised breathless readers there's more to come.)

Regardless of the accuracy of Hari's review, the accusations Cohen levelled at it could be applied to his own book. The most obvious case was surely his misrepresentation of Edward Said's views of the 9/11 attackers. The book suggests that Said failed to condemn the hijackers:
"Said couldn't manage a word of condemnation of the ideology and methods of the suicide bombers" (p 274)
As I pointed out, Said had a piece in Cohen's own paper with exactly such a condemnation. At the time I wrote to Cohen about it, but received no reply. Trying again recently elicited a reply.

The defence is apparently that Cohen was talking specifically about the LRB roundtable piece mentioned above the quoted remark, not Said's output in general. I don't believe this is a reasonable defence. As I pointed out:
  1. In the LRB piece Said called the attacks "horrible deeds". That would appear to be "a word of condemnation" of at least the methods of the suicide bombers.
  2. The comments in the book about Said's silence are not unambiguously confined to the LRB roundtable. For the book's characterisation of Said's views to have value, a reasonable assumption would be that it provided a fair summary of Said's output at that time, not just what he wrote in a particular issue of a magazine.
  3. An account of intellectuals' reactions to the attacks couldn't be deemed honest if, when criticising one of those intellectuals for what they didn't say, it tacitly restricted its scope to a single issue of the LRB and its unrepresentative content. What's Left? drew attention to what Said supposedly didn't say in the LRB while ignoring what he certainly did say earlier in the Observer.
While it might be more fun to lay into Cohen's hypocrisy, I'm surprised and happy to say he now admits the description in What's Left? is misleading, and will be correcting it in the next edition. In this he stands in contrast to Oliver Kamm, who in my experience simply ignores criticism that he can't at least purport to answer in his favour. Of course, there remain the numerous other problems with What's Left?, documented here and elsewhere.