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A blatant distortion

Chomsky wars redux

Happily, the New Year’s festivities have not dulled Oliver Kamm’s entertaining preoccupation with the sayings of Noam Chomsky. In this new post, Kamm pounces on a recent interview in which Chomsky refers to “[James] Baker’s endorsement of the Shamir-Peres rejection of any ‘additional’ Palestinian state in 1989 (Jordan by implication being a Palestinian state), in response to the formal endorsement by the PLO of the international consensus.” Kamm responds:

It is true that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s Peace Plan of May 1989 explicitly “oppose[d] the establishment of an additional Palestinian state in the Gaza district and in the area between Israel and Jordan”. The phrase “additional Palestinian state” also, as Chomsky says, implied “additional to Jordan”. It was a popular slogan of the Likud Party at the time that “Jordan is Palestine”, and that view was both historically unwarranted and politically destructive. But James Baker did not “endorse” it; in his own Five-Point Plan of December 1989, this was the fourth point (emphasis added):

The United States understands that the Government of Israel will come to the dialogue on the basis of the Israeli Government’s Initiative. The United States further understands that Palestinians will come to the dialogue prepared to discuss elections and the negotiating process in accordance with Israel’s initiative. The United States understands, therefore, that Palestinians would be free to raise issues that relate to their opinions on how to make elections and the negotiating process succeed.

So what Chomsky presents as an endorsement of Israel’s negotiating position was in fact merely an acknowledgement of what Israel’s negotiating position was, coupled with a wish that negotiations with the Palestinians proceed. Baker’s plan explicitly stated that those negotiations would include issues that the Palestinians regarded as essential to successful negotiations. Chomsky’s account of US policy is a blatant distortion.

Apparently, according to Kamm’s strange modus operandi, the text of one single document – the Five-Point Plan – is supposed to stand as a refutation of a claim about what Baker said in 1989. Kamm even goes so far as to claim, without any evidence at all, that the Five-Point Plan is precisely what Chomsky was talking about (“what Chomsky presents as…”). But it is no secret that Baker said other things in 1989, too. Perhaps Chomsky was thinking of something else? Specifically, and what Kamm most peculiarly neglects to mention: perhaps Chomsky was thinking of the fact that in May of 1989, in his speech to AIPAC, Baker did actually reject the creation of a Palestinian state:

Fourth, in advance of direct negotiations, the United States and no other party inside or outside can or will dictate an outcome. That is why the United States does not support annexation or permanent Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza nor do we support the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

I would add here that we do have an idea about the reasonable middle ground to which a settlement should be directed. That is, self-government for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in a manner acceptable to Palestinians, Israel and Jordan. Such a formula provides ample scope for Palestinian to achieve their full political rights. Is also provides ample protection for Israel’s security as well.

In declaring that the US did not “support the creation of an independent Palestinian state”, did not Baker thereby endorse the rejection of an independent Palestinian state? That is hardly an outrageous interpretation. It may be objected that Baker’s “in advance of direct negotiations” signalled merely that the US would not take sides on the matter of an independent Palestinian state, leaving that to the negotiating table. But everyone knew, of course, that an independent state could never be the outcome of negotiations, absent pressure from the US. Indeed, Baker paints an independent Palestinian state on the one hand, and Israeli annexation on the other, as by implication extreme and unrealistic positions that must be abandoned to attain the “reasonable middle ground”. That Baker later allowed in the Five-Point Plan that Palestinians would be able to bring up issues “that relate to their opinions on how to make elections and the negotiating process succeed” did not constitute, despite Kamm’s vague hand-waving, any kind of retreat from this refusal to support an independent state. Palestinians were to be offered a form of self-government in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the details to be worked out in negotiations, but not an independent state.

What remains arguable is whether Chomsky meant explicitly to attribute to Baker the view that Jordan was already a Palestinian state as well as the rejection of the creation of a(nother) state, or whether he was saying that Baker indeed rejected an independent state, which he did, and then explaining the Shamir-Peres rationale, in particular, for that rejection. Kamm implies that Chomsky said Baker endorsed the view about Jordan already being a Palestinian state. If you agree with that reading – perhaps because to “endorse the […] rejection” sounds stronger merely than also to reject it, carrying some implication of a further shared point of view; or because to “endorse the […] rejection of any ‘additional’ Palestinian state” almost fatally muddies any clear separation of opinions – then Baker’s May reference to “an independent Palestinian state” (not an additional one) would seem good evidence for its falsity. Indeed, the fact that the AIPAC speech also rejected “annexation or permanent Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza” (though you could perhaps drive a lot of tanks through the door left open by “permanent”) is arguably evidence, too, that Baker’s attitude was less one-sided than Chomsky’s reference only to the rejection of a Palestinian state would seem to allow.

But either way, the central fact that Kamm unaccountably forgets to mention – that Baker did indeed publicly reject the formation of an independent Palestinian state – would seem crucial to further discussion based on any plausible reading of Chomsky’s words.

As usual, Kamm’s peroration is a righteous denunciation of Chomsky’s methods:

Not everything Chomsky says is wrong, but the manner in which he weaves his historical account involves the suppression of relevant material, the excision of context, and sometimes invention to force a prespecified conclusion In short, nothing Chomsky says in his political writings can be taken on trust. Whether by design or incompetence, his handling of source material is a standing affront to the notion of disinterested inquiry.

If Kamm’s own post had instead been written by Chomsky, Kamm might well leap to denounce its mysterious failure to mention Baker’s explicit May 1989 rejection of a Palestinian state as, too, a “suppression of relevant material”. Here, as elsewhere, Kamm lays himself open to the very same charges he so tirelessly levels against his bête noire. Trust no one.

  1. 1  Michael  January 6, 2007, 3:12 am 

    Why am I not surprised?

    While I enjoy Chomsky’s analyses, I’d also enjoy reading some good critiques of his writing that didn’t resort to the kind of tactics that Kamm often employs.

    Chomsky seems to set off some kind of nervous tic in his detractors which makes them abandon reason.

  2. 2  Mondo  January 8, 2007, 11:55 am 

    “Chomsky seems to set off some kind of nervous tic in his detractors which makes them abandon reason.”

    I think it is because they can’t possibly address his arguments
    so instead scurry about searching for an uncrossed T here and an undotted i there. For this they are labelled without irony “Intellectual Sledgehammers”.

  3. 3  Steven  January 8, 2007, 4:05 pm 

    To be fair, that bit from Andrew Sullivan’s blog, comparing Kamm to a sledgehammer, was a guest post by Daniel Finkelstein, comment editor of the London Times, who has also written:

    I hold Melanie Phillips in high regard. She has been consistently brave and, I believe, correct about just what we’re up against in the war on terror.


    Also, the sledgehammer comment is about Kamm’s latest piece on Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb, also remarkable for what, if it were written by anyone else, Kamm would denounce as “suppression of relevant material”. Particularly surprising is the absence of any reference to the famous and incontrovertibly relevant 1985 article from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “New Evidence on Truman’s Decision”, by Robert L Messer, citing Truman’s own journals and letters. It is most instructive to read Kamm’s claims alongside this article.

  4. 4  Steven  January 12, 2007, 4:10 pm 

    Oliver Kamm, who declines to comment here publicly, has demanded in a series of private emails that I “correct” the above comment, since in his view Messer’s article is neither “famous” nor “incontrovertibly relevant”. I am happy to accept that if Kamm had once referred to Truman’s own letters and journals in his long post about Truman’s motivations, he need not also have cited Messer’s citations of those same letters and journals. On the matter of Chomsky and Baker, the subject of the main post, he remains silent. On the matter of Chomsky and Wheeler, I’m sure a correction of Kamm’s June 2006 post will one day be forthcoming.

  5. 5  StuartA  January 23, 2007, 7:43 pm 

    I find it interesting that Oliver Kamm refuses to respond publicly whenever he’s caught out on anything remotely significant. I found this myself, but even with a critic he views as a prominent enough to bother with he apparently can’t bring himself to allow open debate. Why, if his case is as strong as he makes out? All he appears to have done here is fog a side issue with vague insinuations, without having to state in public what, exactly, was incorrect. It’s much like his laughable defence of the Brockes Chomsky interview.

    As for the Palestinian state, he seems to have adopted the same tactic as he did with the LM trial: pick out one piece of evidence and imply that it encompasses the entire matter, then argue that because it omits whatever one’s opponent claimed that they must be falsifying the facts. It only works, I suppose, with historical issues covered by audience ignorance.

    I too would like to see some serious criticism of Chomsky’s political writing, but his most prominent UK critic instead produces these floundering efforts. I rather wish Kamm would turn to other things, because dealing with his output is essentially a waste of time. Still, it led me here, and to the hilarious idea of Kamm the “intellectual sledgehammer”. Fill in your own punchline — I go for “a head designed for smacking into walls”.

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