Chomsky Challenger Two: Oliver Kamm
Oliver Kamm is a British journalist and author of the book Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy. Accused by many of having a “college debating style”, he nonetheless has a rather copious output of work. But, Wikipedia says, “Kamm is probably best known for his criticisms of the linguist and radical political writer Noam Chomsky”, an honor which allowed him to be the author of the piece “Against Chomsky” in Prospect Magazine after Chomsky was named the world’s leading public intellectual.
And it is that piece which, oddly enough, brings us to today’s challenge. In it, Kamm wrote:
Chomsky’s first book on politics, American Power and the New Mandarins (1969) grew from protest against the Vietnam war. But Chomsky went beyond the standard left critique of US imperialism to the belief that “what is needed [in the US] is a kind of denazification.” This diagnosis is central to Chomsky’s political output.†
Chomsky wrote a letter in response, which contained the line:
Proceeding further to demonstrate my “central” doctrine, Kamm misquotes my statement that “We have to ask ourselves whether what is needed in the United States is dissent — or denazification.” The context, which he again omits, is […] an exhibit […] where children could “enter a helicopter for simulating firing of a machine gun at targets” in Vietnam. […] Apart from misquoting and omitting the crucial context, Kamm also fails to tell us how one should react to this performance […] †
Chomsky is clear that Kamm committed three errors: he misquoted, he took out of context, and he failed to provide an alternative. Kamm insists that he did not misquote.
Kamm first brought this to the public’s attention in a post on his blog where he encouraged readers to write in and claim the $50 prize by submitting it. Either Kamm has few readers or his readers are incredibly wary of his offers of free money, since only one person wrote in. I replied to Kamm on June 7, saying that I was “excitedly hoping that I would finally get to award some money” but was not sure whether he actually misquoted Chomsky or not and wondering if he had any other Chomsky errors.
Kamm quickly responded:
I will not insult your intelligence by dissecting your insult to mine. You issued a stupid challenge in an area far outwith your competence and knowledge, and now find there are consequences. […] I have therefore provided you with a way out […] I very strongly advise you, in your own interests, to take it.
I replied apologizing for insulting his intelligence (and insisting it was an accident) and thanking him for looking out of me. He wrote back on June 9 calling my message “silly”, suggesting I was “generally ill-read in modern history”, and suggesting my response undignified. On June 11 he threatened legal action to enforce the challenge and calling my response “evasive, graceless and puerile”. I informed him I was presently on vacation and intended to deal with the matter when I got back. He replied on June 12 again insisting I act quickly.
On June 14 he accused me of “surreptitiously  alter[ing]” the challenge (which he called “my suicidal endeavour”) and suggesting mercy if I act quickly. In a later email, he wrote:
Stop dithering, Mr Swartz, and show some dignity, honesty and maturity. […] You responded with a message of insultlingly stupid desperation to me, and a statement of aggressively ignorant defiance and obfuscation to your readers.
He then pressed the point again in two further emails.
Well, with apologies to Mr. Kamm for the delay, let us now investigate his challenge.
The implication of Chomsky’s statement would seem to be that he did not write that denazification is “what is needed”; instead he simply said we had to ask ourselves if it was needed. So what did Chomsky actually write?
I retrieved a copy of the first printing of Chomsky’s first book, American Power and the New Mandarins, to investigate the question. Here is the full relevant portion:
As a final illustration of the callousness of the American response to what the mass media reveal, consider a small item in the New York Times of March 18, 1968, headed, “Army Exhibit Bars Simulated Shooting at Vietnamese Hut.” The item reports an attempt by the “peace movement” to disrupt an exhibit in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry:
Beginning today, visitors can no longer enter a helicopter for simulated firing of a machine gun at targets in a diorama of the Vietnam Central Highlands. The targets were a hut, two bridges and an ammunition dump, and a light flashed when a hit was scored.
Apparently, it was great fun for the kiddies until those damned peaceniks turned up and started one of their interminable demonstrations, even occupying the exhibit. According to the Times report, “demonstrators particularly objected to children being permitted to ‘fire’ at the hut, even though no people appear there or elsewhere in the diorama,” which just shows how unreasonable peaceniks can be. Although it is small compensation for the closing of this entertaining exhibit, “visitors, however, may still test their skills elsewhere in the exhibit by simulated firing of an antitank weapon and several models of rifles.”
What can one say about a country where a museum of science in a great city can feature an exhibit in which people fire machine guns from a helicopter at Vietnamese huts, with a light flashing when a hit is scored? What can one say about a country where such an idea can even be considered? You have to weep for this country.
These and a thousand other examples testify to moral degeneration on such a scale that talk about the “normal channels” of political action and protest becomes meaningless or hypocritical. We have to ask ourselves whether what is needed in the United States is dissent—or denazification. The question is a debatable one. Reasonable people may differ. The fact that the question is even debatable is a terrifying thing. To me it seems that what is needed is a kind of denazification. What is more, there is no powerful outside force that can call us to account—the change will have to come from within.
(Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, 1ed 1pr)
It becomes clear that Chomsky wrote both: we needed to ask ourselves which was needed and his personal opinion was that it was denazification. Thus it seems to me that Kamm was correct in saying that Chomsky’s believed denazification was necessary.
At his request, I am donating the $50 for his challenge to the [UNICEF Appeal for the Democratic Republic of Congo].
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June 16, 2006