Friday, December 02, 2005

A little more on Johnstone and Srebrencia

A quick addendum to my post below on Srebrenica and the western left, with another example of some of the scholarship I was describing. Oliver Kamm has a couple of pieces on this on his blog (thanks to Renegade Eye for the link), dealing more directly with Chomsky's complaint to the Guardian than with Johnstone's work itself; he does mention the latter, however, and it is the manner in which he does so that is of interest to me here.

Kamm again begins by using the David Irving Holocaust denial example, noting his u-turn at his trial, when he admitted that there was a systematic campaign of mass killings against the Jews. Kamm concludes that "even the world’s most ostentatious denier of the greatest crime in modern history does not deny a deliberate programme of mass killings". Thus he argues that it is entirely consistent to label Johnstone an atrocity-denier, even though she acknowledges that atrocities did take place.

The next crucial step in the argument, after a quite deliberate setting of the scene by invocation of Irving and the Holocaust, is to direct our attention to what needs answered: "The relevant question in the case of Diana Johnstone’s writings is whether she systematically downplays the nature and extent of Serb atrocities in Bosnia". Kamm then concludes that "the evidence is clear" that she does: this evidence being the fact, undeniable, that Johnstone suggests that the massacres may well have been far below the number officially recognised.

I should make clear at this point that Kamm, to his credit, often does maintain a balanced tone, avoiding the shrill excesses of the worst kind of writing of this sort that i criticised below. He does, however, quote approvingly from the Hoare piece below, and is a signatory of the Henry Jackson Society (he also points out, helpfully, something that I hadn't bothered to find out: that Hoare is a specialist in Balkan history, and former investigator for the ICTY. This lends particular weight to his criticism of Johnstone as someone who had done no original research in Bosnia, no interviews or other groundwork, etc.; it also makes more confusing his need to demonise Johnstone instead of calmly refuting her claims). His short piece, however, does provide us with a wonderful example of petitio principii - question begging - viewed by Chaim Perelman, amongst others, as the "gravest error" of argumentative technique.

The crucial step in this is the second one: does Johnstone, in her writing, downplay the nature and extent of the Serb atrocities? Johnstone's writing, however, can only be viewed as a "downplaying" if the generally accepted figures are accepted by us as true. Given that it is precisely Johnstone's goal to challenge these figures, we can easily see how Kamm's argument begs that question. In essence, the unspoken minor premise of that leads to his conclusion - that the accepted figures on the Serb atrocities are true - is exactly the point in issue in Johnstone's work. This is not, of course, to suggest that Johnstone's points cannot be refuted; only that this is not a particularly honest, or effective, way of doing so.

We can also readily see here the effect of Kamm's choice of backdrop. His introduction of Johnstone's work to us in connection with Irving's colours very heavily the manner in which we are inclined to view the former, if we do not read reflectively. That Irving is a deeply unpleasant man, hero of the far right, and (most importantly) flying in the face of massively strong evidence sets the scene in terms of which we are to understand Johnstone's claims, and makes us accept much more readily the question-begging coup de grace when it comes. Irving's work has, however, (I assume) been refuted point-by-point, on the evidence he presents in support of his argument - if it has not, this task is urgent. Johnstone's work, here as elsewhere, is not accorded the same scrutiny, but is instead refuted by association.

The trouble with association is that it is always a matter of choice. And the choice here does exactly the same job as the question Kamm asks of Johnstone: it presumes (this time not explicitly, but by implication) that what happened at Srebrenica and elsewhere has been established beyond all reasonable doubt. The simple fact, however, is that we cannot begin with that statement as axiomatic and then proceed to a mature and serious interrogation of Johnstone's claims.

We can also, with some ease, imagine other situations that could have been used for a backdrop in this argument, creating by association a quite different set of prejudices in the mind of the unreflective reader - although perhaps none quite as extreme, and powerful, as that of Irving and Holocaust denial. David Chandler, for example, in his book From Kosovo to Kabul (pp. 29-30), notes that during the Biafra's attempt to secede from Nigeria in the late 1960s, the Biafran government ensured the support of the international community, and international aid agencies in particular, with claims of genocide and "thousands dying daily". Oxfam's official history now records that "they fell for it, hook, line and sinker".

My intention with the last example is not, of course, to suggest that Srebrenica and the Biafran war are in any way comparable; only to illustrate that we can easily find examples with which to associate any cause, and which create question-begging prejudices in the mind of the reader. The real question to be asked of Johnstone's work is not, therefore, "does she downplay the massacres?", but rather "does the evidence she adduces support her claims, and is it sufficient to present a serious challenge to the generally accepted accounts of what transpired?" Such questions, however, require an engagement with Johnstone's work in considerably better faith than many critics seem inclined to show.

1 comment:

Renegade Eye said...

That is a great post.

My writing on the subject is so unclear, because I knew her personally. I have a personal image of her.

I think your posts, are the most fair I've seen.

I have a link to your blog on my site. I hope to visit often.