In July 2007 an entry about me was posted on the Wikipedia. It was written by Olly Buxton, who describes himself as a “committed Radical Marxist Ironist”. (I am not quite sure what one of those is.) Although the entry is presented as a general biography or account of my career, in reality the bulk of it relates to two political controversies I have been involved in. Both are misreported, in one case quite seriously.
Buxton refers to an entry on Noam Chomsky which I contributed to the 1983 Fontana Biographical Companion to Modern Thought, edited by Alan Bullock and R.B. Woodings, in which among other things I wrote “[Chomsky] forfeited authority as a political commentator by a series of actions widely regarded as ill-judged (repeated polemics minimizing the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia; endorsement of a book – which Chomsky admitted he had not read – that denied the historical reality of the Jewish Holocaust).” Buxton says “This led to a heated exchange with Alexander Cockburn in the pages of The Nation, as a result of which Sampson was forced by Cockburn to apologise”. The only way I can interpret this is as a claim that I apologized for what I wrote about Chomsky in the passage quoted.
I did not; why would I? What I wrote in that passage was perfectly accurate. Buxton must know it was accurate, if he has taken enough interest in these matters to write an encyclopaedia entry about them. My words were actually rather restrained. As I remember it, at the time I supposed that Chomsky’s support for Robert Faurisson, who got into trouble for denying the reality of the Jewish Holocaust, was merely a product of naivety allied to arrogance – though, having (unlike some commentators) actually read what Chomsky wrote about Faurisson, I knew that his support went beyond defence of the simple principle of free speech. I think it was only after writing the encyclopaedia entry that I learned how far Chomsky had been getting into bed with the Neo-Nazi movement, from articles such as W.D. Rubinstein’s “Chomsky and the Neo-Nazis”, Quadrant, Oct 1981, pp. 8–14.
I did apologize in print for one mistake I made in the controversy which arose after the Biographical Companion was published. But that apology did not have the significance implied by Buxton’s write-up.
Some time after the British edition of the encyclopaedia appeared, the co-editor R.B. Woodings phoned me to say that Chomsky had threatened a libel action in connexion with my entry. Woodings treated this as a great joke. He assured me that we had nothing at all to fear, because Chomsky’s own letter itself provided ample evidence to defeat a libel action in court. I asked Woodings to confirm that Chomsky had explicitly threatened legal action, and he confirmed it.
I found this supremely hypocritical on Chomsky’s part; not long before, he had been justifying his support for Faurisson on the ground that freedom of expression was an absolute right. I made my opinion of Chomsky’s hypocrisy known in an article in the New Criterion (“Censoring ‘20th-century culture’: the case of Noam Chomsky”, Oct 1984, pp. 7–16, followed by an exchange between Chomsky and me in the Letters section of New Criterion, Jan 1985, pp. 81–4).
This was the article that aroused the wrath of Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens, and assorted other leftie bien-pensants. In his letter to the editor, Chomsky accused me of “brazen lies”. What I was supposed to have lied about, though, was not Chomsky’s obnoxious political actions, but rather the libel threat. So far as I could tell when I checked back with the Biographical Companion editors (who at this point turned rather tight-lipped), they had misled me about this. What actually seemed to have happened was that Chomsky had written a threatening letter that the editors understood as meaning that he was planning a libel action, but the letter had not actually included the word “libel”. So to that extent my report of the episode was incorrect. Chomsky and his toadies did their best to persuade the public see this as the central issue, drawing attention away from what Chomsky had written about Cambodia and about Faurisson.
I had some sympathy with the Companion editors. How were they to interpret a threatening letter about what they had published, other than as an implicit warning of impending legal action? A threat means that one is planning to do something bad to the person who receives it, and the only bad thing an aggrieved subject of an encyclopaedia entry can do is issue a libel writ. Furthermore, here in England where libel law is heavily weighted in favour of plaintiffs, any editor or publisher sees that as a potent threat. I do not doubt that Woodings and Bullock were sincere in believing that this was what they were facing. Nevertheless, they should not have told me that Chomsky had explicitly written that he would sue, so I felt bound to apologize for repeating this; that apology was in an exchange with Alexander Cockburn in the letters section of The Nation, 2 Mar 1985, p. 226. Chomsky’s and Cockburn’s political ally Christopher Hitchens used the affair as a peg on which to hang an article denouncing me in extravagant terms – the juiciest of which Olly Buxton picked up to work into his Wikipedia entry, though without giving the reader much information about the context.
Meanwhile, Chomsky achieved his goal: the American paperback edition of the Biographical Companion appeared without my Chomsky entry. I had it in writing from Lord Bullock that this was for fear of a libel action – though I suspect that the real problem may have been that the American publisher did not want to offend an influential man, and used the hypothetical possibility of legal action as an excuse to insist on eliminating my entry.
I made a mistake by believing someone who stretched the truth; but it was a mistake of no significance. The point was that Noam Chomsky, at the time a major public figure, had been aggressively trumpeting the absolute right of a neo-Nazi to publish whatever claims he wished about the history of the Holocaust, irrespective of considerations of truth or decency; yet when someone else published brief, accurate, and temperate remarks on Chomsky’s political misdeeds, Chomsky found that so intolerable that he suppressed it on his side of the Atlantic. Whether he suppressed it by writing that he would sue for libel, by writing a threatening letter which implied that without actually using the word libel, or whether perhaps the most effective shot in his locker may have been to suggest to Harper & Row that he would discourage his friends from publishing with them in future unless they eliminated the Biographical Companion entry, was neither here nor there. Gross hypocrisy is gross hypocrisy.
I understood, of course, what Cockburn’s and Hitchens’s game was. For the radical Left, Noam Chomsky was such an icon that his reputation had to be preserved at all costs; for them it was a case of “my Chomsky right or wrong”. If someone like myself publicly mentioned inconvenient truths about Chomsky, I had to be publicly destroyed with whatever weapons came to hand, honestly or dishonestly – if the best they could find was an admission that I had made a mistake about an irrelevance, that was to be represented as a disgusting sin.
(Olly Buxton is in a different category. After he had assembled all the dirt he could dig up on me into his Wikipedia entry, unbelievably, he wrote to me saying that he hoped I did not object to this, because he was actually a great admirer of my work – but asking me to treat this communication as confidential. Olly Buxton is evidently just a fool.)
So much for Buxton’s worse inaccuracy. A lesser case occurs in his description of an episode in 2002, when I resigned my District Council seat in the wake of a controversy about my then-unfashionable views on race relations.
Buxton writes that I “was forced by the Conservative Party to resign [my] Conservative seat on the Wealden District Council”. (Buxton seems to be a great one for “forcing”.) What the leader of the Conservative group on the Council actually asked me to do was to resign from that group; I was explicitly not asked to resign my Council seat, and I was told in writing that I was welcome to remain a member of the Conservative Party. I could have remained sitting as an independent conservative. In fact I chose to resign my seat, partly because as a loyal Party member I saw the point that in the circumstances which had arisen I might serve the Party best by stepping out of the limelight, and largely because remaining on the Council would have meant a lot of stress for little purpose. (People who cling to Council seats in this sort of situation normally do so because they do not want to forfeit the pay councillors receive. I wasn’t in local politics for the money.)
I stayed in the Conservative Party, until after about thirty years’ continuous membership I left when David Cameron became leader in December 2005, since it no longer seems to be a conservative party.
Readers must judge for themselves the value of an encyclopaedia entry about a forty-year career which consists mainly of inaccurate statements about two episodes which lasted a few months each. Note that (unlike Noam Chomsky) I do not challenge the right of Olly Buxton to write as he pleases about me. That does not mean I have to respect him, or the Wikipedia system that apparently enables any idiot to write whatever he likes about other people, in what purports to be a major international knowledge resource, with no quality control whatever. Since I first posted a version of this webpage, other Wikipedia contributors have eliminated some of the most demonstrably misleading aspects of Buxton’s entry (which remains available via the “history” tab), while continuing to ignore most of my career activities. Perhaps these do not amount to much, but they are the only reason why I could possibly rate an entry in a general reference work. If anyone should remember my name when I am gone, it might be for my contribution to popularizing the Good–Turing frequency-estimation technique, or for my treebank work. It surely will not be for a silly spat with a bunch of sanctimonious Liberal Democrats on a local council.
When Olly Buxton created his encyclopaedia entry and I wrote the original version of this response, I didn’t know much about the Wikipedia, and took it perhaps more seriously than it deserves as a reference work. Subsequently I have read an article which gave me a clearer understanding of what sort of compilation the Wikipedia is. For purely technical topics, particularly those relating to computers, it may be a reliable information source. But for subjects with a more human focus, apparently the Wikipedia regularly functions as a vehicle for political propaganda, masquerading as a dispassionate work of reference. Perhaps one should not see it as too bothersome to find one’s career travestied in this particular “encyclopaedia”.
(After I posted this page on the Web, and perhaps in consequence, the entry about me was again heavily edited; the version available in January 2009, a year and a half after the original farrago, is not objectionable in the same way. It is obvious that the writers do not understand my work as well as one would expect from a contributor to a normal encyclopaedia, but the balance of attention to various topics is now reasonable.)
last changed 27 Jan 2009