Blogs > Cliopatria > Pol Pot: Scholar v. Gonzo

Feb 28, 2005 5:29 am

Pol Pot: Scholar v. Gonzo

Noting my earlier link to the review of Philip Short's new bio of Pol Pot in the New York Times, reader Haydon Cherry of Yale kindly pointed me to this review [registration or subscription required] in the London Times Higher Education Supplement by Yale historian Ben Kiernan. Kiernan is a serious scholar, a specialist in Cambodia's traumas and founder of the Yale Center of Genocide Studies.

I normally don't sign up for trial subscriptions just to read something, and debates about"is it or isn't it genocide" aren't my thing (if you're really not sure, it is a world-class atrocity either way), but Cherry promised me that"Kiernan who speaks and reads Khmer (unlike Short) has written a great deal about Cambodia ... systematically dismantles Short's book in this very fine review." I could just agree and leave it at that, but it's such a thorough dismantling, and the topic is worth some thought.

Kiernan's list of flaws is presented cleanly and clearly, starting with some glaring inconsistencies (definition of genocide v. what Short admits happened; simultaneous use and rejection of Nazi analogies, etc.) which, when combined with a hamhanded approach to ethnicity (including a passage in which cultural traits are passed genetically!), produces a hash:"Taking exotic essentialism as analysis, this approach implicates broad social groups in secret Khmer Rouge decisions of which they became victims." Short's reliance on French and English sources means that this is largely a reinterpretation rather than new work and biased against the testimony and experience of most Cambodians; worse, as Kiernan points out, Short ignores available evidence in English and French when it conflicts with the first-person accounts which he finds so compelling. Taking an example of the Viet-Khmer mix in early revolutionary forces Kiernan points out that"There is no reason now to take at face value a contrary assertion by Pol Pot, even to indicate his view at the time. Without testing it against prior evidence, Short presents it as fact. He then fails to ask why, if Pol Pot's nationalism rather than racism was at work, Khmer command of Vietnamese troops would have provoked his 'disgust.'"

The William Vollmann review in the New York Times does cover some of the same ground, particularly Short's tendency to cultural stereotyping, but considers Short's arguments to be generally successful. I've never heard of Vollmann, but apparently he has a serious following and seems more Hunter Thompson-like than the usual run of NYT reviewers. One interviewer described him as a"swashbuckling whoredog, war correspondent, quixotic freedom fighter, gun aficionado and fiction prodigy." His magnum opus is over 3300 pages [nothing that's not alphabetical and indexed needs to be that long!].... though there's a 600 page abridgement. What I initially called"a fine exercise in the difficulty of speaking about the unspeakable" appears on second look to be more a case of a writer who is too well-armed to take editorial direction. Vollmann finds Short's work quite useful, generally, with interesting details and asides in his coverage of Cambodia's late 20th century, and is convinced by Short's technical rejection of"genocide" to describe the killing fields.

Granted, Kiernan made up his mind years ago where he falls on that question, but I find his position more convincing, particularly when you consider the way communist movements like the Khmer Rouge reified classes into something like ethnicities, with hereditable cultures and unredeemable differences and, in their case, targeted religious groups and ethnic minorities (Southeast Asia suffers from some of the same post-colonial border-vs-ethnicity problems that plagues Africa). Vollmann tries to cast Short as a sort of politically incorrect freethinker ("Short is no apologist for the Khmer Rouge, but an honest researcher who tries, if occasionally too zealously, to keep everything in perspective."), but that would be more convincing if Short weren't so obviously sloppy with concepts and peoples.

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