The day that Brendan O’Neill decided that Free Speech was Not such a good thing
Apart from the odd article by George Monbiot in The Guardian, the existence of a web magazine called Spiked had entirely escaped my attention. That is until my attention was drawn to it by a poster on Haifa University’s Alef list, who cited an article by one Natalie Rothschild, criticising a speech I had made at a Brighton demonstration against Israel’s attack on Gaza. ‘Gaza is not Warsaw’.
Spiked is the web journal that was set up when the Revolutionary Communist Party’s [RCP] Living Marxism (LM) magazine was sued for libel and bankrupted by ITN for alleging that pictures of Bosnian Muslims in Serb concentration camps had been faked. LM’s view was that there was no genocide or massacres in Bosnia. [Joan Phillips, “Bosnia: The invention of a Holocaust”, Living Marxism, September 1992].
For those who remember, the RCP was the zany ultra-left group that always managed to end up on the right-side of politics supporting Neil Hamilton of the Tory Monday Club when he was under attack for corruption and attacking No Platform for Fascists. At the same time it refused to join the Troops Out Movement setting up the Irish Freedom Movement because we wouldn’t call for support for the IRA. I suspect Brendan O’Neill and Frank Furedi no longer promote the slogan Victory to the IRA (yes they have conveniently forgotten that one now they’ve become respectable!).
And although they don’t proclaim so openly any more they also denied that genocide took place in Rwanda. [Fiona Foster, December 1995. ‘Massacring the Truth in Rwanda.’ Living Marxism. Fiona Foster is the pen name of Fiona Fox, sister of Claire Fox, of the ‘Institute of Ideas’ and the Moral Maze. See also Undisclosed Affiliations – ‘From genocide deniers to biotech apologists’ – pt 4 (10/4/2004) and ‘Atrocity, memory, photography: imaging the concentration camps of Bosnia – the case of ITN versus Living Marxism, Part 2, David Campbell, Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 1, No. 2 (June 2002), 143–172.
Today they have a more sophisticated explanation. It isn’t that massacres didn’t occur [they avoid the use of the term ‘genocide’] but in fact it was the RPF, the organisation of the Tsutsis who were butchered. It was Paul Kagame, now the President of Rwanda, that was responsible for what happened. The victims were responsible for their own deaths. Why? Because they allegedly shot down the plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana. It was that which triggered the genocide that followed. No matter that most people hold that it was the butchers and pogromists who carried out that act too.
Those of us who blame the French military and President Mitterand for standing by, if not aiding, the butchers get short shrift. ‘the truth is that France’s major mistake was to find itself on the wrong side of the moral parable that has been imposed by Western observers on Rwanda’s recent tragic history.’ Barrie Collins, ‘Rwanda: obscuring the truth about the genocide’ Don’t you just love that? ‘Moral parable’. It was all a question of biblical interpretation, what Gilad Atzmon calls the ‘holocaust narrative’. Change the story change the facts. Like the Bible, you can read into the parable that which you want to understand. Rwanda’s genocide was a parable. If you change it then you can also change the facts.
But I knew I was on safe ground in asking for the right to reply. After all, Spiked may be a right-wing, libertarian journal masquerading as being on the left. It may spout nonsense dressed up as wars over culture, but it’s one defining feature is its absolute commitment to free speech. As it says itself: ‘spiked is endorsed by free-thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, and hated by the narrow-minded such as Torquemada and Stalin. Or it would be, if they were lucky enough to be around to read it.’ It’s hardly likely that Marx and Mill would run away from a debate on the Palestine of the day, Ireland.
As editor O’Neill makes clear, ‘If anything, the enemy of free speech today is less totalitarianism than anti-totalitarianism, the idea that strong beliefs or words are necessarily problematic.’ ‘Free speech, with the edges taken off’ So I knew that my words, by way of reply, would have to be strong, but I also knew that I could count on Brendan O’Neill’s commitment to the traditions of Marx, Voltaire and Mill, rather than Stalin and Torquemada.
After all, free speech is meaningless if all you do is listen to your own views. As Mick Hume explained, in his Times blog [he’s their ‘Marxist’ columnist!] ‘Free speech means freedom for fools, too.’ Now admittedly he was referring to the National Front and BNP but surely he can’t be in favour of free speech for fascists but opposed to free speech when it comes to anti-Zionists?
By this time I’d done a little research into Spiked and uncovered some interesting articles about it and its corporate links. Money from IBM and links with PR firms etc. Invasion of the entryists, ‘Flying Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ . But I was well aware that much of this is sourced by George Monbiot, who obviously doesn’t like the cut of Mick Hume’s suit. And Brendan O’Neill had made their position clear in an article, about being denied the right of reply, in The Independent. The Independent, Big Oil and me
I therefore sent an e-mail to Brendan O’Neill on 22nd January 2009 asking to reply both to Rothschild’s article but also O’Neill’s Politics of anti-Zionism. I wrote that ‘I disagree with your whole thesis of a conflation or morphing into or between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism and I believe your hostility to comparisons between different genocides are fatuous and also have a hidden agenda.’
O’Neill wrote back the same day saying that ‘Firstly I would be interested in seeing a response from you, yes. Unfortunately, as you will probably have guessed, spiked cannot afford to pay for contributions, but we are a good place from which to kickstart a debate.’ But ‘I don’t think it will be useful to have a piece speculating on our “hidden agenda”, simply because we do not have one.’
Now I must confess that I was taken aback by the arrogance that O’Neill displayed in his ‘Politics of anti-Zionism’ article. It is the same arrogance that LM had displayed. The Left opposes ‘free speech’ because it doesn’t possess our ability to debate these issues. We are the repository of truth. His article was subtitled ‘Today’s widespread attacks on Zionism as ‘expansionist and racist’ are historically illiterate.’ Quite a big claim to make but how true was it and what were O’Neill’s credentials to make such a claim? He hadn’t after all penned a great deal about Zionism and Israel.
If you are going to make such a claim then one would assume there was some reasoned argument behind this statement. In fact there was none. Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with Zionism would be aware that racism was at the heart of the Zionist project – an exclusivist ethnic project that manifested itself in the campaigns of Jewish Labour and Jewish Produce, i.e. a Boycott of Arab Labour and Arab Produce in the 1920’s and 1930’s, to say nothing of their penchant for the transfer of the Arabs of Palestine from the start of the Zionist project. These are too well documented even for O’Neil to deny, so why is he saying that it is ‘historically illiterate‘ to say that Zionism was racist? The expansionism of Zionist is self evident.
I had already noticed that O’Neill’s article quoted just two books – Nathan Weinstock’s ‘Zionism: a False Messiah’ and Abram Leon’s ‘The Jewish Question – A Marxist Interpretation’. Both of these are excellent books, though it seems that O’Neill understood neither. The latter was written under war-time conditions [Leon led the resistance of the Fourth International in Belgium and died in Auschwitz] and was naturally limited in source material by the conditions of the time. Weinstock’s book is somewhat dated but an excellent introduction to the subject (though Weinstock himself has now become a Zionist and has tried to prevent it being republished or sold!). However two books does not an expert make.
Since O’Neill was happy to lecture others on political illiteracy I thought I would point out his factual mistakes about a subject that he considered himself an expert on. For example his statement that ’Herzl and other new Zionist thinkers – most notably Moses Hess and Max Nordau – assumed leadership of the early Zionist movement at the end of nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth century’ suffered from a trifling problem – Hess died in 1875 and was the leader of nothing!
Likewise his statement that: ‘After the Second World War, … first Britain and later America supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.’ In fact Britain was opposed to a Jewish state and this caused major ructions between the Attlee Government and the Truman Administration. After all it can’t have escaped O’Neill’s attention that the Zionist terror militias – Haganah, Irgun and Lehi had, from 1945 to 1947 waged a war against the British occupiers. Or maybe it had escaped his attention.
Those who want to read about the British attitude to the creation of the Israeli state should read an expert, such as Wm. Roger Louis’s The British Empire in the Middle East 1945-1951 – Arab Nationalism, The United States, and Postwar Imperialism, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988, e.g.
Bevin’s aim was the creation of a binational sate. It may be taken as a common British aspiration of the era, though endorsed by others with greater degrees of scepticism. p.393
Attlee and Bevin independently arrived at the same conclusion. They did not want to be held responsible in Arab eyes for a policy of partition. p.459.
O’Neill was none too happy about this because, as he explained: ‘Secondly, while I take you correction of my point about Hess (and we will be correcting that, thank you), I also don’t think it would be useful to have a piece that picks up on errors or on what you consider to be errors of judgements, errors of emphasis, etc.’
Well quite. Free speech has its limits, especially when it shows that Spiked’s pretensions to having something to say are based on an abysmal ignorance of the subject in question. Nonetheless O’Neill was happy to carry my response and who was I to argue with that?
On 2nd February 2009 I e-mailed my article. It was somewhat long, 4,500 words, but it was replying to three articles totalling over 10,000 words. And O’Neill responded the same day, ‘Thanks Tony. I will read this very soon. Brendan.’ And that was it! Despite reminders on 12th February and again on 22nd February, when it was clear that O’Neill had clearly had second thoughts about the merits of free speech, I heard nothing. As I wrote on the latter occasion
‘I realise that it is not pleasant for any editor to be faced with the prospect of sticking to his previous promise and publishing an article which demolishes his and his co-editors musings on a subject such as Zionism but that is the consequence of jumping to an opinion before knowing anything about the subject.’
I copied it to Nathalie Rothschild and the collective but you know what? Not one of them has had the courage to respond and say why they are spiking the article.
And the moral of the story? When Spiked talks of ‘free speech’ reach for the spoons. Like The Times and the capitalist press, ‘free speech’ has a different meaning entirely from that which socialists understand. What’s free for them is often very expensive for us. Bigotry is indeed free but criticism of imperialism, capitalism and all its works is another matter entirely. Free speech means any amount of holocaust denial but it doesn’t include criticism of the fallacies and ignorance of Brendan O’Neill, Furedi and the light-weight Rothschild.