Saturday, November 26, 2016

Confusionism in Brockley: A cautionary tale

Note: some updates in the comments 30.11.2016

Ideas for Change?
The "Brockley Festival of Ideas for Change" was advertised some time ago, with an odd, eclectic collection of mainly left-wing speakers, and sponsored by the local civic amenity association, the Brockley Society and with some kind of affiliation from the local university, Goldsmiths. The excellent Goldsmiths exhibition on the Battle of Lewisham was to be shown, and there were talks by interesting local activists.

Ivo Mosley, the grandson of fascist leader Oswald, was a committee member, along with his wife Xanthe, and there seemed to be a strong emphasis on the evils of the money economy.

For some local people, the first alarm bell was that one of the billed speakers was Jackie Walker, the Labour left activist with local links who has stirred considerable controversy in the past year with a series of comments on social media and in public interpreted by many as antisemitic or at least legitimating antisemitic conspiracy theories (see e.g. Andy Newman, Joe Mulhall, Padraig Reidy).

Slightly louder alarm bells started to ring around 9 November when the main organiser, Anthony Russell of a group called "The Chandos" (not to be confused with the Brockey Rise pub of the same name), tweeted the odd combination of Julian Assange, George Galloway and Russell Brand to invite them to the festival.

When I commented on this on Twitter, Anthony Russell responded with an odd series of comments, which unfortunately I didn't screenshot and are now deleted. He said something to the effect that he what he thought I took to be "racism" was in fact people "pigeon-holing" themselves by race. I clumsily replied that I hadn't used the word racism but that Walker, Assange and Galloway have all said things which sit uncomfortably for many Jews. He replied that there are plenty of things that sit uncomfortably for him "as a white man", and then stopped tweeting.

Things hotting up
Then louder still alarm bells rang when it was noticed that Russell had posted a rather strange Facebook post about the event:

Two of the classics of coded antisemitic themes jump out: the "official" (whatever that means) media is "captured" (by whom?); politicians are in thrall to "higher powers" (which higher powers?). And then the modern classic: the 9/11 attacks (given scare quotes) were apparently "unexplained and highly suspect" - a claim made by conspiracy theorists of the left and right, often linked to antisemitic paranoia. And also one of the staples of the contemporary generation of conspiracy theorists: the idea that there is no civil war in Syria (apparently the popular uprising against a dictatorship simply didn't happen) but rather it was "invaded" (presumably by some combination of the US, Mossad and the Gulf states). 

In the last day or two before the festival - really too late for anyone to do anything about it - a few people started looking more closely at Anthony Russell. What they found wasn't pretty.

There were two sets of posts that were worrying. First, there were some that implied Holocaust denialism. Here he is, on Twitter (now deleted) and on his website, meeting David Irving in late 2013:

David Irving is described as "distinguished" but "controversial". Well, the second of those terms is true: he is famous as a Holocaust denier. In fact, as Wikipedia puts it
Irving's reputation as a historian was discredited[4] when, in the course of an unsuccessful libel case he filed against the American historian Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books, he was shown to have deliberately misrepresented historical evidence to promote Holocaust denial.[5] The English court found that Irving was an active Holocaust denier, antisemite, and racist,[6] who "for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence".[6][7] In addition, the court found that Irving's books had distorted the history of Adolf Hitler's role in the Holocaust to depict Hitler in a favourable light.
What is more interesting, perhaps, is the way he phrases it in his tweet: that study of WWII took him to Irving. What study of WWII would lead you towards, rather than away from, Irving? Not a study of actual facts or historiography, but perhaps spending too much time in the conpiratorial corners of the internet.

Here are two more:

The first of those is a link to a perfectly legitimate article, but it is interesting what he chooses to quote from it in the tweet. Here is the full extract:
President Roosevelt told French military leaders at the Casablanca Conference in 1943 that “the number of Jews engaged in the practice of the professions” in liberated North Africa “should be definitely limited,” lest there be a recurrence of “the understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany…”
In other words, it is FDR's antisemitism he chooses to disseminate. 

The second one is a little different. It implies that Ken Livingstone's claims about Hitler being a Zionist are true. And it implies that speaking this truth is somehow an act of bravery, presumably because of Zionist power in our society. More alarming still is where Russell takes the article from: an actual Nazi website. Here it is:

"Jimmy Saville is innocent"
As well as these few examples of Russell's interest in Holocaust denialism, there are also a couple of examples of disturbing sexual politics:

All's well that ends well? [Section amended 30/11/2016]
All of the social media activity - on Twitter and on local Facebook pages and so on - meant that the other committee members were in a slightly embarrassing position, and rather late in the day to do anything about it. Wisely, Jackie Walker on Facebook has said that she withdrew when she learned about Russell's background - see this comment. It seems the organisers were as shocked as we were, and he agreed not to speak at the event. I sympathise with them, as there was really little else they could do so late on, and nobody in Brockley is likely to want to have anything to do with him again. 

I guess there's a lesson here about due diligence, and a lesson that an apparent "gentle buddhist persona" is no guarantee of moral decency. 

But I think there are also lessons about the nature of fascism in today's post-truth digital age. 

Buddhist Confusionism
US anti-fascist activist and researcher Spencer Sunshine gave a couple of talks last week in which he explored what he calls "unorthodox fascism", the mutations of classical fascism which enable it to reach out to engage non-traditional constituencies, whether through apparently left-wing or ecological movements, libertarianism or music subcultures - from Occupy Wall Street to neo-folk to the Rock Against Communism skinhead scene. Although most of these spaces might in themselves be fairly insignificant, it is striking how many possible vectors there are for fascism's toxin to enter the mainstream.

German anti-fascists talk about the concept of the querfront, cross-front, a conscious project of left-right crossover. As Elise Hendrick puts it:
Craving the legitimacy that an alliance with progressive forces can provide, reactionaries seize on ostensibly shared positions, chief amongst them opposition to corrupt élites, to create the impression that progressives could benefit from making common cause with them.
Andrew Coates introduces English-speaking readers to the French term confusionism, the blurring of left and right, and usually of the worst of both.  

The Festival of Ideas fits into this mould, I think: an apparently "progressive" organisation, stressing peace and spirituality, but some disturbing fascist-aligned ideas when you scratch the surface.

One of the things that strikes me about the affair is the way that Russell positions himself as a seeker after truth. He claims it is research that took him to David Irving. He talks about Ken Livingstone daring to speak the truth about Zionism. The intense distrust so many people feel towards "official" or "mainstream" sources of truth, combined with the easy click of a finger digital access to such an enormous excess of (real and fake) information, breeds this esoteric approach to the truth.

The truths told by experts - by historians about the Holocaust or the slave trade, by scientists about the climate, by economists about the effects of Brexit - are simply not trusted, and people opt instead for "truths" they imagine to be somehow deeper. The authority of charisma replaces the authority of scholarship.

Because anyone can "do the research" (i.e. google, and click on a couple of links), the craft skills involved in pursuing genuine knowledge are de-valued. The fractal, hyperlinked geometry of  internet seareching breeds a conspiratorial worldview, which invests unwarranted significance in often quite arbitrary connections. I don't know how we counter this, but we urgently need to work out that out.