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.


With thanks to friends, comrades and neighbours who noticed the tweets and posts mentioned above. You know who you are!


Further reading:
David Hare: "Nothing but the truth"
Chip Berlet: "Left woos right"
Spencer Sunshine: “Drawing Lines Against Racism and Fascism
Who Makes the Nazis blog

Previous stuff:
Social media Holocaust deniers and the Syria war
Lenni Brenner v Ken Livingstone
The socialism of graffiti-writing fools
Lewisham People Before Profit and the Jewish Lobby
The Holocaust deniers and the Strawberry Thieves
Gilad Atzmon and the Brockley songstress


Unknown said…
great and facinating
ian said…
Interesting stuff. As you've said there been much speculation on community fb pages about what this guy is about. The impression I get is that he's loopy. There's a big tinfoilhat element to most of his posts.
Morbid Symptoms said…
I gather that Jackie Walker (JW) didn't actually speak in the end. She has given her own account in a rather odd exchange on Jill Mountford's facebook page. For those who don't know the background, Jill is in the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), some of whom like JW are active in the pro-Corbyn Momentum group. The AWL, to their credit, have criticised JW's remarks about Jews and supported removing her from her position as Vice-Chair of Momentum. JWs post on Jill's wall was a hostile and provocative 'AWL should be ashamed', which led on to discussion in comments of the Brockley Festival of Ideas.

'I’ve lived in this beautiful area of south-east London on and off for more than 50 years. It’s a cohesive, multiracial community with a thriving community organisation, the Brockley Society that focuses mostly on the preservation of trees, the summer fair, but this summer they invited me to their Festival of Ideas. On one issue they came clean; Oswald Mosley’s grandson was a member of the group. He made it clear he despised his grandfather, was haunted by his record and hounded by imbeciles (my word not his) who somehow think evil is inherited (kind of similar to racism if you think about it). Thank God we all don’t carry the label of our notorious ancestors! What neither I, nor they knew at the time was one of the organisers was more than doubtful, had posted awful things, not just relating to the holocaust, but questioning the complicity of sexually exploited children. As soon as the Brockley Society advertised I was going to speak, abuse and racial slurs were posted on their web site and FB pages. They closed their comments but refused to be intimidated. Using their regular techniques, the social media 'Zionist harassment gang' that follow me around dug into the background of everyone involved in the Festival and revealed the name and tweets of Mr. More than Doubtful. When I found this out – verified it (not using the material of the 'harassment gang' which is so often lies, slurs and defamation, I withdrew from the Festival – and the Festival withdrew support from Mr. Doubtful. All this too late for me give my contribution face-to-face but luckily, when the audience heard the pressure from the harassment gang to silence me, and the techniques that had been used, they voted almost unanimously to have my contribution read out – to great applause'.

In another comment she clarified that the 'Zionist harrassment gang' 'are a group of Zionists, mostly based overseas, who troll every venue I go to speak at, hack the accounts of my hosts, lie and do what they can to prevent me speaking'.

I think it says all you need to know about her twisted world view that confronted with a few critical tweets from local bloggers, in which Israel wasn't mentioned at all, JW immediately presents this as an issue of persecution by some kind of international Zionist conspiracy. There was no need for any hacking of accounts, all the facebook, twitter and web posts people have been talking about were public. And by her own account if people hadn't looked into this, she and the Brockley Society would never have known about 'Mr More Than Doubtful'. I don't know what people applauded at the event, but if it was this kind of conspiracy nonsense they are the ones who should be ashamed (would anyone who was there like to comment and what was actually said?)
bob said…
Assuming Jackie Walker's account on Jill's Facebook page is accurate, it is very much to her credit that she withdrew from the event on learning about "Mr More than Doubtful" and his record on the Holocaust and sexual abuse. It is also - it should go without saying - awful if Jackie or the Brockley Society faced any abuse or racial slurs.

And again, if I didn't stress this enough in the post, it is also to Broc Soc's credit that they disassociated themselves with Russell; they (like Jackie) were in a difficult position given how late we all realised how More Than Doubtful he was.

I'm not on Facebook, so apart from the screencap someone sent me which is included in this post, I never saw any trace of these goings on at all. However, I'm told that, as well as the stuff about the "Zionist harassment gang" and "hacking" (whatever "hacking" means in this context), I am told by people who are on Facebook that Jackie has described me as a "discredited local blogger" and also as the 'nastiest Zionist blogger in my locality". I'm not sure how many "Zionist bloggers" there are in Thanet or Brockley, so there might not be much competition, but I'm really not sure what I did to earn that epithet. I'd be curious to see what she could find on my blog or Twitter to feed to justify it. All my posts on Israel/Palestine can be read here, of you want to try to find some dirt: The short version is that I am a "Zionist" to the extent that I think Israel has about as much right to exist as any other nation-state.

If Jackie Walker, or anyone from the Brockley Society, or anyone involved in or attending the festival, would like to have their say, I would very much welcome their comments here.
Anonymous said…
Hi Bob - so the organisers didn't have Russell to speak in the end, but you still say if you scratch the surface of the BFoI (as a whole?) you find a nasty right-wing organisation? Can you explain more about this?

Sacha Ismail
bob said…
Sacha, I'm not sure that's excacly what I meant. Maybe I should edit that sentence. I don't at all that the BFoI is a nasty right-wing organisation and absolutely don't think that the Brockley Society is. What I was trying to say is that disturbing fascist-aligned ideas can come packaged in a veneer of progressiveness or spirituality. An obsession with the evils of finance capital or the money economy is one of the apparently progressive causes that can be totally innocent but can be a Trojan horse for fascist thinking. The same might be true of anti-Zionism, which in itself is obviously not fascist but can create a space for Holocaust denial and other fascist-aligned forms if thought to lurk, as we'I've seen with Gilda Atzmon and his pal Alison Chabloz, whose journey has led them to the far right but who retain an appeal a,on g "progressive" anti-Zionists.
Stephen Bellamy said…
Well of course Zionism can create a space for fascism too, And regularly does but you wouldn't want to give that idea a public airing would you ?
Stephen Bellamy said…
Well of course Zionism can create a space for fascism too and frequently does. But you wouldn't want to give that idea a public airing would you ?

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