Thursday, March 08, 2018

Islamophobia turns left: Ben Norton and the Grayzone Project

Post updated 9 March to include new material from the SPLC, which covers very similar ground to this post, in much more detail. The next day the SPLC pulled the report after complaints from Max Blumenthal. Glykosymoritis has posted it on his blog here, a Google cache is here, a PDF is here, and an archived version is here. // 18 March: New post on the SPLC report.

One of my main aims in writing this blog over the last few years has been to expose (and, hopefully, counter) the growth of what I now call the alt-left or "querfront" (cross-front) - the convergence between fascist and leftist positions that actively corrodes the left.

When I started blogging, one of the manifestations of this would be a kind of "philo-Islamism" among some leftists, in which Islamism, understood as a form of "resistance" to American-led imperialism, was seen as a viable ally for the left, despite its deeply reactionary, right-wing nature. Since around 2011, left/fascist convergence has more often taken an almost opposite path: enthusiastic repetition of the "war on terror" rhetoric spouted in the previous decade by the vulgar acolytes of Samuel Huntingdon. Now, many "anti-imperialists" justify the slaughter of Syrian civilians because they are "terrorists" or "al-Qaeda headchoppers", and it is increasingly hard to tell these leftists apart from the far right Islamophobes they were so recently the sworn enemies of.
Stop the War leaders, Nazis and Daily Mail Islamophobes find an area of agreement over the White Helmets

A second main aim of the blog has been to explore (and, again, hopefully counter) some of the ways in which trustworthy sources of accurate information - and perhaps truth itself - have been undermined in the internet age. The sponsored propaganda media of authoritarian states have been one of the key mechanisms for that, supported by an online army made up of both paid internet trolls and unpaid ideological believers. Again, the war in Syria has been a key battleground in this, as active disinformation campaigns have been unleashed on the Syrian revolution.

This post is part of an occasional series in which I just collate, in one handy place, key links on some of the key sources used by the online activists of the querfront, particularly in relation to Syria. Today, young American commentator Benjamin Norton. Two extracts to introduce him, a little bit of new stuff, then the list of key links:

Louis Proyect "Putting Ben Norton under a microscope" (June 2016)
When I visited the Verso office in Brooklyn for a panel discussion on Rosa Luxemburg last August, I ran into someone named Ben Norton who I knew vaguely as a critic of the crude “anti-imperialism” that had swept across the left like the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. We chatted briefly about our shared political values and his latest career move, which was joining as a staff member. I thought this was a welcome addition to a magazine that featured Patrick L. Smith, one of the worst propagandists for the Assad dictatorship to be found anywhere. 
I never would have expected that within six months Norton would end up in the Smith/Cockburn/Fisk camp writing articles reinforcing the dominant narrative on the left that the USA was bent on “regime change” and that the Syrian rebels were reactionary jihadists engaged in a proxy war launched by the West against its perceived enemies in the region. 
[Reviewing] his journalism since early 2016 [shows] how taking the wrong position on Syria inevitably leads to bending the truth, which for a serious-minded journalist is a cardinal sin. Writing for Salon, at least until it remains in business, might pay the rent but what good is that if you lose your soul in the process?
Sam Charles Hamad and Oz Katerji "Did a Kremlin Pilgrimage cause Alternet blogger’s Damascene conversion?" Pulse (August 2017) - this focuses on Max Blumenthal, but has a lot on Norton too:
Over the past year, Blumenthal has gathered the likes of Rania Khalek, Ben Norton, Gareth Porter and Vijay Prasad to build an echo-chamber of Kremlin-friendly voices deluging propaganda on Syria....Ben Norton has painstakingly purged his website of past criticisms of Assad (one blogger has captured at least 14 articles that he has since deleted)....

Until he was hired as a blogger at Salon, [Norton] had assiduously courted pro-Syrian revolution writers and activists. After joining Salon, however, Norton’s Syria politics underwent a radical transformation. In a kamikaze move, after purging his personal website of criticisms of Assad, Norton collaborated with Glenn Greenwald to co-author a piece for The Intercept taking issue with an article about Kremlin propaganda in the Washington Post. Norton, instead, was fired by Salon. His desultory contrarianism ended when he fell into the safety net of Alternet and his resentments converged on Syria. Norton, like Blumenthal, tried to cast doubt on Russian and regime culpability for the Red Crescent convoy attack and on reports about the regime’s bombing of hospitals in Aleppo. (All claims were false as conclusively shown by a recent UN report.) His name also appears signed to a statement by Vanessa Beeley’s Hands Off Syria Coalition that explicitly supports the Russian bombing of Syria.
In this downward spiral, Blumenthal, Khalek and Norton have now been joined by Gareth Porter, who has the dubious distinction of having pioneered war crime denialism nearly four decades earlier when he tried to absolve the Khmer Rouge for its mass atrocities in Cambodia... 
Blumenthal and Norton were quick to try to absolve the regime for its chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun and the former called any potential US response “providing al-Qaeda with air support.” (Blumenthal and Norton have also tried to cast doubt on the regime’s responsibility for the 2013 chemical attack, with latter relying for his claim on the impeccable testimony of a pro-Assad Youtube star connected to Alex Jones’s Infowars conspiracy site).... 
[Updated section] In January 2016, Alternet launched its "Grayzone Project", edited by Max Blumenthal. A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Centre also examines this moment:
Around the same time he went on “Loud & Clear,” Blumenthal appeared on Tucker Carlson’s FOX News show to defend RT — his second time on the far-right show that year. Blumenthal’s RT appearances have been praised by white nationalists like Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr., who murdered three people outside of a Jewish Community Center in 2014, so his courting of the right on FOX drew considerable backlash... 
Blumenthal was not as clear of a spokesperson for Kremlin geopolitics before he appeared at the same RT gala as disgraced former National Security advisor Michael Flynn and the Green Party’s Jill Stein in December 2015. During that occasion, he joined a panel called “Infowar: Will there be a winner” alongside Alt Right anti-Semite Charles Bausman of Russia Insider. A month later, Blumenthal’s pro-Kremlin position crystalized with the founding of the Grayzone Project
Grayzone is a collaborative project also featuring journalist Benjamin Norton, who cosigned the Hands Off Syria Coalition’s points of unity statement along with Beeley and others. After going on “Loud & Clear” with Duginist Mark Sleboda and Infowars regular, Ray McGovern, Norton plugged the Party for Socialism and Liberation on a podcast episode titled “Hands off Syria.” With other Grayzone contributors, Norton has been criticized for downplaying war crimes and helping publicize false theories about rebels contaminating Damascus’s water supply
When reached for comment by email, Norton retorted, “I know your goal is to outlandishly smear anyone who opposes US imperialism and is to the left of the Clintons as a ‘crypto-fascist,’ while NATO supports actual fascists whom you care little about.” 
Grayzone is perhaps best known for Blumenthal’s controversial two-part articleattacking the White Helmets, which brought accusations of plagiarism from Beeley. Grayzone contributor Rania Khalek had, Beeley insisted, “pumped me for information on the [White Helmets] and then Max wrote the article.”
When it launched, Grayzone described itself as "a journalistic initiative that aims to confront Islamophobia". On the current front page, with articles stretching back to October, there appears to be only two possibly Muslim authors (Hamzah Raza, "a sophomore at Vanderbilt University", and another student, Alexander Abbasi), who co-authored the only article which relates to Islamophobia. Most of the other articles (especially those by Patrick Lawrence and Ben Norton) could better be described as promoting Islamophobia (painting Muslims as bloodthirsty extremist/jihadi/Salafi terrorist monsters, and blurring distinctions between ISIS and other armed groups) and/or as promoting an anti-Sunni sectarian narrative (often whitewashing Iranian-backed violence while highlighting Saudi- and Gulf-backed violence).

In the case of Rania Khalek (the only woman contributor on the Grayzone frontpage), Sunni Arabs are described as deeply predisposed towards brutal violence, with "decades" of Salafism conditioning them to welcome ISIS and leap at the opportunity to commit genocide against the Yezidis:
Sunni Islam has always been the dominant religion in the Middle East. Historically it has been the religion of the state. People from minority sects across the region have passed down collective memories of Sunni Islam’s persecution against them (though minorities have on many occasions, particularly during civil wars, turned against one another as well). They say this explains why Shias, Druze, Christians, Alawites and Yazidis are concentrated in the mountains—they were escaping persecution from the dominant state-backed sect in the region.
Not surprisingly, in 2016, with Trump using anti-Muslim rhetoric as part of his electoral campaign, Grayzone would find itself backing him.

Back to Hamad and Katerji:
It is no coincidence that during the campaign trail Grayzone bloggers Rania Khalek and Benjamin Norton both endorsed Trump’s foreign policy. The sentiment was also echoed by Alternet’s celebrity backer Glenn Greenwald. 
The sectarian rot of these bloggers isn’t even hidden, as evidenced by Benjamin Norton’s faux-media outrage over the use of the word ‘stronghold’. When it comes to Beirut and Hezbollah, Norton is enraged by the use of the word stronghold to describe areas under its control, however in Idlib, the entirety of the population is reduced to a ‘stronghold’ belonging to a terrorist organisation...
Norton's reporting gig at Alternet seems to have dried up in late 2017. The Grayzone Project seems to have stopped publishing in December 2017, leading to speculation about what happened to it.

This prompted Blumenthal to announce that Grayzone had moved to The Real News network, known for publishing articles with titles like "9/11 Questions Remain Unanswered: I do know for a certainty that there has been a cover-up of 9/11". As my comrade Al-Hamra noted, according to Alexa, "Alternet has hundreds of thousands of views per month and is ranked 2,923 out of all U.S. websites; 9/11 truther site TheRealNews is ranked 31,634 and steadily declining."

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