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:
Irving's reputation as a historian was discredited 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. The English court found that Irving was an active Holocaust denier, antisemite, and racist, who "for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence". 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:
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…”
@bobfrombrockley no words. Invitation to Assange and Galloway in context. pic.twitter.com/Rba2rbMgm9— Rosalind Hardie (@adinnieken) November 19, 2016
@bobfrombrockley @Otto_English He proclaims "Jimmy #Saville is innocent!" along with every other man accused of sexual violence. pic.twitter.com/M8JX51l3Xo— Rosalind Hardie (@adinnieken) November 20, 2016
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.
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.