First they came for the socialists …

10 Dec
this post also features in offguardian

It’s ten to one you read in my title the opener to a much cited quote about Nazi Germany. And two to one that even if you couldn’t identify the author, Pastor Martin Niemöller, you could give an approximation of how the rest of it goes: I did not speak out because I was not a socialist … a trade unionist … a Jew …

Though anchored in time and place, in history at its darkest, the pastor’s remorse – he was not speaking rhetorically but in penitence – points to a truth neither finite nor spatially bound but universal: what goes around comes around. To look the other way as others are cruelly treated is not only cowardly and immoral. It is dangerously myopic. No man is an island, opined one of England’s finest poets. Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

Then they came for the intellectuals …

Mao targeted these. So, in more distilled and chilling form, did Pol Pot. And long before Hitler’s doctors injected the disabled – life unworthy of the name – with benzene prior to graduating to carbon monoxide in sealed vans, and longer still before his inner circle drew up its plans for a final solution to The Jewish Problem, thinkers were ridiculed, purged and if need be liquidated by the Third Reich. All regimes strive to channel, to set limits to acceptable thought within, their intelligentsia.

All regimes.

This, for reasons I’ll go into another time, is not hard. Independence of mind is rare, academia not excepted. Scholars have competence in forms of symbolic discourse learned by way of apprenticeships that confer useful reasoning tools and, at best, an obligation of truthfulness through evidence based argument. Such apprenticeships do little, though, to foster originality, far less a stance of fearless independence.

There are exceptions. Over decades half in/half out of academia I’ve known professors, and more junior academics, I deem astute and independent thinkers. They are a minority though. Academics are seldom stupid – though a few have left me wondering – but not always that bright either. Not in the terms I’ve set out, of truly independent mindedness and the capacity to set aside a-priori assumptions; to take risks, and think with startling originality.

(That capacity demands heart and soul as well as brain, and for the most mundane of reasons. Our institutionally fostered careerism, intensified by the marketisation of academia, begets cynicism. Which in turn begets, by way of strategies to ease cognitive dissonance, diminished rigour. First it comes for your promotional aspirations. Then for your critical faculties …)

All of which makes Professor Piers Robinson special in my book. Connected in more ways than one – he works at University of Sheffield, where I taught (without our paths crossing) and he too reviewed for OffGuardian the recently published 9/11 Unmasked – we met over coffee for the first and so far only time back in October.

It was a good meeting: cordial, focused and wide ranging within a coherent framework. We’d read one another’s work and, while his knowledge of our topics – Syria, 9/11 and corporate media – far exceeds mine, he was appreciative and supportive of those like me who seek to synthesise and popularise views and facts subversive of dominant messages too useful to vested interests, and with too many incongruities and roaring silences, for acceptance at face value by the critically minded.

In the hour and a half we spent together, before I had to dash for a train to London, his detailed grasp of those three topics at times left me struggling to keep up. We agreed on parting to make these meetings a monthly event, though my November move to Nottingham has put this on the back burner.

What I remembered most clearly was his severally repeated insistence that things are worse than we realise.  He may have said this in respect of Syria. He certainly said it in respect of 9/11. Most of all though he said it in respect of corporate media, addressing a conclusion long held by me: that the false narratives on Russia and the middle east may be aggravated by the career cynicism (similar to that in academia) and lazy credulity of journalists, but has at root more to do with the limits of dissent set by market forces.

Though I don’t recall him disagreeing, he finds that view – of journalists as credulous rather than consciously propagandist – too charitable.2 Nor is he the only one to say so. I’ve been taken to task on this by BTL comments on OffGuardian pieces I’ve written, and by a Media Lens editor who wondered if pulled punches on George Monbiot betray a mild form of Stockholm Syndrome. At any rate, this recurring claim by Piers Robinson – that things are worse than we realise – is what I most recollect from our espresso fuelled engagement in October.

(In referring, amongst other things, to media infiltration by intelligence services, he cited his own experience. That said, unswerving backing by BBC and Guardian – Independent to lesser extent – of the West’s wars on the global south, and relentless Russia baiting, should in any case caution the open minded against slamming the door on such a possibility.)

I took it personally, therefore, when I was alerted – through a FB post by Elizabeth Woodworth, co-author of two books reviewed by me on this site and in OffGuardian – to a Huffington Post assault on Piers Robinson three days ago, on December 7. Indeed, the vitriolic tone – coupled with too many appeals to authority, too few to evidence – would have had me penning a swifter response, on this site and on the day, had I not been taken up with concerns that have kept me from writing for too long. Fortunately, Elizabeth has published her own on-the-day response, in the form of this open letter to HuffPo editor Jess Brammar and feature writer Chris York.

I do not know what happened on September 11, 2001, Robinson’s position on which is the thrust of HuffPo’s attack. I do know I was way too quick to condemn, on logical rather than empirical grounds, all 9/11 Truthers. Most inexcusably, I confused a marxist view – that conspiracy is not needed to explain the demonic logic of capital in the age of imperialism – with the non sequitur that 9/11 could not have been a false flag operation.

I ain’t saying it was, mind. Just that I can no longer – due to Elizabeth Woodworth’s and David Ray Griffin’s book on the subject3 – rule it out. Actually that’s too weak. I can say emphatically that whatever did happen on 9/11, the official account by the National Institute of Standards & Technology – a US government inquiry accorded impartial and unimpeachable status by the HuffPo hatchet piece – is so riddled with flaws, inconsistencies and refusals to address hard evidence (indeed, in places with active concealment of the stuff) as to invite accusations of “coincidence theorist” and “pathologically credulous” on those who see NIST as fair-minded investigation, Truthism as the preserve of a lunatic fringe.

But back to that HuffPo piece. Do read it. And Elizabeth Woodworth’s open letter. Then, if you’re in the mood for more, try the Media Lens book, reviewed here, Propaganda Blitz. Might I draw your particular attention to its definition of propaganda blitzes?

… fast moving attacks … communicated with high emotional intensity and moral outrage, apparently supported by an informed corporate media/academic/expert consensus [and] reinforced by damning condemnation of anyone daring even to question the apparent consensus.

Which is as much as I have to say on the matter. For now.


Apologies for the bug, introduced with a WordPress upgrade, in the footnotes below. Ignore footnote 1. Read footnote 3 as footnote 1. Bah!

  1. A further nail in the coffin of my refusal to give Truthism time of day was encountered just days ago. I consider the chapter on put-option, call-option and short selling in the days prior to 9/11 the weakest link in the powerful case assembled by Griffin and Woodworth. That chapter is in my view too slim to make the case. More detailed consideration of this aspect, however, is given in two linked pieces written in 2011 for Foreign Policy Journal by Mark Gaffney. Highly recommended. As, indeed, is G & W's book.
  2. I’m inclining to the view that media conditions – in the context of declining revenues, of permanent war on the global south, and of looming strife at home – beget a third and hybrid position; an uneasy blend of naive but self serving acceptance of authority, with cultivated distaste for any line of inquiry that might challenge its core premises.
  3. A further nail in the coffin of my refusal to give Truthism time of day was encountered just days ago. I consider the chapter on put-option, call-option and short selling in the days prior to 9/11 the weakest link in the powerful case assembled by Griffin and Woodworth. That chapter is in my view too slim to make the case. More detailed consideration of this aspect, however, is given in two linked pieces written in 2011 for Foreign Policy Journal by Mark Gaffney. Highly recommended for its impeccable substantiation. As, indeed, is G & W’s book

13 Replies to “First they came for the socialists …

  1. Well, once I’d sorted out the footnotes, I thought your effort extremely interesting. I still think you are far too kind to Monbiot. The links to Gaffney and directive towards G & W much appreciated.
    Very best.

    • Yeah, sorry about them pesky footers, Susan. I still haven’t figured it out. But the Gaffney pieces merit wide dissemination. Insider trading is always abhorrent to sincere if naive believers in the virtues of free market capitalism. Here though, it at once indicates and exemplifies a possibility vastly darker.

  2. This powerful, chilling article should be read by everyone.

    Carefully penned, it gains all the more credibility by the reluctance of its fair-minded author to accept its frightening conclusions.

    It concerns the December 4 attempt by the Huffington Post to destroy the career of Dr. Piers Robinson, chair of journalism at Sheffield University in England.

    Dr Robinson’s central concern is that things have become worse in politics and in the media than we realize.

    This certainly rings true in light of this week’s intentional and successful blocking, at COP24, of acceptance of the October IPCC urgent report by the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

    Incredibly, the United States has blocked this crucial report even as it awaits its own withdrawal from the entire international climate process and from the Paris climate agreement.

    World domination by the United States is based on fossil fuel energy. It is no accident that the US role in 9/11 helped to shore up US energy dominance by conducting wars in the Middle East.

    Now the future of civilization is at stake from CO2 emissions and the US continues its madness by disrupting the global attempt to solve the climate crisis.

    Huffington Post, owned by Verizon, is willing to destroy a professor who threatens to pull down the propaganda mask that hides the truth about 9/11 and Syria from the general public.

    As a prominent Canadian academic has pointed out:

    “Whatever else is done by men and women who work in our universities, it is essential, I believe, that large numbers of them stand sufficiently outside society intellectually to see, understand, and interpret what is going on. I find it troubling that so few – there are credible exceptions – have seriously engaged with the question of what happened on 9/11 and why. There are so many holes and limitations in the official version that it calls out for rigorous intellectual fault-finding and analysis.”
    Alvin A. Lee, President Emeritus, McMaster University, Canada

  3. Thanks Elizabeth. The ability to make speedy responses, like yours and mine, to corporate power offers a glimmer of hope amid the totalitarianism we are sleepwalking into. Not surprisingly, said corporate power wishes to silence us by all available means in the name of a ‘war on fake news’.

    Which reminds me that my quoting of the Media Lens definition of a propaganda blitz left out a crucial element. These attacks, it adds, are often laced with what it calls “tragi-comical moral dissonance”. I’ve written elsewhere on the logic – Alice? Catch 22? Kafka? – of our mainstream media combatting fake news!

  4. Great to read these honest disclosures Philip. Piers deserves support.
    I wonder though at how few on the dissident Left have stepped forward with even such a carefully cautious position as yours on 9/11, such that I could re-word the title as, ‘First the socialists came for us’ (‘us’ being those who raised questions about 9/11 back in the years when the official narrative emerged). Do you have thoughts as to why such a majority of dissident opinion on the Left have been so vociferous in shutting down legitimate questions about 9/11, and so unwilling to take even a mildly neutral position (e.g.’the officical investigation was incomplete/ corrupt, we don’t know what happened, we need to know what happened, we need to support a genuine investigation’) ?
    This has driven me away from a sense of comradeship with people on the Left. There is no political voice for my worldview. I am averse to Rightwing positions on almost all matters, but do they have a point when alleging a tendency of the Left to ‘enforce correct thinking’ ?

    • I am mindful of the tweet from Medialens that appeared the day after (?) Huffpost’s attack on Piers Robinson:
      Irrespecitve of the great work that Edwards and Cromwell do, and irrespective of their conclusions regarding the 911 Commission account or its failings, I think it noteworthy that ML have consistently avoided any discussion of the media misrepresentation of the 911 debate. Just as a case study in media groupthink and subservient adherence to establishment narratives it is surely worthy of mention, yet they have avoided the subject almost entirely and still to this day pull out what is essentially ad hominem arguments that serve to demean questioners.

    • Thanks Mog. As you say, Piers deserves – or as I would say, has an absolute and non negotiable right to – our support on grounds both of basic morality and enlightened self-interest. On the latter, Donne was bang on the nail. It tolls for thee (and me).

      The rest of what you say merits considered comment which may take me an hour or two to write. In practice, with tinsel turmoil fast approaching, that may take me a day or three but reply I will. These are important issues you raise.

      Can I ask though that you replicate your comment on the post reviewing Griifin’s & Woodworth’s 9/11 Unmasked? I want discussion here kept clear for the core topic: defending intellectuals from vituperative attacks by a corrupt ‘liberal’ media.

      • Copied and pasted as requested.
        I do make the case though that my points here concern the lack of defence for (or even attacks upon) legitimate skeptics from the radical Left even while these skeptics are attacked by said ‘corrupt ‘liberal’ media’. As linked, radical Left critics even employ the very same lines of attack as the liberals in this matter (eg on personal character rather than evidential strength/ weakness of arguments).
        If Pilger, Chomsky, Curtis, Medialens, Goodman, Hedges et al had taken the position mentioned above (open minded skepticism of a provably flawed account of 911 & demand for truth), then Piers would not be facing the attack that he now is. He would be part of a much larger milieu of respected opinion that is asking legitimate questions.
        As it stands, and as I see it, the vast majority of the radical Left still effectively de-legitimise informed questioning of 911 and are not forthoming in anything resembling ‘absolute and non-negotiable support’ for academics who do step forward. Why not ? What does it say about epistemological approaches accross the political spectrum?

        • Thanks again. And rest assured, I wasn’t querying the aptness of your comment. It’s just that it opens up lines of enquiry, which I’ll want to pursue, that would take us away from the simple truth we both acknowledge: that such attacks as HuffPo’s on Piers must not go unchallenged. Regards, Philip

    • Just read through that Twitter thread. Only to be expected from Cadwalladr but good to see robust pushback from wide range of tweeters.

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