What’s the matter with Thomas Friedman?

It’s a question Israelis and Israel advocates of all political stripes have been asking in recent months.

What has caused Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist and pro-market liberal, to lurch from centre-left defender of the State of Israel to increasingly shrill basher of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government, and the state itself?

We are familiar with the trajectory of jaded leftists. First, there is the revolutionary spirit of youth then the growing realisation that the theory doesn’t quite work as well as it once seemed. Unpalatable doubts rise like searing gorge in the throat and, mini-epiphany by mini-epiphany, the mental cement begins to crack and crumble. The edifice of accepted truths starts to shake; it’s coming down. Radicalism gives way to liberalism which, in many cases, leads to an evangelical conservatism that damns former comrades while seeking moral succour from erstwhile ideological foes.

This is, more or less, the story of Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Paul Johnson, Melanie Phillips, Ronald Reagan, and countless other politicians, writers, and thinkers. Some may dispute the conservative label, opting for ‘Western liberal’ or ‘neoconservative’, but they are all united by their divorce from the Left.

Tom Friedman, it would seem, has gone the other way, and spectacularly so.

He was once the pre-eminent liberal pamphleteer for Israel, willing to criticise where he felt it fitting but sharing none of the enervating moral relativism that typically attends ‘progressive’ media coverage of the Middle East conflict. For his troubles, he was attacked by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, and Norman Finkelstein. Srebrenica genocide denier Herman called Friedman ‘a racist’, ‘an enemy of democracy’, ‘an open proponent of the commission of war crimes’, and ‘a long-standing apologist for Israeli state terror and ethnic cleansing’.

Things change. Friedman now intones menacingly about how ‘the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s’. Bibi Netanyahu’s ‘strategy‘ involves ‘encouraging Jewish leaders to suggest that Obama is hostile to Israel and is losing the Jewish vote’. He claims there is a ‘Republican competition to grovel for Jewish votes’. Netanyahu’s administration is ‘driving drunk’ and ‘the most inbred, unimaginative government’. And as for the warm reception for Bibi’s speech to Congress? ‘That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.’ Those quotes could as easily have been pulled from the column of Pat Buchanan as from the missives of the New York Times‘ Mr Liberal Internationalist.

There is the possibility that Friedman is merely beefed at Netanyahu. Israel’s supporters in the United States have traditionally come from the liberal, Democrat tradition and have been more comfortable defending a government of the Left, like Avoda or Kadima. So maybe if Likud is defeated at the next election and Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yachimovich, or – God help us – Yair Lapid heads up the next coalition, Friedman will be happy to return to his previous pro-Israel stance.

Then there is another, more disturbing, explanation. The last decade has witnessed the rise of a more radical, European-style American Left which rejects many of the settled assumptions of American liberalism. Free markets, economic growth, and personal responsibility have been edged out by an embrace of big government, wealth redistribution, and a politics of envy that wouldn’t be out of place in the French or Spanish or Portuguese Socialist Party. (The Left’s rejection of American exceptionalism apparently doesn’t extend to the economic sphere; Democrat politicians, by dint of their Harvard educations, are able to make collectivist economic policies that have proved a disaster around the world work just dandy in the US.)

The most noticeable turnaround, though, has been in security and foreign policy. Where John Kerry and other Democrats worked hard to sell their national security credentials in 2004, Barack Obama got elected by promising to shut Guantanamo Bay, withdraw from Iraq, rein in American military activities oversees, and sit down for a latte and some biscotti with America’s sworn enemies. That his presidency has been a mixed-bag has if anything inspired greater zeal among those in his party, in the words of Politico, ‘working to remake the Democratic Party’s approach to national security’.

The case of Josh Block is instructive. Block – a Democrat, senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and former spokesperson for the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee – was recently fired from his position at the liberal Truman National Security Project for questioning the increasingly shrill and bigoted rhetoric of two left-wing pressure groups. The Centre for American Progress and Media Matters for America, which seek to reposition the Democrat Party as a European-style social democratic party, are openly contemptuous of Israel, its security concerns, the threat from Iran, and the Democrats’ support for the Jewish state.

Block pointed to the extreme pronouncements coming from CAP and MMFA, and their affiliated ‘scholars’ and bloggers, about warmongering ‘neocons’, sinister ‘plots’, conspiracies orchestrated by AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which campaigns for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals and monitors antisemitism, is described as ‘the far-right Simon Wiesenthal Center’. Matt Duss of the Centre for American Progress accuses writers supportive of Israel of being ‘Likudnik hacks’. Zaid Jilani, also of CAP, tweets: ‘Obama is still beloved by Israel-firsters and getting lots of their $$‘. MJ Rosenberg, a senior fellow at Media Matters, tweets that Americans shouldn’t ‘visit #Israel unless you are a rah-rah Likudnik‘ and calls David Mamet an ‘Israel First Likudnik‘.

After accusing Jewish conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin of ‘dual loyalty’ – the antisemitic canard that Jews harbour divided loyalty between America and Israel – he rebuffed Rubin’s complaint thus: ‘Jennifer Rubin thinks being accused by me of dual loyalty is an insult. Why. I say DUAL which is generous.’

The fact that Block, rather than the ‘progressive’ bigots he exposed, has been fired for his troubles at least puts paid to the conspiracy theory that the ‘Israel lobby’ will have anyone who criticises Israel sacked, marginalised, and anathematised. That James Kirchick has since revealed the neo-Nazi origins of the ‘Israel Firster’ and ‘dual loyalty’ libels has inspired no repentance from the Left. It does, however, draw the battlelines for a fight that could prove as momentous as the struggle between the McGovernites and the mainstream of the Democrat Party in the 1970s. The outcome will decide what kind of Democrat Party America will have: a liberal movement that can win the support of Main Street USA to advance progressive goals – or a party of dogma and division that mimics the EuroLeft’s fondness for clientelism, redistributionism and class warfare demagoguery at home and appeasement, isolationism, and relativism in its dealings with the world.

What’s the matter with Thomas Friedman? Perhaps he’s just pissy at Netanyahu. Or maybe, sage that he is, he’s seen the future of the American Left and decided to throw in his lot with what he predicts will be the winning side.

Feature image © Chatham House by Creative Commons 2.0

In defence of Martin Bright

If you’ll permit the intrusion of a shegetz into the controversy attending the Jewish Chronicle‘s reporting on London Citizens, I’d like to add a few thoughts.

London Citizens is an alliance of community groups based in the capital that brings together representatives from all the major faiths to be found in Britain. Hitherto known for campaigns on the minimum wage and other sociopolitical issues, the ‘community organising’ collective has attracted criticism for the alleged presence in its ranks of individuals with questionable associations and unsavoury things to say about Jews, Israel and terrorism. Junaid Ahmed, deputy chair of the organisation, allegedly gave a speech praising Hamas terrorists during Operation Cast Lead. ‘Every single resistance fighter is an example for all of us to follow,’ he is reported to have said. The JC also reported that a mosque involved with London Citizens had invited controversial speakers including a radical cleric who had made antisemitic pronouncements.

It is also a group in which leaders of the London Jewish community play a significant role. Rabbi Wittenberg, of New North London Synagogue, defended his attendance at a London Citizens event and, although he described Ahmed’s alleged views on Hamas as ‘abhorrent’, he insisted he didn’t ‘seek to confront people with a record of difficult views’.

Martin Bright, the astute political editor of the Jewish Chronicle, authored a series of articles on London Citizens, its alleged radical elements, and the question of Jewish leaders being involved with this organisation. The scrutiny upset supporters of London Citizens, as did a term deployed to describe Rabbi Wittenberg. Bright referred to Rabbi Wittenberg as a ‘useful idiot‘ for his failure to challenge Ahmed’s alleged opinions. The phrase caused genuine offence amongst some members of the Rabbi’s congregation and mock offence amongst those who simply don’t like Bright’s politics. I would not have used such a phrase – insults are no substitute for rational criticism and anyway should be avoided when discussing a man who has dedicated his life to his faith and community – but Bright stands by the description.

One objector fleshed his criticisms out into a full-blown critique of the JC‘s journalism and editorial policies. Keith Kahn-Harris wrote a piece – commendably published by the JC – condemning the paper and Bright in particular for its coverage of London Citizens and, more broadly, for its focus on antisemitism, Israel, and Islamist extremism.

The principal thesis of Kahn-Harris’s argument is that there are two kinds of politics at work here: the ‘politics of engagement’ and the ‘politics of exclusion’. He divvies up the moral bonus points thus:

New North London Synagogue and other Jews involved in London Citizens are exponents of a ‘politics of engagement’ that prizes dialogue, cooperation and community above all.


The JC under Stephen Pollard and Martin Bright is an exponent of a ‘politics of exclusion’ that prioritises principle and ideology and seeks to marginalise anyone that crosses certain ‘red lines’.

Kahn-Harris believes editor Stephen Pollard is not ‘interested in much of what goes on in the Jewish community’ and intones darkly about ‘the turn that the JC has made under Stephen Pollard’s editorship’. Moreover, he contends:

This apparent lack of concern for Jewish community is also embodied in the JC’s tolerance for uncivil and abusive language. Martin Bright’s use of the term ‘useful idiot’ to describe Rabbi Wittenberg is symptomatic of an editorial regime that does little to encourage more measured language.

As noted above, I would not have used the term in question but one ill-advised ad hominem does not an ‘editorial regime’ make, and certainly not an ‘uncivil’ and ‘abusive’ one at that. To read Kahn-Harris, one would be forgiven for thinking Pollard had turned over the political brief to Pamela Geller rather than the thoughtful, respected, and impeccably progressive Bright. (Footnote: Anyone who calls for a writer to use ‘more measured language’ almost invariably means, ‘I don’t like what you’re saying; please shut up’.)

The JC, we are to believe, has become a sort of right-wing rabble-rouser, pushing a hardline political agenda that provokes when it should inform and confronts when it should analyse. For Kahn-Harris:

A narrow range of ideological issues and a desire for controversy have been foregrounded with little or no regard as to what the consequences will be. For sure today’s JC is always lively – Stephen Pollard is a gifted controversialist and his willingness to publish this piece is certainly a point in his favour – but it is often destructive entertainment.

Narrow? Ideological? Controversy? Destructive entertainment? Does he read the same paper as the rest of us? I must have missed that special giveaway of ‘I [HEART] AVI LIEBERMAN’ t-shirts with every copy of the paper. This is a version of the JC that exists only in the minds of Comment is Free readers.

There is also an undercurrent to Kahn-Harris’s criticism of Bright that leaves a slight metallic taste in the mouth. Perhaps I am reading too much into his words – at least, I hope I am – but there seems to be a subtext that Bright, as a non-Jew, is not really in a position to be writing about these issues. For example, Kahn-Harris claims that Bright’s ‘knowledge of the politics of the Jewish community is limited and – more disturbing – he does not appear to be aware of his limitations’. He doesn’t appreciate ‘where those within the shul are coming from’. ‘Synagogues and communities are not the same as political parties,’ he offers, more than a little archly, ‘and it takes time to understand how they work.’ Then comes the sucker-punch:

The fact that Bright is not Jewish is irrelevant – like a good policeman a journalist has to take the time to understand his ‘beat’.

One is compelled to ask: Why, if Bright’s non-Jewishness is irrelevant, does Kahn-Harris feel the need to bring it up? Does he not realise that, even if not hostile in intent, such phraseology risks making non-Jews feel unwelcome in debates within the Jewish community and on related subjects? One might call it, to borrow a phrase, the politics of exclusion.

Kahn-Harris eventually gets to what appears to be the cause of his consternation, namely the ‘dominance’ of Israel and antisemitism in the JC‘s news pages.

Bright’s limited understanding of the community has been encouraged by the turn that the JC has made under Stephen Pollard’s editorship. The front pages are dominated by Israel, antisemitism and Islamism – important issues but not the only ones that impinge on British Jews.

It’s rather as if I wrote to the editor of the Catholic Herald and asked him to stop banging on about this abortion business.

Newspapers which serve a select community must strive to provide content that interests and entertains the greatest number of members of that community, both as a civic duty and, perhaps more pressingly, as a commercial imperative. In the JC’s case, that means covering fundraising dinners for cash-strapped shuln as well as anti-Israel student groups inviting extreme speakers to give lectures on campus. Bar and Bat Mitzvah announcements can and must and should share space with investigations into antisemitism.

If there is an appetite out there for a Jewish newspaper that limits its coverage of Israel, antisemitism, and the threat from Islamist terrorism, let Kahn-Harris raise the capital and set it up.

Were Bright and Pollard using the front page of the JC to advocate Israeli annexation of Judea and Samaria, to champion the Grunis Bill, or to campaign for one Israeli political party over the others, I would agree that it had strayed from its remit and purpose. As things are, Bright and Pollard are fulfilling an important role: providing a community-centred news outlet that covers common interests and concerns in the UK and around the world while also opening up the paper, the subjects it covers, and the Jewish community to a wider audience.

If the greatest military threat to Israel is a nuclear Iran, and the most pressing terrorist menace Hamas and Hezbollah, the preeminent moral hazard is the severing of the connection between the Jewish state and the Diaspora. Israel and her advocates (Jewish and non-Jewish) face an unprecedented wave of hostility, malice, and falsehoods. That requires journalists of good conscience to ask awkward questions, confront lazy thinking, and, above all, tell the truth. I became a reader of the JC after Bright’s appointment because I regarded his journalism very highly and admired his firm (and, sadly, rare in left-wing circles) stance against Islamist extremism and terrorism. If the JC were to become a sanitised newsletter for a narrow left-wing viewpoint that ignores those areas where Jewish community concerns intersect with broader concerns, there would be less of a reason for readers (Jewish and non-Jewish) to bother picking it up. That, rather than Pollard and Bright’s informative reporting and incisive commentary, would represent a real ‘disturbing trend in the paper’s relationship to the British Jewish community’.

Although I bow to Kahn-Harris’s superior knowledge of the Jewish community, I can’t help but feel that his broadside against the JC is really a plaintive cry for the paper to keep its head down and stop causing trouble. The liberal consensus offers comforts that moral clarity cannot. His proposal would leave the JC more modest, less relevant, and muted on questions of crucial importance to the Jewish community and its friends at the very time that these questions are gaining prominence in national and international public discourses.

I fully support Jewish community leaders, and leaders from all faith groups, in their efforts to work across religious and cultural divisions in pursuit of good causes. But one must always consider the ethics of political association: appearing on a stage with people of intemperate outlook, whether intentionally or otherwise, confers legitimacy on that outlook, making it seem less intemperate and more socially acceptable. I don’t know enough about London Citizens to pass judgement on it. It might very well be an entirely wholesome endeavour, and certainly there is much praise to be found for the work it does. But that shouldn’t shield it from criticism when it is perceived to have erred.

Nor is the JC above criticism. Editorials are too short, as are op-eds. I’d like longer features, more in-depth obituaries, and more space given over to the arts. The website could do with a redesign, could be updated more often, and a few new bloggers wouldn’t go amiss. The JC should seek to expand by looking outwards, towards a wider audience of Jewish and non-Jewish readers, and not recede into a tame parochialism which benefits neither the JC nor the Jewish community.

By their fruitcakes ye shall know them

You can always judge a politician by their followers. Mitt Romney attracts the committed, Ron Paul the committable.

Grassroots campaigners are essential in American politics, in those states with lengthy caucus and primary processes, and even elsewhere thanks to the Internet’s empowerment of the ideologically energised. Politicians must rely on these people to get their message out and get the voters into the booths come election day. Smart politicos, however, understand how to give just enough without being compromised by the ideological fervour and fringe obsessions that mark grassroots networks.

Ron Paul supporters – imagine Justin Bieber fans in ‘End the Fed’ T-shirts – are unlike any other grassroots political movement America has seen in the last 25 years. They are remarkably motivated and insistently loyal. They are also generally fanatical, politically immature, intellectually underdeveloped, and paranoid. They blog, tweet, and upload videos about the Texas Congressman at a rate that dwarves the social media activism of, say, Bachmann supporters or Perry fans.

And they’re vicious. A mildly critical remark about Paul will earn the writer a barrage of hysterically hostile feedback, ranging from personal insults to accusations of involvement in sinister plots. Critics of Paul are termed ‘sheeple’ (think about it) and accused of betraying the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Only Paul – and by extension, his demented followers – understand how the world works and how it’s supposed to work. They are the real Americans, the real patriots, the real conservatives. Everyone else is a cog or a plotter.

This isn’t a political movement. It’s a religious cult, and a particularly sinister one at that.

I spent an hour searching one of the leading Ron Paul supporters websites. DailyPaul.com is not affiliated to Ron Paul or his campaign but it is a hub dedicated to all things Paul where enthusiasts can come and discuss their hero and his challenge for the White House. (A disclaimer in the interest of fairness: I don’t think these people are quite all there, so perhaps we should be gentle in our remonstrations.)

Amidst paranoid ranting about black helicopters and plaintive cries to ‘free the weed’, there is a seeming obsession with Jews, Israel and Zionism. Hardly scientific, I know, but I searched the site for a series of keywords to record the number of times they appeared. ‘Weed’ got 542,000 mentions, ‘9/11’ 150,000, ‘CIA’ 80,600, ‘Jews’ 18,300, ‘false flag’ 17,700, ‘Rothschild’ 7,390, ‘Zionism’ 6,070, ‘UFO’ 5,600, and ‘implant’ 3,100.

That pretty much reflects the division of craziness on this forum. The inordinate attention paid to all things Jewish is most striking, for two reasons. One, because a charge often levelled at Paul supporters, and one they bristle at sharply, is that of antisemitism. Two, because even the most charitable reading of the discussions of Jews and Israel on these forums reveal a pervasiveness of and tolerance towards antisemitism unseen amongst supporters of any other major political candidate in the United States.

Here is a rundown of ten of the more reproducible antisemitic ravings posted on the site. (I’ve left the spelling and grammatical errors in tact on instruction from my paymasters in Jerusalem and because I’m lazy.)


National homeland of the Jewish people. Tiny embattled democracy surrounded by hostile regimes. Not perfect. Gets some things wrong – but on the whole, one of the good guys. Right?

Not so much.

A nation that has been tied to white slavery, organ harvesting black market, 9/11, drug runners, kidnapping, murder, torture, criminal organizations, crimes against humanity, land grabbing, porn rings, child prostitution, and more.

Who keeps the metric system down?

‘Jews,’ one commenter tells us, ‘control our monetary system, our media, and our goverment. There is no escaping that fact.’

This is absurd. Everyone knows the Canadians run everything. (One day soon, Monsieur Harper, your nefarious ways will be discovered.)

The six million

They’re definitely not Holocaust deniers, these Ron Paul fans. They’re just ‘questioning the official story’ about ‘what the heck really happened’. Well, gee whiz, who could be against that?

I am NOT a “Holocaust denier.” I am one who has a simple question that never gets answered, but is sure to get me flamed. How is it that the 6 million number did not get revised when the Auschwitz number got revised? I question the official story, and the media and much of the population gets REALLY uptight about questioning the official story… Methinks they protesteth too much, but to get to the bottom of this, how about we have a really exhaustive, wide open investigation and figure out what the heck really happened? In remembrance of the very real victims who deserve to have the truth exposed.

While we’re at it, we could have an investigation into how isolationism in American foreign policy helped created the functional circumstances for the Holocaust to take place. Ron Paul might not come out of that one looking very good.

The new Shoah

Okay, so maybe the Holocaust did happen but it ain’t nothing compared to what’s going on in Germany today. A post decrying the country’s Holocaust denial laws, entitled ‘Upside Down: Jews Were Persecuted by Germans, So Now Germans are Persecuted’, thinks it’s all eerily familiar.

Wait a second, weren’t Jews rounded up and sent to prison because of their beliefs? How is searching half a dozen homes and rounding up others for their beliefs, or arresting people for making websites and cakes any different?

If you need it explained to you why that statement is repugnant, you might just be a Ron Paul supporter.

Up to no good

One commenter warns that ‘rabid socialist zionist Jewish Neocons are working against freedom’ and that ‘[t]hey are the enemy within’.

Memo to DailyPaul.com: David Duke called. He’s suing you for copyright infringement.

The puppet masters

Anyone concerned that Western leaders are failing to stand with Israel needn’t fear. The ‘Zionists’ are on it already.

Politicians in the United States and Britain are made to pass under the yoke of the Zionist masters who control our leading political parties. By forcing our political leaders to accept the Zionist yoke our nations become subjugated and the pro-Israel agenda is forced upon the entire population.

What they’re buying

Baffled by President Obama’s super pro-Israel foreign policy? (Yeah, me too.) The Paulites have the answer:

[T]he Jewish billionaires can keep Neocon Obama in office to bomb the middle east some more.


Guess who was really behind 9/11:

The agenda of these hardcore Zionists is to become an empire. Many U.S. Senators and Congressman have secured lucrative contracts and fat retirements in helping Israel achieve it’s aims – as well as never criticizing it publicly. Cunning politicians to say the least, as they’ve been selling out America for decades with nobody really noticing. 9/11 is just the next phase in their quest for empire.

The Protocols

It turns out that notorious antisemitic forgery, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, was bang on after all:

All of what is happening in our world and what has happened last century was all spelled out very precicely in ” The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion ” the House of Rothschild is behind all of this madness. World war three has already begun. It started on 9/11/01 and will not stop untill all nations are brought to their knees from exhaustion of war. Then they”House of Rothschild ” will offer up their solution. A one world currency and a one world government to be led by the Anti-Christ.

Purse strings

And since 2012 will be won or lost on the economy, the Paulites have their own monetary and fiscal philosophy:

If we get rid of the Federal Reserve and military industrial complex, the zionist global conspiracy is utterly crippled. It dies shortly after that just by phasing out the IRS & all the Banking Complex’s fraudulent laws.

Liberals believe in higher taxes. Conservatives believe in lower taxes. Ron Paul supporters believe all the tax collectors are Jews.


All politicians have crazy fringe supporters who can be cited to discredit them but with Ron Paul, the crazies are the mainstream. They do not go unrewarded by the candidate. Paul is an expert at sounding dogwhistles that might be overlooked by the media but are easily understood by his target listeners. See my discussion of his remarks about Israel, African-Americans, and gays in an earlier post.

The last time America saw anything like this was the movement that sprung up around Pat Buchanan during the pre-1992 Republican primary season. It was a revolt of the Rolling Rock drinkers. Three years into George H W Bush’s presidency, with a sluggish economy and a stop-gap ceasefire to the bombing of Saddam, those Middle Americans who gave Reagan his two terms and only gave Bush his first on the understanding that it was really Reagan’s third finally lost their patience with the consensus-loving aristo in the White House. Preppie made all the right noises but when it came down to it, he never delivered for conservatives. On the economy, on taxes, on social issues, he epitomised the Country Club Republican who measures political success by the number of approving nods he receives from the New York Times editorial board.

The blue collar base seized the opportunity of the GOP primary season to send Bush a message, something along the lines of: Read our lips, no new Rockefellers. The Republican Party, hitherto the political equivalent of soft jazz and tan loafers, became a battlefield on which a bloody contest for the heart and soul of American conservatism would be fought. The winners still aren’t clear but one of the combatants, and the beneficiary of all the fury flying around, saw his star rise as disenchanted right-wingers rallied to his ramshackle campaign.

Pat Buchanan, a gnarly paleo-reactionary and former aide to Nixon and Reagan, had left government service for a career in politics, which is to say he went to work in the media. As a duelling pundit on CNN, he fired out barbs at liberals and squish Republicans alike, delighting viewers who shared his middle class background and middle century values. He figured this popularity could sweep him into the White House and announced his decision to challenge Bush in the primaries. Buchanan’s campaign would stand up for hard-pressed Americans done down by big government, overtaxed to fund lavish welfare payments for ‘urban’ families, discriminated against by affirmative action programs, made redundant by the job-outsourcing brought by free trade and the cheap labour of illegal immigrants, and ignored by politicians who served the interests of sectional groups within the nation and foreign governments outside its borders.

Although Buchanan, like almost all populist political leaders, would go on to flame out, he attracted a contingent of dedicated and determined activists of a kind alien to traditional Republican politics. The ‘Buchananites’, as the media named them, were not the traditional GOP industrialists and lunching ladies but steel workers and typists and insurance salesmen. Most of all, they were mad as hell and they weren’t going to take it anymore. Buchanan played on this anger, whipped it up to greater heights, and found himself with an army of supporters matched in their vociferousness on his behalf by a viciousness towards his opponents.

Like Ron Paul, Buchanan was expert at issuing dogwhistles to target audiences. An infamous instance sought to draw an ethnic hierarchy in American foreign policy between those who advocate war and those who fight it. The warmongers were men with names like Abe Rosenthal, Richard Perle, Charles Krauthammer, and Henry Kissinger whereas the cannon-fodder were ‘American kids with names like McAllister, Murphy, Gonzales, and Leroy Brown’. One hardly needed to be a codebreaker to grasp what he was getting at.

Whereas Buchanan’s pitch was to Middle Americans angry at rising prices and withering pension schemes and looking for someone to blame, Paul speaks to the young and disaffected, college students who have reached adulthood at a time of conflict and economic strife that demands sacrifice at home and increased (and expensive) activity overseas. Paul tells them that, far from a necessary response to a dangerous world, this is a grand lie maintained by sinister groups within the government who are plotting to steal the liberties of the individual and perpetuate a global governing class that will establish a ‘new world order’.

We live in an age of demagogues and seekers after demagoguery. An age where significant segments of public opinion believe 9/11 was an ‘inside job’, that Princess Diana was offed at the order of the Duke of Edinburgh, and that the Vatican is concealing the truth about the bloodline of the Christian Saviour. There is a gap in the market for a conspiracist presidential candidate. Paul, like a good free-marketeer, is supplying the demand. His appeal is anti-politics. He’s the candidate of people who are so uninformed about politics that they mistake their stupidity for alienation.

American libertarianism, a vulgarisation of European classical liberalism, has become a movement for cranks, weirdos, conspiracists, antisemites, and people who think the CIA has implanted tracking devices in their dental fillings. Austrian economics takes second place to obscure fixations and cultish behaviour. Where the classical liberals of yesteryear looked to Hayek, Mises, Bastiat, Friedman and Thatcher, today’s US libertarians make icons of Alex Jones, Lyndon LaRouche, Lew Rockwell and a Texas Congressman who advocates returning to the Gold Standard, opposes the Civil Rights Act, and champions a foreign policy that would make Charles Lindberg blanch.

Paulitics is an ideology of contradictions: the attitudes of the Old South meet fashionable anti-establishment vexations about American military power and foreign alliances. It panders to the right on welfare, abortion and race while playing to the left on drug legalisation, Israel and the ‘military-industrial complex’. And that’s the Congressman’s appeal. He can be everything to everybody, offering a reactionary politics that progressives can finally embrace. Ron Paul is the pothead’s Pat Buchanan.

Feature image © Gage Skidmore by Creative Commons 2.0

Ron Paul, an unexamined phenomenon

The American primary process, a kind of elongated sweeps for the cable news channels, is a four-yearly vaudeville show that doubles as a selection process for future leaders of the free world. 

Imagine the aesthetics of American Idol welded to the intellectual demeanour of pro football. When it’s the Democrats, there’s also a touch of the campus rally; with Republicans, the megachurch.

This year Republicans have been on top form. We’ve had a Texas governor who can’t count to three, a Minnesota congresswoman who thinks HPV vaccinations cause ‘retardation‘, and a former Speaker of the House who may not need access to the nuclear launch codes to start a war in the Middle East. Palintastically incurious pizza tycoon Herman Cain might have dropped out, sparking sighs of relief across Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, but Donald Trump – who has a 100% lifetime rating from the American Toupee Union – daily threatens to re-enter the race, provided he can obtain proof that Kenyan-born President Obama forged his birth certificate at a Chicago Kinko’s.

But even in this field, one candidate stands out as the court jester of the festivities.

Ron Paul, a 76-year-old Congressman for the 14th District in Texas, is a perennial figure in Republican presidential primaries. A libertarian of such philosophical purity that he makes Robert Nozick sound like a Bolshevik, Paul opposes almost all government intervention, wants to abolish the federal income tax and not replace it, advocates the dissolution of the Federal Reserve, and campaigns for America to return to the Gold Standard. But where he truly departs the Republican reservation is on foreign and security policy. He opposes the Patriot Act, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and indeed all wars where he deems US national interests are not under threat (which, to his mind, is almost all wars). He denounces concerns about Iran’s nuclear weapons programme as ‘war propaganda’. Most controversially, he is a vocal opponent of the US-Israel relationship and calls for America to cease foreign aid to the embattled state and similar allies around the world.

The Texas Congressman is treated as a harmless, if kooky, grandpa figure by the mainstream media, save for those left-liberals who actively champion his crank foreign policy (step forward Glenn GreenwaldRobin KoernerJohn Nichols). Any in-depth examination, however, belies this kindly persona and reveals a fringe ideologue whose politics are as downright nasty as some of his associates and supporters.

Paul has flirted with the 9/11 ‘truth movement’, those conspiracy theorists who believe the Bush administration or Israel were behind the attacks or at the very least had foreknowledge and allowed them to happen. He regularly appears on the conspiracy theory radio show hosted by Alex Jones, a 9/11 ‘truther’ and promoter of a cornucopia of nutty causes (he led the campaign to rebuild cult-leader David Koresh’s Branch Davidian church, destroyed during an FBI raid on the Waco, Texas compound). Paul himself has blown dogwhistles on 9/11, claiming the attacks were met with ‘glee‘ in the Bush White House.

Dr Paul isn’t punctilious about his political associations. In February 2011, he took chairmanship of the House Domestic Monetary Policy and Technology Subcommittee (a hootenanny, by the way) and chose as his first witness an obscure academic, Thomas DiLorenzo. DiLorenzo is a Southern secessionist and author of the book Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe. He calls Lincoln ‘tyrannical and dictatorial’ and describes the Civil War Lincoln fought to free the slaves as an exercise in ‘mass murder, looting, pillaging, plundering, and the burning of entire cities’. According to the Washington Post, DiLorenzo was until 2008 an ‘affiliated scholar’ to the League of the South Institute, the research operation of the League of the South, a Southern nationalist organisation designated a ‘hate group’ by the Southern Poverty Law Centre.

Nor is Paul picky about whose money he takes. In 2007, Don Black, a neo-Nazi political activist and founder of the white nationalist Stormfront website, donated $500 to Paul’s campaign. Obviously Paul, upon learning the source of this money, immediately returned it and distanced himself from Black. Except he didn’t. He kept the money from the former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, a campaign spokesperson said, to help him ‘spread the message of freedom’. This did nothing to dampen down the already growing support for Paul amongst what in contemporary parlance must inevitably be called the ‘neo-Nazi community’.

Whyever would skinheads gravitate towards this soft-spoken, harmless old lawmaker? Perhaps because his politics sometimes bump up against the ideology of the far-Right. For example, he opposes the Civil Rights Act, the 1964 law that outlawed segregation and discrimination against African-Americans, claiming it ‘increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty’ and arguing that its enforcement ‘encouraged racial balkanization, and fostered racial strife.’

All of this, distasteful though it is, is outdone by the matter of Paul’s political newsletters. James Kirchick has just published an article in the Weekly Standard on this outrageously underreported skeleton in Dr Paul’s closet. These publications, issued under Ron Paul’s name in the 1980s and 1990s, either as the Ron Paul Political Report, Ron Paul Survival Report, or Ron Paul Freedom Report, contain some of the most disturbing content ever associated with a major party candidate.

Here are a few highlights:

The Coming Race War’, a 1990 piece from the Ron Paul Political Report, counsels the Republicans to play the race card in the 1992 election. It reads: ‘[I]f there is any issue the Republicans have in their favor for the next presidential election, it is the question of race. It was all over for Michael Dukakis when Jesse Jackson gave his awful prime-time speech at the last Democratic convention, and the cameras focused on masses of teary-eyed, left-wing blacks.’

The same essay describes Martin Luther King as a ‘pro-communist philanderer’ and condemns Ronald Reagan for signing the law that created Martin Luther King Day: ‘We can thank him for our annual Hate Whitey Day.’

The Los Angeles Riots provided more racial ammunition for the Ron Paul Political Report which carried an article in its July 1992 edition on the violent response to the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. The report sneers: ‘Jury verdicts, basketball games, and even music are enough to set off black rage, it seems.’

A newsletter from 1992 carries this charming little nugget of racist sociology:

[W]e are constantly told that it is evil to be afraid of black men [but] it is hardly irrational. Black men commit murders, rapes, robberies, muggings and burglaries all out of proportion to their numbers.

Needless to say, the Jews get it too.

Bobby Fischer, Holocaust-denying chess grandmaster, is praised in a November 1992 dispatch:

[T]he brilliant Fischer, who has all the makings of an American hero, is very politically incorrect on Jewish questions, for which he will never be forgiven, even though he is a Jew. Thus we are not supposed to herald him as the world’s greatest chess player.

An April 1993 article pushes the old perfidious Jew stereotype: 

Whether [the 1993 World Trade Center bombing] was a setup by the Israeli Mossad, as a Jewish friend of mine suspects, or was truly a retaliation by the Islamic fundamentalists, matters little.

And in the interests of equal opportunity bigotry, the gays get a kicking. This, from the September 1994 Ron Paul Survival Report, on HIV/AIDS:

Those who don’t commit sodomy, who don’t get blood a transfusion, and who don’t swap needles, are virtually assured of not getting AIDS unless they are deliberately infected by a malicious gay.

Now, Paul claims he didn’t write any of the newsletters and disavows their content. This has sufficed for his dead-eyed, cult-like followers and a worrying segment of the mainstream media. However, the most cursory research calls Paul’s defence into question.

I offer three examples.

In a 1992 issue of the Ron Paul Political Report, the following statement appeared:

If you have ever been robbed by a black teenaged male, you know how unbelievably fleet of foot they can be.

The Dallas Morning News challenged Paul on the newsletter in 1996. Here is how the paper characterised his response:

In the interview, he did not deny he made the statement about the swiftness of black men.

“If you try to catch someone that has stolen a purse from you, there is no chance to catch them”, Dr Paul said.

The Dallas paper also asked about another line from the newsletter, which read:

Given the inefficiencies of what DC laughingly calls the criminal justice system, I think we can safely assume that 95 percent of the black males in that city are semi-criminal or entirely criminal.

Paul also did not deny authorship of that statement; in fact, he said it was based on the findings of a report from criminology think-tank the National Centre on Incarceration and Alternatives. ‘These aren’t my figures,’ he told the reporter. ‘That is the assumption you can gather from [the report].’

The Austin American-Statesman followed up the Dallas Morning News story by highlighting a 1992 newsletter which opined:

Opinion polls consistently show that only about 5 percent of blacks have sensible political opinions.

When the paper asked for a comment, Paul’s spokesperson, far from denying the statement, repeated it:

Polls show that only about 5 percent of people with dark-colored skin support the free market, a laissez faire economy, an end to welfare and to affirmative action…

Ron Paul or his campaign spokespersons are on the record defending or at the very least confirming remarks which he now claims he never made.

This man just topped the latest poll on the race for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. He could, in the event enough people simultaneously take leave of their senses, become the next occupant of the White House.

It’s time for the kid gloves to come off. Ron Paul is a candidate like any other in this primary process. If the extreme thinking (and non-thinking) of the rest of the field is disturbing, it is as nothing compared to the content of these journals and other overlooked aspects of Paul’s ideological worldview. The mainstream media, however much it might sympathise with his foreign policy or his criticism of the Bush administration, has a duty to ask the tough questions and provide the American people with the answers.

The first question must be: Congressman Paul, could you please explain these newsletters?

Feature image © Gage Skidmore by Creative Commons 2.0

Let us now praise an infamous man

Christopher Hitchens is gone. 

‘Dead’, he would prefer. ‘Gone’ is too mystical, a tacit indulgence of superstitious notions of a life beyond the temporal. ‘Death is certain,’ he insisted. ‘There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.’

Now who will rail? Now who will rage? Now who will reason?

Hitchens was more than an ‘intellectual’, though he was an intellect; not just a ‘polemicist’, though his writings were polemical. He was a journalist. Stop and consider that word. Run it through your hands, roll it around your mouth, try and say it out loud: Jour-na-list.

Tastes bitter, doesn’t it?

The trade is at one of the lowest ebbs in its modern history, at least since the days of Hearst: hacking, churnalism, the death of foreign news, obsession with celebrity, layoffs, closures, asset-stripping, the incestuous media/political elite nexus.

Hitchens reminded us that journalism is a noble pursuit: the search for truth, the provocation to thought, and the stirring of passion. His Letters to a Young ContrarianLove, Poverty and War; and Blood, Class and Nostalgia contain some of the finest popular writing one can find. The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice might offend with its outrageous title but the book houses prose of such sharp elegance that its achievement as a work of journalism cannot be denied even if its central thesis is rejected.

He wrote to challenge power and disturb consensus and, above all else, to promote reason, freedom, and human dignity. That he did so with a generous tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black Label in his hand and half the bottle resting in his stomach is a testament to his skill as a writer and fortitude as a drinker.

If Hitchens could rarely be pinned down on what he believed in, no one was ever in any doubt about what he was against. Capitalism in his youth, totalitarianism in middle age, and God in his final years. In many ways he had always been against the same thing: anything that got in the way of enjoying life.

Everyone has their Hitchens. Leftists love his skewering of capitalism and (sadly) Zionism; rightists quote voluminously from his apologias for America and democracy and against terror and tyranny. Non-believers found in him their prophet; Dawkins is the high priest of scepticism but Hitchens was its philosopher-preacher, a Maimonides of heresy.

He is being remembered in America – his America, his adopted and beloved homeland – as a polemicist against religion: a thumper of the Bible, botherer of the godly, defrocker of the saintly.

(The obituaries calling him an ‘atheist’ are wrong. He wasn’t questioning the scientific basis of belief so much as its morality: were God to be proved real, Hitchens would still protest the subservience of free and rational beings to a higher power. ‘I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist,’ he wrote in 2001’s Letters to a Young Contrarian. ‘I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.’)

As a member of the fuzzy faithful – those questioning believers who likely frustrated Hitchens far more than any scriptural fundamentalist because we sully reason to reconcile science and God – I admired Hitchens’ gleeful blasphemy as a test of my religion and a challenge to the intellectual sluggishness of contemporary belief.  Religion cannot be asserted as a human right, insulated by law and social convention; only argument allied to logic, with a tolerance of hope and faith, can articulate the intellectual coherence and moral necessity of religious belief in the 21st century. His cold steel rapier of reason was a gift to theists. His cuts were welcome because they forced us to brush up on our own fencing skills.

My Hitchens was the vicious rhetorician who lobbed ICBMs into the citadels of received wisdom and the righteous tormentor who pursued the relativist Left and its ‘We are all Hezbollah now’ logic to its absurd, reactionary end. When a left-wing paper complained in a headline that Afghanistan was being ‘bombed into the Stone Age’, Hitchens riposted that the Taliban-run gynophobic dystopia was ‘being, if anything, bombed out of the Stone Age’.

His enemies – by whom all great men ought to be judged – accused him of becoming a right-winger. He wrote a book denouncing Bill Clinton and even submitted an affidavit to the House of Representatives accusing a White House aide of smearing Monica Lewinsky and seeking to discredit other women who came forward to complain of sexual harassment. It’s perhaps a commentary on the Left rather than Hitchens that his comrades deemed reactionary his excoriation of Clinton’s racial electioneering in the Arkansas death chamber and the President’s predatory conduct towards vulnerable women in his employ.

But Hitchens’ final break with the Left came with his support for the war on terror and the overthrow of first the Taliban and then Saddam. While liberal journalists and radical professors saw 9/11 as a comeuppance for American hubris and the Islamists as, at worst, a tiny and innocuous cell of religious fanatics not comparable in threat or evil to the US military, or, more crassly, as ‘freedom fighters’ against ‘Western imperialism’, Hitchens was not so blinded. Islamism was a reactionary totalitarianism that sought to replace freedom and democracy with tyranny and brutality. He became a vocal advocate of military force against tyrants, took American citizenship, and (tentatively) endorsed George W Bush’s 2004 re-election bid, all the while denouncing his former fellow travellers as appeasers of fascism. No one has more spectacularly committed apostasy against the doxologies of the modern Left.

Hitchens was the iconoclast’s icon, a graven image for a secular age. But he had his own messiah, Thomas Paine, whose words almost 200 years BH (Before Hitch) sum up his disciple:

I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.

Feature image © Ari Armstrong by Creative Commons 3.0

But will it work?

“We think paywalls are essential, because we think giving away content for free, particularly if consumers value that content, makes no sense. Consumers have to pay for content they value.”

Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP

The Herald and Sunday Herald are two of Scotland’s leading quality news outlets but when it comes to turning a profit, they are at the mercy of the same dire advertising market and readership trends facing every other news group in Europe and the United States.

So the announcement that the heraldscotland.com site, which integrates content from the two titles, is to go behind a paywall was hardly surprising.

In the dim and distant past (well, two-and-a-half years ago), I freelanced at the Herald and Sunday Herald, both as a print reporter and a multimedia journalist. They’re good papers, with a small but loyal readership, and I retain a fondness for the ability of their (integrated) editorial and production staff to put out solid (and in the case of the Sunday Herald, well-designed) papers on a string-and-buttons budget.

The new partial paywall, based on the metered access model most prominently (and contentiously) employed by the New York Times, will allow users free access to ten articles over a four-week period followed by charges for further usage: £1 for the initial month then £2.99 for each month thereafter. Print subscribers will enjoy free access.

But will it work?

The Times‘s paywall has defied many of its critics to become a subscription success, with upwards of 100,000 users paying £2 every week to get their fix of the daily title and its sister title, the Sunday Times. Research shows that the site – thetimes.co.uk – lags at the bottom of the league table for social media links. A ten-week Searchmetrics study found that the free-access guardian.co.uk enjoyed 2,587,258 links per week to its content on Twitter and Facebook, whereas thetimes.co.uk managed a paltry 256. Still, the Times has never made a profit for News International and the estimated £10.4million annual haul from subscriptions, while decidedly modest, is a fair exchange for loss of social media clout. Worst of all, content doesn’t appear in search engine results. However, some commentators have argued that News International’s strategy is to build relationships with an elite customer base, gathering valuable marketing data which can then be deployed profitably elsewhere within News Corporation.

The modest success of the Times‘s subscription model is thanks to the site’s effective marketing as a niche consumer product (foreign news, court and social reporting, business analysis) and a distinctive platform for elite discourses (CommentCentral). The user is paying for high-end content, industry-leading information, and the social capital accrued through membership of a community of leading newsmakers, policymakers, thinkers, and entrepreneurs. Put simply, you subscribe to thetimes.co.uk because you are the sort of person who subscribes to thetimes.co.uk.

The Herald‘s USP is more difficult to ascertain. While heraldscotland.com boasts an impressive, if politically monochromatic, rollcall of writers – Ian Bell, Ruth Wishart, Iain Macwhirter – it is unclear if their talents will be enough to convince people to part with their money. Of course, there is the possibility that the site will become a significantly different product from its present form. Less reliance on PA, more ‘written’ news pieces, exclusive interviews, specialisation in one area (like sports commentary, financial analysis, or arts and entertainment), more and better quality video content. All of these would be welcome and could help heraldscotland.com craft a niche in Scottish digital media – a platform for in-depth quality journalism and opinion with exclusive content crafted to the preferences of key demographic profiles.

I am a digital optimist and believe newspapers can and must thrive in the new media age. But success requires targeted evidence-led investment, the abandoning of outmoded thinking, and recognition that digital-first strategies are not commercialist barbarism but key to ensuring the survival – and, ideally, the thriving – of journalism and current affairs writing in the 21st century.

Paywalls are no panacea; many argue they aren’t even a sticking plaster. Still, they are a feasible first step to making journalism profitable. Sir Martin is right: giving away news for free is commercial lunacy, akin to Starbucks handing out lattes for free then wondering why sales are down. The New York Times‘s paywall has proved profitable. If done right, the Herald‘s paywall could – on a much smaller scale – prove financially beneficial too, thus helping to secure the future of an historic Scottish media institution that deserves to survive and flourish.

To butcher CP Scott, ‘Comment is free, but a sustainable business model is sacred’.

Feature image © Elliott Brown by Creative Commons 2.0

Israelophobia – the ‘new’ old prejudice

Something is rotten in the modern Left.

An unhealthy segment of what likes to call itself the ‘progressive movement’ increasingly loses its mind when it comes to the subject of Israel. These people long ago allowed their objection to certain Israeli government policies to calcify into an irrational hatred of the entire State of Israel. What we’ve seen in the last few years, though, is something different. Left-wingers who have dedicated their lives to the causes of equality and anti-racism have been seduced by a shrill and extreme form of anti-Zionism that skirts the boundaries of antisemitism when it’s not hurtling right into the heart of the oldest hatred.

Of course, criticising Israel, even in forceful terms, is not antisemitic but when the Left turns every ill-advised Israeli government action or policy into ‘genocide‘, ‘apartheid‘, or, repellently, a form of ‘Nazism’ – and maintains near radio silence on genuine human rights-abusing regimes in Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Russia, China, Syria, and the rest – we are justified in asking why the Jewish State is singled out for disproportionate opprobrium.

Ezra Pound, himself a Jew-hater and Nazi-sympathiser, came to regret his ‘stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism’. Today, however, we are seeing the emergence of a stupid metropolitan prejudice, the polite bigotry of people who call themselves liberals and who are far from the socio-economic and educational profile of the tattooed skinhead hitherto associated with anti-Jewish sentiments. And because their contempt is directed at a nation-state, one that is unapologetically patriotic, pro-Western, and defies the fashionable theories of the post-1960s intelligentsia, these liberals consider their rhetoric not prejudicial but political – and progressive at that.

The latest episode came last week in the form of extraordinary comments from a Labour MP. Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West, challenged the appointment of Matthew Gould, Britain’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel, on the grounds that Gould’s Jewish heritage meant his loyalty to the UK was in question.

The row began during a fractious hearing of the House of Commons Public Administration Committee at which outgoing civil service head Sir Gus O’Donnell was giving evidence on his role and its functions. Flynn used the opportunity to question O’Donnell on reports that Gould, while serving in Iran, had held a meeting with former Defence Secretary Liam Fox and his unofficial, fake-business-card-wielding adviser Adam Werrity.

For Flynn, this was evidence that those dastardly ‘neo-cons’ were up to their old tricks ‘plotting a war in Iran’. He explained: ‘I do not normally fall for conspiracy theories, but the ambassador has proclaimed himself to be a Zionist and he has previously served in Iran’.

The Jewish Chronicle’s brilliant political editor Martin Bright evidently smelled a rat at the talk of neocons and Zionists and sinister plots for power and influence. He asked Flynn to explain his remarks. The Labour MP picked up a shovel. A very large shovel.

He told Bright that, ‘In the past there hasn’t been a Jewish ambassador to Israel and I think that is a good decision – to avoid the accusation that they have gone native.’

Gone native.

Britain’s ambassador to Israel, he added, should instead be ‘someone with roots in the UK [who] can’t be accused of having Jewish loyalty’.

Jewish loyalty.

He reiterated his concern that ‘neo-cons and war-mongers’ were conspiring to launch a war against Iran.

Neocons. (The New York Times’ David Brooks once quipped, ‘con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish’.’)

Now half-way to Australia and still digging, Flynn added that he’d feel the same way about others from a ‘foreign’ background and pointed to Labour MP Denis MacShane, who is of Polish descent. ‘Imagine Denis MacShane as ambassador to Poland? Heaven forbid,’ he explained.

His remarks were swiftly rebuked by Middle East Minister Alistair Burt as well as fellow Labour MPs Douglas Alexander, Louise Ellman, and Denis MacShane.

The EU Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia’s definition of antisemitism includes this line: ‘Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nation.’

Does all this mean Flynn is an antisemite? Tory MP Robert Halfon, who is also Jewish and was identified by Flynn as one of the ‘neocon’ plotters, says no. Rather, Flynn is merely ‘deeply wrong about the British Ambassador to Israel and wrong about so-called ‘neo-conservative’ conspiracies’.

However, Flynn’s outburst speaks to an ever more prevalent phenomenon of left-wingers indulging in questionable rhetoric in their attacks on Israel.

Ahead of the 2010 election, (now former) Labour MP and chair of Labour Friends of Palestine Martin Linton, told Palestinian lobby group Friends of Al-Aqsa that there was an ‘attempt by Israelis and by pro-Israelis to influence the election’. He explained, invoking classic antisemitic imagery, that ‘[t]here are long tentacles of Israel in this country who are funding election campaigns and putting money into the British political system for their own ends.’

Former Labour MP, and darling of the Left, Tam Dalyell claimed in 2003 that Tony Blair was being ‘unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers’ and named Lord Levy, Peter Mandelson, and Jack Straw as evidence.

Labour stalwart, and the party’s candidate for Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone has a record of outrageous remarks. In 2006, he told Jewish Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold that he was ‘just like a concentration camp guard’. He told two Iraqi-Jewish businessmen, Simon and David Reuben, that ‘They should go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs, if they don’t like the planning regime or my approach.’

Then this gem from 2007:

If a young Jewish boy in this country goes and joins the Israeli army, and ends up killing many Palestinians in operations and can come back, that is wholly legitimate. But for a young Muslim boy in this country, who might think: I want to defend my Palestinian brothers and sisters and gets involved, he is branded as a terrorist. And I think it is this that has infected the attitude about how we deal with these problems.

Not to be pedantic but British Jews don’t serve in the Israel Defence Forces, Israelis do. The idea that British Jews go to Israel, fight in the Israeli army, kill Palestinians, and come back to the UK, as if they’ve just been on a gap year, is a mad fantasy that exists only inside Livingstone’s brain.

The Lib Dems aren’t immune. After musing on becoming a suicide bomber, and claiming that a shadowy ‘pro-Israeli lobby’ has its ‘financial grips’ on the Lib Dems, Baroness Jenny Tonge excelled herself when she demanded an official investigation into whether Israeli army medics helping with the relief effort in Haiti were actually there to steal organs from earthquake victims.

The Left-liberal media has dodgy form too. The New Statesman published a 2002 investigation on the ‘Zionist lobby’ and its influence on the UK with a cover depicting a huge golden Star of David piercing the Union Flag and the headline ‘A kosher conspiracy?’ (see above). The Independent once ran a cartoon depicting Ariel Sharon as a monstrous giant eating a Palestinian baby, an indisputable replication of the ancient blood libel.

The Guardian published a cartoon during the Lebanon-Israel war showing a Palestinian boy being pummelled by a giant fist inside a knuckleduster studded with blood-soaked Stars of David. Oxford don and BBC favourite Tom Paulin, who calls the Israeli army the ‘Zionist SS’, told an Egyptian newspaper what he’d like to see happen to Israelis living in settlements on the West Bank: ‘They should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them.’ He continues to be invited on the BBC as a cultural commentator.

Ben Cohen has written about the secret history of antisemitism on the British Left. However, I think antisemitism and even ‘new antisemitism’ fail to capture the politics of left-wing anti-Israelism. It’s probably safe to assume that people like Linton, Dalyell, Livingstone, Paulin, and even Flynn do not consider themselves antisemitic – they would balk at the label no doubt. Of course, they’re right. In the classical sense of the term – irrational hatred of Jews as a racial or religious group and desire to exert power over them or deny them equality and fair treatment – they are not antisemitic.

What’s at work here is a new ideology. I call it ‘Israelophobia’, a contemporary manifestation of anti-Zionism that blurs the boundaries between far-Left and far-Right politics, permitting liberals to share a platform with radical Islamists and antisemites. Hatred of Israel, often based on limited knowledge or a selective perspective on the Middle East, becomes all-consuming and takes precedence over other concerns, including the normal ethics of political association.

Israel is elevated from just another state to a wicked malefactor of almost mythical proportions. When you anathematise your enemy thus there are no longer any limits, no red lines, nothing that can’t be thought or said or done. Conspiracy theories about powerful ‘lobbies’, financial influence, media manipulation, once a staple of antisemitic discourses, can be repackaged as fact – just as long as ‘Jewish’ is replaced with the more prophylactic ‘Zionist’.

Israelophobia, in short, is a form of demonisation, dehumanisation, and delegitimisation of the Jewish State that draws, often unwittingly, on the rhetoric and imagery of earlier forms of demonisation, dehumanisation, and delegitimisation of the Jewish people.

And it is overwhelmingly a prejudice of the modern Left: political activists, university campuses, and media outlets that are in every other way impeccably progressive. Smart and decent left-wingers, including Rob MarchantNick Cohen, and David Aaronovitch, have recognised the worryingly unprogressive developments in progressive politics. They are crucial to any fightback by the sensible Left but they are in the minority of the liberal commentariat who are mostly ignorant of the situation – or don’t want to know.

Israel is not perfect. No state is. But its detractors are losing their sense of proportion and their claim to the ‘progressive’ label in their disturbing journey into the dark heart of Israelophobia.

Feature image © Takver by Creative Commons 2.0

The Republican Party and the credibility gap

In the screenwriting business, the toughest challenge is pushing plot: writing the expositional dialogue that drives the story forward and keeps the audience up to speed.

It’s a thankless task: if the dialogue is too hokey, the audience will hiss; too subtle, and you risk leaving people behind. Worst of all is the scrutiny it attracts. Exposition freezes the action and the viewer has nothing to focus on save the words being spoken, so they’d better be up to scratch. Credibility is everything.

At this point in the US electoral cycle, the Republican candidates for President are pushing plot. The nation is facing the most crippling financial crisis since the 1930s (economists, in unguarded moments, intimate that it might even be worse), Americans are losing their jobs and their homes, and no one knows (not really, not honestly) how to turn things around. Unfortunately for Republicans, the recession hit in the eleventh hour of the Bush administration, which GOP mythology told us had solved America’s economic problems with the fiscal silver bullet of tax cuts. As if this wasn’t enough to be getting on with, Republicans find themselves in opposition with a Democrat President pouring a pocketful of nickels into the policy jukebox and replaying all the old liberal favourites, ‘Tax and Spend Two-Step’, ‘Big Government Blues’, and ‘That Free Market, She Done Me Wrong’.

Against this backdrop, Republicans need what political consultants call a ‘narrative’. They need to use this period before the election kicks off proper to push their exposition explaining what went wrong and what they want to do to get things back on track. Americans don’t want empathy. They don’t care whether a candidate goes to church or goes huntin’ or what they did in the Vietnam War. They’re not looking for someone to have a beer with. They want answers. Ideas. Solutions. They want a vision but a vision with trajectory: it’s not enough to say ‘America’s best days lie ahead’. Voters want to hear ‘America can get back on the road to success and here’s how we’re going to do it’.

Republicans should be honing their plot. Financial institutions, with the tacit encouragement of government, gave out too much credit. Individuals, with the tacit encouragement of financial institutions and government, spent too much money that they didn’t have. Government, with the not-so-tacit encouragement of practically everyone, spent vast sums while pretending it could do so without raising taxes. All three fantasies collided when the credit bubble burst in 2008. Now the economy is paying the price of the shared delusion of easy credit, booming entitlement programs, and 90%-mortgages-for-all. Now is the time to return America to fiscal responsibility, reducing the size of government but doing so in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the unemployment numbers.

This used to be easy for Republicans. Economic centrism was their métier. Democrats clung to abstruse theories while the GOP took the more measured, suck-it-and-see approach. To the casual observer of the Republican primary process, particularly the televised intellectual circuses that constitute the debates, the GOP has forgotten its role as the voice of fiscal pragmatism. This is why the expositional dialogue coming from most of the candidates isn’t working. It might please the hardcore fans but the mainstream audience are walking out and asking for their money back.

The top billings are as guilty of this as the walk-on roles. When a crank like Ron Paul compares the Federal Reserve to drug addiction, advocates eliminating the income tax (and replacing it with nothing), and shuttering a roster of basic programs Americans rely upon, the average voter rolls his eyes and says ‘Ron Who?’ When poll-leading contenders want to end all federal student loans or  can’t remember which agencies they’d abolish, Mr and Mrs Swing Voter head for the exits.

Glib soundbites aren’t going to cut it (cf. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9) and nor is Fannie and Freddie-bashing (I yield the floor to the Gentlewoman from Minnesota) or a hankering for the salad days of 2004 when pushing social issues translated into a ten point lead (Rick whatever-you-do-don’t-Google-his-surname Santorum).

With a very few exceptions (so few, one can briskly name them: Romney, Huntsman, Johnson), the current GOP field is a line-up of has-beens, never-weres, and dear-God-anyone-buts; a retinue of dogmatists; a demolition squad of political reality; a support group for the economically illiterate; an audition for the next big hire at Fox News; a Hillsdale undergraduate seminar group that clearly hasn’t done the reading.

Contrary to what people like David Frum argue, this isn’t about RINOs vs Tea Partiers. The problem with the GOP’s leading lights isn’t their unswerving conservatism. Ronald Reagan was an out-of-his-tree right-winger – but he was also right. Rick Perry could advocate replacing the Constitution with the Road to Serfdom and the Bill of Rights with the Ten Commandments and win a 50-state landslide if he had a credible vision for reviving the economy.

And that’s the problem. It’s not ideological obscurantism but the credibility gap that is killing the Republican Party. The mood music is off-key. The exposition is creaky. The audience isn’t buying any of it. If the GOP doesn’t get in some new writers their eventual candidate is going to bomb and Americans will plump for the sequel to Hope and Change.

‘A humble and dedicated man… he was quite simply a gentleman’

Decency. Humility. Kindness.

Those words were repeated endlessly at the funeral service for MSP Bashir Ahmad, who died suddenly on Friday. They were the words chosen – by everyone from imam to first minister – to describe a politician whose friendships and influence cut across parties and communities.

With the shock of his death still fresh, raw emotions were on display from community leaders and politicians who had come to celebrate the man who broke the mould of Scottish politics.

The first minister could not hold back the tears. As he shared grief and memories with crowds of mourners ahead of the service at Glasgow’s Central Mosque, Alex Salmond spoke movingly of the MSP who died suddenly of a heart attack.

He said: “Bashir Ahmad was a history-maker. He became Scotland’s first Asian and first Muslim MSP and when he was elected to the Scottish parliament he made our family more complete. He changed the face of the parliament and that was a very important step forward.

“And when you are the first, character becomes important. We in Scotland were fortunate that our first Muslim MSP was a man steeped in humility and decency and kindness. A man of enormous compassion and humanity, I can honestly say I never met a single person with a bad word to say about him.”

It was the first minister who converted Ahmad to the cause of Scottish Nationalism in 1995. After listening to a speech by Salmond, Ahmad left the Labour Party to join the SNP.

His patriotism was proud but inclusive, according to the first minister. “He was a great patriot,” Salmond said. “He had a favourite saying, which he told me when we first met in 1995. He would say: It doesn’t matter where you come from; what matters is where we’re going together as a country.'”

Salmond then joined the throng of mourners who queued outside the mosque to pay their respects.

The service had been scheduled for 1pm but was delayed until 1.30pm to accommodate the large numbers of people who wanted to attend.

Once inside, Imam Habib led the Namaz-e-Janaza, the Muslim funeral prayer. The intercessionary verse is recited in Arabic, in line with Islamic tradition.

As the service ended and the crowds filed out, political and community leaders joined the first minister’s tribute to Ahmad. Community leader Bashir Maan was a lifelong friend. He described him as “a humble and dedicated man, who was helpful to anyone who asked for his assistance. Quite simply, a gentleman.”

“He inspired young people to want to become MSPs and MPs,” Maan, president of the Islamic Centre, added.

Labour leader Iain Gray said: “He was a kind and decent man and his death is a great loss.”

Conservative MSP Bill Aitken said Ahmad’s “passing leaves a gap in Scotland’s public life that will not easily be filled”.

Glasgow Govan MSP Nicola Sturgeon paid an emotional tribute. She said: “As a man, Bashir was a unique human being. He was loved and respected regardless of people’s politics because he was a kind, decent and sincere man. His political legacy will be immense.”

Salmond said: “One lad at the service told me Bashir was everything a Muslim should be: human and humane towards other people. He has set the standard for others who will follow in his footsteps. That will be his legacy.”

Originally published in the Sunday Herald. Feature image © Postdlf from w by Creative Commons 3.0

How I became Lizzy Bennet

Being Elizabeth Bennet: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure
By Emma Campbell Webster
Atlantic Books, pp.352

Do you remember the choose-your-own-adventure books that squatted brazenly on the school library shelves?

Those laminated interlopers that enticed you with their E-number colour schemes and promises of author-sanctioned page-skipping privileges? How they mocked the “serious” titles and their obsession with education, improvement and the beauty of language. Literature is always outgunned by populism. 

Emma Campbell Webster’s debut operates on much the same principle of literary debasement, albeit with higher aspirations; it is learned populism. Being Elizabeth Bennet: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure gets in on the Soppy Jane racket, the highly profitable mushing of England’s sharpest wit into sentimental romances for television and cinema. 

You, dear reader, are Elizabeth Bennet, headstrong and observant heroine of Pride and Prejudice, daughter of an ambitious mother, harried by time and tradition to nab a fitting suitor, and locked in a sniping courtship with the abrasive Mr Darcy. 

You must use your judgement to navigate the treacherous terrain of early 19th century polite society. Which paths will you take, which romantic overtures accept and decline, whom will you visit and whom avoid? After every few pages of largely loyal prose, Webster throws up a fork in Austen’s plot and allows you to embark on a course of your choosing, thus altering the destiny of Miss Bennet and her acquaintances. 

To zing things up a little, characters from other Austen novels wander into the Pride and Prejudice story and get involved in the action — like the fond daydream of a dozing postmodernist literature professor. 

“Your mission,” Webster elaborates, “is to marry both prudently and for love, eluding undesirable suitors and avoiding family scandals which would almost certainly ruin any hope of a financially advantageous marriage for you or any of your sisters.” Regrettably, the interactivity principle doesn’t allow you to refuse this modest mission in favour of, say, taking Elizabeth off to Westminster to preempt the suffragette movement, perhaps while attending university and going outdoors without a male companion. 

No, you must remain unassuming and proper and covered at the ankles, that you may attract a gentleman of a good few thousand pounds annually — and then? Reader, you marry him. Webster’s running commentary curbs any more radical life plans. When, in a subplot imported from Mansfield Park, you decline to perform in an amateur production, Webster congratulates your modesty. “There is nothing more immoral than a woman on the stage,” she writes, rather giving genocide, rape and third-world famine an unfair hearing. “Collect ten intelligence points for your superior sense of decorum.” Yes, fair maiden, you are awarded points for your ladylike judgement and for correctly answering questions on embroidery and needlework. 

There is little irony to be detected in Webster’s counsel. You get the feeling she has come down with literary Stockholm syndrome — so giddy to rearrange the pieces on Austen’s chessboard that her critical distance takes its leave. 

Her last-minute inclusion of the option to decline marriage in favour of authoring sardonic novels on the vicissitudes of hubby-hunting seems promising — until it directs you back to page one, locking you eternally in this Goldberg trap of premodern gender roles. This is more than a denial of feminism: it is the repudiation of intelligence. 

The book is nakedly pitched at the post-Bridget Jones market and could be successful, if only as a Christmas stocking filler. That is by no means a shameful ambition, but it does feel like a waste. Webster’s knowledge of Austen reaches beyond that of an opportunist writer out to shift books. The skill with which she introduces other Austen characters into Elizabeth’s story marks an adept writer with a hardy grasp of her subject’s canon. i sense — and I could be wrong — that Webster has another, better Austen title in her, one that demands her understanding and appreciation of the author. 

What a pity, then, that she has chosen to reduce some of the greatest novels in English literature to a middle-market offering of erudite froth. 

Originally published in the Herald. Feature image © Thalita Carvalho by Creative Commons 2.0.