On Heretics and Thought-Crimes

Bear with me readers, if I return to ‘InternationalBrigadegate’ one more time, because what I want to say is not really about me: it’s about us.  A lot of the writing I’ve done over the years, in books, articles, and blogposts, has been concerned with the subject of persecution.  I’ve always been concerned with the ease with which powerful societies can transform themselves into what the medieval historian R.I.  Moore once called ‘persecuting societies’.

These concerns have been present in all my books, from my history of terrorism to my novel The Devils of Cardona, which is due to be published next year.  Given these preoccupations, there has been a weird and bewildering irony about the events of the last week, which are still unfolding.

Today, for example I came across a leftist blog attacking my Hilary Benn piece.  After the usual foaming at the mouth at my supposed iniquities, the writer contemptuously referred to my book about General Sherman’s March to the Sea,  with this observation:

 ‘The only walk to the ocean most people would like to witness on Carr’s part is one which ends with him lying ten fathoms deep.’

In the opinion of this self-proclaimed  ‘critical marxist’ therefore,  it is legitimate to recommend my death because of a sentence that I wrote and a thought that he believed I had.

Now I recognize that this is an extreme reaction, even by the standards of the past week. Nevertheless day after day newspapers, journalists, and politicians repeat my International Brigades quote or cite fellow-blogger Chris Floyd’s ‘reaping the whirlwind’ piece, without any sign that they have read the pieces concerned, and with the kind of horror and disgust that you would now expect to be directed at Jimmy Saville’s memoirs.

I’m only surprised that these critics don’t brandish a crucifix or wear garlic round their necks.  Some of this, as I’ve said previously,  is clearly due to a blatantly McCarthyist campaign that is intended to destroy the Stop the War movement, and by association Jeremy Corbyn.

But what I find most shocking, and which I want to draw attention to here, is the fact that the hysterical vilification of Floyd and myself  is based entirely on our thoughts and words – regardless of whether or not they have been interpreted in the way that we intended them to be.

In this sense, the incredible momentum that this campaign has acquired reminds me of medieval and early modern attitudes to ‘heresy’, when certain thoughts and ideas were considered so dangerous to society that they could only be purged and kept at arms length otherwise society faced complete destruction.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t consider my thoughts to be so earthshaking that they threaten society or the established order, and I don’t regard myself as a modern-day heretic.  But whatever you think I said, or whatever you think Floyd said, the fact remains that the moral opprobrium that has been heaped upon both of us has been entirely due to the fact that we expressed thoughts and ideas that are now considered illegitimate and taboo.

Were this not the case, it would have been perfectly possible to disagree with either of us, to criticize us, to say that our ideas weren’t well-expressed or whatever.  Instead the two of us have been objects of a collective rage, hatred and disgust, in some cases by people who have never read what they are condemning.

Some of this outrage is due to the disgust and horror that ISIS incites through its endless massacres and atrocities, and the (false) assumption that Floyd and I somehow condone or minimize or even approve of these actions.   But ISIS itself cannot explain the knee-jerk responses of so many people to a sentence in a screenshot and a single phrase.

ISIS doesn’t explain why it is now becoming difficult to think or say anything about it beyond certain consensual parameters, and why a single phrase or sentence can be held up as evidence of evil intent or collusion.  It doesn’t explain why a British politician is hailed as a great orator if he compares the bombing of another Middle Eastern city to the International Brigades; or why George Osborne can tell a New York audience that the UK has ‘got its mojo back’ because it has bombed Raqqa.

Yet MPs now read the words of two writers and bloggers out in parliament as though they were reading an indictment, and ‘leftists’ can call for the death of someone whose words they don’t like.  And even when Floyd and I have tried to explain and clarify our intentions, these emotions have made no difference to many of those who have read them, and some have even seen them as confirmation of our original ‘guilt.’

And all that, my friends, suggests that we have a problem, and that it is not the one that has been raised so hysterically and so dishonestly during the last week.

 

 

Hellhounds on my Trail

I wasn’t going to write about the Stop the War/International Brigades fiasco again.  In fact I had hoped that it was all beginning to quieten down and I could return to normal and write about something else.  For the time being at least, normality is no longer possible, and so I feel I have no choice but to try and surf the toxic wave that my response to Hilary Benn’s speech has created, if only to avoid being swamped by the garbage.

Now some of you might think that it is every blogger’s dream to see their site traffic ballooning day after day; to open a newspaper or go onto a webpage and find your words being quoted in a nice little screenshot, even if the articles in question don’t even mention your name; or to know that those same words are floating back and forth in twitter arguments.

Well in this case you would be wrong, because there is really nothing very enjoyable at all about seeing your own words being appropriated in the service of a vicious political lie. Today, for example I found an article by James Bloodworth on the Poltics.co.uk website on why Jeremy Corbyn should leave the ‘repugnant’ Stop the War, which contained a screenshot of my International Brigades reference as proof that STW ‘praised’ Daesh.

I wrote to Politics.co.uk’s editor Adam Bienkov and pointed out that I had issued clarifications and a rebuttal, and he took the screenshot out.  But no sooner was that over than I discovered that Caroline Lucas had resigned from Stop the War because of ‘positions’ that the organization had taken.

I’m a great admirer of Caroline Lucas, so I was almost relieved to discover that these ‘positions’ did not include my own article, and referred to events that had preceded it.  But I still found my ‘ International Brigades’ screenshot on a piece on the Huffington Post website referring to these ‘positions’.   So I wrote to HuffPost’s political editor Owen Bennett and pointed out that I had written a rebuttal and an apology, and now the piece refers to the latter.

Even then it was still not over.   By the end of the day I found my International Brigades piece yet again, in an article in the Guardian about Lucas’s resignation, so I am beginning to conclude that firefighting is an impossible exercise, and that journalists like Bloodworth are either too lazy or too dishonest to actually check the ‘truth’ they are repeating, and that too many media outlets  only too willing to uncritically recycle what they say..

If these journalists had any integrity, they could easily have looked into why someone would have done something so outlandish as to ‘praise Daesh’ and read my original piece.   They would have realized  from the context that I did no such thing.  They might have quibbled at my wording; they might have argued or disagreed with me; or they might think that I was being unclear, as some people who have written to me have already  suggested.

But there is no way that any intelligent, honest or thinking person could seriously believe that I ‘praised Daesh’.   If they still had doubts, then any reading of my rebuttals or apology, or a look at some of the other pieces I had written would surely have dispelled them.

Instead an extract from a paragraph taken out of context has become a kind of self-contained ‘truth’ which has nothing to do with truth at all, to the point when my own words have become a kind of alien language to me.   And the more this ‘truth’ spreads through the Internet, the more it has acquired the status of an uncontested fact; that Stop the War has praised Daesh..

I’m not sure if this Kafkaesque or Orwellian, but it is certainly kind of nightmarish, like chasing after a train that is always just in front of you; or  waking up to find that you’ve turned into Katie Hopkins; or finding yourself at the bottom of a dank hole with James Bloodworth and Dan Hodges nibbling pieces of flesh off your feet and handing them onto the Guardian and the Telegraph for a little snack before the big dinner of wrecking Stop the War, Jeremy Corbyn, and the single most promising leftist revival in decades.

Among the most depressing aspects of this new portal that I’ve stepped through are the gleefully contemptuous tweets, which seem to take a weird delight in insisting that I really meant what I did not mean, no matter how many times I insist that I didn’t mean it.   And the increasingly shrill and overheated messages I’ve received, such as the one ranting about throat-cutting Muslims in a way that seems to suggest I am somehow in favour of cutting throats, and another suggesting  that I would have once supported gassing Jews, or something.

I am not posting these rants, neither of which seems to show the slightest understanding of what I actually said. One of them refers to my rebuttal and then paraphrases it to prove that even though I denied  that  I ‘praised Daesh’, I didn’t mean it.  I have the feeling that even if I wrote out ‘I did not praise Daesh’ a thousand times, like lines, or hired a plane to float these words on a giant placard in a nationwide tour,  there would still be those who would  say ‘ You praised Daesh.’.

There is nothing I can do to change their minds and convince them that I really, really, don’t love Daesh, and neither does Stop the War.   Too many people, it seems, don’t want to believe this, and believe what they have already chosen to believe, and the words I wrote have acquired a malignant life of their own that is entirely independent of my intentions and which I can neither clarify or reclaim .

So in this context, I am really grateful for the positive and supportive messages I have received on this blog and elsewhere, and also for the thoughtful discussions I have sometimes been able  to have, even with people who disagree with what I said.

They remind me of a world where dialogue, debate and discussion are still possible, where ‘truth’ is not confined within a screenshot, where conversations can continue, and ideas can be criticized and revisited.

And they also remind me why I started writing this blog, and why I will continue to do so.

 

Apologies

Some last thoughts – from me anyway – on the International Brigades debacle.  As I have tried to make clear since I wrote my piece about Hilary Benn last Thursday, I never meant to suggest any moral equivalence whatsoever between Daesh and the International Brigades.  I continue to believe that the overall context of the article makes it clear that I intended no such thing, and that nobody who is familiar with my writing could ever believe that I would make such a suggestion.

That said, I recognize that the controversy which has resulted from the piece is not simply due to deliberate bad faith readings by those who wished to exploit it for their own particular purposes.    I also bear some responsibility for the misinterpretations that have been placed on the piece.    Many of those who have expressed outrage and disgust at the sentence in question are not familiar with my blog or my writing, and such familiarity should not have been required.

It should not have required a subsequent rebuttal from me to make my meaning clear.  As a writer, I always strive to be clear and straightforward.   In my reference to the International Brigades and the jihadist movement, I failed to achieve either.  In my haste to attack Hilary Benn’s gross misappropriation of the International Brigades, I referred in passing to a difficult idea that required far more explanation and precision than I gave it, and left myself open to accusations of an equally gross misappropriation.  

Of course I didn’t think that a paragraph from my blog would have been highlighted in the way it was, but I should have taken greater care, particularly in these difficult times, when a stray word or sentence taken out of context can easily acquire entirely different meanings to the ones you intend.

By not doing so,  I inadvertently provided ammunition to those who are seeking to use the Stop the War movement to undermine Jeremy Corbyn and the movement itself.  Such people will always use whatever they can find, and they have played the hand I gave them well.

But I also recognize that I gave genuine offense to people who have no such agenda, who were outraged  by the comparisons they believed I was making.

To these readers,  and to these readers alone,   I apologize.

 

 

My life as a fascist sympathizer

No writer can be entirely assured that readers will understand  what they write in the way that they want, but there are times when you really wonder whether some of the people who read what you have actually written have any interest in even trying to understand what it is you’ve said.  Take my piece about Hilary Benn’s speech this week, in which I  attacked Benn’s politically-slanted reference to the International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War on the following grounds:

‘To evoke the international brigades in support of Cameron’s bombing campaign requires real audacity, bad faith, and an indifference to history or the political realities of the 21st century.   Benn does not even seem to realize that the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh is far closer to the spirit  of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign – except that the international jihad takes the form of solidarity with oppressed Muslims, rather than the working class or the socialist revolution.’

I also pointed out that

‘It is obvious that not all Muslims who have gone to fight in Iraq, Syria, Chechnya and other places have gone to these countries to obtain sexual slaves and throw homosexuals off balconies.   Understanding these distinctions would make it a lot easier to understand the wellsprings of ‘radicalization’ than the fatuous inanities emanating from Cameron and his ministers.’

These observations have produced twitter comments such as the following:

[stextbox id=”alert”]Sorry it’s total bollocks to compare International Brigades to Daesh. Just as bogus as Benn’s original comparison.[/stextbox]

 

[stextbox id=”alert”]Don’t recall International Brigade throwing gays off tall buildings.  Grow up.[/stextbox]

 

[stextbox id=”alert”]Is this from a parody account.  Insult to those that fought fascism.  [/stextbox]

 

[stextbox id=”alert”]memory of the Int’nal brigades were disgraced by @MattCarr55.  ISIL are not defending a people’s gov against a military coup[/stextbox]

 

[stextbox id=”alert”]Making any link between Daesh/Jihadism and the people who gave their lives fighting fascism is shameful.  Beyond words.[/stextbox]

This outrage has also spilled over into the Stop the War UK website, which has posted my pieces, where you can find comments like ‘Stop the War have actually just claimed that Jihadism is ” closer to the spirit of solidarity and internationalism”, as it stands in solidarity with ” oppressed Muslims.”

Some of these respondents are clearly from the ‘ Stop the War is decadent and corrupt’ crowd, and such people will always read what they want to read and nothing else.  But the suggestion that I have ‘insulted’ or ‘disgraced’ the International Brigades is also a personal smear.

Just to clarify: Back in 1996 I interviewed surviving members of the International Brigades in Barcelona on the sixtieth anniversary of the Spanish Civil War. I celebrated their role in the war in a radio programme and also in a number of articles.  This year I have also been reading and writing about the International Brigades as part of an ongoing book project.   So I need no lectures about what the International Brigades stood for and what they fought for.

I also despise Daesh and organizations like it.  I have made that clear in numerous pieces on the subject for this blog, for example here. and here.   Directly above the paragraphs in my Benn piece referring to the International Brigades  I wrote:  ‘Whether Daesh is fascist or not, it is certainly a savage and dangerous movement which needs to be defeated’ – a sentence that some of these respondents seemed to have skipped over in their eagerness to score their ‘gotcha’ moment of moral outrage.

I’m not sure whether this determination to put sentiments into my mouth that I don’t have is politically motivated, or whether it stems from an inability to understand the English language, but either way it displays a complete ignorance of the historical roots of the modern jihad.

In my piece I refer to ‘the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh.’   Please note those words ‘jihadist movement’ readers, because some who came before you seem to have missed them.   What we now call ‘jihadism’ is a transnational movement that came into  the world during the Afghan war against the Soviets.  Its various members have drawn on the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah, Sayyid Qutb, Maulani al-Maududi and others to recast older notions of jihad into the modern world.

Crucial to this enterprise was the notion that Muslims had an obligation to defend oppressed Muslims anywhere in the world. Obviously that is a very narrow concept of solidarity and internationalism in comparison with the International Brigades,  in its emphasis on Muslims rather than the international working class, and it was also driven by very different political aspirations.

I  didn’t argue that jihadism was aimed at bringing about international socialism. On the contrary, the modern jihad has been dominated by viciously reactionary, chauvinistic and bigoted religious zealots who have waged sectarian war against the same ‘oppressed Muslims’ they are supposedly fighting for.  As all the world knows, some of these groups have committed gross atrocities and crimes against humanity, which Daesh has taken to a whole new level.

Where the International Brigades fought in defense of a revolution (some of them anyway), jihadism has often been a tool of imperial realpolitik or regional power struggles, national secret services etc. Nevertheless, that is not all there is to it.   Without the notion of pan-Islamic transnational solidarity, tens of thousands of  Muslims would not have fought in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya,  Kashmir, Iraq… and Syria.

Back in the 1980s, the Pakistani general Mohamad Yousaf described the volunteers who went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan as ‘the first Islamic international brigade in the modern era.’  Things have long since moved on from the ‘American jihad’, when all this was seen as a positive ‘freedom fighting’ phenomenon by western leaders, as I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone.    But I suspect that there are men – and women – who have gone to fight Assad in Syria with very similar motivations.

To recognize this does not mean that I regard  this movement as a positive or noble phenomenon, or that I place the organizations that they fought with on the same moral level as the International Brigades.   But it is absolutely indisputable that many Muslims who have fought in these wars were driven by their own form of internationalism, whether in response to Soviet or Indian occupation, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia or the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq.

To those who say that the International Brigades didn’t throw people off buildings or massacre civilians, well thank you for enlightening me.  But jihadists haven’t always done this either, and they didn’t always fight in these wars in order to be able to do so.   Not all of them wanted to murder office workers in the twin towers or kill ‘kuffar idolators.’

Read about the conflicts between Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam that gave rise to al-Qaeda and you can see entirely different conceptions of what the jihad was supposed to achieve – and the methods that would be used to achieve these aims..  That’s why I used the words ‘movement that ultimately spawned Daesh’

Read accounts of some of the Muslim volunteers who fought during the Afghan war in the 1980s or in Chechnya and you will find men motivated by the same idealism, loathing of injustice and oppression, and spirit of adventure that I once encountered when I interviewed veterans of the International Brigades nineteen years ago.

But on the other hand, maybe you don’t want to read or even think about any of this, and you would prefer to regard me as a supporter of fascism or  a ‘terrorist sympathiser’.   .

If so, good luck with that.  And you might accuse me of ‘disgracing anti-fascists’, but as far as I’m concerned, people who make such dim, dishonest and ignorant observations disgrace themselves.