White Helmets: who do they answer to?

The BBC Panorama programme, Jihadis You Pay For, revealed that the ‘Free Syrian Police’ (FSP) could not operate except by the leave of the terrorist brigades that together have a de facto monopoly of force within the areas they occupy. The BBC’s inquiry found that UK Government funding for the FSP has been making its way to the terrorists too. There is obviously a public interest in knowing why the UK Government has been allowing funds to go to terrorists. Kate Osamor MP has sent ten urgent questions in this matter to Boris Johnson, Secretary of State at the Foreign Office.

Informed observers meanwhile point out that the Panorama programme may have revealed only part of a bigger problem. One obvious and important question is, given that the Free Syrian Police are in practice answerable to the terrorists, what about the White Helmets? They work in the same environment and have no evident means of resisting demands for whatever tribute or service those with the weapons choose to exact from them. There is a direct public interest in this question given that the UK Government, along with others, provides substantial funding to them. (This has been confirmed by Boris Johnson himself.) If some of the funding to the FSP goes to the terrorists, why should we imagine that none is taken from the White Helmets?

To date, the mainstream narrative has maintained that the White Helmets are fiercely independent. If with respect to funding this is simply untrue, with respect to operational autonomy it seems implausible. What reason could there be to think that they have greater independence from terrorist command than the FSP does? Not only is it all but impossible to think how that could be the case, there is also evidence to suggest that the White Helmets in fact operate closely with the terrorists. According to the research carried out by independent journalists, and notably Vanessa Beeley, it even appears that some of the White Helmets themselves are and/or have been members of the terrorist brigades.

This is a question that seems to be quite scrupulously avoided by the mainstream media. But it is not lost on the members of the public who are paying attention. Our number is growing.

The public interest has a greater human concern than whether some funds are syphoned off.  The role of the White Helmets is not only to provide services on the ground in Syria; it is also to provide information to the rest of the world about what is happening in opposition-held areas in Syria.  If almost everything we think we know about the reality there is transmitted via the White Helmet’s organisation, and if that organisation itself is not autonomous of the terrorists, then what we can know may only be what the terrorists want us to know. That would mean our government is not only providing terrorists with support, it is effectively putting us at their service. As citizens and tax payers we should demand to know more from our government about such possible complicity in the terror inflicted on the people of Syria.

 

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Posted in BBC, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Syrian opposition, UK Government, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 4 Comments

UK Government Funds Terrorists In Syria?

On Saturday 2 December, Vanessa Beeley published an exposé, based on research in Syria, of how the UK government appears to have been financing terrorists. On Sunday 3rd December, The Guardian ran a story saying that reports of UK money reaching terrorists in Syria are exaggerated. The Guardian tells us that allegations of funds going via the Foreign Office to Al Nusra ‘have been described as “entirely inaccurate and misleading” by Adam Smith International (ASI)‘.  That company is a key source cited in this regard by the Guardian, and the company is certainly in a position to know, given its role in disbursing such funds.

In March this year, the Guardian reported that the same company, having ‘been entrusted with £450m in development cash since 2011, had tried to profiteer by exploiting leaked department documents. It was also heavily criticised for trying to “unduly influence” a parliamentary inquiry by engineering “letters of appreciation” from beneficiaries of its projects.’ The Guardian further noted that the Commons international development committee ‘said ASI’s actions were “deplorable”, “entirely inappropriate” and showed a “serious lack of judgment”.’ While the company took certain steps in response, the UK’s Department for International Development ‘said ASI’s problems were “fundamental and will not be solved with quick fixes”.

Serious questions therefore have to be asked about the funding sent by this route to Syria, and also about its purpose.  Such questions are due to be aired today, Monday 4 December, on BBC’s Panorama programme Jihadis You Pay For. The programme promises to reveal, from ‘hundreds of leaked documents … the shocking truth about one of the government’s flagship foreign aid projects’. It will reveal how ‘cash has ended up in the hands of extremists and how an organisation we are funding supports a brutal justice system.’

Meanwhile, Andrew Mitchell MP, the former international development secretary, ‘warned against the BBC jumping on an “anti-aid bandwagon” and not taking into account the risks and difficulties faced’ by those trying to maintain order in areas held by opposition forces.

The innocent reader could be forgiven for wondering how the provision of funds to terrorists could come under the umbrella of ‘aid’ or ‘development’ in the first place. The Foreign Office tells us that this sort of scheme is “intended to make communities in Syria safer by providing basic civilian policing services”.  Without entering into detailed consideration of the character of law and justice as administered by the ‘Free Syrian Police’ (FSP), it suffices to note Mitchell’s own admission that ‘it was inevitable the FSP would come into contact with extremist groups’, and yet he maintains ‘that complexity should not deter the UK from involvement.’

‘Complexity’, of course, is quite a euphemism, judging by the findings from Syria that have been relayed by Beeley.  But the admission of the former minister is itself telling enough as, in effect, he seems to be saying: don’t expect the recipients of UK funding not to be connected with terrorists.

Meanwhile, another question that might be asked is whether ‘aid’ is really even the ostensible objective.  For the Foreign Office (quoted by the Guardian) seems to offer a different rationale: “We believe that such work in Syria is important to protect our national security interest”. Exactly how funding a police force allied with terrorists in a foreign land protects UK security interests is a mystery. One might anticipate that the contrary could be the case, as a number of us suggested earlier this year.

It rather seems that those defending the UK government’s policy here are in damage limitation mode in the face of the growing exposure of what is really happening on the ground in ‘rebel-held’ areas of Syria.

If only efforts could instead be deployed in avoiding and remedying the severe damage that the UK has been complicit in inflicting on the people of Syria. Perhaps as the inconsistencies in official narratives become increasingly apparent to an ever wider public, we can hope that the taxes we pay may yet be redirected to more constructive ends.

 

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Posted in BBC, disinformation, Guardian, journalism, media, Syria, Syrian opposition, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 1 Comment

Reporters Without Principles?

Anybody who pays critical attention to outputs of corporate news media will be aware that the idea of a free press, while lauded in principle, is scarcely actualised in practice. A further worrying development is that the very principles animating the idea are apparently being called into question by an organisation that purports to defend them.

Protecting press freedom is supposedly the purpose of Reporters Without Borders (RSF). There has been concern for some time that RSF serves this mission in a selective and politicised fashion.[1] In line with its funding stream, it directs particularly critical attention to regimes that Washington disapproves of, while giving allies an easier ride.[2]

If that is not bad enough, however, this past week has seen the organisation attempt actually to curtail press freedom.

In a letter to the Swiss Press Club, RSF issued a protest against an event due to be held by the Club on 28 November 2017. RSF tried to pressure the Press Club into cancelling the event, which is dedicated to critical investigations into the activities of the White Helmets in Syria.[3]

To his great credit, the Club president, Guy Mettan, has resisted this pressure, condemning it as ‘a grave attack on freedom of speech’.[4] He notes that it is unprecedented for an organization defending press freedom to try to censor a conference.

I believe we should be grateful for the courage, integrity and principles of Guy Mettan. There is an important public interest in airing these questions. The attempt to suppress them underlines its importance.

The White Helmets are themselves at the heart of an extensive public media campaign that manages information reaching Western publics about events in Syria. While the coordinated media outlets portray them as humanitarian heroes, it is widely understood that the truth is more complex, and perhaps darker. Certainly, even the most casual acquaintance with White Helmets publicity material, like the Netflix film about them, raises certain questions. For instance, how would a Western film team manage to roam with impunity in an area into which journalists were unable to venture due to proven risk of kidnap, murder, or beheading? Or if no independent crew in fact ever ventured there, how could they be sure of the authenticity of what is shown? Another curiosity is that in films and videos about them, white helmets seem so often to be rescuing babies whose mothers are absent. A further puzzle – given the tens of thousands of Syrians reportedly rescued by them – is why we don’t hear much testimony from grateful civilians.

But there are more directly disturbing lines of question too. The kind of evidence that independent investigators have turned up potentially implicates White Helmets in grave crimes. The speakers at the Geneva event are likely to draw wider public attention to the available evidence and its implications.

It is clearly in the public interest to understand as fully as possible the role of the White Helmets, particularly given that a great part of all media communications about Syria originates from their organisation (which is funded by the foreign governments that RSF seems to be aligned with).

The attempt to suppress dissemination of investigations by independent journalists with detailed knowledge of the subject is a clear attempt at censorship. It is a particularly targeted kind of censorship. Given the track record of RSF as pressing the geopolitical agenda of Washington, an obvious inference to be drawn is that Washington has a vested interested in protecting the White Helmets from scrutiny. That interest appears to be strong enough for an organisation whose entire reputation rests on protecting press freedom to be willing to sacrifice its most fundamental purpose.

Evidently, much is at stake in protecting White Helmets from critical investigation.

So a final comment is in order about the wider context. Over the past year we have witnessed an unprecedented degree of unbridled hostility and unsubstantiated criticism levelled by press and politicians against Russia.  If there is one thing we have already learned from the reaction of RSF to the Swiss event it is this: whatever propaganda Russia may or may not be putting out, the West’s own press ‘watch dogs’ are prepared to defend Western propaganda, even at the cost of press freedom. Anybody who is seriously worrying more about Russia today than about the corporate control of our media might ask themselves how well they really understand what is going on …

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RSF’s publicity material leaves little room for misunderstanding about its stance.

 

Notes

[1] Salim Lamrani (2005) ‘The Reporters Without Borders Fraud’ https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1125

Diana Barahona (2005) ‘Reporters Without Borders Unmasked’ https://www.counterpunch.org/2005/05/17/reporters-without-borders-unmasked/

Diana Barahona, Jeb Sprague (2006)‘Reporters Without Borders and Washington’s Coups’ http://www.voltairenet.org/article142922.html

Tim Anderson (2008) ‘Cuba and the “Independent Journalists”’ https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/cuba-and-independent-journalists

F. William Engdahl (2010) ‘Reporters Without Borders seems to have a geopolitical agenda’ http://www.voltairenet.org/article165297.html

[2] In the mid 2000s persistent investigations into RSF’s funding sources revealed, with an eventual reluctant admission, the central role of the National Endowment for Democracy. ‘Former U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, created the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in 1983, during a period in which military violence took the place of traditional diplomacy in order to resolve international matters. Thanks to its powerful ability of financial penetration, the NED’s goal is to weaken governments that would oppose the foreign hegemonic power of Washington.’ (Lamrani 2005) https://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/1125

[3] RSF’s letter to Guy Mettan (Swiss Press Club Director)
Geneva, November 23rd, 2017,
Dear Sir,
We are aware of the event organized by the Swiss Press Club on November 28th: ​​”They do not care about us”. About white helmets true agenda. “We were also challenged on our” support “for this conference, with the name of our organization appearing in the list of media members.
We totally dissociate ourselves from this event and do not wish to be associated with a conference that welcomes a so-called journalist, Mrs. Vanessa Beeley, who justifies the use of torture by the Syrian regime in order to preserve it. She has never been published in an independent media, it is surprising that it is referenced at least two hundred times in the Russian media propaganda (SputnikNews, Russia Today).
Moreover, it is unacceptable to invite Mr Marcello Ferranda De Noli, president of Swedish Doctors for Human Rights, an association that we believe is acting as a tool of Russian propaganda. It is likely that you have not been aware of these items of information, we have the appropriate links to this effect.
Anyway, we invite you to abandon this project which will damage the image of the Swiss Press Club. Depending on your decision, we reserve the opportunity to study to keep our membership card.
Looking forward to hearing from you, Mr Director, dear Sir, our best regards,
Gérard Tschopp and Christiane Dubois

[4] Reply to RSF from Guy Mettan, Geneva Press Club

“On one hand, this seems to me, to be a grave attack on freedom of speech and in total contradiction with the “liberty to inform and to be informed everywhere in the world” that RSF pretends to defend in its charter and which appears in all its letter-heads.

I have never seen anything like it. An organization defending press freedom is telling me to censor a conference. This kind of pressure to cancel press conferences usually comes only from countries known to be dictators, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt or Bahrain. This is the first time such a demand has come from an organisation defending journalists, from a democratic country! It goes without saying, I will not be following up. That would be to dishonour a profession that I hope you still adhere to!

Rather than practice censorship, I propose that you participate in this press conference, as I have also suggested to the White Helmet supporters, and to pose questions that you find useful to the speakers. For my part, applying the principles of openness and the search for truth that characterizes the Press Club since its foundation, I am naturally ready to welcome a press conference with the organisations that support the White Helmets so they can put across their point of view. So far, they have not responded.

Regarding the personal attacks that have been levied at our colleague Vanessa Beeley & M De Noli. They are a shame on journalism.

Finally, I am forwarding to you, some of the many messages I have received from all over the world, supporting the initiative and reassuring me that the freedom of expression is just as under attack among us as it is under the “dictatorships” that you claim to denounce.” Translation: http://members5.boardhost.com/xxxxx/thread/1511540138.html

 

Posted in disinformation, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 8 Comments

Remembrance

It is customary in my country, on Remembrance Day, to wear a red poppy to commemorate the fallen in war, with donations channeled to dependants and veterans. To observe remembrance is a mark of respect. For many, it is also an expression of gratitude.

Some people, however, decline to observe the tradition, on principle. They may believe that war should be lamented, not tacitly condoned. Some will stress that not only on active service are people killed or harmed in wars. Many children, women and men are innocent victims of the combatants commemorated with poppies. Celebrating the poppy could look like acquiescing in a deceptive idea of war as a noble activity allegedly in service of a free and democratic society.

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As for poppy revenues to support the survivors, surely anyone who sacrifices life, limb, or family provider, for the sake of their country, is owed much more than a token donation once a year.

Although I choose not to wear a poppy for a cluster of reasons like those, I would not criticise others who do wear one, or try to persuade them not to. What does seem to me a fitting response to Remembrance Day is to seek to widen our horizons and to remember so much more.

Yet the scale and depth of the horrors of war being perpetrated around the world, and in so many places – relentlessly continuing even in the very moment you read and I write this – defy human imagination. Each and every one of the inumerable lives lost is of a person like you or me, or any of our loved ones.

In the moments of quiet reflection, as symbolised by our two minutes collective silence each year, each of us will be drawn into our own more personal remembrance.

My twentieth century forbears who suffered and died for the cause of war are remembered now as relatively distant victims of that evil racket.  I feel today more keenly the pain of those whose loved ones were so lately ripped from them.

For they shall grow not old as we that are left grow old.

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Age shall not weary them.

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Nor the years condemn…

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And in remembering them, is there proud thanksgiving? Those of us whose regimes support the bringers of death – the firers of mortars, the assassins, the terrorists – we have no grounds for pride. The humanity in us would have us bow our heads before the families of those cruelly taken, as we honour their right to be proud and thankful for the loved ones they now must mourn.

Commemorated in the photographs

Noor and her baby boy Riad were sister and nephew of Ghoufran Derawan, a teacher and journalist living in Damascus. They were killed when a Damascus restaurant was struck by a terrorist mortar. On the morning that I contacted Ghoufran for permission to post the picture, a terrorist mortar exploded outside her house. Some streets away, another mortar had just struck yet another restaurant, with lethal effects. Why do killers that our nations support with money, arms and training target restaurants and residential areas?

Serena Shim, the journalist, reported for Press TV on the smuggling of Western arms from Turkey to Syrian terrorists. Shortly afterwards, she died in unexplained circumstances. Can any bearers of arms, even in legitimate forces, claim greater courage than is shown by those rare few who seek and expose the truth, even in the face of lethal threats?

Abdullah Issa, a twelve-year old boy, was beheaded by the men in the photograph moments after it was taken. Those men are supported by NATO and Gulf states as ‘moderate rebels’. How did we come to have people like this as our allies?

Remembering those who remain

The custom is to observe two minutes silence in remembrance of those lost to the world. Let us also remember those who survive. Here is a message that has lived in my heart ever since hearing this boy from Aleppo, speaking after its liberation from the control of the terrorists. He is telling the rest of the world what he would wish for us:

 

Thanks go to Ghoufran Derawan, Carla Ortiz and all those in Syria, and their friends beyond, who have held firm to the inestimable value of human life.

 

Posted in journalism, remembrance, Syria, UK Government, Uncategorized, war | 3 Comments

Syria’s Moderate Opposition: beyond the doublethink

Moderate political opposition does not involve or support taking up arms against the government, let alone against unarmed fellow citizens. This proposition would be treated as self-evident in our own country, so why are people seemingly ready to discard it when talking about Syria? Some who do so aim thereby to claim legitimacy for wishing ‘regime change’ upon that country, even if with little regard to the costs or actual benefits to citizens in Syria. Others who do so perhaps just don’t reflect carefully enough.

The fact is, the mainstream media narrative for more than six years now has involved what George Orwell called Doublethink.[1] The oxymoronic notion of moderate armed opposition actually came to be settled upon as the media’s euphemism of choice after earlier designations had failed to carry conviction. Initial suggestions of a ‘democratic uprising’ became hard to sustain as an armed minority of fighters, many foreign, were manifestly terrorising swathes of the population. In any case, the idea of an uprising has application to particular events rather than to a process of definite political change. Some people have spoken of a Syrian ‘revolution’. However, even aside from the point that a revolution is usually an alternative to moderate opposition, the most cursory comparison with actual popular revolutions – think of Cuba, for example – reveals this to be misleading. The revolutionary change most credibly attempted in Syria – and through violent, not moderate, means – would install some form of sectarian regime whereby the tolerant secular society of Syria would be transformed into something more like Saudi Arabia. The other popular locution ‘civil war’, even if inaccurate as a description,[2] at least has the merit of including a term that cannot be confused with moderation: war.

As a political philosopher I would sum up these points quite simply: moderate political opposition does not seek to overthrow the political constitution. It aims to achieve its goals by using constitutional means. In the event that specific constitutional changes become a political goal, any legitimate strategy for achieving this will have the approval of a clear democratic majority. I make these points because I cannot see how a cogent discussion of political opposition in the Syrian context can proceed without heeding them. I am not saying political opposition has to be moderate; I am simply saying we need to be clear in understanding when it is or is not.

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It is not my purpose – any more than it is my place, or within my competence – to make substantive comment on particular political proposals that are, or could be, advanced by oppositional groups in Syria. These are matters for Syrians to decide. What I am commenting on here is the battle of ideas as it is being waged outside Syria, in our media, by politicians, by academics and amongst wider publics. Confused ideas can lead to poor political assessments. When political proposals demonstrably depend on doublethink, they can be criticised on that basis,[3] with the aim of reducing confusion, enhancing clarity, and promoting constructive and realistic dialogue. Public opinion might then be mobilised in support of more appropriate foreign policy objectives in relation to Syrian politics than would otherwise be the case.

 

Was there originally a popular demand or appetite for regime change as found expression in the protests of 2011?

Today we hear less talk of a ‘moderate’ demand for regime change in Syria than we once did, but is this simply a result of its being silenced through oppression and attrition these past six years and more? Could it be argued that the opposition’s turn to violence only eventuated because more moderate methods of seeking political change were crushed?

In the early years of the millennium, a sense that reform was possible encouraged increasing engagement in opposition politics. A high point was reached with the ‘Damascus Declaration’ of 2005. This cited principles of pluralism, non-violence, and opposition unity in a call for establishment of a democratic national regime by means that would be ‘peaceful, gradual, founded on accord and based on dialogue and recognition of the other.’  The aim was to create ‘a Constituent Assembly that draws up a new Constitution for the country that foils adventurers and extremists, and that guarantees the separation of powers, safeguards the independence of the judiciary, and achieves national integration by consolidating the principle of citizenship.’ However, the diverse groups involved were not able to maintain that spirit of unity, and it broke down fairly quickly, on what were perhaps predictable lines (see, for instance, Tim Anderson in Ch4 of The Dirty War on Syria). So there was a demonstrable will for political change, but there was not similarly clear agreement on what that should mean.

We know that there are commentators, critical of mainstream accounts, who argue that the story of a popular revolution were always a deceptive embellishment of a more moderate grain of truth;[4] we also know that there are independent voices that offer a similar view.[5] What is worth emphasising, though, is that even commentators who have come to be associated with a strongly ‘anti-regime’ position showed themselves at the time to be quite clear-sighted on the point.[6] For instance, Robin Yassin-Kassab wrote of the March 2011 protests that ‘motives for each of these events have been different and the groups themselves are disorganised and lack unity.’ He also observed that the ‘Muslim Brotherhood are scattered and with their base in London … are by and large a spent force. Domestically they hold little credibility and are not trusted.’[7] This is not to deny that a degree of political discontent was indeed at large in various Syrian communities, with many people fed up with a lack of basic freedoms, lack of opportunities, and corruption among those associated with the state. Yassin-Kassab did not foresee the makings of a significant confrontation, however, and he noted:

‘the regime is today too enmeshed with the people. There is an almost, dare I say, legitimacy, that the regime enjoys as far too many average people are interlinked with it through marriage, business, employment et al. There is a certain “we are all in it together” attitude that has survived from the 2005 crisis that Syria experienced with the West. The vestiges of this alliance exist still.’

The political reforms that were quite widely desired included abolishing the state of emergency and creating a fair and transparent judiciary so as to foster ‘an atmosphere that will allow a new generation of Syrian thinkers and politicians to emerge and to hopefully fulfill the role of a credible and legitimate opposition.’ The hopefulness Yassin-Kassab expresses was based on his appreciation of ‘a space in Syria’s political arena, and a historical precedent, for experienced political leaders that have shared the burden of rule to advise and criticise in Syrian politics.’ In keeping with such hopes in reform, as distinct from revolution, was the ‘deep unease that many Syrians today feel about the protests’. Yassin-Kassab quotes a friend from Deraa, the town whose protests are deemed to have sparked the wider Syrian uprising, saying ‘that few want revolution and many fear disorder and chaos.’[8] ‘Everyone wants change, but they want orderly change.’

This was a view widely accepted within academia too, where it was understood that the opposition lacked leadership or organized parties. Raymond Hinnebusch offered this assessment:

‘it is uncertain whether a viable opposition exists. Aside from their shared belief that the regime is the source of all problems, the interests of well-off external exiles and the deprived foot soldiers of the rebellion hardly seem congruent.’

Hinnebusch also stressed a fundamental point that is impossible to miss without deploying doublethink:

‘Any new government in Damascus will therefore be confronted with the same policy dilemmas and limited options that faced Asad’s, and will struggle to find better or even different answers to Syria’s intractable problems.’[9]

While hostile voices depict President Assad as the problem in Syria, the reality seems to have been – then, as now, and like it or not – that he is the person best placed to tackle the problems in Syria. Those problems, it has further to be recognized, have been severely added to and exacerbated by all the foreign interventions aimed at overthrowing him. How support for these could be regarded as being in the best interests of Syria and its people is a matter that takes doublethink to imagine.

 

What are the aims of moderate opposition today?

If it was already clear at the outset that there was not a viable alternative ‘regime’ waiting in the wings in Syria, how do matters stand today? Regarding the question of the present Syrian government’s legitimacy, an important reference point cannot be ignored. In 2014 the Syrian people had an opportunity to vote. Obviously conditions were not ideal, but the vote was meaningful in relation to our question. It produced a clear victory for Bashar Al-Assad. He won 10,319,723 votes – 88.7% of the vote – with a 73.42% turnout.[10] Western observers did not challenge those numbers or allege voting irregularities. It is true that voting could not take place in opposition-held areas, but participation overall was so great that even allowing the improbable assumption that the whole population under opposition control would have voted against him, they would still have had to accept Assad as legitimate winner. If that was the popular will in 2014, is there any reason to suppose it has shifted significantly since then? The available evidence, I would suggest, tends to reinforce the view that the Syrian people place greater importance on ridding terrorist violence from their land than seeking a different leadership.[11]

Even Western enemies of Assad have recently been acknowledging – with whatever degree of reluctance – that political change in Syria should not be thought to involve peremptorily ousting him from power. The idea that applying external pressures to internal divisions could force regime change in Syria[12] has been overtaken by recognition in US intelligence circles that there is no moderate secular alternative. The likely outcome of deposing the president, it is now understood, would be a radical regime. This could lead to protracted sectarian conflict and continued terror for the wider population without even necessarily furthering the US’s own interests.[13] So any credible non-sectarian opposition must now take a genuinely moderate approach. What this entails, in terms of detailed arrangements, is a matter for Syrians to work out.

Nevertheless, there are certain questions that the wider global public has a legitimate interest in. These concern allegations of serious human rights abuse on the part of the government against individuals or minorities amongst its people. What are we to make of them? Syrians are aware that political prisoners have been brutally treated by personnel within the state security forces.  If the government nevertheless retains a remarkable degree of support from citizens who have remained in Syria it may be because they share the sort of view that is articulated by this email correspondent:

‘does [Syria] have a notorious history in torturing in jails? Yes, arguments if they were few or many. Did some people lose their lives in Syrian jails under torturing acts? Yes. It happens in crisis times (like in the 80’s after the Muslim Brotherhood fighting era). Were some of these victims innocents? Yes, but not as exaggerated.’

I do not think this correspondent would make light of the horrors some of his or her fellow citizens have been subjected to. It is just that s/he also has some contextualised awareness of the scale of the horrors that the war for regime change has triggered. Nor does the correspondent think the problem should simply be attributed to ‘the Assad regime’:

‘Syrian governments pre the Assad family ruling were doing the same acts of torturing. I want to say that these horrible acts are not because of the Assad family…. We have enough examples of what Syrian terrorists (fighting opposition gangs) did to whoever they captured from Syrian soldiers in the last 5.5 years ago, they murdered people under torture and in front of cameras. … all the old atrocities in Syrian jails were like a piece of cake compared with what they practiced under Nusra, Da’esh, and the rest of the terrorists.’[14]

As I have shown elsewhere, accusations that the ‘Assad regime’ has been peculiarly prone to widespread abuses of human rights rest on questionable evidence. I came to be writing on these matters in the first place due to discovering the extent of a mismatch between the actual research carried out by Amnesty International, for instance, and the scale of extrapolation and sheer inventiveness involved in some of its most shocking reports relating to Syria. A comparable problem of credibility I found in reports of Human Rights Watch and of the various monitoring organisations that were created, it seems, specially for the purpose of producing damning claims about the Syrian government.

Clearly, when political leaders themselves are egregiously in violation of constitutional and political norms, it can hardly be ‘immoderate’ to press for their removal from office by means of due process. But due process necessarily involves a scrupulous and impartial approach to evidence.

Prior to 2011, credible reports – including those of Amnesty – suggested that while there was certainly a human rights problem in Syria, its scale was contained. The scholar Joshua Landis, writing in 2004, found that ‘Syria has a much better human rights record today than most countries of the Middle East, if not the best.’[15] He made the point that ‘there is no reason for Washington to vilify Syria while it holds up countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey as good allies and gives them a pass on human rights violations. They are all worse than Syria when it comes to detaining prisoners for political reasons and reasons of conscience. Some are a lot worse.’ He even suggested that ‘Bashar should be given credit for an important achievement in emptying Syria’s prisons of its long held political prisoners and for trying to heal the wounds of his country’s mini civil war. He has reached out to the banned Islamic groups, even as he has conceded very little political ground to them. Syria has managed the complex ethic and religious diversity of its population with surprising success.’

It is difficult to get objective information on developments since 2011, in a period during which the government has had to engage in warfare against multi-national insurgent forces of particularly ruthless kinds, but one thing we know is that the government has not been fighting against ‘moderate political opposition’. The more obviously oxymoronic euphemism, ‘moderate armed rebels’, requires doublethink to apply in any circumstances, and certainly in Syria – as Ricardo Vaz explains here.

Camille Alexander Otrakji, writing at the end of 2014, sets the question in perspective: ‘Before the events of 2011, serious torture existed, in small numbers, in Syrian prisons. Humiliation (often bordering on torture) was widespread.’ He adds that ‘one would expect that with all the violence Syria is experiencing after 2011, the number of those arrested and tortured has significantly increased.’ It is repulsive, he affirms, and has to stop. He does remind us that the US and many of its allies use torture and that Syrian opposition “rebels” frequently torture soldiers and civilians they capture. Nobody is justified doing it, but nobody can simply accuse one party while disregarding the others’ comparable guilt. He points out that the opposition activists feted in the West ‘rarely complained at their free army’s routine torture of those they captured. Their outrage at torture (or violence in general) is highly selective’.  ‘Most Americans believe torture was justified after 9/11 (where 3,000 Americans died). In Syria we have a savage war… 200,000 Syrians died. It wouldn’t be surprising that today many Syrians also believe torture (by their favorite side of the conflict) is legitimate. This corrupting of people’s values takes place during conflicts and the best way to confront it is to end those conflicts’.[16] In Otrakji’s view, ‘When the conflict ends, the two easiest starting points for those looking for positive momentum for a reforms process are 1) ending torture and 2) fighting corruption … I am confident that a large majority of Syrians will enthusiastically call for both.’

It appears, then, that the genuinely moderate political opposition in Syria, and in exile, is reconciled to accepting that the primary goal is to restore government order across the whole country rather than to support efforts to undermine or destabilise Syria’s government. This means accepting, for the duration, the legitimacy of the current president’s rule.

 

Why is doublethink so pervasive in the West?

What, then, of the small but vociferous groups of opposition supporters who engage in campaigning activities under the rebel flag in the West? A first observation I would make concerns that flag itself. To replace a national flag by another is ipso facto a radical statement of defiance, not allegiance, to the existing constitutional order. On the definitions I am assuming, this cannot be regarded as moderately oppositional. The moderate opponent wants to be the one rallying the people under the flag, not someone who tears it down. To fly the rebel flag is subversive and what insurgents do, not what citizens do in the course of normal politics. Thus, within Syria, we see that those who rally to that flag are closely aligned with the terrorist factions that are promoting a sectarian alternative to the Syrian secular state. idlib In the West, that affiliation may be obscured and obfuscated, but only because, away from the front line, there is no particular cost incurred by indulging in doublethink. But it is doublethink to cast the ‘regime’ as enemy of the people while siding with factions that treat people so brutally that nobody who is not clearly aligned with them even dares set foot in areas they control. This doublethink simply disregards how the great majority of the people in Syria look to the government as protector against those who gather under the opposition’s flag.[17] On the front line, you can’t fudge the issue. If you oppose the Syrian Arab Army, drawn from the body of Syria’s citizens, you are on the side of Salafists, Wahhabis, and terrorists of various stripes.[18]  For other possibilities to open up, the fighting must first stop; and it will not stop as long as external forces continue trying to impose ‘regime change’ on a resistant nation.

Doublethink permeates the external opposition supporters, who appear to embrace quite actively the Western media’s massive disinformation campaign in support of ‘regime change’. Doublethink is egregious in the proclaiming of such political ideals as freedom and democracy while expressing support for the ‘rebels’ who control areas like Idlib, particularly given the oppressive nature of their rule. Nowhere is doublethink more astounding than with regard to the position of women. In the west we find women alongside the men, waving green flags, protesting against the Syrian government and haranguing its supporters. It is hard to believe they actually want for Syrians freedom of the kind their allies in Syria are imposing in the places under their control, where the women are obliged in public to be covered and quiet, and where challenges to the warlords’ authority can be met with summary ‘justice’ of horrific kinds.

cpfoikswcaa3pp9.jpg

Clarissa Ward for CNN in rebel-held area. (The ironies appear unintended.)

What about those sections of the Western public that passively support the opposition, largely because of what they have uncritically absorbed from the media? What about those among them who might view the waving of the rebel flag as politically progressive? What about those sections of the commentariat that are implacably ‘anti-Assad’ and apparently not open to putting into discussion his alleged crimes against humanity? This group includes ostensibly critical thinkers like Owen Jones, Paul Mason, George Monbiot, and even the leaders of the UK Green Party. As far as I can tell, members of this section of opinion formers have not carried out independent research and they appear not only quite ready to accept the mainstream narrative but also to be rather open to persuasion by active opposition campaigners.[19]

That is why I am making the case for clarity at the level of basic conceptualisations. Once a tale has been repeated often enough, it acquires the status of an established truth for many of its hearers. This is something the seminal propagandist Goebbels knew well, and something the modern PR industry – which includes all the mainstream news media – has well learned. People in general, it seems, are persuaded more effectively by repetition than by evidence.

As long as no particular consequences follow from holding contradictory beliefs, then for people without any strong compulsion towards truth-seeking, it may be convenient just to allow their cognitive cohabitation.

That is why I feel an obligation to write on the subject. I write not as an expert on politics in Syria but simply as a human being who is concerned about how the world might become more peaceful and just. Part of that aspiration involves taking a more earnest and respectful attitude towards questions of truthfulness. This can never be achieved by allowing oneself to remain trapped in doublethink.

 

Thanks go to Tim Anderson, Andrew Ashdown, Bill Purkayastha, Piers Robinson, Jay Tharappel, and all the many friends of Syria who have helped me try to understand.

Notes

[1] Wikipedia sums it up: ‘Doublethink is the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinct social contexts. Doublethink is related to, but differs from, hypocrisy and neutrality. Also related is cognitive dissonance, in which contradictory beliefs cause conflict in one’s mind. Doublethink is notable due to a lack of cognitive dissonance—thus the person is completely unaware of any conflict or contradiction.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doublethink

[2] See, for instance:  https://journal-neo.org/2015/12/28/syria-its-not-a-civil-war-and-it-never-was/   http://theduran.com/syrian-conflict-not-civil-war-but-war-of-aggression/   https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20150314-syria-proxy-war-not-civil-war/     [See also references in note (4) below.]

[3] In the background of the analysis here is the thought of a significant difference between double thinking and dialectical thinking. Both involve dealing with contradictions, and both allow the hypothesis that the two sides of the contradiction could both be true. Where they differ is in their way of dealing with that hypothesis. Double thinking means granting it without further examination. This can be illustrated by reference to the parable of the blind men and the elephant: having never encountered an elephant before, each blind man learns what one is by touching a part of it, but because each touches a different part, each forms a completely different idea of what the whole thing must be. A double thinker is likely to take this to illustrate why it is ok to maintain apparently contradictory propositions with regard to a particular dispute – it all just depends on your point of view at the time. A dialectical thinker will take it to show contradictions can sometimes arise from the basis of partial understandings and that there is more to discover before anyone can make any general inference on the subject. Until different points of view can be reconciled, we should not attempt to draw any general inferences. Thus, where the blind man’s elephant can serve as an alibi and refuge for the scoundrel, it acts as a stimulus for more probing investigation of the dialectician.

[Doublethink is the passive, indifferent and impotent acceptance of unresolved contradictions; dialectical thinking is the determination to settle or transcend contradictions. (Cognitive dissonance is the name given to the psychological condition experienced by people who cannot quite achieve either method of dealing with contradictory pieces of knowledge that they cannot simply disregard.)]

The idea that we cannot really choose between different perspectives is never very consistently maintained in practice, since people usually settle on a particular position; it is just that abstention from dwelling on opposing considerations is felt to absolve them of a need to justify their position very rigorously. It also allows them to say that, really, things are so very complicated. In fact, there are some who use complicatedness itself as an argumentative strategy against critical questioners, especially questioners who can be demonstrated to ‘know less’. That is why I emphasise throughout that I certainly know less, but it is not merely the quantity of knowledge that matters. To learn, in intimate detail, the road leading South, for instance, is to little avail if you have missed the more basic point that you were supposed to be heading North.

[4] See Stephen Gowans, Washington’s Long War on Syria (Baraka Books, 2017) and Tim Anderson, The Dirty War On Syria (Global Research, 2016). See also, for example: https://gowans.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/the-revolutionary-distemper-in-syria-that-wasnt/ https://sarahabed.com/2017/08/15/syria-2011-a-four-month-timeline-of-the-western-manufactured-uprising/  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8prwbWLa7f0  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XIEeZ3WOVsI

[5] Camille Alexander Otrakji, interviewed in 2011, https://qifanabki.com/2011/05/02/camille-otrakji-syria-protests/ described the situation in these terms: ‘I believe that a clear majority of Syrians support many of the demands of the peaceful protesters. On the other hand, only a minority of Syrians are willing to risk destabilizing their country in order to try to achieve full regime change after a painful drawn-out conflict. You might disagree with me if your impression of the state of the protests movement is the product of Aljazeera and BBC Arabic endlessly looping some bloody clip of the day and creating an impression that victory is near for “the Syrian people” who are demonstrating against their despised tyrant. … Despite weekly calls from opposition figures for millions to demonstrate, based on the numbers of people we have seen in the streets of Syria thus far, it is clear that less than 1.0% of the country (about 150,000 Syrians) has joined the protests. … And yet western governments, the Syrian opposition, and the media covering Syria are all enthusiastically and casually using the term “the Syrian people” … which is a very serious distortion of the facts. … No one reported that for weeks Syrians were demonstrating each night in many cities supporting their President. … The only time millions demonstrated in Syria was the day Assad’s supporters went to the street in most of Syria’s large cities. …

In addition to distorting the true size of the protests movements, everyone seems to overlook the fact that unlike Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Syria’s protestors have mostly been men. “The Syrian people” include women too, as you can see from the pro-Assad demonstrations. Why didn’t any of those Western financed women rights organizations express any concern after seeing tens of all-male demonstrations so far?’

‘There are many groups who are trying to destabilize the regime. You have the regime change activists overseas, who are financed by various American programs that the Obama administration continued to finance despite seeking better relations with Syria. And you have American technologies that allow you to manipulate anything online. For example, you can help generate virtual members among some of the 150,000 that the Syrian revolution 2011 page on Facebook is proud of.

Then there are many Salafists around the country, guided by Syrian, Saudi, or Egyptian religious leaders. And it is possible that some of the four anti-regime billionaires might be trying to stir the pot for their own, different, reasons … most Syrians would much rather see some meaningful reforms undertaken in a peaceful fashion over the next five years under the current regime, instead of trying to sweep the regime away and dealing with the prospect of sectarian civil war. If Bashar were to sign several laws: (1) permitting the formation of political parties; (2) lifting the tight censorship in the press; (3) and modernizing and limiting the role of the mukhabarat (intelligence services), I believe that 80% of the Syrian people would be fully on board with that. They would say to the opposition: “Thank you very much for your courage. You did a valuable service by giving the regime a ‘cold shower’. But now we’ve had enough of the protests and we want to go back to work. We will give Bashar the benefit of the doubt, until the next presidential election.”’ He also emphasises the sheer complexity of Syria, and people’s awareness of its implications: ‘We have Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Druzes, Kurds, Armenians, and various other ethnic and confessional groups. We have tribalism. We share borders and complex political ties ad history with Lebanon and Iraq, two of the most volatile countries in the region. We are in a state of war with Israel, and we are a central member of the Iranian-Hizbullah-Hamas axis that puts us in the crosshairs of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. All Syrians are aware of their country’s vulnerability to instability, which is why the vast majority are genuinely supportive, or tolerant, of the current regime, even if they are restless waiting for more reforms.’

If you read the older posts on the Syrian Revolution Facebook page (before they got a facelift and professional PR help), you wouldn’t believe how much religious language you find, and also how much deception there is. They were trying to whip up sectarian hysteria, to radicalize Syria’s Sunnis so as to bring down the regime.’ https://qifanabki.com/2011/05/02/camille-otrakji-syria-protests/

[6] A collection of references are supplied here http://handsoffsyria.blogspot.co.uk/2016/06/the-cause-and-instigation-of-war-on.html : ‘leaked and declassified US cables and emails have demonstrated that this proxy war for regime-change was in the planning from before the end of 2006, with the documents citing the use of false propaganda, incitement of sectarian division, and the use of terrorist proxy forces to achieve the toppling of the Syrian government for the benefit of Israel, among other reasons.’ The drafting of plans, however, goes back much further than 2006. Already in 1983 we find a CIA intelligence briefing in which the strategy for fomenting internal divisions for regime change was set out http://www.investigaction.net/en/1983-cia-syria/ .

[7] Robin Yassin-Kassab, ‘Syria Shakes’, Pulse, 23 March 2011 https://pulsemedia.org/2011/03/23/syria-shakes/

[8] Robin Yassin-Kassab, ‘Now Syria’, Pulse 21 March 2011 https://pulsemedia.org/2011/03/21/now-syria/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+pulsemedia+%28P+U+L+S+E%29

[9] Raymond Hinnebusch, ‘Syria: from ‘authoritarian upgrading’ to revolution?’ International Affairs, 88(1) 2012: p.113 https://www.academia.edu/17146516/Syria_from_authoritarian_upgrading_to_revolution

[10] I give details and references for these statements in my earlier blog post: https://timhayward.wordpress.com/2017/01/23/amnesty-internationals-war-crimes-in-syria/ From the result we can reasonably infer that the people of Syria saw in the current leadership their best hope for unifying the country around the goal of ending the bloodshed. As I suggested in the earlier blog, it is interesting to reflect on how the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen could be right in saying the election was no normal ‘act of politics’: for Bashar Al-Assad has always been clear in statements and interviews that his position is inextricably bound up with the Syrian constitution.  His remarkable steadfastness of purpose he presents as a commitment to defending his country’s constitution.

[11] I don’t think this is controversial, but some relevant discussions include these: https://dissidentvoice.org/2014/08/as-foreign-insurgents-continue-to-terrorize-syria-the-reconciliation-trend-grows/ http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/syrian-opposition-has-always-been-clear-1124183845 http://21stcenturywire.com/2017/09/23/syrian-opposition-motivates/  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuog5AqE4SU&app=desktop  http://sana.sy/en/?p=103658  https://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2017/02/21/everything-you-need-know-about-latest-syria-peace-talks https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/201701311050216226-syrian-constitution-full-text/ http://theduran.com/reflections-astana-imperfect-settlement-unnecessary-conflict/ A particularly poignant first person account of disillusion at the failure of revolution is that of ‘Edwin Dark’ writing in 2013 of ‘How We Lost the Syrian Revolution’: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/05/syria-revolution-aleppo-assad.html

[12] The crucial briefing of 14 September 1983, classified secret – ‘Bringing Real Muscle to Bear Against Syria’, by Graham E. Fuller – was released 2008 and can be downloaded from the CIA reading room. [See also note [6] above.]

[13] http://grahamefuller.com/asad-vs-regime-of-warring-jihadis/ This article is forthright about the catastrophe that Syria has become and about US responsibility for it.

[14] The correspondence continues: ‘Many Syrians today blame Bashar al-Asad of being “Too Good” and “Naive” in dealing with the crisis. Hafiz was tough against the Muslim Brotherhoods (MB) terrorism in (1979-1982), and many innocent people died while crushing the MB movement, and many innocent people went to jails, but that toughness saved Syria for 3 decades and makes it one of the most secure countries around the globe. … Bashar is a very humble person. … he has his father’s stubborn’s genes for sure. That was so obvious in the current crisis, and he used that trait in defending Syria and Syrians, not in torturing them.’ [Reproduced in Vanessa Beeley, ‘An Honest Response to the Criminally Hypocritical Western Cries of “Torture”’, 21st Century Wire 25 Oct 2017 http://21stcenturywire.com/2017/10/25/honest-syrian-response-criminally-hypocritical-western-cries-torture/ .]

[15] http://joshualandis.oucreate.com//syriablog/2004/08/is-syria-holding-fewer-political.htm

[16] http://creativesyria.com/syriapage/?p=580

[17] Merrit Kennedy ‘U.N.: More Than 600,000 Syrians Have Returned Home In 2017’, NPR 11 August 2017: ‘Aleppo governorate saw the highest number’.

[18] It is possible to engage in fine differentiations, doctrinal and behavioural, between the various radical oppositional groups involved – and there are scholars who do so – but what the various factions have in common is far more significant from the point of view of the generality of citizens in Syria. If those groups are lumped together as terrorists it is for the simple reason that this is how they conduct themselves. To complain that this disregard of differences between armed opponents lacks nuance, as certain scholars may do from the comfort of their distant studies, would strike people in practice as morally vacuous. From the point of view of ordinary Syrian civilians who do not want any form of Islamist alternative to the secular Syrian state it is also politically inconsequential. How far removed from the lives of ordinary Syrian citizens must an academic commentator be if he can say things like ‘Libya-style state collapse is preferable to Syria-style state survival’? ‘Preferable’ for someone with no skin in the game, perhaps, and an inexplicable value system. One thing for sure, it is not a sentiment that is consistent with supporting moderate opposition. And if such scholars discern that some Jihadi factions are ‘more moderate’ in certain specific senses than others are, this does not make any of them remotely moderate as political opposition. For they aim at the overthrow of the secular system of government that the majority of people want to keep.

[19] Philip Roddis has written an interesting discussion of Jones and Monbiot as representatives of this particular tendency: http://steelcityscribblings.uk/wp/2017/05/07/universalism-in-an-unfair-world/ . I myself have engaged Monbiot in debate about Syria (here and here) as well as expressing concern to UK green leaders; Mason has not wanted to respond to questions and blocked me on Twitter when I tried to engage him. A particularly interesting case exhibiting the quality of research of this section of opinion formers is the decision by Jeremy Scahill and then Owen Jones to withdraw from a platform on which Mother Agnes was also due to appear. Scahill was persuaded to withdraw by tweets from well-known and vigilant anti-Assadist ‘narrative correctors’ as can be seen in a Twitter thread of 13 November 2013. Following Scahill’s withdrawal, Jones followed suit (for more on which, see also Roddis; while Jones’s own account is here).

Posted in disinformation, doublethink, political philosophy, propaganda, Syria, Syrian opposition, Uncategorized, war | 39 Comments

Bana and Censorship

Personally, I would wish for the child a life of normality out of the public glare. Bana’s parents and their associates, however, have wished instead to maximise her public exposure. In this, they have had the support of publishers, media, politicians and celebrities, notably J K Rowling.

As citizens, and as parents, people will all have their own views on this.  What citizens and parents will not necessarily be able to do, however, is express those views with complete freedom in public; nor will they be able to inform them as fully as a free society would permit.

Anybody who wants to think and say things that conform to the carefully managed narrative from the authorised channels remains free to do so. Anybody who seeks to question it in public is liable to be censored. All critical reviews of Bana’s book, for instance – and I personally saw scores of them when they were first submitted – have simply been deleted by Amazon. But that is the least of it.

Two previous blogs I wrote on Bana (here and here) provided introductions to video reports by Khaled Iskef. These featured visits to the apartment where the Alabed family had lived, and they demonstrated how this was at the heart of the terrorist quarters in the Eastern part of Aleppo. The journalist interviewed local residents who told of the appalling treatment meted out by those terrorists and described how nobody would dare even to take a photo in that part of town, let alone maintain a running conversation with all and sundry in the wider world. He presented evidence to suggest that the paternal side of Bana’s family was closely involved with the terrorists.

Those videos have been removed from Khaled’s Channel on Youtube. The grounds for the removal, apparently, are not that they are false nor that they are defamatory but that they contravene privacy.

As said at the outset, I would be entirely in favour of Bana having privacy.  For although all the other children who remain in Syria, or who have fled in more difficult circumstances, should perhaps command our greater sympathy, Bana is still, after all, just a child. However, given that an authorised version of her story is being given maximum publicity, the pre-emptive silencing of attempts to correct its omissions or falsehoods would be a blatant attack on freedom of expression.

If you can be prevented from seeing Iskef’s videos, or from critically reviewing Bana’s book, I dare say you may one day be prevented even from reading blogs like this. Certainly, bloggers and commentators with a higher profile than mine are already reporting dramatic falls in traffic due to filtering on search engines and social media. Increasingly, it seems, any unauthorised versions of current affairs are being flagged as fakenews or spam.

At present, those who know there is something to look for can still track down videos like those of Khaled Iskef. But how will people in the not too distant future even know they might be missing something?

For myself, I have to say, whenever I encounter PR featuring Bana smiling sweetly, I cannot help but feel worried.  Only a little because of her lack of privacy, but a very great deal because of the ruthless privation of free public space that this campaign participates in.

Khaled censored

 

Posted in disinformation, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 1 Comment

Who’s Afraid of Conspiracy Theory?

‘Conspiracy theory’ is frequently used as a derogatory term, a term of disdain and implicit criticism. An effect of this is to discourage certain kinds of legitimate critical inquiry. But surely, in a world where conspiracies happen, we need good theories of what exactly is happening. The only people who really have anything to worry about from conspiracy theories are conspirators who stand to be exposed by them. For the rest of us, if someone proposes a far-fetched theory, we are instinctively sceptical; if they propose a theory that accounts for some otherwise unaccountable occurrences, they may be helping us learn something.

ollie_and_brendan

Of course, people can sometimes be misled by conspiracy theories, but people are misled by the beliefs that conspiracy theories challenge too. This betokens a need for careful scrutiny of controversial contentions quite generally. Obviously, a conspiracy theory is only a theory unless there is also proof. But it is one thing to demand the truth of a theory be proven; it is quite another to pronounce that such a theory can never be accepted as true. Unfortunately, even academic critics fail to observe that clear distinction, with some of them going so far as to condemn conspiracy theories in general, pre-emptively.[1]

Yet what are denigrated as ‘conspiracy theories’ are quite often legitimate lines of inquiry pursued in a spirit of critical citizenship, with the aim of holding to account those who exercise otherwise unaccountable power and influence over our lives, including in ways we are not all always aware of.

My argument, then, is that a kind of inquiry that can be intellectually respectable and socially necessary is far too readily sidelined with the categorisation of it as ‘conspiracy theory’. However, since the name has stuck, I propose we should embrace the designation and push back from the sideline to show how it is possible to engage in conspiracy theory using credible methods of research.

The problem that concerns critics, in fact, is a kind of extravagantly speculative activity that involves believing untested hypotheses. This can appropriately be called conspiracism.[2] Conspiracism designates a fallacious mode of reasoning that reduces questions of explanation to posited conspiracies, without properly investigating the evidence. Conspiracists are prone to see conspiracies everywhere, and to believe what they think they see, without giving sufficient consideration to alternative explanations. What is wrong with conspiracism, though, can be specified by reference to standards of inquiry set by good conspiracy theory. So the two things could hardly be more different.

a-conspiracy-theory-has-surfaced-positing-that-the-cia-assassinated-jfk-over-ufosIt is especially important to be aware of the difference, given how it has been effaced in public discussions. Early ideas about a ‘conspiracist mindset’, from Harold Lasswell and Franz Neumann, informed Richard Hofstadter’s influential study of the political pathologies of the ‘paranoid style’ in the 1960s. This association of conspiracy suspicions with irrationality and paranoia was then actively promoted in the United States, especially, and as Lance deHaven Smith notes, ‘the conspiracy-theory label was popularized as a pejorative term by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in a propaganda program initiated in 1967.’[3]  The program, created as a response to critical citizens’ questions about the assassination of J F Kennedy, ‘called on media corporations and journalists to criticize “conspiracy theorists” and raise questions about their motives and judgments.’ Its reach has extended greatly since.

Professor Peter Knight of Manchester University, who heads a major international interdisciplinary research network, funded by the European Union, to provide a comprehensive understanding of conspiracy theories, takes it to be a now generally accepted fact that ‘some of the labelling of particular views as “conspiracy theories” is a technique of governmentality.’[4]

So who’s afraid of conspiracy theorists? Is it possible that certain governments want us all to be?

It is interesting to note that Professor Knight thinks that if serious conspiracy theories can sometimes be on the right track, then perhaps what they are finding should not be thought of as conspiracies. For instance, he writes, ‘it is possible that different parts of the labyrinthine U.S. intelligence agencies were involved with some of the 9/11 attackers in contradictory and ambiguous ways that fall short of an actual conspiracy, but which nonetheless undermine the notion of complete American innocence.’ The point is, those contradictions and ambiguities merit study, whatever they are called. Knight’s tantalizing idea of an ‘involvement’ that ‘falls short of an actual conspiracy’ brings me in mind of analogous definitional questions that were raised about Bill Clinton’s descriptions of his  ‘involvement’ with a White House intern. Good sense suggests that what people are interested to know is what happened, not what someone calls it. Ultimately, the serious conspiracy theorist – or theorist of conspiracies, as Knight puts it – wants to know what is going on, and hypotheses about ‘involvements’ of all kinds can figure in the inquiry.[5]

We should bear in mind too, that the very name of this field was bestowed upon it by those who sought to pre-empt its development. Its actual practitioners might think their activities could be more aptly designated in one or more of a number of other, albeit less catchy, ways, such as, for instance, critical civic investigation, intellectual due diligence, investigative journalism, critical social epistemology, or critical social theory.

Which brings me to my main reason for speaking out in defence of the activity: as citizens we find ourselves increasingly struck by anomalies and inconsistencies in official and mainstream accounts of public affairs, not to mention in matters of foreign policy. But whenever we try to share our concerns in a public forum, there seem to be people there ready to harangue us with put-downs about being crazy conspiracy theorists. The reason why they do this is something I shall reflect on another time.[6] My point for now is that we have been drawn to conspiracy theory for reasons that are very far from crazy.

Islamic-State-Training-Camp-6-HP

Notes

[1] There is a marked tendency in certain literatures to take this generalized approach to conspiracy theories. Several philosophers – including David Coady, Charles Pigden, Kurtis Hagen, and Lee Basham – have commented critically on it, with Matthew Dentith, in particular, criticizing the failure of such approaches to consider the possibility of finding merits in particular conspiracy theories. He provides examples of ‘generalist positions which take the beliefs or behaviours of some conspiracy theorists as being indicative of what belief in conspiracy theories generally entails.’ (Matthew Dentith,  ‘The Problem of Conspiracism’, Argumenta, [forthcoming in 2017]) An example is Douglas and Sutton who state that ‘in the main conspiracy theories are unproven, often rather fanciful alternatives to mainstream accounts’; they also argue that conspiracy theorists are likely to believe conspiracy theories because they are more likely to sympathise with conspirators. (Karen Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton, (2011) Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire’, Psychology, 50(3), 2011: 544-552.)

[2] On this, I endorse the recent exposition offered by Matthew Dentith (ibid): ‘recent philosophical work has challenged the view that belief in conspiracy theories should be considered as typically irrational. By performing an intra-group analysis of those people we call “conspiracy theorists”, we find that the problematic traits commonly ascribed to the general group of conspiracy theorists turn out to be merely a set of stereotypical behaviours and thought patterns associated with a purported subset of that group. If we understand that the supposed problem of belief in conspiracy theories is centred on the beliefs of this purported subset – the conspiracists – then we can reconcile the recent philosophical contributions to the wider academic debate on the rationality of belief in conspiracy theories.’  He identifies the challenge I am arguing we need to take on: ‘Typically, when we think of conspiracy theorists we do not think of people who theorised about the existence of some particular conspiracy – and went on to support that theory with evidence – like John Dewey (who helped expose the conspiracy behind the Moscow Trials of the 1930s), or Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (who uncovered the conspiracy behind who broke in to the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate office complex in the 1970s). Instead, we think of the advocates and proponents of weird and wacky conspiracy theories … .’

[3] Lance deHaven Smith, Conspiracy Theory in America, University of Texas Press, 2013: p.21; see also Chapter 4 passim.

[4] Peter Knight, ‘Plotting Future Directions in Conspiracy Theory Research’, in Michael Butter and Maurus Reinkowski, eds, Conspiracy Theories in the Middle East and the United States, Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014: p.347.

[5] ‘Involvements’ amongst people can include any of the typical elements of conspiracy such as collusion, collaboration, conniving, tacitly understanding, secretly agreeing, jointly planning, acquiescing, turning a blind eye, covering up for, bribing, intimidating, blackmailing, misdirecting or silencing, and many other more nuanced kinds of arrangement.

[6] In a third blog of this series I shall be asking ‘Do we face a conspiracy to curtail freedom of expression?’ Meanwhile, the second will be a discussion of ‘Conspiracy theory as civic responsibility’. A full academic paper comprising extended versions of each of these will be available shortly. (And yes, for afficionados who are wondering, there will be a full response to proposals of ‘cognitive infiltration’ to ‘cure’ us. I may even suspend my reputed politeness…)

 

Posted in bullshit, conspiracy, conspiracy theory, disinformation, inter-media, journalism, media, political philosophy, propaganda, Uncategorized, war | 10 Comments