The Paranoid Style in Below the Line Comments
In 1964, Richard Hofstadter published a marvellous essay, “the Paranoid style in American politics”, which still, regularly, gets referenced. And with good reason, for a rollicking burst of lucidly written sanity it is, too.
Today, it’s often quite common to link the growth of conspiracism back to this or that real world event – the assassination of Kennedy has often been a favourite, beloved of film makers and comedians like Bill Hicks alike. Some watershed (or Watergate) moment that leads people to question everything “sceptically” blah blah blah.
One could quite easily get behind the idea of Hoftstadter being a documenter of this first emerging, the essay was, after all, published nearly a year after the death of Kennedy. Unfortunately, this idea falls flat when you realise that it’s based on a lecture that Hofstadter delivered the day before Kennedy had his date with fate (1) .
Hofstader’s work, a cursory glance at the history of 1800s Europe, or dipping into some well chosen fiction – Eco’s “The Prague Cemetery” would be a good place to start – reminds us that Kennedy’s Assassination/Watergate/Contragate/September 11/Iraq are merely stopping points along the way, and the virus has been with us a while longer.
What is true, however, is that each of the above events feeds into the swirling mess that is paranoid thinking. “Facts” are presented as “truth”, and on top of this, other “facts” are built. A wild game of “if, then, if, then” is played. Consider the case of Syria as represented below the line in the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” section.
Springtime for Assad and Syria
One would think the case of Syria is pretty straight-forward, if somewhat messy and very bloody.
Bouyed up by the “Arab Spring” and encouraged by vague gestures towards “moderation” from Bashar Assad, the hereditary dictator of the state, democracy activists take to the streets. The authories clamp down on them rather brutally (there’s some vague noises occasionally made that the clampdown was provoked by agent provocateurs amongst the crowd firing on the authorities but generally no evidence is presented. There’s also noises that the clamp down wasn’t Bashar’s fault, but that of the regional governors. Because he’s a NICE hereditary dictator, you see).
This clampdown provokes more protests, which provokes more brutal crackdown, which provokes the beginnings of insurrection, which provokes more crackdown, which provokes bloody civil war.
The rebels appeal to the West for aid. The west sits on its hands, mainly due to Russian backing for the regime, but also because they have a little credibility hangover from Iraq.
The civil war drags on. Certain arab states start supporting certain – shall we say, not quite Benjamin Franklin style – elements of the rebellion. The west starts supplying aid to the rebels.
By this point, the rebels (or at least, significant proportions of them) have radicalised out of justifiable feelings that they have been betrayed by the West, and are busy carrying out atrocities – although not quite to the level of the regime’s according to every single reputable study of the situation – and Bashar is a bit gleefully blood happy. 150,000 deaths later, an alleged chemical weapons attack by the regime finally pushes the West to the brink of doing something. What, we don’t know. Whether it will work, or is wise, we don’t know.
That’s pretty much the story as far as most reporters involved tell it. There are occasional suggestions that the CIA or some variant was more involved at the start, suggestions that the radicalised elements of the rebellion are all “Al Qaeda BACKED BY THE SAUDIS”, and that this is a proxy war with Iran. Some of these claims appear to have an element of truth, some of them seem to be exaggeration, some of them are a fantasy based around the journalist in question reading one too many books about “the Great Game”.
That isn’t, however, what Guardian commentors believe. Unique in the world in knowing precisely what is going on despite not having been to the area, gorged with “facts” from such bastions of truth as Russia Today and Press TV, the Guardianistas believe the CIA are behind it all.This is, of course, the ur-fantasy of the Guardianista, or would be, if “Mossad are behind it all” didn’t exist.
They believe there is an alliance between Al Qaeda (2), Israel (3) , the US, Israel (3) , the military industrial complex, Israel (3) , Saudi Arabia, Israel (3) , the UK, Israel (3) , Qatar, Israel (3) , France, Israel (3) , Turkey (5) , and, last but not least, Israel (3) , with the aim of fighting Iran via Syria.
They believe the blueprint for intervention in Syria could be found in remarks Wesley Clarke made in 1996. Or 2001. Or 2003. We can’t quite remember which. Or the output of the Project for An American Century. Or in some conversation two years ago 2 British ministers had with Roland Dumas, who was a French foreign minister in the early 90s (6) .
They believe that Vladimir Putin is wisely keeping the peace in the Middle East, by opposing UN resolutions. He’s keeping the peace by selling arms to the Syrian government by the bucketload. This is a bad thing when the west do it with Israel, opposing the UN resolutions against the government (I agree!) but when the Russians do it, and then oppose UN resolutions against the government in question, it’s statesmanlike (7) .
It’s all about the oil, stupid (9)
It’s all about the gas pipeline, stupid (11)
We have no right to judge because Winston Churchill gassed the Kurds (12) or because America bombed Hiroshima/Nagasaki/used Agent Orange in Vietnam (14).
It was all a “false flag” operation, orchestrated by Al Qaeda, Mossad, the CIA or all three (15)
It’s all intended as a distraction from Edward Snowden or the NHS/benefits reforms (17)
“We need a new left, the old one is cracked”
The truth is, emboldened by Iraq, enraged by decades of policies they disagree with, large portions of the liberal-left have lost touch with reality. They’ve plugged themselves into the conspiracist mainline and have found, online, companions in their belief system, all happy to confirm any bias they so desire. Every piece of news they receive reinforces it, because they go to the places that exist to reinforce it – a lie travels half way around the world before the truth checks it’s twitter account.
Hence Guardianistas are still quoting a Mail story about a security firm’s hacked emails revealing the US was planning a chemical “false flag” attack even after the Mail has been forced to pay over £100,000 in damages as the story was proved baseless. (18) They’ll still – a full 20 years after it’s been proven not to be true – be talking of Iraq being a “client of the west”, and that “we sold him all his arms”. (19) Every conspiracist mutter on Press TV gets immediate attention, is treated as though it is the word of god from on high. (21)
And the Guardian panders to it. With every click bait article from every authoritative sounding pundit who hides the occasional wild and woolly conspiracist speculation in the long grass of throat clearing, with every screed of anti-american invective aimed at the world’s lowest highest common denominator readership, the “anti-elitists” who feel themselves as above the herd of sheeple for “seeing through the lies”, it panders to it.
There are coherent, sound reasons for not getting involved with Syria’s conflict. I don’t know where I stand on it, I’m still torn on the issue, but I recognise the worth of them just as I recognise the worth of the arguments for intervention, and the basic “we’ll make things worse” argument is high up there in the anti-camp. You don’t NEED much else more than that. Stick to that. Please. Because the posters using it as an excuse to trot out every anti-American and Anti-Israel trope, an excuse to wallow in irrationality and idiocy, vileness and dictator lauding, conspiracism and cant, always claim to be part of the left, and that doesn’t sound much like the left I’m from.
“Comment is Free, but Conspiracism is Profitable”, as CP Scott never put it.
(1) When I quickly researched the essay before sitting down to write this, I had a spooky moment when I realised “Oh my god, it was the DAY BEFORE”. Read too many comments in the Paranoid Style and your mind starts working in the Paranoid Style.
If this fact had been mentioned in a Guardian article, I’m pretty sure the responses would include one that says “AND its NO surprise that HOFSTADTER (Can we guess anything from the surname????) delivered a lecture attacking TRUTH tellers the day before the ZIONIST MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX killed JFK because he wanted A JUST PEACE FOR PALESTINE! JOIN THE DOTS SHEEPLE”.
(2) Al Qaeda, of course, as Guardianista could tell you, both “don’t exist” and “are a creation of the CIA”. Both these factoids have smidgens of truth behind them – Al Q is mainly a branding organisation, rather than a hydra-headed terrorist monster, and they probably wouldn’t have existed were it not for the affect American intervention through the CIA had on Afghanistan.
Neither, of course, is mainly true either. And it’s quite hard to gel the “Al Q don’t exist” comments on any thread about terror threat in the West, with the “Al Q are a creation of the CIA” comments on any thread about Afghanistan, with the “Syrian rebels are all Al Q” comments on any thread about Syria. Often made by the same people, without a smidgen of irony or self awareness.
(3) Despite Israel’s interests in having a stable regime next door – one that is, say, “secular” and tied into the regional power-blocs and that they’ve had an uneasy peace with for decades – Israel is apparently gleefully hopping into bed with Islamist cannibals with the aim of completely destabilising THE COUNTRY RIGHT NEXT DOOR TO THEM, and sending in shedloads of munitions to boot (4).
I did think – initially – that I was being too harsh with the comedic repetition of (3), so I went and had a quick gander on the comments to a couple of articles today. When I reached 50 completely gratuitous references to the duplicity of the Israelis, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t. Israel looms large in Guardianista demonology and the reasons aren’t simply as straightforward as “anti-semitism”.
I’d argue the vast majority of Guardianistas aren’t anti-semitic. What is noticeable though, is that the ones who aren’t do tend to have an awfy tin ear for the dog-whistling of the ones who are…
(4) The latest variant of “Israel are behind it all” has surfaced quite recently, powered by articles by ever more worringly conspiracy minded, cough, I mean “Respected former ambassador” Craig Murray, in which he reveals that the Israelis have granted exploratory rights to a company – WHOSE SHAREHOLDERS INCLUDE ROTHSCHILDS AND MURDOCH! JEWS, YOU SEE – to frack on the Golan heights.
This trifecta of three of the Guardianista’s most favouritest bogeymen could only be improved if the site manager was Michael Gove, the site was named in honour of Margaret Thatcher, and all the profits went straight to Tesco via Goldman Sachs.
(5) Turkey, apparently, intends destabilising the country next door to them, despite said country having a sizeable Kurdish minority who could – should central authority fall away – ally with Iraqi and Turkish Kurds to carve out a new state at the expense of, well, Turkey. And Turkey are doing this in alliance with Israel, who they have fallen out with, and Al Qaeda, who have bombed Turkey on several occasions.
(6) The veracity of the above is never doubted. For example, the Clarke quote comes from his 2003 autobiography, in which he was reporting an alleged conversation in 2001. General Clarke left his post under a bit of a cloud, and was running as a candidate against the sitting administration, and named no names. He stated a plan in place to invade 7 countries in 5 years and, to date, 12 years after his alleged conversation, one of these countries has been invaded. General Clarke later stated in 2007 that “New York money men” (guess what that’s code for, kids?) were pushing America into war with Iran. You’ll recall the great American invasion of Iran in 2007….You can find – if you wish – 6 reasons in those 6 facts to doubt the basis of his claim.
The Project for an American Century publish all their position papers. They’d be a bit stupid as conspirators. They are a think tank.
Roland Dumas hasn’t been a minister for 20 years, was massively implicated in corruption charges, opposed the Iraq war, and had a relationship with the Gadaffi regime, so why anyone thinks British ministers would seek him out to give him the nod about secret plans to invade Syria is not known. It’s as though we thought Neil Hamilton was being sought out by French ministers to tell him of their plans for Mali. And the above “evidence” doesn’t explain why Obama has spent 2 whole years avoiding military engagement in Syria if he and his “controllers” were so gung ho to go in.
(7) No mention is made regarding peace-loving Putin, who unlike the US government isn’t crazily Islamophobic (8) , and his peace-loving behaviour towards Muslims during the Chechen war.
(8) A given in any discussion regarding the Middle East. The west operate out of venality, hypocrisy, lust for oil, to protect their masters Israel, and hate for brown people. No exceptions.
(9) The US gets a grand total of 12.9% of its oil from the Persian Gulf, the vast majority of which comes from Saudi Arabia (8.1%). Oil from its northern and southern neighbours – Canada, Mexico, Venezuela – accounts for over 3 times the amount from the Gulf. As does home produced oil. African oil is only 2% behind the Middle East.
The US are not currently plotting any wars against Canada, Mexico, Nigeria or Texas. Although with the latter, it’s surely only a matter of time.(The Syrian oil fields, by the way, have allegedly 2.5 billion barrels. Or less than a hundredth of Saudi Arabia (10) ).
(10) A variant of this is the “was going to take their oil off the petro-dollar” theory, last heard about Libya. The fact that oil is a fungible resource, and therefore it matters not one iota, not the teeniest jot, what currency you sell your oil in has escaped the attention of those who believe this.
It’s one of the hoariest conspiracy theories in the modern world, and has been floating about since at least the 80s. Norway has started trading it’s oil in Euros, and the last I checked, the US hasn’t even batted an eyelid.
(11) A gas pipeline the Americans wanted to build was somehow the cause of the Afghan war. 12 years on, no such pipeline has been built. Almost as though a war ravaged landscape isn’t the place for infrastructure projects on a massive scale! Now, there’s apparently the same deal over Syria, oh I dunno, you go find out this guff.
(12) Only he didn’t – he gave authorisation to use tear gas on Kurdish rebels (not nice in the slightest, but it’s interesting in reading his reasoning, which is to cut down on loss of life. Winnie had fought in the trenches, doncha know).
This never happened, due to logistics (and due to a shock and awe style bombing campaign doing the trick, rather more unpleasantly than tear gas), but I’m baffled by the logic that says “because 1 man authorised the use of tear gas 90 years ago, we can’t comment on the use of Sarin gas today” (13).
(13) A variant of this was, of course, “we had no moral authority to judge Saddam Hussein because we were allied to him 20 years previously”. Whilst I concur wholeheartedly that the alliance of convenience with Saddam was disgusting (if not, actually, as important to Saddam as is claimed), I don’t think the rest follows.
As I recall, we were allied to another strong man with a moustache and a much worse human rights record, and sent him convoy upon convoy of supplies for 4 years whilst we fought a war with someone more unpleasant still. I don’t think because we were allied with Uncle Joe in 1941, we “had no moral authority to judge him” in 1961. Do you?
(14) The fact that the bombing of Hiroshima (vile behaviour, and utterly condemnable, objectionable, indefensible though it was) occured nearly 70 years ago, and the last attacks on Vietnam occured over 40 years ago somehow strips America of any moral leadership. Meanwhile, Germany – for staying out of Gulf War 2, and for making noises about the current situation – is a moral exemplar. We needn’t remind people what happened in Germany roughly the same time as the bombing of Hiroshima. I don’t claim it strips Germany of any rights to comment on the modern world whatsoever – to think otherwise is at best punishing for the sins of the father – but it’s interesting that this punishing of the sins of the father extends to the US and not to Syria, where the actual dictator’s father, Assad Major, indulged in a very messy bit of genocide less than 30 years ago. Something his son appears to be following in the footsteps of.
(15) The amount of proven “false flag” operations in history is bafflingly small compared to the amount of “false flag” operations Guardianistas believe occurred. Even the most widely quoted – the Gulf of Tonkin incident – turns out to be an actual hostile engagement followed by a great deal of ass-covering. (15)
(16) Mossad are the reigning heavyweight champions of the Comment is Free “false flag” Olympics, only a short step away from being blamed for enacting the Holocaust in an attempt to garner sympathy for the not yet born Israeli state. Oh, wait, a variant of that accusation has been made? Mmmmhmmm. I wonder how long it will take to end up on CIF.
(17) Dude, there are people dying here. Maybe ditch the parochialism a little.
(18) Normally, Guardianistas would be reporting this gleefully as the Mail being shown up. As it is, they have closed their eyes and repeatedly report the original, incorrect, story.
(19) Hussein was his own man. A cursory glance at who armed him would see that the “client” role doesn’t quite fit – mainly eastern bloc for the conventional weapons. Mainly France and Germany for WMD, as well as a grab bag of countries such as Austria, Singapore, Luxembourg, Portugal, Egypt, Malaysia, China, Niger (20) .
(20) Despite all the Guardianista flourishes about the military industrial complex, nobody ever seems to connect “Countries that supplied Iraq with weapons and WMD precursors” with “countries that opposed the Iraq war”.
So, on the above list? We have yes, yes, yes, No, No, No, yes, yes, yes. So step forward Singapore, Luxembourg and Portugal – either as hypocritical as Amerikkka, or not motivated by venality. Delete where appropriate.
(21) The word “sceptical” has never sounded more devalued than when used on the Internet. A disturbingly large majority of posters on CIF will angrily comment on the “bias” of the “MSM” (on whatever issue bothers them), and then link to a website that – if it isn’t conspiracist guff – usually just mimeographs a Russia Today or PressTV story.
But, of course, this doesn’t count as “MSM”. State run broadcasters with their own agenda are a source of rage in the UK (“BIASED BBC, HOW DARE YOU INVITE FARAGE ON AGAIN????”), but they’ll happily swallow anything the propaganda wing of an authoritarian state churns out. Not big on recognising cognitive dissonance, the CIFers (22) .
(22) See also Glenn Greenwald’s articles – who could publish an article claiming the NSA were planting unicorns as spies in his wardrobe, with absolutely no backing evidence whatsoever, and would be greeted by at least 100 “Stay Strong Glenn” responses within minutes.
(I’m not going to provide any link here. Just go read the comments under any one of his columns. It’s alarming how worshipful they are)