Suppose I'm talking about international terrorism, and I say that we ought to stop it in Washington, which is a major center of it. People back off, "What do you mean, Washington's a major center of it?" Then you have to explain. You have to give some background. [The media] don't want people who have to give background, because that would allow critical thought. What you want is completely conformist ideas. You want just repetition of the propaganda line, the party line. For that you need "concision". I could do it too. I could say what I think in three sentences, too. But it would just sound as if it was off the wall, because there's no basis laid for it. If you come from the American Enterprise Institute and you say it in three sentences, yes, people hear it every day, so what's the big deal? Yeah, sure, Qaddafi's the biggest monster in the world, and the Russians are conquering the world, and this and that, Noriega's the worst gangster since so-and-so. For that kind of thing you don't need any background. You just rehash the thoughts that everybody's always expressed. That's a structural technique that's very valuable. In fact, if [the media] were smarter, they would allow more dissidents on, because they would just make fools of themselves. Either you would sell out and repeat what everybody else is saying because it's the only way to sound sane, or else you would say what you think, in which case you'd sound like a madman, even if what you think is absolutely true and easily supportable. The reason is that the whole system so completely excludes it. It'll sound crazy, rightly, from their point of view. And since you have to have concision, you don't have time to explain it. That's a marvelous structural technique of propaganda.
– Noam Chomsky
Residing as they do outside of the privately-owned mainstream of media debate, progressives are presented with a range of serious challenges in respect of communicating their opinions to the rest of the public. Privately-owned media act as a distorting filter, excluding vast swathes of rational thought from publicly expressible opinion wherever those rational thoughts contradict private interests. Within this framework, easily defensible statements will be held up to ridicule and rebuke because they are made only on grounds of rationality, and not within the assumptions preordained by the natural bias of private interest, to which rationality must be subordinate.
In the past its been necessary to defend progressive figures such as Ken Livingstone
, Noam Chomsky and others when rationally supportable statements they make have fallen foul of these obstacles. That defence, in turn, has been hindered by the same obstacles. But it was right to defend those people in those cases, no matter the difficulties. Free and open discussion of the facts is the oxygen of progressive politics. Progressives should not fear such a discussion, and when others do they should draw the appropriate conclusions. Equally – both in terms of the principle of defending the truth and the practical consideration of credibility - progressives should be rigorous in satisfying themselves of the moral case before mounting such defences.
In London, the parliamentary seat of Bethnal Green and Bow is being contested by anti-war candidate George Galloway, representing the progressive party Respect. He challenges the Blairite loyalist Oona King in what is usually a safe Labour seat and, despite the fact that Respect is not one of the UK's three main parties, his challenge is the one that concerns the incumbent.
Galloway is one of the anti-war movement’s leading figures and ought to be one of its greatest strengths. He is one of the best public speakers of his generation. He is a political veteran; knowledgeable, battle-hardened and experienced. Respect’s manifesto is decidedly lacking in material that any progressive can readily disagree with, and appears to offer a fresh start to those who reject the Thatcherite consensus.
Galloway is the sort of figure that is bound to fall foul of the media framework described above. Sure enough, few articles about him rise above a petty level of scorn and condescension. He was hauled over the coals by the media, and expelled from the Labour Party for pointing out that since the Iraq invasion was illegal, Iraqi troops attempting to repel the invasion were the only side fighting legally, and that British troops could legitimately refuse to obey their orders. This bald statement of fact had serious moral implications for the UK Government’s stance. Rather than consider those implications, much less be shamed by them, Galloway’s enemies accused him of treason. His conclusion was rational, but not acceptable to private interest. In his career, Galloway has come out on top of several legal battles against his more cynical detractors, among them the Daily Telegraph, The Christian Science Monitor, and his current electoral rival Oona King.
However, some of Galloway’s controversial statements have been genuinely problematic. In a piece for Sunday’s Observer – a piece that was decidedly dodgy in a number of respects – Nick Cohen reminded us of Galloway’s most controversial hour. In a meeting with Saddam in January 1994 Galloway had said to the dictator “Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability
There can hardly be any question that, standing alone, these words sound appalling. Since that meeting Galloway has said of the statement, “Yes, I regret that very much
”. He says he should have used the “old-fashioned Scottish word ‘yoos’, rather than ‘you ’,” to show his tribute was to the people of Iraq, and not to their oppressor.
Galloway’s supporters point out that at the time he was involved in a dialogue with Saddam intended to mitigate the effects of sanctions on the Iraqi population and to decrease the chances of further armed conflict with the west [click on ‘comments’ here]. These are goals it would be hard not to support, and if swallowing one’s pride and allowing the preening butcher some flattery would help in that respect…..well, greater crimes have been committed. But, whatever gains Galloway made must be balanced against the damage the controversy did to the reputation of the movement that was building pressure on the UK Government’s Iraq policy, and with which Galloway is associated. Was the flattery unavoidable? Was it necessary to present an open goal to anyone looking to paint opposition to the UK’s Iraq policy as support for the dictator? There are plenty of icons on the anti-war left - Pilger, Chomsky etc. – whose dedication is unquestioned and who never saluted the courage, strength and indefatigability of a mass murderer. At the least it raises a question mark over Galloway’s political judgement.
Another of Galloway’s more problematic statements is reported to have come in an interview with the Independent on Sunday. [I can find many copies of the quote, but not the original. If Galloway didn’t say this I’m of course happy to withdraw the following section
""He’s a hero. Fidel Castro is a hero."
He's a dict. . .
"I don't believe that Fidel Castro is a dictator."
I honestly can't think of anything to say to this.
"Fidel Castro is a great revolutionary leader. But for 40 years or more of siege, undoubtedly Cuba would have developed, democratically speaking, differently. But when the enemy is at the gates, spending billions to destroy the revolution, you have to accept that there will be restrictions on political freedoms in a place like Cuba."
You've met El Presidente, I take it.
"Yes. Magnificent. He’s the most magnificent human being I’ve ever met."
There’s no doubt of the social benefits the Cuban people enjoy, as compared to many of their regional neighbours, and this achieved under siege from the greatest power in history. As Seamus Milne noted in July 2003, “Cuba has achieved first world health and education standards in a third world country, its infant mortality and literacy rates now rivalling or outstripping those of the US, its class sizes a third smaller than in Britain - while next door, in the US-backed "democracy" of Haiti, half the population is unable to read and infant mortality is over 10 times higher…it has sent 50,000 doctors to work for free in 93 third world countries and given a free university education to 1,000 third world students a year
”. Had Cuba not repelled the sinister advances of its American suitor the island’s people might well have suffered the gruesome fate of others in the region; countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Panama where US-backed state terror of various descriptions inflicted bloodbaths reminiscent of the conquistadors’ worst excesses.
But Castro’s regime is still responsible for some pretty nasty human rights abuses, which are in no way excused by the far worse crimes of his enemies. Amnesty International reported last month that people “imprisoned for peacefully expressing their beliefs and opinions… [were] handcuffed and kept in tiny "punishment cells" infested with rats and cockroaches. …Prison guards reportedly stamped on the neck of Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, causing him to pass out during a beating last November while he was handcuffed. Another man, Luis Enrique Ferrer Garcia, was reportedly stripped and beaten by guards. …[The men] were arrested for “offences” such as publishing critical articles or communicating with human rights groups
As Galloway points out, Cuba is a nation under siege. When Britain curtailed its civil liberties during World War II there was a decent justification for that in the circumstances. But is it strictly necessary, in the interests of defending one’s country, to stamp on the neck of someone for “peacefully expressing their beliefs and opinions
”? And can the man ultimately responsible for such abuses seriously be described in such unambiguous terms as “a hero. the most magnificent human being I’ve ever met
An extremely strong case can be made for saying that Cuba is much better off (comparatively) under Castro than as a US client state, and this is demonstrated by Milne’s article. Contrast this with Galloway’s choice of terminology. The word “hero” is an unambiguous one, the term “most magnificent” a superlative. An absolute. If Galloway’s defence of Cuba is, like Milne’s, the result of a balanced cost/benefit analysis, then its seriously undermined by his use of language. Beyond the distorting prism of the mass media lies a public that Galloway must communicate with. Its had to see how unnecessary soundbites like this can help.
Similarly, this exchange came in a 2002 interview with the Guardian: “"I am on the anti-imperialist left." The Stalinist left? "I wouldn't define it that way because of the pejoratives loaded around it; that would be making a rod for your own back. If you are asking did I support the Soviet Union, yes I did. Yes, I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life. If there was a Soviet Union today, we would not be having this conversation about plunging into a new war in the Middle East, and the US would not be rampaging around the globe."
For progressives there is a rather simpler answer to the question “Are you on the Stalinist left?”. The answer would be “No, don’t be ridiculous. Stalin was a mass murderer”. Noam Chomsky demonstrated how to approach such questions when he said “If the left is understood to include 'Bolshevism,' then I would flatly dissociate myself from the left. Lenin was one of the greatest enemies of socialism, in my opinion, for reasons I've discussed
The second half of the quote suggests that Galloway might have been better off saying that “On balance, despite the hideous crimes it committed, one could argue that the Soviet Union at least restricted the designs of US imperialism, and was of course instrumental in defeating Nazism”. The rationale and the balance of the various factors involved would have been apparent, even if one disagreed profoundly with the conclusion. The second half of the quote sounds like this is what he might be trying to say, but if it is, he’s doing it badly. The statement “I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life
” is pretty unequivocal. It’s a quote that’s just aching to be taken out of context. In fact its very hard to avoid at least the suspicion that it wasn’t taken out of context at all. If it wasn’t, then its odious in the extreme. No one should have the slightest trouble in recognising the evils of American imperialism without supporting the blood-soaked dungeon that was the Soviet Union because it acted as a counterweight.
Nor does this tally with his saying that “The difference between me and Mr Bush and Mr Blair is that I am against all dictatorships all of the time, not just some dictators some of the time