British MP George Galloway starts his US speaking tour this week, promoting his book “Mr Galloway Goes to Washington”. Since a great many of my readers are from the US I thought I'd update and re-post an article I wrote on Galloway during the UK general election campaign. Here it is...
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, for example Noam Chomsky during the Faurisson affair, 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. The faults within, or absence of, such a case can cause serious and unnecessary damage to the ability of progressives to communicate with the largely apolitical masses.
In London, the parliamentary seat of Bethnal Green and Bow is held by anti-war candidate George Galloway, representing the left-progressive party Respect. Galloway is one of the British 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 caused a sensation in the US in the spring of 2005 when he clashed with Republican Senator Norm Coleman at a Committee hearing in Washington over Galloway's alleged role in the oil-for-food scandal. The protective bubble of post-9/11 deference around the US government was emphatically broken by the combative MP as he tore into the bloody record of his accusers, comparing in damning terms his stance on Iraq to theirs and that of their colleagues. His performance was greeted with euphoria and adulation in many parts of the US left. In September 2005 he began a tour of the US, promoting his book “Mr Galloway Goes to Washington” and speaking in major cities across the country.
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 British 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 UK Government policy. 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 state-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 recent electoral rival Oona King.
However, some of Galloway’s controversial statements have been genuinely problematic. Galloway's opponents never fail to remind us of his most controversial hour. In a meeting with Saddam in January 1994 Galloway 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 has said that 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. He has not explained, as far as I’m aware, why one would address the people of Iraq as “Sir”.
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. 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 a movement that was building pressure on the UK Government’s Iraq policy, and with which Galloway was, and 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 have managed to struggle through their whole careers without ever saluting the courage, strength and indefatigability of a mass murderer. At the very least this raises serious questions about Galloway’s political judgement.
Another of Galloway’s more problematic statements is reported to have come in an interview with the UK's Independent on Sunday.
""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 that many of the Cuban people enjoy, as compared to many of their regional neighbours, and this achieved under siege from the greatest power in history. Writing in the UK Guardian in July 2003 Seamus Milne noted that, “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 human rights abuses which are in no way excused by the far worse crimes of his enemies. Amnesty International reported in March 2005 that people “imprisoned for peacefully expressing their beliefs and opinions… [had been] 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 those measures under the circumstances. But is it strictly necessary, in the interests of defending one’s country, to stamp on someone's neck for “peacefully expressing their beliefs and opinions”? And can the man ultimately responsible for such abuses seriously be described, quite unambiguously, as “a hero… the most magnificent human being I’ve ever met”?
An extremely strong case can be made for saying that, on balance, Cuba is comparatively better off under Castro than as a US client state. But this contrasts 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 bombastic, self-indulgent 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 genuine progressives there is a rather more straightforward answer to the question “Are you on the Stalinist left?”. The answer would be “No, don’t be ridiculous. Stalin was a mass murderer” (Hence the “pejoratives” loaded around the term ‘Stalinist’). 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 last sentence of the quote suggests that what Galloway might have meant to say was 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. But that’s not what he said, and if that's the point he was trying to make then his attempt was profoundly inept. 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 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 then supporting the blood-soaked dungeon that was the Soviet Union because it supposedly acted as a counterweight.
Nor does this statement square with another statement Galloway made, where he proclaimed 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”.
As Respect's MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, George Galloway stands on a platform of democracy, social justice and human rights. The values that underpin the Respect manifesto and the policies set out there give much reason to conclude that he does not support the horrors of the Soviet Union, the human rights abuses committed by Castro’s regime, or genuinely salute the courage, strength and indefatigability of the mass murderer Saddam. One might consider the numerous statements he has made condemning Saddam and the many other statements he has made in defence of these decent values and principles. One might compile a list of Galloway quotations in this vein that far outnumber the ones discussed at length here, and one might look at that balance sheet to give us the true measure of the man. But having done this one might still have to conclude that his taste for rhetorical bombast makes him – and therefore his views, his party and any movement associated with him - more vulnerable than need be the case. One might still have to conclude that he advances into the minefield of privately-dominated mainstream opinion with a bulldozer, rather than with the sure and deliberate steps necessary to communicate his message. One might have to wonder to what extent the benefits of having his sometimes eloquent voice speak for the anti-war movement might be offset by some future clumsy and ill-judged statement that causes the considerable moral capital of our platform to depreciate unnecessarily as a result.
The danger is that Galloway's presence on the anti-war platform plays right into the hands of critics who would paint the movement as being made up of dupes and apologists for tyranny. With figures such as Cindy Sheehan, Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein articulating our position in the public domain, do we need to take the risk of embracing Galloway? And with the bloodbath in Iraq worsening by the day, can we afford to?