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George Monbiot, the Left's Very Own McCarthy

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Cross-posted from Palestine Chronicle


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Questioning someone's integrity is not something I do lightly, especially when I share much ideological common ground with them. But the unsavoury behavior of George Monbiot, a leading columnist for the Guardian and one of Britain's most prominent progressive intellectuals, is becoming ever harder to overlook -- and forgive.

On a whole range of issues, such as corporate greed and threats to the planet posed by climate change, I agree wholeheartedly with Monbiot. It is also entirely possible for two people to disagree, even intensely, but still believe their opponent's views are legitimate and advanced in good faith. That is how I regard, for example, Monbiot's support for nuclear power as the least-bad option for dealing with mounting carbon emissions. It's not a position I share, but he has set out his reasoning clearly and honestly.

But I can extend no such understanding to his campaign of vilification begun three years ago against several leading figures on the progressive left.

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It started with an article in 2011 in which he attacked two scholars for publishing a book, the Politics of Genocide, in which they collected together their own and other experts' research into two supposedly well-documented genocides, in Rwanda and the Balkans. After examining the evidence, they reached a controversial conclusion: that the nature of events in both genocides had been distorted to fit western political agendas.

They did not question that large numbers of people had been killed in either conflict. They and their contributors argued instead that the term "genocide" had been used as a way to draw a veil over the events, cementing an official narrative that could not be questioned or re-assessed. Instead, they suggested, the official narrative might be serving political ends rather than reflecting accurately who had been killed and why.

One of the two authors is Ed Herman, most famous for an influential book, Manufacturing Consent, jointly written with Noam Chomsky, which argues that the mainstream media are not the democratic and pluralistic institutions they claim to be but rather corporations advancing official narratives designed to serve elite -- including, of course, their own -- interests. Their thesis has only found more adherents over time, particularly as the internet has provided dissident writers, including Chomsky, with a rival platform from which to challenge the consensus policed by the corporate media.

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So it is hardly surprising, given their starting point about the media's role in manufacturing consent, that Herman and his collaborator David Peterson should be suspicious of two of the strongest consensual narratives of recent times: the Rwanda and Balkan genocides, which even had their own dedicated international tribunals established to very publicly try the official bad guys.

It may also not be stretching credulity to suspect that Monbiot, a leftwing intellectual who has thrown in his lot and reputation with the Guardian on the assumption that Herman and Chomsky are wrong about the corporate media, might not look too kindly on their thesis. If Manufacturing Consent is right, then Monbiot is not a guardian of our moral consciences, as he likes to think, but a guardian of the outer limits of a corporate-sanctioned consensus.

It is increasingly hard to shake such suspicions given his behavior over the past three years. Monbiot's 2011 column denounced Herman and Peterson as genocide deniers, probably the most serious accusation one can level against a fellow intellectual. One might have assumed that Monbiot would marshal enormous evidence before making such a serious allegation. Not a bit of it: in his column he made a brief and sweeping condemnation of their thesis and their right to question the official narrative.

A single ugly column by Monbiot might possibly have been excused as an unfortunate lapse. But he then revisited the theme a year later in what can only be characterized this time as an exercise in leftwing McCarthyism. Having no stronger argument than before, Monbiot on this occasion recruited four academics to his cause of denouncing Herman and Petersen as genocide deniers.

As someone who himself challenges orthodoxies -- in my case Israeli ones -- I know precisely how weak this kind of resort to an argument from authority is. Were I to so wish, I could easily seek to discredit the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe in similar fashion for his argument -- an entirely correct one -- that Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homeland by Israel in 1948. All I would need is to find a handful of respected historians and public intellectuals like Benny Morris, Anita Shapira and Ari Shavit to support my case. But what would this prove? Only that the job of many, if not most, "experts" in any field is to help construct and maintain official narratives. That is, after all, why they are official narratives!

But not satisfied with tarring the reputations of Herman and Peterson, this time Monbiot chose to drag in Chomsky too. On his website, he published a lengthy correspondence between the two in which he tried first to cajole, then demand that Chomsky join him in denouncing Herman as a genocide denier. Chomsky staunchly refused, repeatedly providing Monbiot with his reasoning.

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Monbiot's performance here was as ugly as watching McCarthy in his heyday grilling American intellectuals to expose their Communist sympathies. In full righteous mode, Monbiot ended by flaunting like some diva his "depression" at the left's "idiocy." He lamented how Chomsky, once his "hero," had -- by refusing to agree with him -- proven himself a fellow traveler with genocide deniers.

What underlies this argument, unexamined by Monbiot -- presumably because he lacks the self-awareness to understand it -- is a serious divergence of views about power.

Monbiot's clash with Herman, Peterson and Chomsky is not really over the facts of a genocide, but over who has a right to speak. Monbiot, embedded in the camp of the corporate media, has adopted its ethos as his own. Those who are respected -- that is, those who stay within the limits of officially sanctioned thought -- have the right to advance their claims. Those outside the magic circle -- those not credited by the corporate guardians of legitimate thought -- do not. Herman, Peterson and Chomsky's work implicitly exposes the vacuous and circular logic of Monbiot's assumptions.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)
 

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