The inverted pyramid of fake politics

Submitted by AWL on 13 February, 2018 - 5:04 Author: Martin Thomas
Fake news

This is the era of the instant availability online, to many millions, of scientific and critical writings and documentation previously accessible only in a few libraries. It is the era when protest meetings and demonstrations can be built online, with the publicity quickly getting to wider circles than could be reached by the old methods of hand-to-hand leafletting.

It is also the era of "fake news" swirling round social media, and of "fake politics" in which polemic is conducted not by reasoned argument, or even simulacra of it, but by great inverted pyramids in which broad surfaces of utterly-invented scandal are erected upon the tiniest pinpoints of fact.
Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune (bit.ly/e-zorn) reports that around 30 to 40% of registered Republicans in the USA - that is, of supporters of the country's ruling party - still believe that Barack Obama was born outside the USA, and got to be president only thanks to a conspiracy to ignore the US law which says presidents must be born in the country.

49% of Republicans said it was either definitely or probably true that "leaked email from some of Hillary Clinton's campaign staffers contained code words for paedophilia, human trafficking and satanic ritual abuse".

25% across the board, in the USA, said it was definitely or probably true that the September 2001 Islamist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and elsewhere were organised by the US government.

Many people in the USA also believe that Obama is a "communist" (which to them means the same as Stalinist) and a "Muslim" (which to them means much the same as Islamist terrorist).

These fake scandals are built on such pinpoints as that Obama lived in Kenya as a child; that Clinton used a private email server; that Obama wanted some government role in providing health insurance; or that Obama sounds a bit like Osama.
Unscrupulous polemic from press and pulpit has long been an element in right-wing and conservative politics. (The "godless communists" will break up your family and corrupt your children.) Some things are new.

New is the wrap-around nature of today's fake politics. Yesteryear, you got the fake polemic only from vocally right-wing workmates or neighbours or family members, or when you read the right-wing press or went to church. Almost everyone had some sphere of rational reassurance.

Today, many people check their smartphones 24/7 and face a barrage from social media with no respite even in their most private moments.

New is the disinhibiting effect of the internet. The boss of a rapidly-growing firm, Social Chain, whose business is to spread stories on social media, boasts that it "can make any hashtag trend on Twitter before he’s finished his presentation" to commercial customers. Its secret? "People share feelings, not information... The stronger the emotion that a Facebook post, tweet or Instagram story elicits, the further it will be carried by the churning waves of algorithm" (bit.ly/soc-ch).

On social media, people, often writing anonymously, hype up denunciations and threats and "scandals", or pass them on and amplify them, more recklessly than they would than when talking face-to-face. In much of the online world nothing is audible unless shrieked.

Most of fake politics is an instrument of the right against the left or even the relatively-liberal centre in politics, as in the USA. Socially, a large part must be driven by the backlash of the old, the disappointed, the bewildered, and the frustrated against the erratic but real growth of more liberal (small-l) and socially-minded attitudes.

Despite what you might think from US election results, for example, the percentage of people there saying they have "a great deal of confidence" in organised religion has gone down from 34% in 1973 to 19% in 2016, and the percentage stating "hardly any" has gone up from to 16% to 26% (bit.ly/relig-us). A majority of young people in the USA now say they prefer socialism to capitalism.

Right-wing backlash fake politics has some effect, though. Also effective in slowing, neutralising, or diverting the growth of broadly left-wing sentiment is a new rise of fake politics within the left.

Especially since the Corbyn surge opened new political space, there has been a backlash from more conservative parts of the left, seeking to marginalise, to diabolise, even to criminalise, those sections of the left urging more radical ideas or more radical debate.

Some of the methods are not new. They are reminiscent, for example, of those used in 2013 in a brief "scandal" to accuse us of being "racist" on the basis of a short passage (a paraphrase of Engels, as it happens) torn out of an old article from 2006. In that case, after the first Facebook fever, some people tried to write reasoned polemics against the 2006 article. They were replied to (bit.ly/2013row), and the contrived "scandal" faded.

Reminiscent also of the methods used by the Stalinist movement in its heyday, when they called Trotsky and his co-thinkers "wreckers" and "fascists". Or of the enemies of the Bolsheviks in 1917, when they called Lenin a "German agent" on the slim basis that he had got permission to travel through German territory by train to get back to Russia.

The Stalinists mounted a show of sustaining an argument for their "Trotsky-fascist" slanders, a fraudulent show but a show, by staging the Moscow Trials. The recent fake polemics against Workers' Liberty rise not even to that level. One of them has been that we are equivocal about or even "defend" child abuse.
In the Chicago Tribune article cited above, Zorn reports a poll finding that 45% of all Republicans believed that Hillary Clinton was connected to a child sex ring, or at least they weren't sure about it.

The polemic against us is as fake as the accusation against Clinton. Or even more so: it is conceivable that even someone living as much in the public eye as Clinton could secretly connect to a child sex ring, but what a political organisation says about an issue like child abuse is by definition public.

The anonymous Facebook page "Red London" and anonymous blogs such as bit.ly/fake-p have based themselves on snippets from an article in Solidarity of 15 years ago (23 January 2003: bit.ly/gerry-b) and texts discussed at a conference of ours in March 2003. Unlike pretty much every other organisation on the left, Workers' Liberty makes the texts of our conference public every year - those passed, those defeated, those left on the table.

The resolution passed at the 2003 conference was: "1. We recognise that the massively greater social weight of adult vs child / young person means that effective consent is not possible within such inequality. The 'Age of Consent' is a legal device which recognises this inability. 2. Any fixed age of consent is necessarily arbitrary, but 16 (the age of consent in Britain) does coincide with other markers of adulthood and economic independence (age of marriage, school leaving age, full-time employment). 3. We oppose the call for the abolition of the age of consent".

The January 2003 article stated: "Any sexual relationship between an adult and a child is necessarily exploitative, even if there is no physical coercion involved... 'consent' is meaningless in the structurally unequal relationship of adult to child".

A longer article from 2001 makes the same case: bit.ly/2001-art.

So how can even the most unscrupulous and anonymous politics-faker invent a scandal here?

Here's an example of how. In the 2003 article, the writer recalled that in the 1970s quite a few on the left - not the forerunners of Workers' Liberty, but quite a few on the left - opposed the age-of-consent law. (Those left-wingers had a semi-anarchist disposition to oppose state regulation of anything, and a extravegant, and misplaced, conviction that very young people could and should decide freely what was abusive and what was not).

In the course of arguing against those 70s-leftist attitudes, the writer recalled having been told by a comrade about some conference of lesbian and gay students where "there were active paedophiles accompanied by young children" present. The 2003 article continued: in hindsight it is shocking that Linda Bellos, who objected, was poorly received. The anonymous politics-faker twists that by somehow finding it "not obvious" whether the conference referred to was a Workers' Liberty one. Read the article, and of course it is obvious that it wasn't! Yet as the "fake news" was Broken-Telephoned across social media, the claim came to be about some Workers' Liberty conference allegedly frequented by child-abusers.

The pinpoint at the vertex of this inverted pyramid of fake politics is that articles like those of 2003 and 2001 tried to refute the foolish 70s leftist attitudes in rational and careful terms, and criticised the "death to nonces" fever of the right-wing tabloid press like the old News of the World.

The main threat to children in the 1970s, after all, was as ever not from foolish leftists but from traditional authoritarian families and from not-at-all-libertarian institutions like the Catholic Church.

The bits of fake polemic are set up in traditional conservative mode, as if there is a "normal", accepted, acceptable attitude, and all that needs to be done to disqualify anyone is to contrive or invent some extract from their ideas which seems to transgress.

They are set up to appeal to and bolster old-fashioned "death to nonces" fever; but also, and simultaneously, to appeal to more modern strands in identity politics.

They appeal to people on the principle that banning should be the reflex response to whatever is objected to, or at least whatever is objected to "on behalf of" a disadvantaged group. Here a sort of "virtual victim" status is adopted by the politics-fakers though they are not children themselves nor claim to speak for any particular child.

A good and progressive development over recent decades has established as orthodoxy the principle that someone seeking investigation of charges of child abuse or sexual abuse should get the investigation in good faith, promptly, and with the assumption that there is something to investigate. Someone bringing charges of burglary first gets the burglary investigated, and only later and after solid good cause has emerged may face queries as to whether maybe the burglary did not happen or has been exaggerated. The same should hold with abuse charges, and all the more so because bringing those charges is more painful than bringing charges of burglary.

It does not follow at all that the sort of anonymous, unevidenced charges of child abuse put around by Red London should gain credence. Just as, however many Republican supporters allege that Hillary Clinton is tied into a child sex ring, and no matter what socialists have to say against Clinton's politics on a thousand issues, to give credence to that sort of accusation is to degrade, not enhance, social solidarity with victims of abuse.

To dispute and seek to debate our political ideas is entirely in order. Workers' Liberty is and long has been exceptional among left-wing groups in our openness to and keenness for debate, even with those who denounce and contest our ideas most acridly.

The new fake politics is, however, not political debate. It is the opposite. It is the use of contrived fake scandal to stall and stifle the development of radical and socialist ideas. It is a backlash against the openings created by the Corbyn surge.

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