The hubris (and amnesia) of Charles Johnson

Almost two months ago I wrote a piece here about my personal reflections on how we started CiF Watch and how I got started in blogging.

I mentioned that it was the Guardian coverage of the Lebanon war of 2006 which prompted me to actively enter the blogging world. It was then when I started posting at Comment is Free (CiF) fighting the enemies of Jews and Israel who inhabited that space between out right anti-Semitism and leftist “anti zionism”.

What I did not write about was how I stumbled upon CiF, and the coverage the Guardian afforded to the war on terror and issues pertaining to Israel. Finding out that the Guardian had contributors seemingly sympathetic to Hamas and Hezbollah (and radical Islam more broadly) was not an easy pill to swallow. It was actually quite shocking. It was also jarring to learn that comments were so anti-Semitic in some instances that they competed with the vile rhetoric typically associated with the far right. Aryan Nations, the KKK and similar outfits were infamous for such explicitly anti-Semitic rhetoric, and it was quite counter-intuitive to see echoes of such hateful narratives at British liberal mainline publications.

The place where I got my education in Guardian variety anti-Semitism – as well as the broader threat posed by radical Islam – was Little Green Footballs. Charles Johnson’s blog, was, at the time, the go to place for discovering the nastiness inhabiting the radical left. It was on LGF that I learned about the Al-Durah fraud, the Guardian contributors sacked for terror sympathies and allegedly even threatening Johnson with throat cutting for his exposes by Inayat Bunglawala, who was also the CiF contributor, and who praised Osama Bin Laden as a “good Muslim”.  I read the investigation Johnson did on that post. Though it wasn’t conclusive, it was still extremely creepy and must have been frightening to receive.

Johnson was so angry at the Guardian that, as a LGF reader, my first posts actually ended up landing on CiF, and not his blog  – which I used more for news than discussion.

Johnson was diligent in exposing Pallywood productions and Palestinian media savvy rituals following deaths in their ranks. I think he coined the term car swarmdepicting the crowds of Palestinians gathering around a wrecked vehicle (for transporting terrorists) hit by the Israeli Air Force.

Johnson exposed Rachel Corrie as something other than a “peace activist” (he ran that famous picture of the ISM activist burning the American flag together with Palestinians) and he ran with the nickname given to Corrie by one of his posters “Saint Pancake” after she met her fate under an Israeli bulldozer.

Like everyone else in the blogging world, I too was aware of Charles Johnson’s ideological metamorphosis from right to left. He had his reasons, but what was disappointing, aside from losing such a diligent researcher and ally, was the way he went about his change of sides. He made it a personal issue between himself and some of his previous blogging friends.

I was always of the view (perhaps by spending too much time in management school) that one should not bring one’s personal life into the professional one and vice versa, as both will ultimately suffer.  Most importantly, personal issues cloud one’s vision in the work they do.

Case in point: this Guardian article which was later reposted at LGF and Harry’s Place.

This piece which was called an “investigation” was one which encompassed all great anti-Semitic tropes. Money, subversion, manipulation, influence and conspiracy.

It argues that certain right-wing American Jews are intent on funding and consulting the EDL in return for assistance for the Tea Party to be more like the EDL (read violent anti government fascist insurrection).

Press TV would have been impressed with this stuff. Yet it was run by major center left blogs. The fact that none of the meetings and associations actually existed (even the article talked about plans of meetings) escaped those who wanted to attack their political enemies. In this case, the Tea Party and Pamela Geller.

This CiF comment following the article best illustrates the typical Guardian pattern we have been exposing since our inception — how articles inspire the conspiracy theories which follow, such as the Joo-Tea-EDL conspiracy theory.

In my view, had it not been in the context of the personal conflict between Charles Johnson and Pamela Geller, Johnson (based on his ability to detect these things) would have caught it with his bigot catcher net. Yet this time he promoted it because it was useful in a political but also a nasty personal conflict.

He forgot to read it without his Geller shades on.

Soon after this, Johnson wrote an essay for CiF – the very blog he inspired me to monitor 5 years ago.

I also admit that I once joked about this with someone a couple of months ago. The idea was one of those hyperbolic what ifs usually told at the end of some semi joking shop talk.

Readers can imagine how it felt seeing my “imagine if…” scenario actually occur.

It was also noteworthy that Johnson again used his enemy Geller to enter the stage of CiF.

He wrote a piece claiming credit for creating a few now popular bloggers and used Geller as the example of who should be prohibited. Ironically he furnished no examples of nasty LGF comments by Geller, the partial premise of his article.

Needless to say I have no interest in the Johnson / Geller spat. (But, for those who are curious, you can see here and here.)

I am perplexed about the Guardian. What’s in it for them? Have they merely not noticed that they were entering into the middle of a very nasty personal conflict?

(Today Robert Spencer was allowed to answer Johnson’s attacks in his own CiF post. Judging by this comment by Matt Seaton, they seem to be aware and seem to also enjoy joining Johnson in his quest of ridding the internet of “undesirable” ideas. During the discussion on the Johnson Cif thread, moderators deleted posts linking to the rebuttals Geller and Spencer offered in their respective blogs.)

Was the Guardian aware of the stuff Johnson used to write?

Are we to expect better moderation from them because of Johnson’s contribution?

Are we going to see less contributions to CiF now as some ideas will become intolerable? They featured Hamas on CiF and George Galloway, but also Richard Perle and Sarah Palin. I find it hard to imagine what a blog which featured real terrorists would find so objectionable that their voice shall not be heard or tolerated.

If there’s a brand of hatred the Guardian needs to be warned about it’s not Geller’s — of whom they had never heard before the Ground Zero Mosque controversy. The enmity they need to guard against is the new anti-Semitism – which disguises itself behind the thin veneer of anti-Zionism.

What possible warning do they need about the alleged hate speech of so-called right-wing American bloggers? It isn’t as if they were a regular feature there.  This is why I find this visit amusing.

Johnson’s wasn’t a good article but it made that up in entertainment value in the comments section.  Shortly after it reached about 80 or so comments the thread looked like a Seumas Milne post generated deletion orgy.  The nasty feud came right onto CiF.  Supporters on both sides hijacked the thread.

It must have been fun for the moderators getting into the middle of this ruckus – not knowing what was really going on over three years leading up to it. Posts were deleted for asking questions or challenging the claims made by Johnson.

I don’t think anybody did any favours to anyone with this funny exercise.

Who’s using who is a 50/50 bet here.

At the end it was probably great at helping the hit count but there was little discussion concerning what Johnson was actually trying to say in his piece — something, which, in my view, is worth examining.

Johnson’s main point comes through well in the conclusion of his piece.  It is interesting because in some way it relates to what we do here on CiF Watch. We attempt to expose anti-Semitism and jihadism within articles and comments at the Guardian. Johnson argues for something similar but he takes it to a level which suggests outright censorship.

“Since the days when Pamela Geller commented frequently at LGF, I’ve made a serious effort to develop tools for effectively moderating blog discussions, so that LGF will no longer become an inadvertent breeding ground for Geller’s brand of hatred. The web’s inherent anonymity makes it far too easy for extremists and trolls of all kinds to hijack a blog’s comments; only by taking more control of the tone of the discussion can sane bloggers start to pull things back toward the centre…Controlling the tone of the discussion is the responsibility of moderators. They set up moderation rules and they enforce them.”

In my view control is in the hands of individual blogs. What I sense from Johnson is an argument for some universal virtual rule book about where lines are drawn to discern when “hijacking” is hijacking, “trolling” is trolling and “hate speech” is hate speech.

My first concern is that something like this could become a tool for some blogs to monitor others and impose rules as to who can post where, who should be banned, or who can link to whom, by threatening them with exposes and campaigns of humiliation if certain perceived associations are alleged.

An intellectual stoning is what comes to my mind with the accused not being able to defend his/her ideas as all are forced to condemn him/her or face the same fate. I cannot see how that could be helpful in the free exchange of ideas.

Who decides what idea is to be no longer tolerated?

Who determines then really who is beyond the pale?

And if that one is brought down, who will be next?

How would this work between blogs who should be independent?

Who decides on the infraction definitions above?

How are they to be enforced?

By whom?

Who will be able to exert more influence by being “bigger” in the fish pond the blogosphere is?

The better funded ones? The more popular ones?

The notion automatically reminded me of Queens University a few years ago when they instituted a campus talk policy whereby monitors would actually walk among students in the cafeteria and the lounge to make sure no “offensive speech” was occurring.  These monitors had the school administration’s power behind them. A real Orwellian scenario was playing out in the last place it should – at a university, where exchange of ideas are supposed to be the very founding premise.

The blogosphere is like a little world. A campus, a network of clubs if you will.

Do we want to really monitor speech and ideas? Johnson speaks about ideas as well as specific speech.

The internet has indeed empowered people who previously had lived on the margins of society. From criminals to terrorists, and hate groups, it added to their arsenal. However I am not aware of blog posts killing people. Incitement to violence is well-defined by existing laws in Western countries. Whether it is occurring online, in flyers, or talk radio, we know what it is.

I would not like the internet to become Singaporized, to borrow the term from the brilliant George Jonas, where ideological infractions are punished by banishment.

Fighting toxic ideas is best done by actually debating them. Democracy is about the free exchange of ideas. If we want the internet to reflect our values we should strive for it to remain democratic and free.

Along with that comes the right to offend and disagree.

As John Stuart Mill said:

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

I sense there is a wish by some in the blogging world to purge the internet of certain ideas. We sensed that, at CiF, each time we defended Israel. We are accused of being part of conspiracies or expressing racist views.

Johnson’s is perhaps a well intended idea, but one which cannot lead to a healthy internet world – one which takes seriously the value of a free market of ideas. Power always corrupts and those who wield it always end up either abusing it or misplacing it. This is happening every hour of every day in the real world. How would that not be happening in the blogging world?

Why would we want to bring these power plays into what is still a free medium which allows divergent voices to speak – regardless of their power or status.  In other words, online, a simple citizen can challenge the NYT, the Guardian or Fox news and CNN – citizens like Charles Johnson who took CBS and Reuters to task in the past for peddling fraud. I recall CiF first deleting references (and LGF links) to the Reuters Fauxtography evidence. The idea that Israel was right in defending itself was simply not acceptable on some of those threads. Are we now to believe this will not happen again? It is that cliché again and I hate to use it:  A slippery slope, filled with wet leaves and banana peels.

One may ask: How is it not hypocritical from someone at CiF Watch to complain about web moderation and unacceptable ideas.

We monitor anti-Semitic hate speech based on definitions that have been unambiguously codified. We use the EU definition of anti-Semitism as a guide to defining what anti-Semitism.   Can Charles Johnson say the same about his red lines? We are not policing Jewish jokes here.

We also discuss issues we were not able to discuss on CiF because of moderation which we perceived to be unfair when it came to articles about Israel or the Middle East. We wanted a voice. Our ideas were not afforded tolerance. Some of them were called racist and bigoted. We wanted to add to the debate as well as expose what we see as specific examples of anti-Semitism. None of us practiced hate speech yet many of us were still banned from posting.

We are willing to discuss the issues with those whom we criticize. They are most often not. We invited them on a number of occasions. Most of those writers turned us down. We still debate and allow CiF posters to spar with us and argue their case here.

We do not banish posters unless they break one of the golden rules all blogs had in place since this medium begun.  We learn from our allies and our adversaries. We can safely say we are democratic and that we defend free speech.

Our speech was silenced on CiF. Some of our ideas were “out of bounds”.  We wanted to be heard and we wanted a frank discussion. I think this is what blogging is all about. There is no need for blog police.


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