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George Monbiot, the Left’s McCarthy


Questioning someone’s integrity is not something I do lightly, especially when I share much ideological common ground with them. But the unsavoury behaviour 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.

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.

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 behaviour 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 characterised 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 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.

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 traveller 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.

That point becomes especially clear if one reads through Monbiot’s correspondence with Chomsky. Chomsky struggles to hide his exasperation at Monbiot’s inability to grasp the elementary arguments he is making, even though he is forced to make them repeatedly. Monbiot, on the other hand, thinks he has cornered Chomsky in some kind of intellectual hypocrisy. What he has revealed instead is how deeply embedded he is in the corporate mindset, one that reserves for itself the right to determine the limits of the thinkable.

Interestingly this month, however, Monbiot found his own assumptions exposed from an unlikely quarter: the BBC. The corporation – one of the most powerful enforcers of official narratives – made an unusually daring programme, Rwanda’s Untold Story, questioning the consensus on the Rwandan genocide, all be it 20 years after the events. The programme-makers’ conclusions echoed those of Herman and Peterson: that census figures and death toll estimates do not support the accepted narrative of a genocide in which the Tutsis were the main victims of the slaughter. The data, in fact, indicate the exact opposite: more Hutus were killed than Tutsis, possibly many times more.

This has ramifications beyond the historical. Paul Kagame, the leader of the Tutsi militia the RPF, and therefore now potentially in the frame as the chief perpetrator of a genocide against the Hutus, is today the much-respected leader of Rwanda, a man feted by western leaders.

On my blog I suggested last week, given that even the hyper-cautious BBC appears ready to concede that the Rwanda genocide needs a reassessment, it might be time for Monbiot to apologise for his ugly accusations against Herman, Peterson, Chomsky and others.

So far Monbiot has made no proper response, despite receiving similar demands for a retraction from a number of people on social media. It would be nice to think that his silence suggests he is engaged in soul-searching and formulating the necessary response. But unfortunately the omens are not good.

Monbiot has not yet spoken himself but he has not remained entirely silent either. In an indication that this may be more about his ego and self-appointed status as guardian of a left righteousness, he retweeted a flippant dismissal of his critics, including me, provided by a group called Mediocre Lens.

Sadly, that is very much of a piece with Monbiot’s behaviour on this issue. Mediocre Lens is the poor cousin of what Monbiot has rightly exposed elsewhere as the phenomenon of “fake persuaders”, usually corporate lobbyists hiding behind front organisations that pose as “concerned ordinary citizens”. The point of the fake persuaders is to create the impression of popular support for corporate policies that harm our interests, such as destroying forests and polluting rivers. In short, the fake persuaders are there to uphold official narratives that serve business interests.

Mediocre Lens does something similar, if rather more feebly. In its case it claims to be a group of ordinary journalists with a “left perspective” who promote the idea that the mainstream media is there to serve our interests. More precisely, its sole rationale is to discredit Media Lens, an increasingly popular website whose editors – wait for it – advance the thesis of Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent.

Monbiot’s promotion of a tweet from Mediocre Lens should make about as much sense – if he were the independent thinker he claims to be – as Naomi Klein retweeting approvingly an attack on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by a climate change denial group.

But it makes rather more sense if we understand that Monbiot is no longer what he claims to be or seems. Years of being embedded in the corporate media have eroded his ability to remain truly independent or to appreciate those like Herman, Peterson and Chomsky who demand the right to retain that privilege for themselves.

Jonathan Cook won 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: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books).  His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

3 Comments

  1. Mike Corbeil October 8, 2014 3:43 am 

    Quote: “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”.

    From two or three articles I’ve read and that were by people justifiably critical of Establishment media, the Guardian/UK and even the Independent/UK are associated with “The Establishment”. These aren’t the only UK media to be associated with “The Establishment”, but these nonetheless are very known and read ones, so it’s important when they publish corrupt articles about important topics or issues.

    George Monbiot doesn’t really disappoint me for that happened many years ago with his narrow-minded, pointy-headed-boss writings criticizing, i.e., mocking, people questioning the “official story” from Washington regarding the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the USA as if they’re just a bunch of quack “conspiracy theorists”. He was supporting the official conspiracy theory that still remains largely without evidence and which undeniably is a conspiracy theory. Well, given all of the errors in it, it can’t really be a theory, but it nonetheless is about conspiracy to commit a crime; namely, the 9/11 attacks. We know some things about the topic very factually, but the “official story” is flawed in too many respects for this to be negligently as well as deliberately ignored.

    A fair process of law requires fair, actually and very careful, examination of the evidence when a crime is committed and allegations are made. Monbiot denied this to his readers about 9/11. He mocked “conspiracy theorists” and some do merit mocking, for some really aren’t serious about finding and reporting the truth about 9/11. Some even seem to be government plants or operatives trying to cause discredit to the real truth researchers, speakers and writers. Plenty of other people naively go along with bogus 9/11 “truth” theories. But, plenty of other people are wholly serious, sincere, honest and are also right in their criticisms of the piece of botch work called the “official story” that Washington came out with and that Monbiot et alia support, as if blindly doing that, too. Blindly believe Washington when it’s known to pathologically lie without end is mindboggling. The least people can do is to support a new, real and thorough 9/11 investigation. People don’t need to agree that 9/11 was/is an inside job. All people need to do is to recognize that a real investigation hasn’t yet been officially conducted and that having one is a human right, as well as a Constitutional right in the USA. Due process of law is a right; not an optional benefit. Monbiot denied and mocked it before (in front of) his readers.

    As for his other writings; plenty of honest people write and speak about the same topics anyway.

    The Guardian is among Establishment media. It sometimes publishes truths, but this world can live without The Guardian (of The Establishment).

    Unfortunately, plenty of people will continue to be fan readers of Monbiot and the Guardian, etc. On occasion, they publish good content; but, when it’s only on occasion, then it’s time to begin to look for far more consistently reliable sources.

    A good source about what happened in Rwanda, for people who wish for readings available for free and online, is Keith Harmon Snow. His actively maintained website is http://www.consciousbeingalliance.com. He has plenty of articles at DissidentVoice.org and some at GlobalResearch.ca, ZComm.org and possibly other websites. ProjectCensored.org has included some of his work as well.

    His archive is http://www.allthingspass.com.

    His articles, quite long too they are, about what happened in Rwanda and Central Africa will surely help people understand that Ed Herman and co-author or collaborator David Peterson are right to say that the genocides were used by Western powers to suit their agendas. And the genocide in Rwanda wasn’t and was a genocide; the distinction being that it wasn’t only one side attacking another. Both Tutsis and Hutus were slaughtered by the criminal forces Washington, et alia, aided and abetted, if not worse.

    Western powers constantly try to “pull the wool over our eyes (and minds)” to try to blind and dumb us down to the point that we’re as dumb as any of the dumbest other animals are, so we must keep removing these blinders and begin to think very critically, with real conscience.

    If people tabulated all of the times we’ve been lied to by the Western Establishment and its pundits, compared to the number of times they told the truth, then there’d be relatively or comparitively little in the Truths column of the table. Maybe this would help to open peoples’ minds in the West.

  2. Doug Darrah October 7, 2014 4:22 pm 

    Monbiot lost his way years ago, and hasn’t been worth reading or bothering with for nearly a decade. It’s not surprising he has sunk as far as he has: when you cast your lot with the nukesters, there’s no moral bottom for you.

    I’m not sure one should lament the sad state these days of George Monbiot. I AM sure people of conscience shouldn’t bother with him. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Mike Corbeil October 8, 2014 4:28 am 

      Quote: “I’m not sure one should lament the sad state these days of George Monbiot. I AM sure people of conscience shouldn’t bother with him.”

      True, but a problem is that still many people continue to read from and listen to unrecommendable sources. Monbiot probably has a fan “club” of sorts and fans often aren’t people thinking with critically objective minds. Too many are gullible. Some possibly also want to be fed a diet of lies. The latter may be very possible. I once read a book, “The Road Less Traveled” and much of another book by the same author, “People of The Lie”. The author is psychiatrist Dr Morgan Scott Peck. In the latter book, he depicts people he received during his work and they were pathological liars. Some of it was credible, because I’ve known some people who lied like uncontrollably, but it otherwise is almost incredible, as well; to lie without good cause, that is.

      If recalling correctly, then some of those people struck me as characters who’d lie because of not knowing how to tell the truth. Some of the lying seemed to have no real point to it; no strategic reasoning behind it. Lying isn’t necessarily wrong. F.e., if a person needs to lie in order to try to help protect another person who’s innocent against injustice, then the lie isn’t wrong; certainly not if the liar is competent, as well as successful for him/her-self and the persons they’re trying to help protect anyway. The people lied to because they intended to commit unjust actions, so crimes, won’t like learning that they were deceived; but, it’s not an injustice to deceive them. The problem is that plenty of people who lie do it in unjust ways, while some do it just because it’s become habitual, say. If we lie to save an innocent person’s life, then we’re doing a good thing; all the better, when successful. If we lie to get an innocent person convicted of a crime the person didn’t commit, then we commit a very serious crime.

      Well, people Dr Peck examined clearly did insanely lie. It was insane but also seemed like very malevolent lying.

      If everyone quickly learned to disregard unrecommendable sources, then we’d have much less brainwashing or dumbing down going on. We unfortunately continue to have far too much of it. Even if it might be less than a decade ago (f.e., Americans’ support of msm corporate media has apparently declined either by or to 40%, today), there still continues to be this tragic reality with the general population and this probably extends into politics, education/academia, ….

      This is why “news” and “opinion” media people who publish corrupt material need to continue to be exposed and criticized. I wouldn’t have learned about this 2011 garbage that George Monbiot published, if it hadn’t been for this article by Jonathan Cook. Knowing about it provides yet another argument against relying on Monbiot for source. I don’t need it, for myself, having ceased paying attention to his writings beginning many years ago; but, when trying to alert others, then it’s good to be able to refer them to truly recommendable critiques about things people they listen to in media, politics, … say.

      That’s the good thing about this very good critique by Jonathan Cook.

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