Open Letter to Roger Hallam


INTRODUCTION

In a recent report of the German weekly Die Zeit Roger Hallam, co-founder of the climate group Extinction Rebellion was cited with the words: “The fact of the matter is, millions of people have been killed in vicious circumstances on a regular basis throughout history.” He lists other mass killings in the past 500 years, including the Belgians’ slaughter in the Congo. “They went to the Congo in the late 19th century and decimated it.” He goes on that seen in this context, the Holocaust was “almost a normal event … just another fuckery in human history.”

Die Zeit packaged Hallams remarks as Holocaust relativism and distributed the news before the article was even issued. The story “Holocaust relativization by Extinction Rebellion co-founder” was widely picked up by a range of media especially in Germany and the UK, while the storyline itself was never discussed or questioned. Instead the news have been pushed further. The green alternative newspaper Tageszeitung at first accused Hallam of Holocaust-denial, then headlined: “Even Greenies can Hate Jews”. Other newspapers kept talking of “denial” or called Hallam’s statements anti-Semitic, without providing evidence. Conservative, liberal and even small left media like Der Freitag put Hallam in a box with the German right wing party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD). News outlets also used the expression “fuckery” to put Hallam on a level with AfD head Alexander Gauland, who dismissed the Nazis’ crimes as a “bird’s shit” in “more than 1,000 years of successful German history”. Parts of an e-mail written by Hallam were at the same time circulated supposedly showing that he intentionally used the “Holocaust relativization” to spark media attention. Furthermore, the press stresses that Extinction Rebellion (XR) has a problem with democratic values. The leading liberal German newspaper “Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung” headlined in regard to the Hallam scandal: “A huge setback for the environmental movement”.

The publishing house Ullstein instantly stopped the German edition of Hallams book “Common sense for the 21st Century”, which had been due to appear in German bookshops on 26 November. Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas condemned Hallam’s remarks. Politicians like Robert Habeck, a co-head of the Green party, urged environment campaigners to “very clearly distance” themselves from Hallam, saying he had “disqualified” himself with comments that were “unworthy of discussion”. The German branch of Extinction Rebellion put out a press statement: “We explicitly distant ourselves from Roger Hallam’s belittling and relativising statements about the Holocaust. In so doing he contravenes the principles of XR, which does not tolerate antisemitism, and he is no longer welcome in XR Germany.” Tino Pfaff, a spokesman for Extinction Rebellion Germany, told German media he was in favor of excluding Hallam from the movement. Extinction Rebellion UK stated, that they “unreservedly denounced today’s comments from our co-founder Roger Hallam”. They would stand by restorative outcomes, “although in some cases exclusion is necessary”. The prominent German face of the global school strike movement “Fridays for Future” Luisa Neubauer (23), close colleague to Greta Thunberg, said to the biggest German tabloid Bild: “These are insane words, which I in no way can approve”. The school strike movement mobilized 1.4 million Germans on September 20 in one of the largest protests in the country’s history.

In an apology, Hallam said his comments had been taken out of context. “I want to fully acknowledge the unimaginable suffering caused by the Nazi Holocaust that led to all of Europe saying ‘never again’,” he said. “But it is happening again, on a far greater scale and in plain sight. The global north is pumping lethal levels of CO2 into the atmosphere and simultaneously erecting ever greater barriers to immigration, turning whole regions of the world into death zones. That is the grim reality.”

The controversy surrounding Roger Hallam takes place against the background of intensified campaigns accusing critics in Germany with Holocaust relativism and antisemitism. In 2017 the broadcasts of Roger Waters concerts (Ex-Pink Floyd) in Germany was canceled because of his engagement for the campaign “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” (BDS). Politicians, scientists, majors and artists in Germany are regularly attacked when criticizing Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Rooms for talks or teaching contracts of universities are withdrawn to undermine critical debates on Israeli policies. Also progressive parties like the Left and Greens have tried to silence Israel critics by labeling them “anti-Semitic”. Journalists also in small, reader’s funded progressive newspapers often go along with the mainstream accusations of “Holocaust relativization” or “anti-Semitism” to denounce activists and intellectuals.

 

Dear Roger Hallam,

I’m a journalist, author and co-founder of Kontext TV, an independent internet broadcast. I have reported on the climate crisis for a decade and done research on biased media coverage on a whole range of topics. I would like to say a few words regarding the recent media scandal around your remarks in the German press. 

That there would be media backlash against radical climate movements is as surprising as the sunset this morning. But that Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future etc. immediately distanced themselves from your comments done in Die Zeit und Der Spiegel is mind-boggling. What you said is pretty much in line with basic facts. History is full of blood and horror. And there could be total disaster in the future if people don’t stop their leaders. But the media manufactured a scandal by misrepresenting statements and applying political correctness double standards, methods well known. They have been used over and over again. Look for instance at the current Holocaust relativism campaigns against progressives like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the U.S.

Yes, one can argue that “fuckery” is too loosely an expression for the topic. But the topic was historic mass murder, right? So, why not being outraged about calling a “fuckery” what the Belgiums did in the Congo, the British did in India, the Europeans did in the Americas and Africa etc. What about the first genocide in the 20th century executed by Germany against the Nama and Herero or the genocidal killings of Sinti and Roma by the Nazis? Or the U.S. wars in Indochina, Nicaragua, Iraq …? Fact is: These mass killings and genocides are commonly downplayed by Western intellectuals. To give just one example: Before the most brutal phase of the U.S. war in Combodia began in 1970ies, National Security Advisor of the White House Henry Kissinger transmitted the order to General Haig “massive bombing of Cambodia, anything that flies on anything that moves”. A call with clear genocidal intent, protocolled in state records. But like many others Die Zeit keeps on praising Kissinger’s statesmanship and calls him a “wise realist”. In 2015 Kissinger wrote an obituary in Die Zeit for his long-time friend Helmut Schmidt, former German chancellor and co-editor of the liberal newspaper. Headline: “The conscience of our times”.

The point is: Nobody in the intellectual classes of those countries that committed and supported these crimes has ever really cared about those outrages atrocities, even if the mass murder of Roma, Congolese or Nama are in their brutality on a par with the Shoa. But even that’s beside the point. It’s absolutely clear that it is not about your stance on mass murder, but about smearing a person and thereby a movement (that demands a radical shift to save the planet) by the ultimate Holocaust weapon. What was the reaction by climate activists to this media attack? The movement rolled out the red carpet for the backlash: “We denounce …”, “We distance ourselves …”. I haven’t seen anyone prominent so far defending you against the smear campaign.

Everybody can see: There is no denial or relativisation of crimes in your comments like is commonly put into action by mainstream media and intellectuals in their “intentional ignorance” concerning the impacts of “our” (elite and media supported) crimes. These mass killings are furthermore not historical events done by German ancestors and the Nazi state some 75 years ago but ongoing criminal aggressions, so morally on a completely different level. Look at the coverage. It is astonishing. Take the Iraq war. Massive misrepresentations, manipulations and silencing of scientific casualty figures by the Guardian, BBC, Zeit, Spiegel, New York Times etc. The media coverage is well studied. And the effects of it, too. In Great Britain, there was a poll taken in 2013 asking people how many people were killed in Iraq during the war. It found out that about 60 per cent of the British people believed that less than 10.000 Iraqis died because of the war, 44 per cent of them believed it was less than 5000. Scientific studies at the time indicated that at least 500.000 to one million died – figures that were practically not mentioned by the press and when immediately disputed. Only 6 per cent of the British estimated the casualty figure in the right range. That would be like most Germans estimating the death toll of murdered Jews in the Holocaust at less than 100.000 (and nearly half of them less than 50.000) and not 5 to 6 million. Does even anyone mention the gross denial and relativisation of massive ongoing crimes by an entire society – made possible by media and elite misrepresentations?

I could go on and on. Smearing people with Holocaust relativisation or antisemitism is a power weapon (mostly done in total hypocrisy by those using the weapon) that is working especially effective as it is accepted (and absolutely not understood) by most progressives – although more people are getting aware of the mechanics and refuse to follow. There is much to say about this which tends to reach muddy waters, missing facts and moral double standards never applied in other cases. It is outrages to see how the mass murder of Jews has been misused in the last decades to silence people fighting for peace, justice and a livable future on the planet. And it is astonishing how smart, morally driven people struggling against power, fighting for a better world and with whom I agree on practically all major issues stop acting on facts and moral truisms when power smears dissidents with Holocaust-whatsoever. They give in in a minute and renounce the “devil” (like in the Catholic Church). Mostly it’s a mixture of political naiveté, fear of becoming a moral outlaw and strategic considerations. Sometimes, as in your case, some spokespersons threaten the sinner with expulsion. Because the big media wants it.

Really, I don’t understand it. Look at, for instance, David Wallace-Wells, respected New York Times journalist and bestselling author of “The Uninhabitable Earth”. In the German edition he writes on page 42 that the best possible outcome of the climate crisis (because of the non-actions of governments) means the suffering and deaths of “25 holocausts”. Or take Noam Chomsky, one of the world’s leading intellectuals. He said on Democracy Now: “It’s as if we’re kind of like the proverbial lemmings just happily marching off the cliff, led by leaders who understand very well what they’re doing, but are so dedicated to enriching themselves and their friends in the near future that it simply doesn’t matter what happens to the human species. There’s nothing like this in all of human history. There have been plenty of monsters in the past, plenty of them. But you can’t find one who was dedicated, with passion, to destroying the prospects for organized human life. Hitler was horrible enough, but not that.”

These are decent people trying to stop the catastrophe, right? Smart people with ethics and knowledge, right? Shouldn’t radical climate movements also distance themselves from those and everybody daring to compare what happened in Nazi-Germany in the past with other horrific and upcoming horrific events? If Chomsky and Wallace-Wells wanted to join the movement or support it should they first denounce their statements? If movements, activists and climate progressives acted principled they should. And they must for the sake of principle distance themselves from all big media and stop working with them. They are not only making historic comparisons but are deeply responsible for enabling climate collapse by false and misleading coverage – as they have enabled other horrific crimes done by their governments in the past. It’s a plain fact: We would not be in this mess if the mass media would have done their job.

Climate activists must understand: Big media, even the liberal and left ones, are to a great extend in the hands and under the control of those who will lose by radical change, not to speak of a revolution. News outlets are intertwined with other power centers. So, the ones making the decisions in mainstream media hate fundamental changes as they lose materially, politically, ideologically, personally and concerning power and control. And secondly, they are extremely smart and experienced in how to calm the public, divert attention, tell appealing stories that support the official course, flood the public with demobilizing stories, split movements by throwing mud at individuals and so on and so forth. Journalists have been drilled in all sorts of ways in doing this. There are some exceptions of course. But conforming to power centers is deeply ingrained in journalists’ belief system and self-image. And they possess a variety of skills in how to react in a highly professional and flexible way to power crises (like a PR team that has specialized in crisis communication when a corporation gets under fire). All this is not really controversial if one turns to basic facts and empirical evidence. 

It is the dilemma progressive movements are in: Mass media constitute a very powerful platform to communicate to ordinary people and the society as a whole but they are going to fight radical change. There is no easy way around it. The strategy of progressives has been mostly to find ways to convince mainstream media to tell the right stories and to avoid negative ones. It is frustrating work because movements are mainly on the loser’s side. Sure, there are media victories in small battles, but failures in big ones. That doesn’t mean not to engage with mainstream media. There are possibilities and room for maneuver in every institutionalized sector of society (one can debate how far that might go.). So progressives should of course try to influence news outlets and build bridges to journalists. But mainstream media are a very corrosive platform for informing and mobilizing people to bring about progressive change. The revolution will not be televised, as a song captured it. In the end, mainstream media have to be pushed or coerced to give up their profession of reporting in favor for those in power and bow to the peoples will. It is essentially a power play. 

What should be done about it? There is not one magic recipe to engage with the public constructively. But take for instance Bernie Sanders. He mobilizes people even if his campaigns are constantly attacked or ignored by the mainstream press. Caving in to big media power to calm them is a damaging strategy for radical movements that leads nowhere. Because if movements compromise truth, courage and solidarity they will lose people who are unlikely to join in a rebellion that in the blink of an eye bows to the hypocritical morality of the intellectual class. There are much better ways: Stop caring so much about what big media puts on the agenda. Expand independent media, discuss and tell the truth (also about media and journalists’ failures, complicity and misrepresentations) through a variety of direct and grassroots channels, put pressure on big media in the public to adhere to the truth, counterattack smear campaigns with facts and background information on progressive platforms (and point them out on mainstream media) and stand in solidarity – even if that means negative press and flak.

I don’t have to tell anyone that nothing strong enough as a game changer has appeared so far on the world scene to stop the ever escalating climate crisis. There is recently something growing above ground which no longer can be ignored by mainstream media and politicians. Hopefully it grows fast enough. As it grows, there will be more intense struggles, backlashes and smear campaigns. So climate movements have to gain the inner strength to fight back and mobilize people although they are misrepresented. An inspiring, independent and progressive media and communications culture may deliver the necessary resilience and intellectual power needed. A classical media outreach strategy to get the message out will not be good enough to win and energize the people’s hearts and minds for radical change.

Sincerely,

David Goeßmann                                                                                    

Berlin, November 28, 2019

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