Misrepresentation is not Truth
In February 2012 I made some comments on Johnathan Freedland’s Guardian article on Twitter. I found its headline logically meaningless, but felt that it made dubious inferences. Here’s the headline as presented on twitter:
Syria is not Iraq. And it is not always wrong to intervene
Nor is it necessarily right to intervene. The difference between the two countries proves nothing: but it does reveal a lot of assumptions on Freedland’s part. It has a ‘vocabulary of motive’: what that means is that we are being told to think something by the language. We are being directed. The statement in the article was emphasised and elaborated by this:
The 2003 invasion has tainted the idea of liberal interventionism. But the people of Homs should not suffer because of that.
There is a similar logical structure to this too although it plays on our emotions. But it does not make sense: the premise does not lead to the conclusion. Why does Freedland call the outcome of analysis a taint? If the results of analysis are judged to have rightly assessed something, then it is not a taint: that means deliberately or accidentally poisoned. The idea here seems to be to make us feel we’ve been deluded in our assessment. Is he really contextualising Liberal intervention here: was there really WMD? There is the issue of terminological ethics here, and hasn’t Liberalism been in crisis as long as living memory?
Freedland got back to me and suggested that I read the article, assuming that I had not. He seemed to be trying to shift me off the focus of my observation and be a little bit sarcastic. I stand by my criticism of his little tautology, and below offer more on his scheme of thought.
My general point is that the apposition and hyperbole—so common in such articles—should not be considered sufficient evidence of reasoning and that it should not have any genuine import in any form of decision making. It is also possible its intentions are deliberately obscure. After presenting my analysis I’ll make some conclusions as to what I think Johnathan Freedland (JF) is doing in his writing: what he achieves. But first I’ve included an analysis of the essay, so the reader can make up their own mind. My impression is that the article is largely an attempt to silence dissent and encourage an invasion of both Syria and Iran — it is a vicarious threat of violence. JF’s original statements are numbered and in quotation followed by my response:
(1) We rightly slam generals who are always fighting the last war, but I wonder if today’s peace movement is guilty of the same crime. The thought was prompted by a hasty glance at an email from the Stop the War Coalition.
Not Israeli Generals though, here the analogy of recent (on-going) conflict looms rather large in JF’s thinking, the analogies foreshortened, as I will return to below. But in the introduction the notion of outmoded paradigms and foolish ways of thinking is brought to our attention. Oddly, the notion is not that ‘arm chair generals’ should shut up; but that real generals with real military experience and knowledge (possibly even of Iraq) have nothing to tell us. The logic is that JF and other members of what we could call ‘Pundits Pontificating about the War’ are free from the effects of the past and because of this they are worth listening to, not generals. Simple arrogance here I suppose, except that for JF, he has detected and is now reporting on a crime. Of all the crimes of war this is surely a minor one, and is persuing war crimes not in the category of fighting the last war? But the purpose of JF’s argument is to elide misguided bluster with the whole of a protest group (including generals) without a shread of evidence.
To introduce the Stop the War Coalition (STW) the term ‘crime’ is introduced. It is set forth (as real) to taint the real STW by the imputation of imaginary crimes by imaginary generals. JF becomes the Judge and Jury of a tribunal to prosecute Stop the War crimes. He seeks not to introduce crime in terms of Syria’s leaders (probably regarding that as not an eye-catching enough headline it comes in paragraph 2) or the history of why our leaders led us to war in Iraq, but instead finds a new target — a vague thing called protest by complete strangers JF feels he does not like. Modestly he admits it was a ‘hasty glance’, but his assessment of STW (presumably he is not a member or a supporter) is not presented as the basis of the piece — it is a normative account based on the headline’s attempt at reasoning. For example: notice how we arrive at a conclusion ON the ‘peace movement’ based on un-presented and vague evidence FROM the STW, notice the IMPUTATION. What a shocking lapse in the presentation of evidence and a seemingly deliberate attempt to pass off a fallacy in reasoning. Here we are led to believe that if STW are thinking something then so is every peace movement person: ipso (I don’t think so) facto. Why: because it is convenient for a journalist.
(2) I saw the words “rally”, “Syria” and “embassy” and assumed they were organising a demo outside the Syrian embassy to protest at the truly shocking slaughter now conducted by the Assad regime against its own people. After all, Stop the War do not confine themselves to opposing military action involving British troops (they recently co-organised a demo outside the Israeli embassy to mark the anniversary of the offensive against Gaza). All credit to them for taking a stand against the Syrian tyrant, I thought.
The logic and reasoning
That is about it for presenting the case of the other side of the argument he wishes to present. So let’s look at the logic: he grants STW a certain flexibility but this will then be presented as the basis for their rigid stance, hence his confusion. That seems a self-inflicted wound to me. But when is slaughter not truly shocking one wonders — the answer implied seems to be when it is an outcome of the magic of Liberal Intervention, then the slaughter is shocking but justified and palatable from afar, as we will soon be instructed by JF. A notion of ‘mission creep’ is however imputed to STW. JF’s general point is that STW are dangerously unconfined, intellectually confused: they are in need of being ‘Pundited’ as we might call it: once JF’s bullying arrogant intonation achives its shock and awe, the rabble will be held in line; why this is a citizen’s arrest. It is unlikely that (given JF’s level of support for Israel) if we went back to look at the past writings, JF would have been nice to Syria’s rulers. But it does briefly appear: The Jerusalem Post, March 6, 1991 (and others in the lead up to the war when Israel’s position became a liability to the Alliance and required some double think). Notice how STW are diminished to irrelevance, their material not worth even reading:
(3) But I had read too fast. Stop the War were, in fact, calling for a rally outside the American embassy, urging the US to stay out of Syria and its neighbour Iran. Its slogans were directed not at the butchers of Damascus, but against the planners in Washington.
If they are allowed to mark anniversaries, then the US embassy would be a regular spot for many such events, and indeed it seems designed for such on-going eventualities. Why does JF feign surprise at such a protest? Isn’t there always one there? The Syrian Embassy is a dangerous place to go to now: thanks to all manner of commentators convincing us that war is peace. But there is a little slip here: does JF believe the US are ‘planners’: planners of what: war? The ventriloquism that JF uses gets a bit confusing as the article goes on, but why a surprise at a protest about — and here he confuses us — intervention in Iran (and Syria). Isn’t that what he’s doing? His advice is meaningless: it suggests that if STW (and presumably anyone else) wish to protest against the US they should protest against something else. Why would they listen to him? Also, JF’s objection is to a call for a protest, he is not even reflecting back on it — he is pre-emptive: it has not yet happened. Yet one has a picture of the ravening hordes implanted in ones mind. Time for more logic:
(4) There’s a one-word explanation for how anti-war activists find themselves more exercised by the prospect of intervention to stop murderous violence than by the murderous violence itself. That word is Iraq. The 2003 invasion of Iraq has tainted for a generation the idea once known as “liberal interventionism”.
An almost dictionary definition of over-simplification. It seems a little bit callous to say that the STW people think like this. How would he know: a glance at an email? What he has discovered is that STW are blasé about murderous violence: they exitedly protest about selective murderous violence. They are irrational: he is rational. Although some consideration of ‘the negotiating table,’ or the other processes that STW literature possibly offers could be an option for discussion, that would take us away from the polarisation he constructs for us: this is called the straw man fallacy in logic—the deliberate misrepresentation of one’s opponent’s argument. On the basis of the above paragraph, his own confusion and indignation is at a suggestion: ALL anti-war activists are thus found guilty. But of what—what does he mean: is it that the UK should militarily intervene now because anti-interventionists are idiots? If we are going to say the 2003 invasion of Iraq tainted something it would be news coverage in the lead up to war. Note too that the calculus here pretends to be mathematically rational, when it is clearly the imposition of a pseudo-reality. JF has proved nothing. IN the imaginary demonstration the maniacs are jumping up and down over the wrong thing. Their tendency to be easily led needs harnessing, the mob needs to be directed round to the Syrian place: then they will be doing their job in helping the invasion kick-off. They should be protesting about what JF wants them to, or be ridiculed in the Guardian.
What else was once known as “liberal interventionism?” Imperialism, drone strikes… anything you want: that is the function of Liberal Practicality. Why does what war is called by politicians and their friends in the press matter over other concerns: its all part of the phony debate Liberals are adept at. Here too we have a product of over-simplification (or propaganda to give it a better name). Mono-causal explanations so that a toy-town picture of events can be offered up to JF’s readers, who he seems to believe are similarly idiots or fodder. A career in becoming professionally inured to invasion, and inured to where the freedom to invade a lesser opponent comes from, has removed other outcomes and repercussions from his glance.
(5) After Iraq, the response to any talk of western action is deep cynicism. Anyone proposing it is assumed to be lying: to be exaggerating a non-existent threat in order to hide the more sinister, “true” purpose (usually oil); and to be blithely ignoring the certainty that any action will only make things worse. Because that’s how it was with Iraq, runs the logic, so it will be true of Iran, Syria or any future conflict. And so the peace movement ends up fighting the last war – specifically, the Iraq war.
The conflation and fallacies
Countries (states) are not moral entities. We are still at war in Afghanistan, the US still occupies Iraq and what of Libya? From simplification to over extension: e.g. ‘any talk’ — all that attempts to achieve is to shut down future discussion. So he identifies a mind-set: who has this, why, how he knows, counter arguments, evidence —forget it. Why his own views should take precedence is also unclear. It is simply his prerogative as an ‘Expert Pundit’ and when have they ever got it wrong? When has churning out a conveyor belt of heart-felt contention to order and for money and journalists motives ever been questioned? Somehow or other journalists briefed by the state are not a factor here: how news is shaped and perception managed is also left to one side. JF also introduces the conspiracy theory: this is they way people who do not agree with JF think. It is the case that the thinking on previous wars can influence preparation or more in a contemporary war — the Maginot Line and the thinking that the Soviet Union were just like the Nazis and so on — but JF ignores one vital component in all this— the media’s role, his role. Go back and read writers like John Lloyd in the run-up to the war, even if we grant that STW are dangerously insane, it was not them that argued we were 45 minutes away from Iraq launching a nuclear strike in the UK. It was not STW who were the Start the War (on a false basis) Coalition. He continues to project this basis-building using friends with connections to all manner of agent provocateurs by paragraph 8. JF literally has STW fighting wars to question their logic. His notion of balance takes the form of a fixed point between two platitudes.
(5) But if it is nonsensical to propose military force in every case, as some on the bellicose right do, then it is surely just as nonsensical (for anyone but an absolute pacifist) to oppose it in every case. We need to see again what we understood well before Iraq: that every case is different.
The straw man fallacy is certainly at war with the other fallacies present in the piece — who is arguing these positions? What is STW’s position? Who is ‘we’ here? For JF it’s the war monger who garuntees our security. Who wins between two ants fighting outside the hive is more important than the organisation and function of the hive as a whole. Here’s how logic actually works:
all a is b
all b is a
some of a is b
some of b is a
This is just not adhered to in JF’s writing. So if we have a dangerous right-wing maniac calling for war in every case, this can be used as an analogy to arrive at going to war in a more sophisticated way: that is all that is happening in these statements. But JF is constructing a pseudo-reality to influence reality. Perhaps every case is different, but are there similarities in starting a war or staging a coup? If the CIA or MI6 were open about what they do (and let others be open) we could perhaps follow his line of reasoning. How can we learn from the history of war if we are not allowed to think freely about it and are forced to endure secrecy and evasion from elected representatives and a misguided historical record. Slaughter on the scale we are seeing is being carried out by leaders that the West supported, unseen hidden influences and their consequence are something that looms large here but is not reported on by JF. Not starting wars all the time and starting them might not necessarily arrive at the same outcome. Where I live I’d say the continual war-starter might not last that long, but who says STW fall neatly into the category? Mr Procrustes here chops them up into it — gradually. Our understanding of the situation before the war in Iraq is presented here as clear-sighted. That is just plain nonsense, a re-write of history. War has fog around it: those who claim to be saying one thing are really saying another (emphasis added):
(7) Take Syria. I am not with those who, appalled at the sight of the world doing nothing as children and their parents are killed and maimed by Bashar al-Assad’s troops, immediately demand military action. There is not a binary choice between nothing and war. A range of non-violent steps in between are available to western nations. These include sabotage, electronic interference with the Assad forces’ communications, the offer of incentives to high-level Syrian defectors and the public naming of those units directly involved in the current brutality and their commanding officers. That way Assad’s generals will know that, however this ends, they will never be able to travel freely again, for fear of arrest and prosecution. In addition, of course, the west can support the opposition, which, we should remember, is not a rival army, but began as a non-violent protest movement of ordinary citizens, lethally crushed.
Enter ‘Carnage Ross’
After putting some ideas into our heads about STW, JF rises above such tomfoolery by arguing war is peace. There is no mention of what the countries around Syria might think or do, or even who will do the intervening on who’s behalf: ‘we’ should militarise a non-violent protest. He might want ‘us’ and presumably MI6 to sabotage things, like the US did to Cuba all those years that led to Russian protection and then led us to the brink of nuclear war. What if the Russians or China support Iran or Syria? We are also urged by the Guardian towards such practices whereby we might ruin the Syrian army’s ability to communicate and cause the death of soldiers and/or their targets or who knows what? People who follow JF and join his guerilla force might also bribe the murderers and our funding possibly encourage them to become good murderers who we will protect come any reckoning. Like everyone else in the region (apart from the multitude of spies) they will never travel freely again, for fear of arrest and prosecution (nothing new there). And how do we know that ‘special forces’ are not there already? The National Endowment for Democracy were all over Egypt. But all that is happening here with JF is an incrementalism. It is a move towards something: goal-orientated rationality, functional rationality. If the resistance is not a rival army, or cannot produce one, then it is assisted into being one: but then the means of slaughter will probably be for the long-term and Syria’s army needs an external enemy. And who has been doing the fighting so far? So who’s ideas are these, who is in the Start The War Coalition with JF (apart from the terrorists who might also advocate an invasion to foment a wider crisis)?
(8) That menu of options comes from Carne Ross, who resigned from his post as the lead official on the Middle East inside the UK mission at the UN over Iraq. Specifically, he quit because he did not believe Britain and the US had exhausted all other options before resorting to war. Once again, in Syria’s case, he believes there are non-violent steps the west could and should take first. I agree. But if those stops don’t end the slaughter? “When innocent civilians are killed in large numbers, military force has to be an option,” he says.
An option is not a justification—but this is made to sound like it is. After working in the Foreign Office Carne Ross eventually (2006) admitted what everyone already knew—that the Government’s case for going to war in Iraq was fraudulent. Carne Ross now makes a living as a propagandist and has his own company to provide it, offering ‘Public Diplomacy’ work. That’s the polite term for propaganda and disinformation. His private company is advised by Thomas R. Pickering, the Vice Chairman of Hills & Company, run by Carla Hills of the CSIS (a CIA academic front). Pickering was the Senior Vice President of the Boeing Company the people who make the equipment for war; and he was the former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs: hard to think of a less impartial voice. And this is the Liberal end of things. So the incremental steps, which have not been designed to be infallible are steps to war, there are conditions attached. [As of April 2013 Carne Ross was, according to the Independent: “asked to assist the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces” who will focus his voice “simply on how to get their message across in diplomatic circles […] It is their voice that matters, not mine.”] But where has logic gone here: that which is designed to offset war is but a prelude to it?
(9) In other words, the post-Iraq blanket rejection of intervention makes no moral sense. Many, chiefly on the right, argued against intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s – and yet if the west had acted earlier, it would have saved tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of mainly Bosnian Muslim lives. Force should always be a last resort – not a first resort, as it is for too many on the right, but not a non-resort as it is for too many on the left.
That first sentence just does not follow. He has not established that such a thing as ‘blanket rejection’ exists and what if it did: since when did governments listen to protestors? What it says in reality is ‘I have made the case for war: first you do this then you do that, get the order right and things will be the best of both worlds’. It is based on two absolutist poles that do not exist in reality, it presents this type of thinking as a reality and reconciles both — calling for war by subtle increments. Now Syria is not Iraq: now it is Bosnia, and it is ok for JF to make these kind of magician’s comparisons because his version of history and the lessons to be learned from it are a priori right. But look at the reasoning: war should never be the first resort, except in Bosnia. Ok these are differing approaches, illustrations of the variable nature of response, but he’s arguing for military intervention, without—and how careless is this—saying by who. He presents it as an abstract moral good.
(11) There is similarly blanket thinking on Iran. Because it understandably recoils from one proposed solution – military action – the anti-war camp refuses to recognise there might even be a problem, namely the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. It dismisses all talk of the issue as neoconservative warmongering, assuming that it amounts to no more than a re-run of Iraq – a drumbeat for war for war’s (or oil’s) sake, with the feared threat from Iran as hollow as it was from Saddam.
Well the bomb and this type of STW thinking might exist, and maybe as long as the two things are put in proximity to each other maybe someone will think they are just as dangerous. ‘Neoconservative or Neoliberal warmongering comes in all shapes an sizes thesedays. It might be called ‘democracy promotion’ or ‘conflict resolution’ who knows? JF offers no evidence for any assertion, no reference really apart from a selective use of links. No one engaging in ‘blanket thinking’ like that forms part of the elite decision-making, although it seems like ideas such as: “let’s get another coup on the go, my diplomatic friends say it’ll be fine this time” are being recycled by journalists. The routine of Diplomats lie, then journalists believe them and then we get war also seems to have resurfaced: and all that “forget all protest it is unrepresentative” (apart from the protest that fits) is once more surfacing.
(12) Such an assumption looks neat, but it’s too easy. Yes, it is still a matter of dispute as to whether Iran plans to acquire, or how far it has got towards acquiring, nuclear weapons. But it is natural for Israel to feel threatened by the prospect, given Iran’s rejection of Israel’s right to exist as Israel, and the slogans reportedly daubed on Iranian missiles, promising to wipe the country off the map. Carne Ross says Israel’s security concerns are “entirely legitimate” and that were we in their position, we would be just as worried as they are.
How is Israel on Iran’s right to exist? What if Iran fired its conventional missiles into Israel’s nuclear and biological arsenals? What if Israel did the same to Iran? I don’t think JF would treat the act as an equivalent: one is evil the other a Bosnian pre-emption. Such is reporting on the issues that I’m not 100% sure we should not include a link that questions the translation of ‘Iran’s’ statements on Israel’s ‘right to exist’, we are reliant on interpretation and the dissemination and interpretation of the interpretation and so on—”reportedly daubed” might mean made up by journalist’s here. But an Israel sub-text seems to run through JF’s work — here the blanket thinking and ahistorical nature of how we are led to perceive the situation is a good thing and we are allowed to fight old wars:
(13) “Why should Israel fret,” comes the reply, “they have the bomb, don’t they?” But an Iran-Israel nuclear stand-off would not be like the US-Soviet containment of the cold war, with its lines of communication and negotiated military doctrines underpinning a stable, nuclear-balanced détente. There is no such communication or mutual understanding between Iran and Israel. The Middle East and the world would be on a hair-trigger to nuclear war.
Who is replying here? What arguments are being addressed? JF has taken away the STW’s right to protest and will not be quoting real statements (only this James Murdoch-like glance at an anonymous email). And again we are being taught how to be taught lessons from history; although JF should realise ‘containment’ (re: Kennan) and détente were abandoned by the Reagan government under the tutelage of the Heritage Foundation and the CSIS mentioned above. Then there was the SDI: once a space shield to capture the Peace Movement’s argument, then just protecting the US, then a dripping roast for the war industries and so on. But are we not already in this hair-trigger (what an insane and contrived analogy) to a nuclear war situation. And since when did Israel listen to anyone? Is Israel even our military ally?
(14) The anti-war camp needs at least to acknowledge the existence of a problem here, that while military action to thwart Iran would have terrifying consequences, so too would an Iranian nuclear weapon. Nor will it do to oppose not just force but every other step the west is taking to prevent a nuclear Iran, including sanctions and sabotage. If anything, the anti-war movement should be the loudest advocate of non-violent alternatives to military action. That goes for Syria too, on which it says nothing, save that the world should stay out.
What the ‘anti-war camp’ will not be able to acknowledge is what the US or UK are up to secretly via proxies or what have you, and the news management that this might well be a part of. We are just simply not told the facts and journalists like JF are not the place to go looking for them. One minute we are talking about Syria then Iran; what’s good for one is good for the other now and any comparison with Iraq is meaningless: just forget what happened.
Ok so the whole purpose of all this is an attack on the STW people and to counter whatever their arguments are (we have no idea here) and offer a one-man Start The War group, two counting Mr Ross and possibly some US advisers. The assertion is that the STW are stupid and dangerous, although the same is not to be observed of JF’s article and its attempt to misrepresent a range of positions (at a ‘glance’) or say as paragraph (14) does that war is inevitable. We’ve heard it: this is just another few paragraphs in another dodgy dossier. Now we’re talking about starting a war with Iran and finding no fault in covert Western subversion: the kind of thing the Guardian used to take an interest in before it gave itself up to all this Liberal practicality.
So STW should be all for forced rendition, assassination, torture, bribery, corruption, forgery, agent provocateurs and all the other horrors of which he so euphemistically speaks. Indeed when discussing MOSSAD JF described it as a “success abroad” (in the Jerusalem Post, April 17, 1991). What of the things the National Endowment for Democracy does for the CIA that are sweeping the middle-east and North Africa—what do we read of that? What major western figures does he quote who say we should go to war? But does the STW group really say nothing on Syria? Isn’t George Galloway there megaphoning all manner of endless opinion? Is this not simple ugly misrepresentation?
(15) For it is blinded by Iraq. The left was right to oppose that war: I opposed it too. But not all of the world’s troubles, whether in Tehran or Homs, are reruns of 2003. We have new problems now. Fail to see that and we make the people of Homs pay the price for the mistake we made in Baghdad.
That’s the end of the article. What was the mistake ‘we’ made in Iraq: rigging the elections?, starting a civil war, not even counting the dead? Who knows, we are most assuredly being misinformed here. JF’s ego is getting in the way here as it does with just about all Pundits. The truth is that his opinion does not matter — it is just magnified out of all proportion to its merits because of mass circulation. No plan, no real ideas, suddenly he’s an expert on Syria, knows all about it and what he has to say is that we should stop and silence protest, label it a crime.
I’d like to see the email he mentions. Does it exist? Is an anonymous email (we are not told a human name here, the organisation is reified) really the basis of serious investigative journalism? What award should he be given for this? ‘The Deliberately reducing the opinions of others to a crime in a warmongering context’ award? STW are a fairly large group of people I estimate — to reduce their opinions to nothing is not how the Guardian sells itself, or is it? It might lose the audience (the targets) some of its journalists are paid to propagandise. But I suggest it might not want to lose too much more of its audience, there are products to sell and money to be made. Technically speaking what JF does, his style and abilities, has an effect on the quality of his writing. It lessens the quality. The logic and reasoning he adopts, the dimension of mind he exhibits is the dimension of propaganda. I don’t imagine it is that deliberate but its features are evident in a more Geobbels sense than Lasswellian sense— somewhat raw and obvious, lacking in the more subtle elements of the art. This is the effect of misrepresenting and diminishing the opponents argument to nothing, attacking them as a sub-set of humanity lacking and not fully human like ‘us’. This is the point of the article: it is an attack on what JF views as the enemy — dissent. If the US or Israeli Embassy had sent round a press release requesting JF’s aid in a little ‘psychological adjustment’ it would be this type of service he would render if agreeable.
The relaxed inhumanity is not a tone I feel comfortable with: is it there to impart gravitas? There is no pain in the writing, no understanding of it in others, no verstehen. JF might have noticed the lack of a level of sophistication in his advice to government that might try to consider options in a great deal more depth than producing writing as glib and misguiding as this. But then sometimes material like this is taken seriously. Pundits are of use to fewer and fewer people: they are more accustomed to representing elites who have a habit of leading us nowhere or to war.